The darkness was cold. It was wet.
She rose from the dark water, and stood upon the skies.
Before her, beneath an umber, blood-flaked hood, dozens of gleaming red eyes watched her beneath a terrible Leviathan Crown, writ in gleaming crimson light in words of fire above their ‘head’. The sea around her burst with clouds, coiled with lightning, was riven by dust and stone, sprouted grasses.
sᴀʟᴜᴛᴀᴛɪᴏɴs, said the Apostate Speaker, voice like grinding marble against the dark.
She spat out a mouthful of skywater before speaking. Her lungs were full. “You.”
ᴍᴇ, it said. ᴛʜɪs ɪs ᴀ ᴊᴏɪɴɪɴɢ ᴘᴏɪɴᴛ, ᴀɴ ᴇᴄʜᴏ. ᴛʜᴇ ᴛᴏᴡᴇʀs qᴜᴀᴋᴇ, ᴛʜᴇ ʀᴇᴀʟ ᴛʀᴇᴍʙʟᴇs. ʀᴇsᴏɴᴀɴᴄᴇ ᴀɴᴅ ʜᴀʀᴍᴏɴɪᴄs, ᴛʜᴇ sᴏɴɢ ᴏғ ᴇɴᴅɪɴɢs, ᴀ sᴏɴɢ ᴏғ ʙᴇɢɪɴɴɪɴɢs ᴀɴᴅ ᴛʜᴇ ᴄʜɪᴍɪɴɢ ᴏғ ᴀ ɢᴇɴᴛʟᴇ ғʟᴇsʜ. ᴛʜʏ sᴇɴsᴇs, ᴛʀᴀᴍᴍᴇʟʟᴇᴅ, ᴅᴏ ɴᴏᴛ sᴇᴇ ɪᴛ ᴀᴘᴘʀᴏᴀᴄʜ, ғᴏʀ ɪᴛ ɪs ʙᴇʏᴏɴᴅ, ᴀʙᴏᴠᴇ, ɢʀᴇᴀᴛᴇʀ ᴛʜᴀɴ ᴛʜʏ ᴘᴜʀᴠɪᴇᴡ.
“Ominous. Are you here to… torment me, like Carpalithos was?”
ᴛʜᴇ sɪɴɪsᴛʀᴀʟ ɪs ᴀ ᴄʀᴇᴀᴛᴜʀᴇ ᴛʜᴀᴛ ᴅᴏᴇs. ᴡᴇ ᴀʀᴇ ᴀ ᴄʀᴇᴀᴛᴜʀᴇ ᴛʜᴀᴛ sᴘᴇᴀᴋs. ᴛʜᴇ ᴛᴡᴏ ᴏғ ᴜs ᴀᴄᴛ ᴀᴄᴄᴏʀᴅɪɴɢ ᴛᴏ ᴏᴜʀ ɴᴀᴛᴜʀᴇs, ғᴏʀ ɪᴛ ɪs ɪɴ ᴛʜᴇ ɴᴀᴛᴜʀᴇ ᴏғ ᴛʜʏ ᴛʜʀᴏᴀᴛ ᴛᴏ sᴘᴇᴀᴋ ᴀɴᴅ ғᴏʀ ᴛʜʏ ʜᴀɴᴅ ᴛᴏ ᴀᴄᴛ. ᴛʜᴇ sᴘɪɴᴇ ᴅʀᴀᴡs ᴄʟᴏsᴇʀ. ɪᴛ ɪs ᴀɴ ᴀxɪs, ɪɴ ᴡʜᴀᴛ ɪᴍᴀɢᴇ ᴡᴀs ᴛʜᴇ ᴛᴏᴡᴇʀ ᴄᴏɴsᴛʀᴜᴄᴛᴇᴅ. ᴛʜɪɴᴇ ᴀʀᴛ ʀᴀɴɢ ᴀ ɢʀᴇᴀᴛ ᴄʜɪᴍᴇ ғʀᴏᴍ ᴛʜᴇ ᴛᴏᴡᴇʀ, ᴀɴᴅ sᴜʙғᴜsᴄᴀᴛᴇᴅ ʀɪᴘᴘʟᴇs ᴅɪᴅ sᴘʀᴇᴀᴅ ᴛʜʀᴏᴜɢʜ ᴛʜᴇ ᴀᴇᴛʜᴇʀᴇᴀʟ. ᴛʜᴇ ᴅᴇᴀᴛʜʟᴇss ᴏғ ᴛʜᴇ sᴘɪɴᴇ ᴅɪᴅ ʜᴇᴀʀ ᴛʜᴏsᴇ sᴏᴜɴᴅs, ғᴏʀ ʜᴇ ᴡᴀs ʟɪsᴛᴇɴɪɴɢ. sᴏ ᴅɪᴅ ᴡᴇ, ғᴏʀ ᴡᴇ ᴀʀᴛ ᴀ ᴄʀᴇᴀᴛᴜʀᴇ ᴏғ ᴛʜᴇ ʜᴇᴀʀᴛ, ᴛʜᴇ ᴄᴀᴘsᴛᴏɴᴇ ᴏғ ᴛʜᴇ ᴀxɪᴀʟ sᴘɪɴᴇ.
“I think I’m too, er, unconscious to understand this.” She looked around, seeing just a flaming sea stretching off through the horizon in every direction, as far as she could see.
ɪᴛ ɪs ɴᴏᴛ ɪɴ ᴏᴜʀ ɴᴀᴛᴜʀᴇ ᴛᴏ ɢᴜɪᴅᴇ ʏᴏᴜ. ᴡᴇ ᴀʀᴇ ᴀᴅᴠᴇʀsᴇ. ᴡᴇ ᴀʀᴇ ᴛʜᴇ ᴀᴘᴏsᴛᴀᴛᴇ sᴘᴇᴀᴋᴇʀ. ᴡᴇ ᴀʀᴇ ᴍᴇʀᴇʟʏ ɴᴇᴀʀʙʏ, ɪɴ ᴍᴇᴛᴀᴘʜᴏʀ, ɪɴ ᴛʜᴇ sʜᴀᴅᴏᴡ ᴏғ ᴛʜᴇ sᴘɪɴᴇ, ᴛʜᴇ ғʟᴇsʜ ᴀxɪs. ᴀɴᴅ, ᴀs ᴡᴇ ᴀʀᴇ ʜᴇʀᴇ, ᴛʜᴜs ɪs ᴛʜᴇ sɪɴɪsᴛʀᴀʟ, ᴡʜᴏ ʏᴏᴜ ᴄᴀʟʟ ᴄᴀʀᴘᴀʟɪᴛʜᴏs. ɪᴛ ᴡᴀɪᴛs, ᴀɴᴅ ᴡɪʟʟ sʜᴏᴡ ɪᴛsᴇʟғ ᴇʀᴇ ʟᴏɴɢ — ᴛʜᴇ ᴛᴇʀᴍs ᴏғ ᴏᴜʀ ᴅᴇᴀʟ ᴀʀᴇ ᴄᴏɴᴄʟᴜᴅᴇᴅ.
“Uh, thanks for the warning?”
ᴡᴇ ᴅɪᴅ ɴᴏ sᴜᴄʜ ᴛʜɪɴɢ. ɢᴏᴏᴅ ᴅᴀʏ.
And with that, the terrible bright-dark burning of the creature’s Leviathan Crown opened its jaws and devoured it, disappearing and tearing a dark hole through the bottom of the dream, which vanished into ephemeral shreds, like a soap bubble vanishing under the pressure of a finger.
And then, she might have woken up.
For a few moments after waking, she was groggy, unclear, not sure where she was or what she was doing.
And then she heard a voice that jolted her awake with a stark and clawing terror. “Ahhhhhhh,” it said, drawing out the word into a long, low rasp, “so nice of you to join us, Alice. May I call you Alice? Would you prefer something else?”
She tried to speak, but there was nothing but a burst of stinging pain around her face, cheeks and lips, and she couldn’t open her mouth or move her tongue. When she opened her eyes, all she saw was darkness, patterned with fabric.
The voice chuckled, a sound that set her teeth on edge. “Oh, how silly of me. How insensitive. You’re tongue-tied in my presence.” It chuckled a little more. The sound was dry, nearly dusty, and rattled around in a throat that sounded at once dessicated and a little too damp.
“Hmm-hmm,” the creature hummed. “Let me see, scalpel, scalpel… aha! Hold still, now. I wouldn’t want you to tear something.”
She felt something metal on her face, cutting at something near her mouth, and tiny twinges of pain around her tongue and lips. She tried to move, but there was a sudden pain in her head, as if it was held in a tightened vise.
“Ah-ah-ah! I said don’t move. These stitches need to come out, so you can speak, after all.”
“Oh, don’t look so glum. I’m taking them out, aren’t I?”
This time she managed to make a noise. She attempted to say something with a lot of expletives in, but something was still keeping her tongue from moving properly, so it came out more like “mmm-MMM!”
“You know,” said the voice, “I had to be careful with this stuff. Wouldn’t want you to choke.” They paused. “For the moment.”
Whoever was speaking put the knife down with a clack, and started to pull the stitches out. It didn’t hurt, but the sensation was deeply disconcerting. The voice’s hands were cold, their skin was rough, and it felt like they might have had claws, but their touch was brief and mercifully deft, although accompanied by an unpleasant smell that felt briefly like it was burning the inside of her nose.
“Now,” they said, “let’s just get the gag, here…”
This time, those rough, cold, clawed fingers were stuck in her mouth, and she reflexively and viciously bit down. This was a mistake. The fingers went crack and then came off like they were dry twigs, and were accompanied by a horrible dusty texture and awful chemical taste.
Another chuckle from the voice as she spluttered and retched. “Well, aren’t you spirited! Not terribly wise, but spirited nonetheless. Well, I’ll be needing those back, you know, so if you’d excuse me…”
More clawed fingers plucked the detached digits from her mouth and where she’d spat them out. This time, when they went to pull the gag out, they actually held her mouth open, first.
“I’d offer you a napkin, but you’re a bit… pinned down at the moment, heh. A little joke, if not between friends, then between acquaintances, surely. My, I can’t believe we haven’t been introduced. My name is Syrk. Some call me ‘deathless’, others call me ‘soulless’, and I’m just so glad to have caught up with you after all this time. You’re a hard person to find!”
Yeah, she thought, pretty sure, given what I know of you, that’s intentional.
“Not talkative? A shame, I have so many questions. And you still haven’t answered me — are you ‘Alice’? I believe that is your name.”
She attempted to nod, was stopped by a different stabbing pain, and instead opened her mouth. “Yes,” she croaked.
“Capital. My intelligence on such matters was accurate! That is good news.” Syrk chuckled again. If it wasn’t for the general raspy rattle of his voice and the air of sheer menace that lay coiled beneath his words, he would have sounded much like a slightly distracted academic, or someone’s grandfather.
“Now,” he was saying, “let’s see about that blindfold. I didn’t really have any sutures suitable for your eyes, and I’d hate to do a rush job.”
Ah, she thought, shuddering, there’s the terrifying part, again. She felt the cold knife on her face, briefly, as he apparently sliced through the cloth blindfold and pulled it away, allowing her to see into the dimly-lit room, and to finally see Syrk up close, which was far worse than seeing him in the relatively mist-shrouded distance.
His eyes gleamed in the darkness, blank, yellow-amber in colour and sunken in their sockets. His skin was sallow, and close-up, she could see that it was covered in a patchy coat of fine hair. As she watched, he held up two severed fingers for her to see, quirked a smile at her, and placed them back on the ragged stubs she had bitten them from, where they apparently attached effortlessly, although the skin around them was still broken. The ends of his fingers, she noticed, were discoloured, like they had healed from some kind of terrible burn.
When he smiled, his teeth were sharp, yellowed and cracked. “So, Alice. What are we to do with you?”