Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy Glen,
We daren’t go a’ hunting,
For fear of little men.
–The Fairies, William Allingham
Do I regret my actions? Of course—every waking moment the memories fester inside my mind, and at night let loose. Darkness is their natural habitat, so I suppose it makes sense. Yet, as I rock atop the sheets in solitary silence, I am confident I would not change a thing. My actions, no matter how obscene, were for the greater good, as you are about to discover.
You are all in grave danger.
Let me tell my story, and then you might understand where I am coming from.
Perhaps older than the English woodland engulfing it, the church was a small, black building that sagged under its own weight. The mossy grey tiles bowed under decades of leaf litter, and walls appeared to sink into the ground as if the surrounding graveyard wished to reclaim them. This ancient place was my destination, as I travelled with a great burden on my shoulders. A shining sun would have kissed lush grass, colonies of plump mushrooms and snowdrops, but my work required the cover of darkness.
Two earthy grooves, once carthorse tracks, were overgrown, and foliage brushed the underside of my car as I descended the valley. The deeper I travelled, the greater the sense of dread, and I was thankful for the occasional island of moonlight breaking through the canopy above. I navigated by memory while two bony nubs on my left hand, where my ring and pinkie finger had been, tingled. Skeletal branches thickened and encroached on my path, scraping windows, and almost entombing the car before the headlights found an opening and the walls of that cursed place.
Within a little clearing, I reluctantly killed the engine, and an eerie quiet descended, weighty and foreboding. Branches did not rustle, and animals did not call. My father was a ranger here and taught me how to identify all the different sounds. Had I heard anything—a hoot, or a fox cry—it would have brought at least a little comfort. Instead, I scratched the stump of my fingers in absolute silence.
It came from the trunk, and a breath froze in my lungs. In the rearview mirror, I saw lightly waving underbrush and one nervous eye. For the longest moment, I held still, ears straining until my chest burned. Satisfied that all was well, I exhaled a measured breath, and grabbing a flashlight from the passenger seat, exited the car.
The white beam of my flashlight sliced the cloying darkness, falling on the little wooden gate of the cemetery. Rusted horseshoes, thick with tufts of moss, hung from the waterlogged boards. Random nails and streaks of maroon suggested there were others at one time, but they were somehow displaced. On my last visit, as father had dragged me along painfully by my upper arm, I had seen and heard wind chimes in the trees, but these were likely buried under dead leaves, or tangled within the tall grass where they fell.
I angled the circular beam up a noticeboard beside the arched doorway. Once containing parish notices, it was now vacant, and more horseshoes hung, black with rust from the swollen frame. Further up, there was an overhanging roof with a diminutive bell tower overlooked the clearing.
A low moan escaped my lips.
Decayed and bloody, a carcass stretched across the opening where a long absent bell had once chimed. Pointed ribs were parted like the jaws of a carnivorous animal, and bloated sacks of rotted organs swayed in the breeze. Sausage strands of intestines spilt from its severed gut and snaked down the tiles.
“A sheep,” I whispered, not liking the tension in my voice. “It’s a bloody sheep.”
Broken yellow teeth grinned amongst matted curls of wool, and milky white eyes appeared to gaze into hell. I don’t know how long the fetid creature had been up there, but there was no doubt in my mind that it was some kind of warning. Someone wanted to keep people away from this place—and for a good reason.
A branch snapped.
I wheeled around.
The flashlight found vacant woodland, and overgrown bushes shrouded in shadow.
I reasoned that it might be a fox or badger, but the throbbing stumps of my left hand told me otherwise.
I was being watched.
Lifting the gate from a drift of soil, I pushed it open. A blistered nail snapped, and a horseshoe fell into the grass. Quietly, I made my way up the lichen-spotted flags to the porch, observing strange, white pebbles dotted in and around the headstones. On closer inspection, I saw animal skulls of varying shapes and sizes jutting from the grass, hollow eyes observing my progress. There was something blasphemous about their placement, something unclean and alien.
Like many others of its time, this rural church remained unlocked, and two iron rings served as handles. A strange symbol was crudely painted on the wood in something dark and viscous that smelled coppery and rotten like old blood. These were the same doors my parents had dragged me through when I was ten years old. Mum had been sobbing, and dad had been muttering distractedly under his breath. Neither of them would look me in the eye, or had answered my panicked questions. That was the last time I had ever seen her.
I pulled the doors, and they parted down the middle. The loud creak of rusty hinges made me wince. As if escaping the terrible space within, the odour of damp and decaying plant matter rushed past me. It was dim inside, but the roof at the front of the church had caved in, and moonlight cascaded onto a granite altar scattered with dead leaves. At either side of a narrow aisle, there were three short pews, which I guessed would have seated no more than twenty or thirty parishioners back in its day. One of the benches had collapsed into the rotten floor, creating a deep hole.
I moved gingerly towards the front, testing each spongy board with a toe before proceeding. The atmosphere was claustrophobic, and moonlight charged the air with unseen electricity. There was very little by way of religious paraphernalia. Animal skulls hung where crucifixes should have been, and half-moons of iron were fixed beneath broken and faded stained glass. The ancient creatures here preceded Christianity, and the locals tried more arcane methods to keep them at bay.
The church roof curved like the upturned bow of a ship, and within the jagged edges of broken tile, the moon was a silver penny against a sea of black. An ancient oak partially obscured my view, gnarled branches hanging over the rear of the structure as if to embrace it. Within the creaking boughs were sunken hollows, and inside movement.
My left hand prickled like it’d brushed against stinging nettles, and I retreated to collect my offering from the car. Moving abroad had crossed my mind many times, a means of escape from this nightmare—but dad’s words repeated in my skull.
“You have to sate their hunger, or they will infest. You’re the son of a High Peak Ranger, like my grandfather, and his grandfather before. If they don’t get what’s coming to them, they will destroy the High Peak and then come for you. Mark my words. Remember Ashopton?”
I prayed what I was doing would satisfy them for another twenty years, knowing what I would do after that since I didn’t want to visit this place again.
That is when I saw it, sitting at one of the pews.
I thought it might be a doll left behind by a long-dead parishioner—until its head tilted to one side. Pinprick eyes glowed a strange shade of blue within recessed sockets, following me as I moved against the altar. Its face was narrow and skeletal—as pale as porcelain. Papery wings, threaded with veins folded at its back. A serpentine tongue elongated between razor teeth and licked purple lips. My missing fingers throbbed. How I’d laughed when mum said, They’re real, son, but not like in the stories or picture books…
I wasn’t laughing now.
I’d screamed as they converged on mum. My dad had cried out, too, but more out of surprise than anything else. A ranger for over thirty years, he was an expert on these things but hadn’t been aware of their keen sense of smell. Neither of us had known that mum was with child until they finally bore through the white skin of her belly. She was the starter, and my unborn brother the main course. Blind panic mixed with guilty relief since I had been reprieved, for I was meant to be the sacrificial lamb. They coveted the young.
Dad had run. Isn’t that what he’d always done when confronted with a problem? Foolish and meek, I fought back, an act of futility that almost cost me my life. Instead, I paid with two fingers.
The doll in front of me now stood with the assistance of twiggy arms, a perfectly formed miniature person. Its clawed feet tapped against the wood as it shifted in anticipation. Hunching its shoulders, it threw an ugly face to the sky, shrieking like a bird of prey. A rustling, like autumn leaves, sounded from the holes in the towering oak, the darkness inside the warrens undulating and blinking with the movement of hundreds of tiny faces.
Springing on my heels, I headed toward the open doors. Bare boards wobbled and bent underfoot. Expanding, the creature’s wings were the size of dinner plates, mottled with greens and browns that shamed the stained glass. It emitted another cry as I rushed by.
Suddenly my front foot crashed through a section of rotten board, and into the mulchy ground beneath. I toppled forward, my ankle twisting painfully.
Scrambling to my feet, a fire erupted at my shoulder blade, and everything tinted a deep shade of red. Serrated teeth excavated deep into the flesh and blood blossomed, warm and wet, over my shirt. I reached a hand around, pulling the creature away. My skin stretched and tightened before it finally let loose, surprisingly light like a bundle of twigs. Everything flared white, my brain screaming in protest. I launched it back at the altar, where the others crawled and floated, infesting the church like cockroaches.
It hit one corner of the stone and fell from view. The others watched it descend and turned their glowing eyes on me. They were everywhere—climbing the walls, chattering as they navigated the seats of the front row, fluttering in and around the silver blades of moonlight. Timeless and unforgiving, they had resided in this woodland before the church was even conceived, and would still be here long after I died. I knew that I was running out of time.
Outside, a light breeze cooled the wound on my back. I pocketed the flashlight and moved to the rear of my car. Opening the trunk, I lifted her dead weight in both arms, a shoulder blade flaring in protest. She was drowsy, but fluttering eyelids told me that she was close to being awake. The last drink she consumed was orange juice laced with sleeping pills, a prescription of mine to help with depression. She didn’t partake in alcohol, but I certainly did—to gain courage.
“What are you doing…where are we?” she groggily asked as I limped back to the church. “William, answer me.” Her eyes widened, lingering on the shadows. Her body trembled.
We passed the gate into the graveyard.
“I’m so sorry, Susan, but it has to be this way.”
Glassy eyes widened, focusing. She bucked with her lower back, and I almost lost grip but managed to regain my composure. I had removed the belt from her jeans to tie her wrists. As the shadow of the church fell on us, Susan whimpered.
She must have heard them, too.
I’m not a monster, and, of course, I am sorry. I’d trawled through countless pathetic faces on dating websites before I found the ideal candidate. Initially, her doe-eyed stare and talk of romance bored me to tears; but somewhere along the line, it became a real thing. It was like repeating the word love somehow made it tangible. Entering the church with her in my arms like a newly wedded couple crossing the threshold, I honestly felt love for Susan.
The walls within crawled with grey creatures and their cold, pinprick glares. The fairy folk of the High Peak Countryside all gathered for their twenty-year congregation. I dared not allow my eyes to linger at any single point, lest it send me mad. These terrible residents were a million miles away from the famous Cottingley fairies photographed by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths back in 1917.
The newspapers reported how amazing it was when the young girls had captured beautiful winged cryptids on camera. They failed to mention the girls had vanished three days later, never returning from a picnic in the woods. Their parents, one of them a High Peak Ranger, hadn’t reported their disappearance. They had remembered how the remote village of Ashopton had succumbed after missing a sacrifice, and how they had to break the great dam to flood it.
Susan’s eyes widened as they sniffed the air and followed us with intent, their wings making a dry rustle. None of them attacked, but they chitter-chattered to one another in an urgent series of clicks and whistles. They knew what was coming.
“Please, William, don’t do this,” Susan whispered. “You don’t have to do this.”
I blocked out her pleas and gaped at the slab where countless children had lain before. I never forgave my dad for what had happened in 1977, but when I visited his death bed, he told me, “They like the young ones. It is in their nature. Every twenty years they take a little piece of our future so we may keep the rest.”
Avoiding the splintered hole I made, I laid Susan down on the slab, her bottom resting in the deep groove of the font. She sobbed, mascara running in black torrents down her freckled cheeks. One of the fairies flapped over to the pulpit and hung from the lectern like a hungry gargoyle.
“Please, William. I love you. I want to be with you forever. It doesn’t have to be this way…”
I closed my eyes, allowing my thoughts to drift away. Breathed in, breathed out—counted to ten. My stomach felt like it was swinging between my knees.
I reached forward, caressing the round bump of her stomach. It was like a watermelon, except something rippled beneath the surface of her taught skin, a foot or an elbow perhaps.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, turning away.
Shoulders shaking like a mourner at a funeral, I headed to the exit, my car waiting. They fell upon her in a leathery flap of wings. She screamed, but it eventually tapered away into a low, wet gargle.
I did not dare turn back.
The forensic people matched the tread marks to my car and deduced the identities of the bodies from Susan’s dental records. They found traces of blood engrained in the imperfect stone around the font, too. But did they think to search the hollows of that old oak? Did they not look in the nooks and crannies beneath the rotten pews? If they did, then they might have seen little eyes, like balls of blue fire.
I sometimes wonder how many of us there are out there in the big, wide world. Men and women perceived as murderers, when all they are guilty of is saving the world from creatures beyond comprehension. There are things out there in our woods and suburbs that hunt us while we sleep, and it is people like me keeping them from your door.
You don’t believe? Pah. I knew it would be useless. No one has listened for two decades, and the authorities repeatedly refuse my parole.
Well, it’s too late.
It has been twenty years to the day since I made my sacrifice, and I am the last of my kind. Heed my advice. Run. Get as far away from the Peak District as you can. A full moon is heavy in the sky, and the nubs on my left hand are itching like crazy.
About the author:
Gary Buller is an author from Manchester England where he lives with his long suffering partner Lisa, daughter Holly, and dog Chico. He grew up in the Peak District where hauntingly beautiful landscapes inspired him to write. He is a huge fan of all things macabre and loves a tale with a twist. He is an associate member of the Horror Writers Association.