Layer 22: Parry romantic, things seen by sunlight
Damning hotbright in here. Or was it? Maybe my eyes are just sensitive from those hours captive in the fog. In reality, this room is probably dark, yes; filled with a darkness moth-eaten by a few candle flames and their doppelgangers mirrored in the shinier organic totems. Blurred colors sharpen with blinkaway mist. The sheer white antler pile in the corner is a dull and dusty gray, cloaked in shadow as it is. My great golden friend in his alcove was attended by more flickering twin flames than any goat skull or bird wing in the main room. All things are as I have left them...
Alistair was nowhere to be seen.
I flew to the door, scanning the room once more; but to no avail. My eyes just slid; slid over ragged shadow and hardened, empty walls... flying, frantic, like a carriage through a moonlit forest, wobblewheels dying as the wolves close in. These eyes never caught on to anything new. No bump in the road to send them splintered asunder; they met no resistance on the macabre decor, scenery upon my many visits. At last, I could spare myself the agony of the search. At last, I am forced to admit that Alistair was not here.
Another blinding brightness, filling my vision. Acheflame, chemical white and sheer, save the growing ashen impression. The snake autophagous, devouring its tail; masticating itself with stubby needles, sliding deeper and deeper into that glistening socket, the mouth. Fed—sacrificed—to itself, in perpetual motion, wheel burning with friction and the fire of bent-back fingernails.
From out of the light, a bloodblackness formed. The shadows and textures of the real world, revealing all. A battlefield before me, chessboard in ivory and crimson. A sea of clamorous conversation and clashing filigrees on dark fabrics. A grimy light, oilsmeared orange, turns the stomach not the brain; at least it was canny. Nearly human in its flickering...
That’s why they give hated dinbirth to each deaf other. The flickering light, the wavering light, it’s not enough to see by. Not to see fully, anyway. So, they bash their heads together trying to explain themselves, how they see themselves, like it's truth by speaking it. Like they’re not just invoking the light they want to be seen in. It’s all a game of connotation. “Angsty” and “brooding” are out of fashion, so for the moment "contemplative" will have to do; until that, too, is damned, unusable, to the annals of low-art words.
I don’t judge them, my followers. They’re rebels, we were rebels, after all, nothing more than shards of a mirror punchbroken, doing what they must, slicing back the fleshy force brushing them under the rug. Yes and as mirrorshards we exist as reflections of the world around us. This world, murky as it is, needs an inextinguishable light brought to its shadows. The Church of the Sun’s crimes shall be brought to light. The Crawling Puddles will be plunged for all they have hidden. Darkness expunged, before a pure cleansing tongue, a stream of glimmering water into a bucket of oily filth. The mysteries and mysticisms that keep minds churning through the night, I must burn them.
Something called to me within the labyrinthine halls of my home. A door to a room beneath the sky, and no other ceiling besides.
I was there before I knew it; I’ve flown down these halls crimson and intricate, carved as they are with mirrors of the stories in the skyline so many times. Here, below, or near enough, down in these foul streets, there is something like that which lines the sky. Scrying into the record on the walls called to mind another of those echoed sentiments, common as it is cliche. Opposites as twins in denial. The tragedy of gazing too deeply into the void. “As above, so below.”
That idea wasn’t wrong from the start; no, it was once profound. Now, though, it’s so misunderstood by the average mind, and in that misunderstanding, made demonstrably incorrect. As it is written, it has been made rote. Things in the sky and Things below the Earth, below these streets, they are not the same, and never can be. Despite what common knowledge may tell you, it is impossible to become the very thing one is sworn to destroy, if you start from opposite ideals. The phrase means “Nothing flies above as nothing lies below.” Nothing below my feet is the same as Nothing above my head. No matter how hard I look or how much I want to see something, empty space will be empty. Only my own eyes will never deceive me.
Perhaps this stumble and subsequent fall into my own head stole the memories of walking to that door. Do I only have memories of the space within, and none of the space without? Regardless, that door before me—it was frozen, ghost-touched, and stopped me dead in fiery flight. Never before nor since had I seen such spiderwebbed scars across wood. These fractals I thought only existed in frost-kissed metal or wounds traced by lighting; never like this. Never recorded like this. Never so immune to time or heat or necrosis. I’ll have to remember that, I thought, as I swung open the door to the sky.
Layer 23: Bewitched
“It’s simple, really. We light a fire. We smoke them out.”
Augustus’s eyes glistened, knifelike in the moonlight as he spoke. He had come out of nowhere, it seemed, but was no less welcome. The silence had grown mirrored with moonsilver, taught breakwaiting; shard's bite was welcome to numb fingers.
Luna looked less convinced. “Arson? I’d be all in for it, but the Healing Churches don’t stand still; you know that better than anyone. The Hunters just”—she shudders, like a cold memory has slithered along her spine—” show up.”
“I’m not talking about lighting a Healing Church on fire. I mean burning something in the street. A little ritual of our own.” Augustus explains himself further, but it’s not necessary for me to get his drift.
“The Golden Howlings. They’re perfect. We don’t have to fake any symptoms or delusions of our own; just pretend to go along with the prevailing winds. Those rotting winds of septic madnesses, hot and humid fronts.... They wick embers to wicker men, and set alight will and wit alike.” I glance over at Augustus—my heart skips a beat. He’s actually looking back at me. Not observing, or scrying, but gazing, like I’m some strange celestial speck.
And why shouldn’t he? I’d said basically nothing, but it sounded good enough. There’s no response to be given. I’d just babbled something, but it felt right. I might not have said anything, but it felt right.
Even as I realized my own happiness, though, guilt was born like heavy chains in my gut. Snippets of thought—hedonistic, self-indulgent non-communicator, hollow ramblings of a wannabe fascinator. —coalescing—Shut up. Apologize for your balefully silvered tongue or shut up—from flaying admonishment to a self-reflection—People don’t talk like that.
From the hating masses, one thought stood out. A singular, full thought. An image of giant spikes jutting in all directions, into each other, towards the ground, skyward, sideways, and all degrees between. It was a wall of brambles with no rounded stems and more thorns in their place. Dangerous, and repulsive. The words echoed, a chant mechanical, rising from fog to a timbre clear and clean as those omnidirectional points.
Seconds had passed in silence, but they might well have been hours of agony, the way my brain formed thorns against itself.
“I see.” Luna gave a small nod. “Is that right, Augustus? I like it. I’ve never thought to use madness as bait before, but it’s a good plan. How many fighters will we need?”
“Well, that’s the problem. I know you fight like a demon, and I can hold my own, but we’d need at least one more person touched by Dream Insight. I don’t think ordinary fighters will be able to do much against Hunters in such numbers as I foresee; it’s hard enough for them to pick off lone Instances. Luckily, we have such a person here.” Augustus turned to me. “Alistair, I’d consider us close, if I’m being honest; certainly, we are kindred spirits, I feel. That in mind, can you do a couple favors for me?”
“Augustus! Don’t you dare.” Luna glowered. Her eyes were normally a stormy gray, true, but now they seemed to darkly rumble with malicious thunder. “You will not involve Alistair in this life. Come here for a moment?” She motioned to Augustus, and whispered something to him furiously.
Augustus’s face wrinkled sourly. “Alistair, I think the choice should be yours and yours alone. Do you want to know the kiss of Magick? You’re primed for it; I can see that much. Or do you want to run from this cause? Bury your head in the sand, and live in peace with the atrocities that keep you afloat?”
What kind of choice is that?
It shouldn’t have even needed to be said. “Killing people and calling it healing is wrong.” It’s so obvious; why wouldn’t I do everything in my power to set things right?
“Of course. I’m not going to turn away now. I couldn’t say no, even if I wanted to.”
Something adrift may never turn away. The thought flashed inside my mind for but a moment—
“Then hold out your left hand.”
—Before Augustus began his ritual. Killed it, both the thought, and the thing in me that germinated it.
I do as I’m instructed. Luna turns away to the door with a motion like a wince—really, what is her deal?— and Augustus approaches me. He takes my left hand in both of his, and his touch burns. It burns, but I can’t move my hand.
My brain screams at me to yank my hand away, but the instinct just stagnates, freezes somewhere between neuron and nerve. Even as heat crawls up to my shoulder, as frost spiderwebs out from the base of my neck, as the two meet behind my heart, bisecting it in sheer light and murky darkness, I can’t move. I’m a statue right now, or a doll. A screaming mind in an immobile body.
And then, it all snaps and breaks; the heat, the cold, the immobility, the pain. It’s all gone, and I can move again.
Augustus looked at me with a look of cautious optimism. “Everything ok?”
“That’s good! Did you see anything weird, or feel anything unnatural?”
“I felt like I couldn’t move. Like I was a doll being broken.” I wasn't in the mood to explain everything.
“A ‘doll being broken,’ huh?” Augustus nodded, and made a strange puckered expression of understanding. “That’s good. I’m glad to hear it.”
“Don’t be. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling”—he interrupted me with a smile, slight and silent, yet no less potent for it—” but it’s over with now.”
“Sorry,” he said, whispered really, that same enigmatic smile never leaving his face. It marked his apology as almost insincere, but strangely, I didn’t really mind. So long as he kept looking at me like some celestial enigma, I would accept a thousand cheerful lies.
Layer 24: Scanners/Scrying the Wretched
There was simply no question about it: Alistair had some of the greatest potential for magic I had ever seen. Not because of any extraordinary skill, or any particular qualities about them as a person. (I’m sure that objectively speaking, the person I knew as Alistair Macabre was about as special as anyone else. Avatar to a thousand tiny glitches in the human form, and holder of a blood doubtlessly storied; just as dully glimmering as everyone.)
However, there was, in their eyes or perhaps in the air around them, a disinterest in those similarities. Almost an aversion to humanity—no, to individual humans, besides myself and Luna. Given the choice, Alistair would dance stumbling steps to stand as everyone else, rather than pick, and fall in with, one instance of the crowd.
It’s not too much of a stretch to assume they saw the crowd as one unapproachable mass, rather than teeming individuals; and I can’t blame them for that. I see the chattering throngs the same way.
That can be dangerous, though. Just as easily a dive down a slippery slope as it might be the first ascending step on a staircase grand and pure.
Alistair first impressed upon me a certain untouchable loftiness, as if above or ahead of me on those shining marble steps, or flying like an eagle among great cliffs. Something noble and pure and towering. The closer I approach, though, the more these little idiosyncrasies about them stand out. Beneath the cloak feathered with flecks pickpocketed from fuller beings, the hollow bones of a fascinating creature lay. But only bones. Between coat and bone lay a great void; a hungry vacuum and an equally repulsive force like the one that stays one’s hand from necrotic carrion.
Well, there’s no other way to put it. Alistair Macabre was, quite simply put, empty. Torn apart by twin serpentine anathema. Dueling dualities, unknown to the sun nor known by the moon. Forever walking the interstice, eternally crepuscular. A wasteless blank slate, just waiting to be engraved with a sigil. The touch of my tongue, silvered and purifying, had been their savior chisel.
I pondered this sad fact of fracturedness as I flew through the halls, pace frantic below the gaze of that glimmering mythic web. For as much as I adored this crimson labyrinth, I equally abhorred its mirror above; those hyper-flattened distortions of myth, distorted and misinterpreted to fit together neatly and peacefully. That insistence on archetypal transcendentalism seems a blinded affirmation to Alistair’s zero-sum hollowness. Assuming that ideas have an equal opposite just leads to defeatism: What good is any effort if a perfect, wasteless counter must also be born from it?
No, even without such a justification, Alistair’s perception is wrong; for the poor soul is afflicted with the Drifting Sickness! The rot that lands its necrotic fly-feet upon a Thymoystichius mind, drags gray matter in tiny talons as it drunkenly floats about the room! I must, though, take great pains not to pity Alistair, nor any other fed to such shelled phantasms. Though compared to me, or any other man of sanity, they may be invalid, gibbering insects, there may yet be something unseeable in that baleful stare, in the thousand yards those hollow sockets scry into beyond the visage of a conversation-partner. Or perhaps that is just the prevailing wind kicking up dust and clouding my mind, and perhaps the Drifting Sickness is not to be pitied but loved—no, such a thing is far too simple to be truthful.
Augustus didn’t know it yet, but behind a murky curtain in the mind, deep within the slumbering subconscious, a fire had been lit. An idea, too repulsive to be seen, had been conceived; not yet born, not yet emerged from darkened womb to the shattering light of knowledge, but no less disturbing in its embryonic state. A despised, and indeed despicable, third option, between pity and love; manipulation. For by its deprived nature, the Drifting Sickness could so easily be made autophagous! The twin snakes, solar and lunar pleromas could be wrought to an infinite ouroboros, and fuel mass ambitions with their perpetual consumptive friction.
Or so I, a spore-eye of Oberon, see it.
Layer 25: Sworn In/Until 13th Card Do Us Part
After Augustus took his leave of the roof, I didn’t have much to do besides follow him. And so, I too opened the door studded in gilded frost-kisses, almost blindly, certainly in a haze. But my static tingling was shot through by an embrace about my waist, warm and sudden and so nectary in its impression. I looked down and met Luna’s eyes; twin storm clouds welling up with puddles to laud upon the earth.
She was quiet for a moment, and seemed so terribly small, even smaller than most do besides me; but after a bit she shakingly asked, “What did he do to you? Out there, on the roof. Did it hurt?”
“He just held my hand for a bit, and I felt a little funny, but it wasn’t at all bad. I remember his warmth more than anything like pain, and my fingers tend to swim towards icy numbness anyways, so it’s more than fine in the end.” I’d meant to answer simply, but the words just… spilled out. Fleshthick petals I was taught to constrain to implication; a waver in the voice perhaps, or other such invisible subtleties; lest my conversational partner doubt my effort.
Luna, for her part, didn’t seem to mind my display of emotion, more concerned with… how I was feeling? That couldn’t have been right, no, she was simply stunned I was feeling anything at all, that had to be it. The fact that such a phantasmal shell, monochrome as myself, could display peacock-vibrant emotion was indeed something to behold. Worth acting concerned for, even; concerned for her own ability to perceive. Yes, that must be it.
I could even empathize with that feeling... the comet-tailed discomfort that follows with the ground being shot out from under you. Muggy blood evacuating the fingers and pooling in the palms, at once chilling and scorching and undeniably staticky. I knew it well; and I had caused it, and the squirming sensation of wretchedness began its baleful gutward cavort once more.
Luna said something; shamefully unheard over the roaring ring in my ears. The tiny buzz of a million ghostly insect-mouths, crawling and clacking chitinous in the crimson-tinged shadows. Or maybe it was just one tingling mass, making its home wallcrawling and watching...
Either way, her words were muted by something massive and dreadfully alive.
I think I asked for her to repeat herself; I think. My voice was but another in the coral chorus of screaming nymphic polyps. This, my wretched insect tongue, was in sharp contrast to Luna’s voice, lilting lovely even in those throes of pathos shown on her face; any further meaning was stolen by the screaming of cicadian arrythmia. (It was an insect heart beating itself to an excited pulp; given to the invasive thrill of looking the mind in the eye.) Her intent was polished away by a thousand spiny locust’s hands, until nothing remained but a reminder glimmering like a doll’s too-smooth flesh.
Not gold, no, entirely unlike that prominent idol that spat the Sandman’s substrates in my face. When Luna wept her words to the ocean of noise in the sky, she summoned the impression of a pale silver mirror, cooling and soothing in a way even tamest candle-flame cannot be. And despite how euphoric it felt, being both embraced by heat and held by the moon—I recoiled. As much as the hallway would allow, I recoiled, slumped against the crawling wall. I crumpled, utterly and instinctively, in the face of closeness.
It’s one thing to look upon a glowing Wisp from a distance. It’s entirely another to see its face.
No, that’s ok. It’s ok to feel so repulsed.
I don’t think I felt repulsed, though, not at all. I wanted to be close to Luna. I want to talk to her more and listen to her more. But if I ever tried to extend a hand, I’d just be pushed away by some unseen force. This dream of mine, connection? It’s spiny cruelty, in all directions and equal ways.
I didn’t feel repulsed, I am repulsive. Dangerous and repulsive.
“I am a forest of thorns, a bramble nest masquerading as a home. So just burn me down now. Don’t get too close; I’ll latch onto your skin and tear you apart, while you unravel me by writhing in the pain I cause.” Words pouring like a tide of sand from my throat. Hoarse. Dry. Buzzing. Hated. Comprehensible, at least, but then only certainly to me.
Luna just looked at me, drenched in a sadness so heavy she visibly slumped. I couldn’t tell if she was speaking or not; the swarm was cacophonous as ever, and my vision was growing ever-blurrier as my eyes watered with some kind of wholly psychological enervation. An exhausted pain I hated myself for experiencing, much less succumbing to.
Sleep, that siren, pulled me limply into its murky depths.
The next thing I knew, the fog of sleep lifted from my eyes, albeit slowly and heavily; but with its humid mass it washed away the harshest of the inky wretchedness that so afflicted me the night before. I lay where then I stood, in the stairwell from the roof, but Luna was no longer by my side. Her absence was painfully apparent, and yet nearly drowned out by a pinpoint stare from above. Like an obelisk upon a mountain, Augustus stared down at me from three steps above my constraining cot, eyes glimmering with the impression of supergiant death. If looks could smite. If looks could condemn. Something icy slithered to my palms, a thought messily birthed from half-awake paranoia. Am I already dead?
But suppressing my vain self-perception, I had to be alive; for Augustus didn’t look at me with the reverence one casts upon a corpse, but the disgust and pity reserved for those holders of an invalid will. Like the kinds of people who shirk any sort of duty to sleep on the stairs, or who get drowsy in conversation. No, who can’t even hear their conversation partners over their own self-obsession.
“Am I really so pathetic?” I asked Augustus, and maybe myself.
“No… No, not at all. You could be great someday, even; you have it in you to be some grand figure, prominent among giants. And as for now, well, you’re on the pathway to getting there,” he replied in a thin, almost whistling whisper. But his glare never changed or softened; like the sun, it just kept beating down on me.
A hollow anchor. That’s what his presence was. The warmth of Augustus’s solar gaze just lulled me, driftingly, between lucidity and slumber. If he even intended to help anchor me at all, he was failing. Miserable dissonance ringing out, the hollowest pair collide. Damn this loveless house.
Even if that wasn’t the kind of thing I thought, I certainly felt it. I felt it, even if not in those words. I hated so much that I silently ground my teeth together and wished to taste copper from between them. I wanted, so badly, to hear a crunch and feel a shooting ache and taste fresh bone meal; I craved disintegration, and I didn’t know why. I knew the cause, but didn’t know why it created such an effect in me; and that was more maddening than the burning in my brain.
“Why… Why me?” I asked. “I’m not… I don’t think I’m worthy of this…” The words came in a choked flow, and so the sentiment behind them built up a reservoir in my throat. “Why do I get your magic? What’s so special about me?”
“It’s not about you. It’s about me. This power is mine to give, to all I wish to give it to.”
I chose you; you should be honored. It didn’t need to be said. Augustus was a powerful person; a rebel eternal, yes, but powerful nonetheless. He emulated the system perfectly, in his grand parties, in his seemingly endless collection of art and artifacts. He was noble, in all but title, but it was that absence of anointment that gave him appeal those most spat upon. Augustus’s presence demanded respect, but his actions made him seem worthy of it at the very least. Truly, he could have been a golden king.
In turn, his magnanimity made me feel all the more wretched. Where he was a pure and shining leader, I felt like a blood-bloated leech made ouroboric, consuming myself to stay sustained. Focusing inward, into a spiral, crawling with rot and lovelessness.
Bile, black with blood, swirling and turning, flooded the clear basin of tears in my throat. My mouth stayed firmly closed, though; and I only just tasted acidic fumes unfurling to lick at the back of my tongue.
“You seem ready to explode,” Augustus said, “So let’s make sure that you’re aimed right at the Sun before we pull your pin.” There was no empathy or love in his voice, all of a sudden; just frantic jests at my expense. But at the same time, something about his laid-back demeanor cooled me, just as howling at the moon did. And I felt no crushing shame, now, for I had done nothing! I flowed with the moment, read the room… I think, on that day, with Augustus, I finally found my place.
Layer 26: Knights into Dreams
“We charge.” Augustus’s voice was a heavy sword. “We light the fire and we dance with the frenzy of a charge, until the Hunters make themselves seen; at that moment, we fight like the demons they say we are.”
He spoke to everyone around the fire, but most of all, I felt he spoke to me.
No. I shouldn’t think like that. How wicked and cold must one be, to forget another’s admonishment of narcissism so quickly? My every thought just proved his point, it seemed.
I still quivered, the same way I had before regrouping with the remaining colorful court upon their sanguine chessboard floor. That wavering exhaustion stayed with me as we shuffled down streets chilled with mist towards The Spot. No one could tell me where we were going; and once we arrived I knew why.
Our destination was not a place at all, to an unknowing eye; even to mine there was nothing defined about it. It was a patch of road demarcated only by a certain... reverent air about it. The only thing one could call it was “The Spot”; with no defining features to make it a landmark, this place was merely a point in space made prominent by repeated gatherings. The surrounding buildings were nothing but the same ornate space-filling seen throughout Wintertree; homes to people unknown and businesses, offices, wherein I have no reason to be. The plentiful metallic embellishments—knockers, doorknobs, seemingly random ornaments—might have sparkled afire in daylight, under brighter skies, but in the stagnant doldrum mist they only caught water and fogged over.
They seemed so dull to me, but Luna still gazed, transfixed, at a bronze emblem shaped like a lion’s head frozen in a grotesque roar.
She was still the only one among Augustus’s court I knew well, so I approached and greeted her softly, to not make her jump. She started regardless.
“Alistair! You move like a ghost sometimes!”
“Sorry,” I mumbled in mild shame. “So, what about this”—here I gestured to the lion—”so transfixed you?”
“Nothing, really,” Luna replied, “It’s the way the dew looks on this almost-smoothed metal. It’s beautiful, almost magical.” She smiled slightly, and sighed happily before snapping to almost hysterical excitement. “Come here, take a look!” She waved me over.
At her flapping beckon, I approached and crouched to look for what she saw: tiny droplets of water, each a pearly lens to its own seafloor and a metallic-tinting mirror to the sky. Perhaps as a result of the unique curvature, attempting to cast in metal the details of flesh, the sharply silver underbelly of the surface formed a sort of frame around anything seen through each dewdrop.
It was unique, but hardly magical. Beautiful, sure; but why, or even how, such a small thing should even catch someone’s eye puzzled me.
But it made Luna happy, so even if I didn’t value the sight so much personally, I still treasured it for her.
Our brief reprieve was broken by a muffled roar and a scorched wind to our backs. As we turned around, both startled this time, I noticed the dew droplets running from the lion’s gnarled visage in wake of the burning disturbance. The image was quickly cleansed by sheer white flames, dancing taller than myself, licking, in the process, the many feet of an insect effigy strung upon a gargoyle far overhead.
Augustus prodded the bloated thing in the flames with a long, thin metal rod, seemingly for no reason beyond ceremony, before he made his short rallying speech.
The crowds fell into rhythmic chaos, as expected, save for two—well, three—afflicted with Drifting Sickness. Red pole-holding leader, of course. And then the pair by the entrance: the pale green girl drawn to the Leonine Solarity like a moth to—well, to a flame—and the mysterious purple flag... windbent to outside fascination... rasping banner.
Must investigate further. Pulsed thought, tic-twitch the brain. It's starting. Frontal lobe trigger-finger, itched. Point and shoot streaming consciousness—black spurts. Like blood in the night. Or obsidian. Sharp shadows. Ugly contrast in a world build for chiaroscuro.
The brain is full of blood, the liferopes... gutswamp gurgles, births steam. Pearlescent gunmetal, wrapped like plastic to a corpse; a thousand racing camels softly jangledance up stairs. Great hunchbacked moose watching, with oaken antlers and stared-at jutting knuckles. Feels a chemical freak. Lollops after the crowd anyways, as they bleat out rejections.
A spiral staircase unfurled from the square—skyward; echoed the spire forest around us. The multicolored masses swirled, as if alive; swept in the current, I had no choice but to fall in prismatic line. Some force compelled us all to Climb—big "C" seemed appropriate at the time. If ants got religion it would stink like that crowd. Pineapple pheromones, yellow and crazy, jitterbug swarm feeding... a frenzy as nonviolent as gasoline is cold.
We were not alone in our ascent. Figures in heavy ashen robes watched us pass upward. Stony psychopomps (scare the child in us all) graveyard statues ribbon-cutting our egos.
“What happened to that one?” one Observer asked another, hushed and concerned.
“William Telled the mind, gone wrong... drunk on the power of showing off...” Words, candletrails.
Vaguely remember an anecdote about something similar, a pretty autumn accident, but the wind here is silver sand and it's hard to think. Delirium, they call it. Mind drifts within and without the humidity, sailfloats on the sea in the sky... slips from the rut-grooves in the road. Try to weigh myself down with etymological thoughts. Or is it entomological? I certainly feel like a bug. Biting chitin, biding time beneath the skin... something about that resounds funny to me (brain shakes; a terrified animal)
Where has the beauty gone? A spiral thermal cut the haze of forever ascension. Just for a moment, I felt my old self come back. Where has the beauty gone? My self used to be defined by elegance, by rambling thoughts and woven metaphors, tongue-dance ivy cast in purple smoke... now that's brokendead, a bird to a windowpane. Put to growth, in death? To forest floor rot? Is the new tree any good? Can't think about it, just want to keep climbing. Insect instinct to bullet points; fractured glass. Pretty fragments. Watch me glitter forever...
Lizard revelation writhes in a pool of spilled milkblood; pink, creamstone quartz. I felt sick.
Map the dream? What a foolish errand... bitingly frustrating, rolling up a hill like a sheet of paper. I don't think I meant to dream-chart, and I never needed to; I just need to dream-quest. To experience the sweet-sick haze, the gaze into the abyss as a tennis match. To sleep, to live, not to see but to feel. I, my tongue, as one; the purple rambler. A wyrm engorged with flickering words; swollen with an iridescent flame. And belching Shimmer.
We were trapped, then— myself, and the writhing vine in my skull. Trapped in a waking dream that stubbornly retains its perfumed air; refuses classification as a “nightmare”.
In my folly the dream had become uneasy. There was no perfume in this visceral antechamber. These walls were rot and blood, black worm-tracks... bullet holes shaped like smoke tails of candles, loopy doodle themselves into iron-brand John Hancocks on my gray matter... can’t touch anything without hotdry metal staining it all in rusty ash.
And it's all this hate-watching city's fault.
“That… That is just not true,” said the man in the beetle helmet. His proclamation dammed the stream of biting consciousness within me; made me notice, truly, the stone-rot details of the Healing Church. The moth-bitten tapestries in sick yellows and reds, (ancient ochre bloodstains writ to silk) the amber dance within the antechamber, jailing air of chiaroscuro, saps the mind's eye blind... matchstick delirium set in again...
He spoke so authoritatively that I almost believed his judgment. So authoritatively, and yet with such a spitting fury... I scrambled, fearful, to place the last time I’d heard such conviction in one’s own words.
Augustus, fascinating as he was, didn’t even compare; it must have been… Luna, back on the roof, tempting me with heavenbound psychological relief. Her theater mask then was as exaggerated as the beetle-helmed man’s expression; but where she was resplendent, he was uncanny. Gnarled, scarlet. For a moment, I was a clueless child again, scalded by the paternal red-faced rage. Paralyzed before Saturn, devoured by his rings of fire.
Hollow veins again, half-empty; filled, such as they are, with hot sludgy blood.
I could practically feel the blood draining inward from my fingertips (they’re bleeding heat again) and flushing my face with a deathly shame. Glancing down confirmed my suspicions; jutting from my palms were ten waxy yellow candles, completely unlit while my face was aflame. Some part of me thought that was unfair.
The man in the beetle helm continued his beet-faced tirade. “The Sun sees your lies! The Sun knows the truth! When the time comes, you’ll see disappointment scrawled on the ceiling as you learn of gnashing fangs and lashing flames. Angel-flame from furthest space will flay the skin and flesh and blood from your bones, and when you are finally pure, you’ll look into your shadow to see maggot-ridden filth gnawing it to disintegration all over again until there’s nothing left. The all-loving Sun will hate you, all because you had to lie.”
“I’M NOT LYING!” I screamed; a scream that drained from me so much breath... I felt like an apparition fading into film, demystifying the spirit photograph. “I know that I have a long way to go before I’m anywhere near good enough. I know that already.” That’s right. So many more doors to open and chalky changes to swallow before I deserve even the spark of a smile. So many steps to climb before I’ll know even the embrace of the wolves at the gates. “Why would I throw all that progress away now?”
“Tell yourself whatever lie you like. Tell yourself that life is all just one big tragedy, a spiral into despair, if that twisted truth is the only shape you can find a comfortable place in. Just don’t tell me it’s the truth. Your pleas of innocence to me are sacrilege. Scream it to the Sun instead. Declare your candor to the sea in the sky. Meet the gaze of the solar eye. Look into it. And, as you wilt in undying fire from the sky, hiss your lies to the deafened abyss.”
Layer 27: Death and Rebirth, By Sleep
“All it takes is one bad ███”
When I was a child, I saw something in the hallway outside my room. Something that filled the space between the walls, wholly and completely swallowed it in a featureless crimson mass.
Well, featureless isn’t exactly right. It throbbed, beat like a heart, stretched like a membrane in unequal ways. “Crimson” isn’t exactly right either. It was stained a color out of codification, the seeping deep violet of organ meat mixed, like paint, with blood fresh from a clean cut.
Despite this, it left the impression of a crimson monolith. It was something my young mind could only call a monster. Of course, I was told it was nothing of the sort. It was dreams coming to my head, or the Sandman on his nightly errand, to plunge me into dunes of crushing slumber. It was just lights, lights from the outside twisted and warped into a bleeding shadow. Or it was something in between. Something conjured by a mind teetering on the cliff of the nightly death we call “sleep”.
I know what I saw. I knew, even back then, that what I saw was nothing so intangible as an illusion or a bedtime story; nor even was it a boogieman. It was a definitively present aberration of flesh. It was definitely there. I could never forget the throbs, the way they echoed so, rattling the floorboards and my frozen nerves alike. It was definitely there.
For if it wasn’t, why would the sprites upon my pillow apologize to me so fervently, every night, for years and years? The tiny little glowing things that robbed me of sleep, those little flecks of sharp sunlight, like needles to the eyes, chanting again and again in tinny repose: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I always wanted to ask. But I was paralyzed by that glowing dust. My jaw locked, my arms and legs invisibly chained, my eyes only able to blink shut for a moment; even then, those dancing things left impressions on the inside of my eyelids like shards of sand.
As I grew older, fae touch faded from my life. I awoke to fewer and fewer ashen footprints on my pillow, and drifted off to far fewer barely-audible apologies. Perhaps they were done atoning, or perhaps they took a new form. Maybe that’s what the Pale Spider was: so nicknamed for being pale like moonlight, not necessarily in hue but in its misty density; and a spider not in form but in movement, the way it leaned into the horizon between two walls and the ceiling. Never speaking a word—looking back, did it even have a mouth? —just staring into me. Scrying, eyeless, into my sleeping mind—no, it must have had eyes, and I just don’t remember them, for what blank brow could so slice me?
I think I finally get it now. Everyone wanted to pretend that the hallway-eating heart wasn’t there, but they couldn’t just tell me, “Play along,” not without shattering the masquerade for themselves. So they covertly enforced the idea. The Seelie specks about my pillow? They were apologizing for the Sight they forced upon my weary eyes; apologizing for existing. Even then, I knew that was wrong, but still envied their plight. That of the selfish hero damned to keep moving forward, further and further along the spiral staircase of their own justice. Deeper and deeper, or higher and higher; it matters not, when the sky is a sea. Eventually, the pressure makes a spine more of a hindrance than a boon. A human is reduced to a jellyfish, all to keep being a hero by their own standard. All to earn a reliable walking-stick, the knowledge that they are “better than they think they are”.
Sometime between then and now, I finally did it. I finally closed my eyes, fled those baleful existences, saw the “better me”, and what am I greeted with?
Cursed gnosis gnawing at me. A look in a mirror that never should have been. A duality, between and beyond beautiful lucidity and the beastly dream.
I’m being pulled apart by two corpses. The drowned and the desiccated. Mother and father, sun and moon, heat and entropy, an excess and its equal opposite. In the middle… is me. I’m an existence chimeric, cobbled together to split the difference between all dichotomies and yet find homes with neither side. Hollow and nameless, the celestial body of the eclipse. Unable to be filled, shattered as I have been by these dual dueling pleromas. Wandering as I wilt, and wilting as I will be.
All it takes is one bad DREAM.
The world here, not black and white, but brown and gold.
Here lie fires, mighty pyres, fallen a numbing, bludgeoning cold
I think I Know now, why the Beast does fear flame
I gaze upon the cage, invoke its truest Name
Somewhere, between your eyes and the horizon, there dwells a Thing. A Thing is, to those forgotten by times like tides, something alive with no other features besides. It might be tiny and glowing; it may be a great shadow. It may fly like a carpet, or it may fly on ragged wings, or it may be chained to the ground. It may drift, it may move with a determination; it may have a mind, it may not. It might be a mass of tentacles, or it may be a single glowing dot. All that a Thing is, is what it isn’t. It isn’t any creature science has recorded. It doesn’t have a name, besides Thing. You have not seen it, but you may look for it; and you may only know what to look for because I have seen it. And when a little piece of me is a little part of you—all of you—then you know what to look for.
An apparition, perhaps? A glowing Will on the edges of a sight tinged by rotting madness? Or maybe some Thing more solid? A Thing cast of something unlike the chitin that constrains the flesh, and the bone the flesh sloughs off of? Not quite a walking worm; but rather something that walks upright on jointed feet, drifting between high and low life, wavering from ascension to invalidity and back again. Or maybe some Thing more certain still? Something like a living wall, a mass of crimson flesh?
Is that what you want to see, in the sepia shadows that call the staircase, the hallway—the liminal—home?
No? You wish to tread deeper into this cluttered menagerie? Do you seek some Thing like a more familiar creature? Perhaps a deer, or a dog, or a horse, or— indeed? A human? I must warn you; these Things are not to be taken lightly. But I’m sure you know the risks. You’ve already seen the Thing you seek, after all, on these streets. There was no cage, then, right? Or none so solid as I have here, perhaps; or perhaps there was indeed a cage, but one of fog, not binding iron. A cage drifting on the wind and parting at even slight touch, and of course you were inside it, not the Thing. Of course.
Very well. You may See whatever Things you wish to See.