memory

The Aide

                Most in this asylum were diminished souls. They shrank from the world because it was all simply too much. Merely breathing was too heavy a burden. Ricard could not fault them for their failures. He hid here for much the same reason. Out in the thick of life, in the noise, there was too much choice. You were left too open to pain. Every day carried with it the threat of loss. Yes, he could easily understand why one might secede from sanity.

Life, in these white walls, was simplicity itself. Feed 'the herd' (that was what the other orderlies laughingly called their constituents) the scheduled medicines at their scheduled times; lead them in daily activities—drawing classes, reading, painting, group 'therapy sessions' (mostly they sat in silent circles and drooled), arts and crafts with blunted scissors. It was simple routine: eat, shit, sleep and repeat.

But on the day this… this man was carried in on a gurney flanked by armed guards; iron cuffs shackling him to the table by wrist and ankle, metal bands wrapped tight around his waist and legs, Ricard could see in his eyes—dazed though they were by drugs—the same fire that once burned in his own. Somehow he sensed that the same thirst for vengeance tickled both their insides. He knew he had to reach this man, penetrate the medicated fog and discover for himself what drove him and what had led him to such an end.

                So Ricard got close, insinuated himself as the patient's—listed as John Aible, an obvious pseudonym—primary caretaker. The others were glad to give him the duty. Rumors followed John's entry into the asylum. People whispered that they heard he was a violent felon, bearing a long list of crimes too horrid to be named. They feared what he did not: Ricard was a big man, soft around the middle, but he moved more nimbly than his bulk should allow. Beneath the fat hid a solid, muscular core, developed in his days of… he never would say.

Whispers abound about his past as well.

Though the patient sat still and was always silent, Ricard knew 'John' loved when he told him old stories: particularly fairytales about downfallen kings rising up against their usurpers, or Gods who toy with the lives of men. The flames burned most brightly in his doped eyes at these moments.  Quickly he confirmed his suspicions. While most days, 'John' was any other patient, dully limping through the routines they set for him, one day, the veil was pulled back briefly and Ricard saw the King behind the curtain.

                Ricard was reading the tale of the boy Arthur—who boldly pulled sword from stone and proclaimed himself Briton's King—when he first heard 'John' speak.

                "I… I was…"

                Ricard nearly dropped the book in shock, before quickly recovering and looking around to see if any other aide had heard him speak. Fortunately they were alone in the ward's small rec room. The asylum allowed its inmates to come and go rather freely as long as they were attended and, of course, thoroughly zonked.

                The aide edged closer to his patient-cum-silent confidante. "You were what, eh? Not 'John' I bet, not John… someone else perhaps? Wherever did you come from Mr. Aible?"

                Only then did he notice the chill in the air. Only then did he see how his words left his mouth and became mist. Ricard shivered. Who turned off the heat?

                'John' acted as if he did not hear. Swirling in his eyes, once blank and white with only faint traces of old fire, were coal black storm clouds. They burned hot and angry, belying the room's sudden coolness. The wakened patient bellowed:

                “…CAYNE!”

Ricard stumbled back. He had expected many things, but not this… never this. Instinctively he gripped John’s rippling forearm and felt the muscles convulse beneath his hand. ‘John’s whole body was seizing. It seemed, though Ricard could hardly believe it, that ‘John’ hovered nearly half an inch above his chair. Ricard reached into his back pocket and grabbed the patient’s ‘emergency’ dose. Straddling John in his chair, he pried his clench jaws open, and forced the pills down. After 30 terrifying seconds, ‘John’ finally calmed. His chest went slack, his muscles still. The black fire in his eyes extinguished.

                Still he whispered: “I was… I was…”

                Ricard knew he had mere moments before the true John was again lost in a narcotic shroud. “Tell me John. Go on, you can trust your storyteller.”

                …King…

                And at that word Ricard again felt the chill which haunted the room just moments before. ‘John’s eyes once again went white, spit dribbled down his jaw. Ricard sighed and dabbled at the wetness with his blue frock.

                “And what are you now, eh John? What are any of us now?”

                Days passed with no new episodes. Still only the dull recognition at the tales of heroism, still only silence. But Ricard, the aide, knew what hid with the quiet king. He had been the fire’s sole witness. He watched, with gentle eyes; spoke with a gentle voice. And waited.

                “I know what you were ‘John’. And what you will be again. If only I knew how to help you…”

                Late one night, when ‘John’ was fast asleep. Ricard rooted through the hospital records, searching for an emergency contact or maybe a next of kin. There was only a name, no explained relation, no designation.

                Jorah Cayne.

                Ricard smiled, and put his hand to his lips as if to quell his excitement. This could be no coincidence. He could learn something from this Cayne. There was a number by the name. Fingers shaking, Ricard grabbed the nearest phone and began to dial.

                Here lie our answers, I think, Mr. Aible. Let’s see what light this… ‘Cayne’ can bring.

Brotherhood of the Blind

                “So… what did you see?”

                The acolyte did not answer right away, so disoriented he was in the darkness. The corridors wound further and further from the day, burrowing into the mountain that housed the monastery. He could not see the nose on his face, much less the monk that questioned him from across the table. And he knew the monk could not see him. Indeed, even under the full glare of the sun, he would see nothing.

                “I ask again, what did you see?”

                He realized that he had not answered the elder monk’s question. This informal entrance exam in the catacombs. Over the years he had heard but whispers of this sequestered community, a monastery, a madrasa, that accepted men and women of all religious traditions, all who sought truth, and would sacrifice all in service of defeating an ultimate evil.

                He never managed he would become desperate enough to join their ranks.

                “Will you truly make me ask a third time?” He could not see the face before him any longer, but he knew it weary and aged, he knew that lines etched across it, gullies in a dry desert. He knew its lips were chapped, its lids hung loosely against vestigial sockets. He knew its skin was yellowed with age and its scalp was bald, though whether that was due to the passage of time or some ascetic sacrifice he knew not. But he closed his eyes, which changed little in the black, and tried to remember it. Tried to remember everything he had seen that was worth seeing, every image he had treasured, if indeed he was to lose the ability to treasure another, now was the time. But finally, he answered, in a voice as tired as the monk before him no doubt still looked.

                “I was young…” He began, before coughing, he thought briefly of asking for water, but wanted to extend this interview no further.

                He continued: “I was young, and times were hard. It was just me, Mother and my four brothers and sisters. Father had died long ago. She worked… she tried, but it was too much. There was too much grief in all our hearts.”

                Tears filled his open eyes, dark-umber orbs drifting in clear white pools, and again he paused before speaking of his past. Each word picked away at the scabs time allowed him, and he bled anew.

                “She began to drink, only a little at first, and then every day from morning to night. She blamed us for all our troubles. The poverty, the death of her lover. A man none of us really remembered. Even now, his face is a fog. But love rotted away from our home, replaced by resentment, by… a darkness worse than any nightfall. She lay in her bed, deaf to our calls, to our hunger. I was the eldest, and tried to provide for them as best I could, I begged in the evenings, worked odd jobs in the day, but it was never enough.”

                The acolyte stopped again, and in the dark, all he heard was the monk’s soft wheezing. He realized he did not even know the monk’s name, and wondered if that was yet another thing he must sacrifice to join their ranks. It did not matter, he had nothing left, and was an empty vessel desperate to be filled. What was a name if it came with no purpose?

                The monk spoke: “Yes? And what did you see?” He hissed the last word. On it hung all import. Sight was what he offered, and they must understand why he would give it so willingly.

                “Fire,” He wept again, “Smoke, as I returned home, I saw it on the horizon. I ran… somehow, as I ran I already knew, it was our home. When I got there, they were still screaming, my sisters, my brothers. I tried to… I tried…”

                As he shuddered, he felt a comforting hand on his shoulder. At some point during his tale, the monk had risen, and walked behind him. He felt love in that gesture, and knew that he had not chosen poorly in coming here. Perhaps now his sorrow would mean something.  But the story. He had to finish the story. His future brother, or father, or uncle, he had to understand why.

                “I saw my mother, in the window, hair singed, eyes open wide, but empty and mad. She repeated the same thing over and over until she collapsed, until the screams subsided…”

                “Yes?”

                “I did not understand it then. And I understand it less now.”

                “What did she say? Child?”

                He sighed, and as he related her words, his voice took on her higher pitch, a macabre mimicry.

                “MADNESS IS THE ONLY FREEDOM! MADNESS IS THE ONLY FREEDOM! MADNESS IS-”

                The monk stopped him with a gentle squeeze.

                “I understand, child. And I appreciate your forthrightness. This is no easy thing to endure, no trifle to witness. But I want to make sure you understand what you sacrifice here today. What you’ve seen will never leave you, regardless of your blindness, in your nightmares, these images will remain, perhaps even more prominently because of your inability to replace them with others. We here, the devotees of the forgotten, we the few cloistered in the Metéora mountainside, understand that these indelible images will never fade. Unable as we are to create new ones. You sacrifice tonight the ability to forget. Can you live with this burden?”

                The acolyte did not speak for a long time. He pondered his choice, the possibility that his memories would drive him mad in the perma-darkness, versus the possibility that with his eyes he might behold something even worse than he had already seen. In the cold night of this room, buried deep in the catacombs, he saw once again the charred forms of his siblings, burned beyond all recognition. He saw himself burying them in shallow graves by the shell that had once been his home. He remembered searching for his mother… and never finding her. And he decided. Somehow, the monk behind him sense his head’s slight nod and understood his assent.

                “Then we shall return to the day, and one last time, you shall see the sunset. It should be just about time.”

                And so they headed back upwards. Him following the lead of the blind monk, whose every step fell assured in the darkness, padding softly along the stone chasms that made up this hermitage in the wilderness. And after a while the monk led him back into the sun, a terrace overlooking the Grecian plain below.

                It was beautiful. The sparse wilderness, the smattering of green, the vines, the grass, against the brown sand. The sun sinking beneath it all, the dying light sending long shadows that stretched across his and the monks face. He closed his eyes, committing the sight to memory, understanding it would be the last thing he ever saw.

                “Okay brother, I am ready.”

                He felt the monk behind him tense, and before the moment came, he asked one last question.

                “What do I call you? Now that I am to be among you?”

                Before he answered, he struck, two hooks dug into the acolytes eyeballs, and he screamed. And as he screamed, they withdrew, his sight organs withdrawing with them. The darkness, draped in pain, was to be his forever more. He collapsed on the marble terrace, feeling around feebly in the darkness for something he recognized. He could still feel the sun’s fading warmth, but did not see it.

                The monk answered him: “We are the Brotherhood of the Blind, the Eyeless Monastery… what do you call me, you ask?”

                The acolyte sobbed from the white-hot suffering that lanced through him, and the tears only brought him further pain.

                “You may call me… Deliverance.”

                He felt the monk’s, Deliverance, strong hands bringing him to his feet.

                “Now come, it is time to discuss that which we fight. Foes most foul. The book, the malign, and the madness.”

Mother and the Reborn Sun

Mother wakes with the dawn as Hiperstus’ reborn sun at its center, the catalyst for all life, announces its return. Even before the cock crows, Man is moving: farmers towards their fields and flocks, craftsman and traders to their shops. And all the while Mother watches from her home. She is the dreamer, the storyteller, who weaves tales of what she sees while she sleeps. Truths that not even she understands. Truths of the black outside their world, dotted with diamonds that glimmered beyond their sight. Truths of the home that awaits them in the afterlife, of the home they are cast from and search for still. Mere metaphors, she thinks, for a people in desperate need of hope.

Each night she tells these stories, and they echo through Hiperstus, and give those hardworking men and women hope that, if not for themselves, then for their children, there would one day be a better life. Each day she walks among her people, whose eyes light up as she passes, beloved Mother, a role that past from daughter to daughter, their beacon of encouragement. In her line the first children wareere always daughters, with grey eyes and brown skin, who share the dreams of their foremothers, and who pass the dreams down to their own.

This is how life has always been.

As the sun sets, before her flock assembles before her to be told of salvation. She walks through the wood by her house on the hill, listening to its whispers. They contribute to her dreams, she knows, though she knows not how. Listen… Hushes the voices of the wood, and as her ancestors did, so does she. She lies in the grass and listens to words, familiar words, she does not quite understand. And when she leaves the wood, were she asked what they said, she would not quite be able to recall.

“The truth, my child, the truth. What is more important than that?” Is all she would say, and nothing more.

And as the sun dims, slowly expending itself and collapsing the world into black. Men and women retreat from their fields, close up their shops, and gather their children. They make the short pilgrimage from their homes to a small amphitheater at the base of Mother’s hill. They sit on rows of black stone, gleaming even in the night, refracting light from their torches, shooting their flickering glow into the sky so all can see. Mother sits at their center, still youthful, in a plain tan frock that ends just below her knees.

Her hair, kinky and unkempt, falls about her ears. Her eyes, ancient and gray, despite her apparent youth, touch on every man, woman and child who sits around her, eager for her tale. They linger on a young man, with rough hands and an open smile, bouncing their daughter upon their knee. The young girl waves, but her countenance is serious. She knows the story well, could recite it word for word. They are the same in ways that escapes even Mother. It is always the same tale, different parts, but the same tale. She waits for a hush to fall upon them before raising her hands, signaling the beginning.

“Tonight we start again. There are young ones here who have not yet heard it, the beginning, others, older than even myself, who got wind of it first from my grandmother’s lips. This tale is cyclical, and we live here still trapped in its edge, still creeping round to the beginning. With each generation we crawl closer, back to the world we lost. With each child we fall further, further towards the world we will find. This is the tale of the edge. This is the tale Ouroburos, and the Mouth who chases us still.

“It begins at an ending. The ending of a world that once was ours.”

Here she pauses to gather herself and take a deep-breath. The old ones in the circle around her already quietly weeping.

It is important. She reminds herself, or is reminded by herself. We all must feel this loss. The children must know. Even in their innocence they must know what we lost.

She steels herself, and continues, the story telling itself, she a mere vessel for its telling: “In the beginning…

there is Earth, our home. In the beginning, it is dying.

On Earth, the seas boil and the land burns under the glaring eye of an exploding sun. Its mountains, once high, noble peaks, crumble into basins once called oceans. Once blue and filled with water that stretched as far as the eye can see. The world is become bereft of life, all scorched clean from its surface. The verdant green of jungles, rustling grasses of the plains and frigid poles are all become a distant memory, replaced by smoke and ash and rivulets of molten rock streaking across Earth’s surface. A planet-wide desert of sand melted to glass colored the angry red of the kiln.

An old man watches, let’s call him Father, skin sloughing from flesh. The end of all things.

Father turns to his flock. The hundreds who still live, dying men huddled in hovels underground, drenched in sweat, in shade, in steaming blood. Their skin drapes loosely from their frames like tattered rags, their clothing, little more than rotten scraps, curls away from their bodies and sizzles in the heat. Their bones, baking, are brittle and hollow. They are starved and thirsty, cuddled up with the dead and the dying, unable to distinguish themselves from those they chase into the grave. Each man, woman and child stares with the listlessness of the hopeless. He must speak to them, comfort them. But what does one say in a moment such as this?

The truth is all that remains.

"It has come..." He begins with a sigh.

"I will not say 'do not despair'." His heart grows heavier with every word. "I will not say 'there is hope'. This is no time for lies.” His reflection shimmers in a pool in each cave, some trick of forgotten magic, voice cracking from desperation. 

“I say this: Life goes on. If not here, for us, then elsewhere. Life goes on." His voice, a forlorn rasp, falls on deaf ears, dull eyes. Man does not hear him. They do not care. Their dwindling masses have no spirit left. And why should they? This is the end.

"Life goes on," He repeats, now for his own sake, eyes fixed on flaming skies, his hopes centered on a single, twinkling ‘star’. One not visible in the wake of a dying sun, yet growing more distant from it and a doomed solar system nonetheless.  "Life goes on. Life goes on. Life goes o-" Despite his despair, despite the heat, despite his own smoking flesh, despite joining with a swelling star, despite the death of all he had ever known and loved, the old man smiles knowingly to himself as blistering gas engulfs the world. Mankind, and Mankind’s only home, deliquesce from the universe and into the quiet of history.

“All men on Earth died that day.” Mother circles back to the present, the first portion of the tale done. “But not us. We remained, asleep and dormant, on that single, twinkling star, borne away from destruction. We must try to remember, as best we can, what was lost. That was our home! Those were our brothers and sisters! And we mourn them each day. But we also endure, and one day we will be carried to another home, of lush green and vast pools of life-giving water. There we will thrive. But until then, we must content ourselves with survival. With hard-work on this closed-loop of a planet, where we are denied the sky and the stars. Where we suffice with this false sun.”

She stops. This is always the hardest part. The words she does not not understand, the concepts that are beyond her and all humankind. They had forgotten so much since the early years. That much she knew. What little is left, endures in words she repeats from her memories verbatim. Recitation without comprehension. This world they lived on was some kind of vessel as well, and beyond it existed… a whole universe that she would live and die without seeing. That countless more generations would live and die without even knowing about. But until they were free once more, she fulfilled a simple purpose. Explained by the voices on the wind.

It falls to you Roan. It has always fallen to you. Keep the spark of man alive in the wilderness until the embers take seed on a world once more…

…and civilization can begin again.

The Long Memory of Bilal

                Ancient places have a memory all their own, stored in the blood that seeps in the sand, and in the dust that pits the stone. Memories of sin and death long since passed haunt the shadows still. Unlike men who are quick to remember and just as easily forget, these memories simmer just beneath the surface. They endure in the wind and in the quiet, dark places. The most sensitive of men and women can sense flashes in such places. Flashes of the traumas adrift in time, the sum of forces bearing us ceaselessly toward the future.

                It was in one such temple to quiescent memories that our ‘heroes’ found themselves. Hounded into hiding by their predilections for bloodshed. A band of thieves, of usurers, of killers, flew to the ruins, deaf to the whispering dark, blind to the grasping wind, forced from a nearby town by a robbery gone wrong. They approached the ancient foundations, remnants of a temple to a lost religion, hiding amongst statues that did not look quite human. Townsfolk gave it a wide-berth.

They did not know, or care to know, the legends of poor fools who came there, seeking solace or fortune. Poor fools who entered those dark places and never escaped. They did not care to even learn its name, the Temple to Bilal, Bilal the rapacious, the bloodthirsty, Bilal the fallen God, worshipped only by the most desperate of men.

                Just inside the temple door, in a hall choked by dust, where was swallowed every trace of light, they paused.

“Are they behind us?” Asked their leader, peering out into the courtyard from the temple shadows.

                “No, no, they stopped at the gate. I think we’re safe, for now.” His #2 replied. They holstered their weapons and moved further inward.

The pursuit forgotten, the motley band turned to their surroundings, still obscured by the shade. Their torches, what little light they gave was swallowed in the black. They could not see the end of the hall they walked in. They could barely see the walls mere feet from their faces. There were five of them, three men, two women, all with innocent blood drawn in their pasts.

                “Was this a good idea… coming here?” One frightened bandit, named Van Zant, asked, glancing around him like for the first time he saw himself deep in the belly of an avaricious beast. He blinked and in a flash saw…

                A man, bound by snakes to a wooden stake, born down the hall by painted warriors, chanting in low voices the name of their forgotten God.

                “BILAL!”

                “BILAL!”

                “BILAL!”

He blinked and…

                …was back to the world.

                “Did you see that?” He gibbered, wiping his eyes as if to clear away the vision.

                “Quiet!” The leader, Arcturus, barked. “They say this place is empty, but I’d rather not tempt fate. Keep yer voices down until we’re further in and we get a better sense of the place.”

                They walked in silence, the five of them. In front, Arc, the taciturn leader. Small pistol in one hand, flickering torch in the other. Blood from a small cut above his eye mottled his brow, he wiped it away, staunched the wound, but instead of clotting it bled through every bandage, painting his face in red. The further they walked into the temple, down an endless hall, the more he heard the whispers. They ceaselessly chanted a strange name, growing ever more familiar as it echoed in his mind.

                BILAL… BILAL… BILAL…

                It stirred something in his blood, reminding him of a past life. Or was it the one he lived now? The name… of a Lord he once served, or served still. This was his place, Bilal’s, and all men here belonged to him.

                Who was he to think any different?

                Arc shook his head, and these foreign thoughts fell away like cobwebs, though he could still hear the spiders skittering through his mind.

                I am my own man, no ‘God’ can claim me!

                “We shouldn’t be here. You all hear it, don’t you? The name, the chanting, this place… it is not certain of when it is. We will be dragged with it to whatever time it can remember.” Van Zant whimpered, but felt certain that what he said was true. They would be claimed. What was the will of man when faced with time’s hurricane winds? They would be blown away, and all that would remain was mindless flesh, fully in the throes of the past.

                A woman, rippling muscle on her frame, dark fingers grasping a long curved blade, sneered at his fear, long white teeth sharpened like stakes. “Ah, Van Zant… do you want Mommy’s protection? Come to my bosom, child. You be safe from that which bumps in the night.”

                Ariadne, that was this warrior’s name, laughed at her own joke at the cowardly killer’s expense, and ignored his warning. Even so, she could hear the name, repeated, that stoked her bloodlust. She could hear him calling to hear, appealing to her, demanding a sacrifice for his altar.

                And she was inclined to listen, the blood in the men around her demanded to be spilled. Even though they were her comrades, all bonds of fealty fell away before the cries of the hunt. She looked at her twin sister, Ezreya, and saw the lust in her eyes, and knew they were of a like mind.

                My dear sister, we will wait until the time is right…

                When the altar is before us…

                We will-

                Strike!

                Strike!

                Praise be to Bilal.

                It did not concern them that Bilal was not a name they had known before, nor that moments before they entered this sacred space, they would have died for their fellow killers, and they vice versa. It did not concern them that these feelings pressed upon them from the outside, from beyond, that their minds contorted to fit the echoes of the thousand deaths that bled from the ground. It did not concern them, it merely consumed, their minds entirely open to its thrall.

                Only the #2, only Borsk, remained entirely deaf to the temple’s hiss. Van Zant, he cowered, Arcturus fought, and the sisters gleefully succumbed. Borsk however, marched down the hall like it was any other place. Until they came to the altar, etched of red sandstone, where the voices called louder than ever for blood to be spilled. Still he was deaf to them, turning back to the group.

                “Now what do ye make of th-“

                Now!

                The sisters struck as one, not seeing in their minds eye themselves and their kin any longer, but the reflections of long dead men. Their blades cut into Borsk’s skin and throat, his blood spilled upon the stone beneath their feet, staining it redder still. He quivered, eyes bulging in shock, trembling for a moment as he stood choking in silence, before sinking to the ground, shuddering, shuddering, and finally going still.

                Before the other two men could react, the temple came alive. Light burst from the stone. The ceilings, the walls, and the floor below. The light curved and hissed, and bound the men where they stood, burning their skin where it touched before cooling into scales and fang. They were tied before the altar by snakes of the past, that lived only in the potential moments before, during, and after the living transgressed upon this space.

                Arc spoke first, “Ariadne, Ezreya, what are you doin-”

                They are gone.

                The voice that came from the sisters’ mouths in unison was not their own, quiet and male, imbued with the divine’s certainty, the calm only the omnipotent possessed.

                They are gone. Were gone. Will always have been gone. In all times, only Bilal remains.

                Both Van Zant and Arc’s eyes go wide in recognition. That name, that lost name, that dangerous God who had whispered to them as well. A warning, an invitation, heeded to late and accepted by the warriors who stood before them, scimitars held high above their heads. Once comrades, now it seemed, their executioners.

                “What… who… what are, what are you?” Van Zant stuttered in fear, shivering in the warm darkness of the space around them. In the altar room, the walls fell away, their words did not echo, but disappeared. Even a scream would sound like a whisper, stunted by the sand and the stone, by the blood that pulsed behind every wall.

                The sisters spoke, in their own voices this time. “Bilal… Bilal… Bilal!”

                The newborn snakes bore the men towards the altar in the center of the darkness, tied them to the depressions the length of a man on either side. There they constricted and bit into their flesh, hissing menacingly. They knew their roles, they had ensured many a death before.

                The sisters advanced on the gang they once considered brothers. And Arc saw one more chance to save his skin, of not Van Zant’s.

                “Now listen, Ariadne, Ezreya, remember who you are! Remember what we were to each other. You don’t just throw that away. Bilal? What is Bilal but a name that lives only here in the black? He is nothing! Not outside these walls… but we, we could rule th-”

                Silence! This nattering bores me.

                Ariadne jerked forward, like a marionette caught on its own strings, striking wildly. Her scimitar cut a long, deep slice down Arcturus’ chest.

                You had your chance, Arc, to lead. And in leading survive. But those who do not join me must bleed, we… this temple… requires your sacrifice to endure.

                The gang leader’s eyes fluttered briefly, before he fell slack and limp against the stone.

                And in the altar’s chamber, the stone glows even brighter.

                Now for the quiet coward. Who danced on the edge, who warned of my power. With you… we will take our time.

                And the sisters turned to their next victim. Van Zant, eyes bulging, struggled against the snakes that hissed and snapped and held him fast.

                “No… please, no…”

                They did not respond, their eyes were pure white, so wholly were they under the yoke of the blooded God.

                “Bilal… Bilal… Bilal,” They chanted. Their blades rose.

                And even villagers in the town over heard his screams on the wind.

His Music

                It never occurred to me to ask until we were already moving in together. Amidst the boxes yet to be unpacked, the still unassembled furniture, the dull candlelight which threw the room into flickering shadow, it struck me. The small, insignificant oddity, or so I thought.

                “Rob?”

                He looked up from the Ikea bedframe he wrangled with. “Yes?”

                “Why don’t you ever listen to music?”

                How best to describe the look that brought to his face? Embarrassment? Shame? Guilt? Perhaps a secret thrill? He averted his eyes from me as he answered.

                “I guess… I’ve always just preferred my own.”

                “Your own?”

                “You know, the music in my head.”

                “No, I don’t know. Like… you have your own soundtrack, or something?”

                “Yeah, or something.”

                We continued unpacking for a bit. I could tell he didn’t want to discuss it further. But I had to know. Like when you begin to piece together a thousand piece puzzle and you finally find the border pieces, how can you stop until you’ve finished?

                “So what’s it like?”

                “What is what like?”

                “Your ‘music’ silly.”

                Rob hesitated again, but sighed as he could tell I wouldn’t drop this thread, not until I saw the whole picture.

                “It’s, it’s hard to describe.”

                “Well, what style is it? What instruments do you hear?”

                “I hear… something that hasn’t been invented yet, played by instruments I can’t name. Maybe they haven’t been built yet either. Maybe I’m meant to. I don’t know.”

                I walk over to him and smile, scratching the back of his neck. His favorite place.

                “Well I’d sure like to hear it someday.”

                “I don’t know if you’d be able to, if you could stand it, boy.”

                I bend down and start to lightly kiss him there, on the back of his neck. Soft growls confirmed it had the desired effect.

                “Why don’t you try me?” I grinned.

                He sighed heavily, with consternation or with pleasure... or perhaps both. His hand slid into mine and he turned to look me in the eyes, perhaps to gauge if I was serious. Which indeed I was.

                “Okay, well maybe I can sing something.”

                I nodded gratefully and he closed his eyes, those beautiful hazel eyes, and cleared his throat. What came next was… well, it was… A heartbeat, memories of my birth, my dead mother cradling me as she sang in words I could not yet understand. My infant dreams, pyramids of color and shapes that bend around my head. The rush of the wind around me as I giggled in the bike seat as my Dad rode through the cemetery where decades later we would return with his ashes. I blink and the aria lifts me into the clouds where an unblinking eye sits in judgment. I am naked before it, and even then it rends me from my flesh and my soul, warts and all, is weighed. Weighed by the song. I am wanting. I am found wanting. I…

                Back in the room, my nose is bleeding.

                “Glenn? Glenn?” Rob says, concern and perhaps amusement in his tone.

                I sit up. I don’t remember falling.

                His mouth moves again and I don’t hear the words. Only the song. Only his beautiful song.

                It is then, watching his silent lips, watching the concern fade into a knowing smile. Hearing everything. Hearing nothing. I realize the truth.

I know I can never hear anything else again.

           Closing my eyes, I fall back into the clouds, drawn by music from the distant future. Drawn by that which perhaps will never be.

November

Each year, as gray November fades in frost, two children dance on a lake's cracked ice. The fissures spread beneath their feet, frozen water's skein. The cold cannot touch them; it penetrates no deeper than their grief. They are warmed by the small comfort that, for them, things cannot get any worse.

They, who have lost so much, dare Fate to take its full.

The leaves crinkle beneath their feet. They slide through the fog, two ships sinking. Unnamed goes their mourning, but not unremembered. Here, at the site of the end, they pay their penitent respects.

She loved this time of year, their Mother. When mists descend upon their cabin. They skated with her then and not alone. The thrill a distraction from their empty stomachs, their empty days. Their lives were meager, but carefree.

Their father they didn't know well enough to say what he loved. He was but a menace distant in the mist, until one year he whirled with the fog back into their home. A haunting dervish. They knew then only what they saw. Only that he contained no temperance. No kindness, nor mercy. What he desired he took: Mother. Again and again was she his plunder.

Grey November came. Where in happier times she took them to skate the edge of death. She fled his clutches. He gave chase.

They danced towards the lake.

Across its cracking surface she ran, daring Father to tempt Fate. He remained on its edge, raging. The children too watched from the shore. She slowed and turned to them, her beloveds. In her smile sat a sad goodbye. The ice ruptured, yawning into a maw. Their lake, their autumnal refuge, consumed her whole.

Father left them, orphans, on the shore. He left, as wroth and loathsome a mystery as they had ever known. Like life itself, they supposed.

And so they live alone in the cabin their Mother built, each year traveling to the lake where her memory perseveres. They dance as she did, only this time they dance alone. The sole distractions they possess are each other's company. Each year the ritual brings less solace, and more silence, more sadness.

There they dream of family; they dream of their meager paradise lost years ago. They dream Mother watches them from below, frozen, wearing her sad smile. There they dream that the autumn ice isn't strong enough for their hearts, oh so heavy. They dream that down, down, they crash.

...into the deadly, icy blue.

World of Man

He lies there in a pool of blood, cradled by light. A gentle hand strokes his hair, soft tears fall on his cheeks. Tears that are not his own. Another hand lies on his. He tries to squeeze it, but cannot move a muscle. He tries to speak, but only gurgles and bleeds and dies bit by bit. A voice pleads, desperate and tremoring, “Please, please… you can’t leave me. Please. Hold on, just hold on.”

 

And yet, and yet, it grows ever more distant. The world around him fades away.

 

The man wakes with a gasping "No!" Clutching at the wound in his chest, there no longer. Only a phantom pain remains. Only a receding memory. The smell, the comforting hand, the love and anguish in his heart, they are all left behind.

 

"Welcome," A voice rasps, "Welcome to the world."

It is a seering, bleeding world, leaking flame and darkness. The air supperates with a million distant cries. He is warm, sweating, like the flames lick at his heels. And indeed they do. Despite their brightness, he can barely see six inches in front of his face. The neophyte pleads: "Wh-where am I?"

Silence reigns a while. The young man seeks the voice that spoke in the black. Seeks to define the world that still eludes him. He blinks, trying to brush away his swimming, failing vision. His eyes are weak like a child’s, like he’s never used them before, like nothing before this moment was real, like on this moment has presence or meaning. Nothing, nothing... then:

"You have found your way. You are home."

The man stammers. "What? No! I was, I was..." A loud retort, the stench of sulphur. Distant sobs and sadness and pain that grows ever fainter. A world that fades away. With it leeches memory. "I was shot?" He finally sobs.

The voice returns with the weight of a thousand whispers, all asking the same question in unison. "What else do you remember?"

A form starts to coalesce in shadow, large and misshapen. Its terrors too dim to comprehend.

And the gaping whole reveals itself. His life, his family, his loves­, the face of the hand that held him as he faded, slow, then quickly away… all forgotten.

Only pain, the wound, the puddle of blood and now the fear, the stench that clogged his nostrils and sent his heart a-racing. They were all that remained. That and the dark, that and the voice.

"Who am I?" He demands of the shape looming just beyond apprehension.

"What are you?" He asks, now quietly, "What have you done to my life?"

"Life?" The rasp becomes a wheezing laugh, "Boy, that ‘life’ was a dream." The shape moves. Closer, closer. "This, here, is the only real."

The man shakes his head to dispel the madness. But the... (world?) grows more solid, more present. Still his vision swims, or is the world, the ground itself that swims? He feels a beat beneath his feet, like a giant, vivid heart. "What are you?" He repeats in a rasp of his own.

Into the dim light’s flame crawls the speaker. A skeletal mass, many-handed, of undulating limbs and dead gaping faces. A field of humanity plastered together, jumbled like bodies in a blender, a broken whole. All slack and all grinning, all silent and unmoving and yet all speaking with the same toneless voice. "I am Man!"

The man stumbles, jibbering in silent horror. The world ripples and he falls, hand brushing against fleshy ground. Against a mouth. He looks around him and the veil is lifted. The world lives. Mountains of bone. Valleys of mouths, lakes of spittle and blood. Forests that are tufts of hair, and always, always, scabarous, puckering faces with sightless eyes. Moving yet unmoving, one life, one mind, billions of terrible voices. It speaks, they all speak: "I am the World!"

He moves to stand but sinks. Down, down. Deeper and deeper, until the all world is warm and black. And the flame from without, the distant dull burning, alights within him. It is hot and terrible and… familiar. He stands before the candle that warmed him in the womb, the candle of Man. The truth his dreams shielded, that his own mind hid. This is the world. There is no death, no God, no truth but this: There is only man. He tries to cry out. "No! Please, I want to go back. Take me back!"

But instead, his mouth smiles. The torrent of life obviates his thoughts, his self. There is no young man any more, only Man, only the orgiastic world of flesh.

And the chorus, it whispers: "I am You!"