After two years i return to the medium of watercolor.
When you’re all dirty from your head to your toes
and you’re icky-sticky like crabby Mi-Gos,
don’t go insane within your jar-pickled brain,
use the soap that can clean any ichor stain,
use Yog-Sothoth Soaps, the pure soaps with the most,
the most bubble-action, like the Dunwich host,
the gate and the key are yours to a new clean,
the suds with eyeball buds to see in between
what is here and there, to see everywhere
there are mortal forms fertile and full of milk
wherefrom it may beget more of its same ilk.
That’s Yog-Sothoth Soaps, the special soaps aglow
with the dark eldritch truth you dare never know.
Yog-Sothoth Soaps are world-renowned for their effective consuming ability. They can clean whole stockyards of cattle (and their handlers) within minutes, leaving the stockyards spotless. Their bioluminescent bubbles make it easier to see where the grime is, and the eyes can see the grime where you can’t (such as in the mirror). For best results feed yourself directly to the soap when it is at full froth. It will grow and consume the entire house, leaving it not just clean, but one with the ONE-IN-ALL, and all with the ALL-IN-ONE. Yog-Sothoth Soaps are also great for bathing and showering your tenuous mortal flesh. Ladies may light ritualistic candles and take a bath while at peak fertility, but neither is required. Birth control does not interfere with the effectiveness of the soap because Yog-Sothoth does not believe in contraception and cannot be dissuaded by paltry biological contrivances. You WILL bear the effervescent seed of Yog-Sothoth.
Y’AI ‘NG’NGAH, YOG-SOTHOTH H’EE-L’GEB F’AI THRODOG UAAAH!!!
Bubble and light
at the threshold,
shadow and blight
from ages old,
the gate and key,
at warlock’s call.
Tyrone sat on the floor, in front of his mom’s black-and-white television, eating a cup of Frosted Flakes as he watched Saturday morning cartoons. Tyrone liked Frosted Flakes. He liked Tony the Tiger because his name was similar to his own, and he liked to think they could go on adventures in their own cartoon together: The Tony and Tyrone Show. Tyrone wished he could play with Tony like the kids did in the commercials, and he wished he could eat a bowl of cereal just like the kids in the commercial did. But Tyrone always had to eat his Frosted Flakes without a spoon.
Most of the time Tyrone sat on the floor, in front of the tv—so he could hear only the tv and not the noises coming from his mom’s bedroom—and he ate his cereal in a cup, the milk and the flakes crashing against his mouth in a mixture of sugary crunch and somewhat spoiled creaminess. Sometimes he ate Frosted Flakes without any milk at all. Sometimes he ate nothing all day but Frosted Flakes, and sometimes he ate nothing. Regardless how he ate, Tyrone never ate with a spoon.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood came on. Tyrone liked Mr. Rogers. He was a nice White man. He wasn’t like the landlord who was always threatening Tyrone’s mom for rent and calling her a “useless nigger”. Tyrone wished Mr. Rogers owned this apartment building. Things would have been different if he had. And Tyrone liked Officer Clemmons. Tyrone sometimes liked to think that Officer Clemmons was his dad and that he would come home any day now.
Every neighborhood, Tyrone thought, should be like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There was never a single crack to be seen. Tyrone hated the cracks that he saw around his neighborhood. Each one scared him. They glowed with a white phosphorescence in their jagged fissures, and things writhed within them, like wet snakes or homeless men rummaging through dumpsters, and Tyrone’s mom moaned when the crack in her bedroom writhed. It was not a moan of pain or pleasure, but both, like she was dying, but was too happy to care about it.
There were cracks all around the apartment building. Tyrone saw the first crack in a man’s face. It was a year ago, late at night, while his mom was asleep. Tyrone had his window open and he heard a man singing as he came down the street. Singing like he was drunk. Singing, “Jimmy cracked corn and I don’t care” as loud as he could. Tyrone had gone to his window and saw a man stumbling down the street, his clothes disheveled.
“Jimmy cracked corn…!”
The man had glanced up at Tyrone, his black face split with a glowing white crack that did not bleed.
“What you lookin’ at?” the man shouted. “First spooks jump me and now I got a nosy little nigger starin’ at me.” He snorted, and started laughing. “Hey! Don’t you go hidin’ from me, boy! They’ll fix you up right!”
Tyrone had crouched beneath his window, trembling and praying that the man would go away.
“Stupid brat,” the man said.
The man left, but the crack he carried with him remained. Later Tyrone saw some pale men in black suits standing on the street corner. They were not like Mr. Rogers. They wore black hats and black shades, hiding most of their fish-belly white faces. Where they stood, a crack opened and grew larger, like a spider’s web ensnaring the whole neighborhood. Soon Tyrone saw it spread in the walls between the apartment buildings, near the alleyways where the burn-outs slept, and along the cars and the streets, from the barbershop to the grocery store, ruining everything. It crept into the apartment hallway, and the stairwell. It was on people’s doors, splitting their windows and, soon, it was on every other face, their heads split down the center, or their chests, and so their hearts, and everywhere the crack spread Tyrone heard the tentacles writhing. At night, as he lay awake in bed, he heard the tenants moaning like his mom. Their moans reminded him of church hymns— back when his mom used to take him to church—only the words were all wrong, and weird, and frightening. The gibberish roared in his ears sometimes. His mom had stopped going to work, and, after a while, she did nothing but stay in her bedroom. Sometimes a stranger would join her, and the moaning would be louder than before, and then the stranger left, but all the while Tyrone sat so close to the television that his eyes burned and overflowed with tears as Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons smiled on, pitiless in their perfect neighborhood.
And so Tyrone watched cartoons, and ate Frosted Flakes without using a spoon, and waited until the day his mom would emerge from her bedroom, transformed, head full of burning white cracks, and reaching down to kiss him as her face split open to swallow him forever.
(The above was one of four stories I wrote to submit to The Root’s short story competition in relation to Lovecraft Country. Unfortunately this story 1) was too long by about 80 words, 2) had references to drugs (allusively to the 80’s crack epidemic in the US) and 3) was written by me, a White boy (insomuch as Melungeons are considered White). So, knowing I have been disqualified on three fronts, I decided to put it up here to rot.
(Explicit Warning —Sexual Themes, Violence, Language)
“That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please… ”
The man in the hooded robe escorted Austen through the dark underground corridor of ancient stone, holding aloft a torch that licked at the vaulted ceiling. The robed man said nothing, nor did Austen say anything. The latter held his breath in nervous excitement and existential terror, and a little embarrassment. His dream was about to come true, in a certain fashion. And then his life would end, but wouldn ’t it end while he was young and happy, which was more than he could have expected if he lived a long, lonely life?
A chill breeze wormed through the wet corridor, carrying strange whispers and echoes of times bygone and unguessed. It smelled of damp earth and old bones and death. Austen shivered, trembling in his hoodie and putting his hands in his jean pockets, shrugging his shoulders up to his ears. His ears were small, and underdeveloped, and unflattering, much like his chin —or so he always thought. To compensate for these weak features, Austen ’s nose was overly prominent, long and slightly hooked. Pale blue eyes —world-weary and insomniac —stared sadly out from above that bold nose. In highschool he was called “Toucan ” because of his nose. The name stuck and when people thought of him, should they have thought of him at all, thought of him automatically as “Toucan ”. No one called him by his actual name; not even his teachers. They did not talk to him at all.
The stone passageway descended stone stairs. Austen followed the hooded man until they came to a door. It was an oddly modern door. The robed figure beckoned Austen to the door, and so Austen turned the knob, opening —of his own free will —the door and leaving the ancient, dark corridor behind. He entered a room bleached with bright white light. Eyes adjusting as he stepped forward, he heard the door close behind him and went to meet his destiny.
It was a waiting room, not unlike what he would have expected in a doctor ’s office or ambulatory care. There were somewhat-comfortable chairs arranged around a room tiled in gleaming, checkered linoleum. Some framed photos lined the walls, and paintings, depicting eldritch symbols and locations, such as the Plains of Leng and the tourist town of Dunwich and the Bermuda Triangle, and there were a few potted plants which breathed in the various corners of the room. To the far wall was a door and beside the door was a large glass window behind which was partitioned the receptionist ’s desk. To this Austen went first, unsure of himself (as always) and looking for reassurance.
“Hello, ” he said meekly. “I…I ’m Austen Blackwell. I have an appointment. ”
“Sign in, ” said the hooded man behind the window. He was busy doodling eldritch abominations on some scrap paper. Without looking up he took a clipboard up and handed through the slot in the window. A large stack of forms was bulging out from under the clip. “Take these and fill them out, signing where marked in green, and return them to me as soon as you are finished. ”
“Thank you? ” Austen said, unsure what his response should have been.
The hooded receptionist ignored him, focusing instead on drawing tentacles.
Austen signed in on the arrival sheet, just in case, and then took the clipboard with its bulging stack of forms and went to a corner of the waiting room, taking a seat as far away from the other men in the room as possible. There were several other men in the waiting room. They were of various ages and ethnicities, but all of them seemed like they spent too much time stooped over a computer or a cellphone. Several of them were stooping over their cellphones presently, or filling out the necessary forms. Some were watching porn. Austen could hear women moaning and gasping in various volumes while men grunted and groaned. Others were looking through Facebook for women.
“Rachel Pennington was such a bitch in highschool, ” someone said. “I can ’t wait to fuck her stupid. Stick my dick down her stuck-up throat and cum till it comes out her nose. See if she laughs at me then… ”
Austen wondered about these men in this waiting room; wondered if he had communicated with any of them on the online forums and 4chan. Maybe they were the faces for the familiar online names he had come to know on a daily basis. Rejectotron79. Incellularzzz. Chadbitchboy45. None of them posted photos online except when someone wanted to be roasted, and that was infrequent. Austen thought about posting his own photo in the forum, just to confirm his own worst fears (that no girl on earth would want to date him, let alone marry him and reproduce with him), but he had chickened out. He had scoured his own features enough to know, without phrenological debate, that he was a hopeless specimen. He didn ’t need strangers to tell him what he had known since he was a child.
Austen focused on the paperwork.
“Hey, ” someone said. “What ’s yours going to be? ”
Austen looked up. A large man with freckles in a fat face smiled mirthlessly down at him, his glasses white circles of hot light.
“Audrey Hepburn, ” Austen said automatically. He wanted the ginger-haired man of an indeterminate age to go away.
“Classy and classical, ” the ginger-haired man said. “But a little too skinny for me. No tits at all, either. ” He plopped down in the chair next to Austen ’s, pulling out a cellphone. “Look at mine, ” he said, grinning slimily. “They ’re to die for, man. ”
Austen humored him, hoping he would go away more quickly.
“See? ” the ginger-haired man said. “I got several. You can have several, if you want. I ’m going to start off with Halle Berry. Then go to Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, and finish with Mariah Carey while she sings ‘You ’ll Always Be My Baby ’. See? That ’s how you should do it. Really go all out. With a bang. ” He smiled a far-off smile. “That ’s the way to go. Go big. ”
“Man, shut up, ” said another man in the waiting room. “Your spiel is getting old. ” This man had a black beard, likely to cover what Austen suspected to be a weak jawline, and to make him appear older and more mature. “You ’re so beta you should have been born castrated. Bragging like that, you probably won ’t even last past Halle Berry. You ’ll cream your pants before you can even stick it in. Then It will laugh at you, like all of the other girls who ’ve known you. ”
“Fuck you, ” the ginger-haired man said. “You don ’t even want to share what yours is. Probably because you ’re a pedo wanting to rape Shirley Temple. ”
“Fuck you, asshole, ” the bearded man said. “I ’m no pedo. You ’re just projecting. ”
Another man —creepier than the other two —started chuckling. “I ’m fucking Veruca Salt, ” he volunteered with a slanted grin. He was in his fifties and bald with a large pate that rose like a hill atop his head. He was overweight, his body swollen beneath his white T-shirt. “I don ’t give a shit who knows. Won ’t matter afterward anyway. ”
“You ’re a sick piece of shit, ” the bearded man said.
“A real sick piece of shit, ” the ginger-haired man agreed.
“We ’re all sick pieces of shit, ” the bald man said, unfazed. “I mean, It ’s not even human anyway, so you ’re all a bunch of sick fucks, too. It ’s like beastiality. You ’re fucking something that isn ’t human. ”
There was an awkward silence in the waiting room. Austen had tried to focus on his paperwork throughout this exchange, but now he stopped, his hand trembling as it held the pen above a list of check-boxes asking about allergies. He was having second thoughts, not just about his singular choice of Audrey Hepburn, but the whole appointment.
A hooded man appeared from within the inner door of the waiting room.
“Appointment #A4b269? ” he called.
A young man with dirty blonde hair rose, quietly, as if he could camouflage himself with silence as he hurried to the door. He followed the robed man out of the waiting room. Several of the men watched him go with a mixture of envy and dread.
“He ’s a hero, ” someone joked, breaking the silence. He whistled Taps for a moment, but lost the melody.
The bald man resumed his argument from before, leering.
“It ’s not human, ” he said, “and so all of you are basically just goat-fuckers as far as I am concerned. No better than me. ”
“It ’s not Shub-Niggurath, ” the ginger-haired man said defensively. “Genetically, it can become anything. ”
“It can mimic anything, ” the bearded man said. He scowled at the bald pedophile. “Luckily for this sick fuck, otherwise I ’d fucking slit his goddamn pig throat for abusing kids. ”
The bald fat man laughed. “Mr White Knight has a problem with me diddling little girls. ”
“I have a little sister, you asshole! ”
The bald man smiled in oleaginous self-satisfaction. “But you ’re still going to fuck that Shoggoth, aren ’t you? ”
The bearded man went silent. He stared with a heated hatred at the bald man, but his scruffy jaw could not move in defiance of what he had said. Austen watched it, rapt, feeling like he should say something on the bearded man ’s behalf, and on his own behalf, and to wipe that smirk off the bald man ’s face, but, as always, words failed him, his confidence failed him, and he went back to filling in information and signing his name in the green-markered sections.
“My little sister is not a bitch like most women, ” the bearded man said at length. “She ’s like…what ’s her name? Lucy from Narnia. She ’s not a real woman yet, and so she ’s innocent. ”
“And that ’s why I like fucking them in the ass, ” the bald man said. “Because they ’re ‘innocent ’. ”
The bearded man leapt up from his seat and dashed across the room, striking the bald man in the face. His fist was small, and his wrist weak, and the bald man was large. An audible smack slapped the air, but the bald man ’s face barely moved. He stood up and grabbed hold of the bearded man ’s head within the crook of one arm.
“If I had a picture of your little sister, ” the bald man said, “I ’d show it to the Shoggoth and fuck It while It screamed your name. You little bitch. I might even show It a picture of you and fuck you in the ass. You ’d like that, wouldn ’t you? You little faggot. ”
The bearded man struggled, red-faced and screaming in frustration and helplessness. Eventually two robed figures entered the waiting room and separated the two men. The bald man was relocated to one side of the room —smirking with great satisfaction even as a welt rose on his cheek —while the bearded man was relocated to the opposite side. The latter stared in shame and humiliation down at his lap. The robed men left.
“Hoo boy, ” the ginger-haired man sighed.
The next ten minutes passed in tense silence. Austen continued filling out the forms. It seemed like someone was playing a prank on him, so thick was the stack of papers. He was on the page about deferrals for litigation and class action lawsuits when the inner door opened again. A hooded figure called the next appointment.
“Appointment # 3R45u21. ”
The bald man lurched to his feet, waddling eagerly toward the door. He was sweating in anticipation.
“Veruca Salt ’s about to get it, ” he said, leering. He grinned at the bearded man. “I ’m going to fuck your little sister, too. ”
He disappeared through the door. A shiver of disgust went about the waiting room.
“Should be castrated, ” the bearded man said, scowling.
“Pretty much will be, ” the ginger-haired man said. “And then some. ”
“But he ’ll go out happy, ” the bearded man said, “which is more than he fucking deserves. ”
“Don ’t worry, ” the ginger-haired man said after a while. “It ’s not really anything that can feel, anyway, whatever It ’s form is. It ’s a biological construct. It ’s like a Real Doll, but fancier. More advanced. A fleshlight made by the Elder Things. It just…costs more. ”
“Yeah, an arm and a leg, ” someone else said. “And everything else. ”
The ginger-haired man nodded, his curly red hair bouncing. He then shrugged with one shoulder, lazily. “None of us could get with a real woman, anyway, They ’re too busy throwing their pussies away to Chads. Dumb bitches. ”
“Fucking Nature, man, ” another commiserated. “But at least I won ’t be ‘involuntarily celibate ’ after today. ”
“Yeah, ” said someone else. “You won ’t be anything at all, except, maybe, Shoggoth shit. ”
Another fearful silence fell over the waiting room. Austen ’s pen paused in the middle of a word. He had forgotten what he was writing, his mind baulking at untold horrors. The spell was broken all at once.
“I ’m going to fuck Tinkerbell, ” someone volunteered, maliciously.
The black-bearded man scoffed. “Man, your dick must be the size of a fucking peanut. ”
“It is, ” the other guy said. “That ’s why no girl wants it. But I bet Tinkerbell cries when I stick it in. She better. I wrote down that I want her to cry while I ’m fucking her. And It ’s gotta ’ do what you write down.”
Austen just so happened to come to the section concerning behavior. He did not know what to write —especially after hearing the guy talk about Tinkerbell —so he just wrote “Have a good time. ”
“Well, ” someone else said. “I guess if you ’re going to go, you might as well go for weird freaky shit. I mean, I ’m no Furry, but I was thinking about that one blue chick from that Avatar movie. Ya know? Or maybe one of the weird looking Star Wars chicks with the tentacles on their heads. ”
“They are fucking hot, ” someone else agreed whole-heartedly. “But they ’re not Furries. I mean, they ’re an alien race. Not the same. ”
“There are aliens that are Furries, ” someone else argued. “Chewbacca ’s race is nothing but Furries. ”
“They ’re Yorkie sasquatches, ” the bearded man said. “So, yeah, they ’re pretty much Furries. ”
“But nobody wants to fuck them, ” someone added, doubtfully. “I hope they don ’t, at least. ”
“Oh, I ’m sure somebody does, ” someone else argued.
“I think it ’s fucking nasty, ” the ginger-haired man said.
“Don ’t kink-shame, ” the bearded man said. “Mr. Mariah Carey. ”
“I ’m going with anime chicks, ” another guy said, happily. “Rei from Neon Genesis. And Lust from Full Metal Alchemist. ”
“That ’s a bit on the nose, isn ’t it? ” the bearded man said. But he was searching on his phone. “Maybe if I show It a video It can become Lara Croft. From the old games, I mean. But not the old, old games. I don ’t like triangle tits. ”
“Yeah, I ’m going for Cammy, too, ” the other guy said. “From Street Fighter. And Chun Li. That ass, man! I ’ll probably go through the whole roster of Capcom women. ”
“Street Fighter sucks, ” another guy said. “Dead Or Alive all the way. ”
“Tekken has some pretty hot bitches, too, ” another guy said.
“Metal Gear Solid has the best, ” a guy in glasses said.
“Jill Valentine! ” the ginger-haired guy suddenly exclaimed, slapping his freckled forehead. He feverishly tapped on his phone. “She ’s the polygon girl I want! ”
“Which version? ” the bearded man said.
“All of them, ” he answered. “Make a ‘Jill sandwich ’ out of them. ”
He waited, expectantly, for someone to laugh at his joke. No one did.
“Five out of five S.T.A.R.S., ” he added, glancing around with a desperate grin.
No one laughed. They were too busy scouring the internet to add to their wish lists. But Austen remained fixated on one woman and one woman only. He signed his name several more times, dedicating his life to the Old Ones and waiving all potential legal recourse his family might attempt against the Eldritch Sect. By the time he made it halfway through the stack, the man who spoke of Tinkerbell was called. He went eagerly. The remaining men watched him with a mixture of envy and dread on their faces.
“Oh hell, ” the ginger-haired man said. “I might as well add Taylor Swift to the list. I mean, you only live once, right? It ’s not like I have to listen to her sing. She doesn ’t have to make any noises at all, if I don ’t want her to. ”
“Yeah, the perfect woman, ” a new arrival said, taking a seat. “Only talks when you want the bitch to. ”
“Only, she ’s not a woman, ” the ginger-haired man said, smiling sardonically. He adjusted his glasses. “Just a biologically engineered simulacrum. None of us could get a real woman. That ’s why we ’re here. ”
Silent nods all around.
Austen finished his paperwork, then turned it in at the receptionist window. He was given an appointment number on a ticket and told to wait until he was called. He found another seat in another corner, farther from the gregarious ginger-headed man. As he passed one man he happened to glance at someone ’s phone. The man was scrolling through images of reptilian women and vulpine women and bovine women, all quasi-humanoid and naked and bestial. He felt embarrassed on the stranger ’s behalf, btu the stranger did not seem to care who saw. Even so, it made Austen feel more disgusted with himself. He sat down and watched clips of Audrey Hepburn and her various movies. He had a bad taste in his mouth, and throughout his whole being.
The bearded man was called back, and then the ginger-haired man, and various others. Refreshments were offered by hooded acolytes, as well as alcohol and drugs to “ease the normal nervousness of the appointment. ” Austen took no drugs, but he did drink water. His throat was very dry. His stomach was full of frenzied butterflies.
And then the inner door opened, and the hooded acolyte called Austen ’s ticket number.
Austen found himself frozen in his chair.
“U352j6t? ” the hooded man repeated impatiently.
Austen ’s body rose stiffly and he went to the door, feeling a strange sense of detachment from himself. It was not quite an out-of-body experience, but rather the same disembodied feeling he had whenever he had been humiliated in school or rejected by a girl he had asked on a date, his tongue fumbling over the words.
“Me, ” was all he could say.
The acolyte escorted Austen down another stone corridor leading deeper into the earth. The air became chillier, and the smell of soil stronger. The walk was long, and the corridor had a few doors along its walls, some open to reveal other hooded men sitting around, smoking and drinking and talking. Thee corridor and these rooms were illuminated by modern lighting.
At length, the corridor terminated at a single door. The acolyte opened this door and, without further ado, beckoned Austen in. Austen went in, more out of obedience than real desire, and the door shut behind him. He was alone in the room, or so it seemed. There were no exits. It was a dead end. Dark and cool, it. No trace of the others that had come before could be seen. There was a king-sized bed in the middle of the room, and nothing more.
Except yellow eyes. They glowed in the shadows of a corner. They reminded him of owl eyes. They came forward, presenting a perfect facsimile of Audrey Hepburn ’s slim, petite, and utterly graceful personage. It smiled — that small, restrained, pixie-sort of smile that Austen had seen in many of her movies —and he felt his heart melt within the credence of the illusion. Her chocolate brown hair was pinned back in a ponytail, her bangs modest above the bold strokes of her eyebrows, all accenting her lovely forehead and her elfin features. She wore a simple white blouse, a rippled Midi skirt, and a silk scarf tied around her fawn-like neck, much like on the movie “Roman Holiday ”.
“Hello, Austen, ” It said with perfect intonation. “How do you like me? AmI not simply the most picturesque idol of fancy and form? ”
“Yes, ” was all Austen could say.
It smiled with Audrey ’s small, almost-secretive smile. “I love how polite you are, ” It said, starting to strip off It ’s white blouse. “And so well-mannered. ”
He had specified It ’s attitude, It ’s dress, and her loquaciousness on the forms, but there was a note on the form that said It would respond in realtime to whatever whim or suggestion demanded of It. And so Austen spoke up.
“Not so fast1″ he said, waving his hands. “Don ’t…don ’t undress yet. I just want to…to talk for a while. ”
He took It by the hands, awkwardly, and led It to the bed, sitting It down.
“As you wish, Austen, ” It said, smiling that pixie smile that had left him staring idiotically so often when watching Audrey Hepburn ’s old films. “What would you like to talk about, dear? ”
Austen baulked. This was the same feeling of crisis he had felt whenever he had ever wanted to talk to a girl. It was like being plunged into the middle of the ocean, and not knowing how to even doggie-paddle.
“What…what do you want to talk about? ” he asked, desperately.
It titled It ’s head to the side, arching her slender neck like a curious bird. “Oh, but whatever you wish to talk about, dear! Very much so! ”
Again Austen was flummoxed. He was no Humphrey Bogart. He had no natural rapport with women, or most people for that matter.. He did not possess the cool, casual ease of conversation that Bogart, and most other Hollywood men, seemed to possess. He would have rather spoken to a hungry lion than a pretty woman. Either way, he told himself, he would have been torn to shreds, but at least the lion would seem happy about it, and satisfied.
“How…? ” he began. “How do I talk to women? ”
“Well, that is quite the question! ” It remarked, batting its eyes in mock-astonishment. “With your tongue and your mouth and your vocal cords, naturally. ”
Austen sighed in frustration. “No, I mean how do I talk to them copesetically? Competently? How do I speak to them without feeling all flustered and knotted up inside? And without fucking everything up? ”
It ’s yellow eyes never blinked fully, but It batted It ’s eyelashes again and reached for his belt buckle, starting to strip off his pants. Austen pulled away from It, standing up. Pacing back and forth across the dimly lit room, he stared at the floor.
“Is there any woman that would want me? ” he begged the air. “I don ’t even want to be me. That ’s why I ’m here1″
The thing imitating Audrey Hepburn silently watched him pace, her head rotating automatically as she followed him with her yellow eyes, like a cat watching a mouse.
“It ’s so unfair! ” he moaned. “There are guys born to look better than me and stronger than me and smarter than me! I can ’t even roleplay with you because I am still me! I don ’t even want sex! I just want to have tea with you and maybe dance together! Maybe kiss. But I can ’t dance, and I definitely can ’t kiss worth a damn! I ’ve never kissed anyone before, except my grandma! ”
It stood up, then, and took him with a powerful grip by the shoulders, pulling him to It, and kissing him. He started to cry and tried to push her away, but It was too strong. It pulled him toward the bed.
“No! ” he yelled, yanking himself away from her. “Audrey wasn ’t like this! ” He shook his head, and wiped away the tears in his eyes. “She wouldn ’t…she wouldn ’t have liked me at all! ”
Anger flashed across his face and he shoved It onto the bed, It ’s skirt undulating open to reveal pale legs and white panties.
“Maybe I should fuck you! ” he snarled. “Maybe I should just bang your brains out and let it end all at once! No one would miss me! I wouldn ’t even miss myself! ”
His anger dissolved into self-pity and sobs as he staggered back, leaning against a wall. He did not even see It take off It ’s panties and lay back, gyrating It ’s hips gratuitously. Austen glanced at the intimacy revealed —in all its falsity —and turned away.
Still crying, Austen headed to the door. The acolyte was surprised to see him.
“Sir, you cannot leave without… ” He saw Austen ’s tears and snorted. “What a beta. Go, then, you little simp. ”
Austen headed down the long corridor, weeping as he went. He came again to the waiting room. Opening the door, he saw new faces through his tears. They sniggered, cruelly, and mocked him.
“Little limp-dick. ”
“Beta bitch. ”
“Couldn ’t even go through with it. ”
“Go suck Chad ’s giant dick, you fag. ”
Austen left through the long, stone corridor eventually emerging into a moonlit night. He walked slowly, staring over his hooked nose at his penguin-shuffling feet. His belt was still unbuckled and jingled as he walked. He was too sad to care.
Austen met Becky one day while at the public library. They were looking through the Graphic Novels at the same time, and by a strange chance struck up a conversation. Neither could remember who spoke first, but they found the conversation easy and addictive. Becky was tall, and a little chubby, and had a round face with flat lips. But her smile was pretty and she was nice to him. She did not mind his hooked nose or his scrawny arms. She liked his voice, she said, and his eyes. She looked nothing like Audrey Hepburn, and Austen was all the happier for it.
There was an old swamp that smouldered with miasmas and shadows, rotting like a dead thing gone to sludge on the edge of the woods. No frogs chirped in its silent expanse, nor did predators stalk there, nor birds dare to fly over. The swamp kept stagnant its secrets and its solitude, festering solitary and without unwelcome intrusion. And no living thing, man or animal, ventured there to gaze upon its silence, nor did lantern burn there, nor Fool ’s Fire transpire to breathe up from amidst the miasma, but an inky blackness dominated there such that would contend with the abyssal sea. And yet the swamp was blacker than the sea, for while the sea was a darkness for lack of light, the swamp was the very essence of shadow and darkness and death.
Some believed the Nephilim had died there long ago, smote by God. Some said a god died there long ago. Some said —in whispered voices so as to not provoke the anger of the village preacher —that something yet more ancient than gods had died there. Whatever its origins, it was shunned by the villagers of Clear Brook, for it was said to be cursed with foul spirits. And the people of Clear Brook wished to possess clear souls that flowed airily to Heaven upon Death ’s release. It was what they strived for beneath the preacher ’s watchful eye. It was what they all wanted more than anything.
That was, all except for Tilda.
Tilda was the preacher ’s daughter. She disliked the village, and she disliked the villagers. She especially disliked being the preacher ’s daughter. Her eleven Springs had been spent tilling the land and milking the cows. Her eleven Summers had been spent tending the fields and cultivating the garden. Her eleven Autumns had been spent harvesting the crops and mending the clothes. Her eleven Winters had been spent cooped up in side the house and the church, listening to her father preach on and on and on against Sin. Her eleven years had been spent giving and receiving Confessions.
She hated Confessions most of all.
Her father ’s sermons were dreary things. For all his fire-and-brimstone, Tilda ofttimes found herself bored. Adam and Eve, Original Sin, Jesus, the Resurrection, and such. Tilda disliked these sermons, for they came from her father ’s mouth. She only liked the sermons that involved specific persons —such as the Witch of Endor, the Queen of Sheba, Lilith, and Judith. She liked how her father ’s disgust at such women twisted his fitful lip as he read of these powerful figures whom he loathed. She liked that he hated them so much, and hoped he would hate her as much someday. Of all the Biblical passages she liked —few though they were —she particularly liked reading about Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes. That was her favorite, also, and she often read the Book of Judith again and again after Confessions, in the silence that visited her every night.
There was a witch that lived at the Borderlands between the woods and the swamp. No one in Clear Brook spoke her name, nor had they seen her in many, many years, and those who had seen her entertained conflicting accounts of who she was and what she looked like. They never spoke of her but with whispers, and always either with fear or loathing and a quick glance over their shoulders, lest she be standing there, summoned up by their idle talk. The more fearful the villagers were of the witch, the more curious Tilda became. After eleven years of feeding a strong curiosity, that curiosity was a beast unto itself, and she let it lead her as it would by its leash. She was now determined to meet the witch. She knew it was her destiny.
And so one night Tilda crept away from her father ’s house, sneaking out under cover of a starless sky. The woods were a haunted place, full of bats and toads and foxes other things that were better not named. Tilda had learned to follow the moss on the trees to find a swamp witch. It was common knowledge. Thus, she followed the green glow until she came to the ramshackle hut in the woods, just on the edge of the silent expanse of the swamp. A candle illuminated the hut ’s window, and through the cracks of the door Tilda saw the glow of the witch ’s fireplace.
“Come in, my little fawn, ” a voice cackled from within. “I have been expecting you. ”
Ever intrepid, Tilda pulled the creaky door open and walked into the hut. It was a small hut, and the witch was withered and small also. She was an old crone — as witches often were —and she was swathed in a damp, grayish-white cloak. Her face was not ugly, and may have been pretty once upon a time, but it had been furrowed badly by Time ’s plowshare, cultivating the face with a sly wisdom and cunning which Tilda envied as a thing which must have inhabited the faces of all her heroines.
“You will make me a witch, ” Tilda said. She did not cower from the witch ’s scowl, but was emboldened by it. “You will teach me to transform into hares and cats and to become a shadow to stalk and haunt the guilty, and to make horses of unfaithful men that must run all night until their feet become as hoofed stumps. ”
“Do I know such things? ” the witch pondered dubiously. She scratched at her chin, which was no hairier than any other woman ’s of the same-seeming age. “I do think that your fancies have gotten the better of you, my little fawn. ”
“I am no fawn, ” Tilda said defiantly. “I am crowned like the sickle moon and I will be treated as such. I am the daughter of Woman alone, of Lilith, and will grow my antlers with or without your help. ”
The witch smiled within her shadowy hood.
“Dear me, you are a presumptuous one, ” she said. She looked the preacher ’s daughter up and down —from her wooden shoes to her plain gray dress, and up to her brown hair which her father forcibly cut every month lest Vanity overtake her soul. “You have the will for the Craft, but have you the talent? ”
Glaring with green eyes, Tilda went to the fireplace and reached into its burning belly. She withdrew three burnt twigs, her hand unharmed.
The witch did not smile, nor did she frown, nor had she any emotion easily legible upon her wizened face. “And how did you manage that pretty feat, my little fawn? ”
“By reaching between the fire and the heat, ” Tilda said proudly. “Between the smoke and the kindling, where the Betwixt resides. ”
“You speak rightly enough, ” the witch said. “And you manage a magic…of a crude sort. But what of your soul, my little fawn? What can you manage of it? ”
Tilda scowled. “You are squandering time, beldam. The cock will crow soon and then I must leave with nothing to show for a sleepless night. ”
The witch ’s face did not twist with frightful wrath, nor did it smile, pleased with itself. For a moment — just a moment — the beldame ’s face lost all emotion and became as a hollow mask, the spark of presence in her dark eyes suddenly vacant as holes in a dead tree. This passed at a wink, and wry humor resumed the face.
“Petulance is an overeager frog leaping into the cauldron, ” she remarked. She stood up from her stool —or perhaps seemed to rise, or had grown larger within that small hut. Perhaps both. At length, she settled down, or shrank. Her voice was low; calm and quiet.
“Know you lemongrass, my little fawn? ”
Tilda could only nod, for there was a disquieted frog in her throat where the petulance had once resided.
“And what of belladonna? ”
Again Tilda nodded.
“And hemlock? Wolfsbane? Yarrow root? ”
Tilda nodded to all three in succession.
The witch smiled wryly. “Then fetch some for the nightfall to come and bring them to me. I will fetch that which requires a more adept hand. Baby ’s breath. A good man ’s guilt. A double heart. And so on. Now leave me. ”
Tilda remained but a moment longer, swaying in indecision. She wished to be a powerful witch, too, and yet the vacancy she had seen in the witch ’s face had unnerved her. A glint in the witch ’s eye sent her to the door and back home. It was such a glint as a cat ’s eye had upon spotting a mouse.
Laurie Swead found her baby dead at sunrise. She was inconsolable, despite the best efforts of the village womenfolk. Her husband, Michael, blamed himself for the baby ’s death, for he had left the window open and had forgotten to close it during the chilly night. Laurie had glimpsed a shadow leaving through the window, which she tearfully avowed to bear a resemblance to a swarm of black gnats. Thereafter, people spoke of witchcraft, but none dared to enter the woods and confront the witch.
Tilda ’s father was summoned. He counseled the aggrieved parents. He did not console, Laurie or Michael, for that was not his way. Later that evening, however, Laurie was discovered consoling in secret with her neighbor, Brandon Blackwell, who took the death of her child as if one of his own. When pressed by Tilda ’s father and Michael Swead, Laurie revealed certain sordid transgressions which muddied the names of the clandestine mourners. Before nightfall the whole of Clear Brook had heard of the filth of their secret endeavors, as well as the true parentage of the dead baby.
Meanwhile Tilda gathered the ingredients requested of her by the witch in the misty woods. While upon her errand she saw many a strange thing. The woods were a haunted place, after all. Whereas the swamps were silent, the woods were alive and teeming. Through the mist voices called to one another, incorporeal. Trees shifted and shuffled elsewhere. Hills fell to lounging and vales rose like cats with their backs up in anger. The silhouettes of wolves wheeled in the misty distance, walking on hind-legs as men do. They paused in a glade, looked at Tilda, and then passed by.
Undeterred and single-minded, Tilda gathered into a wicker basket all such that she required. Then she returned home to await nightfall, sleeping in the meantime. Unfortunately, her father was in a foul mood after the sordid revelations of the day. When he saw the basket of flowers and roots he became enraged. Shaking her awake, he grabbed Tilda by the wrist and yanked her up to her feet roughly, dragging her out to the yard.
“You are playing with devilish mischief! ” he roared, indicating the basket. He had Tilda hold her hands up whereupon he lashed her palms many a time with a switch, each smack chastising the hands that performed the sin. “When next you think to dabble with the Devil, think on these lashes and let the pain guide you in a purer direction!”
He was in no mood for Confessions, for which Tilda was relieved. Her hands stung and were bruised. She returned to her bedroom. She did not sulk. She did not brood or bemoan her aches as children often do when punished more than their due. She only thought of what she usually thought of when alone and unto her own thoughts. She thought of power. She thought of revenge.
And so, at the darkest hour of night —when her father exulted in his own righteous dreams of witch-burnings and book bonfires — Tilda crept out of her father ’s house and went to find her willow basket. It had belonged to her mother and was one of the few things she had left of her mother, other than her drab dresses.
Her father had burned all of her ingredients, and the wicker basket. Tilda wept but a moment, then drew herself up. A witch had to be stronger than this, she thought.
Though empty-handed, Tilda ventured out into the woods nonetheless, following the glowing green moss and once again arriving at the witch ’s hut. When Tilda entered the hut she found the witch standing over a black cauldron which had not been there the night before. Beneath the cauldron was a fire pit, which had also not been there the night before. The hut seemed larger, too, but the witch wore the same damp grayish-white cloak as before.
“Hello, my little kitten, ” the witch said as she stirred the cauldron. Her voice was different. It was lower, older. “She said you would bring what was needed. ”
Tilda approached the witch with empty hands. “I had gathered them, ” she said, trying not to cry, “but my father took them away. The yarrow root and the wolfsbane and… ”
She fell silent as she realized that this witch was not the same witch as before. She had a long nose, a shovel chin, and had never been pretty, even when young.
“Those never mattered, my little kitten, ” the different witch said. “What matters is the trouble of gettin ’ them. The willingness. The sacrifice. Especially the punishment for gettin ’ them. ”
The witch gestured Tilda toward the cauldron.
“Come, my kitten. Hold your hands in the steam. It won ’t hurt you a bit. I promise. In fact, it will take the hurt away, clean as rainwater through cheesecloth. ”
Truth be told, Tilda was afraid to go near the cauldron. Part of the child within her screamed that the witch would pluck her up and drop her headfirst into the boiling liquid. But the louder, angrier part of Tilda thought of power, and of revenge. The hatred of her father drove her as a slave-master.
Thus driven, Tilda stepped toward the cauldron, raising her bruised hands up and holding them over the lip of the fat-bellied pot. The steam lifted around her hands, and lifting away from her went the throbbing pain in her palms. The pain unwound from every nerve and muscle and bone, evaporating like pure water spilled on a hot Summer ’s day.
“There we have it, my kitten, ” the witch said. She shook one sleeve over the cauldron, and powdery mist showered the soup from that cavernous sleeve. “Now you must drink it. Drink it all, my kitten, and you will possess the power you seek
Tilda crinkled her nose at the foul liquid. She baulked at the idea that she should even smell it, for it stank of fungus and mildew and rot and stagnation. Her repulsion stayed her.
“Do you desire power or not, my kitten?! ” the witch screeched.
The memories of Confession returned to Tilda, in a sickly wave, and it overpowered with its nausea any nausea she might feel from drinking the most rancid blackwater. Taking the ladle, Tilda drank the cauldron dry, scoop by scoop. It was not so terrible as she feared. Rather, the soup tasted earthy, familiar, comforting. The more she drank, the more she craved of it. She never stopped to wonder how she could drink so much without bursting like a sheep ’s gut stuffed overfull. Nor did she grow heavy with the cauldron ’s yield. Conversely, she grew lighter. So very light. Almost as if she were floating in the air, buoyant and scattered in her thoughts, yet collected, too, in her intentions. She was as a swarm of wasps rallying against an intruder within the hive. Dizzied with power, her thoughts spiraled around one notion.
“Now is the time, my little kitten, ” the witch said approvingly. Only, the witch seemed insubstantial, like the steam of the cauldron, or the smoke off the fire pit. The whole hut grew thin, illusory, like a ghost in moonlight, or a dream soon to vanish at waking. “Now is the time to use the power as becomes you, my little kitten. Do as you will, and do much. ”
As a dream Tilda went wandering. Out the window of the hut she went, and through the woods, untouchable by any spider or serpent or beast. The night was yet dark and she floated through it as lightsome as a cloud. Coming to the village, she sensed magic all around her. She was its source, and it was beyond her also, floating from afar the witch ’s hut on the Borderlands.
Tilda just so happened upon a man near the brook for which Clear Brook claimed its name. He was making night soil, his trousers round his ankles as he squatted over the brook, holding himself up awkwardly, his fist clenched around a hapless sapling. He was not supposed to defecate in the brook —no one was —but he did so anyway. His name was Wallace Eckridge. He was a drunk most days. He liked to eye Mrs. Abbott when she washed her linen in the brook. She liked to give him an eyeful for his trouble, too, with all her bending and moaning as she toiled. Her husband was a carpenter and lame in a way that carpentry could never aid him. Everyone in Clear Brook knew such things.
Wallace was someone Tilda thought good to test her newfound powers on. She waited until he had finished making night soil, and had fixed his trousers, and then she approached him, floating in the air. He blinked at her in confusion.
“Wallace Eckridge, ” she said. “You will come with me. ”
Wallace was drunk, as usual, but he seemed to obey her at once, following her as she floated away from Clear Brook.
Tilda could not say why she wanted to take him to the witch ’s hut. She did not think too much on it, but rather was intoxicated with her power over him. She knew where she needed to go, and so she went, leading him behind her with an invisible lure. The creatures in the woods did not bother him. Rather, they went fleeing from him as if he was a thing diseased. A leper, perhaps, or Pestilence himself. Even the wolves that walked as men shunned him, fleeing on all fours as if they had lost their minds.
To the hut they came at last. The witch thanked Tilda for the offering. Tilda did not see where Wallace Eckridge disappeared. She was too concerned with listening to the witch tell her the secrets Tilda had earned.
“It is true what they say, ” the witch said, her face now fat and round and swollen with jowls. “True power does not die, nor does it rot away. It may stagnate, but that merely strengthens it. ” Her voice was articulate and precise, like a highborn lady. “Like yeast transforming barley and water into beer, so too do the old gods still hold power here, growing stronger in the festering morass. My little gosling, their power has found other forms whereby to manifest, even as they lay dead in their own filth. They grow stronger. ”
“What are they? ” Tilda asked.
“What is earth? ” the witch countered. “What is the sky? What is hate? What is hunger? What is the meaning of things? So many questions lead to the same place, my little gosling, and no nearer to the truth of things. ”
“Are the gods of the swamp the enemies of the Christian god? ” she asked.
“How can one have an enemy of something that does not exist? ” the witch said, her pudgy face rounded in enigmatic pleasure. “We exist, do we not, little lamb? And that is all that matters. ”
Tilda listened to the witch until dawn, then returned home. The power had gone from her at daybreak. She no longer felt as if she were floating along eddies of air. She no longer felt as if she could puppeteer the world ’s men with a word. She felt naked, and she felt bereft, and she craved more of the power that she had so fleetingly possessed.
Her father awaited her in her bedroom. But before he could beat her for being out of doors before sunrise — or worse, make Confession of her —he was summoned away. Wallace Eckridge ’s wife discovered that her drunken husband was missing, and the village feared further witchcraft. At first Mrs. Eckridge assumed Mrs. Abbott had finally accepted Wallace ’s lecherous advances. Consequently, the two women got into an altercation forthwith such as two wildcats with their tails tied together. They were pulled apart, with some effort, by the villagers. Even so, Mr. Abbott looked at his wife askew, and beat her for the suspected infidelity.
But soon it became apparent that Mrs. Abbott did not, in fact, center into the mystery of Wallace ’s disappearance. She had stayed up with her youngest daughter all last night, the latter suffering terribly from colic. Her eldest daughter bore witness to this, having also stayed up most of the night with her mother and youngest sister. This only cast suspicion upon other women in the village. Wallace was known to have a wandering eye and a wayward heart. Much ado was made of it before the day was done.
Before nightfall Tilda ’s father returned. He locked the doors to their house and then commanded Confession of his daughter. Afterwards, he left her bedroom and Tilda anticipated the long drawing of shadows into night. Her tears were her sole company as she waited. Finally, when she knew by the sonorous sound of snoring that her father had fallen asleep, Tilda opened her window and slumped out into the night, limping into the woods and heading hurriedly to the hut to retake her power once again. She wept as she walked, each step painful. Yet, the pain only intensified her resolve.
The witch that met her in her the hut wore a grayish white cloak like the other three, but her face was a leathery brown such as a tanner would think too frayed with use.
“Hello, my little lamb, ” the witch said softly.
Tilda did not want the witch to see her tears, and so stood with her back to her, staring into the fireplace.
“My little lamb, ” the witch said, her voice a dry wispy grass in the wind. “My poor, dear little lamb. Come and take of the power which this world owes you in all your woe. Let it console you. Let it invigorate and strengthen you. ”
Tilda resented the witch speaking of her pain —for there seemed a mocking edge to her overly tender tone —but even so, Tilda did drink of the cauldron once again. To her great joy she became at once airy and lightsome as a swarm of insects, her former pains and sorrows forgotten. Aloft now, the world seemed all beneath her; as insubstantial as the dreams of a dog, kicking in its sleep. Thus conveyed, Tilda left the hut — which was more a house now than before —and went floating through the woods.
Tilda had her mind set on one person, and so she floated unseen through the village of Clear Brook. At length she came to the cabin of Mr and Mrs Abbott. Mrs. Abbott slept alone in the bed, for she refused to let her husband sleep near her. Tilda went in through the open window, and through the cracks in between the cabin ’s logs, and through the holes in the thatch roof, coming upon Mr. Abbott on a rug in the kitchen.
“You have been naughty, Mr. Abbott, ” Tilda said, “for you do not believe the innocence of your wife. Now you will come away with me, you wicked man.”
Tilda ’s newfound powers swirled around the man, and into him. She led the man out to the witches ’ hut and, as soon as they entered, Mr. Abbott disappeared. Alongside him disappeared Tilda ’s powers once more. Her exultation was short-lived, and it pained her almost as much as Confession had.
“My dear little pup, ” the witch said, gladdened by Tilda ’s return; and altogether undisturbed by Mr. Abbott ’s sudden evanescence. Her age-mottled face wrinkled with a smile, a birthmark like a bloodstain flaring upon one eye. “You have done so well. And you will continue doing well, my dear little pup. For you are strong in the ways of us witches. ”
The witch laughed, and Tilda smiled, ignoring the pest of a suspicion that the witch was, in fact, mocking the young woman.
“What do you do with the men I bring to you? ” she asked.
The witch ’s laughter ebbed away into a slyly knowing smile. “My pup, it is but a matter of conference. We have discourse with them, and bid them be quiet. In time, they welcome the Silence. ”
This all meant nothing to Tilda. She could not understand the witch ’s real meaning.
“They are dead? ” she ventured.
“No more than the gods, ” the witch said. “My little pup. ”
Powerless once again, Tilda returned home at the crack of dawn. Her father was not there. He was busy blessing the water from the brook. He scooped it up in a bucket and sanctified it to make holy water for Mass later that evening. He also used it for Baptisms. He refused to use any other water because he said the free-flowing water of the brook was purer, cleaner, godlier than any other wellspring or lake, for it never sat still in idleness, but industriously worked itself immaculate, shedding its wickedness with tireless effort. As a man must, he claimed.
“We should aspire to be as this brook, ” he often admonished his flock. “For the way to purity is through rigors of ceaseless devotion and conviction. We must always flow, shedding our impurities though the white-water rocks should seek to detain us and shred us with their strife. ”
Tilda hated this lecture most of all, for he always took her home afterward for Confession, and she always felt terrible after Confession.
No one in the village knew what came of Mr. Abbott. Some suspected that he went hunting for Wallace Eckridge, aspiring for revenge. Others whispered that they were both of them Sodomites and had left together to live elsewhere in sin. Whichever was the worse sin was what the villagers of Clear Brook believed.
Tilda returned to the witch that night, after Mass and Confession. A new witch welcomed her and bid her drink of the cauldron. Tilda then went floating away through the woods once again, reborn within her swarming power.
Tilda happened upon Mrs. Eckridge near the edge of the woods. The vexed woman was searching for her faithless husband, cussing him and calling for him in turns. When she saw Tilda riding the currents of air, she gawped idiotically. For her part, Tilda felt a compulsion to fetch the woman back to the hut.
“Come away with me, Mrs. Eckridge, ” Tilda demanded. “I will take you to your husband and put your heart at rest. ”
The woman ’s face went slack and she followed Tilda deeper into the woods. Like Mr. Abbott and Mr. Eckridge, Mrs. Eckridge walked with her eyes open, yet the look in them was faraway, as if the woman was dreaming. They came to the house-sized hut and entered. Mrs. Eckridge disappeared as soon as Tilda passed the threshold. The witch —who had a smooth face as dark as rich soil —told her more arcane secrets.
“Primordial gods do not fade. They merely sleep, and their dreams become reality itself. We are all but the miasmic dreams of the elder gods who lay beneath the stagnant waters of the swamp. All our lives we owe to those undying gods and their endless dreams upon the Borderlands. ”
The next day Tilda ’s father was in a foul mood. Mrs. Eckridge was missing now, too, and no one had seen what had become of her. Her neighbor, Mrs. Westerly, said she had heard Mrs. Eckridge calling for her husband near the woods, and now everyone was certain the poor woman had lost her senses in those woods, and her life. Perhaps even her soul. The village turned to their preacher, and their preacher turned to the Old Testament.
“It is God ’s wrath, ” he proclaimed, “and He has forsaken those among His flock that have gone awry in their piety. We must, thus, pray and embrace His love with renewed faith. We must be vigilant against the powers of Evil. We must armor ourselves in our belief or fall into everlasting Hellfire. ”
Tilda ’s father was so angry that he was particularly rough during Confession that night. After he went to sleep, Tilda limped her way to the woods where the witch dwelled. The witch greeted Tilda in the same drab gray robe, but her face was pale and sunless as snow in the darkest winter.
“My dear little fledgling, ” the witch said. “Whatever is the matter with your legs? ”
She offered Tilda a soft, ladderback chair that had not been there upon any previous night. Tilda was too sore to sit in it, however. She muttered through her
“I want to complete my transformation, ” she said. “I want to be a master witch with all of my powers at beck and call. Not just borrowed powers. I want to be a master adept, like all of you! ”
“Oh, my little fledgling, ” the witch sighed. “That is such a momentous change. Are you sure you should not like to remain as you are now? Limited, but perfectly adequate to ensorcel most people? Surely it is enough, isn ’t it? It is not as if you wish to enchant your own blood…do you? ” The witch smiled furtively.
“I am ready, ” Tilda vowed, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I wish to be untethered. I wish to be a conduit unimpeded by flesh or blood or family ties! ”
“If you wish it, ” the witch said, “then your wish shall be granted. ”
The witch motioned toward the black cauldron in the center of the vast house. A row of steps appeared in front of it, and Tilda ascended these quickly. But when she came face to face with the immaculate blackness of the cauldron she hesitated. Looking down into that steaming blackness brought to her a great fear, and an excitement, but above all that reigned the rage and the thirst for revenge. Whatever the cost, she thought, it was not so terrible as Confession. The thought of one more Confession trembled her and galvanized her resolve to gain power, no matter the cost to anyone, including herself. She looked at the witch, and recalled all of the other witches. Each witch seemed the perfect figure of power, a natural matriarch ready and capable of toppling the putrescent patriarchs that dominated village life in Clear Brook, and village life all around the world. They were not debased. They were exultant. They knew more power in their deathly silences than was ever evidenced in a fire-and-brimstone sermon from atop the dais.
The steam was not hot. It was cool, like mist. It reminded her of a heady miasma. She extended her right foot over the shadowy soup. Slowly she lowered her toes into the liquid. It did not burn. It did not scald her. Trusting the power more now, Tilda stepped off the top of the stairs and plunged down into the cauldron, her head spinning with thoughts of freedom at long last.
What did she feel? She felt herself sinking…sinking…sinking. Her body was dragged down beneath its unwanted weight and its fleshy weakness. All grew dark and still within the cauldron. Deathly. Soon, however, she felt life stir within her. It bloomed upward, rising defiant against the rot. The blooming elation was as dough rising in an oven, nurtured by the heat of a fire; only it was a clammy silence that nurtured and nourished the power within her. It reminded her of something blooming from rot, but she could not remember what. At its culminating expanse she felt herself burst free from the swollen form she used to know, lifting freely into the air; liberated from the weakness of her earthly shell; freed from the prison that confined her and restrained her from this ubiquitous power that existed long before even the swamp existed; long before Mankind existed.
With her newfound power amassed around her like a cloud, Tilda floated homeward, light and airy and yet possessed of a power that could topple gilded empires into the stagnant swamp and its dead gods. She floated freely now, more freely than ever before, and she went with her unfathomable power to Clear Brook. To the brook itself and its baptismal waters, and to her hypocritical father.
She found him abed, a cross clutched in his hands as if to fend off demons that might, at any moment, drag him off to Hell. Tilda floated above him for a time. Then she entered him through his empty spaces — as he so often did her while in Confession —and she awoke him, though he remained enthralled to her. Taking her time, she led him through the woods. The witches, one and all, awaited them in their hut. The hut was much larger than before, and they all cackled as the preacher entered. Their laughter seemed faraway to Tilda, and insubstantial as a faint breeze along swamp grasses. Before she let her father disappear, however, she bid him speak his own Confession for all the witches to hear.
He spoke as a man in a daze, his eyelids half-closed.
“I have made abomination with my daughter, ” the preacher said. “I have rutted upon her as I would my wife, now dead these eleven years. I have sullied her, and made ruin of her. I have preached with forked tongue in two different directions, the twain clutching at Sin betwixt. I am a Liar, and a Sodomite, and the Hypocrite. I have blasphemed of Confession, making of it what it should not be. I have exchanged the Spiritual for the Carnal, and at the expense of Innocence. God does not forgive me, and I am destined to Hell. ”
“No, ” the witches said as one. “Not Hell. To something…purer. To something Holier. To the Silence. ”
Tilda ’s father vanished into the Silence.
Drifting with the fog, and the miasma, and neither being intentional or willful, but accomplishing what she wanted regardless, the entity that was Tilda emptied the village of all of its people in time, giving them to the witches in the hut at the edge of the swamp. As in dreams did Tilda do this, floating in cycles of birth and death and birth again, neither state truly distinguished from the preceding, as if a sleeper waking unto deeper dreams than before. The witches did not show themselves to her after a time, nor did she choose when she left or returned with an ensorceled villager. She had to wander far to find people to bring back to the hut, in time, after Clear Brook had run dry of people.
Only sometimes it seemed that the hut became as immaterial as she sometimes felt —she saw through it, then, and all of it switches and furnishings —and then she saw nothing but the swamp itself, stagnant and endless. Among its miasmic expanse were trees and logs half-sunken in the black water, and riddled with strange mushrooms. And sometimes these rotten trees did not look like trees and logs, but instead like the bones of gigantic things that had died and festered long ago. And there were smaller bones, and skulls, and bodies that had not rotted completely to mush, even as they sprouted the mushrooms that burst open to release the airy spores that floated away, phantomlike, with the four winds to seek out living creatures. One corpse was small, but riddled with mushrooms, its brown hair oily and tangled over its clammy forehead, its drab gray dress soiled by inky waters; one eye hollowed out and the other staring blankly, its green iris a fairy ring of tiny mushrooms that bloomed amidst the stagnant Silence.
Ravens have been the thoughts
flitting through my brain
as I walk the gravestone lots
of this misty moonlit lane.
Poe walks to one side of me
and Lovecraft to the other,
and, above us, Hecate,
our midnight, moon-eyed mother.
Twain mutters to himself
a joke, the sardonic satirist,
and Le Fanu summons an elf
from the moor’s veil of mist;
Goya sits in a chair
and paints the mad dance
of us lunatics who dare
the Devil at chance,
and a bright bonfire burns
near the deep, dark woods
around which there turns
a trio wearing hoods:
Jackson, Carter, Bowen,
each and all mesmerizing
as they glow when
the vesper’s rising.
Wearing stygian cloaks
and Protean masks,
these cavorting folks
drink from Lethean flasks,
gathered as one together
in a Sylvan court,
birds of an inky feather
seeking magic and sport.
Time will always outlast us,
even when seeking salvation
on the summit of Parnassus
and the imagination,
yet what a nice stroll
is to be had among them all—
to be a kindred soul
and answer the Raven’s call.
I glimpsed my Love’s other face,
a visage out of Time and Space
while exploring her outer voids
with a craft through the asteroids,
and seeing those gulfs I went mad,
or else, in the afterglow I was sad,
yet she soon smiled again at me
with the human face I wished to see—
it is hard to love what is so unfeeling,
but what choice have I, her glamour peeling?
I must gaze upon her prettier side,
never where her dark truths hide
or I will fall prey to the vertiginous whirl
of her truths, my inhuman girl
and hag, as well, and witch beyond—
mother from which we have all spawned.
There are predators beloved in her heart
that would gladly tear me apart,
and every bug, too, and microbe, amoeba,
for she is fickle as the Queen of Sheba,
but mostly her bosom is empty, cold,
the gulfs of space without form or mold,
her chest expanding with a Big Bang Breath
until Entropy brings about her death,
yet for all such Space, no safe spaces
for creeds, religions, or any races.
She is just as likely to destroy the earth
as let us live for eons in peace and mirth;
she has her tantrums, yet they are indifferent
as if her fury is never really felt or meant
as she throws her random meteor showers
or vomits lava when her stomach sours
or swallows planetary systems whole
in the pregnancy hunger of a black hole.
Whore and horror, mother and wife—
with her, there is Death, without her, no Life.
And so I must work on learning to love
what is beautiful and terrible, below and above.
A Bloodborne Tale
“I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’”
—John Keats, La Belle Dame Sans Merci: A Ballad
Feverish I have been; feverish near unto frenzy, for the blessed blood taints me, as it has done so many among us who Hunted upon the sprawling snowfields and spiraled spires of Cainhurst’s haunts. Too much spillage. How were we to avoid the Vileblood corruption when it rained down all around us in our bladed symphony and wheel-broken mayhem? Were I a stronger man I would not have feared beasthood. Yet, though thrust among the Healing Church’s ranks, I have always known myself to be more a failed scholar of Byrgenworth than an Executioner imbued with strength equal to my faith. Indeed, I had learned too much from the gaping-mouthed ghouls and dull-eyed scholars to have faith in the insidious Church, even whilst beneath the tutelage of Master Logarius, the purported paragon of faith. If I were to fault anything, it would have to be having been in such company as so many revered men. For my heroes have been revealed to me in all of their deficiencies, from Willem to Logarius, and even my most admired confidant, Nicolae.
But how had I come to this land of Vilebloods and its tantalizing heresies? Even now my mind is mingled with pasts and futures not my own— with lives belonging to the sanguine dregs of others and all the temptations that inhabited such individuals. Some things are more clearly branded in my mind than others. The rationale for my restless resettlement has always remained fairly pellucid. Even then I suspected that my addition to the Executioners was Willem’s scheme to rid himself of a scholar too flawed to be of use and too strong-willed to be obedient. After all, I was arrogant, naturally, and increasingly so as my sojourn at Byrgenworth proved my own insufficiencies as a scholar. I had been a feeble practitioner of the arcane arts. Laughably so, I must confess. I had no more eyes on the inside than the common Yharnamite. And the smirks and sneers of my fellow scholars further incensed me, tempting my transgressions. When I had stolen the Chalice and entered the Pthumerian tombs, Willem had no doubt been inclined to let me wander there until my death. But when I returned— my sword broken and my body on the verge of death— I held within my possession a valuable relic hitherto undiscovered. Willem ordered that I be treated well, so I might recover, and then he sent me to the Church, saying I needed to atone for my sins by becoming an Executioner. Knowing that to refuse was to forfeit my life, I obeyed him. I had seen the experiments conducted at Byrgenworth and had no desire to be likewise mutilated.
What an unsuspecting imbecile I was! A naif and fool. I wandered into Yharnam as a lamb unto a slaughterhouse. That is not to say that I was unaware of Willem’s intentions. As I have said, I was a disobedient young man disinclined to conformity. To send me to the Church, it seemed, was as to send an unruly charge from an overwrought governess to a military general. Either I should be disciplined or destroyed, and no additional course was to be considered. I suppose it helped in my “reformation” that Yharnam struck me so overwhelmingly when I first beheld it. It overawed me in a way that not even Byrgenworth and its many secrets could. Indeed, to see it was as to see a grim, black-hearted wastrel lurching out of an alleyway and looming large, his shadow dark and fetid and wholly encompassing you. It intimidated me, in short, and inspired in me a festering resentment.
Yharnam—what can be said of that dizzying edifice of vertiginous hypocrisy? One can see how the edifices and gables and spires of Yharnam rear upward toward the heavens like desperate supplicants to their lofty gods overtopping them. Thus city and citizenry are unified in their desperate conceit for deliverance. It was built upon Old Yharnam, as upon a fuming crypt of cremation. So, too, Byrgenworth was built upon the dead; that venerated seat of learning but a lectern whereat fools in dunce caps preach atop the bones of more learned sages of the Eldritch Truth. There are secrets in Oedon’s Chapel that would drive mad the Yharnamites huddled below it like stupid, blood-glutted farrows at a sow’s teats. I do not embellish when I say that Oedon’s Chapel is a cannibal mother to those of us clear-eyed enough to see it.
Yet, I had little time to accustom myself to that dizzying array of compounding architectural complexities. It was not long after I arrived in Yharnam and was introduced to my compatriots that Master Logarius led us upon the proverbial warpath. I was not yet settled into my quarters in Yharnam when I was rushed along Hemwick Lane with the others, ill-fitted with my clothing and my ridiculous golden helm. It was upon that road that I acquainted myself with my brethren. I had no formal introduction, nor even sufficient time to habituate myself to our cumbersome wheels. Hoisting the weapon upon my back, I wondered if it was merely a contrivance born of absurdity whereby to mock me as the newest recruit. But soon enough I saw that all of my brethren strapped the unwieldy weapon upon their back.
It was, in my opinion, no small amount of tomfoolery that we walked the entirety of the way to the threshold of our enemy’s domain. How ironic that we should walk while bearing upon our bowed backs the wheels wherewith we could outfit enough carriages to carry us. But it was as much a walk of Faith as it was a bonding exercise among our ranks. Master Logarius was, if anything, a man of certain principles. Adversity was his tempering stone. A hard man, he nonetheless inspired faith within the Executioners; perhaps because of his difficult temperament.
There were many of strong faith among the Executioners’ ranks. I felt misplaced among them, and unworthy. They welcomed me happily, and yet despite their camaraderie, I knew I was placed among them too late to be counted brotherly. I was, as a nuisance to Willem, expendable and likely soon discarded. For what was the reason for my swift induction into such venerated ranks except as a sacrificial goat? True, I had proven myself of some worth in the Pthumerian tombs, but much of my survival impinged upon wise retreat and selective killing. But this was war. The Vilebloods were warrior nobles of renowned prowess. They had imbibed forbidden blood and had gained horrendous strength from its occult legacy. How could an unseasoned scholar such as myself fare against such bloodlusting monsters as what enumerated within Cainhurst Castle?
The march was long and hard. I felt half-dead as we approached. Blood was made available upon the journey, to enliven us, and it helped to invigorate me, though it seemed to me to be lacking of essential vigors to compensate for my innate apprehension. My prevalent sense of dread only increased within me as we passed through the woods. It was truly odd, considering I had braved the Pthumerian tombs with nothing but my sword to accompany me. Yet, I would later discover in such apprehension the latency of a conflicted nature and inclination that would, inevitably, elucidate such fears as mere ambivalence arising from divided allegiances. Given time, of course. In the meantime, however, I was as a blind man groping in a hallway, confused as to which direction to go.
Thus, I turned to Nicolae, in whom I believed a trait of amicability presided and whom therein I might confide my apprehensions without derision or flippancy.
“I do not know if I am of merit or mettle to be among you,” I confessed.
He gave the most good-natured smile and patted my shoulder in a familiar way unknown to those cold-hearted minds of Byrgenworth.
“No one knows the worth of any untested tool,” he said. “It must be measured, as they say, when blade bites bone. Only then do we know if any of us are worthy of our call to serve.”
We came, at length, to the sleepy village of Hemwick. Here, in this backwater village, and on any misty morning, the fog rolls up from the sea and mingles with the ashen smoke of those charnel houses and mills, inseparably, as if a great fugue over the land; a forgetful dream rising up from the unplumbed depths. What a dilapidated sprawl of cottages and windmills! They were derelict not unlike the corpses they stripped and burned to fuel the Vileblood’s ambitions.
Women and men both worked united in this purpose. Yet, when they saw our arrival through the woods, they ceased immediately in their efforts. Initially I feared an altercation between our small army and that gaunt peasantry. But this fear did not manifest to form. Though its citizenry were enslaved to their masters, they did not contend our passage. Rather, they fled indoors, among their macabre labors, and did not emerge until we were well beyond their smoky village. Master Logarius commented that such an enterprise would benefit the Healing Church greatly. Ash marrow bullets were much coveted in the Church’s arsenal. Such an arsenal, he vowed, would help pave the road to the Church’s true ascension. Even now I cannot help but see a road cobbled in skulls and pooled with blood when I recall his words.
When I first saw Cainhurst Castle I was mesmerized by its forbidden beauty. Its ancient legacy was attested in every old stone upon which the towering edifice exulted itself. Its spires rose upward from the mountainous island, surrounded by the briny depths of the sea. A pale moon glossed the icy pinnacles and I felt a strange familiarity with such a forlorn image. Nor could I remember such a familiarity in my life. Byrgenworth’s insights had stripped me of my previous life. What memories I had were shattered glass shards. The attempt to summon to mind my past was, and even now is, as futile an endeavor as to draw out the blood from one’s own veins. It cycles, and determines who I am, yet I cannot harness it as upon a spool for closer reflection. What I knew, without one whit of doubt, was that Cainhurst meant more to me than either Byrgenworth or Yharnam could. At the time, however, I did not know if it meant my death or, perhaps, a new awakening.
When we arrived at the Cainhurst Castle’s bridge we were met by silence. There were no forces awaiting us on that long stone bridge. Nor were there forces hailing us from the castle’s many windows. The wind skirled sibilantly against its tottering beauty, but apart from the elements we heard nothing. Snow fell, as if patting down the silence with its own immaculate hush. My unease grew in such silence. Yet, I was not certain what I was truly uneasy about: my own life and its potential loss, or our imminent disturbance into that silent, stony mistress that lorded over this land. It seemed sacrilegious to intrude there. This excited in me dread and euphoria, as one would feel in taking pleasure from one of Yharnam’s many whores— whether from her gaping thighs or her gaping veins.
The Castle was silent. The moon reigned above it like a skull-crowned monarch, glowing pallidly with its endless life.
“Have they alighted?” an Executioner asked, voicing what we all thought at that moment.
Master Logarius said nothing. He instead pointed wordlessly toward the portcullis. There was an audible gasp from someone among the Executioners. Perhaps it was from myself. Regardless of its origin, the gasp was justified, for the portcullis mocked us with its Pthumerian gawp, it being lifted— as if in betrayal—to invite us in to ravage the castle it was intended to protect. Perhaps, I thought, the Vilebloods had indeed alighted from the castle, seeking sanctuary in a distant land, or some distant sea. I hoped so, for I was in no mood for bloodshed upon such alluring grounds. We followed Master Logarius beneath the portcullis and into the moonyard of the inner walls. There was a water fountain there, frozen in the wintry wastes, and statues allotted here and there in intermittent clusters. To one side I saw the land fall away into a descending hollow that appeared to have been a cave once upon an age. The crush of rocks at the bottom indicated a concerted effort to close that passage. It begged the question as to what had been discovered there, and why it was feared.
The silence was unsettling. Indeed, it reminded me of still waters wherein a predator lurked, circling a fool oblivious to the teeth at his ankles. Instinctively, I drifted toward the center of our army, sheltering myself within our ranks. I feel no shame in admitting myself in want of advantage by their insulating numbers. They were, so far as my untested mettle was concerned, a mobile bulwark within which I might protect myself.
It was as we passed halfway between the portcullis and the Castle’s large, imposing doors that the sinister silence erupted into a clashing cacophony. Two large bodies of Cainhurst knights rushed us from afore and behind. It was a trap! To one flank gaped the hollow of crushed rock and to the other were the sheer walls of the Castle itself. Master Logarius was in front, and met the knights with his scythe, cutting them down like harvest-ready wheat. I had never seen such a terrible bloodletting before. His soldiers did no less in their efforts, crashing into, and smashing, the Cainhurst knights with their heavy Wheels. The Cainhurst knights were fast with their swords, but the Wheels overpowered their thrusts and slashes, turning them aside. Those whom were mounted upon horseback advantaged themselves of their height, slashing down at the Executioners below them. However, the Executioners were trained well— discounting myself—and soon overcame these knights by forming a phalanx with their wheels. Like a carapace of spokes and rims and hubs, they moved together, protecting each other while Executioners beneath them used their swords to cut the horses to stumps, thus throwing the knights for efficient dispatch. My brethren were coordinated and calm, even while surrounded in ambush. I had neither the collection of mind, nor the training of arms, to be of use in such a chaotic fray. I cowered among the Executioners, as a worm among armored beetles. Their power was matched only by their ferocious animosity toward the Vilebloods they smashed and mangled and mutilated. And their hatred was fostered by their faith in the Church. I was not possessed of such faith. I was an apostate.
Neither was sheer strength my forte. I was not an Executioner imbued with brute force, nor were the arcane powers mine at easy beck and call, as I had learned alongside my peers in Byrgenworth. Something else was my acuity, though it would be some time before I learned of my latent talents.
The ungaily Wheels we used by the Executioners were cumbersome for me, and so I carried mine only as an observance of my newly acquired duty, preferring my blade in such butcher’s work, as I had during my exhumation of the Pthumerian Catacombs. Speed was an endowment advantaging me, and clever, furtive hands. While I could never wield the Wheels as my brethren did, I made use of the blade in an efficient manner when I could not longer cower behind my brethren. I was surprised at my own bloody work. The Pthumerian Catacombs had not been an ordeal like that of war, and here, in the moonyard of Cainhurst Castle, I discovered that when confronted with annihilation I had, at my disposal, a natural deftness for swordplay. I suppose this should not have astounded me so greatly. Though a thorough skeptic concerning the legacies of the Church, and the first Ministrations of the Old Blood, I still claimed for myself a certain pantheon of figures whom I admired. Ludwig, the Holy Blade, and his strange sword, had always intrigued and inspired me, even when I was an inept scholar at Byrgenworth. My admiration for Ludwig was why I allowed myself the use of the Holy Blade, despite it being a pale imitation of that great glowing moonlight sword of legend. To my shame, however, I must admit my inability to wield the imitation’s secondary form with any aptness or dexterity of hand, my strength being inadequate. Rather, the sheathe remained exactly that: a sheathe. I did not partake in such cumbersome additions when my natural disposition toward speed would have been disadvantaged for no particular betterment.
My inadequacies were mirrored, fortunately, in Cainhurst’s forces as we destroyed the ambushing forces and entered the Castle’s great hall. They had neither strength of numbers nor quality of strength in their warriors to hold the tide. As we ascended the central staircase, and killed whosoever was unwary enough to intercede our path, it became increasingly apparent how minimal their forces truly were. Indeed, they had supplemented their forces with the many stone statues that adorned that gigantic complex, arranging them like farcical imitations of the forces they lacked. It would have been laughable had the circumstances not been so serious. Perhaps they were desperate. Perhaps the were mocking us with their stolid-faced statues. Perhaps it was both.
There were more knights within the castle, and upon every level of its tottering heights, but they fell before us as do sand idols before the thrashing tides. Their armor, forged of thin silver in pompous fashion, offered little protection against the blunt impacts of the Executioners’ Wheels. Rather, the refined finery of those silver plates collapsed inward alongside ribs and skulls, inlaying the crimson pulp with smeared silver wrapping— nothing more.
I was not unaware of the stories concerning the servants of Cainhurst. The nobility had quaffed much of the forbidden blood, and, consequently, were given to inhuman transformations should the blood have provoked their more bestial natures. It was not unlike the Beast Plague in Yharnam, and, as such, these unfortunate circumstances necessitated the employment of Hunters. Only, here in Cainhurst the servants of the nobility were often trained to cull the nobility of the affected among its ranks. The knights, too, engaged in these culling efforts, but I found it endlessly fascinating that such duties should fall to inferiors and subordinates among what I presumed to be an arrogant aristocracy. Perhaps, I thought, they were not so arrogant after all. Perhaps there was a bond between them quite to the contrary as that of the Healing Church and its legion of unsuspecting naifs. Here, the nobility inspired fealty by laying their napes beneath the blades of their servants. The Healing Church, on the other hand, promised salvation with their ministrations, all the while opening veins to greater, more terrible infections than mere Ashen blood.
The Cainhurst servants engaged us as heartily as the Cainhurst knights had. They were formidable with their rapiers and unassuming, slinking ways. Ultimately, they were smashed like the many scores of other bodies left in our wake. Yet, I felt a keen sorrow for them as they ran to meet us on behalf of their masters. The small, withered men and women were half the height and stature of their betters, and still managed a certain nobility in their brave, foolish deaths. Apparent as their mistreatment was at the behest of the nobility, the servants nonetheless were— or wherefore became— dedicated to that ancient bloodline.
I have oft wondered what went through the minds of our victims that night. I would have thought it strange to see a siege led by men in golden helmets and carrying those impractical Wheels about. But I did not doubt that, once the battle had been engaged, whatever mirth might have assumed itself in their minds at such a ridiculous sight rapidly transformed to horror. Having never seen a Wheel utilized in such a barbarous fashion, I was myself quite shocked to see the butchery that followed. Broken bones, smashed guts, caved-in heads— for being such an absurd weapon, the Wheel manifested shockingly gory proceedings. Vileblood blades were either turned away by the cumbersome rims or arms were snapped by the ensnaring spokes. The small, hunkering servants were pulverized to steaming heaps of meat and bone within moments. It was horrifying.
But I noticed a more horrifying phenomenon beyond the mere spectacle of slaughter. Following behind my brethren, like a gosling in the currents of its parents, I could see much what they, in their murderous frenzy, could not see. And I am grateful that I had enough sense, at first, to fear for my well-being. Moreover, I was appalled by so much rampant carnage and delayed enjoining my own blade in service to the Church except in instances where my own life would be forfeit. Yet, among the visceral nausea, there came, parallel and intensifying the former, an Eldritch abhorrence. At first I merely dismissed it as the fanciful notion of an overwrought mind. Yet, thinking back on it now I know it to have been no mere fancy born from the violence arrayed around me. What I saw had indeed transpired: as the Vilebloods perished, their blood circumscribed those abominable Church weapons, girdling them like a torrential stream upon a waterwheel. I do not claim to know if it was a crimson curse of the Vilebloods in the throes of their deaths, or some diabolical upon the Executioners’ Wheels imbued by the Church. But what I saw, as my brethren smashed knights and servants alike, was a literal cyclical curse.
That is not to say that the scholar in me was not intrigued by the apparent phenomenon. My mind subsequently rifled through its admittedly limited tomes of knowledge, seeking a corresponding phenomenon or similar account. The nearest similitude readily recalled was a brief overview of Pthumerian sanguinomancy and an anecdote concerning an incident in a fishing hamlet. Regardless of the unfamiliarity of the phenomenon, I understood it for what it was: a bloody curse. Nor was it superstition that deemed it so in my recognition. The more my brethren killed, the more blood-drunk they became, and consequently the more blind they were to the vengefulness of the spirits harnessed about the rims of their Wheels. Even mild-tempered Nicolae was besot with the crimson lunacy. His countenance was disquieting to behold.
The resistance within Cainhurst diminished by degrees of quality and quantity. Soon the knights were all destroyed, and the servants rapidly fell in succession. We came to a dining hall, and there within it were noblewomen armed with daggers. Attired in flowery dresses, beautiful and damned and damning a man with their winsome beauty and false frailty, they gave me pause. Even the blood-crazed Executioners looked upon them with some hesitation. Yet, Master Logarius had iron in his soul sharper and stronger than any manmade blade and, so, bade us bind and blind those that did not immediately fall in the ensuing violence of disarming them. This, I knew, was to spare his own flock the temptations of their beauty. Indeed, the noblewomen tempted the cloistered scholar in me with their seductive eyes. I felt pity for them, and knew it to be a failure in my human flesh, or perhaps a foible of my beast’s blood, and therefore a vermin of soul to be silenced with a merciless boot. When my brethren slit their throats I felt a great pang crying out to those wretched beauties, even as I abhorred their power over me.
We ascended the Castle, coming to a vast library that would have shamed Byrgenworth with its collection. The scholar in me bemoaned so many unread works. Who knew what arcana inhabited that vast, many-storied library with its labyrinth walkways and oaken staircases and tiers upon tiers of shelves? And yet, even here great butcheries were perpetrated in the name of the Healing Church. Master Logarius was like the Wheels with which the Church armed his followers: ever grinding inexorably onward in his bloody path.
‘Twas easier to gain entry into the depths of the Pthumerian labyrinths than the upper reaches of Cainhurst castle. Battle was bloody up its heights, with both knights and maidens raising arms against us. They all fell, however, as we wound our way upwards, led by Logarius and undauntable Nicolae. The castle was as a puzzlebox, demanding due vigilance and keenness of mind. Many times we found ourselves confronted by dead ends, and barbarous traps, but Master Logarius and Nicolae both persevered, leading us upwards, never once stonewalled for long. I marveled at our progress, for I felt quite heady and troubled by the entire foray, my mind bucking me like an obstinate stallion. The castle itself held some sway over me, it seemed, though I dared not voice such misgivings to my brethren.
One thing was certain, though: the Vilebloods were ill-prepared for our assault. They had not expected the Church to be so bold, or perhaps their pride assumed themselves too strong to be overthrown. We slaughtered their horses and laid waste to their servants long before they could muster a defense.
Logically, I thought of it as no massacre, but merely as an impersonal culling of the beastly herd. It was no secret that the Vilebloods had partaken of filthy blood and in so doing doomed themselves toward the plague of beasts. The ashen plague was of their making as well, and would undo them in time without the Church’s machinations.
Or so I had been told.
We ascended to the very heights of the castle, finding ourselves upon its windy roofs and snowy turrets. The frosted crown of the castle was as treacherous as its inhabitants. A chance misstep and I nearly lost my foothold as we scoured the rooftops for the remaining beasts and royalty. Master Logarius must have had a keener eye than myself, for he led us along the precarious catwalks and spires toward some unseen . I almost thought him mad, for a time, and wondered if he was chasing cold phantoms from the foggy sea.
We were met by the Vileblood King upon the rampart of the remaining expanse of the castle. When he arrived, with his heretical Chikage, we thought our revenge near its end. He was unaccompanied, standing solitary against a score of us. His last stand was hopeless and vain.
Foolhardy as I was, I was caught unawares when the King thrust his sword into his own body. I mistook his actions as a final act of defiance, and aristocratic arrogance to deny us the killing blow, and so I dropped my guard, struck thereupon by his blazing blood as he withdrew the blasphemously steeped blade. I fell and did not rise until after the King had been slaughtered by my brethren. Nicolae knelt over me, surveying the damage. I could see only with one eye, the other benighted by the vileblood fire.
I attempted to stand, but Nicolae ordered me to rest, and so I rested. When I awoke later, I felt delusional, for I saw my brethren manifesting from thin air upon the battlements of the castle. Their demeanors were grave, despite our victory. I rose unsteadily to my feet and asked them what was the matter. They informed me that Master Logarius had been slain during the execution of Queen Annalise. I felt a great pang of guilt, thinking that my absence might have forfeited our Master’s life in the final confrontation. Yet, my remaining eye alighted upon the bloody head of the fallen Vileblood King, and I wondered at his missing crown. It was curiously strange, but I said nothing of it, knowing that discretion in Church matters was holy in its own way.
And yet I recalled it vividly, intimately, as if I had known that crown my entire life. It had been embedded in its long, slender turrets with jewels of jade, amber, ruby, sapphire, and amethyst. It was a garish piece of ornamentation, and yet I had sensed within it a jewel beyond equal; a jewel yet unseen, except perhaps in dreams, and a jewel to which access was granted solely through such a strange crown.
We left that forsaken castle and returned to Hemwick Lane, greeted by its residents as heroes. They were all of them now liberated from their ancient bondage to Cainhurst and its Vileblood dynasty. Nicolae assured us, with his naive smile, that the residents would find salvation in the teachings, and the ministrations, of the Healing Church. Yet, even then I could discern the ravages of the Ashen Blood in their gaunt faces. They were dying slowly, painfully, and cheered us with agonized grimaces. What would the Church do if Hemwick should succumb as Old Yharnam had? Its weaponry against evil was maintained through the blessed work of Hemwick. Without bone ash the Church would lose power, despite having just conquered its greatest enemy.