A Lake Of Fire / The Plateau
rating: +21+x

Part One,

A Lake Of Fire


How could you possibly imagine the tonal difference between those archaic, hairy limbs and the slightly less archaic swaths of moist carpet on which their digits pressed into? How would that kind of dissonance even be visualized? It was a total clash, that connection, as the ancients first entered this foreign world of errant architecture.

When they walked through those corridors they became scarcely wiser than dogs. They couldn't even fathom it. The planet they knew was one of hunting, foraging, weaving, eating, and sleeping. A reality of simpler terms. The kind where the sun was a great and nameless fixture. Filled of nights spent preparing for the tigers, praying for them to take one of your own instead of yourself. But this monochrome palace abided to none of those familiar customs. A separate dimension of alien law, it would supersede them in ways not even expressible as it flexed and exerted principles of structure that would not even be considered for another two-and-a-half-million years. It unveiled itself as a total denial of their hard-rooted simian knowledge, something forever unlearnable that their minds might chew on forever but never manage to swallow. And still they moved down those ever-generating hallways, clicking and grunting to both each other and themselves as they cautiously traversed a plane never before gazed upon by the eyes of a sapient.

What else where they to do?

No turning back, for the light of the damp cave they knew had dissipated into a total mist. Into an impenetrable sheet of magic.

Imagine the echoes. The echoes of dripping stalactites fading to a hum-buzz. Echoes of lives lost.

Imagine the terror.

Even then, the abyss waited. That dull and stygian thing. Imprudent to wills of time or chronology, it became long before we did and it would not end until long after. It was there when our primitive selves drew bow and slung rock against foreign wallpaper, and it continued even as the decay dissolved our greatest settlements and eradicated all our footprints. Not even the great consumption behind the all-encompassing decay could trump that irrefutable void; for all the wallpaper and carpeting surrounding it may have been swallowed, but still that horrid little square continued to rest and wait beside a corner that had no longer existed.

The abyss took some of those old primordial explorers, you know. Then it began to take lots of people. And eventually, not long after our species took its first steps toward that vast liminal body, the abyss would never allow us to leave.

~

He stood inside one of the entrances to a large and round theater-like area, lined with dozens of rotting wooden chairs that all faced a small stage in the back-center of the room. Unsure of whether or not he would step inside. The last time he found a room like this it didn't go well; there were things hidden behind some of the chairs oh which he did not care for very much. But that occurred a while ago now, and in this place a room being like another did not always indicate that they would be the same. There were millions of copies but perhaps a few thousand deviations. Aberrations in the cell structure, perhaps? How could he rationalize them? The answer is that he didn't, and never tried to— they just were.

He checked his bag. It was a dusty orange lump of a bookbag that he'd found off a corpse in another floor a while back. A small little thing, now sporting a few holes from his usage. The thought of a child ever being in this place bothered him, and so he decided a long time ago that the tool must've come from some other origin. Beyond that he did not speculate. Drawing the rusty zipper across and peering into the fabric container he saw that he was low on water, low on food, low on mostly everything. All the things needed for the dance of survival. Things he greatly lacked.

He looked back at the room.

You've walked for so long. So many winding paths of stained beiges, so few safe havens to interrupt them. The doors and the warrens they lead to, the rooms, the nooks. That is always where the food is. That is always where you've found it. And it could be so much longer before you find another.

You need this.

He took a deep breath, putting away his bag and unsheathing a small knife in its stead. It wasn't much. Like nothing to most of the creatures here. But it worked on other humans and they were what concerned him most often.

Descending down the stairs that followed the double-door passageway into the theater, he stared at the swarm of chairs and began surveying them for threats, or for loot. He found the latter. Small cardboard boxes sat atop a few of those chairs, unopened and slightly soggy from the dripping panels fixated far above them. One was encrusted with mold. Another sat inside a puddle which had gathered in the convex area of its chair. He looked at them not unlike a man who had found some sort of long-forgotten treasure.

Because he had, oh, he had.

Two of the boxes were filled with various edible things. Crackers, pretzels, packs of condiments. Small items that made a big difference. The one inside the puddle was empty. The last— the box weaved shut in layers of hardened, thriving mold— held the greatest treat of them all. Three bottles of water. Almond flavored.

He nearly screamed as they were revealed. You might last without food but certainly could not without water. He knew that particular delirium well, so well that its craving mindset was almost always engrained within him. But today, just this once, it would be gone.

After that, he nearly left the place. Nearly. But he just had to scan the room one last time. Wouldn't want to have missed a box, of course.

And there he saw it.

A door in the right-hand corner of the room, sitting next to the stage, one that was not there previously. It loomed tall and proud, knowing all too well that it was a strong and dominating gate. The kind that led to a lake of fire.

This kind of thing rarely happened to him, but he knew the protocol was to avoid these sorts of developments; they might lead to something simple, safe, sure— but usually they were just traps. You'd enter them and it'd turn your whole world around, leave you stranded in a new floor or a different part of the current floor that you'd never seen before. A very disorienting practice. One he didn't enjoy the thought of partaking in.

But maybe, just maybe.

It could be dangerous, sure. It could be one of those deadly turns. One that demanded a protocol.

But maybe it could be nothing. It's just as possible. That's how this whole thing works, isn't it?

He thought that he knew better than to do this.

Maybe.

But did he really?

He sighed. Did he? This water was a good find, real good. But not one that would last longer then a week, maybe two if he stayed smart about it. That door could lead to anything. Anything could be good.

You could last without food. But not without water.

He gathered his new findings and poured them into his bag, nearly filling it to the brim. He could barely zip it back up, the sides of the bag bulging as pieces of wrapper stuck out of its tiny tears. The sight made him feel greedy, wanting more like this. Powerful enough to make him pause, and look over at the new door in one final moment of serious consideration.

Stupid. Stupid.

He trotted towards it and pulled on its steel handle, very slowly. It creaked open in tense, inanimate anticipation.

The door glided away to reveal a tight hallway, about twenty feet in length and hardly any wider than himself. Entering it was a squeeze. The dense particles of claustrophobia emanate made the air go down his throat thick and soupy. Choking. The end of the passage carried with it a square-shaped chasm, evil and far and impossible. It took up the space of one full tile of carpeting. Overwhelmingly featureless, for it held no great secrets that could shame. He could not see the bottom. He thought that maybe he did not want to. Something about that pit grew deeply unsettling to his psyche; so cold and constant and placed without clear reason or goal. Something told him it wasn't supposed to be there, and that scared him the most.

There was no further exploration. The trail had ended in a steep cliff that he refused to step off of, for there existed nothing that could be found whilst falling. Slowly he backed out of the cramped space and returned to the theater, its wide walls like far-off canyons when juxtaposed against the cavernous tunnel. He turned away from the new door and exhaled hard upon this stark comparison. He hadn't even realized that he was holding his breath, though he had begun about half-way into that narrow shaft. To leave it felt like a liberating escape, though he did not fully comprehend why.

Taking his que to leave, he quickly hasted up the soft carpeted steps and opened the very same doors which he had once entered, returning to the ceaseless hallways beyond. As he did, the nearby sounds of alarming ruffling came screaming to his attention.

Witless explorer that you are, to turn right and see your fate:

A man standing there under one of the flickering rectangular lights, polishing a knife that was far larger than his. Gray towels covering his face. Some visage of oncoming terrible death. His clothes no better than loose rags. Shaped as an obstacle for he was the greatest one.

"Drop the bag."

"You don't have to do this,"

"Drop it."

And he did. Slowly he lifted down the worn orange item and placed it in the center of the hall, right in front of his own feet.

"Kick it over."

"Please,"

"Kick it."

And again he did. The masked stranger took ahold of the sack and stared at it, then back at his victim, and then again at the plunder. Still and dangerous air betwixt the both of them. A million paths diverging here amidst this concourse.

"Are you alone?"

Lie to him.

"No."

The stranger paused.

"Really?"

"Really."

Slowly he was unzipping the bag. No faster than molasses. Study him well in this moment and look hard for points of weakness. He does have them.

"Where are they."

"We meet at a camp. Scavenge separately. Can find more things if you travel alone."

"Sure. Be quiet for a second."

"They'll find you,"

"Quiet."

And there he saw it; a small patch on the strangers neck that his makeshift cowl could not cover. A tiny spot of exposed, bare neck. One of few empty pieces of skin on his body. It shined there as a great and impeccable achilleas heel.

He's still kneeling. Searching. You have to take him while he's still immobile. Better yet: he does not know about the knife you carry.

"Well. I don't know about your camp."

"You don't know?"

"I don't think it's real. Or if it is it's not my problem. If you travel alone, like you said."

"Not your problem."

"That's what I said. And if you keep repeating"

Quickly he pulled his right hand into his jacket pocket and released the knife within, throwing it at that pale blind spot of flesh where it chose to embed itself perfectly and unleash a steady stream of thick crimson blood. He stumbled forward a few steps with a furious expression in his eyes, but collapsed as more blood flew fourth from the newly-gaping hole. He twitched on the floor and then fell still after a while, near-silent gurgles slowly subsiding.

He gathered himself in a corner and hyperventilated for a while. It was the first person that he knew for certain he had killed. There were others before, but before he was always able to convince himself that it was something else that'd done the job. Not now. Blood had covered the mind and it would never dry. It seeped into the gummy crevasses and festered there and he could feel it always and forever.

He looked over at the corpse. It held no more spasms. Pools of dark liquids gathered about it and folded into one another.

I can't just leave him there. Not like that.

Of course you can't.

Lying there in that gray expanse like a casualty of the Somme. Shriveling up and disintegrating as future travelers stepped over their liminal Green Boots. It just wasn't right. Even the very notion of it bothered him so heavily that he began to pick up the body before he'd even thought of where to put it. He stumbled around like a big toddler as he carried the weight atop his right shoulder before bobbing down the stairs from whence he came.

It was the only place he could think of. Still far from right, but at least fair. Better than the places outside. Better than rotting under the fluorescents.

And there were other silver linings,

because at least this way

nobody would see him.

~

The earliest dream he could recall contained glossy visions of a nameless boy and his father, living out at sea in an old skipper built for two. They fished off the coast of Florida and drug up crawdads in their brown nets, grilling them above a powerful flame. At the end of the dream the boy and his father had both died somehow, their bodies lying still in the bunk beds that hid beneath the deck. Fleeting images of black fluid drooling from open mouths as worms wriggled out of their sunken eyes. The ship had plunged into inky shimmering waters, the eerie vantablack sea claiming it as her own vessel. He woke up crying.

Someone made a map of this labyrinth, and it went on for thousands of miles. There was an end to it all that you would never reach in perceptible time. Something never to be witnessed, purely theoretical. Later some people wept over this grim cartography, for they knew they would never return to the friends and fathers and mothers and sons and daughters that they'd yearned for so heavily. Their memories would last, of course, but they were insecure and fallible. Nothing like pictures, nothing like the living it all. No grand or learnable replacement.

It will swallow all that you love given time. It will wait there forever if it has to.

~

Doctor Bierre saw The Alchemist before he set foot in the camp itself. He stood atop a pile of old boxes overlooking workers from a far edge of the land and observed them silently like a general of ancient war. Ahead of him, beyond rows of chairs and stairs, lied the base. In one of his ebony hands sat a paper— in the other a pen— as he took tiny and infrequent notes. Sometimes he would lift the pen to his lips and chew on it lightly in frustration, and then return to his survey. His face seemed aloof and half-distracted, and it harbored no eyes which Bierre could detect. In their stead was nothing but more skin. Depressions in the shape of oculars. No matter what he was, it certainly couldn't be human, and that was something that all of the workers of the outpost had reportedly begun to loathe about the creature. Bierre himself didn't know what to make of the entity, nor did he quite know why it was even invited to the site in the first place. The letter that had been delivered to the doctor held little in the way of explanations, and this was just one of many other questions that it had evidently failed to satisfy. No matter, he thought. I will be satisfied soon.

He stepped over the border (which was marked by a thin line of trash) and then into the area of the camp itself. The work centered around a decrepit-looking theater room tall and round and large in all diameters. Inside of which there were various team members, barrels, crates, and too many coils of rope to count. There were men in one corner placing bets of some kind. On another side of the room there was a group gathered around a tall door positioned next to a small stage. They all looked very frustrated with one another.

It was one of the more elaborate operations he had seen, that was for sure. They had taken off the doors which led into the theater room and established some tents outside of it, a few stray sleeping bags, some tables and a few chairs.

He tried to think of the last time he'd even seen a sleeping bag. It must've been before he clipped.

It had to have been hard hauling all this stuff. People must've been lost along the way. Perhaps that was why most of the researchers and laborers around him looked so distraught in one way or another. Some people were clearly disheartened and others seemed to just be generally stressed by whatever chances were at hand. One man was drinking, god knows how he managed to locate a bottle. It became clear the closer he got that those who seemed to be betting were actually drawing straws on who would next go through the tall door, and that the people beside it were going over the "procedure" behind what to do once that final straw was drawn.

Sitting atop the stage was the person he'd come to see, one Reed Lestrey. He was the proclaimed leader behind what the letter had called "the anomaly"— some sort of strange aberrance that nobody would speak to Bierre about unless in person. He looked less like the scientist Bierre had imagined and more like some sort of stern, angry foreman. His grimace lessened upon spotting Bierre, though it was obvious that the emotions behind it still remained.

"Good to see you, Reed."

They shook hands.

"Likewise, I'm sure glad you're here."

The two took a seat upon the stairs to the theater. From there, the entire scene was visible. A dozen rows of pews and wooden chairs all centered around the theater itself. Wrenches and wires tossed lazily across the floor every which way. Some draped over the chairs or lining the walls. Poorly-prepared teammates scrambled around the carpeting like ants speeding to intercept a soda spill. Only the drunken man remained still.

"We didn't rightly know what it was going to be until we arrived. That's why some of the equipment is just sittin' around like that; aside from the rope, most of its useless. Now it just ain't clear what to do. We know it's there, we know it ain't right, but that's about as far we got. No other clues."

"And that's why I'm here."

"Right."

"And that's why he's here?"

Bierre gestured over at The Alchemist, who looked about finished with his notes.

"Christ. Yes. After a week of nothin', the overseers sent us that thing. I had to beg them to let you come along, and I've kept it from performin' any 'research' until you arrived on site. You're our second opinion, doc."

That thing. That great unknowable which posed a few yards away from them.

"I see. Any idea why they sent him?"

Reed's brow furrowed as he looked at the figure himself. He was beginning to step off of his box pile as he noticed the pair and started towards them.

"I dunno. God, here he comes,"

The being stopped right next to them, peering down at Bierre and then at Reed.

"Hello, Reed. And hello, doctor…"

"Bierre."

"Bierre! Hello to you. Now, Reed, are you finally gonna tell me what we're here for?"

Reed stood up, and Bierre followed suit.

"You 'ought to know what. You been lookin' at it for hours."

"I have?"

"You have," Reed said with great finality before pointing over at the tall door which now seemed to host most of the workers as they posted up next to it. One of them broke from the crowd and hurried towards Reed, huffing with urgency.

"They got one who's ready to go down, Reed. You'd best send him soon, too, because he's starting to get jumpy."

The Alchemist cleared his throat. It should've been impossible, but it almost looked like his eyeless façade was squinting. Faint folds of skin pressing against one another. Almost undetectable.

"Before anyone 'goes down', I've got to look at what we're researching here. I need that much of an explanation!"

"I agree, actually." said Bierre. "It would be nice to establish some things before an experiment is held— if that's what this is, anyways."

"Well. All right then."

Reed looked away from the doctors and back to the troubled messenger.

"Tell 'em to hold off for now. Tell 'em that we're headed in first."

~

"Only one person can enter at a time; there ain't enuff room for anyone else. Bierre, you'll probably have to duck a spell."

"What about me? Can I duck?"

"You'll be fine."

"So, it's a… hole? A deep hole? Is there anything—"

"Sorry, Bierre. It's just gunna be easier if you see it for yourself. Can't rightly say no more on it."

"…"

"Look. There's something about it, okay? And we've all felt it. We've felt it and it ain't right. Not in the damned slightest."

"Okay."

They took turns, and Bierre entered first. Standing before it now, he was sure that he noticed the same things that those other terrified volunteers had detected. There was something wrong— desperately, disastrously— wrong about this uniform crater. It was off in all its angles and he felt a great sense that those things would never be set right again. That it couldn't be seen as something existing in the field of ordinary things. That its deeds had grown too great for such simple evaluations, and that it could never go back to what it once may have been. And that maybe it didn't want to.

And he felt something else, as well. A sense of sympathy as he gazed at its lair. It was almost as though it had been hurt by someone. Something. A piteous god?

But he was wrong about that, oh, he was dead wrong.

He stepped out of the hall which he'd heard some of them call "the drop" and sat down by Reed as they both watched The Alchemist enter the chamber. The door shut behind him like the dropping maw of a predator lying in patient wait. It was almost enough to make Bierre jump out of his seat and run.

"The freak'll be fine in there, I reckon. Just keep it in the drop until it wants out."

"I felt what you were talking about, I think. Being in there made me feel different."

"You know it. I can't put it to word proper, but it's there all right. I figure the office will want to hear about it once this is all done and dusted."

"So what tests have you done?"

"A few. We started with the easy ones: buckets with lights in them, lowered as far as our rope would reach. Then we ran outta rope. We had a camera we wanted to lower down there, but it broke on the journey here. No spares when it comes to something like that. Then a fella by the name of Roy built a harness that we could send people down in—"

"People? What?"

"We got desperate, Bierre. And we ain't the thinkin' types like you and that entity are, not quite. We're survivalists and handymen. It seemed like the only logical step anyhows."

"So what happened?"

"We only sent one man, down as far as the rope could take him like with the buckets. His name is Dan— y'all 'ought to meet him before you do anything else. He's fine physically, I think, but something down there rattled him up fierce. He don't talk proper now. He and the harness was covered in blood when we lifted him up, only it wudn't his blood."

"It wasn't his blood?"

"No, because he wudn't bleedin'. Not when he went in nor when he went out, no sir."

Before Bierre could process that, out stepped The Alchemist, his wide grin wavering his face. He took a seat next to Bierre and stayed quiet for a while, before taking a deep breath and speaking slowly, deliberately. Like a teacher talking down to his child students.

"I may know what you are dealing with here. Or I may not! That's also exciting…"

"What is it?"

"If I'm right, then it is hardly worth you discovering."

"Fuckin' nonsense. If you know what's down there then spit it out already!"

"Can't do that,"

"Why the hell not?"

"Because there's no words,"

"What do you mean, man!"

Already they were shouting at each other. The Alchemist wasn't quite angry— more wildly incredulous. A tad confused. Reed really was pissed off, though. He held a look in his eyes that belonged to a raging bull, fizzling with pure brute energy. Bierre tried his best to stay silent and seem calm. A crowd began to gather.

"There's no spoken language to properly convey what you people may have discovered here. Not one that you could ever comprehend, anyways!"

His words swayed in the air like the hanging dead men that they were. People whispered to one another.

"Lord help me," Reed stood up, hands caught in his thin head of hair. "We're dealing with a lunatic."

"Watch your tone, buddy. I'm the most rational man here!"

"You're no man! You're no man at all."

~

He was filthy. That was the first thing Bierre had noticed. His hair was ragged and thin with stress and his face was full of soot, and he foamed spit out the mouth like some sort of diseased house pet. According to Reed, he hadn't ate in days. That looked about right, because his build was going on anorexic. What little of him remained was clumped atop a mattress in the furthest part of the camp where he could "do no harm" to the others (again according to Reed), and workers took shifts to make sure he stayed where he was supposed to be at all times. They looked like they were all just waiting for him to keel over and die. It seemed like he would at any moment.

"Dan? My name is Doctor Bierre, I'm here with another scientist— doctor, uh…"

"Alfred. You can just call me Alfred."

The Alchemist smiled. He was wearing sunglasses now, probably to hide his features from the disturbed man that awaited. When he first donned them he gave Bierre a breif look, one that said I don't think he could handle me, so I'm wearing these just to be safe. Bierre respected the thought.

"Doctor Alfred. That's good."

Bierre turned away from "Alfred" and back to the patient.

"We're here to ask you some things, and to asses your health. Is that okay?"

The man looked up from the floor and stared at the pair looming over him. Bierre took a good look at his eyes. They were full of something dissonant.

Now, things like "sanity" and "insanity" are slightly outdated concepts which don't hold much water in the realm of modern mental health. We have a great many better, stronger terms for those that are troubled and they all do a superior job of defining their problems as opposed to simply labeling them as "insane" and throwing them in a straight jacket and a padded cell. Bierre knew this, and so he looked hard at the patient to try and determine which one of these new terms might best describe what had overtaken him. None came to mind. Because sometimes men are pushed to something that we have no title for, if only because it so rarely happens. When it does happen, though, the words we craft are not enough. They do it no justice.

He was a revenant that had crawled out of a dark grave. A grave made of teeth and tracts and acids. Parts of him were dissolved during the escape process. Parts that could never be regrown. It might be best to leave it at that.

He spoke with untraceable cadence. His voice high and grading and lifeless. He wavered often as if he were about to cry. It was uncomfortable to listen to him. It was painful.

"A fold of quiet raptures coming for the nameless dark, I see. Two noble headlights. Here to drain the ocean. Only they aren't going to. Because there's fleeting courage in one. And in the other there is a deadly knowing. Of something that the world don't yet know. Of something that they aren't prepared for. Will he tell them all before the storm begins? Before the ship capsizes? That, I doubt. That, he knows. Because he knows everything; he knows all of this. He knows how the grim children will swim. He knows well their fate."

The patient vanished later that day when one of his guards went to wake the other from slumber. He fled from his mattress and seeped into the woods of wallpaper. Bierre never saw him again, rarely spoke of him again, but thought about him all too often.

As they left the site of the failed interview, a laborer approached them. The same one that had approached Reed with urgency. He was no less panicked now than he was then.

"It's time!"

The Alchemist— now just Alfred to Bierre— took off his sunglasses and replaced them with his regular frames.

"Time for what?"

~

"I'm ready."

"Allright. You're doin' a damn fine thing here, son. Damn brave, too. God bless."

Reed stepped away. The inventor, Roy, unveiled the harness and began to strap it around the back of the unfortunate volunteer. People were moving with purpose now; rigging up an odd pulley system and lining it with rope, gathering water and bandages and other medical supplies, bracing themselves for impact. The crowd that gathered around Roy and the volunteer was thick and full of encouraging shouts, so it took Bierre far too long to reach the man and give him a brief exam. He had to make it quick. He skipped certain questions because they were too long and the atmosphere was too hurried. In the end he declared that the worker was "mentally sound", and a good enough pick for the drop. He detested the phrase. Nobody involved in this was "mentally sound".

The crowd let out a small cheer regardless. The Alchemist looked on from afar.

Will he tell them all before the storm begins?

The words were still rattling around Bierre's brain. He'd made no conclusion of them yet. But something was festering, and he didn't like the way it was coming together.

Reed blew a whistle, and all fell silent. He raised a hand.

"Send him down!"

A man hooked the rope to the back of the workers harness, another propped open the door to the drop. One worker followed him into the chamber, barely squeezing in. A dozen others held the rope from the outside of the tall door.

The volunteer sat at the edge of the hole, gave a nod to the man that followed him in, and then began to lower himself, bracing his arms against the sides of the pit. The workers held onto the rope tightly, and gave him a shout.

He let his arms drop. The line went tight as the weight of him pulled down on it. The workers slowly let some of the rope unfurl into the pit, descending him bit by bit. They did this for what felt like hours. It might've actually been hours. Bierre couldn't tell. It was hard to keep track of the time in this place.

At some point, they started to raise the rope back up. This was a considerable struggle that involved all of the laborers strength. They'd pull, and break, and pull, and break. Their hands burned against the warm, scratchy fiber.

Where all that weight at the end of the rope had gone, nobody knew. Because in the end, they pulled up nothing more than an empty harness. It was covered in blood. Blood, and something else. Something thicker. Bierre and The Alchemist inspected it closely after the league of defeated workers dispersed. He heard some of them crying as they passed him by.

"What do you make of this, Alfred? Is it water? I can't solve it."

"I don't know. Do you have a cigarette on you by chance?"

"I do."

Bierre reached in his coat and produced one. The Alchemist pocketed it, and then took a deep breath.

"Well. It is water, and it also isn't. Funny how that works."

"What?"

"It's saliva, Doctor. A lot of it, actually!"

Bierre looked up at his colleague. He was still kneeling and observing the harness, marveling at the liquids. He showed no great concerns.

"More than you expected?"

"Oh yes. Oh, yes."

Silence. For just a moment.

"If you know what this is, you should tell us. You should tell me. You know you can trust me with it, right?"

The Alchemist finally met Bierre's gaze.

"There's no language, Bierre. You know that."

"Okay… Well, what does it do? What is its function?"

"Its function?"

"Yeah."

"Hmm."

He took out his pen, and began chewing on it.

"To kill you all, I guess."

The Alchemist laughed at himself.

Bierre did not.

~

More time passed and progress grew scarce. The Alchemist buried himself inside of his nearby shack where he performed uncertain research. Reed mostly just focused on supplies. Tried to discern how much time they had left before the rations ran dry. A few people fled the camp. Everyone was angered by it but nobody seemed surprised.

Bierre was the only one who seemed to consent towards thoughts of the abyss. He allowed them to occupy his mind throughout the day as he scribbled little drawings in his own pen and paper and mused about the nature of the world they'd inhibited. Nobody wanted to be here. Even if they'd never had a life to begin with, people had a knack for constructing one with their pre-liminal memories. Visions of a time before the arrogant laws of kenopsia. A theory of home. But you could tell when they spoke that it was little more than falsehood. The stories of Earth became more of a religion than a reality. He wondered if The Alchemist thought of the same things as he took his own notes, but later decided that he did not.

The abyss troubled him but it also fascinated. When the others asked him what he thought of it, there grew an emotion deep in his gut that was hard to translate to word. It felt like he knew something he shouldn't have. It felt like paranoia. Of what, he didn't yet know.

Once he sat around a campfire. The workers had punched a hole in the ceiling tile so the smoke could fill it instead of the room. Then they drank more bottles of the alcohol he'd seen previously, and spoke quietly on the state of affairs. There was a tone of secrecy in their voices. They'd grown to trust nobody. Only he didn't act like he was above them, because he'd felt it too; that gnawing, irrational suspicion of the camp and its people. That anomalous urge to rally and prosecute. Some primal distrust had awoken and it would not return to sleep.

Reed took a drink of whiskey and passed it to his left. Soon the bottle would reach Bierre.

"It ain't about research no more. You know that, Doctor. It's 'bout survival now."

"Why's that?"

"Guess you don' feel it yet. Ain't been here long. S'okay. Wait and you'll feel it soon enough."

"I guess I do, a little bit. Only I don't know where its coming from."

"Oh yeah? Well I do. I know right where our problem is coming from."

He drunkenly lifted a finger and pointed to The Alchemists shack. The other workers concurred, whispering rumors among one another like school children.

I saw it watching someone sleep once, you know,

I hear it has jars of things in that shack. I hear it looks like a fucking horror movie in there.

What the hell is it, anyway? Could it be a demon?

I think it is.

So do I.

It doesn't ever eat anything. Not a single one of the rations have gone to it. Instead it just stays there and writes things. Probably bad things.

It's always watching us.

Reed broke the chattering. People watched him talk over the fire, mesmerizing the crowd like an old shaman.

"I know damn well what it is."

What is it?

Yeah, what is it?

What could it be, Reed?

"I used to work for Compass Point. Most of y'all know that. I put my time there travellin', hoofin' from place to place with my little group. 'Til one day we come upon some monsters. Real beasts. Like dogs or somethin'. They tore me apart. Killed some others."

He lifted his shirt. A large white line dragged across his chest and up to his neck. It was bulging.

"They did this. Troop thought I was a goner. So they up and left me. Never did forgive them, no. But I got up and walked anyways. I survived, best I could. Waiting 'til I stumbled across an outpost or something.

Waiting 'til I died, it was more like.

It was one of them dark times when I saw it. The wound was still bleeding fierce and I was stumbling and falling and lying down. Like I was tripping in snow. Didn't want to get back up. Then one of 'em come 'round a corner and just looked at me. Didn't have no eyes. No face. Looked just like it. Didn't offer me no help, either. Just stepped right over my body and went on its way. Like some angel of death. Only I didn't die, not on that day.

What kind of man just leaves someone on the ground, bleedin' like that? Who just steps right over a body and moves on?

No man. That's what kind.

That's what we got over there. Sitting in that shack. Watching us."

Someone handed Bierre the whiskey. As he drank it he looked over at the shack, tall and silent and still. He couldn't tell if The Alchemist was in there or not. Chances are he was.

He did not think that the shack was the source of their problems. If anything, the real source of their problems sat behind that god-forsaken door near the theater stage. Waiting for them to turn against one another. Coaxing the weak-minded into spreading rumors and fear.

He thought all of that, anyways.

But he was not sure. He felt incapable of becoming so. As if something iniquitous prevented it.

Fear can be an infectious thing. And here he sat amongst the men. Those terrified men.

Recalling. Thinking. Doubting.

Doubting himself.

Doubting Alfred.

A fold of quiet raptures came for the nameless dark. Here to drain that evil ocean.

But one strayed from the other,

and then they both fell down.


Part Two,

The Plateau


Here is how it happened.

It became less a problem relating to the abyss and more the world around it. They had food. Some, at least. But they had scavenged the halls around the theater room for ages, upturning every stray chair and box and barrel which came across their way. At first they found what they needed. Little additions to the ration pile which at the time seemed full and brimming. But soon arrived a mile-wide wasteland in all directions that had been picked clean twice over, and few would— or even could— stray further from the camp than that. This place is not map-bound, its walls not set in stone or abiding to our standards. It could all change on a dime. You could leave the theater room and walk far and long to gather some more bottled water, and you might never find the outpost again. The passage that led to it may have sunken into its own carpeting. The lines of the maze shifted constantly. They refused to stay still. And every worker knew that well. It would have meant nothing to them, except that the ever-reliable ration stash was starting to thin. People felt hungrier than normal. They felt desperate.

So there grew the dilemma; stay— maybe die— or leave empty handed. Give up the strange call of the cold abyss.

Reed chose option one.

He told them that the camp was safe. That the theater provided good protection. He said that if anyone left, the others would follow behind. That they would be alone amidst the foreign architecture. That here they could stay and work and perhaps learn a thing or two about this curious cavern which "united" them. That they would not starve; not on his watch. That all which need concern them pertained to the stranger sent from the uncaring overseers. When he said these things, people gathered and stared at him with big round eyes. Like good children, heeding their father and his house rules. God-fearing church-mice venerating their middle-aged messianic leader. Bierre no longer blamed them for it. He hardly felt different. The recent death had shaken them all to their core, said Bierre to The Alchemist one day, and in trying times like these a great leader was most necessary.

"You sound real sure of that nonsense, Bierre. But are you really?"

"I don't know. I think so. What other choice have they got?"

"Well. They could analyze the subject for a little longer, gather their notes, and send it back to base. They could pack up and return to The Hub. What's so impossible about that? My work here is just about done, anyways—"

"I don't know what work you've done."

"Pardon?"

"You haven't shared it with me. You haven't shared it with anyone. People are starting to doubt why you're here, Alfred. More than usual. I hear about it all the time."

"And I guess you side with them?"

"I never said that, Al. I'm just saying that, well…"

He took a moment to gather his thoughts. His mind felt cloudy and irritated by the conversation.

"You're a good researcher and a bright mind— I can tell all of that. But you're holding your notes too close to your chest, and its making all of us nervous. We know that you know something. We just don't understand what that something is."

"I can't say. You already know that. And of course, I would if I could! I want to dearly, in fact…"

The Alchemist trailed off, lost in his own little volley of thoughts. Then, suddenly, an idea clearly struck him.

"I know!"

"What?"

"I know how to show you, man! I know how to tell you what's down there, and what its doing to all of you!"

His excitement was infectious. For just a brief moment, Bierre felt normal again. It was the feeling of a fragile hope. One that was already prepared to be demolished.

"I might not be able to tell you what this is— but I could draw it! I can't believe the thought had never occurred to me before. I'm always doodling in that notebook of mine, you know. I could make some schematics, some maps, maybe a timeline—"

He stopped himself.

"I'm getting too far ahead. I need you to come with me to my quarters, Bierre. There I can get my pen and paper and chart this all out for you, all through a language older than language itself."

His quarters.

That old dusty murder pit of his. The word about it kept growing. Never really stopped. People talked and talked and talked about what was in that nasty hut for hours at a time. Bierre couldn't help but hear it, because those stories were floating all around the site. A dozen men had each claimed to have entered The Alchemist's quarters, and that very same dozen spoke of nothing but impressive viscera. Jars of brains. Bits of corpses. Hooks. Strange experiments, maybe? But then again, maybe not. Maybe he was nothing more than a killer, feasting off the camp by picking away at its members one by one.

I saw it watching someone sleep once, you know.

It's always watching us.

It. That foul and glittering holden-esque figure that fell upon this fine operation one day. The one that had sucked the life out of these terrified men— these righteous men— and then prowled the camp during its downtime like some starving vampire. The way it laughed and sang as it indulged in all its callous ambivalences. Disgusting. Unnatural. And how fool would he be to follow it into that rust-lined crypt? It mustn't come to pass.

One sentence, and Bierre's boyish hopes had drained away. Once he'd wished to befriend The Alchemist. He sought solidarity beside a fellow scientist. He wanted to believe that he was a bright mind, and all these other kind things. His mind so desperately begged it to be true. But something else, something execrable and corrupt, would not accept it.

"I don't want anything to do with that place."

"Pardon?"

"I should go now,"

"Wait! I thought—"

"I think Reed might be expecting me. Yes… Yes, he definitely is. Good luck with your notes. Goodbye for now."

And so he fled.

~

"You n' the beast don't got no conjectures, do you?"

The human doctor was lost. Waxed over like an insect stuck in sap. His eyes grey and glazed in misty comprehension. Reed had to nudge him to get an answer.

"Bierre?"

"What? Oh. No. I don't think he's come up with anything."

"Well, have you?"

"Me? No. Nothing yet."

The words parted from his mouth slowly and tripped on their way out. His mind was empty. He did not require it anymore, as his odious new master had overtaken the need for complex thought and theory. No longer did he hunger for intelligence, no longer could it be sharpened and wielded and used in defense. Instead it provided him with something more anxious, more paranoid. A deepening concern that he could not fathom. A confused unawareness only known to the comatose. What little ration he had left took it for a simple survival instinct and allowed for the beastial impulse to invade. Himself left on autopilot. The subconscious was not just restrained; it was bleeding, dead.

"That's what I thought."

Reed stood up from his chair on the theater stage. Bierre hadn't even noticed that he was sitting.

"But we've got to do something. We just got to. I can feel that now, I can—"

"Oh. Really?"

"Really, really. Speakin' like a zombie today, Bierre. Are you feelin' allright? You don't look too enlightened."

"Sorry."

"It's okay. You know— me, I've never felt better, actually. Not in a million years. You want to know why?"

Bierre didn't respond.

"Because this mission has got purpose. And I am in charge. Leading us to that purpose. Oh yeah, I can feel it now more than ever. Have for the past couple days. It's all leading to something, Bierre. That hole? It'll lead us all to something. Just you wait."

"Oh?"

"Only… only I don't know what that something is, Bierre. I just don't know it yet. But I'll know when I'm ready to know. 'Til then I gotta feed the children. You know? Gotta water the dreams…"

He was standing still, but he spoke as though he were running a marathon. Huffing and wheezing and catching his breath at every turn. The breaths of a scared man. A delirious man. One touched by god.

"Gotta water the dreams. Oh yes. Oh god, yes. Give them credence 'til they rise. Then the hole will flood, and we will swim. I know we can swim, Bierre. 'Cause it'll let us float— for being so good to it, I mean. For feedin' it when it was weak. Somethin' like that, anyhow…"

The doctor remained silent. He was barely listening.

"But we can't water it. 'Cause we got nothing left to feed it, you know? I made sure of that yesterday!"

For the first time since the mission began, Reed laughed. It was a desperate noise.

"Made sure of that, oh boy! Threw the rest of it down yesterday, I did! Right down the drop! Some folks thought me mad, of course, but most knew it had to be done. Them workin' boys know what the waterin' is for, oh yes they do. They knew it needed it more than we did, god bless 'em!"

He turned over to Bierre and looked him dead in the eyes. Even through the haze, Bierre saw the abhorrent look on his face clear as day. A near-indescribable manic fear of some higher power had imposed itself upon the poor-minded explorer. He'd all but cracked because of it. Perhaps he only took notice of the expression because he'd seen it once before. Sitting upon an old mattress as it spoke dryly of headlights and oceans. Of drowning children. It had scared him then, and it scared him now just the same. No matter the degradation of his awareness, some things would refuse to change. They would trigger him regardless of circumstance.

"And that's why I got to do it, Bierre. We got nothing else to do. You said it yourself— you been here how many days, and you come up with nothing! That's because you know, just as well as I do. That there are some things which just need to be done."

"What do you mean?"

Reed's eyes were as large as baseballs. Nose inhaling and exhaling at rapid speeds, quick breaths falling in and out and in and out, over and over again, all within the span of seconds. His lips cracked open in a way that he'd quite never seen before. They were chapped and bleeding. The rest of his face, no different.

"I gotta go down,

You gotta go down,

We all gotta go down."

His sermon silenced itself as The Alchemist approached. The smirk on his face was wavering— falling to feelings unknown— although he remained as clear-minded and sharp-tonged as ever.

"Hello, boys."

They both looked up and saw him there, nearly eclipsing the fluorescents. He was by no means a tall man, but to them he looked like a giant. Formidable. Impassable. One of stone and unfeeling. Bierre looked like an adolescent caught doing something forbidden. That angered him.

"I see we're swapping secrets today—"

"You can stay quiet 'til you have something important to tell us."

"Actually, I do, thank you very much. Only it's not for your ears, Reed."

"Oh really? Who'se sharin' the secrets now, huh, fucker?"

The Alchemist winced. He'd regretted his previous choice of words.

"Come here, Bierre,"

"Yeah, Bierre! Go fourth with the devil! Let him take you to his hell!"

Reed was screaming, drawing in droves of deluded men. His many apostles. The Alchemist hurried off with Bierre— best not to face them just yet. When they got far from camp, he turned to Bierre with a concentrated look.

"Okay. I don't think they're around us now—"

"I'm not following you into that shack—"

"You don't have to! Damn it, man, I brought the drawings with me! I have them right here,"

He pulled out his notebook and handed it to Bierre. The first few pages were littered with small sentences written in various languages. He spoke none of them but did recognize a few: Breton, Gaelic, a little bit of Polish. Some drugged-up version of what looked to be Russian. Maybe Ukrainian? He couldn't tell.

Then there were others he was even less sure of. They appeared most often towards the end of his notes, right before the diagrams. Some odd hieroglyphs of old lore. Strange and alien symbols which he refused to parse. They were written quickly. Below those sat a single word written in plain English. It had been scratched out by a flurry of quick lines, but he could still make out what it once said:

Annihilation.

After that came the drawings. They were laden with rough lines, droning scribbles, loud sparks of lead and ink where his instruments had cracked under intense pressure. There were holes in some pages where he had pressed down too hard on them. It was because he was attempting to convey how deep the thing went. How dark it truly was. Bierre understood that. He also understood its breadth in time; how it had rested for billions of years until the prey of perfect mind came to be. How it watched as our antediluvian fathers wandered through a hole in the fime-fabric that it had cut open. How it closed shut the doors behind them, and began its endless eating.

Or perhaps "eating" isn't the right word for it.

He knew then why it need be expressed through line and chart, and nothing more. Words were too articulate. They cannot grapple with an ancient thing.

More pages. More designs of the malicious figure and its growing. The hole was just the silhouette, as was the drop before it. They acted like the trachea of an indecipherable organism. Composed of mass incalculable.

Composed of wits both vile and animalistic.

And then he learned the name of it:

It was The Great Cruelty. It was The Abyss.

Its stomach a vast lake of fire. Its mind a plateau of evil thoughts.

Evil thoughts fueled by hatred. Hate for the inventive mankind and their copious things. Hate for the clueless creatures that dawdled amidst all realms. Hate for the divine beings behind the magnificent universe. A definitive and bleak loathing for all that had ever known to exist, one complete and whole in its titanic dismissals.

It consented to no part of the extant life, and it wanted so badly to slaughter every last part of it. To obliterate every particle that did not belong to itself. And it was beyond furious that it could not. Angered by how it was weakened long ago, and now so far from its true potentials and abilities. But what had damaged the creature? What was even capable enough? These pages did not dare illustrate such things.

"I'm not much of a draftsman, but I did try my best…

So, how'd I do?"

Bierre shoved the booklet into The Alchemist's hands and sped off. It was too much for a mired mind. Too much for a man afflicted of the abyss.

~

"I will be the first. You will not stop me. Because I must be the first."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. I've never been so sure. Thank you."

And with that brief exchange, Bierre's exam of Reed Lestrey was complete. He could no longer discern who was "mentally sound" and who wasn't, even when considering himself. Not that it mattered now.

Roy arrived with the harness wrapped around an old ornate pillowcase. It looked less like the beginnings of a simple expedition and more like a ritual from the Followers of Jerry. Everyone was stewing in some kind of ominous silence that Bierre did not enjoy, though he could no longer understand why it bothered him so. He mostly just thought that the angelic looks on everyone's faces seemed comforting. Like everyone was finally happy with themselves. He sat on the stairs and watched from afar as the people commenced their little ceremony. The Alchemist was nowhere to be seen. Bierre had all but forgotten why his notebook had troubled him so. It was just another distant memory that he could not manage to access.

Reed wore the contraption with pride. He hesitated and turned to the crowd as if to speak, but then returned his gaze to the drop. Though his congregation cheered him on as he entered, he remained silent.

He jumped down. The crowd roared.

~

For a while it was just darkness. The air breezing through his small wisps of hair and brushing against his face. Sounds of his clothes flapping against the wind as he clipped the sides of the chasm and scraped his skin.

Then it expanded. The tight walls of the small square hole flew away into a gigantic cavern of space, still pitch-black as it were before, but now infinite and deadly still in all directions. The rope which tethered him to the camp— he didn't even know why they had bothered attaching it— shot up into the world above him and then faded into the swallowing gloom. He'd reached the end of its coil.

There was no gravity to pull him down. Not anymore. Instead he floated in the shadows, crushed and transfixed into place like a man under too many leagues of water. His arms cut through the space slowly and clumsily, gliding around in slow motion. His legs kicked wildly amidst the nothing. A child in utero, bouncing and bobbing up and down in anger and bewilderment.

And it was cold. So freezing cold. His breath expelled from his mouth and spiraled infinitely around the thick iniquity. Each and every one of his appendages were numbed, barely responding to the signals from his panicked brain. Ice began to accumulate around his eyes and nose, crackling against the movements of his soft skin. He shivered for a while. For him it felt like eternity.

Then, a flash of light. The source was so bright that it burned his retinas, blinding his eyes and sending him into throws of wild, painful agony. But in the half-second before his visual depravity, he saw a great many things: A floor, a ground far below him that stretched out in each and every way. It was dark purple, with a rocky texture and unstable topography. Far in the distance he perceived something that looked to be large pillars of stone, made out of the very same violet rocks. Around them were tiny huts composed of greyish thatch, nigh impossible to see, sitting upon the horizon of the ruined planet scape. Beyond them sat a black moon amidst the cloud-stricken sky. Cold in its expiration.

And what of the light that blinded?

Itself the face of the abyss. The sun of this jagged, heartbroken world. It was large and ovular, and when it spoke the light from it grew even more intense. Its voice was deep and booming and godlike. Each of its words rattled around like terrible explosions, driving Reed to deafness in each his ears. He screamed for most of the dialogue. He could think of nothing better.

"SOME LEVEL OF GRIM CHILD UPON THESE WATERS. DIMINUTIVE FOOL OF ZERO IMPORTANCE. SPACE BETWEEN IT NUMB AND WASTEFUL AND VOID OF GOOD PURPOSE. SEE ITS PUTRID BOTHERSOME MOTIONS; KICKING AND SCREAMING. CRYING WHEN IT HAS TO. SPELL OUT YOUR NAME INSIDE THIS HISTORICAL DARK, USELESS THING, SO THAT YOU DO NOT SOON FORGET IT. THEN LEAVE THE PLATEAU, RETURN TO YOUR MINUTE LIFE, AND BRING SOME MORE WORTHY FLESH IN YOUR STEAD."

As he flew upwards, he saw visions of a grave and distant future. He saw churches and cathedrals. Priests donning garments of grey and purple. Crowds of appraisers gathering around a painting of the apocalypse huts. Long lines of sacrifices entering the drop— some in volunteered tribute, others in shackles and chains. And then come the crusades. Armies of Argos descending upon the holy land to do battle against the backwards disciples. They fight with spears. Bodies from both sides are thrown into the hole.

After the war, there are breeding grounds. Filthy encampments. Rows of two-person shacks with padlocks on them. To birth an offering is called an honor. It is the only choice that is given.

People flee, sure. There's always the few that resist the call of the abyss. But when they climb the tough fences that surround the holy land and escape into the world beyond, they discover that nothing awaits them. The settlements that fight against the Church of The Plateau are eventually found and re-incorporated into the conglomerate. In the end, they get everyone. Pack them all together like sardines and wait until they have more blood for their angry god.

A man and his daughter clip into the foreign liminal land. They are swiftly detained by grimy men in frayed violet clothing. If they say anything, they are beaten. They are then forced to walk hundreds of miles through corroded office spaces and may only rest when their feet begin to bleed. Their destination is a dark, cramped corridor with air that chokes him and his tired little girl. At the end of it lies nothing, and everything.

That's the kind of future it wants. The kind that it needs so badly. The future that will feed it the most, for whenever it is fed it can feel a little bit of that old-testament power returning. Flowing back through the many veins. Veins as thick as trees and as long as galaxies. The tattered strings of a decrepit idol.

~

His body flew out of the drop at incredible speeds, sliding into the theater room and landing in the middle of the crowd of workers. It was charred and bloody and horrible in all ways. His lips curled upward in a tortured grimace, his eyes melted into a thick paste which brewed inside the now-hollow eye sockets. Hair burned to a crisp and fused against a reddening scalp. White smoke emanated from the smitten one and rose to fill the room, causing a panic among the disciples.

As they ran around the site like scared prey animals, the ground began to rumble and quake. People lost their footing and tripped over each other. A lantern clattered to the ground and exploded, starting a small fire which consumed one man who had fallen too close to it. His screams were far louder than the others, brief and shrill and petrified.

Blood began to fill the chasm and spurt out of the drop, bits of flesh and bone spewing out of the contemptible chamber and onto the crowd, a great geyser of human remnant. It coated their faces, their clothes, and soaked deep into the very carpeting beneath them. It sprayed for several agonizing seconds as the floor continued to shake fervently, knocking more and more items over in the process. The flaming man flailed on the ground, limbs spiraling in unnatural patterns, his voice gurgling as the heat began to puncture his lungs and torch his larynx.

Bierre did his best to brace himself against the stairs, but he could not force his legs to move. He was too enraptured by Reed's nearby carcass, his eyes refusing to part from it. It, too, was burning now. The smolders in his hair and clothes had re-ignited and began to cinder heavily. His skin shrinking and curling into ash, flaking onto the floor and staining its fiber strands.

The blood tapered off and came to an end. The shaking remained, though it became less and less with each passing second. The first person to stand up started towards the burned man, but quickly realized that he could do nothing. Another worker grabbed a fire-axe and swung at the victim, ending his torment in one swift motion.

People began to cry. There were seas of awful moans and wails, exhausted screams, a whole room filled with little tired anguishes that failed to do full justice to all the grief and trauma behind them. Finally Bierre stood up and began to limp toward the base of the theater stage. As he clambered up it, he heard various whispers and howls of different conjectures.

He wanted to be with it! Why did it reject him?

It didn't want him. I doubt it wants me, either! Lord, what does it want?

It doesn't want anything, it's just a fucking hole! You people are going crazy,

Do not speak ill! It will shake us again, I know it!

What do we do! Oh, god, what are we to do?

Bierre took to the center of the stage. The faces of all who looked up at him were made of shiny, sticky crimson plating. Their eyes peered through their scarlet visages with terror and contempt, two white whales atop a flock of flying cardinals. He thought that they, too, should be red.

"I know what has done this to us. I know what has to be done to it."

They lay silent, though he saw the willingness inside their untainted eyes. He knew that they were ready.

~

The men grappled The Alchemist and took hold of both his arms, kicking him out of his domicile and shoving him against a quiet corner space. Behind them, people were gathering kindling around his shack and throwing rocks at its windows, yelling profanities and accusals. The two guards kneed him in the stomach when he tried to get up, dashed his face with a firm right hand whenever he attempted speech. Then he saw Bierre, the human doctor. His arms cradled a large sledgehammer. His face was boiling with abyssal rage.

"Oh, no… It's telling you all what to do, isn't it?"

"Shut the hell up."

He lifted the tool and dropped it on The Alchemist's right knee. He screamed. When he tried to move it afterward, he felt something crack.

"I thought that Reed was the foreman, and you the hero— But god proved me wrong!"

He swung the hammer again, hitting him in the stomach.

"No! You are the foreman! You! You who spoke in unknowns and struck a great threat upon our community, the devil itself waiting behind those spectacles! And I must be the arbiter, I must be the one to vanquish!"

"Why are you listening to the call? Bierre, please, you gotta fight this—"

He struck The Alchemist's face, bashing it inward and crushing his skull slightly. When he reeled th hammer back, he saw that his head had been shattered into a dozen splinters of flesh. Between each splinter seeped a strange, golden blood. It shined under the glow of the fluorescents. He knelt down and dragged his fingers across the blood and then pointed them toward the group around the shack, speaking like a pastor to his unleashed congregate.

"It bleeds!"

They cheered.

"I told you all! I warned you that when cornered, it would not hemorrhage the liquid of man, but instead that of a monsters— and I was correct!"

They hollered. They danced. They belted out chants of reverence.

"The faceling is dead! Long live the plateau, Long live the absolute lake of fire!"

He did not know where these words were coming from. All he knew was that they were not his.

~

A grand ritual is in order.

They did it one by one. Using whatever they had, wherever they could. Only Bierre would remain. He needed to be there to gather them all at the drop when it was over.

They thought that it might please the abyss; if they were dead before they entered it. That something about their early passing might placate its godly wrath. Prevent another geyser. Once they went down there, they did not want to come back up. Not like Reed. They wanted to fall down and float forever. That they had to be sure of.

There was only one that Bierre could not find. The Alchemist's body. He wondered if maybe they had thrown it into the fire as they burned down the shack, but he did not know for certain. He thought that he would remember something like that had it really happened. But then again, he didn't remember very much of anything.

When he was done piling the bodies, he sent them down individually. He started with those that were the most fit, the most beautiful. The best offerings. Then he moved onto those more ordinary, and then to those lesser in shape and condition. None were rejected by the abyss.

He stepped away from the drop. The tall door de-materialized into the wallpaper from whence it came. Satisfied for now. He knew that it would return when it grew restless. When it hungered for death again.

He slumped against a wall and sobbed. There was nothing left to do.

~

I dreamt of something terrible during my slumbers. Of something growing and preparing. Of a plan that could not be stopped. And there was an ocean that I could not drain, and there were people that were drowning inside of it. They begged for help which I couldn't spare.

Then there were tides that would never cease their rising. Flooding what was left of the world. They continued upward until the weight of them reduced me to atoms.

Beneath the waters there were clusters of corals. Long and purple and spiraling. Tiny fires brewed inside of them. All of it alien to me.


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