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“Who is he?” my son inquired, pointing to the tall figure drawn upon the dusty, nearly crumbling page. As a reproduction of a reproduction of a reproduction, the history book could have easily been mistaken for the mad scribblings of troglodytes in their firelit caves.
“A great leader,” I replied. “Few remember his name anymore. Washington, I believe it was, though it’s quite likely I’ve been told many a falsehood by the ones who call themselves historians.” I chuckled ruefully, as did my son.
“Tell me what a leader is,” he said. Where I came from, it was not unusual for children to be demandingly curious.
“From what I’ve heard, leaders were people who created order out of chaos,” I told him. “Many had great visions for what the world could be like—or in Washington’s case, what his country could be like. No doubt he’s rolling in his grave now that everything he worked hard to instate has fallen to ruin.”
By now my son had put the old book aside and was peering out the red-tinted window wistfully, his chin resting on his arms which were in turn resting on the steel windowsill, and he said to me in a serious tone: “I want to be a leader.”
It broke my heart to hear that he had developed an unattainable dream, a dream I would have to shoot down before long. Such was the treatment all dreams were met with in those times, but the sadness I felt then seems silly to me now that I wonder in vain what has become of his poor soul. He could be anywhere, or nowhere, and it’s likely I’ll never know. By all that is holy, I only hope he’s in a better place than I am now.
According to the historians, there was a clear-cut and seemingly unbreakable force called “natural law” governing my native planet in ancient times—a set of rules you could follow carefully in order to predict the behavior of things and get where you wanted to be. Of course, there was nothing of that sort to stabilize the era I grew up in. Life was a sick game of chance for us all, a game I wouldn’t hesitate to call hellish if not for the fact that I’m now intimately familiar with the word’s true meaning.
I decided long ago that the only way to end the game would be to rid the cosmos of the earth entirely, just as one might excise a malignant growth from an otherwise healthy individual. If there was no hope for us on the little white planet, we might as well bring some balance to the universe and cease to exist, I figured. This idea came to me in a most peculiar manner, worming its way into my consciousness as though it were the fey whisper of a shadowy muse. I hadn’t the foggiest clue how said idea could be carried out, but I searched for one whenever opportune nights presented themselves—whenever the sun ceased to scatter its radiation—never knowing what I might find, if anything. Each night lasted only as long as the earth’s prodigious rotational velocity would allow.
I removed my son’s evening ration from the icebox and served it to him on a sheet of cardboard, not telling him where the meat came from so he wouldn’t be deterred from getting his nourishment. Unbeknownst to him, wild game of the sort found in olden tales had long since gone extinct, leaving only the frozen, emaciated corpses of our own kind to dine on when they turned up now and again. Much of my own childhood was spent consuming the wholesome reserves of beans and rice stockpiled in the bowels of our bunker, but upon parenthood it became clear to me that my child would not be so fortunate. I’d be lying if I didn’t regret bringing him into that broken world many a time.
Sustenance was growing scarcer by the day, so I forwent my share that eve—not that raw human heart sounded very appetizing even in my desperate state. I would have roasted my son’s ration for him if physics were cooperating that day; but alas, every attempt at striking a match—let alone igniting a bundle of tinder with one—resulted in a conflagration that lasted but a few milliseconds, expanding outward like a fireball and singeing the hairs on my hand before disappearing entirely. The elements, especially fire, seemed to take on different properties at different times, betraying nary a clear pattern in their fluctuations. This randomness decided the fates of men, and I feared it would soon decide my son’s and my own for the worse before I got the chance to do what I was meant to do.
The sun began to race out of sight, heralding a new interval of darkness. It was time. “I’ll be back,” I said to my son as I donned my gloves and boots and leather coat, pulled the fur-lined hood over my head, gathered a few miscellaneous implements, and equipped an old but still functional gas mask. I couldn’t say when I would be back due to the unpredictable time currents. Whether I would be back at all was no sure thing either, but some things are better lied about where children are concerned.
My son didn’t ask where I was going, for he knew better than to believe I had made up my mind. Plans change with the weather. Speaking of weather, I’ve always found it rather amusing that the term is said to have once encompassed so few variables: the temperature, the sun, the clouds, the winds, and a few other trifling things. Why, if the historians’ words ring true at all, the ancients were a soft lot with no valid cause for worry. I’ve faced the intractable whims of a mad god and called them weather, while the history books detail parables about the melancholy nature of rain, which I hear was a phenomenon where tiny drops of pure, crystalline water fell out of the sky. Sounds like a utopian dream to me, not melancholy in the least.
On any occasion, I would have given anything to have rain problems instead of time problems and physics problems. Not to mention problems of other planes of reality which I now face head-on, problems I could not label or name for the life of me—or shall I say “for the death of me,” as death has since usurped survival as my chiefest goal. There are dark, dark things lurking in the blackness betwixt the celestial bodies, and I have seen them, experienced them, lost myself to them. Give me all of your rainy days, O ancient ones, and I’ll give you all of my demon-haunted nights.
When I put my hand on the steel door handle and pressed down firmly, the pressure in the room changed and a fierce wind howled through the newly opened gap. Before much of the enervating fumes from outside filled the room, I was on the other side and the door was sealed shut again.
The windows of our spartan, vault-like shelter were heavily tinted for a reason: to filter out the sun’s torrid rays. As a side effect, the tinting prevented us from seeing the landscape as it truly was without wandering out of doors. Now that I was seeing it through my own eyes once again, and not through that blood red filter without which we would be slowly irradiated to total disfigurement in the daylight minutes, I was simultaneously filled with awe and trepidation.
There were massive windswept dunes of snow heaped upon the horizon. Tall, black towers protruded from many, blotting out dense clusters of stars with their staggering height.
And then there was what was colloquially known as the Brooding Star, a great violet light burning in the sky. The inclination to admire its ominous beauty was familiar to me, as was the converse instinct to avert my gaze to avoid being lured by some insidious trap. To me it was now second nature to second-guess everything; in the past I had caught wind of too many horrid legends to be anything but cautious. But now I know from experience where those legends came from; now I know that I wasn’t nearly cautious enough.
As always, I surveyed the land in search of a new opportunity to change things someway, somehow. It was not unusual for the various structures around me to shift positions overnight, or for new objects to come and go with the temporal tide. I noticed something conspicuous in the far, far distance; but before I wasted any time analyzing it, I withdrew my pocket watch and wound the timer so that it would alert me in thirty-five minutes, just a minute short of a full night’s length. Then I raised the brass spyglass I had scavenged in my youth and strove to make out the dark, pointy thing resting in a valley between two knolls of snow.
It was a pavilion, I realized. I had seen many of them before, as the historians would often appear in congregations of white tents, ever riding the river of time to hawk their wares—which were debatable curiosities at best, risible forgeries at worst. But this pavilion was black and solitary. The optimist in me was excited, for I was witnessing something of untold promise, while the pessimist in me knew how dangerously far away the tent was and made my muscles stiffen, as if to prevent me from trudging after it. No amount of protection would save me from the radioactive light of day if I failed to return home in time.
The sun, however hot its golden beams may have been, were never enough to thaw the planet; but make no mistake, they never failed to pierce leather and flesh and bone and bestow ungodly maladies upon anyone foolish enough to stand in their way. I have seen the results of such poisonings, and they were not pretty, unless you’re psychotic enough to find prettiness in the gradual necrosis of skin, disintegration of cartilage, and rotting of gray matter.
Staring pensively at the point of interest, I made what I now know to be the worst decision of my life: I began to march thither. By this time the cold was already biting viciously at me, and soon a colossal gust threatened to topple me over, leading me to anchor myself in place by crouching for a time. The filter of my gas mask did a fair enough job at keeping me alive, but the air still smelled faintly of ammonia and a number of other inhospitable chemicals. A headache ensued.
The time currents, for one thing, were calm that night, as I discovered when I peeked at my pocket watch and noticed the hands shaking only slightly. I could have used the currents to my advantage had I known the secrets of their workings, but only the historians and their masters knew those. It was rumored that the black towers had something to do with it all, and that the historians’ masters were in fact the very extraterrestrials responsible for the existence of the towers. But who could have known for sure but the historians and the star-dwellers themselves? Inquisitive thoughts like these filled the time that elapsed between my outset from home and my arrival at the mysterious pavilion.
The tent’s canvas walls flapped in the wind as I approached it. Something about it filled me with dread now that I was able to observe it up close. Unnerved for reasons unknown, I would have turned around and fled right then and there, but curiosity and hope still burned in me. Against my better judgment I walked stealthily toward the entrance flap, swept it aside slowly, and beheld the uncanny presence within.
Sitting on the rusty metal grid of a mattressless cot was a robed, hooded figure with his head in his hands—a figure I surmised to be male. The robe, being many sizes too large for the being, covered everything but his pallid hands. He didn’t appear to be wearing a gas mask, and thus I was puzzled as to how he managed to breathe the toxic atmosphere freely.
More interesting than the weird being himself was the looking glass, large and triangular, situated on an easel of sorts behind him. I was mesmerized by it, for it didn’t merely reflect what was before it, but was a veritable window into the amorphous depths of space. I saw in its surface a starlit nebula of many colors, all the while confused about how I could be seeing such a thing so clearly through what appeared otherwise to be a simple, silver-framed mirror.
A few wrought iron candelabra were arrayed along the pavilion’s margins, and atop their candles danced otherworldly flames that I fancied were the color of lightning. In another world I perhaps would have called them beautiful, but in that moment they were—to me—horribly redolent of the Brooding Star. They evoked all the undesirable feelings of helplessness and nausea I would associate with the violet light in the sky, only on a smaller scale. It was in their sickly glow that I noticed a noose curled up beneath the cot.
The figure’s shallow breathing was his only movement. At this point I began to lose my nerve, what with the uncomfortable silence and the eldritch appearance of all that I was beholding. I checked my pocket watch once more; twenty minutes remained. Fifteen were required just to make it back home, leaving me with hardly five minutes to spare. What could I hope to accomplish in five minutes? I wondered. When no answer came to mind, I released the entrance flap and turned my back on the pavilion.
It was then that I heard a cold and hollow voice call out in a strange whisper from within the tent behind me: “Father.”
I was stopped in my tracks.
“Father,” he said again, his weary call betraying both elation and despair as well as it could.
I returned to the tent, this time sauntering all the way in and finding myself face-to-face with the odd being. His head was no longer buried in the spidery embrace of his pale fingers, though his face was still wholly obscured by hood and shadow. His breath was visible in the frigid air and leaked eerily from where his mouth ought to have been.
“I’ve been waiting lifetimes for you, Father.” His voice was now incredibly quiet and difficult to interpret.
“I’m-I’m not your—” I tried to interrupt, but he kept speaking.
“You would think immortality would lead one to higher heights; but nay, it has only led me to this half-life. I have yearned for a feeling of joy such as that which your arrival has provided me … a joy I thought I could only experience in the presence of the Brooding Star itself.”
A shiver crawled down my spine as he uttered those words, and a morbid curiosity proceeded to overtake me swiftly and inexplicably—a curiosity the likes of which I had never experienced prior. This led to me ask, “What do you know of the Brooding Star, and how could you possibly know anything about it?” In the past I had treated with skepticism the legends that the Star was some kind of maleficent intelligence that probed the nightmares of hapless victims, apparently in search of something, like a demon seeking a corpse to possess. Yet there was no denying that it was more than just a queer light with unnerving properties.
“It speaks to me,” the being said. “For that privilege I gave up the ability to speak to it, for it does not like to be challenged but by the ignorant. I gave up my humanity … my face … for this miserable existence … for the opportunity to … what was it … bring order to chaos?” He let out a subhuman sigh. “So long have I carried out this dead life that my own desires have been nearly overshadowed by the androgynous dark, the chaotic light, the … oh-h-h …”
As the being descended into a paroxysm of mad mumbling, shivering, and whimpering, I became repulsed by him, even though I now subconsciously thought of him as more than just a being; he was a messenger, a prophet, an oracle—but surely not of holy influence or example. He was, at the time, the most unholy creature I ever saw, and yet there was also pity amid my repulsion.
“I shouldn’t be here,” I said in a slight panic. “There’s nothing for me here. I … I’m sorry, I just have to—”
“You want to know its true name,” the oracle interjected. “I can sense your desire.”
Before I could tell him otherwise, he profaned my ears and my soul with a distorted utterance that I daresay no mortal man would have been physically able to repeat. It was the ineffable appellation of the Brooding Star; the dread signature of an alien presence hopelessly beyond human comprehension. The noise awakened entirely new senses in me, inundating my consciousness with indescribably offensive extrasensory stimuli, a feeling I would compare to being roused from a dead sleep—having never experienced wakefulness before—by the most nightmarish banshee imaginable.
That was when I knew I had stumbled upon something my species—or anything endemic to the third dimension, more accurately—was never meant to know. I had been exposed to an evil that confirmed one thing in my eyes: my little white planet had been wholly forsaken by God, left to the mercy of things even He would not dare confront.
“Good day!” I shouted deliriously, backpedaling toward the entrance so as to make my escape.
“No!” the oracle screeched, lurching onto his feet; ’twas a screech much like that of a barn owl and slightly reminiscent of the wailing of a mountain lion, both of which I had heard in allegedly antique recordings. “Our interests are mutual, Father. We both want to put an end to this … this chaos. I cannot do it without you, don’t you know?”
“What do you want with me?!” I managed to say. I could have bolted at that moment, but a strangling fear made me anxious about resisting.
“I want you to summon the Brooding Star … that he may consume this corrupted world and restore the cosmic balance. You will be rewarded beyond your loftiest dreams for this deed, Father! Believe me!”
I nearly lost my grip on reason when I heard him mention the end of the world a second time. It was my desire to see the earth destroyed, and now it appeared fate was on my side; this crazed oracle seemed to be the opportunity I had been seeking all along. “And what of my son?” I queried, forgetting momentarily that the oracle had illusions about his relationship to me. “What will become of him?”
The oracle stared soundlessly in answer, and I felt his unseen eyes glaring at me from beneath his hood.
Trying in vain to consider all the possible ways this scenario could unfold, I examined as many of the thoughts reeling inside my head as I could. Finally I asked, “What must I do?”
“Kill me,” he begged in a hoarse whisper. “Kill me!”
That was enough. I couldn’t deal with this deranged creature anymore; fate be damned. I hastily passed back into the starlit night and oriented myself in the direction of home, withdrawing my pocket watch without thought.
To my shock, time had all but run out. One minute remained.
I let out an unrestrained curse. Had that much time really passed? I might have completely lost touch with time while under the influence of the Brooding Star’s foul name, I realized—or perhaps a temporal storm made its way past me without my knowing. Panic shot through me. If I was to end up dead regardless of my next move, what choice did I have but to turn back and acquiesce to the oracle’s mad request?
With that, I drew my switchblade and steeled myself for what I thought was about to occur, but nothing could have prepared me for what actually did occur.
My hot, stale breath made me dizzy as it collected in my poorly ventilated gas mask, yet it didn’t prevent me from storming into the pavilion and taking a successful stab at the oracle’s jugular; as he fell back onto the rusty cot, so too did his hood fall back.
I instinctively looked away, for I beheld for a millisecond his grotesque, inhumane face. As I cowered, I noticed that my knife and sleeve were stained with blood that was black as tar, not red as I would expect.
I heard an airy cackle erupt from the oracle, no doubt the product of a newly damaged voice box and a long demented mind. Having made an oath to myself to put an end to this thing’s pathetic life, I closed my eyes and stabbed savagely at the oracle’s face and neck too many times to count; I felt the projectile spurting of unnaturally cold and viscous blood with every blow.
Out of breath, I finally ceased my attack and opened my eyes with caution. His face was now obscured with his own inky bodily fluids, and thus slightly less frightening, but still more revolting than anything I had seen before it. He lay there gurgling with each breath, mere voiceless air bubbling out of his facial orifices, until he wheezed for the last time and went limp as a beheaded snake.
The violet candles mysteriously extinguished themselves upon his death, darkening the already dark area; and the wondrous triangular looking glass ceased to be wondrous, appearing now to be nothing more than a conventional mirror spattered with a very much unconventional substance. A sudden gale beat violently against the canvas walls from outside.
“What have I done?” I mumbled to myself.
I made my way outside and looked around, noticing immediately that the Brooding Star was nowhere to be seen, seemingly extinguished or relocated. How its light managed to disappear so quickly was beyond me, for the theory of relativity—or a flawed interpretation of it, at least—was not alien to me. Then again, if there was any place the ultimate speed limit of the universe might be broken, it would have been around that blasted plot of spacetime whence I came.
My pocket watch proceeded to ring stridently, heralding a wave of panic and presaging my doom. Death was now inevitable, though I had a seeming choice of how I would end: radiation poisoning, chemical poisoning, blood loss, or perhaps hypothermia.
Before I could ponder my options deeply, the scorching sun peeked over the horizon. I raised my arm to shield by eyes from the harsh twilight which put me on my knees, knowing deep down that its harmful rays were indeed harming me.
But the terrible luminosity was short-lived, for something exponentially more vile soon eclipsed the fiery orb from below and stifled its light.
The moment I lowered my arm, I regretted everything—every decision leading up to that moment and every minute that I continued live.
Blinding in its horror, a great tentacled mass rose up from the horizon, an indubitable destroyer of worlds, spreading like a cancer across the crimson sky. There was no sunrise to speak of anymore, but a hellrise—a welling up of unadulterated unnaturalness that could have only originated from the lowest, coldest, darkest spheres of existence.
The writhing mass was a storm in its own right; as I look back upon those distorted and nauseating memories, I recall flashes of lightning occurring in the hollows of its colossal, tangled body. But above all, it was an abomination—everything about it an insult to the world it now loomed above. I daresay no being, god or otherwise, would be capable of forgiving such a heinous monstrosity for its crime of mere existence; nor would any god choose to protect his creation from its insane wrath at so late a stage, for surely anything it laid its multitudinous eyes and appendages upon would be instantly and forever tainted.
A deep, foul moaning soon filled the air, evoking thoughts of a million tormented souls wailing desperately. This sent me to the ground, where I shook uncontrollably in a fetal position. The experience made me welcome death, and thus I removed my mask and allowed the noxious air to fill my lungs. My eyes, although shut at this point, detected darkness enveloping me on all sides.
Such was the end of my corporeal existence, and the beginning of something far more odious than I could have ever imagined.
My soul, for lack of a better word, lived through the cataclysm, while I suspect my body’s fate was to be digested in the cavernous depths of the Brooding Star. I found it difficult to ponder how this could be—how I could be conscious—without resorting to the most horrible mental images, those depicting my brain’s tissue interwoven with the Star’s charred, cancerous tendrils, its signals flowing through my exposed nervous system and thus subjecting me to its mysterious will, as well as providing me with sensory input forming a contrived and illusory reality. The clarity with which this idea presented itself to me was disturbing to say the least.
I would fain say the Star spoke to me, but I think it would be more accurate to say I suddenly knew things that were previously unknown to me—a multiplicity of strange and obscure facts, some too hideous to dwell on. I knew now that the Brooding Star was never a star, but only appeared to be one by virtue of how it reflected the sun’s light, an illusion much like that which the planetary bodies played on me as a child. Its true form was always that chaotic jumble of malignant limbs, curling and coiling wickedly in the vacuum of space as though it were a virus in a vast protoplasm, changing shape so as to efficiently absorb energy from the stars.
I also knew that the oracle I murdered was of great significance in the eyes of the Star, significance of the sort you might expect a god to regard his chosen prophet with. This fact made me afraid to open my eyes, knowing that I may have assassinated the right hand to the aphotic throne and angered the tenebrous monarch itself. Indeed, there appeared to be a monarchy of sorts holding this accursed dimension together.
The living celestial body at the head of this monarchy, the writhing scourge whose colloquial name has never been more than a feeble concession to the inadequacy of language, was so much older and greater than mankind as to gaze down upon us with indifference and cruelty, like a child upon ants. Perhaps we have always been depraved monsters to the ants, while we thought ourselves righteous and just. Such were my musings in the darkness.
I can’t tell you how long it took me to finally open my eyes, but I can recall quite clearly the happening that melted my fear away.
A raindrop struck my forehead.
My eyes shot open. By the heavens, the oracle spoke the truth, I marveled, utterly dumbfounded. I believed at that moment I had been rewarded beyond my loftiest dreams, for I lay in a grassy field under a partly cloudy azure sky that cried tears of joy; it was an idyll that exceeded my personal definition of paradise. None of the ungodly things circulating in my head mattered anymore; I made excuses to shoo them away, calling them mere meaningless aberrations and giving credence to the radical possibility that the Brooding Star was not wholly malign.
As I stood up, I saw a green hill before me, on top of which was quite possibly the most beautiful tree ever conceived of, its green leaves even greener than the rich vegetation around them. I threw myself bodily up the hill for such love of what I was seeing; what splendid, fantastical verdure! I had heard stories of the color green, a color too fresh and genial for the corrupted land I hailed from, but to see it with my own eyes … I could not put the feeling into words if the eternal fate of my soul depended on it.
From atop the hill I could see a small hamlet of seven or eight slate-roofed buildings, as well as a rickety windmill watching over it like a silent guardian. I leaned on the tree at the center of this hill and looked up.
Apples. So many apples, bright red and seductively appetizing. I reached out with a trembling hand and almost reverential care, plucked one from the nearest bough, and took a goodly bite from its crisp flesh.
Regret followed. The fruit was shockingly and unbearably … bitter? Nay, it was something else entirely, something worse, something that seemed to trigger every safety reflex in my body. Having spit out the foreign substance and dropped the apple on the ground, I saw that it was black and tainted inside. This sight, and the spell of dry heaves and violent gagging that overtook me immediately, led me to conclude that the fruit was evil in the absolute.
Of how long it took me to recover exactly, I’m not aware. But it must have been at least an hour.
What does the fruit of this land say of the land itself, the ground that feeds this damnable tree? I thought. As I lay there with my back against the grass, my mind began to return to places I never thought it would visit again. The sky darkened in proportion to the darkening of my thoughts, thus losing its heavenly blueness. I realized that although the sky behaved as it would if the sun were setting, there was no sun in sight, and no longer a single cloud behind which it could be hiding.
My despondent mind then filled with thoughts of my son. What fate could have befallen him? I wondered. Prior to the end of my physical life, I doubted that there could be a worse fate than living on earth, a world I assume was completely destroyed. It was my choice to destroy the world—and while I consider it a terrible mistake for my part, I cannot speak for my son. I know nothing of how he feels, or if he even feels at all, and likely never will know.
It soon occurred to me that there was hope, however meager, in the little hamlet I saw from the hilltop. This hope was enough to bring me shakily to my feet and direct my eyes toward the buildings in the distance.
I noticed a certain unearthliness in the settlement that I failed to notice before; notably, the windmill rotated with an eerie slowness that elicited vertiginous sensations if I stared at it too long. I headed thither out of desperation—and the closer I came to said windmill, the more keenly aware I was of the unpleasant crookedness of it, the stilts that made up its frame reminding me of an amalgamation of wooden skeletons clinging to each other.
When I found myself past the corroded iron gate and amid the hamlet’s constituent buildings, I swept the area with my eyes in search of life or anything else of interest, a practice I perfected during my many earthbound nights of yesterlife. From what I could see, there was nothing but blackness behind the windows and blackness at the bottom of the well, which marked the center of the settlement. It was seemingly a ghost town, a place I knew deep down was incapable of fulfilling any hopes of mine.
Nevertheless, I resolved to check each building about me for … well, such has been the theme of my existence: I’ve never known exactly what to look for, or if there was ever anything worth seeking to begin with.
The first house I entered all but begged me to leave. I was half-choked by the wall of musty air that greeted me, which was undoubtedly a byproduct of the black spots I saw eating away at the mildewy rugs and wood-plank walls. Had not the twilight illuminated much of the place through the single window in the parlor, I’m sure I would have been in pitch darkness, for that is what I found in the peripheral rooms and closets: darkness so thick I should have suffocated in it. Nothing useful was found.
The next handful of buildings I checked—which included an abandoned apothecary’s shop and a cobweb-infested shed among other, more unclassifiable structures—were hardly more welcoming. I fancied I descried the vague outline of a multi-armed, barely human body decaying neath a sinister pile of dust; but I decided it could have been an illusion, for my imagination grew stranger as the shadows grew longer.
The last dwelling I scoured was the largest in the settlement—full of rooms that I could not discern the purpose of, as well as a few that were indubitably used for torturous pursuits, judging by the dried bloodstains and spiked, draconian contraptions. It was with great unease that I found a child’s bedroom in that same house.
Scattered across the floor were children’s toys that, upon close inspection, were revealed to be abused beyond recognition by their owners: wooden horses were dismembered, porcelain dolls divested of their eyes, all seemingly in sacrifice to a special doll who sat in a dark corner with supernumerary limbs attached to its body and black eyeballs peering out of the many artificial holes in its face. I knew at once that this doll was a vulgar effigy of the Brooding Star—not at all accurate, but indicative of a desperate attempt on the part of its maker to please the Star and be freed from its influence. This was inexplicably clear to me, just as a number of other unearthly things were when I awoke to this realm.
Around the effigy’s neck was a thin chain, and dangling from that chain was a skeleton key. It wasn’t until I approached the dark corner cautiously and tore the key from its chain that I realized how repulsive a key could be; its wickedly gnarled loops and twists seemed impossibly irreverent to the laws of geometry, causing a haunting paranoia to addle my brain, made worse by the countless eyes of that unnatural effigy staring psychotically at me from the darkness. Though everything about the key was unpleasant, I felt as though I would regret leaving it behind, so I slipped it into my pocket in hope that I needn’t catch a glimpse of it ever again.
As I turned around and headed for the door, my stride was quickened by a peculiar scuttling noise of unknown provenance. I was feeling vulnerable and claustrophobic from the tenebrous atmosphere already, but that shuddersome sound sent me over the edge. I had to get out of there.
And get out of there I did. Returning to the open air was not as comforting as you would expect, for there was an uncomfortable absence of fresh air. Specifically, there seemed to be no air at all—only a profound emptiness that refused to console me.
By now, night had fallen entirely, along with my spirits. I couldn’t decide which fate would be worse: being all alone in this unwelcoming land, or sharing it with unwholesome beings of the scuttling, many-limbed sort my imagination hinted at.
Another dichotomy of fates presented itself to me: madness or sanity. Which would be most preferable? To be at the mercy of real horrors and keep my head, or face illusory ones and lose it? Unfortunately I would have no say in the matter, and thus the pondering proved pointless.
Wandering aimlessly about the center square of the hamlet, I was bedeviled by faint, indecipherable voices. I was on the verge of mistaking them for the wind—that is, until I remembered that there was no wind.
I put my ear to the ground many times in many places, hoping to locate the source of these voices, to no avail. Eventually I noticed that the voices grew more hasty and demonic each time I walked past the central well, and so I approached it.
It was obvious to me then that this well was the source of the whispers. I put my hands on its somewhat slimy stone rim and peered down it as I did when I first passed through the gates of the ghost town, this time with more intention. I once again saw only blackness, and I smelled metallic vapors reminiscent of blood wafting up from the depths. That was when I heard it.
“Father,” the well whispered.
Could it be? I wondered. Could it be my son, trapped in the depths of this wretched place? Or could it be the delusional oracle who ought to be dead? How is this happening? How is this happening!
“Son!” I shouted into the well. There was no comprehensible response, only disembodied whispers growing more impatient.
The deathly vapors began to affect me in strange ways, making me feel dizzy and listless. A sudden weakness overtook me and forced me to use the well’s rim for support. To my panic, this weakness grew worse until—after a minute or so—I was all but paralyzed and entirely deprived of balance, leaving me at the mercy of gravity, who was not merciful and saw to it that I slid helplessly into the well’s gaping maw.
There was a splash and a number of crunching sensations as I collided with the floor. Indeed, it felt as though I had broken every bone in my body. I opened my eyes to the pool of water I lay prostrate in, which was quite shallow, yet dark as the river Styx was said to be.
I lifted my head up despite the pain of doing so and made a feeble attempt at surveying my surroundings. The optical sense aside, I already knew I was in some kind of dank chamber by the reverberation and humidity alone. It was with sight that I discerned the rest of the nature of said chamber, and its nature was loathsome beyond words.
Cages environed me like the cells of a Panopticon to which I was the central eye. Creatures of indescribable repugnance convulsed impatiently in these cages, teeth chattering, limbs shaking, their rotted larynxes giving vent to insane desires now that they sensed vulnerable prey in their midst.
The abhorrent, torturous wailing, I knew, would never end until I released these blasphemous horrors from their squalid enclosures to do with me what they would. I recognized at once the holes in the cages’ locks, and my hand all but drew itself to the twisted key in my pocket, that I might subject myself willingly to the lesser of two ghastly evils.
This reality bears all the hallmarks of a great and terrible thought occurring in a great and terrible machine—the biological machine that is the Brooding Star. But what of the reality I previously inhabited? Was it merely another thought in another machine?
No matter. Philosophy will not save me, for I have been hexed with upwards of a thousand curses, one of them increasing the potency of my memory a hundredfold. I would have considered that a boon in my previous life, but here and now it causes me great agony. Every seven years I am forced by these things, my savage masters, to relive the horrors of my past, to novelize my trauma, that their pursuits of torture and torment may be immortalized and regarded with favor by the Brooding Star. All of my trials—the tainted apple, the harrowing effigy, the noxious well, the others I have written of elsewhere—all of it was by design, formulated by the underlings of a veritable interstellar god.
I reside on my knees in a room furnished with a stone altar upon which stacks of gray, sickly vellum, a vitreous inkwell, and a raven quill rest. There are innumerable shelves surrounding me on all sides, shelves upon which the works of my misfortunes lie by the score. My painful memories become more lucid with every pen stroke, made worse by the inevitable fact that my future will be just as dreadful—or worse—than the days before me.
Dread specters patrol the halls tirelessly. Even now there must be one leering at me from the shadows, I know it. The curses prevent me from falling into a comfortable insanity as the beings about me have, leaving me gazing longingly over the edge of dementia, every second of every moment, silently begging for oblivion.
Give me all of your rainy days, O ancient ones, and I’ll give you all of my demon-haunted nights.
Written by Matthew Varney