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‘The People of the Sea’ by Michael Whitehouse

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 A legend says that on the wind of the North Atlantic, there is carried a key to a strange land. A place of unequalled beauty and unparallelled nightmare. For too long I thought those stories the product of whimsical minds. Lazy lips espousing wishful dreams about what truly lies beyond the horizon. Now, I know that, like most legends, a seed of truth has long been planted in the cultural memory of our ancestors. Some intrepid soul had once entered that forbidden land, perhaps more than once. It just so happens that I am the most recent guest - invited or kidnapped, choose whichever suits your interpretation.

It was near the Isle of Lewis off the Northeast coast of Scotland where I first encountered that land. Lewis is in the far corner of the United Kingdom and, with its sprawling grassy lowlands, faces the oncoming winds from the Atlantic. Seas swell, tides beat against the rocky shore, and the people who inhabit this part of the world are rugged, kind, and stoic.

Unfortunately, my contact with the people there lasted only a few days. After a scenic stay in Morsgail House, I travelled by car and then boat across the water to Little Bernera. This remote island is uninhabited, perhaps the reason that its secrets have remained hidden for so long. No permanent population has lived there since the 1800s, but evidence for its original inhabitants reaches far back into the midsts of time. Forgotten peoples with equally forgotten beliefs and, dare I say, sciences.

What brought me to the island was my research. I was working on a thesis for my PhD at Strathclyde University, one which I hoped would forge my name in the annals of British and Scottish archaeology. Most of the ancient languages of Scotland were long forgotten. The cultures of those peoples who, thousands of years ago, had once roamed the mountains, glens, and islands of that mysterious country had always held a fascination for me. I wish I had never developed that fascination, for it has led me into the most frightening of places.

I will not bore you with my academic work any further. Time is short. Suffice to say, I had developed a theory that, much like several islands which had sunk into the Mediterranean, ancient stories suggested that at one time a large piece of land had collapsed into the dark abyssal sea off the coast of Scotland, taking with it an entire people and its culture.

This theory was roundly discredited and mocked by my colleagues. Nonetheless, there were tantalising fragments of knowledge suggesting this reality. Allusions in ancient texts, depictions of a calamity carved in rock, and even an old folktale about 'daoine anns a 'mhuir'. The rough translation of which is 'the people of the sea'.

With arduous research, I had discovered that the Isle of Lewis was most likely the closest place to where this mysterious land had fallen. Furthermore, that Little Bernera was intimately connected with the legend of the sea people and what befell them. This uninhabited island sat in the mouth of a huge sea loch. My research suggested that when the sea people and their land fell into the dark swells of the North Atlantic, that one of its survivors washed up on the shores of Little Bernera eons ago.

I am proficient in sailing and hired a small fishing boat for three days - all that my research budget would allow me. As I approached Little Bernera breathing in the sea air, I marvelled at its beauty. An arching bay filled with sand and pebbles welcomed me as I tied my boat to an old weathered mooring. The wind carried itself across the landscape, covering the surroundings in a sharp salted scent.

On a hill nearby was the only standing building, an old slated fish-curing where the local fishermen once processed their catch. But it was not this structure which was the focus of my research. No; it was to the many headstones that dotted the hills as they rose and dipped around me. You see, Little Bernera has another secret - the entire island is a graveyard.

The crofting town of Carloway used the island as a burial ground until its residents finally created their own cemetery nearby. They would cross the water and bury their dead in the soil, marking the site with a headstone. Looking around at the windswept low lying hills and rocks that looked out to the infinite depths of the sea, I understood why such a place could be seen as an entryway to the afterlife.

I walked up a steeper incline, compass and map in hand, following my notes to a place I dreamed of - the keystone. This headstone was different from the others as it hid something precious beneath it. I had followed the trail of breadcrumbs and spoke to someone who knew of its location. Perhaps the only person still alive who understood its importance. His name was Gil Haben. His family had long protected a secret. It was rumoured that they were descended from a local elder who was among the people who found the survivor of the calamity on their shores.

Ever since, the family had kept hidden evidence of that survivor, now interred beneath a fake gravestone. Gil Haben, by this time an alcoholic, had no love for his family's duty and was quite happy to spill the beans on the grave's location for a few hundred pounds. I obliged in paying, and the information he gave me led to that very spot on the windswept soil and rock of Little Bernera.

As I reached the crest of a hill, I saw that it dipped down on the other side by several feet. At the bottom of that depression there was a hole in the ground, cast in shadow away from the sun which was now beginning to dip in the sky. My heart sank at what I saw. I leapt down the hill to take a closer look. The hole was there all right - just big enough for someone to slip inside, but I feared that what was underground had been disturbed. Taking out a torch, I shone it into the darkness and could see that the headstone now lay broken on the floor about 15 feet beneath the opening.

Had a competitor gotten there before me or had the grave simply caved in? In any case, I had intended to discover what relics the grave hid, and I was enthralled by what appeared to be an underground tomb beneath the grassy depression. I had come prepared for a subterranean sojourn, as the old stories had suggested I might find such a place. Indeed, my supplies would allow me to stay on the island for several days, packed away in my trusted backpack which had accompanied me on many an adventure, alongside my sample containers and a good book to read by a fire at night.

With some rope tied to another headstone, I lowered myself into the darkness. As I descended from the world above, the air changed immediately. No longer was there a sharp, fresh smell from the sea rolling over grass and rock. This was replaced by a musty scent like rotten compost. Ancient roots weaved in and out of the soil around me as I descended, the trees which had once given birth to them long since removed from the hillside.

When I reached the bottom of the hole, I could see the grave broken on the ground, though the writing was barely legible. The Haben family had placed the gravestone over the entry point over two hundred years previous to mark it, though my research suggested that the cave beneath and what it contained was much, much older. I speculated that the gravestone had been erected because the family commitment to duty had been slowly waning. Perhaps it was left there to guide future generations of the Haben family, should they wish to return to their positions as caretakers of such secrets.

The dank air was overpowering at first and so I breathed through my mouth as much as possible to protect me from the rotting stench. Turning the light of my torch to the walls of the cavern, I saw that the roots above had givn way to something else. The walls were lined with a strange material; what looked like leaves of intricate metal, perhaps a copper alloy of some kind though darker. Each leaf was about 10cm across, and they were layered on top of each other like the surface of a hedgerow in spring. The metal itself had been inscribed with strange symbols which I did not recognise. It must have taken years to have created the unusual design; thousands of metallic leaves cold and still in the darkness of time.

Thoughts of sunlight were far from my mind. Only the chase mattered. I had to find evidence for my theories about the People of the Sea, to prove the doubters wrong. How I wish now I had not pushed forward. Up ahead I could see a doorway, the frame made from rock. Beyond that, there was a staircase that descended deeper into the earth. This both thrilled and frightened me, for I could feel an unexplained draft of warm air filtering through it, and in the depths somewhere I heard something moving. The closest I can compare it to from memory, is the sound of an old mill, grinding wheat.

As I moved down the stone staircase, the walls soon changed from the leaves of intricate metal to a smooth, dark-green surface which glistened in the dim light of my torch. It was cool to the touch, but the air was growing ever more stifling with each step. The temperature was not the only thing apparent, for the draft of it, the movement of the air current, was now stronger than before. This was no mere flow of air from one room to another; something was producing it, pushing it up through the staircase towards me.

The grinding noise increased as I reached the bottom of the stairs. My nerves began to get the better of me as I looked towards another doorway. By God, there was light coming from the next room. A yellow light like that given by a candle, but not flickering. I thought that it must be someone else who had happened upon the underground structure before I had.

Moving forward, I cautiously asked: 'Who's there?' But there was no reply.

Walking through the doorway, I trembled slightly as the light suddenly vanished before I could see its source. The world dimmed in its absence, and so I moved the beam of my torch around to see where I now was. At last! I had found what I had been searching for; the fruit of my work! Though I could not explain the vanishing light, I had quickly extinguished that question with awe at what I saw. In the middle of the room there was a stone altar. Ancient pseudo Celtic symbols intertwined beautifully across the grey stone, resembling that of a double helix. Upon the alter lay a stone sarcophagus. An ancient coffin beautifully carved out of rock, with striking geometric patterns running along its side.

Running my hands along its intricately carved exterior, the rectangular sarcophagus felt warm to the touch. The flat lid had inscriptions in a language I did not recognise, but the carvings at the head of the coffin depicted a huge wave crashing over a complex and advanced city. The residents were fleeing through the streets between tall buildings. It was more evidence to suggest that the lost people from the sea were real, and, if my research was correct, that the sarcophagus held the remains of a body washed up on the shores of Little Bernera more than three thousand years ago.

I knew that my discovery would now have to be carefully vetted by a team of archaeologists, so I took some photos on my phone of the stone sarcophagus and readied myself to study further inscriptions on part of the surrounding, dark green walls. As I stood there marvelling at their artistry and pondering their meaning, I heard something that chilled me to the bone.

The sound of stone on stone. I shuddered as I turned, and what I saw utterly terrified me. The lid to the sarcophagus had moved. There was now a definite gap exposing the interior and what was contained therein. Call it madness, call it stupidity: though I was terrified, I had to see what was inside, persuading myself that some unknown mechanism or pressure change had shifted the stone lid.

I walked back to the sarcophagus and peered into the darkness. I expected to see the skeletal remains of an ancient Celt, but what I saw was utterly inhuman and remarkably preserved. Its bleached white skin, if you can call it that, was pulled taught over its sharpened bones. It appeared to me that the eyes had long since rotted away, but the depth of the ocular cavities suggested that it had evolved to see in low light conditions. The head was elongated slightly, and from its neck, there was something protruding. A type of limb was my best guess, one which was utterly unrecognisable to modern science. The rest of the body appeared humanoid in shape.

As I peered inside, I puzzled as to how the remains could have still been largely intact. There was no apparatus that I could see, and the sarcophagus was clearly not sealed. On closer inspection, what I had initially thought were empty eye sockets, I soon realised were the product of some sort of troglodyti process, where a species, perhaps in this case a hominid one, had evolved to lose its eyes as they were a useless resource in the dark. I knew that this was quite common in cave-dwelling spiders and insects, but it had, to my knowledge, never been seen in larger animals. After all, there was very little to sustain larger animals underground. What would they eat?

I speculated that the strange protrusion from the neck, which looked almost like a long, thick finger and knuckle about two feet long, was some sort of sensory organ. This had most probably evolved to replace the loss of sight with a new sense. The face of the thing was repulsive. The nose had receded like a skull leaving two vacant holes through which to breathe, and the mouth had no teeth at all. In fact, the smoothness and roundness of the mouth made speech, at least through normal means, seem quite impossible.

As I wondered how such monstrous things would have communicated with each other, I noticed that in one of the creature's hands lay a strange object. It was a metallic cube. Though it appeared to be polished metal, no reflection could be seen in its surface, as though the light from the surrounding world had no real impact upon it. And yet, I could see it clearly in the dark.

Reaching inside, I stretched my arm out and touched the cube with my finger. It was almost in my grasp. As stretched further, my hand brushed against the taught white skin of the body in the stone coffin. I gasped in horror. The skin was warm to the touch, and a wet liquid which I can only describe as sweat, smeared along the back of my hand.

A gasping noise sounded. Lungs which had not breathed air for an age, wheezed in and out of a toothless gaping mouth. A smell of rotten seaweed came with it, and I cried out as the thing moved, wrapping its long fingers around my throat. I pulled back with all of my might, but the grip was not relinquished. It tightened, and before I knew what was happening, the pallid body pulled me through the small opening into the sarcophagus inside.

Our bodies lay together as I tried in vain to scrambled out of the stone coffin, but the figure with me lurched its arms upwards and pulled the lid back down tightly. I was trapped inside the coffin with the naked sweating creature. My face was buried in the emaciated cavity of the thing as it wrapped its arms around me and held me close. Then, the appendage in its neck, lit by the torch in my hand, moved around like the twitching of a spider’s leg, bending at the knuckle. A cracking sound accompanied the movement.

From the end of it the limb, a sharp protrusion came forward, and the crooked appendage struck towards me. I could barely breathe, the sweating flesh of the thing's body pushed up against my mouth, tasting and smelling of rotten fish and decay. Looking up, I watched as the appendage moved towards me. It lunged at my head, and I batted it away with the torch in my hand. Then again. And again.

Finally, the creature changed tact and the sharp protrusion then plunged deep into the back of my hand, cutting straight through and out the other side of my palm. I cried out, yet I knew no one would hear me. I was on an island in a remote part of the country, deep underground where no human had any right to be.

A slurping noise came, and I finally realised why the thing had no teeth. The appendage in its neck was used to putrefy the innards of other things so that it could suck the juices dry. I felt something hot inside my hand as the insides were turned into necrotic fluid.

The appendage pulled out and then searched for somewhere more succulent. It was in that moment, that brief pause between being eaten alive, that I reached down with my other hand and grabbed the metallic cube. It was now ice cold to the touch and heavy. Lashing out, I thrust the cube into the empty eye cavities of that thing in the sarcophagus and then... Nothing. A strange abyss awaited me. The darkness consumed my thoughts momentarily, and I was aware of hideous entities outside of imagination; creatures and intelligences far beyond the rim of understanding. Then, a flash of light.

I was outside and the creature was gone. But such a place I had never dreamed of seeing. A strange volcanic landscape revealed itself. Black rocks dotted the world around me, many of them reaching up towards the sky, uneven and worn. My hand was badly injured, and I could no longer move my fingers. The metallic cube was nowhere to be seen. I was utterly alone.

Dazed, I walked the solid terrain and found nothing familiar to my eyes. If I had not seen the position of the sun, I would have thought I had been stranded on some unknown distant world. Somehow, that metallic cube had sent me to that place, and yet the cube itself did not come along for the ride. At least that horrid thing in the sarcophagus had stayed in its burial chamber and not come with me.

Trying to gauge my location, I walked up a steep incline to see the lay of the land. It was then that the true horror of my situation made itself known. Looking down, I could see several vast openings burrowing into the ground, and deep inside what looked to be deep lakes of sea water. In the mouths of those openings, pale dots moved and writhed. I knew them now to be the creatures who had once been described by the ancients as ‘the people of the sea’. They seemed to be looking out of their subterranean submerged world; looking to the sky and waiting for the sun to set, when they could once again set foot on land. I laughed to myself. The translation was nearly right. It wasn't ‘of the sea’. It was ‘the people in the sea’. The same creatures who had been consumed by some cataclysmic event and buried in the Atlantic. One of the survivors had made it to Little Bernera where no doubt a cult grew up around it. To the early people on the Isle of Lewis, the creature must have been a god or a devil. The tomb that I had entered had obviously been constructed to not only preserve the creature, but somehow sustain it.

It has been three days since I arrived here. I now know the truth. The creatures are not gone. They are not temporal. Their land may have been once swept into the Atlantic thousands of years ago, but that eventual end was not their end. I have hypothesised that the metallic cube that sent me here allows the people of the sea to return home whenever they choose. Was the horrid thing in the sarcophagus the last of them in our time? Are there more hidden beings in caves and in the darker places of the world? I do not know, but I worry deeply for the future of humanity. For if that thing was a treacherous emissary from the depths of time, it now knows humanity is waiting.

I have watched from afar these last few days, hidden behind rocky protrusions, watching as the white figures move in and out of the huge openings into the ground and water. It seems they are doing something. There is a purpose of sorts. I doubt I shall ever know the true depths of that purpose, unless they find me here and show it to me. But it appears that they are coalescing in number, like an army staging an invasion.

I am nearly out of food and water. I do not think I can last much longer.

I have written these notes for those in my time, and I will seal them inside one of my titanium sample containers. I have also included samples from the ground, this black, lifeless volcanic island which seems to stretch for untold miles. Out there somewhere is the coast of Scotland, as it was thousands of years ago. If only I could see those green shores once more.

At night, I hear the creatures chattering among themselves, as they are much more active in the dark. Their voices are like the crumbling of rocks and the twitching of an insects legs. Last night, one nearly found me, but I managed to slip away undetected, I think.

My strength will leave me soon. I have left details in this container of my loved ones, please contact them and tell them what befell me. I did not just vanish. Perhaps those who do vanish from the remote places in the world are never gone, but instead find themselves stranded on this piece of hell floating in the sea. How I would hope for such an outcome so that I may have human company.

I wonder if these words will ever be found? If you are reading this, alert the military in Scotland. Pass these samples to them, and tell them that on the island of Little Bernera, one of these creatures still lives. Hidden underground in a sarcophagus with the means to return home at any time. And yet it did not. What was it waiting for?

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