As the little bear ate berries from his cupped and open palms, the shadow watched his paralytic venom take and peeled the cub alive.
The shadow had been cast from a convoy of refugees fleeing the cold: a trail of rickety carriages and tents dragged across the rotten moor by sclerotic chimaera, too old now to pile on new limbs for strength. This detour could go no further. Last night’s deal was off, said the driver, now threatening to expose the shadow as some nasty piece of Faustian trade.
So he took a coat from the nearest rack and walked the rest of the way. Bearskin shifting gently in the windless cold, across the empty plain where once was Unshkrit-m’tho.
It was said that the masters of Unshkrit once moved the stars in the sky with a word. When nomads first settled these lands, they would not have known it. Their fallen stars had long been covered over by earth, their pyramids now run down to mountains and tors. Every stack of smooth pebbles the shadow found at shrines along the road, he kicked over. Only the monastery stood here before those nomads came to build their eternal cities. Only the monastery stood thereafter.
“Be held,” said the monastery doors. “No great vision was relayed to eyes on small details. Be not by the light betrayed…”
“…all surfaces are veils,” replied the knowing shade.
The heavy bronze doors did not open. After a moment the shadow tutted to himself, and walked through their specious mass.
He climbed cobwebbed stairs to the courtyard where the monks were gathered in their humid botanical forest to meet him; no expressions on the polished chitin masks they wore for faces, no weapons visibly strapped beneath their velvethene robes.
One asked his business here and from his cloak he removed an amulet, letting it dangle below his fist. In its ruby heart a Sefr snake moved in secret correspondence with the world, and in that dance the monk recognised the artist’s cryptographic signature. He gave the shadow a nod. When the envoy from fallen Sefreja arrived he did not usually come alone, but he came this time of year for only one thing.
With devotion unweathered by time the monks had tended to their winter gardens and souvenirs of aeons past: old books preserved in alien atmospheres, cabinets of empty crowns, a mechanical computer like an egg of etched glass. And in the warm guts of the structure—where glassy surfaces lay imperishable beneath rough and ancient stone—they kept the oldest and most significant specimen in their collection.
At history’s first light its brothers were already fossils and coal. To the monks it was prelapsarian: the last living ancestor of all extant things, cut from that outermost bound which delimited all gods of all worlds; perhaps of its ragged outer edge, perhaps the stale black ocean beyond. According to local colour it had been a livestock animal. As doors within doors unfolded before him, the first thing the shadow noticed was its sulphuric reek. Then an instant of recognition.
Near a circular black lake at the centre of an edgeless room the animal shifted in its chains, unsettled by a halo of dim illumination above and the foreign light from beyond its chamber door. Feeling a psychic churn in the air, the shadow realised now what the monks had always known to be true.
The light of consciousness had burned no brighter than in this impenetrable crypt, nor would it. The most tireless of the human minds, he thought, had only aspired to embers of this natural superintelligence. And of the human minds the shadow was only an impression on a cave wall. This palsied heap, which dribbled from every semi-prolapsed orifice, was it.
And once a year, by distant decree, a Sefr emissary was allowed to ask one question.
The monk waved the door shut and left the two creatures alone in the chamber. The shadow gave a small but open-hearted smile—the same smile he’d given the convoy driver, who’d stopped for a poor girlish silhouette whose horse had died on the country road—and shrugged his cloak off on the floor, tossing his necklace on the cushion it made around his bare feet.
Days earlier, the shadow rose quietly from bed wearing nothing but his lover’s blood.
From the Sefr emissary’s throat, which he’d opened across the thin pillows, he took a pretty amulet that housed a dancing snake and slipped out of the tent before dawn.
He stroked two of the camp’s horses while he poisoned them with venom bottled for the soldiers’ hunting arrows. Then he led the third horse deep downhill and rode off in the direction of a rogue moon, through a bleached swamp that would swallow his trail whole.
He had two days to source the first of two ingredients, before he was to join the convoy passing Unshkrit-m’tho. It would only be found here, on the deserted border of “the kingdom”, if it could be found anywhere at all.
For there was no grave-marked Earth below this world for a grave-robber to disturb, no stone cemetery for a notional wisp to haunt. The living who might have bore witness there were now dead, and the traditions of human mourning may have died long before them. Nobody the shadow had asked could remember which way the world ended—one big bang? A century of whimpers? A little cough?—and it meant nothing to them either way.
After the cities had been put down and the planet flayed of life, the pyramids and pharaoh’s tombs were melted down to slag beneath the light of an expanding star. Then the buried dead were cremated in liquifying soil, the mountains tucked away into its volcanic folds.
The moon rejoined the sun. The red giant devoured Mars. Flowers bloomed unwitnessed for a time around Jupiter and Saturn, then dried in Autumn and found no cycle waiting to consume them. Just a Winter without a Spring. Just a black hole at the centre of the Solar System where Atum had swallowed himself.
Brahma-years of darkness followed. Perhaps some dramatic potential remained: strange gold tablets depicting human emissaries sent away like messages in bottles. But these had been ventured out towards the stars in vain. For all the grave-marked worlds had drifted far away now, all shorelines vanished beyond the edges of the black ocean. Even a corpse carried a symbolic charge, thought the ghosts that remained, but what heft the hydrogen atom? What poetry the quark? What the quanta without her observer?
All was without form, or void; nothing moved upon the face of the waters. When the last brick of the last temple was peeled apart by its last atomic bond, the gods that had lost their high stations began to rot without end. The devils, for some reason, just got to retire.
Brahma-years of darkness followed.
The shadow had been a devil once. When he wasn’t some supple maiden or ravenous old hag straddling a waking dreamer’s chest. But it had been too long now for him to remember the warmth of a human’s touch, their curious gaze. Whatever looks he once had had faded now like vestigial flaps of skin. Any image of real intimacy he could conjure in his mind was faint against his closed eyes as if lit by a drowning candle, and provoked no fragrant memory of sensation or feeling. Like a pale photograph once hidden at the bottom of a jewellery box, now overexposed to the sun.
“The kingdom” the shadow now picked through might have once been an afterlife, but that was long before now. Facing endless life with those He emptied of all but pointless worship, the story goes, the local god smote himself and smoked the population with him. (Like Sodom, thought the shadow, without the redeeming quality of the sodomy.) Amongst the ruins he was told he’d find something that met his captors’ requirements.
When they’d found the shadow in his bottle some time ago, his first question was where his master had gone.
The smiling representatives of the “maggot cult”, as they’d come to be known, had few answers for him. The cult had no reason to convince anyone of their beliefs, aims, or methods, too delighted with their own mysteries to lay them out in layman’s terms. Little was known of them besides the masochistic extremity of their meditation practice and the snowy mountain crypt to which they made their final pilgrimages: the mausoleum that only opened and locked from the inside.
While he coughed dust on the floor they watched him with their lipless grins then escorted him from the treasure vault where they’d found him, taking nothing else. As he followed them up a staircase he smelled moist fungi, looked at how it grew through the holes in them and watched baby worms slither beneath their sackcloth rags, bodies fecund with putrefaction. They took him to the top of a tower that once overlooked a shining city under the sea, its high window now peeking out of some sterile, fine-grained sand. On the horizon, vast and featureless dunes had been encrusted in snow.
If one of his captors snapped their fingers, he’d be summoned back. And since the cult would have no further use for him—since he would not be able to convince them of the merits of sexual slavery—he’d be stoppered back in his bottle and put on a shelf to never die. If he got them their “seed” and planted it, he was promised his freedom in this cold and shrinking world.
“A god wants a dog,” he’d tell one passenger on the convoy, a fellow serf from another Hell. This was at least half-true.
He hadn’t been given the client’s name. Perhaps the cult didn’t have it. Deprived of archetypal purpose the gods of the dead worlds had lost their clothes and their faces: now Venus lay undifferentiated with Aphrodite, Kali the same mad slurry as Azathoth. The cult did not discriminate. When it came time for a god to die—for a living history to be snuffed out with wet thumb and forefinger—the cult arrived with the attentive care of hospice nurses, the punctuality of vultures to an imminent corpse. Perhaps, he thought, the old ghoul wanted one last worshipper. As pure of heart as only the grass-fed cattle of this region of the salted earth. Or perhaps the cult required a canine ferryman: one to shadow the leviathan forth to a place further from us now than death.
Whatever it meant, the symbolic gesture was absolutely necessary.
He’d come here with no specific address or coordinates, just cod-poetry the cult said they’d extracted from a scrying mirror. But sure enough: in one of the bricked-up houses in what was once heaven, behind a wooden door shaved thin by clawmarks, in a silent street on the outskirts of an empty city, the shadow found a bone that matched all their criteria. A dog’s rib, about the span of his open fingers, with enough room in the spongy core to be hollowed out and filled again. He was slow, quiet, and careful as he left the town. Then he rode his horse till it broke.
Underneath the monastery, the ancient thing did not know what to do when the shadow undid its chains.
He looked into what he assumed were its eyes and tried to make a connection: a simulation of bidirectional love, free empathy, the kind that had once stolen the victims who wanted to be understood, who just wanted someone to “get” them, who were happy to get got.
But when he kissed one stretch of sensitive vasculature he got a real sense of the animal under him. Its importance. In an ocean of featureless bubbles of thought—monocellular and monomaniac: the god of writing, the lord of the flies—the creature was an immense and hive-like ingrowth of nested sapience. Strange loops of neural lace around its stomachs, ancient microcultures, a psychic field curling and stretching for miles at each breath…
…a nightmarish significance in all things, expressions in the faceless clouds, the black ocean of land beneath the blue night; a stack of smooth pebbles cast like runes across the dirt; a genie in a bottle, a shadow of a former Self, a dead horse; a narrow way cut across the long grass, a few hunters following…
Creatures like this had not been bred to think of such things. Before their time the only living machines were as prokaryote and disease, possessed of only universal consciousness, most content to suckle on the ocean floor’s volcanic teats. As rivers blindly seek the sea, its thoughtless predators just found that ever more profound suffering gave their animals’ flesh more flavour. So bacteria ate the rape-spawn in front of its ripening mother. So the remaining larvae might be slotted in sharp abyssal veins and made to grow there like roots around a concrete slab, then hollowed out at the agonied moment before natural death. So when he kissed the sensitive knot in its siphonal canal, then took the whole of its wet and stiffening whorl in his mouth, he almost moaned at the taste.
Eventually it pushed him back with terrible strength and he liked that it was moving for him. And when the huge beast watched him or followed his smell as he crawled back naked across the cool, hard floor he felt his body now flourish like a flower seeing the sun, a mirror that had sat empty without its owner’s gaze. Once this change might have been a rosier cheek, a fuller breast or soft, dark mane of hair. Whatever habit or trick it was that once made a half-sleeping dreamer go completely stupid for him, whatever they’d have asked for like he didn’t already know. He didn’t know what he looked like now. The transmembranal fluid that webbed and wedded him to the creature wasn’t reflective enough.
As it mounted him he spread its pliable dorsal veil with what he assumed were his fingers. He resisted the tickle of delicate cirri as he helped it into the opening clenched between his buttocks and thighs: into the soft marrow of a stolen rib. And when it completely took him he relaxed under its weight in the helical feelers biting into his arms, the little bony radulae whose teeth scraped at his neck as he shook at each thrust, trying not to giggle while he sucked the proboscis that hooked into his soft and waiting lips and when it came, it came at his own approximation of animal orgasm: an almost-painful intensity he felt as convinced of, for a moment, as a mad actress consumed by her role.
It was sludge when he woke up.
The fishy white slime that pooled on the floor between his legs was still warm, but the rest of the bubbles, blood, and shiny gold gunk had started to dry in sticky ropes around his arms and chest. He took a giblet from the floor between thumb and finger, struggling to hold the morsel of semi-self-digested flesh, and crushed it like a blackberry with his tongue before he swallowed it.
At a monk’s command, the door began to slowly bloom open behind him. Before it had finished, there were Sefr soldiers wriggling through.
One of them inspected the broken amulet on the floor, quickly smashed before the vision of the snake could be made to reveal what it had seen. One slashed his rapier into the viscous black lake, deeper than it seemed from above. The monk just knelt in the mess of pungent ooze and convulsed, holding his head in segmented fingers and wailing as if capable of tears.
He crawled up through a drain and out into the gardens. Watching monks rush indoors and down the hall, he ran across the flowerbeds and bushes, down the cobwebbed stairs, and slammed face-first against the monastery doors.
He slapped the solid bronze with his palm. “And what of it!? Death is a kindness to him whose suffering is his only knowledge!”
“Of course,” said the doors. “Why flee?”
With a groan that thundered through the building they gradually opened, for the first time in a million years, and he sprinted away beneath the clear and starless night.
Days later, beyond the forests that had been burned bald of growth or creeping things, he arrived at the dead drop location.
On top of a hill surrounded by megaliths — archways, altars, celestial arrangements, tall statues so eroded as to appear unfinished — he whispered secret words into the fertilised bone and buried it in the dusty ground, planting it in the shadow of a lonely, aberrant tree.
But when his obligation was finally complete, his end of the bargain fulfilled, he did not flee the scene as his captors had only implicitly instructed.
For days he sat beneath the tree, watched for fish in the nearby river, crept around those stray ends of the vast ritual complex not yet covered by moss and bright flowers. Long barrows stuck out beneath the grass like ribs under taut skin. For reasons he would not pretend to fathom, most of the site appeared to have been deliberately buried.
In the evenings he returned to the hilltop where a bump in the soil grew larger. He lay his fur cloak next to his ripening pustule and, like an insomniac, just played at sleeping to pass the time. Creatures like him only indulged in mortal needs for their own sake, and had learned quickly to live without nourishment or rest.
He awoke one morning with an impression of something silky and warm having slipped from his arms, just moments before. It was too strange to have really happened, but he didn’t think he had been dreaming. He didn’t ever dream.
What had left him? What was the name of that soft dog, he thought, no bark and only enough bite for leaves, with the saucer eyes and little cupped ears? The hooves? He could swear he used to know this. What was the name of the wandering hand that strung up raindrops between the branches? The impotent toothless snakes that glistened like berries in the dew? The painted baubles that kept eating them to forever vomit them up whole? What was the name of the thing he’d deflowered in its own crypt? He wished, now, that he’d thought to ask.
For another day he watched and waited, and he thought about the encounter. Thought about the head he’d had to get into. Surely it had been too clever to have fallen for the glamour? To have been completely taken in by his spell? Some of them had been. It had known it would not survive sexual contact, he’d felt that, but it had been glad death came with a big kiss.
Mostly he felt it had been happy to have been known or seen at all, even if they never exchanged a word. In the empathy required for irresistible temptation he’d felt the creature’s greatest desire, its most selfish longing: if only there was someone who knew suffering like mine. The appal of self-knowledge. The mutant ingrowth of happy curiosity. The insurmountable distance between me and the world around me.
He’d been content to put on a show. The performance of emotional labour. And they’d both been locked away for so long. But these trysts meant nothing to him besides their respective ends. His knowledge of such feelings only ever came second-hand.
He thought about that in his week of listless contemplation. The amphibian in its locked room, no one to listen to but its chains, nothing to look at but its dark reflection.
One morning the womb tore itself from the earth and stirred in its leaking fluid like a piglet in muck, startling him from his half-sleep. While he was off guard, they’d been surrounded.
Not by soldiers or maggot-cultists, finally arrived, but by animals. A family of deer who kept their distance; little birds who bobbed around on a megalithic arch; a spider, watching patiently and unmoved.
And when he peeled the sac open to retrieve his pup he froze at the noise it made. Not a squeak, a scream.
The trickster had been made a fool.
Finally, someone else would know.
Hot vomit rising to his silver tongue, the devil could almost admire the precision with which he had been made to fall for this. If his atrophied sense of mercy overcame his appreciation of the grace with which he had been violated—if he had not otherwise been so very bored—he would have picked the newborn up by its legs and swung it against a rock.
Original horror pierced the air. The baby’s shrieks rang out across the last burial mound. He wiped the ragged caul from its face and met his first human gaze in forever…
And as she swaddled the little wriggler in his bearskin blanket she felt the whole silent world now turn to attention. Distantly, shadows rushed to gather and orbit their new sun. Dying gods licked the smell of fresh blood on the wind. Outside of that amniotic tomb the light of consciousness had burned no brighter. Nor, she hoped, would it.
Evan Forman writes to us from a desolate scrub between science fiction and the supernatural, physically located in Scotland. You can find his short stories, novellas, and social links at evanforman.com