In the Dark Dreaming
“In the dark dreaming, there are only dreams. But in nightmares, your worst fears are reality.”
The swamps surrounding Byfield had long been steeped in myth and legend. It was widely reported that a small coven of witches had fled from the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693 and had taken refuge in those dark desolate wetlands. Instructed in the occult arts by the ill-famed Keziah Mason herself, these practitioners of dark magic had continued with their rituals until, according to legend, they suddenly disappeared. Whispers abounded that they had called up something they could not control, and that same unspeakable something had led to their demise. A something that still haunted the swamps to this day
Growing up in Byfield, I had been told of these legends. As a child I relished hearing of the evil witches escaping from the trials and their mysterious ceremonies deep in the swamps, and the unknown presence that still lingered. However such things were ultimately proven to be mere folktales. Many had ventured into the swamps over the many years since the reported events and had returned with reports of nothing but bracken, evil smelling mud and the odd dead deer or other similar animal that had wandered too far. My childish imagination still held to the fanciful idea that the witches were still out there, somewhere, waiting for their inevitable return to power.
My dreams, too, were taken up with the legends of the swamps. Almost every night my imagination would take me to the depths of those benighted swamps, far from the comfortable silhouettes of the houses of Byfield. I stumbled and staggered my way through brackish, foul smelling water and deep pits of mud. Thorns and briars tore at my clothing and skin, yet I still struggled onwards. At length I reached a clearing where I could see indistinct figures cavorting in perfectly concentric circles. An ethereal glow bathed the area and sounds of chanting in an unknown tongue rose to the night sky. The whole eerie tableau had a tangible atmosphere of evil about it.
At length I was aware of another presence nearby. I could not fully define what it was, however I had the unmistakable feeling that I was being watched. I crept away from the unholy gathering, intending to find my way back to the village. I soon became aware that I was being followed and I moved faster, splashing through the pools of swamp water and bursting through branches that still tore at me. Around me, the shadows of trees and bushes seemed to turn into arms and hands of unspeakable nature, grasping and clawing at me as I blundered onwards. Although I was going as quickly as I could, I still fancied I could feel hot breath on the back of my neck and something reaching out to grab hold of me. I tripped on a stray branch and fell roughly to the ground, throwing my arm up to guard against whatever was about to befall me.
It was invariably at that point when I would wake up, safely in my bed, with the first rays of dawn shining through my bedroom curtains. Whether it was through some childlike bravery or foolishness, I never felt any fear. It was as though my unconscious mind knew that I was merely dreaming and would not let any harm to come to me. As I grew older in years the dream came less and less frequently, until the day that I left Byfield behind to begin my studies at the renowned Miskatonic University at Arkham. From that day the dreams no longer came and over time they faded almost completely from my memory.
My majors were in History and Philosophy, and my tutors all agreed that I would have a long and fruitful career ahead of me. I worked and studied hard, barely spending any time away from the Orne Library or my rooms until at last I graduated with honours. It was then that I decided to put to rest once and for all the legends that had surrounded my home town. Before I devoted the rest of my life to the furtherance of the fields which I had studied, I would make one last pilgrimage to Byfield and to the swamps surrounding it. I intended to put to rest those lingering half remembered dreams and fancies of a small child lying in his bed.
The last day of October seemed to be an appropriate date for my little venture, and I spent the days until then researching the history of the Witch Trials, and especially those witches who were under the tutelage of the infamous Keziah Mason. The names and crimes of those convicted and put to death filled many volumes, but of those who had somehow escaped the hangman’s noose there was scant information. Nothing I unearthed confirmed the legends I had grown up with, but at the same time nothing denied them either. Regardless, I felt better equipped to investigate the truth of the matter when the time came.
On the thirty-first of October I rose to catch the early train from Arkham to Newburyport, from where I would take the branch line to Byfield, arriving there in the late afternoon. I had sent a telegram to my parents informing them of my visit, although not the exact reason why. As I sat in the rattling carriage I watched the landscape outside change from the bustling urban districts of Arkham to the grassy rolling hills of New England. The townships of Bolton and Ipswich provided some small opportunity to stretch my legs along the platform, however such opportunities were inevitably curtailed by the train’s whistle indicating its readiness to proceed.
The train arrived at Newburyport shortly after midday. I had a forty minute wait before catching my connection to Byfield. I took the opportunity to buy lunch from a small grocer’s shop nearby and sat on a wooden bench on the platform, eating a stale ham sandwich and drinking cold coffee. At a quarter-past two the train rumbled into view, and the sight of it filled me with trepidation. The locomotive looked as though it would fall apart at any moment and the carriages were not much better. The wood looked ancient and worm ridden and the iron wheels had great patches of rust on the rims. It was, however, the only way to get to my destination so I took my seat and braced myself for a most uncomfortable journey.
I was surprised to find that the ride was on the whole fairly smooth, and just over an hour later the train pulled into the small station at Byfield. There was no one on the short platform waiting for me, so I called a cab and rode to my parents house. The reception was polite and cordial – they had never fully accepted my decision to leave – and I was left to my own devices. I spent the few remaining hours until evening wandering around the town. Rather unsurprisingly, nothing had changed. The buildings were exactly the same as I remembered – old and overhanging and rotting with age. I would not be sorry to put this place behind me.
At half past ten I made my way to the outskirts of the town. The edges of the swamp lay stretched out in front of me. I had left my case at my parents’ house and only carried a flashlight with me. Turning it on, I was slightly disappointed to see that the light did not carry far, however I was determined to carry on. I started walking and before long I was wading through the familiar mud and water that I remembered from my childhood. Before long I was fighting my way through the bushes and branches like I had done so many times before, both in my dreams and in real life. The thorns tore at me as I knew they would. The stench was almost overpowering. I wrapped a napkin around my face to try to reduce the effect.
Eventually I came upon a clearing and stopped still. In front of me was a vision that made me question whether or not I was awake, or still dreaming in my old bed at my old house. Had the last few years been real? Had I really been at Miskatonic University? Were those memories real? Or was I still a child, my head filled with wild fantasies, lying asleep? I was no longer certain of anything, not even my own identity.
I saw half a dozen figures dancing and writhing around a glowing ball of light. They appeared to be wearing ragged clothing dating from the 17th century. The ball of light in their midst emitted a sickly green light that seemed to reach up to the heavens. They chanted a dark, loathsome litany that sounded at once alien and bestial to my ears. I debated with myself whether or not to try and get closer or to flee when I heard a low noise that seemed to come from my left side and my right side at the same time. This time there was no childish sense of adventure and bravery as my courage dissipated and I turned to flee as quickly as I could. The chanting stopped and I could feel the burning gaze of many eyes on me. I immediately started running.
It did not take me long to realise that I was being chased. That unnamed, unspeakable presence was close on my heels. I looked around and saw the shadows of the trees and bushes around me stretch out and take the form of grasping claws that reached out to try and snag any part of my clothing they could. The air seemed to grow thick and heavy and the water I was wading through became almost like sludge. I felt an abominably hot breath on the back of my neck and heard a low growling, as though the thing was amused at my plight. Fingers, or claws or something brushed across my back for a moment.
What foul fate chose that moment to put a stray route in front of me I never knew, as I tripped and fell face first into a pool of foul smelling slimy water. I threw an arm up in a futile effort to shield myself against what was coming.
This time I did not wake up.