The Iron Door by Newton Webb
526 AD, Antioch, Syria. A supernatural, horror short story. Giovanni strives to save his wife's soul from Hell by any means necessary.
526 AD, Antioch, Syria
Giovanni Comnenus had never seen such a magnitude of people before. Even in Rome, he’d never witnessed such a tight press, with all the sounds and scents that accompanied them. His eyes narrowed and he pushed past, suppressing the tension simmering within him. Mind on the mission. As he shouldered past merchants trying to hawk religious icons and relics of dubious authenticity, he saw the Domus Aurea, the Great Church of Antioch, and quickened his pace. Some of the milling people came for the sights, and some came for the experience, but those in the know came for the miracles. Giovanni had come for the biggest miracle of them all: redemption.
A choir of full-throated novitiates sung heavenly hymns over the sounds of the masses. It was Ascension Day, and the Domus Aurea was the most famous church in the Byzantine Empire. Word of its miracles had reached even his ears. They filled the octagonal church with devotees, each hoping to experience the power and the glory of God.
Giovanni had spent the last of his wealth to secure a confession with Bishop Suda. There was a long queue. In front of him, a merchant in fine clothing huffed, unused to being forced to wait.
A woman approached the merchant as he queued, begging him for clemency. The merchant raised his hand to strike her, but Giovanni immediately grabbed the man’s wrist. “This is a house of God.”
The merchant looked furious for the briefest of moments, before a greasy smile spread across his face and he straightened up. “Dalmatius Ingerinus, at your service. I provide insurance and investment for those in the business.”
I know what you are… usurer.
Releasing Dalmatius’s wrist, Giovanni resumed his wait without answering him. The woman looked at Giovanni, a curious expression on her face. She gave a slight smile before disappearing into the crowds. He watched her leave, her earlier urgency having dissipated.
Giovanni felt out of place amongst the worshippers in their silks and jewels. He was in a simple tunic, bereft of the adornments of rank. Even his sword, his most trusted ally for decades of military service, had been left behind. He came to the Church not as a legate of the Kingdom of Italy, but as a supplicant.
Time passed. He caught further snatches of gossip. Adultery. Theft. Deceit. It seemed he wasn’t alone after all. Everyone seemed to accuse everyone else of sin, but always via a third party. He sneered. Politicians. That was what all these people were. He was a soldier. Giovanni knew what he had done. The guilt gnawed at him, and he knew what it was. He wore the emotion like a second tunic and held it close to his soul. It burned inside him and fuelled his need to fix things, to save… her.
The confession booth loomed, coins exchanged hands, and a relieved merchant stepped out, his jowls jiggling as the weight of his sin dropped away.
Giovanni slipped into the booth, pulling the curtain closed behind him. He closed his eyes, offering a quick prayer to the lord. “My lord, are you Bishop Suda?”
“Yes, my son, it is I. Please, what brings you so far from the shores of the Ostrogothic Kingdom?”
“The Kingdom of Italy,” Giovanni swiftly corrected him.
An audible huff sounded. “As you say, my child. Please, unburden your soul.”
“I am not here for myself. I know my sins and I will atone for them in the proper place. Instead, I come for another–”
“–Then I am afraid you have come all this way and donated all that money for nothing. That isn’t how confession works,” Bishop Suda said, testily.
The legate was leaning on his knees, his hands steepled in prayer.
“Please, it is my wife. She cannot come to confession; she is dead.” Tears sprung from his eyes. They breached the palisades of his Roman upbringing and stormed the trenches of the legate’s military discipline.
The bishop waited in silence, as not even his breath could be heard.
“I failed her. I failed our family.”
“What… What did you do, child?”
“I forced my son to join the army, to fight in the legions. I said it was a noble calling. He was happy to stay at home and raise horses.”
“And so it is a noble calling. The army of God marches with a righteous step.”
Giovanni openly wept. “There was nothing righteous about his death at all. He didn’t die defending Christendom; he died on patrol. A wagon threw a wheel. He died within the hour.”
“My child, we might not always understand the divine plan, but your son still died in the duty of the Lord. He will ascend to the heavens. His death had a purpose.”
“It wasn’t just him. He was our pride and joy. He was a good boy. When my wife Sophia heard… she took poison.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from the bishop.
“I fear for her soul,” Giovanni said. His heart broken.
Then, the world ended.
A roar filled the air, followed by the sharp sound of cracking masonry.
The screams of worshippers echoed around him as huge chunks of the ceiling crashed down upon them.
The bishop rose to leave. Giovanni’s hand reflexively shot through the thin mesh, his tears held back by military discipline instilled over decades of service. His training took over as he protected God’s representative on earth. He’d been in enough sieges to know the dangers of crumbling masonry. The bishop fought to get free, but Giovanni held firm. The bishop was his only hope in saving Sophia from Hell. “Trust in the Lord, Bishop Suda. It will be madness out there.”
Sounds of death and terror formed a cacophony.
After a while, when he judged it quieter, Giovanni released the bishop. Giovanni’s heart pounded with adrenaline as he opened the curtain of the confessional. His eyes witnessed a horrific scene of death and destruction. It was worse than the hundred battlefields the veteran soldier had fought on. Most of the roof had already fallen into the nave where the main body of the people had been praying. Hundreds of dead and dying lay sprawled throughout the building. The main doors to the Church were rammed with a mob of people clambering over corpses, even over each other, to get out and into the dubious safety of the street.
Giovanni watched as the bishop scurried towards a doorway on one side of the nave and followed him, seeking sanctuary. A terrified centurion stood sentry. The centurion barred Giovanni’s path with an open blade, but before the centurion had a chance to protest, the ground shook again. Batting aside the centurion’s sword, Giovanni charged at him through the doorway. The two of them bounced down the stone steps with the sword clattering behind them.
More masonry collapsed, partially blocking the stairwell. Great gouts of dust erupted through the gap.
“You’ll hang for this!” the soldier blustered.
“For saving your life?” Giovanni growled between deep breaths.
The centurion looked up at the doorway and blanched.
Two ghostly white figures were trying to clamber through the gap. It was Dalmatius and the woman he had tried to assault. The centurion reached for his non-existent sword before blustering, “This is sacrilege. Only bishops and their attendants are allowed in the crypts.”
“Give it up, soldier. This hallowed building is all one big crypt now,” Giovanni said.
Further rumbles drowned his words. The gap in the doorway was sealed as a statue fell across it. Saint Peter’s marble face did what he did best. He judged them, before his neck broke, and his head bumped down the flight of steps.
Giovani jerked back to avoid it as it rolled and bounced its way to the bottom, finally coming to a standstill and staring vacantly down into the corridor.
Does he know?
Saint Peter’s face looked back up at them from the bottom of the stairs.
He judges mankind from the Gates Of Heaven. Of course, he knows.
Giovanni wiped the dust from his face and descended the stone steps.
Is Antioch being destroyed because of our sins?
The bishop was waiting. He stood, nervously twitching, outside an enormous iron door covered with runes in a language Giovanni did not understand.
“What is this?” Giovanni asked.
“The Sanctus Firmamentum. It is vital that we protect it.” Bishop Suda crossed his arms.
The centurion moved to stand in front of it. “I will defend it with my life.”
Giovanni scoffed. “You mean it has gold in it? What is the good centurion going to defend it from? Us? Where will we take your treasure?”
“This is sacred ground!” the bishop protested.
Giovanni stood resolute. “Unless you have food and water in there, none of us are particularly interested in it.” He knocked on the walls with a calloused fist. “They carved these walls straight out of the bedrock. We are as safe here as we are anywhere in Antioch.”
The newcomers were busy rubbing the dusty filth off their clothes.
Bishop Suda looked up. “Is that true? Are we safe here?”
Giovanni nodded. Now that they were secure, the greatest danger came from panic. “We are as safe as we can be for now. At least we aren’t in the city.” He rubbed the back of his neck. He wasn’t the young man he’d once been. “The legions will come and clear the rubble. A building like this will be one of the first they come to.”
Giovanni looked up at the oil lanterns lining the walls. They accounted for the remaining dim light. Only two of them were intact. The others had gone out or been destroyed.
Another rumble hit the church.
Giovanni reached out to hold onto the wall as dust showered down from the ceiling. Fine cracks were appearing, as if a hundred spiders had spun their webs across the painted murals.
Suddenly, a scream erupted behind him.
Giovanni turned in time to witness a woman falling back down the stairs. The rumbling slowed and stopped as he clambered over the rubble to reach her. Red bloomed through the stone dust as she clutched at a stab wound.
Had the merchant stabbed her?
Giovanni looked around and saw the centurion. He stood with a bloody sword in his hand.
How did he stab her without me seeing? I had my back turned for a moment, no more.
“What did you do?”
The centurion looked at him with anger and confusion before his eyes followed Giovanni’s to his hand and the bloodied blade. In a panic, he dropped the sword and stepped back.
“I didn't do anything. I don’t know where that–”
He saw the anger in Giovanni's expression and immediately tried to grab the sword back. He made it halfway before Giovanni’s knee intercepted his face, eliciting a satisfying crunch.
“I think I’ll hold onto that.” Giovanni belted the sword to his tunic.
“I did nothing,” the centurion protested, nursing his broken nose. “Did anyone see anything? Were there any witnesses?”
Giovanni snarled, “Just stay over there!” Cutting off a large section of the girl’s tunic, he pressed it against her wound. From the scent, he could tell it had penetrated her bowels. She would not live through this. “What is your name?”
“Ana,” she gasped in pain. “Please, don’t let me die here.”
“The soldiers will come soon, Ana. You are going to be okay,” Giovanni lied. “Don’t worry.” He stroked her forehead. In the flickering torchlight, he saw golden flecks glint in her irises and leaned in closer.
The next quake hit harder than any of the ones before. He snapped his head up as the lamp at the bottom of the stairs went out, plunging them into darkness. Giovanni clutched at the wall. The sound of falling masonry and cracking stone filled the corridor. “Wait, I’ll get more light.” Giovanni felt his way up the stairs to the last remaining lamp. He brought it down to the bottom, where he saw the centurion lying on the floor. His head was twisted round at an unnatural angle. Someone must have snapped his neck, but who had the strength?
“Holy Roma…” Giovanni muttered. He used the lamp to light its last intact counterpart downstairs. His eyes glanced over to the others. Neither looked capable of breaking a man’s neck.
Dalmatius pointed at Giovanni. “You. You did this!”
“Don’t be absurd,” Giovanni snapped back.
Ana whimpered. The cloth pressed to her side was red with blood, her face as pale as the finest statue.
“Did you stab the girl?” Dalmatius continued. “The centurion didn’t know where he got the sword from. Maybe you gave it to him.”
“I was standing right next to you. You would have seen.” Giovanni put his hand on the hilt. “Besides, if I had wanted any of you dead, you would be. Sword or no sword. I am a legate of the Italian Legions. I don’t need a weapon to handle civilians.”
“No…” Bishop Suda muttered, his face aghast. Giovanni looked up to see the runes on the door glowing a dull red. Bishop Suda began whispering prayers, his words spilling forth in a panicked torrent. He knelt down, prostrating himself before the door.
Giovanni reached out his hand. The runes were burning hot to the touch. He tapped around the rest of the iron door. It was warm, and he could feel it growing hot.
“It feels as though there is a fire behind this door, but… where is the smoke?”
He looked at the bishop. The man was terrified. His eyes were closed and he had begun chanting.
They were all scared, but something had changed.
“Watch out…” Ana screamed.
He had begun to turn when a heavy object cracked against his skull.
Giovanni collapsed to the floor.
When Giovanni came to, a searing pain split his skull. He reached up, and his hand came away with blood on it. He lay on the stairs next to Ana’s corpse. Giovanni reached over and closed her eyes. He offered a quick prayer to usher her towards the afterlife.
As the grogginess faded, he saw cold water was spraying into the corridor. Giovanni swore. The bedrock must have fissured into an aquifer.
Dalmatius was marching up and down next to the iron door, splashing in the water. He’d purloined the centurion’s sword and now brandished it. He was swearing, as well, the sweat on his forehead revealing his panic.
“What did you do?” Giovanni asked. He struggled to stand, his head still woozy.
Dalmatius turned, thrusting the blade in his direction. “You sit down. You sit right down or I’ll stab you.”
“Like you stabbed Ana?” Giovanni asked, waiting for his head to stop spinning.
“I wouldn’t stab her. She owed me money!” He paced up and down, splashing through the water. “None of this was me.” Dalmatius froze, holding his cheek with his other hand. “Are we going to die down here?” he asked quietly.
Giovanni shook his head. “The water is rising slowly. We have time. How long since the last quake?”
“There hasn’t been one, not since you fell unconscious,” Dalmatius said.
Bishop Suda stopped praying. His eyes, previously distant and unfocused, turned to regard Giovanni with a fearful certainty. “It is you. You are doing this.”
“No, no. Stop and think. None of you know what you are saying.” Giovanni used his legs to push himself further up the stairs, away from the others.
“The quakes only happen when you are awake. You are…” Bishop Suda turned to Dalmatius. “He’s possessed. You can still save us. Kill the demon!”
Giovanni shook his head. “Don’t do this, Dalmatius. I’ve seen this happen before. In sieges, men get locked up together; the constant pressure and the fear make them turn on each other.”
The runes were bright red now, filling the corridor with a crimson glow. Where the blood-filled water sloshed against the door, steam rose.
Bishop Suda stood up, backing away from Giovanni. “I know his sin. He confessed. This is all because of him.”
Giovanni froze. “So much for the sanctity of confession.” He looked down. “I would give anything, absolutely anything, to fix what I did.” Beside him, he heard Ana’s moaning grow quieter. Giovanni looked down upon her as her breathing slowed. She didn’t have long now, not long at all, until she’d finally bleed out. “But I don't think I am important enough to warrant God smiting Antioch. I don’t even live here.” He looked up. “If killing me would achieve anything, I’d let you. But it won’t.”
A manic gleam crossed Dalmatius’s face. “But it might save Antioch from the wrath of God. It might let me out of here.”
The quakes chose that moment to strike again, the heaviest yet.
Giovanni lumbered to his feet and pressed himself against the wall again.
He reached out to steady the lamp.
Dalmatius stumbled forward.
“Kill him, kill him, kill him!” Bishop Suda screeched.
“Shut up!” Giovanni roared as the ground rumbled dangerously beneath them. He turned, cradling the lamp as the shaking lessened, then trembled to a stop.
His body was pressed up against the fiery runes on the iron door. Flesh sizzled as he burnt alive. Giovanni waded over and tried to pull him free. He could see no restraints. It was as if an invisible force held the man in place. In a panic, Giovanni pulled at his body, but to no avail. The legate stepped back, breathing fast. “Good lord, preserve us.” He blinked the water out of his eyes, transfixed by the horrific sight.
Dalmatius’s hair flared as it caught alight.
The water came in faster now. Up to their waists and rising faster.
Unable to free Dalmatius, Giovanni called out to the bishop, “We must climb the stairs to get to dry land!” Giovanni saw the body of Ana was now floating at the bottom of the chairs.
Bishop Suda shook his head and pressed his shaking body up against the wall. He wailed, “Why is this happening? I wish I’d never bought that stupid feather.”
Despite the warm water, a coldness swept over Giovanni.
Bishop Suda fell silent. The trickling of water and rising steam remained.
Dalmatius was dead. The corridor reeked of his cooked flesh.
“What feather?” Giovanni repeated.
The ruined corpse of Dalmatius slid from the door and fell into the water, making them both jump.
The door had seared his flesh with its runic inscription.
Bishop Suda chanted a litany of prayers, his hands pressed together.
Giovanni pushed through the rising water, half-walking and half-swimming, holding the lantern as he approached the bishop.
The bishop’s snot mixed with his tears as they ran down his face.
“What did you do?”
When Bishop Suda didn’t answer, Giovanni slapped him hard.
His eyes opened, and he looked at Giovanni as though he were seeing him for the first time.
“Syria is a land of sinners. It is our duty to show them the power of God.” Bishop Suda breathed heavily. “We all do it, we do it to protect people from heresy. There just aren’t enough miracles in this age to maintain people’s faith.” He shook his head, his face stained with remorse. “A Greek farmer found it.”
“Found what?” Giovanni held him against the wall firm.
“The feather, the feather.” The bishop wilted against the stone wall. “With it, we could heal the sick, give sight to the blind. We performed actual miracles.”
“For a fee, of course?” Giovanni muttered.
“I am God’s servant on earth. This majesty, this glory, it is nothing more than a reflection of His might,” Bishop Suda protested. “I am a good Christian.” He broke down in tears.
Giovanni growled, raising his fist. “Your hypocrisy sickens me. I would sell my soul if I thought it would let my wife into Heaven, but never at the cost of someone else. Never!” He waved around him. “All of this? Divine retribution! You couldn’t wait for God! You tried to harness the power of the divine yourself. You should have destroyed it.” The cold water was up around their armpits now. Giovanni found the sword in his hand.
How did that get there?
He pressed the blade against the terrified bishop’s throat. “I should kill you right now.” His hand wavered and, growling, he threw the sword away–over to the stairwell, where it disappeared into the water. Then, he sloshed back towards higher ground. “But I won’t. All I wanted was to save my wife’s soul. I am done with killing.”
“How very disappointing.” The deep female voice had sounded from behind him.
Giovanni dropped the lantern. Extinguished in the water, it plunged them into darkness. He heard Bishop Suda screaming in terror.
Then… a crack. With absolute certainty, he knew it had been Bishop Suda’s neck.
He made it back to the stairs and was about to ascend when the iron door opened behind him and light flooded the room. Giovanni blinked against its harshness.
Ana was alive, and she had opened the door.
Inside, a feather on a marble plinth glowed with a blinding intensity. She reached out for it, but paused. “Did you mean it?” she asked.
“Mean what?” Giovanni replied. His eyes were wide, his voice used to commanding thousands of men, quavered in front of the entity.
“That you would trade your soul for your wife’s.”
Giovanni ground his teeth together, determination warring with despair. “I meant every word. I would do absolutely anything to save my wife. It was my sin, not hers.”
Ana smiled. She picked up the feather. It turned to dust, and seemed to merge with her body. The water recoiled from her, leaving her standing on the raised dais. Her tunic burnt and fell to the ground like ash. Her feet turned to giant hooves which gleamed as if made of polished brass. Two sets of wings sprouted from her back, one of them covering her body while the other spread out, spanning the vault.
Giovanni’s eyes bulged. He was rooted to the steps in terror. He saw the flesh of Ana’s face rent and tear. A lion’s head tore through the ripped skin and gore. It shook itself, throwing clear the bloody remnants and roaring with a deafening volume. Giovanni could see on its left side an ox’s head that emerged braying. On the right, an eagle’s head screeched.
At some point, he became conscious that he was soiling himself.
He could barely breathe.
The man who had held the Ravena Road against the Hunnic Cavalry, who had survived the Siege of Taranto, had found his limit.
Terror crippled him.
“So be it,” the angel rumbled in a voice that was everywhere and nowhere. It gestured with its hand, and the ground opened.
Giovanni gasped, his breath coming fast as his wife's shimmering, translucent form rose from the fissure. He watched as a hundred red hands tried and failed to grasp at her. Any hand that touched her dissipated in foul black smoke.
The ground closed underneath her.
A blue light shone down upon the angel and his wife, who rose next to it. Her face was a mask of shock. “Giovanni?” she exclaimed in amazement.
“Sophia!” With a confused smile, he called out again, “You are safe now.”
The angel’s voice echoed once more. “A good man. How unexpected.”
Sophia looked at him sadly. “What have you done?”
There was a loud snap, and Sophia disappeared with the angel, leaving him alone in the darkness.
“Sophia,” he repeated to himself.
He wept and prayed. He prayed as hard as he could that the angel would save his wife’s soul.
There were no more quakes.
Giovanni didn’t know how long he had been lying in the dark before the soldiers cleared away the rubble and released his emaciated form. He kissed the hand of the soldiers as they pulled him out.
He turned to the closest soldier and shook his hand with frenzied relief. The soldier had to physically remove his arm from Giovanni’s embrace.
Giovanni staggered out of the building. The sunlight made him blink furiously. He stumbled to a pool of water and drank deep. As he looked in shock at his reflection, he saw that his ordeal had transformed his hair into a shock of white. Under his torn clothing, his emaciated body was exposed under a layer of blood and dirt.
Antioch had been destroyed. What the earthquake hadn’t torn down, a sweeping firestorm had finished.
Was this all the feather? Did the greedy and ignorant priests cause this? Or was the downfall of Antioch due to the collective sinning of its people?
Regardless, the immense city was now in ruins, a scar on the lands of Syria.
Giovanni walked until he reached what had once been the city limits. He fell to the ground, his bony knees plunging deep into the warm soil. He cupped his hands into the red earth and kissed it. Leaning back, he basked in the sun, giving thanks to God for the beauty of nature and for his survival.
He looked down. A small fissure showed in the ground in front of him. He shuffled backward.
A larger breach opened underneath him. Dread filled him, as he knew what was coming next. As the earth opened up, so did a glowing red abyss. Legions of burnt red hands burst free, grasping at the air.
Eyes clamped tight shut, his body shook with fear.
I love you, Sophia.
He thought of his wife being freed and smiled. Trading her place in Hell, for his place in Heaven, was worth the sacrifice. The bargain had to be honoured.
Opening his eyes, he stepped out into the crevasse. The demonic entities grabbed his legs and pulled him down into the depths of Hell.
Left me wanting more!!! Loved it!