The owner of a hideous sculpture passed down from generation to generation learns the truth behind it, but it's already too late.
Passed down from generation to generation, no one would have ever guessed that the late Mr. William Ashton would be the one to unlock the final, nethermost secret surrounding that unique sculpture, chiselled into a great block of singularly black basalt in 1776 by William's direct ancestor, Jeremiah Ashton.
That sculpture, the focus of intense debate amongst townsfolk, fishwives and acid tongued gossips, certainly earned it's reputation as an evil thing. Showing the image of some perverse caricature of the human form, only in strong light could one discern the unnaturally slender, bent, twisted form; the rugose flesh that simultaneously clung to the anorexic and vaguely boneless form and in great, veined folds; the head, pulled into an unnatural shape with a visage seemingly writhing in agony and pure malignity, the all too human teeth bared in a demoniac, hateful rictus grin; the nose and ears almost absent and the eyes sightless, staring, dull black orbs of darkness. The overall impression one got of this abomination was one of revulsion and horror, but not just from the look of the thing, but from some deeper, indefinable morbid hate. It was the eidolon of all that was unwholesome, sane and natural – it was harmony given to discord and health given to disease. It's shape shouldn't exist, yet it was there, entombed in stone, looking like a mummy recently uncovered from an age old crypt. It hugged its own vile form, the long thin fingers reaching back and gripping its shoulder blades as it bent out of the surrounding un-chiselled rock, looking as if it were ready step out and roam the world.
The sculpture occupied a great main room in Mr. Ashton's spacious yet sparse home in the country about Dunbannig, the house in which Jeremiah Ashton and several successive generations afterwards had lived. His wife, Jennifer, loathed the thing, and rightly so – yet his two children, twins James and Maria, were fascinated by the menacing, silent fiend. And it is was with them that the true horror began.
But let us go back to the first incident involving William Ashton's sculpture. What is generally regarded as the first noticeable incident involving the thing (in Ashton's possession) was the day it was brought into his home. Three workmen had been hired from the town to help move it in, as it was far too large for William to move on his own. None of them liked the aspect of the monstrous figure, but the men kept their comments to themselves – they were being paid handsomely for their troubles, after all. It was when they attempted to scale the great central staircase in the house that one of the men slipped as the thing's great weight fell onto him during a slight mishap. The worker came out of it okay, save for a small gash on his back obtained in a meeting with the bannister, but the entombed figure had been seemingly jostled out of place during the calamity, and stayed that way – the back slightly visible – until little James Ashton's accident.
The sculpture was kept in front of a disused fireplace in an upstairs sitting room, in close proximity to the children's bedrooms. James and Maria would often be found studying the grotesque shape of the creature in stone, and it was when neither parent was watching, did the sculpture claim it's first victim. James had, it appeared, clambered onto the side of the surrounding stone and was been focusing his attention on its back, wondering how it stooped out like that without falling over. A scream was heard and the mother Jennifer ran to her sons aid, but it was her screams that sent William running even faster. When he got there, in the middle of room, James lay cradled in his hysterical mother's arms, his left arm torn to ribbons, blood pooling very quickly about the two. Maria sobbed in a corner. James was conscious, but shaken. He made no sound and was turned away from his mother – and the sculpture. Indeed, William could see small drops of red staining the ground at the side of the un-chiselled basalt. The demon in the stone grinned its malicious rictus grin and stared sightlessly with shiny black orbs.
Around this time, William began to take interest in the various portraits of his family around the house. They reached as far back as 1612 and lasted until 1928 and were strikingly faithful depictions, and one could discern a definite resemblance in William to the rest. The only portraits that differed from the rather uniform style and composition were the three portraits of Zadok Ashton, Jeremiah Ashton and Sebastian Ashton - grandfather, father and son. Each portrait was the full mid-length of the person, but featured them in irregular and unwholesome interiors. Jeremiah's was the worst by far. It depicted him amidst a crumbling dungeon interior, a finely chiselled slab of granite serving as a work table, covered in various glass cylinders and spheres to his left and a wall of ill defined symbols to his right. Behind him was a rough hewn wall of darker stone, evidently not part of the dungeon's design, but an unfinished or unworked-on surface that the workers must have hit upon during construction. William had taken especial interest in this one because of it's relation to the sculpture that was also made personally by Jeremiah. He believed that the back wall was nothing less than the very rock used to create the demon sculpture. William had carried out, not extensive, but well researched genealogical studies and had dug up some interesting bits of information on Jeremiah Ashton, which has been, since the final cataclysm, lost.
It was also around this time that Jennifer took to laying flowers beside the sculpture. Alas, little James did not survive his accident with the sculpture, and died not long after his arm was injured. Maria also became somewhat reclusive and stopped spending time at the sculpture, and only approached the thing when her mother would lay flowers by it. The memory, it seemed, of James' traumatic death had deeply and profoundly disturbed the poor girl. She came to barely speak in the intervening months. William, however, became wrapped up in his study of the sculpture now, finding it the only relief to a sombre, silent family, even though it brought him within such close proximity to the object of his son's demise. He tirelessly worked at solving the shift in the figure, which he believed had been chiselled in place, but now thought perhaps was made somewhere else and set into the surround. He had worried about it before but because nothing else had happened to it, he let it be most of the time.
Flowers had piled up beside the unmoving, skeletal fiend. Many at the bottom were wilted, grey and wholly devoid of the life that once caused them to bloom in beautiful arrays of colour. In fact, they were all seemingly, at least near the bottom (for this process was hastening by the day and consuming quickly the remainder of the pile) a rotten, ashen grey. The petals became dust from the simplest touch and the stems hardened into stiff, yet shrivelled, sticks. A curious odour arose from that collection, which just about encircled the flowers. It didn't smell even faintly of rotting vegetation or of smells a flower should have. It smelled quite dead, but more akin to the stench of a rotting corpse than a plant. Jennifer had absently placed scented candles about the sculpture, many of which were knocked down by William in his roving about the stooped figure. In time, the whole thing, in the bare room whose only features were an unused fireplace and it, started to look like some perverse shrine, like a holy grotto invaded by some infernal horror conjured through the eyes of a madman. But still, Jennifer's flowers and candles grew, and William stepped on them and knocked them over.
The next spring heralded Jennifer's inevitable descent into madness. It was Maria that, in what had become a rare event of communication, told with bleary eyes to her father that her mother had been acting strangely, that she had been 'hugging the man in the stone'. It took a day for William to seriously consider his daughter's tearful complaints, so removed had he become. Eventually, summoning up the last reserves of true emotion, he followed her to the room in which Jennifer now lay crouched in front of the figure, trembling. Evidently, she hadn't been eating, or had come down with a sickness of some sort. She was thin, very thin and shook uncontrollably. Deep, black circles surrounded her eyes and she was on the whole, drawn out. Her skin had become something William could only called a 'grey jaundice'. He attempted to get her attention, but her tear stained face stared at the bulging eyes and hideously knowing smile of the demonic stone figure. It took but two days for Jennifer to go comatose. A doctor said that it was best if she was moved to the hospital in Northbrook, to which William mindlessly agreed. With James and now Jennifer gone, the house was very quiet, only the sound that of Maria's tiny footfalls and William's dark mutterings as he searched in vain through the oldest corners of the house for clues in a quest he wasn't wholly sure of. All the while the sculpture stood by itself in the unused room, nearly stepping out from the surrounding block on two toed feet, piles of dead flowers and spent candles surrounding it, like an invisible congregation paying a charnel tribute to darkness.
William spent a lot time in the attic. He searched through every dark corner meticulously, stopping when he heard the patter of little Maria's feet on the staircase leading to the eternally night shrouded attic. In an instant of maddening insight, William dedicated his quest to finding all of the documents pertaining to Jeremiah Ashton in the house. He knew what he searched for, but not why. Relatives visited often, but not even fresh voices could stir the brooding silence that had taken the house. Madness and death had crept into it's walls and had made nests deep in the foundations, slowly but surely poisoning the rest of the great old mansion and it's hapless inhabitants. At one point, Maria, in a fit of extraordinary maturity for a young girl her age, attempted to put an end to her father William's obsession. They were all that was left of the family and they should be together. But the look on Williams eyes when Maria invaded the necromantic sanctum of the attic sent her out and never to return.
Day became night, dawn gave way to dusk and still William compiled all the mouldy notes, journals, undelivered letters and random scribblings that had anything to do with Jeremiah Ashton. William was determined now, in the clarity that flooded his soul after the hideous realization he was completely alone, and drove him towards learning the secret behind the demoniac detail of the demon sculpture, for surely there was a secret – a terrible one – and William knew it was behind James' death, Jennifer's madness and poor little Maria's sudden disappearance. He took one look at it whilst wandering lost through the house, a mere glimpse from the corner of his eye, and he damn well knew it leered at him maliciously, with black intent, with unspeakable knowing. It's coldly shining, bulging eyes stared from a head craned around in an agonized manner. But finally, William hit upon his goal – in a shunned corner of the attic, behind a fatally loose wooden frame, a final corner that stank of the piled up corpses of generations, adorned with rotten antique hangings and arabesques – a musty hell that had been home to spiders, and things that were once spiders, wherein lay a great black metal chest of intricate carvings and indecipherable hieroglyphs. The wood surrounding it's lock had rotten away and invaders had made their homes amidst the piled papers. With supreme effort, William attempted to drag the ancient thing from it's resting place, but no avail. He was mentally as well as physically weak. He hadn't properly slept in weeks and had sustained himself on meagre and rare meals. So, instead of finally killing himself in this last place, he obtained a torch and set it beside him on the ground, where dust had collected for generations, undisturbed. Unafraid of any still living creatures in the dank corner, William, sitting diligently like a student by a teacher, set about searching through the collection of rotting papers that hadn't seen light for over 200 years.
William sat in that black corner, surrounded by the still air of dead centuries, amidst the piles of long desiccated corpses of insects and rats, feverishly consuming all the hideous revelations contained within the great black chest. There were unspeakable descriptions that told in minute detail of the horrors raised up and brought down by Jeremiah Ashton – sorcerer, alchemist and necromancer. A man hunted by all law for heinous crimes, his final attack on civility and decency was his abrupt departure from the world amidst an explosion of death that served an unknown purpose. Just where Jeremiah Ashton went nobody knows, but bounty hunters turned up in their dozens, all claiming to have found Jeremiah Ashton or his remains. All were false. Jeremiah had disappeared and in his place left a great black stone sculpture, expertly carved from the darkest basalt, of a skeletal horror, a creature whose shape shouldn't be able to support life – and thankfully didn't. It was that very demon of Hell that resides now in that silent shrine of decayed flowers and melted candles in a bare room. But far worse than the connections with the monster Jeremiah was the implications of his dabbling in the dark arts, for loathsomely whispered myth tells that he had found nothing less than the ability to transmute base substances into finer things, and the other way around. Jeremiah was not interested in mere material gain and wealth, but for absolute dominion over the world, and that could only be achieved in a state beyond death, in a shape fed by the spilling of blood, in a way to walk the Earth dead, yet animate, but not composed of mere mortal skin, bone and blood. Only the strength of mountains would do, and a substance older than all mortal flesh. A perfectly carven image of Jeremiah's darkness made real and strong.
As William read, a subconscious creeping realization flooded over him, and even though he knew what madness he held in his hands, he knew it was hideous truth and that all was too late. Through the very floorboards he could feel those glassy, bulging eyes stare with an intelligence not of Earth, but one that had seen through the veil and came back madder and stronger. William could feel in his bones the terrible creaking scratches made by the demon as it's heart pumped living human blood not it's own through veins that were intricate chiselled by a master craftsman called up from the deepest pits of unspeakable realms. Clicking footfalls marked the steps taken by the hate-form on it's misshapen limbs and wheezing charnel breath that sounded for all the world like a rushing frozen wind what passed through the black spaces between the stars and enveloped the world in their malignant grasp. It had waited centuries trapped in stone for the right moment that its own lineage would serve to feed it's unholy appetite, it's need for sustenance, for stone made flesh is weak, but flesh made stone is strong, and under the will of a power like Jeremiah Ashton, it would never crack nor shatter. In all it's resplendent grotesquery, the demon form of Jeremiah Ashton, the true reflection of the utterly corrupted soul, lumbered sleepily and hungrily, ravening for delight, unstoppable in it's quest to make flesh stone and damned if a new skeleton didn't then preside over the ageless husks of insects that ruled the darkest corner of the mansion.