He wrenched in invisible flame, which flared from the vise that held him, that scalded him while leaving no mark. 'It' watched on, his tormenter, a dark presence with no clear face, only a void from which sprawled dozens of gnarled limbs, tentacles and probosces. Only a voice, a mocking laugh, one familiar, but twisted, demented by time and by suffering.
"Never will you wake from this, but…”
These suppurating limbs enveloped him, caressing the flesh left free and unmolested by the vise.
"…you will become accustomed. Even as we hurt you more and more."
The limbs touching him bled acid, and as lesions budded on his skin, he screamed louder and louder. This death was not the ecstasy he imagined. His heart raced, and as he bled, and as more damage was done to him, it finally slowed.
"Soon this dance begins in earnest. Die now, but not for real. Not yet…"
And with a scream, and a paradoxical smile, the victim-to-be awoke. Words chasing him back to the world.
“Remember, this is not a dream.”
His guide left him at the lip of the valley, unwilling to even cross a foot into its shadows.
"I go no further."
Dan did not reply, only matching the Sherpa’s fretful gaze with his steely one. This was always a journey he meant to make alone.
"One is not to travel in this wasteland before their time. Only fools… only the dead embrace this path."
The look in his dark eyes made it clear which he felt Dan to be. And without a word, Dan left the man who—though not even touching the Valley’s darkness was yet quaking—behind in the sun.
The further Dan descended into Shadow Valley, the more desert it became, and the more death surrounded him. He walked through its shade, but felt no evil, despite the fact that he bore no protection and sought no benediction from God. He did not fear, Perdition was what he hunted. Oblivion was what he craved. He lusted, not after the idle wasting endured by most men and women, but the pinnacle of suffering. One that would be worthy of the path we all carve towards the black. Here, among the nether-creatures flitting at the edges of his vision, betwixt the skeletal plants grasping at his tow-hair, in the hot sand swallowing him down to his ankles, blistering his pale, cracking skin, he sought a torture to surpass all others. His entire life he wished for little else.
Ever since his childhood, the world's pleasures were ashes in his mouth. Dan instead found stimulation in destruction: of the self and of others. When he was six, he burned his hand against a pan and felt a thrill like nothing he knew. Months after, a speeding car struck a dog right in front of him. And did not stop nor slow to see the life it had ended. He knelt by the whining, trembling thing as it bled out on the road, touching the creature as it shuddered and then went still. The world opened, and he saw Earth's throbbing heart: a rotten thing. Blood seeped from its festering sides, black and bitter. It was all he could do to stop himself from taking a bite and luxuriating on the road with the taste of death on his lips.
His Mom found him and, misinterpreting the distant look in his eyes, ran to his aid.
"Oh, honey…" She said then, "Don’t look. You are too young. Don’t look.”
She hugged him, missing the smile that creased his lips as his eyes never left the roadkill carcass. He envied that dog and dreamed of surpassing it. The heights of pain that might be achieved, he had only tasted them. Depravity’s depths, he dipped mere toes in its surface. He knew, deep beneath that rippling pond lay a monster who might show him who he truly was. Then began the dreams, the beckoning fiend and exquisite anguish.
Even above the ruin of others, his own end fascinated him. A gory prophecy visited him night in and night out. His self, naked and flayed upon some strange creature's altar. Garish devices with designs on discomfort spilling his blood into a trough illustrated by the grotesque. One truth became clear: no simple man could bring him the death he sought. The idea of being felled by some disease or mortal killer horrified the boy. He needed to find one from beyond. One who transcended. The multi-limbed horror that skinned him again and again in his dreams.
And so he sought, in rumor and legend, hints of the thing that seduced and promised unholy excoriation. Years of seeking, of fruitless wandering, of unfulfilled promised, finally lead him here, to Shadow Valley, deep in a desert in the center of a nation the world forgot.
He looked up to where once spread the sky, but he had traveled so far, plumbed so deeply, that where he stood now was more a chasm than a valley. Instead of the sky, there was a single gray streak, swallowed on either side by walls of rock and sand. Dan left life far behind—even the thorny flowered plants, even the nether-creatures—abandoned the land he trespassed now.
In the distance a heart beat… thud… thud… a clear sign he grew closer to his end. An end worth experiencing was nigh at hand. Here crowed the telltale heart of his destruction. And here he hesitated for this first time, where fear first nibbled. Before now it had all been an unrealized fantasy. But this was the threshold, beyond there lay monsters and no possibility of return.
Dan frowned as he descended, on his lips echoed the metal taste of that dog's blood, the poor son of a bitch. You passed beyond all those years ago, Dan. He told himself. There is nowhere to turn back to.
Remember… this is not a dream.
The cavern he entered was no natural formation. He passed beneath beveled arches, sloping downward at the same rate as the staircase. There was no handle, but despite his hesitation, Dan's every step fell true as he sank further into the dark. The blackness, omnipresent shadow, swallowed him whole. The maw of a fearsome beast whose body was the valley floor. Its heartbeat the one he heard before. Passing through its belly, he felt the pulse all around rattling his bones. Its pace matched his own.
Underneath his hands, which he extended to each wall to orient himself, he traced over an alien design. Letters unlike any he knew were carved into the stone. The light was faint, too faint to read this bizarre screed, but not entirely gone. Its source was not obvious. The steps carried him far beneath the valley floor, far beyond the reach of any sun or torch he could see, yet there remained just enough for him to see the step in front of him, then the step after that, and after that…
Finally he reached the bottom, and the arches above his head ballooned in all directions, expanding into an atrium with a ceiling hundreds of feet high. The arches blossomed, creating an intricate design on a dome more ornate than the finest Catholic chapel. Suffice to say, his hands could no longer touch either wall. The roof rose past his sight, and, aside from the first few feet, the rest of the cupola before him lay veiled by shadow. Dan's imagination preyed upon him, and he thought of the darkness as a singular organism, the father-mother of the beasts who beset him on his descent into this Shadow Valley.
Dan leapt at the voice, his heart exploding in his chest. Fear bloomed in his soul, leeching its strength from his assuredness, foisting aside his confident façade with a wave of its yellow hand. Here it was, he knew that voice, a twisted, magnified parrot of his own. There in the darkness lay the beast destined to consume him.
“Who’s there?” He asked, anxious and aroused in equal measure.
We are those beyond life… or death. We transcend it.
The darkness cleaved, collapsed, molded into a writhing form. It shrunk until it sat at the room's center. A black hole from which all light fled. Dan sensed in it a malevolent intelligence, and though he saw no eyes, only a countless sprawl of limbs, he knew it watched him. Probing his thoughts with a cruel incisiveness, before it he felt himself stripped bare and his masochistic intent exposed.
Whispering more to himself than the presence which revealed itself, Dan said, “Long I have dreamed of this.”
You wished to be… like us?
Some force lifted the young man from his feet and dragged him through the air towards the blackness in the heart of the valley’s vault. The… creature inspected him in silence.
You wish to know our pain.
These were no longer questions. It had his measure, had read the depths of his soul. As he grew closer, he saw the spasmodic movements of its many limbs and other unidentifiable appendages, thrashing about its black, misty body with incredible force. What would one do to him if it touched him? He shuddered at the thought, from fear… and from excitement, filled with hope that here was an end worth suffering. One that might transform him into something more than dust, than another mere human forgotten in some distant, swirling eddy of time.
He swallowed his doubt and answered. “I wish to know a death worth the trial of dying.”
The cavern quaked, a low trebling sound that might be a laugh reverberated from the unknown being’s dark center.
Worth? There is no worthiness in death. There is only passing, and passing, and passing, but if you desire knowledge of what one becomes in our hands. Then we will show you.
Dan gulped, but nodded, he had traveled too far, had searched for too long, to deny himself the truth once found.
We will show you…
And it began.
With sudden alacrity, the black tentacles whipped themselves around Dan’s torso, crushing him. His bones cracked and shattered, and yet as they did so they healed, then shattered again. Shards from the old bones burrowed deeper into his muscle and organs. He screamed, and choked and coughed up pools of blood blacker than he remembered. And eventually his heart slowed and stopped.
The beast spoke an all too familiar mantra.
Die now, but not for real, not yet…
He woke, weak and weeping, but could not rest for long. Other limbs caressed him, bleeding a brackish substance, and as it rained on his skin it burned. Blisters shot across his bleeding husk and he gibbered and moaned and regretted every step that had brought him to this place. His scalp sloughed from his skull and, scrabbling against the unforgiving ground, he once again died.
Alive again, his hands and feet were immediately bound by restraints he could not see. Though his eyes were much weakened by the hardship he had already endured. Invisible flames leapt from this invisible vise and lanced, not his outside but his innards, leaving no obvious mark. He felt his intestines curdle and his liver explode and he begged wordlessly for the end. His eyes lolled in his head and he went still.
His eyes opened, and, before hell descended on him once more, he yelped for mercy: “Please! Please! I was… I was a fool. I did not understand what it is I thought I wanted.”
But you dreamed of this day for decades. Did you not?
“All lies, my desires, they were all lies,” Dan panted, deranged by suffering. “I beg of you. Have pity on this harangued soul.”
It is too late. Our only way out is through. Become accustomed, only then can you be free. The only escape lies in turning in the gyre, from the falcon leashed on the glove to… the one who unleashes.
“No. No more. No more!” Dan squeezed his eyes shut and willed that this trial would end, prayed that this was all just a horrible dream. He would open his eyes and be a child again, all those years in the interim but a long, terrible nightmare.
You are almost finished. We are almost free.
The tentacles and probosces, the dripping appendages and cancerous limbs wrapped themselves one by one around Dan’s prone form, dragging him towards the dusky abyss that birthed them.
Welcome, Dan O’Brien. Open your eyes.
Inch by inch he approached the end he had sought, but never fully understood. Now he did and one truth remained: his quest, his entire life, had been a fool’s errand.
“Wake up Dan, come on, wake up!” He struggled with all his dwindling might, to no avail.
The darkness had him.
Remember, this is not-
Dan opened his eyes, and at first did not recognize his surroundings. A child’s room, before him snored a slumbering boy. Still and untroubled. But he could feel somehow, the lust that budded in the youth for sadism and self-harm. He saw a vision of this child crouching in the road as a mongrel suffered its last moments. He saw the boy’s dreams, and his place within them. He swirled into the child’s head, caressing its dream-self, watching the lesions and pain and the cravings for pain bloom.
And he knew what he was meant to say:
Never will you wake from this, but…