We were on our third day when the weather came in. Until that point the skies had been untroubled by clouds and I’d only resorted to my fleece on one occasion, when we misread the map and didn’t make it to our pub before sundown – the rest of the time, T-shirts and shorts were our uniform. At times it had even grown uncomfortably hot, often when we were in a valley, and my pack had clung to my back, my T-shirt soaked with sweat. In typical British fashion we would complain about the heat, as if we were secretly pining for the thick gray clouds of home.
Seven days might seem a long time to spend in a single person’s company, but Tom and I had known each other for close to twenty years and we were comfortable with long periods of companionable silence. That’s not to say that we never spoke on these rambling vacations. Quite the opposite was true: it wasn’t unusual for an argument or discussion to last several days, putting us at risk of missing the lush scenery we were passing through.
It was, in fact, the countryside that had set our conversation rolling that particular afternoon. As is always the case in southern Ireland, the landscape about us was a brilliant shade of emerald green, the grass brighter and thicker than any I had seen at home in the concrete fields of London. Whether it was the effect of fertile soil or favorable weather conditions – or, indeed, the Irish claim that they lived in ‘God’s own country’ – there was such a wealth of natural growth that it acted as a balm for my soul.
The only exceptions were occasional bare trees malingering near our path, their branches twisted and stripped of all leaves, looking from a distance like the giant corpses of dead spiders scattered across the landscape, lying on their backs with their black legs in the air. I mentioned this mental image to Tom as we walked, and wasn’t entirely surprised when he seized upon it as another example of my morbid preoccupation with the occult and the strange.
“It’s not exactly an obsession,” I explained, keeping stride with him as the trail took us along what appeared to be the pebbly bed of a dried-up stream. “I just don’t think it’s wise to close your mind to these things. There are plenty of cases. I wouldn’t claim to understand them all, but I have no doubt that ghosts, or spirits, or somethingexists that we can’t explain, something beyond the mundane. It seems foolish to assume otherwise.”
Tom laughed, as I knew he would.
“Total nonsense. All of it – a pile of rot. We can’t explain it because it doesn’t exist. It’s nothing more than wishful thinking, and I find it depressing that it still happens in this technological age.”
As always, some part of me was unwilling to let it go. “There are charlatans, obviously. But you can’t simply claim it’s a mass delusion, when so many people, from every walk of life, have—”
“But that’s exactly what I do claim,” he interrupted. “It’s called a mass delusion for exactly that reason – it happens en masse. Something doesn’t become real just because twenty, or a hundred, or a thousand people believeit to be real. You can’t will the supernatural into existence, any more than you could make a unicorn appear by thinking about it. They’re fantasies, and best left to children.”
The rutted and winding path had crested a hill while he spoke, and we were now looking down on a wide river plain. If it were possible, the grass here appeared even greener than the fields we’d seen so far, but our picturesque view was marred by the ruin of a building rising from its heart. I call it a ruin, but the image of a castle or a quaint, tumbledown cottage that the word summons could not have been further from the reality. Instead, this was a gray concrete structure, four stories up and at least twice as long as it was high. Building work must have stopped before any of the windows or internal fittings were installed, because there was no sign of anything other than the gray shell, punctuated by square holes that stared out vacantly at the fields. Whatever construction work had been done must have finished long ago, for there was no sign of any tracks – or even a road – leading to or from it.
Tom snorted in that way he did, somewhere between a laugh and a derisive huff. “I always knew the Irish had a sense of humor. Look at that, will you. Could they have made it any uglier?”
It was singularly intrusive and unattractive, and as we followed our path onto the floodplain it loomed larger and larger in our field of vision, as if it were destined to eventually block out the sun completely. As it was, that threat came from an entirely different source. The path had turned to gravel and begun to narrow as we traversed the lower ground, and it was Tom who first noticed the change. In the distance the blue of the sky had vanished, replaced with a hazy, indeterminate white. As we walked, the white haze grew, until it was blanketing the far reaches of the floodplain too, the green grass fading out to nothing as it rolled across the valley. The dark stick-figures of the stripped trees remained a minute longer, their forms turning gray and indistinct, before they too disappeared from sight.
“We’re passing near the coast here,” Tom said, as we watched the fog pushing towards us. “I remember it from the map this morning. There are cliffs over there somewhere,” a wave of the hand, “then the open sea. I guess we should have expected this. It looks thick, though. Can we even carry on?”
Even as he spoke the first advance wisps of the sea haar drifted around our ankles, and looking at the valley I saw that everything more than half a mile distant had disappeared entirely from sight. We had only eight miles remaining until our stop for the night, a pub called the Uileann, but in this weather we’d struggle to navigate much further than the ends of our own noses. We could easily walk eight miles and end up further from our destination than when we started – or, worse, step straight off those cliffs. It was futile to push on, and potentially dangerous. I said as much, and felt my mood slump as the words left my lips. There’s no worse feeling than knowing that a warm hearth and a strong pint of stout wait for you over the next hill, but that you have absolutely no way of getting there.
Tom’s shoulders had dropped with the realization too, but he pointed to the ugly concrete structure that squatted in the grass to our right. “We might as well hunker down there for a while, see if it passes. It’s going to be cold once the fog reaches us, so perhaps we can light a fire. We’ll need to wrap up too.”
There was no discussion of what we would do if the fog lasted more than an hour or two, although we were both thinking it. It was already mid-afternoon, and if we didn’t get moving shortly then we might have no option but to spend the night in its hollow rooms.
As it was, we only just reached the shelter in time. The fog was banked up against the building, swelling to reach the third floor on the far side as we entered, like a wave crashing against a rock in slow motion. Within a minute of stepping through the doorway – maybe less – it had pushed past, smothering the structure in a cold, damp cushion of white cloud. Occasionally, stray plumes would find their way through the window frames and explore the inside, but otherwise it remained a pale wall, obscuring everything from sight. We might easily have been several hundred feet up, drifting through the clouds.
The building itself was as it had appeared, and nothing more: a shell, abandoned many years ago and left to the elements, changed by the incoming weather into a vast cave of unnaturally straight lines and smooth, poured concrete floors. In places there were regular holes in the walls, presumably for power sockets or light switches, but these were all dark and empty, without even wires protruding to suggest their purpose. It occurred to me that maybe some of the fittings had been stripped by the locals, the plundered cables and sockets put to use in their houses, on their farms. There was certainly nothing left that was of any use to anybody, and there was an air of it having been looted as well as abandoned. Such utter desolation is rarely accidental.
I was in favor of settling in the first room we entered, but Tom insisted that we should explore. It was always in his nature to define his surroundings and pinpoint them as accurately as possible – it was why he took charge of the map-reading whenever we embarked on these little rambles – so I wasn’t surprised. As a concession, he agreed to stop for a couple of minutes first, so we could tug our fleece sweaters out of our bags and pull on our hats. The temperature had dropped considerably with the arrival of the fog, and the dry, pleasant warmth of earlier had been replaced by a damp chill. I wished I’d brought some gloves with me, but it had never occurred to me that we might need them on a ramble like this. My hands were visibly shaking as I pulled my fleece on and I saw that Tom’s were doing the same. Again, I worried that this might be more than a passing abnormality. We weren’t equipped for a night in these conditions.
Looking back on it, I think Tom heard the noise first, but, in that way of his, he chose to ignore it. If he had no explanation then it was easier to pretend that it didn’t exist. He had grown unusually silent as we dressed, however, and it was in one of those silences that I heard it. To call it a moaning suggests some kind of intent behind it, an expression of emotion that we didn’t attribute to it, not at that point, but there can be no better word. It was pitched slightly lower than a human voice in timbre, something about it resonating through our bones, setting us on edge. Every few seconds it would swell in volume, then it would fade again, only to return even more forcefully just as I wondered if it might have vanished completely. We stood for a minute, saying nothing. I knew Tom was listening to it as intently as I was.
“What do you think that is?” I asked finally, unable to bear the entente any longer. “I’m sure you have an explanation. An animal, caught in the fog? Something injured? If I had to guess, I’d say it was in pain.”
Tom looked at one of the window holes, but there was still nothing to see beyond the soft wall of fog. “Perhaps. Might just be the wind through the building. Old structures like this can act in strange ways, sometimes. Like a church organ.”
It went unsaid that there was no hint of a breeze in the air, although we both thought it. If this was an organ, then it was blowing itself. I think we were both waiting for the noise to die down, but after five minutes it was still going, at times rising to an anguished howling that sounded as if it was only feet beyond the walls, hidden by the haar. I remember thinking that it sounded like an animal, stalking about the building – but if that was so, then it must have been something large to raise such a noise.
Finally, Tom had endured enough. “It’s just the wind,” he said, as matter-of-factly as he was able, “so let’s ignore it. Staying warm is more important anyway. At this rate we’ll die of exposure long before anyone finds us, human or otherwise. We should move to the middle of the building if we can, and maybe light a fire. Hopefully a smaller room will keep the heat in.”
I nodded my agreement, one ear still bent towards the inhuman noises that continued to leak through the windows, and we crossed the room to a doorway in the far wall. I say doorway, but of course it was nothing more than a rectangular hole in the concrete. On the other side we found another room almost identical to that which we had just left, but without the window holes. The sounds had died down a little too, which supported my theory that we were hearing something moving around outside the building, and the cold of the fog hadn’t yet penetrated this far. All in all, it was an improvement, and I said so.
“See?” Tom replied, with a hint of gloat in his tone. “No ghosts in here. We can settle for an hour, let it pass, then be in the pub before dark.”
I must confess, however, that I wasn’t listening. My eyes were fixed on the concrete at our feet, and when he noticed my inattention Tom follow my gaze to the marks that were set into the floor. They looked like a horse’s hoofprints, although it must have been some horse – they were easily eight or nine inches across. Perhaps it had walked across the concrete before it had time to set. That would explain why the prints were there, at least, although how it could have done so during the construction work was unclear. What was more troubling was the pattern.
Tom could see that I was perturbed by something, although clearly he hadn’t made the connection yet. “What? What is it? You really have spent too long in the city if you’re spooked by a horse.”
I pointed at the pair of prints nearest us, two of them, approximately three feet apart; one was set slightly in front of the other.
“There are only two. You see? Look – all the prints. They’re in pairs. Last time I checked, horses had four hooves. But these are in pairs, like… like something walking upright.”
Tom snorted that laugh of his again, but I could see him following the line of prints, trying to make sense of it. There was no other way to describe it: the tracks looked like the trail of something walking on two legs, or maybe running, hard and heavy enough to break the surface of the floor.
“Horses do that, don’t they? I’m sure they do. It probably bolted through here, chased by the workmen I’d imagine. A trick of nature, nothing more.”
But I’d seen horses run before, and while I didn’t say it, I knew for a fact that they brought all four hooves together as they moved – two pairs, not one. The prints made no sense.
As if on cue, the howling outside rose to one of its crescendos, and this time I thought I saw Tom flinch at the sound. He had always been the more cynical of the two of us – perhaps the most cynical person I knew, in fact – and it troubled me even more to see him spooked by it. If I had merely been deluding myself, he would have been the first to say so. His silence said more than I cared to hear.
There was nothing for it, though. He was right when he said that we were at risk of exposure if we sat doing nothing, so we busied ourselves with building a fire against one of the walls, twisting the pages of that morning’s Telegraphinto workable fire starters. Tom had been using a stick he’d found on the path as a walking cane during the hillier sections, so we snapped that in three and rested it over the pyramid of paper. It wouldn’t last long, but at least it would burn. As I held a match to the paper and we watched the flames curl up the sides, both of us ignored the shadows cast in the nearby hoofprints, now darker and more prominent than before. The warmth was slight, but it was better than nothing.
After a few minutes, once our hands had recovered some of their feeling, Tom stood.
“This will be gone in ten minutes if we’re not careful. I’m going to scout around and find something else to burn. We’re in the middle of the countryside, there must be something in here; a branch, some dried grass. Make sure it doesn’t go out, I won’t be long.”
As he disappeared through another doorway, this one in the opposite wall, I became aware of being alone for the first time. The moaning from outside had died down considerably since we first entered, but in my solitude it seemed to swell again, a presence made all the more ominous by the absence of my companion. My eyes would not stay away from the hoofprints either, and I found myself tracking their passage across the room, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. Could it have been a horse? But no, it looked wrong – and besides, they were far too large. A practical joke, then? That seemed more likely, a prank played by the workmen as they abandoned the job, left for unsuspecting hikers like ourselves. But still, my mind would not relinquish the image of some large hoofed creature, walking upright on two legs like a man. I poked the fire with the end of one of the sticks as a distraction. Best not to think on it, at least not until Tom returned.
I heard him before I saw him. As I poked the fire again, there was a call from one of the nearby rooms. I couldn’t quite make it out, so I stood and shouted back, hoping for a response. Tom was breathless when he entered, his cheeks far more flushed than they should have been given the cold and the creeping damp. Without even a glance towards the fire he waved for me to follow him, through the doorway into the room beyond.
“Come and see this. You have to see… just come.”
I followed him, not realizing at first that I still held the stick in my hand, the end smoldering a dull red like a heated poker. Through that first room we went, without stopping, then left through another doorway into what looked like a vestibule, a bare concrete staircase leading up one side. Here we doubled back on ourselves, into another room, no bigger than a cupboard. The light was dim here, so far from the windows, and I found myself holding the glowing stick out like a torch.
“Here,” he said, his finger quivering a little as he pointed into the darkness. “What do you make of that?”
There were two skulls. The larger sat on the concrete floor, the smaller one balanced on top. They clearly belonged to sheep, or goats, or something similar, but someone had decorated them. Pushing the glowing stick closer, I could make out whorls and spiked symbols that may have been crude stars, painted onto the bone in what looked like clay. Somebody had taken time over this, and the impression that struck me was of a shrine, although to what or whom was unclear.
More unsettling than the skulls or the darkness, however – more unsettling still than the incessant moaning from outside the concrete walls – was Tom’s reaction to it. I was so used to his steadfast refusal to believe in anything other than the empirical and the mundane, that the tremor in his voice was a wake-up call. If I hadn’t known so already, it was a clear sign that we were out of our depth.
“We need to get out of this place,” Tom muttered, stumbling backwards into the dim vestibule, away from the eerie tableau. “We’re not that far from civilization. If we walk long enough in a single direction we’re bound to find a road, and where there’s a road, there are signposts. I’d like to spend tonight in a warm bed, thank you very much. Not stuck out here with whatever deluded primitives decided to make that…”
He signaled with his hand into the darkness, then his voice trailed off. I realized as we stood there that he wasn’t scared of the noise from outside, or the hoofprints, or even the skulls themselves – it was the fact that someone had spent a considerable amount of time crafting what appeared to be a pagan shrine, and their belief scared him more than anything. His fear was a response to the person or people responsible, not the unearthly thing that I now believed to be stalking us in the fog, and which I suspected had visited others here in the past. The pettiness of his fright almost caused me to laugh out loud, were it not held in check by my own sense of dread.
Without warning, the howling reached a crescendo outside again, and Tom bustled through the doorway, back to where we’d left our packs. I paused momentarily, my feet reluctant to move, but then I followed him. I found him standing by the feebly glowing remains of our small fire, shrugging his bag onto his back. In the weak firelight I could just make out a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead.
“Are you coming with me?” he asked, pulling his hat down low on his head, covering the tops of his ears. “I can’t stand waiting here a minute longer.”
“But where will you go? You know as well as I do that we can barely see a couple of feet in that fog. You could walk right past the path and never know it was there, it’s madness.”
Tom shrugged, and I saw his eyes dart at the empty window, the dense murk outside. “I’ll take my chances. As long as we head in a single direction, sooner or later we have to hit something. A path, a road, whatever. For all we know, the weather conditions might change half a mile down the valley. You coming, or what?”
I paused for a moment, then shook my head. Even without my belief that there was something frightful out there in the gloom, it was dangerous to walk blindly across unknown terrain, without any end in sight. The creature – or spirit, or whatever it was – simply underlined that fact.
He appeared to think for a moment, then he pointed at the fire. “You’d best keep that going, then. Once I reach a town I’ll tell them you’re here – they’re bound to know where this place is, it’s hardly inconspicuous. Hang tight.”
And with that he turned his back on me and walked through the doorway, out into the dense blanket of the haar. I’d imagined he would gradually fade from sight, like a ghost materializing in reverse. Instead, he was snuffed out as soon as he took a couple of steps forward, the fog swirling for an instant then settling into a wall again, as if he had never existed.
I needn’t bore you with the details of that night. I didn’t sleep a wink, what with the howling and the cold and the fear nestled in my gut. At one point it sounded as if something sharp was dragged across the external wall, like claws, or bone, but then it stopped and I wasn’t sure if I’d simply imagined it. I’d hum pop songs to myself to fill the silence, and I remember being halfway through ABBA’s ‘SOS’ when the fog began to visibly thin, and without warning pale sunlight washed through the room. Within minutes, the haar had cleared and I was able to step outside, the valley looking exactly as it had the day before, albeit covered with the dew-like remains of the fog. There were no footprints, no hoofmarks, no scratches up the concrete walls. All was as it should have been – bright and serene.
I continued walking in the rough direction we had planned, and just before lunchtime I found the Uileann. Clearly I had missed my booking for the night before, but the landlord – a jovial sort, with a beard so thick that it looked like wire wool – was happy to transfer it to the following night, as their rooms were largely empty. After a warming lunch of soup and soda bread I trudged up to my room and collapsed into sleep, so untroubled and so deep that I didn’t awake until the following morning.
It was then that they told me about Tom. We had been right in assuming that the fog was a sea haar, rolling in over the cliffs. We had been barely a mile from the coast when we were stranded. It was those same cliffs that Tom had walked over in the darkness and the murk, unable to see where he was placing his feet. In my mind, he was in such a hurry to flee that place that he probably flew forward several feet into the air before gravity reasserted itself and dragged him down. His body was found twisted and broken on the rocks the following morning, by a retired soldier walking his dog on the beach. It was all over the local news, and the ruling of ‘death by misadventure’ that followed felt like little more than a formality.
There was one thing that troubled me, however, and which I have never been able to fully settle in my mind. Tom had been such a close friend that I felt obliged to attend the hearing into his death, out of a sense of duty rather than desire. It was not easy to relive his final moments in the stuffy confines of a council chamber. But there was something in the coroner’s report that caught my attention. It was brushed over in passing, but at one point he mentioned that Tom had sustained a wound to his head that had cracked his skull from top to bottom, “in a smooth crescent shape, almost as if struck by a giant animal’s hoof”. He drew no conclusion from it, merely hinting that the injury was caused by an impact with the rocks below, but that particular turn of phrase rung through me like a bell. I made a vow at that point to limit my vacations to city breaks and beach resorts – and have done so ever since.
Ian Steadman is a writer and editor from the south of England. His work has appeared in Black Static, Unsung Stories, STORGY, Night Lights: Midnight Press Anthology 3 and The Year’s Best Body Horror, among others. He also has a story forthcoming in the Hell’s Empire anthology from Ulthar Press.