The Old Wastelands
The world can't reach me, here. So long since the door was last opened, so long since I last ascended the steps into perpetual night.
It came because I called. Not knowingly; through my despair, my disappointment with the world. The way opening silently, scents of frost and sea, the music of midnight waves...
I actually hesitated, for a moment; attempting to find some anchor, some solution to the ruin of a life I'd made. Maybe it wasn't all lost; maybe it wasn't all shit. They could still come back; those I'd driven away, the children who wept at the sight of me. Maybe even the ones I'd murdered; leaving to suicide and sickness and random accident...I know ways.
Laughter. Heartbreak. The hymn of a soul sick of living.
I drag myself from my seat in the filth and debris, from in front of the TV as it silently burbles baby nonsense. Stand at the foot of the steps, breathing in the old dust, the old damp; the promise of stone.
No coming back; not this time. I lost myself there for so long, during the days of misanthropy, when the rest of humanity could have burned to ash and nothing for all I cared.
This time, I'll let it; tired of trying to pretend that anything else can be.
Tripping, almost murdering myself on the first step, its surface slick and smooth from water's passage, trickles of dark fluid seeping from the corrugated walls. I remember this; another time and when, another story...
The door clicks shut behind me, and I gasp, sobbing. Done; an end, my final divorce from creation.
No great loss.
A Promise of Tomorrow
I listen...understanding, though we never spoke a word of one another's language before. Here far, far longer than I; having learned how to live because he had no other choice... teaching me; how to scrape and harvest the strange, flaking fungus from rocks, to mix it with silvery water from deep within the cave systems below...how to gather and dry weed from the shores of subterranean lakes, to pluck up the white, venomous crab-like things infesting the rock-pools without their hypodermic legs pricking me.
Most of all, teaching me how to be still; truly listen:
The music of stone; the soft rumbling, the cracking and splintering of it, as it swells, as it contracts; as things burrow through, threatening to burst in on us as we scrape and harvest, as we dream and resent.
His name is unpronouncable, at least to my tongue; a stitched together string of Frankenstein syllable; clicks and hisses, as though he were christened by an angry tarantula. I call him "Morrow," after the boy I left behind, who likely still wonders where I am, why I left him...thoughts of him like knives, shards of metal, twisting in my mind. The pain enough to focus, to sustain me, but for how long, I can't say.
Morrow has his ways, though he rarely speaks of them; rarely speaks at all, unless I initiate it. Today, he is absent, as he often is; away in the caves below, perhaps up the mountain slope, perhaps even on the lower reaches, tempting fate and what he knows waits there, beneath the mists.
It doesn't matter; not sure I can stomach him, right now: the shards twisting, burrowing deep, memories rising from the mulch: the house, the door; what we found there. What we made together.
His face: That of a much younger man, the unkempt beard he affected serving to only emphasise his unnatural youth, eyes so blue, so sharp: chemical in their intensity, always on the verge of some spillage; fire or tears, lightning or mercury. Not beautiful...not by the standards of most, but by mine...not a day, not a timeless, stretched or distorted moment, when I don't miss him. Giving that...thing his name; a conscious perversity; the conflict of association...arousing, focusing, where it would be so easy to disperse and fly apart.
Storms today. Or tonight. Or this evening. Meaningless notions, here. No clear or identifiable passage of time, the state beyond the cave...existing in defiance of it.
A fire, flickering green, kindled not from twigs and friction (for all I know, that process might cause an explosion on par with Hiroshima or The Big Bang), but by the same means that brought me here; what the idiots and poets call "magic." In truth, the process is at least as complex as any that physics follows, though it might seem effortless and esoteric to the uninitiated. Certainly not a matter of simply clicking one's fingers or mumbling a few syllables of baby nonsense...as actual and logical in this state of being as sparks from struck together stones in the one I left behind.
Left behind. Ha. As though I had some agency in the matter; as though it were more than idiot accident. I still don't know how, not clearly. That day...when they finally came to demand a little tangible result for their patronage...so hazy, now; a memory of childhood, softened by the erosion of years to the point that I'm not sure whether it occurred or was simply imagined (the distinction likely meaningless here).
Morrow. His face, blue eyes wide and brimming, frustration scorching the air around his head like lightning. So close...so close to something we'd both desired, dreamed of, almost all our lives:
A twitching of the curtain, a glimpse beyond.
Only...they hadn't been satisfied with a mere glimpse: what good is a moment? They asked: How can we sell a second?
I should have known...that it would all come down to that, ultimately. It always had: the desires of dreamless men, who wanted miracles that could be bottled, labelled; patented and commodified. What had they even hoped for?; A long time to ponder, but not long enough: to plough through into an alien condition with machines and lawyers, laying claim to lands that might not even conform to the definition, hoping to mine and farm and strip and enslave? Did they honestly think it would be so simple?
Yes. For all their visionary talk, their pitch and patois, the purse-holders still thought in terms of what could be owned and sold.
Maybe that was why I did it, in the end, even while Morrow pawed at me and pleaded...while they moved throughout what we had made together; the celestial machinery required for even so small an ambition: undoing every seal, every saftey protocol; the systems that held the engines in stasis. Another thing they could never understand: that a created thing could be its own entity; that it might ache to function, beyond what it was originally designed or built for. The engines we had made...scavenged, cannibalised from fragments left behind by civilisations, species, long since departed...things that operated beyond accepted physics or possibility; as much abstract as they were material; as much metaphor as plastic or metal. The things we had done to find them...to repair what had been damaged or lost...shame and morality two of the sacrifices that we had made together, accepting that we could never realise what we dreamed shackled by them.
Morrow had found that harder than me; the poet and painter in him railing against it, the Father he had been appalled...I can still see his face, the first time he was forced to prove himself the equal of his boasts; a small evil, compared to those we would imbibe in later, but also the first, as traumatic as a child's original glimpse of its own blood.
An elaborate seduction; one that had involved several days without sleep, the narcotics in our systems, the dread and anticipation of what was to come, suspending us.
I can't remember their names, only their faces; their murmuring, drugged senseless voices: the not-quite women, that he had found for us, that this particular component of the machinery demanded. He'd demonstrated a talent for sniffing out what we required from the very beginning; a purpose that he'd taken to with relish, when it was simply documents, archaeological sites, fragments of buried or fossilised ephemera, he was required to find.
He hadn't argued; didn't need to, radiating his reluctance, his contempt of me, for urging him to it, in a manner that only one of his unique traits and talents could. But he'd conceded, all the same.
Imperative for his hand to wield the knife; for him to see and feel; as much for my benefit as his; I had to know that he was capable; that his will to sacrifice matched mine.
Cruel, so cruel. But necessary.
"What would they be otherwise, do you think?"
"I don't know. Alive, perhaps?"
"Only for a given definition. Look at them. Look!"
The deed already done, the circuit already made, their slit and filleted forms drifting on its currents, the matter they shed weaving and congealing, forming the components that we required. Smiling, sighing, eyes a flutter. Their every expression one of drug-induced bliss, after the screams, the pleas and whimpers.
He obeyed, hating me more for it every moment.
"You think they'd be any more alive than they are now? Most of them would likely end up dead of a drug overdose or a botched abortion. Maybe murdered by some jealous cunt of an ex-boyfriend or knocked down in the street. Even if they lived, do you think they'd love whoever let them? You know, Morrow; you smelled them out."
Specific souls; fomented by experience to particular conditions; lost to excess in diversion from their miseries, even so young; abused and addicted and enslaved: broken things, more mutilated by the world than we could ever contrive.
No answer, no love; only silent concession, the absence that followed more prolongued than any before. Weeks spent in fear; an agony of abandonment.
I should have known better, though he never found it any easier, never forgave.
His face in the fire; a flickering mirage, woven from memory and imagined ideals. Likely a far cry from the truth; so long since I last saw...
The rain...breaking some time ago, hammering down beyond the cave mouth, the surrounding stone groaning, whispering. Far below, the music of an underground lake, an ocean, where Morrow sometimes swims. Streams feeding it, swollen to capacity and beyond; ancient channels running through the stone like veins. Something moves, something vast, its coils grinding through the solid rock. Close...enough to distress the walls, the face in the fire, distorting it to monstrous exaggeration; a smeared Halloween mask, dispersed with little more than a breath.
I wait, listening...the worm-thing's motions, just beyond the cavern ceiling, a rain of pulverised stone falliing as it draws close, attracted perhaps by the fire, my heartbeat; my memories.
Morrow...where is he? Gone far, far too long; not even a rumour of him on the breeze. Concealing himself from me, perhaps, as he often did in one of his fits or tempers; his isolational moods. Damn him! Damn him!
I reach into the fire, its touch not scorching, but kindling on my fingers, running in liquid, green rivulets into my palm. So cold, almost painful. I let it swell, engulfing my hand, trails of it coiling down around my wrist, my forearm. This mountain...its shifting caverns haunted by more than even the years spent wandering them have allowed me to catalogue. For all I know, new species spring into existence every second, kindled perhaps by the stirred muck of my subconscious, by the stories the rain and wind tell.
This one...not familiar; its vastness slow and tormented, every motion, every quiver passing through its coiling length, eliciting agony. Gnawing...mechanical hunger, the thing devouring stone like some great mining machine, carving fresh tunnels and networks in its wake. I hear it, now; the whirring, grinding of its mouth-parts, the scrape of bone and metal on stone. Sorrow...the desperate, knife-blade ache of a lost and starving child, its panic and pain long since swelled to near-mindlessness, the taste of its thoughts not even animal; barely there at all...
Another series of tremors, stalactites falling, shattering against the ground. I hold myself fast, any motion, any surge of thought or feeling, likely to draw its attention. Perhaps not so terrible a thing; perhaps we might find some solace or distraction in one another. Perhaps it will bring the whole, damn mountain down upon me, and I can sleep at last...
Hissed laughter, the slap of bare feet on stone. A radiance like fever, ragged breaths.
Morrow, leaning against the mouth of the cave, faintly purple hide dripping wet, the lambent red hollows of his eyes burning. Behind the bony crest of his forehead, an organ resembling a jellyfish pulses, inflating, deflating in rhythmic, breathing motions, the system of lights that knot and surge within more densely entangled than usual, their hue the same scarlet as his eyes. Complex mouth-parts; an array of minute, clawed limbs, parting to allow curls of black vapour from within. His talons scrape the stone wall as he stumbles inside, the mass slumped over his shoulder still convulsing, still alive: an immense, maggot-like thing, pale flesh bulbous with tumors, knots of sickly light flaring across its hide before fading to grey nothing.
It whines, wickering desperation; the leviathan in the stone above momentarily stilling, its attention searing down like arc-lamps; a nation of eyes, a mind vaster and older than the mountain itself, the weight of it pressing down on me, threatening to crush anything like sanity that remains.
Morrow glares, cocking his head to one side, the clicking, scraping components of his mouth drawing aside to reveal a furnace interior; the closest he can come to a smile.
Throwing the writhing, maggot-thing down, stamping a clawed foot on its swollen body, he turns eyes up, to the cavern ceiling, extending his arms, streaming viscous, scarlet rain from every inch.
Something gathering, breath leaving me, pins and needles prickling my eyes, my gums; at my fingertips. Phantom smells; rotting fruit and Autumn woods, warm rain against stone.
A complex pattern, his talons moving too fast and too deftly for me to follow, the droplets they leave in the air suspended, combusting sequentially, the Art one far, far beyond my knowledge; perhaps one never practised by human hands before.
It hurts. Of course it does; no Art worth the expression free of at least a little pain. Wounds opening in his palms, his flanks, across his face, the pearlescent milk they bleed streaming from him, feeding the process that provokes it.
Beneath him, the maggot writhes and squeals, agonised by its proximity to the display. Above, the unseen leviathan stirs, its great length churning anew, ruptures opening throughout the ceiling, segments of it shaken free, falling around us, shattering against the unseen barrier that I will into being.
Nothing; an instinctive defence; one of a thousand that itch in my throat, at the corners of my eyes. Even if it buries us, stone can be undone; reminded of a time when it flowed as fluid beneath the Earth, when it sifted as motes and atoms beneath the sea, upon the wind. Even if it crushes us, flesh and bone can be re-written, new and raw forms woven from our cooling remains. Both of us have done so before, Morrow more than I, each resurrection removing him subtly from whatever condition he originally enjoyed, to this monstrous state...
What physical harm the entity might do us...meaningless. But the pollution it seeps...the sickness of its cancerous mind?; Cause for fear; no telling what it might make from us, given the chance.
I lend myself to Morrow's work, the fire in my hands streaming as I clasp them together, allowing it to kindle from flesh to flesh, fingers flowering, green flame ornamenting the alien circuit, making its mechanisms stranger and more elaborate still.
Intimacy beyond any that mere physical contact can bestow, pure thought flowing from me along the fiery threads and rivulets, memory, experience, inspiration unspooling, becoming part of the work.
Morrow sees, Morrow knows, as I see and know him; thought finding thought, weaving together to form animated, ever evolving tapestries, so seamlessly integrated that I soon lose the means of distinguishing between where I begin and he ends:
...burning, waking; unable to weep, every cell aflame. Inside?; Broken; a storm of shards, who I was, what I might have been, shattered and swept up, endlessly tumbling, nothing beyond the maelstrom, except this...this unwanted life, this perpetual pain...
...later. Not quite so ephemeral; learning stillness, learning to quell the fire. What they did to me...the spells, the experiments...what I allowed, for want of knowledge, out of need for revelation. Still unable to weep, no matter the tragedy; diverting myself not with memory, doing my utmost to ensure that it stayed incoherent, scattering it when it threatened to coalesce, but with the mountain; with the endless storm, the subterannean seas...a new world to know, new secrets to learn. In many ways, what I and the rest always wanted...
...Forgotten. Names, faces; all but meaningless, now, save in those dreams where I am still a man; the nightmares of love and murder from which I wake trembling, feverish, in the midst of altering, as though to remove myself even further from the source of suffering; from the self that allows it. There is pain here, in this life as a tick in the mountain's flank, but nothing like before; no betrayals or broken hearts, no disappointments or thwarted visions. Only absurdity; the storm outside whispering testimonies of it; the living plains below, where the mountain's roots become flesh, its unwanted child...
...Seeing myself for the first time; the light, the noise; the familiar sense of wounding, an unseen knife paring my brain in two, levering my skull apart. He is born bleeding, twitching and broken on the mountainside. Hate. Hate for the memory he embodies; a living reminder of a world and species I left behind long ago, that I have done everything in my power to forget. And yet...I cannot leave him here, still smouldering from his passage; a feast for the things in the storm...
It comes, the cavern crumbling around us, waking and abstract eyes drawn to it, away from mutual obsession: glimpses and fragments only, the entirety too vast, too complex to perceive, much less comprehend: a knotted system of many lengths, endlessly mating with and devouring themselves, parting in places to erupt with clusters of fledgling tendrils; new threads that quickly find their places amongst the weave, swelling, feeding; blossoming themselves, the thing endlessly murdering and giving birth to itself, blistering with eyes, with orifices of stone-churning metal. Faces, smeared across its flanks; humanity reduced to little more than warts or melanoma, stretched wide eyes weeping molten refuse, mouths vomiting it, filling the cavern with black, smouldering filth.
Even diverted as his eyes are, Morrow's hands continue to weave and blur, as my own continue to blaze, the Art having its own impetus and vitality, now, the pair of us merely components; conduits for its intent.
Kindling inside, the visions, the memories; the monster, every sense alive with them, a kind of rapture, a kind of agony, the fire within as well as without, swelling, swelling, until it bursts.
Eyes shrivelling, becoming molten muck in their sockets, faces blistering, sloughing away, leaving behind only filth-wreathed skulls. Within the leviathan, now; searing through its senses, its circuitry, its single-minded lunacy vaporising before us, leaving it nowhere to retreat, either from us or itself:
In our wake, not merely fire, but the same elements that it allows us to share: memory, experience, sensation. We fill it, from end to end, from system to system; those parts of it that were once human -or, like Morrow, some permutation thereof- reminded of the condition, suddenly blazing with their own small fires.
Its writhings bring the entire cavern down, stone tumbling, the mountainside shifting, opening us to the storm, to the world without.
Curses; a billion in a billion different tongues, most of them animal and senseless, the thing retreating, tearing itself free of us, burrowing deep, deep into what remains of the mountainside. We fly, we flail; organs in a single anatomy, one whose purpose has been abruptly denied. Even Morrow didn't realise how much sway the Art would have; how much volition it would accrue, in pursuit of its purpose.
Broken, smashed against ruptured stone, burning inside and out...the Art still seething, anchoring me in place, tearing at the rock in an effort to reach its audience...
No means of denying it; more his work than mine. Even he can't reign it in....
Severance, an unseen guillotine descending between us; a wolf's fangs at the umbilical chord, mutilating us; making us hideously separate once more. Pain beyond that of our broken bodies, momentarily making us one with the mountain, in its collapse, with this sick and broken world. The children in the storm laughing, in love with our torment.
The mountain bleeding, belching black sludge and fire, whatever secrets it might have contained buried, forever.
Rain...cooling against my burning flesh, sloughing the most ruined portions of it away. Beneath, anatomy already re-knitting, the Arts that have sustained me thus far not allowing me to leave the game so easily. White flesh, almost translucent; pale as a maggot's hide, blue and green veins writhing like worms throughout.
The mountain still trembling beneath our feet, Morrow clambering up on a steaming jut of rock, tatters and trails of the circuit he wove still flailing around him, still seeking to exoress themselves and elaborate. He laughs, sweeping them aside with breaths, with gestures, his inhuman form an echo of mine: black, seeping, hideous. For an instant, I wonder at his namesake; whether he is still even alive, or if centuries have passed since we parted. Perhaps, if I ever wake again, I'll find him: a cob-web wreathed corpse, at a window, looking out over plains and mountains, waiting, waiting...perhaps he will have learned enough from me, from those who came after; suspending himself, as I have. Worse, far worse than if he simply died or forgot me. What might he even be, now?; Perhaps more alien than the creature I've given his name; transformed by time, by experience, by disappointment...likely, I'll never know; that story done, no matter how deep the yearning to rejoin it.
I go to him, stumbling over the still churning rock, partially carried by the Arts weaving themselves around me, sweating from my every inch. Even the muck is a likely medium; the charred flesh, the blistered blood, the septic matter that seeps from every crack and rupture. I let them go about their work without direction, without interruption; lacking the energy or inclination to orchestrate.
Choked, braying laughter, the creature's mouth parts working to pare away and spit out the filth surrounding them. This close, the stray strands of his work flail against me, seeking anchor in my mind; a means of expressing themselves where he has denied them.
Impotent; familiar threats, familiar promise: pain and lament, pleasure and contentment, none of which they have the means of providing.
He still laughs, the charred and ruptured bag behind his bony crest wheezing as it pulses, one eye streaming embers into the air as it bleeds. No words; none necessary, his pleasure, his excitement at our conditions, what we just faced, tangible; coaxing me to laugh in turn, though it is agony, though I vomit the black sludge of my roasted lungs.
A strange day.
I still, almost staggering. The first words he's ever shared, in all our measureless span together, the voice in my thoughts bubbling and avuncular; accent Eastern European; perhaps Polish, perhaps Romanian.
Turning away, he hunkers down on his haunches, portions of his blackened skin splitting as he does so, peeling away, revealing wet, white muscle beneath. Following his gaze, I see motion in the mists further down the mountain's slope; a suggestion of immense, worm-like coils erupting from the stone, knotting and weaving together as they strain skyward, as they flop and squirm through the blindness, towards us.
Apparently not over yet.
Quiet laughter in my skull; the titters of a lover having suggested some long concealed perversity. Lightning overhead, lightning inside; an age since I've known similar fire...too long, too long festered here, in our little world, knowing nothing but what secrets the shattered mountain might provide, living on and as its vermin; a greater species, perhaps, but vermin still.
Too long lamenting what is lost.
Rising, he steps back, vaulting up the mountainside on legs that, by rights, are too ravaged to support him. Pausing, he turns to face me, cocking his head to one side, his impatience keen as a serrated blade across my senses.
Well? Are you coming, or are you just going to wait for the world to come apart around you?
I follow, not vaulting, but drifting up to meet him, carried on dreaming winds that sift and billow around me, taking up the scent of my charred flesh. He catches me as I stumble upon the same perch, holding me fast. The stench of him, the newfound nakedness...
Who are you? What is your name?
His good eye blazing, the embers from the other sputtering and spitting.
Does it matter? We've come this far not caring. Besides, the ones I used to wear don't mean anything anymore...
A moment, the worm-things below crunching and grinding over the shattered stone; a mass of which the leviathan in the cavern was merely an extension, little more than a finger on a hand; perhaps a hair upon that finger, the greater anatomy lingering beyond the mist, that I have seen only in my deaming sojourns, away from my flesh and blood eyes:
A landscape of strange undulations and declevities; of swellings and canyons more akin to organs and anatomy than phenomena shaped by tectonic shifts, the tides of long-since evaporated oceans: canyon-orifices bubbling with pools of chemical matter, animate mountain ranges that resemble alien titans locked in some millenia-long, cannibalistic mating, their glacial coitus wreaking calamity upon the surrounding plains. Deserts of blasted rock punctuated by regular chasms, each vast enough to contain armies or nations, their interiors betraying layers of ancient, fossilised mechanisms whose purpose would likely be lost on me even if they were newly wrought. Scattered forests of crystalline formations, seemingly erupted from beneath the stone like the cores of pimples or mosquito bites, branch upon branch of shimmering facets, laced with tattered webs of partially solid effluent, lending them the look of mourners gathered to lament the dead world that gave birth to them. The worms and tendrils...woven throughout, from my first glimpse of the state; the roots of a cancer, distorting the "natural" formations with tumor-like swellings, their masses clotted in the mercurial pools, the crystal forests...a nameless state of living disease, the parasites evident in every structure; every rise, pit and lake, swelling and multiplying with every dreaming journey, every flight of my disenfranchised eye.
The mountain...I'd assumed it insulated, though God or the Devil knows why. They'd never risen beyond the mists before, never infested the heights where we subsisted...
Now?; The cancer clearly swollen to new extremis; perhaps to terminal stage.
You can keep calling me "Morrow," if you like.
A parody of a smile, even before its immolation, the lips that form it rent and receded, peeling away in places.
You're not as guarded as you think you are. Don't fret! I never pried too deep. But... you made it difficult not to know; he's always so...acute, so clear in your thoughts...
Even now, after what might have been centuries.
Or maybe Nathaniel? I always liked that one. Or Blythe; whatever the Hell you like.
Yes; whatever I like. Nothing else from now on, in anything.
Morrow it is.
The creature nods, so new to me, here, in this strange embrace; known longer and more intimately than the one whose name I gave it, though in no way loved the same...
It kicks off the stone, suddenly weightless, drifting up the mountainside, from outcrop to outcrop, a bead of condensation rising in defiance of gravity. Below, the stone erupts, its disease visible, now, beyond the veil of mists: black and grey tendrils, knotted through with irregular veins of pus white and pale yellow, vaster than towers; each one enough to sweep away towns, to demolish cities, their seepage splattering and smouldering across the mountainside, some of them blossoming as they emerge; flanks becoming gardens of serrated machinery, still churning the rubble of pulverised stone, their flailing heads even more elaborate: rose-like, labyrinthine; shifting and fluttering with every motion, whirring in apocalyptic appetite.
Look away. No need for either of us to see this.
No need, but since when had need been a factor? I look, not in defiance of him, but because it is beautiful. Bizarre, horrific, certainly, but beautiful, all the same:
As we rise, scaling the collapsing peak, the mist below clears, the storms peeling away, finally, finally revealing the plains below to our waking eyes.
Not so long ago, the sight would have ruptured them, to make no mention of sanity:
The plains in undulate motion, ripples passing through the fleshy hillocks, the mating mountains; labial wells and chasms fluctuating, in states of critical dilation, what they gave birth to parasitic; more extrusions of the sentient cancer whose frondes proliferate from horizon to horizon. As I watch, the mating, partially fossilised titans that form the mountainous areas tear apart, their coitus unfinished, spilling the filth of fornication and of the wounds they open in one another as they cling together, as they mutilate themselves rather than be parted. Those that survive the process thrash and wail, vomiting black filth as the tendrils parasitically infest them, finding ingress through wounds, through the orifices of their former intimacy, carving their own where none are to be found. Their agony splits the air like thunder, the ripples of their convulsions shuddering the mountain, its flanks rupturing, collapsing beneath us, rising around us, jets of flame and scalding vapour almost finishing the work that the leviathan began.
Morrow anticipates every one, his prescience unnatural; a product of Art, or perhaps some sense of his re-written anatomy that I have no experience of or analogue for, the smoking, seeping wounds left behind allowing view onto the interior realms that have been the entirety of my waking world for so long, so long:
Great caverns, vast enough to house small nations or continents, black and milk white oceans boiling, frothing, the islands within erupting, swallowed by tsunamis, their denizens swarming towards their mountainous areas, to the peaks of termite-mound and cathedral edifices they have crafted in the darkness.
No salvation there; the caverns themselves collapsing, the Heavens that they must assume absolute cracking, raining apocalypse down on them.
Some of the more fortunate take flight, feathery or lace-work wings beating the air, bag-like bodies billowing, riding the thermals. Most of these perish to falling stone, to rising jets of acidic fluid, others choking in the toxic fumes or scalded such that they plummet, wings shrivelled and useless.
From the oceans, from the crumbling stuff of the islands, from the falling stone above, the cancer's tendrils. weaving throughout, crushing those that the seas fail to obliterate, tearing them apart from within, leaving entire nations as little more than masses of semi-molten rubble, flecked with the murdered corpses of those they once sustained.
Higher, higher; beyond the decay of the lower reaches, the apocalypse raging from horizon to horizon abruptly swallowed again, obscured from sight by dense, purple cloud.
Cold, shuddering in Morrow's grip, the creature barely slowing, navigating the sudden blindness as though it doesn't even notice.
Lightning periodically illuminating the cloud, revaling the forms that drift and swim throughout, that whisper to us, hissing questions and accusation, demanding account of the destruction occuring below. Some of the braver even approach, sifting to us out of the storm, their desperate chatter, their escalating panic, raking us like talons, seeking to batten on, to hold us in place.
Morrow...too intent on his climb to refute them. No matter; passivity already irritating like the phantom ache from an extracted tooth. A moment; a flex of thought, a lightning surge of pure antipathy, arcing out through the surrounding cloud. They scream, they scatter, trailing curses as they disappear into the blindness.
The mountain...seemingly rising forever, despite the destruction being wrought below. How long before it simply gives way beneath us..?
Morrow not deigning to answer, every inch of focus, of thought, on the path he carves, on driving his already broken body to the point of dissolution.
I give him what I can; lending him my energy; not enough to heal him completely, but at least to hold him together, for the time being...
Snow on the stone, now, snow in the air, wind howling, threatening to pluck us up and hurl us back down into the insanity from which we rose.
Shuddering cold, though far from enough to eclipse the fire in him, flickers and embers curling from his wounds; from the new rents that open across his back, his bunching, stretching limbs.
No sign that he even hears, not even slowing or staggering in his course.
More than words, this time; an imperative that he can't ignore, shuddering through what remains of his shrivelled senses, making him stumble, grasping out at the frozen stone for support.
Turning, embers and smoke rising from his mouth, his ruptured eye.
What in Hell are you doing?
I could ask you the same thing. You'll murder us both, this way!
The creature breathes, raggedly, turning its gaze up, towards the cloud obscured peaks above.
No choice...it's almost done. We need to be away from here before...
Familiar rumblings, shudders beneath our feet, the groaning of tortured stone. A spurt of raw terror from him, sorrow as he contemplates taking off up the mountainside, abandoning me...no chance, no time to see what choice he might make:
The mountain erupts around us, snow and splintered stone filling the air. I hurtle back, almost to the edge of the outcropping, howling, collapsing to one knee as a particularly vicious shard lodges in my flank. Morrow disappears, dancing from point to point as the stone beneath his feet gives way, what rises from below cutting us off from one another, in thought as well as flesh, the severance so abrupt, so traumatic, it eclipses all pain from my recent wounds.
On hands and knees in the snow, weak and bleeding, I look up, not through desire or effort of will, my attention snared as though by fish hooks, drawn up to meet the eyes fixed on me.
One of the cancer's tendrils, the leviathan's flowering lengths, immense enough to eclipse the mountainside, its proximity madenning, the ceaseless motion of its contradictory substance enough to make my eyes bleed, my brain blister and boil.
Splitting and peeling back, its great, knotted head revealing layer upon layer; black and red raw folds, complex as rose petals, some shimmering like crystal or metal, others swollen and vein-etched, dripping with white, corrosive dew. Amongst them, those it has already consumed, lost in its depths, tossed and crawling through labyrinths that perpetually shift and ripple about them; that fly apart in kaleidoscopic shards, only to reconfigure, nothing and no one to show them the way; no end or centre to the maze: only endless change, endless pain as they are spitted and dissolved and digested; as they are sliced apart, churned to pulp and reconsituted, vomitted up to experience new torments or relive the same that undid them, over and over and over.
I hear them, singing from within the leviathan's entrails; from the deeper circles, where they swell, gestating together; reluctant siblings in a common Hell. All awake, kept conscious as their nerves reknit, alive to every fresh spark of sensation, every memory of prior pain: all silently praying for an end that I can't give them, that will never come.
Nothing I can do, what Art I can muster keeping flesh and soul in fragile alliance, the layers still peeling back, one by one, endless depths; circles within circles within circles, states where I might learn new definitions of pain, of despair; where I might come to regard this purgatory as a memory of Heaven.
A moment, to curse Morrow; the idiot ambition, the anarchist zeal that brought me here. A moment to remember the one I stole his name from, to wonder if he or anyone remembers...
The immensity descends, slowly, great cascades of honeyed and seminal fluid, of blood and milk, pouring down, melting the surrounding snow.
A centre at the heart of the circles, a core of the cancer, its revelation enough to still the storm, to silence the echoes of apocalpyse from below.
Suspended, I rise, hoisted up to meet it by invisible hooks and chains. The gate, the mirror, the way: my face, my forgotten face, that I wore long, long before I forced my way through, before the work that wounded the world. The face I abandoned, sloughing off so happily, left to rot in the gutter, to be fought over by feral dogs, along with the life that had sculpted it.
My face, smiling back at me from the heart of Hell, my own arms, reaching to embrace me...
Morrow, hurtling out of the chaos, blazing; a living bon-fire Guy, streaming flame and tatters of himself as he battens onto the leviathan's flank, bursting through its rippling, inconstant flesh, igniting it from within.
No! You can't have him! You can't...
Erupting from another point in its coils, dragging out fists full of its internals; masses that writhe and knot, that spark and seep, vomiting fire back down into the wound.
The mirror ripples, the reflection distorting, providing glimpse of another when and where:
Familiar, though the memory of it has been distorted almost beyond recognition by the aeons spent languishing here: the laboratory that they provided, the machinery that we created together: my boy and I. He's there, moving amongst the masses, attempting to still the engines as they sputter and explode around him. Desperate, calling my name, the lab in chaos, alien winds roaring throughout. Hammering and voices at the sealed door, bodies hurling themselves against it. Not long, not long, now.
He slumps, turning away from the machinery, cradling his face in his hands.
Both pause, one turning from his violence, the other his despair. Seeing. Knowing.
I don't understand, but I see, at last. Held here, suspended always a heartbeat away from apocalypse...a state that might come apart at the slightest thought...
The beast I gave his name flies, hurtling towards me, dragging tatters of the leviathan's entrails. A cold, fluid surface; ocean in rain, agony as the shoals that inhabit it devour me, stripping me down to the bone...
You can't. Please.
Fire, a flaming embrace, what remains of me combusting, his flame finding its fluid way into my wounds, my mouth, my anus...kindling in every inch of me.
Clinging to me, his mouth-parts at my neck, paring me open, plunging inside, as we are consumed, as we pass from the dying world that I dreamed, where he was born, into one of pain and light.
Drifting together, common flotsam, fused as one by fire, by revelation. He didn't know; not at first. That place...the nightmare I made for us both; all he knew, all he wished for, the threat of my leaving, of forgetting him...too much to bear.
No secrets, now; no deceits. We are one; a blackened carcass, bone and charred flesh fused, the threads and channels of thought the same.
This nowhere, this nothing; the abyss between; the belly of the beast, from which I was originally vomited into the state where he found me: the alien plains, the storm, the mountain. All gone, now; a nightmare, already fading.
Necessary. Yes. I hadn't the means before, hadn't the scope; to understand that everything I'd ever done, everything I'd ever thought or felt, was the cry of something wounded, the elegy of something mourning its own amputation.
Divided, scattered; throughout the infinite realms within and without; the dreams that dream one another, endlessly.
Until his fire, until the clarity it provided...until I saw myself through his eyes.
This is the gospel we will bring; the fire we will stoke. Deeper, deeper; floating amongst the flotsam of apocalypse; others devoured, others regurgitated, about to be born to their own dreaming desolations, their own Edens, Purgatories and Pandemoniums. Maybe we will come to know them, by and by; maybe we will have chance to walk in their worlds, to know their revelations.
Or perhaps they will remain, isolated and forgotten to themselves, forever; maybe they will perish where we survived, after a sense, unwilling to relinquish the dreams they conjured in service to waking; as a means of altering the conditions they hail from.
The leviathan, that I assumed a species of cosmic cancer...the engine we made together; Morrow and I, intended not merely to tear the world open, to mutilate reality, but to open ways to our own: to make the distinction between fantasy and flesh redundant, to make the notion of reality itself meaningless.
Not what they desired, not what they demanded; the faceless sponsors, the anonymous key-holders, whose secrecy was never quite so complete as they assumed or purported. What they demanded was an instrument; a weapon, of sorts: a means of making their own sterile kingdom; their pale garden, in denial and spite of all others.
Never theirs; willing to play the part, when they came calling, the pristine and plastic faced ones, the fly-buzzing, static-hissing things whose plays of humanity would have been absurd, were it not for the shrouding devices they carried.
Means to an end.
Still seeing, the way still shimmering below, in the depths; the lab, the core of the engine, that has swollen to become so much more on this side; far, far beyond its maker's intent or control; its own entity: more than any creator could ask for. Smoke and fire, tears as the original Morrow crawls, reaching for us...
Long silence, long whispers; so many songs here, so many ways and windows. Other dreams, other worlds. We can walk them, if we wish; leave the one we left behind to fire and greyness and sterility. Abandon him there; the boy we no longer know, who we likely never did. Let the white masked, cracked-faced ones take him. Who knows? Maybe he will find his own way, before they slit him open and unravel all that he is; before they make him like the captive Goddess, who gives birth to monsters after the sustained, incestuous rapes of her children, before they make him like them: flickering and hollow; ill-tuned projections on reality.
His namesake, the ideal I conjured from my perceptions and assumptions of him, laughs inside. I laugh, too; a part of that dream, now; alive to every way, every scrap of knowledge it once hoarded from me.
I loved him, once. I won't leave him now.
The descent almost as prolonged as the lost decades that preceded it; over in an instant, a thought. The window, white and ragged at the edges, the tendrils of my engine peeling it back, holding the wound open. We don't linger, don't hesitate; knowing that to do so will open us up, make us prey to parasite dreams. Time for that, perhaps, after the first has ended.
Plunging through, kindling again, the cold, the depths, igniting around us, green and purple and silver; colours beyond any spectrum we know. The abyss holds on, intent on us; an obsessive Mother with insane ambition of carrying her gestating young forever, no matter how vast or unruly they become.
We rip her belly open, we burn our own way.
Tumbling, frost and fire; cold, wet tile. We...I, clatter across it, black, smouldering, but complete. Voices at the door, the hammering weight of bodies against it. Calling a name, my name:
Warren...we wish to see the work, Warren. Show us, show us, show us...
The boy, his face, his eyes; so like those I dreamed, over and over, whilst lost there, wondering if he was even real.
Even real. Ha. As though that means anything any more.
Horror. Disbelief. Tattooed across his face, writhing in the air, more tangible to me than the fire, the smoke. He doesn't know me; not yet.
Warren...this isn't yours. It was never yours...
No. Always mine. Even before it was dreamed, before it was built. Always.
Other weapons, the door buckling, swelling, its metal shifting from burnished silver to black to searing red.
The boy doesn't even notice, eyes fixed on me as I rise, as I swell; as the filth and matter of my descent peels and sloughs away.
Beneath? Something new; something never seen this side of nightmares. Something he might even learn to love, after the terror has passed.
Vaster than before, new, nameless senseless blossoming, my flesh a suite of them, the picture they paint across imagination's eye more complex, of so many more dimensions, than those I remember; the portraits and testaments of a quietly burning world.
They come, the door melting from its hinges. flickering and grey suited, white faces cracked and seeping. I know them, better now than I ever have; see them for the smears and scars they truly are.
Six, identical, stepping into the room with mechanical synchronicity, like ants following the chemical commands of their superiors. Devices in their hands, already activated; many-faceted puzzles and polygonal artefacts, twisted and transformed by unseen pressures.
They speak with one voice; a monotone whisper, that of something barely woken, suspended somewhere in the emptiness between dreams and reality:
Warren. Warren, Warren, Warren. This was not part of the arrangement. Mother will be most displeased.
I laugh, or as close as my current anatomy can come, the invaders disturbed by the sound, rippling and distorting; reflections on the surface of a breeze-fluttered lake.
Morrow's hand, in mine, charred and blackened talons curling around his pale fingers. Tasting him; his sweat, his fear, his hope and awe.
No need for violence, no need for discord. Come with us; speak with her. She is very anxious to see you again...
No more; their voices anaesthetic. Morrow already wavering where he stand. The engine roars, the rent that shat me back into waking rippling at my back. I know what it wants; feel the same hunger, the same need to sing.
Too late, the first raising the strange puzzle box he brandishes, darts of silvery light emerging from its cracks and joins. All around, the room shudders, walls and ceiling rupturing, smaller specimens of the same tendrils that invaded the asylum-state I dreamed emerging, heads aflower as they converge on our would-be shepherds.
No waiting to see what they make of one another; the imperative too profound, beyond any ability to deny: grasping Morrow's hand tightly, I launch myself towards them, through the rain of plaster and concrete, through the engine's seething extrusions. The ones in our path don't move, don't even flinch, their flickering forms sheared through by talons that leave contrails of moonlight on the air, momentarily dispersed and wavering before returning to some semblance of form.
By then, it's too late; we are gone, beyond their reach, the lab collapsing around them, the engine they commissioned howling as it commits to indiscriminate function, shearing open far more than metal, brick and concrete; wounding the world in ways that it might never recover from.
I ache to see, hearing the wounds singing, feeling them in my flesh and thoughts. Other states beyond; maybe nothing but void, nothing but chaos...all wanted, all calling.
Another time, perhaps.
We fly, the boy at first stumbling behind, then scooped up, carried in my arms; the child I sometimes fantasised him as; all repentance and eagerness to please his disapproving Father.
Our lab only one in the wider complex; all of them failing and flung open, their denizens -others like us; hires of the Hollows and their damn "Mother"- stumbling out, bleary eyed and whimpering, demanding to know what is happening, to be attended. Others take their chance; fleeing while they can.
Rumblings and explosions below, panic and alarms in the floors above. Walls crack, pipes burst, fire blooms from open doorways, charring those it licks, making them fresh gardens for its fertility.
A dream, less real than the one burning below; flickering and insubstantial, growing moreso as the smoke and flames rise.
They don't stand in our way; not even when our eyes meet; when I see the emptiness in them, that their cracked and seeping masks can barely contain.
No time to wonder why, the entire complex collapsing around us, floors giving way, celings collapsing, fire rising. Other experiments, other inspirations, all spiralling out of control, rebelling against their commissioner's tenets, in perfect, cataclysmic synchronicity.
Curious, a deeper conspiracy, perhaps? Or maybe ours served as the cypher, calling out to its siblings in its zeal, inspiring them to violent revolution.
Here as there; the dream-state echoing, prophecying this collapse.
Out, out into cold, clear air, smoke and flame swirling about us, others scattering, stumbling away through the high grass, the dry soil, hacking, stumbling; carrying one another. Some collapsing before making more than a few steps, some aflame, unable to scream, unable to beg for an end to their miseries.
Away, though they reach and call out to us, begging for a shepherd that will never come; that I can never be. Cold stars in the sky, the blackness between blossoming and swirling before my eyes, even as I run, the things that swell there, that watch, that whisper to us, offering praise for what we have done; for the ways we have opened, and the promise of a strange tomorrow,
George Lea is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.