The scent has led you to its refuge. Sobbing noises echo through the dark cavity of the church as you enter it. Praying statues gaze into the domed ceiling, the taint having crept up their marble bodies. For some reason you cannot help feeling sad. Your prey hunches before the altar. The crying has stopped, and you hear a soft giggle coming from the chancel. The taint begins trickling from the walls as if they had begun to bleed. You whisper a quick prayer and unsheathe. The spectacle is about to begin.
I have never dreamed of anything so large. Perfect black, sharp edged. Towering over the plain, sending pulsations through the land and air. I can hear a low hum coming from it, a chant even. I am drawn to it. I am terrified. It throbs once more and fills my body with vibrations attuning it with its rhythm. It feels like it is acknowledging my presence. It is here. I can not deny it. I can only go forth. Like a beacon it called me and I will answer its call.
The town is a vista of abandon, a handful of desolate houses growing out of the red desert sand. Shards and shell casings crunching under my boots. An unhinged saloon door knocking about in the wind. The faint sound of a fiddle, mingled with the stench of decay, wafting over from the veranda of a sick house. I can’t make out the player anywhere, but I feel eyes on my back. At the southern end of town a white sheet with flutters on the gable of a farmhouse, a memento of a wedding night I assume. I approach it, for it brings luck to touch the hem of such a relic while sending a short prayer heavenwards. As I come closer, I see those reddish spots are not bloodstains, but smeared red letters: It came through here. I fall into a fit of coughing and wipe my blood-speckled gloves on my poncho. I don’t have much time left. Before I leave the settlement behind I turn around to find multiple pairs of hollow eyes looking at me and the guns on my belt. One of them comes forward and places a few things in the sand: Three bullets, a scratched breathing mask and some kind of bone talisman. I accept their gifts, as is custom in this stretch of land, but the false hope that appears in their eyes makes me wish I had not. My mouth is too dry to speak and clear up their misconception. Without a word I turn around and march on.
Okay, I’m gonna tell you about the first time I met him and I don’t really care if you believe me or not. I was about ten years old and I woke up in the middle of the night. I had severe asthma back then and I often was awakened by my own heavy coughing, but this time something was different. I couldn’t sit up in my bed and I couldn’t cough either. I could only move my eyes, nothing else. I felt somebody’s presence like a physical thing in the semi-darkness. That was when I noticed a figure out of the corner of my eyes sitting in the far corner of my room. I tried to focus my view and I can still remember how that strained my eyes since I could not turn my head. There sat a man with dark violet skin smoking a cigar. He had a thick black moustache, a black suit, a black tie and black hair that was gelled back. He was quietly grinning at me and I instantly thought that there was something inherently wrong with his mouth. I felt like screaming, calling for my parents, but I couldn’t. I started to sweat intensely and tears began to blur my vision. He suddenly bent over to me, which should have been impossible, since he was sitting at the other end of the room. His face was nearly touching mine and his breath was burning my skin the way an ice-cold breeze does. I think I must have passed out soon after that, but before I did, I heard him whisper: “You are mine, my child.”
“… Have you ever seen this other world, lurking below the surface of everything? To see it for the first time is an awakening, the nasty kind. Imagine the sea being drained and the seabed becoming visible, littered with dead faded-pink creatures. Imagine the earth cracking open and the evil face below appearing. It is the world of rot and vermin. It is lurking below the surface of everything. And it always exists even when you’re not thinking about it, even when you’re happy. And once you have seen it, it will never let you go. You have awakened, and you can’t fall asleep again. It sometimes happens when you look at things for too long. You stare a hole into the surface, oh yes. It happened to me. And now the sea is being drained and the seabed becomes visible. All the time. And it is littered with dead faded-pink creatures. Festering faded-pink creatures. And the surface is cracking up and the evil face appears. And it looks at you from everywhere. It looks at you too and it is always there. Even when you’re sleeping. Even when you’re drugged. Do you know what it’s called? It is the world of rot and vermin. Because it is all rot and vermin. You’re going to see it too, staring at me like that. Staring a fucking hole into the surface. Oh, yes, you will. The rotting… The rotting pink corpses, the evil face. It is there, even when you’re not thinking about it, oh yes…”
While the barbarians are noisily setting up camp at the forest clearing I am looking at the jet-black sky and realise I am so far from home that I am unable to recognise a single one of the constellations. The men are worn out, starved and aggressive and I flinch every time one of them comes close to me since it has become a habit of theirs to punch or shove me out of frustration. We have been living off roots and bark and tubers ever since we set foot to this stretch of land as there seems to be no game, no breathing thing in fact, except this flock of strange white crow-like creatures that are relentlessly following our miserable caravan.
As every evening they send me and the tattooed woman to the woods to scrape together all edible things we can find while they pass their time getting drunk on their dwindling stock of foul-smelling brew, tormenting the enslaved and throwing stones at the strange hunched birds in the treetops. As every evening, one of the barbarians keeps an eye on us while I try to make sense of the foreign muttering of the tattooed woman and dig out the plants, she confidently points at with her painted hands. Something in the way she treads the ground and moves her long limbs, indicates that she is not yet on the verge of exhaustion, which gives me another reason to be wary around her, beside the fact that she occasionally warms the bed of the leader. A cawing sound that seems to come from somewhere close and at the same time from the deeply secluded heart of the forest makes me jolt up from my thoughts. We both look in the direction of the sound and our gaze falls on a bush with dull yellow berries. The woman approaches it and carefully snaps off a twig heavy with the unobtrusive fruit. I want to follow her example since our bag is still more empty than full and the cold of the hard forest floor is beginning to creep up my legs. But she pushes away my hand, places her painted fingers on her own throat and looks directly into my eyes. Another caw is echoing through the wood as if to answer the first one.
I wake up to the sound of suffering. The other enslaved are already up and watch the barbarians with hollow eyes as they desperately try to regurgitate the poisoned brew they drank hours before. Their necks and faces look swollen and bloated and somehow their heads make me think of overripe fruit. As the sounds of dread and pain grow louder I notice that the moonlit glade is encircled by myriads of motionless white hunched figures. A somehow harmonious cawing is now filling the glade and drowning the whimpers of the men. Then the creatures begin to stir, they flutter and scamper and scuttle around the sick men in a gradually tightening circle.
And now I sit and listen to the satisfying sound that emanates from the corpses as the birds dismember them and gobble them down. The other enslaved are gone and I wonder how they can hope to find enough strength in their bodies to return to civilisation. Everyone is gone beside the birds and myself and I just can’t bring my weak legs to obey me and hurry after the others, wherever they have disappeared to. A piece of bright red meat is dangling before my eyes and I feel an expectant gaze resting on me. I willingly accept the gift she brought me. As I am pecking at the meat I look up to the sky and wonder why these constellations looked so unfamiliar to me a few hours ago. I have always been here, with her and the others. We have always been here, roaming the forest, looking for meat.
I needed to spend the night somewhere, but as you know, I don’t trust those friable ruins, they have cellars and attics and rooms and shafts and so much space mistakenly believed to be empty. So I was quite lucky to find this dilapidated eggshell coloured trailer, though I soon found it was infested with vermin, silverfish to be exact. I switched on my flashlight to inspect the shabby interior – battered kitchen furniture, a raddled floor lamp, a reddish-brown stain on the carpeted floor. Myriads of silverfish slithered into the nearest crack as soon as the cone of light hit them. There was a fridge and I made the mistake of opening it. A glossy white animal skull was staring at me from the inside of the fridge, and beside it a cluster of silverfish eating a dead one. The horror I felt at this sight of cannibalism was soon swept away by that old sorrowful melancholia that hit me almost every evening those past days. I sat at the kitchen table and let my gaze wander outside the smudged window over the carious cityscape in the distance. And old corroded bible lay on the table before me, I had found it in one of the drawers. You know, I never had any affiliation with the Christian belief and I still don’t have, but you once told me that everything can serve as an oracle, as long as it’s suffused with something, or has been in the past. When I opened the book silverfish scattered away from it in every direction. I crushed one and it dissolved under my fingertip like moist powder. I looked at the silvery smudge on my finger with slight disgust. This species is believed to be three hundred million years old. My disgust mingled with something like respect, they were vital and numerous and thriving even after so much time, whereas we are at the brink of extinction. I focused on the bible again and formed the question in my head, the matter that has brought me here, to the periphery of the lands where the last of us live. Then I opened the book on a random page and put my finger on a line. Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream. I couldn’t help but look upwards to where I believe this entity, all these texts have been written about, is residing. I formed a silent “thank you” with my lips. The truth is, I have been downhearted this whole day and the days before. But as foolish as it may sounds, those simple, archaic words instilled me with a shimmer of determination. I was going to find this vermin that took you from me. I was going to find them and reduce them to something resembling the smudge on my fingertip.
I found her on a dumping ground on the northwest end of the city, a place you need a real good reason for to visit. She’s quite tall for what’s supposed to be a female. Her hair looked somehow vintage, I can’t explain why. Her clothing too – a sleeveless turquoise dress and tights with some gaudy floral pattern on them. Her whole appearance reminded me of some Hollywood icon of the mid-twentieth century. She’s an ORO7. Those robot-loving weirdos usually give them a nickname but I’m sticking with ORO7. I’m gonna treat her as what she is, an aggregation of electronic parts. The scruffy keeper of the dumping ground observed me closely as I pulled her soiled body out of the waste. A six-pack ring was entangled in her untidy hair, you know this stuff that causes ocean turtles to suffocate. She was switched on, I noticed with mild surprise. Her eyes blinked twice.
My boat is slowly floating down a fog-covered river lit from underneath by somehow menacingly glowing outlandish fish as I’m carried off to demise, like a reverse Moses. A fragrant taste of lavender lingers in my mouth since I woke up this afternoon and made me think of you. I doubt the wooden carcass of my boat will ever be found, yet I leave you this, scrawled in the eerie half-light of this not yet dawned day, whilst I wait for those two stone giants to loom on the horizon. The wardens that mark the beginning of the malodorous descent and hence the finality of my decision to return to this subterranean anti-sanctum. I am truly scared.