Clembert Otery strode towards the abandoned church, broom and spade in hand, nervously and repeatedly darting the sign of the cross as he muttered in a dolorous undertone. It had been a full year since the old priest, Hezika, had gone mysteriously missing; his flock, sorely disheartened by their seeming abandonment, had scattered to the four winds, bound (no doubt) for the auspices of some other charismatic cult-leader. The church, a battered and ramshackle edifice crouched on the outskirts of town, had stood vacant since that time, save for the occasional incursion of teenage vandals. However, the dark rumors surrounding the building daunted all but the most daring of interlopers. Even the police gave the place a wide berth.

Clembert was a good (or so he conceived of himself) Christian, of impeccable moral standing and virtue. His reputation in town was that of a willful eccentric, duty-bound to the Lord; often he could be seen protesting outside the local Planned Parenthood, or dishing out soup at the homeless shelter to those he decried in private as layabout degenerates. He had a nigh-superstitious dread of the occult and supernatural, though he claimed to believe in neither, and one perpetually-squinting eye (resultant from a fishing accident as a child) that gave him a sour, dour, suspicious expression. As he was naturally sour and dour, and suspicious almost to the point of neuroses, this was to the benefit of all who engaged with him – Clembert was a master of first impressions. He was banned from fully half the businesses in town, though his money was good. The other half, mostly owned by like-minded zealots, catered to him with a sense of whimsical veneration, as if he were some kind of crude mystic, an anchorite whose redoubtable faith kept demons and malignant spirits at bay.

Now, alone, Clembert approached the forsaken church, his mind and will set on a singular purpose. He aimed to reclaim the building for the Lord, and open it up to a new, wholesome, God-fearing congregation. The stories told about the place fired him more than they frightened him, though his heart was not without subtle palpitations as he neared the entrance and craned his head back, peering up at the tottering, weather-beaten steeple. The place had been in ill repair even before the coming of Hezika and his blasphemous brood; the depredations ascribed to their worship services had aged the building further, lending it a malodorous, uncouth air. The doors to the place were sealed shut but sagging, the paint peeling off in long serpentine strips. The stained-glass windows were dark and oily-looking, coated internally by the smoke of heathen braziers. Weeds grew in abundance about the building’s cracked cement portico, though birds notoriously refused to roost in its eaves.

Clembert slid the broom and spade off his shoulder, unslung a bag of cleaning supplies and pristinely maintained tools from his back. He wiped at his brow and huffed, refusing to acknowledge to himself the strange dread the church inspired in him. “I bear the Lord’s light into dark places,” he muttered to himself. “No lamp under a bushel-basket for me.” Reinforced by this proclamation, he drew out a bolt cutter and marched to the church’s entrance, shearing through the rusty chains strung over the misshapen portal. They fell to the stained cement with a loud clanking, and Clembert shoved the doors wide, wincing as a grotesque moldy odor swept over him, as if the church had exhaled a long-held putrid breath.

Clembert closed his eyes, muttering a quick prayer. Going back, he retrieved his supplies and entered the church, stepping across the threshold with a body-wide shudder. The inside was dark, monstrously dark, the dim September sunlight barely filtering through the profanely-besmeared windows. Immediately, he was engulfed in a suffocating tangle of cobwebs.

Upon closer inspection (Clembert set up a few LED lanterns to bring a semblance of light to the place) he discovered to his mounting horror that the church’s interior was veritably choked with cobwebs. Thick, sticky strands distended from the arced ceiling, bewildering webs were spun between each pew and pillar – Clembert crossed himself repeatedly and obsessively, noting whorls and abstract patterns in the weaving that belied the work of common spiders. He was thankful that relatively few of the odious creatures seemed to be suspended in the webs, though the cracked baptismal font was choked with their squirming black bodies. With a cry of righteous horror Clembert crushed as many of the fat, jet-colored spiders as he could, though hundreds managed to scurry off into the shadows, eluding his wrath.

At the head of the nave stood the smoke-blackened altar, backed by a forbidding metal cross that was melted and withered-looking, as if it had been exposed to intense heat. Here, too, Clembert found spiders in abundance, dwelling in a massive orb-like nest. Giving no thought to his personal safety, the Holy Crusader attacked the orb with his broom, shouting the name of Jesus and various saints as he observed the resultant out-boiling of arachnids. Most of these, too, escaped into the dust-laden darkness, but Clembert was undaunted. “I’ll get to you – I’ll get you!” he cried at the receding horde, lips coated with a patina of righteous foam. Then, with a slightly less sanctified curse, he set to cleaning the copious spider guts off of his broom.

The cleaning of the central nave took all day. Clembert worked tirelessly, often raising his voice in cracked and atonal renditions of popular Catholic hymns. The massy spiderwebs proved strangely resilient, strong in some places as hempen fiber, but the zealot was not to be dissuaded from his task. Frequent frigid gusts of air, emerging from an unknown source, swept through the church, raising a chill sweat on his skin, yet he only sang louder and more off-key.

In the course of his cleaning, he found remnants of the church’s former purpose. Braziers of blackened brass were spaced alongside the pews, rank with the residue of some unhallowed incense. In some places, Clembert discovered what he dimly understood were patches of dried blood; these he scrubbed out assiduously, working his arm to aching. In other places were strange offerings, bundles of desiccated wheat-stalks or corn, or painted effigies wrought of a dun-colored clay. These he smashed and threw outside, later stomping the fragments into a foul-smelling powder. As night drew down, bringing gusts of chilly snow-inflected wind from the North, Clembert finally collapsed on the rearmost pew and wiped at his sweaty forehead, his heart thudding painfully with unaccustomed toil. He looked upon the fruits of his labors, and saw that it was good.

The nave was mostly cleansed. All but the thickest and most resilient of the cobwebs had been swept away. The altar itself was polished to a near-mirror sheen, its spotless surface sanctified by a century-old Bible the zealot had brought along with him. The spiders, for their lot, remained hidden, although Clembert occasionally heard a malignant rustling, scuttling sound from the upper stories, in the choir loft and belfry. It was as if a whole host of spiders had marshaled and were moving in unison; this, too, the loyal churchman ignored, exercising that peculiar Christian ability to dismiss unpleasant sensory input. He put it down to the wind, and thought no more of it.

“Well, that was some well-spent sweat,” he said to himself, speaking into the gloaming darkness. Tomorrow he would continue the cleansing, moving upstairs – his back, knees, hands and neck throbbed at the thought. Yet it was a pleasant pain, a vague echo of the torments endured by Christ on the cross.

Craning back his head, Clembert peered up into the noisome darkness. Something flickered in his mind – an imp of the perverse. “Suppose I should go up there and check things out,” he muttered to himself, “just to see what I’m in for tomorrow.” With a loud huff he rose from the pew, grabbed a flashlight and his much-befouled broom, and headed for the steps leading up to the disused belfry. The chiming of the church’s bell, now silent a year, had struck nightly dread into the hearts of the townsfolk; it galled Clembert to think that the chime of a house of God had inspired such fear. He wondered, as he ascended the cobweb-choked steps, whether the bell was still in working operation.

The steps were half-rotten, strewn with unmentionable offal. Clembert covered his nose and mouth with one hand, body shivering with deep-felt disgust. His flashlight sent fresh waves of spiders scuttling – yet, again, very few seemed to inhabit the thick-fraught webs. He emerged into the belfry’s base coated in dusty strands, shrouded like an antique mummy. With many curses and repellent cries he extricated himself, hacking as the sickly-smelling dust invaded his throat, nostrils and lungs.

There remained the climb up to the bell itself. This was achieved by a set of spiral steps that sagged discernibly beneath Clembert’s unsteady tread. For the first time he wondered if he was putting himself into unnecessary danger, then discarded the thought as blasphemous and lacking in faith. Steadily, slowly he climbed, flashlight darting about with increasingly-frantic twitches. More of the clay effigies were strewn on the steps, many impaled on iron nails or bound up in hanks of ebony twine.

At last, with many a shudder of atavistic repugnance, Clembert emerged into the wind-scoured belfry. Shining the flashlight upwards, he discerned the ponderous iron bell, set thickly with an unimaginable cluster of cobwebs and coated with tear-like streaks of rust. “Even the bell weeps at this sacrilege,” he muttered to himself, then smiled uncharacteristically, charmed by the equally-uncharacteristic eloquence of his pronouncement. Shining the light around, he saw that all appeared to be in working order. The bell’s rope dangled down into the abyss, twitching in one of those chill, sourceless breezes. He could just make out the bulge of the iron tongue lurking in the bell’s mouth.

The wind suddenly picked up, whistling cold and fiendish. Clembert shivered and drew closer to the bell, drawn by a sense of hideous, waxing fascination. His heart beat a sharp staccato, his skin flushing with a fresh sheen of sweat as he cast the flashlight’s beam into the bell’s web-choked interior. He froze.

There, cocooned against the bell’s inner curve, was the shriveled, mummified body of a man. His mouth was cracked open in a soundless scream, eyeless sockets wide and pitiably gaping; Clembert recognized the exotic vestments robing the corpse as those once worn by the wayward priest Hezika. The man’s flesh was parchment-like and blackened, glistening like burnished onyx through a cloak of enfolding cobwebs. His fingers – gaunt talons – protruded from the webbing, as if Hezika had made one final bid to free himself from the fatal envelopment.

Clembert staggered backwards with a muted cry, flashlight and broom falling to the rotting floorboards. Turning, he bolted from the belfry, clambering down the spiral steps with injudicious haste. The wood cracked, splintered, and broke apart half-way down, sending the poor zealot plummeting to the steeple base. He landed with a bone-juddering thud, his right wrist shattering, a splinter of broken wood digging cruelly into his thigh.

Crawling to unsteady feet and cursing wildly, Clembert made for the second set of stairs, driven by a mad and wholly-consuming panic. All thought of God’s beneficence had fled from his mind, replaced by thundering blood and blackness. He staggered down the steps, slipping on several of the odious effigies, and burst back into the night-darkened nave. There, a fresh horror awaited him.

The cobwebs had returned. Think and lank and gleaming, they swathed the altar completely, the newly-placed Bible subsumed by their sprawl. The pews, the pillars, the vestibules where statues of saints had formerly reposed – if anything the cobwebs lay thicker and more repugnant than before, shivering in near-constant gusts of frigid wind that blasted about in a senseless vortex. Clembert now remembered his God, and set to reciting the Lord’s Prayer, backing slowly and shiveringly towards the still-open doors. His feet tread in something sticky and squamous; turning, he saw that a tide of black spiders had marshaled to block his path. They swarmed up his legs and under his shirt, their innumerable tiny legs prickling against his sweat-laved flesh.

“Oh my God, my God, my God –” Clembert launched himself towards the doors, which swung shut of their own volition. A shuddering echo rocked the church, sounding like the brazen gates of Hell. The spiders were weaving their webs about him, and he tore at them fruitlessly, screaming anew as they swarmed into his gaping mouth and nostrils. A sickly-sweet stench assailed him, numbing his senses like some hypnotic venom. Gradually, gradually he ceased his flailings, collapsing to the bloodstained floor.

An unknown interval of hours passed. Clembert hove in and out of consciousness, each time discovering himself more firmly swathed in the spider’s relentless spinnings. Dimly, he felt himself being dragged towards the desecrated altar; dimly he perceived a fat, brooding shadow detach itself from the vaster darkness above, lowering its swollen body on a strand of cobweb as thick as his arm. Long, piercing limbs hoisted him aloft, and Clembert found himself scrutinized by a cluster of hellishly-gleaming eyes.

That which has been summoned cannot be put down. The words reverberated in his brainpan, a stab of acute psychic malice. Clembert tried at this late juncture to scream, but his throat was clogged with cobwebs and the half-masticated bodies of spiders. He shivered in helpless agony as the great black thing dragged him towards and up the staircase, hauling him inexorably in the direction of the belfry. Up, up, up, borne on a strand of hideously-thick gossamer – Clembert realized through a numbing haze of pain and terror the entity’s unthinkable intention.

There, the bell. There, faintly illumined by the discarded flashlight, the withered, exsiccated body of Hezika. Clembert’s life flashed before his eyes; it was a brief, stunted, and singularly-unsatisfactory recounting. He saw his wife, gone these many years, run off with an itinerate brush salesman. He saw the faces of the countless heretics he had openly and angrily declaimed. He saw, through a filmy haze of memory, the faces of his long-dead parents, his estranged brother and sisters; he saw himself crouched in prayer for countless wasted hours, hands clasped and trembling, tongue spewing reams of holy gibberish. Then, it was over. The bloated black shadow hissed as it affixed him to the bell’s interior, exuding a thick disgustingly-stinking paste. One final time Clembert tried to scream, but his lungs were full of noxious fumes. He merely twitched as the entity plunged venom-tipped fangs into his neck and began, succulently, to drink.


That night, the bell in the old church rang out for the first time since the previous September. The townsfolk quailed and quivered in their beds, distraught by the ghastly sound; for the ringing was strangely muffled and damp-sounding, accompanied by a grotesque crunching noise as of shattered bones. However, the police declined to investigate beyond a brief inspection, blaming the event on some particularly-daring hoodlums. For many years afterwards the church stood empty, until it collapsed in execrable decay. As for Clembert, his presence was missed by his local congregation, but the police turned up nothing of note in his home, no clues to hint at where he had vanished to. He had told no one of his intention to renovate the old church, and no one thought to look for him there.