Layer 08: Wolves In The Throne Room
Something about that tower just spoke to me. Perhaps it was its perpetual skyward thrust, or the uniformly crimson color, so deep it was almost black. Maybe it was something harder to codify, not so easily bolted to a metal framework of reasoning. Or maybe it could be bolted down, but wasn’t itself so inflexible as to hold metal without tearing.
Either way, it comforted me to think of it as mine. The one jutting peak in this city that belonged to me. Its incursion on the sky was my own ascension. The mark it left on the skyline was my way of forcing the uncaring city to notice my existence. It wasn’t particularly tall, or otherwise noteworthy, especially compared to the seemingly omnipotent spires. You wouldn’t even see it in most pictures, if you weren’t looking for it.
But it was mine.
I turned down a thin alleyway. As I approached my preferred entrance in silence, I thought back on my encounter with that purple-cloaked… Person. Drifter, really. I could see it in their eyes, or the version of them I could remember. They looked glassy, but not like a doll’s glass marble eyes, sharp and dark like glinting obsidian. Volcanic glass, I thought to myself, desperate to finally tie these loose threads together. That sheen signified, to me, some desire to live, some yearning for something greater. The kind of hunger that can lead someone down a dangerous path. It’s good I met them first, before someone like
As Augustus pondered, a dull hum chugged on, like an altogether different glass. This drone was far duller around the edges and frosty like sea glass. It may have been the output of insects, or small motors, or power lines, or maybe too many minds all trying to think over each other. However it’s worth noting that Agustus didn’t; didn’t note the noise, that is, and that’s because it’s as much a constant part of this city as the overlooking spires. It’s so ubiquitous that most people consider it silence, if they consider it at all. It signifies an auditory zero; it’s a sound that stood in for the all-too-intimidating air that true silence carries. It’s only there to be broken by some noteworthy noise.
Which, of course, it was.
Frantic barking and snapping yanked me out of my own head. Before I could get to the door to the tower, I had to go through a small “yard” (now mostly concrete and dirt) guarded by a shoulder-high wrought iron gate, and, invariably, some number of my precious dogs.
Guarded isn’t quite right. The worst they could do to an intruder is growl; they’re too well-trained and well-raised to attack people at random. And they’re big dogs, energetic but unaggressive. That’s why there’s any number of them in the yard at once; they can come and go from the tower to the yard and back as they please, because I know their behavior and trust them to act as they were trained.
I opened the gate a sliver, slid in, and waded through the now-calm sea of fur. Carefully, of course, I didn’t want to step on any paws, so I walked with shuffled steps on tiptoe. Entering the tower, I could hear more of my dogs milling about up ahead, beyond the narrow vermillion walls of the entranceway.
Thymostichus. You’re adaptable, if nothing else. You’re open to new ideas, but not ever willing to accept anything as part of yourself. Everyone has to be right, from a certain point of view, but you can’t get along with anyone who would disagree with the continuum you see. You trust easily— some would say too easily. You can’t ever pin down one dream, or goal, or anything like that. Instead, you drift about from person to person, dream to dream, aesthetic to aesthetic, making it all logically fit your empty ideals and tastes so expansive as to be meaningless. You are no fool, but you are The Fool. Empty.
This is indeed, what it is. How you are.
Those words ring through my head like the throb of a migraine.
They stuck with me in a different way than “Straight To Video” and her spectacles, or “Desire Blue Sky” and his fixation on the sun, or any of the other quacks with their bugbears, their pet theories. They stood for a madness so adhered to method as to be inseparable; they were true believers of their own doctrine. If that one solution they offered didn’t work, there was nothing else to be gleaned from their wisdom. Being given a label, a name to my brain, a steel frame to hold my gray matter, that's what I really needed. I needed that prognosis divination to know how to be, simply because…
Because no one else knew how to deal with me? The test proctors, who wanted to see how “one of those” would deal with their questions and worksheets, all got fed up with me. As a really young kid, before anyone could pick out something wrong about me, I started arguments, or at least tried to, because no one around me could understand my solutions. When the tests went from mental to clinical,even legitimate doctors with their gauntlets of rattly plastic capsules and powery pills scratched their heads. Ditto for those masked men with their vampiric needles who were convinced the problem was in my blood. No matter how greedily their metal familiars drank, it was never enough; it was always my fault for being light headed after those butterflies gorged themselves on my veins.
I grit my teeth.
This quickness to anger, I’m also told, is a side effect of being a Thymostichus. It makes enough sense—If I’m not overly committed to any ideals, it would make sense that my emotions could switch on a dime—but I seem to vaguely recall a time where I was calmer. It doesn’t matter right now, though. If I ever was like that, it was out of naivete. I’d like to think I’ve become more mature, if nothing else, throughout these endless tests.
But before I know it I’m at my destination, that door out of space, having walked in (I think) one big circle. No, wait, that can’t be right. This door is not the door I left through, but something in my gut, some squirming, lying instinct, tells me it is the way back home.
“I think you think about the past too much.”
I jump at the voice, or more accurately, at the appearance of its owner, slumped in the harsh glow of a streetlight. All things considered, its sudden intrusion on my ears is not terribly startling; it’s soft, quiet, not quite deep nor high, and tinged with a slight lyrical accent I can’t place.
But the face of its owner is another story.
A mouth not unlike a human’s, but split at the bottom like a snake’s, and with a pointed coil for a tongue, hanging limp between that vertically fractured mandible. How does a tongue like that even form words? Never mind that; the speaker doesn’t have a nose, either, just a double-barreled set of nostrils, like a skull.
Something tells me to stop looking there. Some little voice in my head, some primal instinct like an emergency brake for my psyche. But I override it and keep looking, looking up until I meet the gaze of featureless black marbles. They’re endlessly deep, like twin lakes in a moonless night, and I sink to their rotting beds in an instant. Some oily mud sucks my feet deeper—
No, no, nononononono, that couldn’t be right. If the sclera were black I wouldn’t have been able to see them in the newly minted night; they were, they had to be some other color. Deep, dark, bleeding, stinging crimson. Yes, looking closer, there’s a line between dark gray irises and the deepest red imaginable, like obsidian stained with wine.
It breaks my heart.
Because, despite this monstrous, shattered face, when I look at this person, I see just that; a human. Someone whose form may have been fractured beyond recognition, but who still holds an ego in one coherent piece. If those eyes were truly hollow, sheer black, I could have pretended they were empty sockets, or at least in the same league as the unfeeling receptors of a hornet. But they were once like my own. This person was once like me.
“Sorry. I’m still recovering.” That hypnotic voice again.
“Can I help?” I ask, surprising even myself. “You, I mean. Doesn’t it… hurt?”
“Ah, no worries. If it did, I’ve gotten used to it since.”
“I see.” An awkward silence fills the air. “So…”
“Sorry, by the way. For intruding on your thoughts. They’re not mine to look at, but you seemed to be in pain, and my antennae”—a pair of feathery stalks I hadn’t even noticed twitch at their mention—”tend to pick up on that sort of thing. People calling for help, and whatnot. Not to say you were calling for help, I intruded, that’s on me—”
“No, thank you, I appreciate it. You’re right, I think.” I could hear a crackling sound coming from the mind-reader. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Better by the minute!” comes their chipper reply. “Just give me a moment to—” crunch “—fix this. That’s much better.”
The figure finally stands up, leaving the world of vague shadows and ascending into full view. “Now that I’m back the way I should be, let me introduce myself. I’m Luna, Luna Elise Lavenza. Moth-By-Night, some call me, but I don’t really like that name. Please just call me Luna, or Luna-Elise if you want, or ‘Miss Lavenza’ if you’re a stickler for titles like that.” She smiles a little at her joke.
“I’m Alistair, uh, Alistair Macabre.” I feel like I’m forgetting something. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” That’s it.
With a dramatic toss of one inky black pigtail, she replies. “The pleasure’s all mine.”
We start walking, nowhere in particular. Formalities disposed with, there's an unaddressed tender something that hovers in the air between us, weighing down on my mind like a humid fog. But I can’t quite put my finger on it, that rogue element gnawing at me with fangs of guilt.
“It sounds like you were going through it, back there, I mean. I don’t know if I can help, but if suffering alone isn’t your speed, I’d be happy to lend an ear.”
Ah, yeah, that’s it.
Despite how nice she’s being… No, because of how nice she’s being, genuinely, reflexively kind, stumbling over herself, almost, to reach out… Something about her, maybe, tone is the right word? I don’t know. I feel better, at least. I think.
“Hey, I can’t read your mind in this form, and I’d prefer not to transform if I can help it. It hurts, you know.”
“That’s a long story. But, yeah.”
I cursed myself, for being so self-absorbed, so dedicated to making sense of myself, that I didn’t even notice Luna’s form shift. She was no longer that fractured, pitiful monster who called out to me. Gone were the serpentine mandibles, coiled tongue, and antennae, replaced with red lips and black hair in two long ponytails, shocking against a milky pale face in the scarce moonlight. In place of those bulging, deep sockets of sheer blackened vermillion, stormy gray eyes gazed intently back at me. “So you can,” I manage, through the shock.
I wouldn’t say the difference was night and day, more like two sides of the night. As she was now, Luna fit right in with the cool, calm blue that follows the sundown. Before, she was another side of the night, a maddened and frantic thunderstorm in the early morning. Insomnia, visions, scratching in the walls, a haze growing around the brainstem.
Luna cocks her head slightly, and waves a hand to snap me out of it. “Anyone home?”
“Yeah. Sorry, just… thinking, is all.”
“Right. Well, like I said, I can’t read your thoughts right now, but feel free to share.”
“Ah, it was nothing interesting.” Another awkward silence lengthens its stride, threatening to catch the conversation. “So you can transform? How does that work? Do you have, like, a catchphrase, or a pose, or a gadget?”
“You’re making fun of me, aren’t you? Well, no, it’s not that simple or clean. As a kid, I took part in a lot of clinical trials, mostly for focus boosters and things like that. One day, I went in for some mystical-sounding supplement”—she waves her fingers around, like she’s telling a ghost story—”and it worked. Really well. Apparently I passed out after I took it, and they called my name to wake me up, but my first association with “Luna” was the moth species, and so I started to… morph. They had to put me under anesthesia to get me back to normal that first time, so it’s a good thing the trial was at a hospital already.” She pauses, both her speech and her stride. “Well, that’s my origin story, I guess. So what about you?”
You know, if it wasn’t for you de-transforming in front of my eyes, that would be completely unbelievable.
I chuckle. “You know, I don’t think I have an origin story. I don’t think most people do, actually. That’s… pretty cool, I guess, that you do. But yeah, you already know most everything there is to know about me. I’m some super-rare personality type, called a Thymostichus, that doesn’t really get super attached to people or ideas, only really concrete things.” Or so I’m told. “I tried a bunch of stuff to try and fit in better, fit in better with the world of Eserosus and Uperlogius, but none of them really work, I don’t think. Basically, I’m not romantic or enlightened; I’m supposed to be more of a database, empty of everything but storage. I think. People also tell me I’m quick to anger, apparently, so there’s that.”
She nods. “What do you think? About yourself, I mean. What if no one was watching you, or told you what you were, or supposed to be. What would you be like then?”
This time, I freeze. “What do you mean?”
“It sounds like… well, this is just the way I see it, and I don’t know you very well yet, of course, but it sounds like you’re trying to be everything people say you are. But that’s just the way they see you, and by trying to accommodate that, you’re giving them inaccurate data to extrapolate from and, more importantly, constraining yourself. Your own expression.”
“Yeah, but… I don’t know. I’ve been told this by a lot of people, too many for them all to be wrong.”
“I agree, maybe they’re not wrong about you being a Thymostichus. But maybe you’re taking that the wrong way. Like, entirely backwards, even. People called you that because you acted like one, more than you did Eserosus or Uperlogius, not because you were nothing but Thymostichus. You’re you, first and foremost, right?”
“I don’t know.” And I really don’t.
I don’t know what I am, if not what I’ve been observed to be.
My head spins, and something like a nest of eels writhes in my gut. I really don’t feel well. At all. I think I need to stop this conversation.
Luna hasn’t said anything I can hear. I can’t hear her footsteps, either. All that I can perceive is my racing, pained thoughts, and this one crack in the sidewalk that gets more and more and more and more complex and fractalized the more I stare into it. It branches and branches and branches into more and more and more hairs in the concrete and I think I could watch it squirm in tableau forever. My thoughts are loose and strummy, slipping down my nose through my throat and to my churning stomach like mental mucus. My veins are empty, or at least feel like it, especially around my joints that feel like they could fly apart at any moment like hinges sunken in rotten wood.
I have to sit down, before my kneecaps fall off.
I fold to a crouch, slowly, and then slide back, sitting up with my legs out. Never once breaking eye contact with those flickering lines on the ground.
Layer 09: Dreams Of Dragon’s Fire
I awaken surrounded by captivating silver decorations, intricate like family crests but in all different styles. Each one is an image of some twisted hybrid animal in a flat profile, but some look more like Egyptian hieroglyphs, while others look more like cave paintings, medieval woodcuts, or Japanese ukiyo-e. The common thread is the amount of movement conveyed in a very still, very flat surface. It almost looks like the subject, each image’s beast, is churning its body, spasming forward in a futile attempt to escape a two-dimensional prison.
There’s nothing else to focus on in the room. Besides the elegant bed I was just resting in, the room is bare of furniture. Those crests are the only things on the wall, which is painted sheer crimson in an almost dizzying solid block, broken only by glimmers of glamorous silver and a single door, made of wood so deeply stained it appeared an inky black.
I want to get up, turn the engraved golden knob, and leave this place. Leave the gaze of the beasts that should not be. But my body will not move. I strain for what feels like hours, and fail to even twitch my big toe.
Eventually, the door swings open with a splitting creak, and the locking stiffness in my joints dissipates at once. But no one walks through.
Thin pale beams pour through the door frame, but it’s otherwise stubbornly empty.
No matter how hard I look, no one is coming for me, and I’m not sure if that should calm me or scare me more.
Well, if no one is coming, I might as well get up.
My bones creak and pop like a bull walking in a settling building. Every muscle in my body is sore, and despite my awakening implying sleep, I’m immediately exhausted.
But, no one is coming for me.
One aching step at a time, I push onwards, until I’m in the hallway and fully exposed to a full-scale vermillion assault. It seems everything in this place is red, from the wine-colored curtains to the scarlet carpet that slithers along the rusty wooden floor. Yes, even the floorboards are as close to red as wood can naturally be. The lights are the only thing not tainted by the color of blood. Gazing skyward, into the blinding bulbs, is my only relief from the scarlet onslaught.
I start walking down the hall, head tilted back like I have a nosebleed, gazing into the intricate depths of the engraved story on the ceiling. Again and again, beautiful figures rise, rule peacefully, and then sire beasts from their shadows. They all fall, inevitably. I’m speed-reading this Möbius strip tapestry, falling deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine grooves on each rotation, By the time I reach the section of the hallway detailing stories, or instances of the same story, I recognize, I have no idea how to get back to “my” room. Or if I’m alone here. If I’m getting closer to an exit, which may or may not exist.
An ice-cold bolt of fear runs through me, from the palms inwards, burning my spinal cord in a bid to impact the soles of my feet and my still-tender brain. My fear completes its quest in a fraction of a second, as it always does; I involuntarily shudder, but otherwise try to ignore it. Then—
I recognize that voice.
He almost blends into the decor, in his deep red robes. The shocking scarlet cape, breaking up his form, doesn’t help his visibility. Even that spiky, blinding mop of dark hair could be confused for a shadow.
“Augustus! What are you doing here? How’d you guess the dress code?” I laugh, gesturing to our surroundings. I’m only half-joking; seeing his clothes so perfectly match the interior design makes me feel a little out of place in my purple cloak and black hat.
“I… live here? Or at least, I have for the last couple months. So how long have you been here?” He starts walking, and gestures for me to catch up.
I scurry to catch up, and match his pace. “Me? If I had to guess, about…” I don’t know, actually. It had to have been an hour, at least; but approximating it is a Sysephean task. That swirling fascination made time fly past, while the residual ache in my bones continually heaved the second hand back kicking and ticking and tocking and screaming and clicking.
So, it’s less like rolling a boulder up a hill day after day, and more like trying to roll the boulder up and down the hill at the same time.
“Well, time is fake anyway.”
“That it is. Anyway, don’t strain yourself on my account. I was just curious.” HIs smile is too friendly, not like a shark’s barely contained bloodlust, bristling with teeth; no, it’s more like a dolphin’s, legitimately overjoyed to have the social upper hand.
Does he? I wonder. I’m not supposed to be able to read people, even their simplest cues, but some vestigial organ, older than sentience, tingles nervously nonetheless. Maybe it’s something entirely different from my mind, my brain; maybe this is what they call “instinct.”
“You know…” Augustus tilts his head back at me, tilting his chin up as he tosses his gaze back over his shoulder. “You’ve been awfully quiet today. What’s on your mind?”
How can he tell? How does he know to ask what I’m thinking about, when I’m barely even conscious of my own silence?
“Nothing much. I mean, I’m not even thinking about that much. Just… picking myself apart, I guess.”
“Hm. Well, you might not like to hear this, but I think that kind of contemplation is a good thing. The truth is often painful, but if you must feel pain, it’s best if it's inflicted at your own leisure rather than someone else’s.”
“What do you mean?”
“Yeah, I should probably qualify that statement. Conventional wisdom says to trust your instincts, to believe in yourself; but that’s wrong. It’s not even really true “conventional wisdom,” if you ask me. I think people only believe in themselves, their instincts, because they were told not to create anything more. They believe their instincts because they can’t think of a hardline set of morals to follow, so they just do what feels right on a moment-to-moment basis.”
We turn a corner into a hallway with deeper vermillion walls, and his face darkens into a scowl, as if to match them. “Although, that’s not the worst way to live. You could be like one of those foul Church Hunters, and have your morals tied to someone else’s doctrine. I don’t even know if that’s more tragic, or despicable, but I hate it.”
My confusion must have shown, because Augustus stops in his tracks to turn and face me. “You know about the Church of the Sun, right? And their Hunters?”
“The name sounds familiar, but I can’t place it.” This is true. The name “Church Hunters” rings some kind of bell, like something I read about or saw in a movie once, but I don’t have any context for it in real life.
Augustus scoffs through gritted teeth. “Essentially, the Church of the Sun declared all who reject them to be one of 72 demons. Anyone who neither follows nor rejects the Sun doesn’t matter to them, so their lives are essentially forfeit as the Church Hunters retake Wintertree. And anyone who follows them must “burn” their own moral code in place of the Doctrine Illustrious. They, essentially, act as a single hungry beast that consumes everything that makes a person—morals, lives, and identities.”
I’m shocked. I know the world isn’t a nice place; I know full well the cruelty of the human animal, especially to those they see as “other,” as too quiet or “marked” in some way by difference, but this is on a whole other level. This isn’t like an animalistic instinct lashing out at a potential threat. “There’s… no excuse. There’s no justification.” It’s just… “Absolute evil.” I look up into Augustus’s eyes, no longer hidden behind sheer blinding bangs, but looking into my own with warmth like clear water. “What can I…”
He smiles. “There is hope. I’m part of an uprising against them, a leader of it actually. If they are a beast, my hounds and I will hunt it down. We will fire flaming arrows at their pure ivory tower from our own crimson nest. If you want to join me, I could work it out so that you have some kind of higher rank. You’re a smart person, I think. A strategic role, as a tactician maybe, would suit you.”
I start to answer—
But Augustus cuts me off. “Don’t rush into things. Think on it, and give me an answer next time we cross paths. I don’t want to rush you, and besides, getting you in as a tactician will take time.”
“Alright. I’ll do that. But I think my answer will still be ‘yes’.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Now then—”
Augustus pushes a door open. The hallway, deep and dark crimson as the inside of a vein, is flooded with enough sunlight to make it almost pink.
“I have to get going. You want out too, yeah?”
“Ah, yes, please,” I stammer out, slipping past him and through the door. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” he calls after me, but already it barely registers.
As I start my stride down the narrow alley, something gnaws my nerves. It shocks me with each instance of its icy touch like bullets of cold rain pounding down under the skin. Parallel to those frozen attacks on my nerves, something else entirely burns along my veins; some kind of equally unpleasant ignited instability, twitching and churning and flickering like a dying lightbulb. My pace, both of feet and heart, quickens, but the glimmering exit to the main road remains fixed ahead of me, like a carrot on a stick.
I don’t want to look behind me. Something tells me as much. So, I look up. Up to the sky, the low ceiling that stretches on forever, the gray haze that burns as white smoke in the angry glare of the sun. I tilt my head back farther and farther, so far that my hat falls off and my neck is bending backwards and I’m looking behind me in an entirely different way than I had intended not to.
The alley’s brick borders that range from deep red to pale orange. Stale puddles in the bleached gray asphalt. Back entrances, mostly rows of doors flush against the bricks, with a few that jut out or in slightly.
In other words, there’s nothing out of the ordinary
Nothing is there.
I can’t see anything there.
I shouldn’t worry about it. Because, what had Augustus just told me? Not to trust my instincts. The only reason I was scared was my own instincts, nothing thought out or rational or more true than some prehistoric nagging hook in the brain designed to keep me safe from long-dead megafauna. I know this, and yet, I still feel afraid.
Layer 10: Into Your Sanctum
Candles flicker off glossy wood. Throngs of observers in birdlike masks gawk from their perches, like pews or stadium seats, stacked atop each other. Beaked heads with glassy eyes observe everything below from atop crooked, hunched necks.
Their unblinking, collective gaze lands firmly on a stone table. A stone table waist-high, long enough for a person to lay on, lit by an uncomfortably low-hanging chandelier of sharply-wrought iron. And, of course, the man who stood beside it.
I will always hold the tube, that which pierces. The syringe, the ovipositor, that is an extension of my holy, pure, glimmering hand.
So thought Dr. Brundle Vepar in his first and final moments.
As he continued down this path of thought, the formative ideas that made up his “code” disintegrated like loose fibers in his hands, and yet the self he formed through his actions grew more defined.
How can I do no harm, when I have to earn the power to affect change? No, this is the less harmful option. If I refuse, they’ll kill me and have someone less merciful take my place. Someone who will unquestioningly carry out these kinds of baleful operations. I should be the one to play this role, repentfully as I will.
He barely believed his own self-justification. But things weren’t always like this. Dr. Vepar, once upon a time, lived by a much more stable, provable doctrine. His every day was spent creating and consuming as little as possible, to atone for the chaotically spiralling harm his continued existence required.
How could someone throw away such an infallible purpose?