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The Black Pool

By Alex Beyman All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Horror

The Black Pool

I used to think I could be happy anywhere. I wanted to see the world, and imagined I could make a life for myself wherever you plunked me down. Now I chalk that up to a youthful lack of taste. The same one which makes small children prefer pieces of breaded, processed chicken in the shape of dinosaurs over filet mignon.

There’s a connection between my body and the land where I was born. Yes, that’s a real thing. I didn’t believe it either until I moved out here. As I grow older, I crave familiarity more than novelty. Familiar sights and sounds. Familiar flora and fauna. The very scent of the air.

I have nobody to blame but myself. I made a classic young man’s error, getting on a plane for somebody I wasn’t married to. “Yet”, I told myself. Had my future with her all planned out, down to the color of the curtains...only to be dumped over the phone while unpacking.

I just wanted to go home after that. I wanted the comfort of those familiar sights, sounds and smells. Instead, because I spent my last dime transplanting my life from Oregon to Florida, I found myself stranded in an utterly alien environment.

I don’t belong here. Certainly not my body, but my heart least of all. Come to think of it, my true “happy place” was never a place, but a person. Was. Now I’m a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by incomprehensible beasts I have no ability nor desire to understand.

The first thing that struck me when I left the airport was the faint smell of burning tires, mixed with what I would soon learn is a scent typical of swampland. An obese woman dressed up as Uncle Sam occupied a booth set up outside, handing out free baby turtles to “police, firefighters or military in uniform.” I still don’t know what that was about.

The smell inside the cab was the same as outside but intensified by heat. A dense musk I was reluctant to immerse myself in, except that I knew nothing of local public transit options and couldn’t afford to bring my car.

On the drive from the airport to the apartment complex, I spied gators sunbathing right on the front lawns of houses adjacent to a large pond. Just right out in the open. And here I always thought the point of creating civilization was to get away from large predators.

A news report on the cab’s radio described a recent altercation between a shirtless man and police. Evidently he lit his beard on fire, declared that he could turn his entire body to steel and fire lightning from his eyes at will, then challenged bystanders to face him on the field of honor.

There’s a running joke that every time a news report begins with “A Florida man…” followed by a list of depraved crimes against nature and decency, they’re really all about the same guy. Some sort of demented superhero named “Florida Man”.

It was followed by a report on a string of missing persons cases. I didn’t know it then, but pretty soon I’d regard that as an improvement. If the rate of disappearances picks up, pretty soon this could be a dramatically nicer place to live.

This state is, at the very least, never boring. Maybe it’s something in the air, or the water. Maybe it’s the frequent hurricanes. Frequent by my standards anyway. But more likely it’s just the abundance of meth.

I was mugged on my third night, though mugged might not be the right word. The poor slob was too out of his mind to actually take my wallet. He wore a vomit stained undershirt and something resembling a kilt fashioned from a garbage bag around his lower body.

I couldn’t understand a word that came out of his nearly toothless mouth. I don’t know for certain if he was tweaking, he may simply have been homeless. Every native I’ve run into since I got here speaks English, but degenerated by varying degrees.

It’s not just a Southern drawl. Not much of that here. Nor is it a self consistent local dialect. It’s a mushy, corrupted patchwork, ever-changing to suit the mood of the speaker. I’m not just trying to be difficult, there have been times when I sincerely had to nod and smile because I couldn’t understand the fellow speaking to me.

I have known plenty of brilliant Southerners. This isn’t about North and South. I recall struggling to describe the nature of that cultural divide to an exchange student once, realizing in the process how petty and artificial it is.

The only actual, literal rocket scientist I personally know speaks with a Southern accent so thick, he ought to wear a tablet around his neck to display subtitles. So whatever’s wrong with Florida has nothing to do with the larger Southern US, which has produced a respectable number of accomplished thinkers. It’s specifically a Florida thing.

When you’re little, everyone you trust tells you to follow your heart. What awful advice that turned out to be! I followed my heart all the way from a lush, temperate wonderland of natural beauty to a putrid swampy hellscape prowled by roving bands of mutants. Fuck you, heart.

That’s not to say I haven’t met some interesting people here, albeit nearly all of them from out of state. I don’t have a large enough sample size to say this with any confidence, but it does seem like Florida is a popular place to pass through when you’re young, figuring yourself out and deciding what to do with your life.

Passing through Florida, and through my life. Each of them like a momentary sip of water, just barely sustaining me as I languish in this human desert. The cab ran over another of the increasingly common potholes.

I would later learn that the city concentrates maintenance funding on the areas immediately surrounding the theme parks which bring in all those lucrative tourist dollars. They visit the parks, maybe they visit the beaches, then they’re gone. No sense in fixing up what they’ll never see.

Consequently everything outside of the oasis of city spending surrounding those theme parks looks like a borderline post apocalyptic banana republic. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. As with any state there are nice and not so nice parts of Florida, I’ll be generous and assume I happened to move to one of the latter.

The landscape consists of dodgy, cobbled together strip malls and various small businesses of questionable legality. All of them operating out of dirty single story hovels which change hands frequently. Payday loans, pawn shops, cash for gold, and churches.

Oh, the endless variety of churches! One on every street corner, as plentiful as coffee shops back home. Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, Scientologists, Eckankar, even a few snake handlers. The more gonzo, sensationalist and fringe, the better.

Like Vegas without the casinos. Everything’s instant, value priced, while-u-wait. Culture without nuance, depth or patience, with a population to match. If you’re familiar with the website “People of Wal Mart”, imagine that, but everywhere you look any time you step outside.

Partly due to the cultural disconnect and partly due to the lingering shock of being dumped, I began floating through life high above everything, nowhere touching the Earth. It no longer had anything I wanted. Nothing with which to entice me to re-engage.

The sting of the breakup, though it felt as if it would last forever at the time, eventually petered out. The habit of disconnection I picked up in the process did not die with it, but persisted as a permanent new feature of my personality...one which quickly proved its worth as a pain avoidance mechanism.

Nobody could hurt me if I never sincerely invested myself in them. What an ingenious trick! Nothing prevented me from going through the motions. From saying all the same kinds of things I would’ve, if I allowed myself to return the love so generously invested in me by a string of women more emotionally adventurous than I.

This way I could have companionship, gratification and the various other benefits of a relationship, but with none of the danger. It never lasted longer than a few months though. They always picked up on what I was doing when, sometimes just experimentally, they tried to hurt me a little bit.

A test of some sort. Going to dinner with an old boyfriend, sloppy makeouts with some rando at a party or something of that nature. I was supposed to get angry. To yell, to cry, even to slap them depending on their tastes. Anything but an indifferent shrug.

If only they weren’t so curious, things might’ve lasted longer. But they had to know. They couldn’t just accept outward appearances as reality. They had to scrape at the skin, recoiling in horror when the wound refused to bleed. When only cold, dull metal shone back at them through the opening.

I know I’m the one who was in the wrong. To lead them on like that, letting them entrust their hearts to an emotional cripple. I should be guilty. But then, guilt is a feeling. I’m just about out of those by now.

It’s the same way anywhere there’s loads of people. Malls, airports, theme parks, bars. I imagine a sort of invisible force field just slightly larger than I am. A full body condom. To separate me from these people, however frequently I must immerse myself in them.

A Christian roommate back in college had his own term for it: Being in the world, but not of the world. A stopped clock is still correct twice a day. This particular world is one I have to be “in” for the time being, I decided...but I will never be “of” it.

There’s no avoiding interaction, not forever. Don’t think I haven’t tried. I don’t even leave my apartment lately, performing online jobs for a service called Mechanical Turk. Basically human assisted search results.

I did it on the side at first, but once you’ve stuck with it for long enough and are highly rated, you can make serious money at it. Enough for rent and utilities anyway, plus a little extra for the occasional pizza or energy drinks that food stamps won’t cover.

So I stagnated. Then I stagnated more. Days, weeks, months went by with no human contact save for text on my monitor. The only times I’d go out would be for booze or coffee. Or to hike. With practice, over time I whittled down the number of words I needed to say to the bartender (in order to communicate what I wanted) to the absolute minimum.

She didn’t notice what I was doing at first. When she did, she started giving me the stink eye every time I ordered. Not that I care. I don’t know her. I don’t fucking know any of these people. This may as well be a foreign country.

Back home, I loved to hike. You really can’t get away with being an indoor person in the Pacific Northwest. There’s an embarrassment of gorgeous wilderness just minutes from any city. Not so much here. Just endless flat expanses of asphalt or swampland, punctuated by big budget tourist attractions and gimmicky, low budget Americana.

I chose this apartment complex in large part because it’s directly adjacent to a much nicer, more upscale complex. They’ve got their own beautifully landscaped bicycle path, the closest thing to a wooded trail for miles.

Naturally, they’ve put up a rustic wooden fence as a “suggestion” that those of us who don’t pay for the path’s upkeep should stay out. Of course I just step right over that shit. I don’t know these people. I don’t care what they think of me, or owe them anything.

It’s one of the rare bright spots in my life since moving here. Nothing like a proper hiking trail but it makes for pleasant Sunday walks. The landscaping is a little overdone and artificial, like everything else in this state...natives included.

Even so, simply being out in the sun, more or less surrounded by trees, flowers and grass is a sorely needed respite. The only interruption is the occasional overly disciplined cyclist, wearing full body neon spandex and a teardrop helmet, rocketing past to one side.

One of ’em stopped once to lecture me for making use of the path. He could tell from my clothing where I must live. I just stood there, expressionless, until he tired himself out and left. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Except for incidents like that, I could be both outside and alone for the entire day once a week. I needed the exercise too. My hermitic lifestyle had begun to take a toll on my body. The regular diet of rice, beans and pasta plus the occasional pizza delivery also wasn’t doing me any favors.

Despite the weekly exposure I’d grown distressingly pale. All muscle definition vanished and with each passing day I felt myself growing weaker. Every Sunday, when I emerged from the apartment for a walk, the sun hurt my eyes a little more.

Deterioration. Progressively worse, resembling the transformation already underway within me. A gradual withering which I could imagine no plausible way to reverse. To hell with it, I decided. It’s not as if I’m terribly attached to life at this point.

It was during one of these Sunday walks, specifically a stopover in an undeveloped field of grass, that I found it. The field is one of the few places I can reach from the path that’s purely natural, neither landscaped nor built upon.

I didn’t think much of the object jabbing me in the back initially. I simply meant to lay down and look up at the sky, maybe listen to some music. But something sharp pressed into me as I reclined. Rolling over and retrieving the offending object, I stared.

Can’t say why I didn’t notice the smell sooner. Once close enough to my face, it made me gag. Something like the cracked, partly decomposed claw of a crab. Not any species I’ve ever seen. Too large for one thing, and black as night.

Here and there, coarse, pointy bristles protruded from it. Like the ones which cover tarantulas, seen up close. Coconut crabs? Out here? Not that I knew of. Lobsters? Not this far inland. As repulsive as it was, it made for a welcome curiosity. A disruption of my usual, increasingly mind numbing routine.

I contemplated bringing it back to the apartment, but decided against it because of the smell. Instead I took a picture with my phone, then laid elsewhere in the field until the sun began to set. I’ve become accustomed to the heat since moving here, but it’s downright pleasant in the evening.

Except in the Summer, and even then only for a scant few days, back home it was never warm enough that I could take walks after dark without a jacket. Strolling along beneath the stars, the now comfortably tepid air tickling my bare arms made me resolve to schedule some more evening walks in the following weeks.

Now and again I passed through great teeming clouds of gnats or some other tiny winged insect. I knew these small, localized swarms assembled in the evening for breeding purposes and felt mildly disgusted by that as I picked them out of my hair.

Then again, they inconvenienced me relatively little compared to what it must be like from their perspective. Imagine some gigantic, incomprehensible beast plowing into you while you’re just trying to get laid. A brief moment of disgust for me. But for many of those flies, a brutal and unexpected end to their already short lives.

They’re the lucky ones. I’ve got to go on living here. I took a shower when I got home to wash the remaining gnats out of my hair, as otherwise I could feel a few stragglers writhing against my scalp, fighting to free themselves. Down the drain with ’em.

I ordered a pizza online afterwards, still dripping, towel wrapped around my waist. I didn’t even bother getting dressed in time for the delivery. Just opened the door, took the pizza and handed him the cash. “Oh. I uh, I didn’t mean to…sorry!”

I didn’t so much as make eye contact. “Well, have a great evening and enjoy your pizza!” Token friendliness, and thinly veiled pleading for a generous tip. I shut the door in his face. I order pizza once a month at most. The rate of turnover is such that it’ll be someone else next time anyway, guaranteed.

Strangers in the night, just how I like it. The pizza was decent for what I paid, though some strange process happens as it cools down. It’s never anywhere close to as good reheated as it is freshly baked.

The same thing happens to any fast food I’ve tried. Addictively tasty when fresh and hot, but it slowly congeals as it cools, saturated fats solidifying until achieving a rubbery texture. It doesn’t stop me from eating it though. My insides are no less cold, no less limp.

I played computer games on one monitor while ‘turking’ on the other until the sun came up. All told I made nearly fifty dollars. Something about sleep deprivation really puts me in “the zone”. The energy drinks probably have something to do with it.

I enter this hazy, almost dreamlike mindset where the work flies by. I’m no less proficient in MOBAs when I get like this either. My skills improve, if anything. Time loses all meaning. My bloodshot eyes track the action with no conscious effort on my part, my every movement automated.

During one of these semi-lucid marathon gaming sessions, in the wee hours of the morning, I first glimpsed one. A whole, living specimen that must’ve followed the scent I picked up from touching that claw. I only saw it out of the corner of my eye mind you, and because I knew I was inebriated, I didn’t take it seriously.

Hallucination comes with the territory. It was hardly the first time I spotted blotchy, moving silhouettes in my peripheral vision. Mildly concerning the first time, but I don’t scare easily. I have a solid grasp on what’s real. On what’s even possible, versus the mind playing tricks on itself.

That infuriates some people. Usually ones with some frivolous worldview built on a mixture of sloppy thinking and outright fraud. I could be less abrasive if I were to qualify my statements as if they were just my opinions, but they’re not. Anyway, do they deserve that level of consideration? It’s their own fault for being suckered into such obvious hokum.

This fortified materialistic mindset insulates me against fear of the dark. In most cases I’m likely to be the scariest thing hiding in the dark anyway. I can’t pinpoint when I turned into what I am now, but any crazed vagrant, thief or meth head concealed by cover of night has more to fear from me than the inverse.

That’s just realistic threats, too. Ghosts, demons and the like never enter into my consideration. To reach the center in my brain responsible for fear, such ideas would first have to pass through the center responsible for separating the plausible from the implausible. They never do.

I simply know better. It’s a bleak, boring world out there. No sasquatches, no devils, no ghosts or chupacabras. Humans are the only monsters on this planet, myself included. The longer you live around them, the more of their attributes you absorb until one day you look in the mirror and see one of ’em staring back at you.

That reminds me, I should start smoking. Whatever it takes so that I die before the transformation completes. Death is my destination, as certainly as someone with a gun to his temple. I’ve just chosen to take a more circuitous, scenic route.

To that end, when I woke up the next morning with a pounding headache, I headed straight for the bar. Sheila was surprised to see me, I think. I don’t look at her face much. I’m also not actually sure that’s her name. Sharla? Shauna?

“Shit, you’re a mess.” No argument from me, I left the apartment without showering. My hair must’ve been a riot to look at, stiff oily tufts sticking out all over. When I said nothing, she sighed and asked me what I wanted.

“Whisky, neat.” She frowned. “This ain’t fuckin Star Trek. I’m not that machine. Whatever it was, you know. Tea, earl grey, hot. Can’t you say hello first? Maybe ask how I’m doing?” I smiled. Shirley’s not usually funny. Shanna?

“I just want my drink.” I paid upfront. A tab would’ve been too much of a commitment for my liking. The beginnings of roots I had no intention of putting down in a place like this. I already felt hungover and would undoubtedly regret this later in the day.

Morning drinking is one of those cliche signs that you’ve lost control of your life. I’ve got no life to lose control of, so I ought to be alright. My eyes wandered, then came to rest on the dingy little strip club across the street.

I think it used to be a Blockbusters. They repainted but didn’t bother to change the architecture, just blacked out the windows. The sign was missing some letters, and had been for the past year. The giant pair of neon outlined cartoon tits above that communicates their value proposition clearly enough. Most of their regulars probably can’t read anyway.

A pair of surly, shirtless men with huge beer bellies were duking it out in the strip club’s parking lot. Really going at it, smashing each other’s ugly, drunken faces with their fists, a trash can lid, and at one point the hood of a parked car. I looked away, having seen that sort of thing so many times around here that it wasn’t even worth paying attention to.

I’m not an eavesdropper by nature. I could care less what anybody around me is talking about, but it’s occasionally ridiculous or outrageous enough that my ears perk up. This is how I’ve learned everything I know about how their minds work, which is more than I ever wanted to.

For one thing, there exists no semblance of critical thought in their understanding of the world. Their method for determining what’s true basically boils down to what they’ve heard other people say. The more people say the same thing, the more credible it is in their estimation.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard them breathlessly discussing obvious internet hoaxes as though they were real. Confusing satire for news, or the contents of tabloids and chain letters as if they were the products of reputable journalism.

This is how they accumulate a sort of “folk wisdom”. What “everybody knows is true”. A mishmash of politically motivated rumors, investment scams or other get rich quick nonsense, and the sort of hollow Earth, Jewish conspiracy, ancient aliens bullshit of the sort commonly discussed on Coast to Coast AM and Infowars.

Whether they believe it boils down to how cool they think it would be if true, and the degree to which it reinforces their entrenched political views...which are themselves dictated in large part by fear, selfishness and stupidity.

According to the average conversation I overhear while drinking, Obama was born in Kenya, the government puts fluoride in our water and chemtrails in the sky to dumb us down (as if these people need any help with that) anybody who’s not some sort of evangelical Christian is out to get everybody that is, and these various menaces are all somehow in cahoots with each other.

Rolling up everybody you dislike into a single vague, sinister entity as if Jews have any truck with Muslims, or atheists with either is surely simpler than forming separate opinions of each group. Which is easier still than getting to know individuals, though I suppose I’m not one to talk as I avoid that like the plague.

Topping off their list of bogeymen, there’s the feminists, the gays, the blacks, the ACLU, the government and basically any other barrier to achieving their idea of utopia; a country under the exclusive control of people who look, sound, think, dress, fuck, and smell like they do.

That’s a wonderful joke to me, because if you ask one of these creatures to list the qualities they imagine all blacks possess that they find so disagreeable, what you’ll get from them is a spot on description of themselves.

They’re disgusting, aren’t they? It can’t just be me. There are days when I wonder if I’ve judged them too harshly. This usually happens when I haven’t run into one for a while. That little shred of guilt vanishes the moment I next hear one of them speak.

“Oh ya, dem fings is real. I seen ’em” says the plump woman with the ratty blonde hair seated near me. Whoever she’s speaking to is just outside my field of vision, but I don’t care enough to turn my head. I continue listening anyway, and discover she’s talking about ghosts.

“Dey had experts on dat show, I done watched it t’other night on da Histry channel.” Oh yes, of course. The History channel. Also known as the Hitler, ghosts and aliens channel. Gotta give the people what they want, integrity be damned.

“Expert” has a very particular meaning for these people. “Scientist” is a dirty word. It has political connotations for them. It’s those damnable “government scientists” who tell them that climate change exists, that the Biblical account of human origins probably isn’t accurate, that vaccines are a necessary precaution against pathogens, that fluoride is harmless in sufficiently small amounts, etcetera.

Just a bunch of dour, humorless spoilsports in their view, whose input on any matter of emotional importance is never welcome. “Experts” are another story. That’s any white or Asian man in nice clothes who argues in favor of their own ill formed opinions, with a command of the English language far enough in advance of their own that he sounds intelligent and credible, but not so much that he comes off as snooty.

These buffoons regularly appear in so-called documentaries about the existence of mermaids, the alien origins of Bigfoot and so on with “Expert” under their names at the bottom of the screen. It’s these “experts” the locals are referring to when they use the ambiguous “they”.

As in “Did you hear that they proved the existence of Atlantis?” or “They found evidence dragons really existed back in the middle ages”. Which it turns out was the poor fellow’s interpretation of The Last Dragon, an openly fictitious mockumentary which speculates about how the anatomy of dragons might work if they existed. If.

Doesn’t matter. He saw it, it sounded serious and authoritative, so in his mind he’s got a rock solid basis for making such a claim. There’s no use arguing. He’s got that vague but convincing memory to latch onto.

Even if you take out your phone and show him the exact program he’s talking about to demonstrate for him that it was never meant to be taken as fact, he’d shrug and say something like “close enough”. As if it was a reasonable mistake anybody could’ve made, and you’re the asshole for taking it seriously enough to settle the matter.

It’s maddening and never, ever worth the hassle. When you wrestle with a pig, you both get filthy, but the pig enjoys it. I learned that the hard way when I took a night class on programming.

A well built fellow in a pink polo shirt with a popped collar was impressing the anorexic blonde with the disproportionately huge bust seated next to him by explaining that time is the fourth dimension.

Not realizing the tar baby I was about to become entangled with, I muttered that time isn’t objectively the fourth dimension (since it isn’t as though they have numbers carved into them) and that there exist spatial dimensions in excess of the three familiar to us as well, one of which could be accurately called the fourth.

He “corrected” me, citing a Michio Kaku television special he watched the night before. Didn’t matter that we could both be right. That duration can indeed be added to length, width and height as one of the metrics used to describe a solid at the same time that spatial dimensions exist in excess of the three familiar to human experience.

What mattered is that he saw something on TV which sounded credible, so he felt certain that the irritating nerd contradicting his recollection of it couldn’t possibly know better. I drew a tesseract for him. To his credit he recognized it. Most people recognize a tesseract even if they don’t know the term for it.

“This is a four dimensional cube, or at least a flat drawing of one. Yet the fourth dimension expressed here isn’t temporal, but spatial. What’s being visualized isn’t the duration of the cube, but an additional degree of extrusion.

A line is an extrusion of a point, a square is an extrusion of a line, and a cube is an extrusion of a square. When you extrude a cube, you get a tesseract. That has nothing to do with time and everything to do with space.”

He scoffed but didn’t explain why. “Whatever nerd. Just go look up what I was watching, then come back and tell me that. You think you know everything.” Of course I don’t, but this particular topic was one I happened to know something about.

His posturing further impressed the tits on a stick whose narrow white ass he’d been blowing smoke up before I made the mistake of involving myself. “Ooohhh, you’re so smaaart. You should come to my place and help me study tonight.”

Maybe I really am the fool. He was presumably balls deep in her a few hours later, while I pulled another all-nighter playing MOBAs and narrowing search results for random internet retards. If you judge a method by the results it produces, impressive sounding horseshit outperforms factual accuracy every time.

The women I did occasionally capture the interest of seemed mainly attracted to the novelty of dating somebody who could string together a coherent sentence without straining himself. I’ve got opposable thumbs, an even number of toes and all my original teeth, apparently rare and enticing qualities around these parts.

A few tugged at my heart. Tempted me to engage, to become entangled. Really sweet, bright, worthwhile girls who had the misfortune of meeting me. Of being fooled by the human shaped outer shell, mistakenly imagining there was still anything of substance left inside.

Even then, they could tell what I was turning into. I don’t blame them for leaving. If I had any scruples I would’ve warned them off myself when we met, but I didn’t. Nothing that I once liked about myself remains. It all burnt to the ground the day I received that phone call while unpacking.

When my blood alcohol level rose to the point where I could no longer silently endure the braying and bleating of barnyard animals carrying on behind me, I stumbled out through the double doors in a blinkered stupor. Is the sun always this painfully bright?

The debilitating level of intoxication made the heat and humidity surprisingly bearable. I was soon drenched with sweat but only noticed when my hand became too slippery to hold onto the bottle. Wait, I paid for the whole bottle? Shit, I’d better finish it then.

Drank too much? Drink more, that’ll fix it. Booze logic at work. I can’t say exactly how I got there, but after a long unintelligible smear of blurry scenery, I realized I was back in the field. I really ought to wear a GPS collar when I drink, so that after I sober up I can have Google Maps show me the route I took. Something like those Billy focused Family Circus comics with the dotted line all the fuck over the yard.

I concluded it was an ideal place to pass out, and was in the process of laying down when I spotted the unmarked van pulling into the parking lot at the far side of the field. I pressed down as flat as I could, but continued watching with rapt interest.

Someone must own this field after all. I worried about how they might react to finding me here, drunk and disheveled. Not for long though. Curiosity quickly supplanted fear as I watched a quartet of men in black suits, white rubber gloves and sunglasses emerge from the vehicle.

Even if I were sober, they were far enough away that I couldn’t make out what they were doing in any real detail. Whiskey goggles only added to the difficulty. What is that, I thought. What the fuck is it?

Some kind of carrion. A dead animal, about the size of a man. Too many legs though! Too many for a bear, or a deer, or anything I know about. Jet black all over. Long spindly legs dragging behind as they heaved it into a body bag, zipped it up, then loaded it into the back of the van.

Fuck me. I studied the label on the bottle but could find nothing to blame for what I’d just seen. When I looked up, one of the agents seemed to stare directly at me. I froze. He turned a few degrees. Then a few more, surveying the field for any witnesses.

Despite my drunken incompetence, just by laying flat in the tall grass, I managed to evade notice. Once fully satisfied that there were no witnesses, all four men piled into the van and drove off. Why during broad daylight? Even in such a state, that seemed odd to me.

Unless they didn’t want to risk anybody finding whatever the fuck it was that they bagged up and made off with. Didn’t want to leave it rotting out here even a second longer than necessary, heading out to retrieve it the moment somebody called it in.

Cops? No, no. FBI? Maybe. Spooks of some kind. I don’t know enough about the agencies which handle hush hush, cloak and dagger type shit to venture a guess at who employs those men. Just that they weren’t the sort of fellows I should introduce myself to.

I remained there for a time, watching for any further activity. Then I abruptly vomited, getting some on my shirt. I stood up swearing at myself, every other word slurred to the point of unintelligibility. Then it struck me.

They did it. They finally fucking did it. I’m one of the local creatures now. God damnit. Maybe this is how it happens? Maybe nobody’s actually native to this fetid swamp, the prehistoric peninsula that time forgot. Maybe they come here and begin changing. By the time they realize what’s happening, it’s too far along.

Fuck me. Fuck this place. Garbage, all of it. But I could no longer exclude myself from the mess around me. Now I’m just another figure in the background, fitting in at last when I hoped I never would. Death, take me now.

I tripped in a gopher hole and stumbled, falling to my hands and knees. When my senses returned, it took a while to fully process what was in front of me. I never really bothered to explore the whole field before this, just wandered a short ways in and laid down to watch the clouds roll by.

But now, close to dead center of the field, I found myself peering down what appeared to be a borehole of some kind. A sinkhole, maybe? Is this what they look like? Didn’t sound right. This looked excavated, not naturally formed.

It was about five feet in diameter and so deep that I couldn’t see the bottom. It just faded into inscrutable blackness after about fifty feet. If I didn’t stumble on that gopher hole, I’d probably have fallen into the much larger opening instead.

What is this? Something related to construction? That must be it. A freshly dug well, possibly. Or the early stages of a geothermal heating and cooling setup for whatever building would soon be erected here. With atypically good timing, my stomach chose this point to once again empty itself.

The remains of my liquid breakfast spiraled down into the darkness, scattering along the way into so many soupy droplets. I dry heaved a couple times, confirming that was the last of it. I then repeatedly called out into the abyss. I don’t remember exactly why. Just to listen for the echo I think.

There’s a lot I don’t remember about that day. How I wound up at the field for example. I just know that I got home somehow, because that’s where I woke up, head pounding like Michael J. Fox working a jackhammer.

The sun had already gone down. Not recently either; when I stepped outside to gauge the temperature it was chilly enough that I decided against walking it off. My cat wove between my ankles as though deliberately trying to topple me.

It’s a stretch to call Goblin “my cat”. Just a stray who tolerates me because I feed and shelter her. A scraggly little creature that I welcomed into my life because she’s cleaner and better mannered than most of the people I’ve run into since my arrival.

I spent so much time developing an immunity to human attachment that I neglected to do the same for animals. I’m helpless but to dote on this grumpy, stubborn little critter. I’m sure I’d love her less if she could speak. Makes me wonder if the locals might be rendered equally charming by a sudden outbreak of mutism.

Goblin leapt onto my lap the moment I sat down at my computer, aggressively burrowing into my jacket. She gets clingy at night. Probably less to do with affection than the fact that my body emits a good deal of heat.

What was that, I thought. What exactly was it? A jumble of half remembered sights and sounds trickled back into my mind, bit by bit, as I struggled to sort out how much of it really happened. Most of all, I felt captivated by fleeting memories of the hole.

What’s down there, I wonder. Down that hole, deep in the Earth. What could be down there? What’s down in the hole? Gotta get my thoughts under control. Clicking the time in the lower right of the screen brought up the calendar. Thursday already?

Hardly the first time my sleep cycle became inverted. Takes forever to fix it, too. I’ve read you need to stay awake until evening, resisting the urge to crash before then. I never manage. Instead, I stay awake further and further into the wee hours of the morning, falling asleep later and later in the day until I come full circle.

It’s hell on my body, and increasingly my mind as well. When a series of soft knocks came at the door, I initially ignored them under the assumption I was hallucinating. Who would visit me? I stumbled to the door and opened it just a crack.

Camille, my next door neighbor. She brought me cornbread and grits the night after I finished moving in. I ate it all, but other than that we’ve had no contact since, save for occasional glances when we both retrieve our mail at the same time.

“I don’t mean to bother you, it’s just...I never see you leave your apartment anymore. Is something wrong?” I searched for answers to that question which wouldn’t fill many volumes. “No” I grunted. She didn’t buy it, probably smelling the whisky on my breath.

“If something’s happening in your life...if you’re hurting and don’t have anybody to talk to about it, you could come see me any time you want. I don’t know anything about you, so I can’t promise I’ll know how to help, but I’m a good listener.”

I just wanted her gone. “I go for walks sometimes. Don’t worry about me.” I began to shut the door, but she wedged her foot in there. “Somebody left a thing on your door.” She carefully handed me a post-it note through the narrow opening.

Sure enough. Looked to be from the landlord, too. “...Thanks.” With that, I pushed her foot out of the opening with my own, then shut the door the rest of the way. The note expressed similar concerns about “antisocial behavior”.

Asocial rather than antisocial, surely? What is there to complain about? In most ways, I’m a model tenant. I don’t blast music at odd hours, I don’t host parties, I don’t do much of anything. If not for the light coming out of my windows at night, one could be forgiven for assuming this apartment is vacant.

The note ended with something or other about an upcoming “community party” in the “clubhouse”, the same large structure which houses the office where I signed all the necessary paperwork to move in. What “community” exactly? I just live here.

I crumpled it up and threw it in the bin on my way to the kitchen. The moment I flicked the light switch, a single cockroach fled beneath the fridge. I grimaced. Not much to speak of in the fridge except the pizza I ordered the other day.

Another cockroach crept behind the microwave the moment I spotted it. In all likelihood there were hundreds hiding in various shadowed crevices of the apartment, only emerging to scavenge while I’m sleeping.

Revolting little creatures. Slick, glossy black carapace. Slender, bristly legs upon which it skitters about while its antennae wave to and fro, tasting the air. Closely related to the praying mantis but altogether less elegant, though my opinion hardly matters as the damned things are impossible to get rid of.

I heated up a slice of pizza, scarfed it down, then chased it with an energy drink. I knew by now it’d take several hours before I felt regular, so I drew a hot bath and turned the bathroom lights off. Taking a steaming hot bath in the dark is my go-to hangover remedy.

I don’t know if it actually expedites the process, but even the meager light from the apartment’s fixtures hurt my eyes in this state. What a relief when I at last slid my weak, pale body into the steaming tub. At once I felt the tension in my limbs begin to dissolve. Works every time, though lately it seems like it’s growing less potent.

Goblin pushed her head against the door until it swung open just far enough for her to enter. The gap in the door cast a long, narrow strip of light across the floor and up the wall. I grumbled but didn’t want to leave the warmth of the bath to close it.

Besides, I knew she’d just want to be on the other side of it a minute later. She rubbed up against the door frame, yowling intermittently. “Singing the song of her people” I call it. Even with the door open, she couldn’t decide which side of it she wanted to be on.

Just then, something passed by outside the door. I didn’t get a good look, only what I could see of it through the narrow opening. A bizarre, tangled, impossible silhouette...My second sighting, though I didn’t yet realize it.

Terror gripped my heart. Burglars? A wild animal? Camille? None matched whatever I glimpsed a moment earlier. So I stepped out of the bath, wrapped a towel around my waist and warily emerged to investigate.

The front door hung open. Muddy tracks stained the carpet, shaped nothing like the sole of any shoe I’ve seen. I did a quick inventory of my belongings but found nothing missing. Only then did I notice the cat was gone.

Must’ve been a vagrant who broke in meaning to rob the place, too fucked up on meth or whatever else to actually carry it out. Or maybe he spotted me in the tub and booked it, having wrongly assumed the apartment was empty on his way in.

No sense going out looking for the cat. In all likelihood she hauled ass out the door when the burglar broke in, and would be too spooked to show herself for a day or two. I considered calling the cops, but didn’t want the hassle or prolonged interaction.

I considered notifying the landlord, but he’d just call the cops himself and I’d wind up having to go through all that tedium anyway. Instead I set a dish of food just outside in case Goblin came back while I was sleeping, propped a chair against the door from the inside, then climbed into bed.

Sleep didn’t come easily. I had to get up twice to puke into the toilet, after which I started having hot and cold flashes. Absolute misery. Must be coming down with something. For an hour or so I just couldn’t get warm no matter what I did.

Then for the next hour, I overheated even after stripping down and throwing off the covers. Nothing in the medicine cabinet looked appropriate for my symptoms. Nothing to be done except try to get as much sleep as possible, and hope I felt better come morning.

But when I next awoke it was not to a clear head, nor to the rising sun. Instead I awoke to the feeling of some heavy, ungainly creature perched on my back, pinning me down. My heart pounded, but before I could cry out or fight it, something pierced the back of my neck.

Whatever it injected made me go limp. I was still fully conscious but paralyzed as a second horrid monstrosity, obscured by the darkened room, loaded me onto the first creature’s back. I could feel it struggle somewhat to bear me along. Perhaps it normally targets smaller prey.

Even if I could move, I wouldn’t have been able to free myself. I was bound to its sleek, segmented carapace with some sort of sticky fiber. My mind raced feverishly, trying to work out what the fuck it was, where it came from and where it could be taking me.

A nameless fear silently gestated within my chest...one I dare not believe in until we reached the field. The moon loomed large overhead as the chittering, crawling beast beneath me made its way to the center of the field. Then down into the great, gaping hole.

Blood rushed to my head as we descended into the Earth. A starry patch of night sky, framed by the mouth of the hole, was the last thing I saw before I blacked out. Indeterminable hours passed while shadowy forms swirled about my subconscious.

I next awoke on the agonizingly cold, rough stone floor of a cavern. The ceiling was also roughly hewn grey stone, stalactites descending from it here and there. The first thing I did was check my body for injury.

I hurt all over, but that was mostly down to sleeping in an odd position on such an unforgivingly hard surface. My pale, clammy skin was marked all over with numerous cuts, scrapes and bruises...but nothing serious.

No broken bones, no sprains even. It surprised me to wind up at the bottom of a hole in such good condition until I remembered how I got there. I scrambled to my feet, whirling this way and that, searching the darkness around me for any sign of the creatures.

I found none in my immediate vicinity. But I did find five more naked, frightened looking hostages. Prisoners? I couldn’t yet say anything with certainty about the reason for our abduction. Only one made eye contact. A few stared silently into the distance, knees to their chests, slowly rocking.

Others lay curled up in the fetal position with their eyes closed, murmuring softly to themselves. All of them were situated around the edge of a natural pit in the floor, perhaps fifteen feet across, filled nearly to the brim with oily black syrup.

Directly above the pool, faint rays of morning sunshine radiated from a hole in the ceiling. The one I was brought here through, no doubt in my mind. The light was just enough to dimly illuminate the pool and a modest area around it.

Try as I might, I couldn’t stop shivering. My teeth chattered too, as did those of the fellow nearest me. “Wh-what is this?” I stammered. “Where are we?” He just kept staring at me, arms wrapped around his knees as he violently shivered.

I searched in vain for some sort of weapon. Something sharp, or something that would make for a serviceable club. Nothing to be had but other people. Frightened, naked masses of humanity, huddled together beneath the only source of light as moths might circle a flame.

My next thought was where my phone wound up. Would it even work this far underground? As I ventured further and further from the light’s edge in search of it, I realized nobody would come looking for me.

Nobody. I’d set up my life just about perfectly in order to wind up missing without anybody who lives in the same complex even realizing it. My family back home would be the first to know I’d gone missing. Camille, if not for them. Then the landlord would take notice when I don’t pay rent.

My stomach sank as I entertained, for the first time, the notion that I might be down here long enough for that to occur. So cold! I returned to the meager patch of damp grey cavern floor around the pool which the sunlight illuminated.

It was some small comfort to feel sunshine on my skin. Small then. I didn’t yet know, you see. Probe as I might into the darkness I could find no walls to this cavern and thus, no tunnels through which I might return to the surface.

I grew more and more frantic until the fellow I’d first made eye contact with seized me by the wrist. “Settle down. We tried that already. Don’t you think we tried? That was the first thing.” The blackness encroached so snugly against the edges of the light, with a nearly palpable presence.

“What is any of this?” I begged. “Where the fuck are we?” He motioned for me to sit down. “At the bottom of the hole, of course. They brought you down here like the rest of us. Although probably you were on your way down here anyhow.”

He handed me something resembling beef jerky. I accepted, though under the circumstances I had no intention of eating it, and asked what he meant by “on my way”. He reclined with suspicious calmness, slipping his legs into the bubbling black sludge.

“You were unloved, weren’t you. But that’s no crime in itself! Countless tiny little beetles, spiders and worms go through life unloved simply because nobody notices them. But you also didn’t love anybody yourself, am I right?”

He actually waited for me to say something, so I told him none of this babble got us any closer to the surface and that we should be collaborating to find a way out of this damp, horrible pit. “Probably not for lack of love thrown your way if I had to guess” he added.

I took him by the shoulders. “What the fuck are you talking about? We need to get out of here! If we climb on one another’s backs we might be able to-” He stopped me there. “Nope, that’s why there’s five of us. We can’t even reach the cavern ceiling with just five. That’s why they don’t bring more at once.”

Tears began to flow, though I was so numb I didn’t realize it until some wound up in my mouth. “They? What the fuck are you talking about? You, me and the others? Who is “they”? You’re crazy. We need to get out of here!”

I tried without avail to rouse the others. Catatonic for the most part, or violent when touched. Nobody else would speak to me or even so much as look at me. It seemed like my only option, if I meant to make it out of here, was to cooperate with a madman.

“Listen. Maybe you’re right about me. Is that what you want to hear? Alright, nobody liked me. I didn’t ask them to. I’m not asking you to like me now. I don’t fucking want to run for mayor, I just want to get out of this pit I woke up in. I just want to get out.”

He wore an expression I’ve seen so rarely before that I can’t place it. Smiling, but mournful, as if I said something tragically stupid that I don’t yet realize the larger meaning of. “You could’ve made some effort you know. Cautious, friendly feelers were extended in your direction. Only to be stepped on.”

No, fuck this. I shoved him away and resumed patrolling the edge of the light. “It isn’t any use. There’s nothing but darkness in every direction, forever. It has you now, all over and done with the moment you crossed the threshold. The sooner you accept that, the better.”

I shouted obscenities at him. As if that would make him wrong. As if it would suddenly reveal some hidden passage to the surface that I somehow missed until then. Of course it didn’t, only more blackness.

Worse still, once I ventured far enough from the sunlit pool, I nearly lost sight of it. That’s when I first realized that the ever-present darkness down here isn’t simply darkness. There’s substance to it, like a thick fog. I couldn’t see but twenty or so feet ahead of me in any direction!

Fear led me straight back to the sunlit pool over and over. There was simply nowhere else to go but into darkness. Into the unknown. Right then I desperately wanted comfort, and the only comfort available was the faint warmth of sunlight on my skin. How I came to cherish it.

The light isn’t always your friend, though. I didn’t realize it was preventing my eyes from properly adjusting until, on one of my longer ventures into the darkness, I first spotted one. Well, the fourth time really, if you want to pick at nits.

Something like a gargantuan earwig, easily seven feet long. Or cockroach? It had anatomical features of both, as well as immense compound eyes. I gasped and took a few steps backward. It shifted subtly as though uncertain what I’d do next, but not afraid of me.

It was hideous and altogether alien. I mean, it looks like many other common insects I was no doubt surrounded with daily back on the surface, I just don’t normally see them so close up. At this scale, they make a lot of the same sounds any other animal makes. At least the ones related to breathing.

It grunted, issuing a billowy cloud of stench from its huge, bristly mouth parts. Now more fascinated than fearful, I studied the beast more closely. Only for two more just like it to approach on either side.

When I didn’t retreat on my own, the three of them began advancing on me. Shepherding me, slowly but surely, back into the light. Once I complied, they withdrew into the shadowy fog. Skitter, skitter, inch by inch, until I could no longer discern even their silhouettes. They melted right into it, as if they’re simply solid forms which the darkness takes on whenever necessary.

I didn’t stray for a long time after that. They’d be looking for me now. If I meant to escape, it would have to be the way I came. As I sat there by the pool, deep in thought, I noticed the poor demented fellow from earlier rubbing black slime on his arm.

“What is that stuff?” He turned very slowly to meet my gaze, smiling softly. Just once it’d be nice to see him frown, given the circumstances. “Nothing” he responded. “Does wonders for cuts and scrapes though. Not much point, but I like to stay pretty in between.”

In between? Between what? I brushed it off as so much nonsense. But as I watched, everywhere he covered a wound in the black slime, he then wiped it away to reveal unblemished pale skin. That much, I could not chalk up to his mental condition.

Is it really possible? I assumed the black slime was just runoff or something. Maybe the pit was used for dumping toxic waste at one point. I leaned in to study the gently bubbling surface of the noxious brew more closely. Within it, countless tiny wriggling creatures swam to and fro.

Tadpoles? Not quite. I picked one out of the goo and examined it. Once wiped clean, I discovered it was bone white and resembled a spermatozoa. “Oh don’t manhandle those” the other fellow babbled. “They’re what makes it all work. If they catch you hurting one…”

I didn’t need to be told twice, depositing the writhing, slithery little thing back into the putrid soup it came from. The light by this point was noticeably dimmer. The sun must be setting topside. Opposite me, the rest all huddled together.

“Do you want in on this or don’t you?” I asked what they were doing. “What you’d be doing if you were smart. You think it’s cold now, wait till the sun’s down. All we’ve got for warmth in this deep, black pit is each other. Last chance.”

I declined, opting instead to curl up on the hard, damp, cold cavern floor. I didn’t know these people and had my doubts about their sanity. Even in a place like this, I wasn’t about to let a bunch of naked strangers spoon me.

There was just no getting comfortable. I couldn’t stop shivering, and no patch of cavern floor was any better or worse than any of the others I tried. However I curled up, it did nothing to warm my body, as I had no blanket or anything else to cover myself with.

I lay there for a time, propped up against the base of a fractured stalagmite. Fresh tears retread the paths laid down my face by those before them. This can’t be the rest of my life, can it? There has to be a way out of here.

Somehow I actually managed to fall asleep like that. The others were by that time already sound asleep in their great, fleshy pile. I began to wonder if I might’ve made the wrong choice by turning them down earlier.

It didn’t make much difference when the bugs came for us. Just that most of the food was neatly piled up for them, that’s all. I only realized what was happening because they tore into the others first. But before I could get up and run, two of the bugs pinned me.

What follows remains the most excruciating pain of my life. I felt nerves and muscle tearing as they pulled my leg out of it’s socket, then ripped it free from my body. Blood gushed out of the ragged stump as two more fought over the freshly severed leg.

I couldn’t form words. Not that they could understand it if I begged them to stop eating me alive. It’s something that almost every living creature experiences, but which humans are uniquely safe from thanks to modern civilization. Except for certain unusual situations of course.

It turns out one of those situations is being devoured by giant insects as you scream until hoarse, blood bubbling up in your throat. My arm was the next to go. The still unbearable pain from before muted it somewhat, but I still threw up in shock when they ripped my arm off.

The sickening crack of splintering bone followed. Then eager slurping sounds as they separated the parts of the limb they wished to eat from the parts they didn’t, mandibles furiously moving about almost too quickly to see.

Soon their heads were absolutely caked with my blood. It dripped from every bristle, collected beneath their massive bulbous eyes, then pooled under them on the cavern floor below. I felt myself losing consciousness just as the creatures, apparently finished feasting on me, dumped my remains into the pit of black stuff.

This is it, I thought. Of all the possible ways to die...but at least it’s over. I readily sucked the foul, soupy fluid into my lungs. Drowning is an unexpectedly painful way to die, but after what just happened it felt downright merciful.

Then I woke up. Still immersed, disoriented but somehow with all of my limbs restored. I swam desperately for the surface, and upon reaching it, gasped for air. Once I made it to the edge and pulled myself out, I sputtered in disbelief.

When you wake up after something like that, it’s either very good or very bad. In this place I could hardly imagine it meant anything good. I hurriedly examined the parts of my own body I’m able to see for any sign of injury. Nothing!

I spit out as much of the black goo as I could, then put two fingers down my throat. The rest of it came up shortly after that. The fellow from the other day laughed at me, still smug when I turned to glare at him. “What the fuck was that!?” I shouted. “...You know, don’t you.”

He urged me to keep my voice down, explaining that loud noises agitate the creatures. “Easy fella. It was jarring the first time it happened to me, too.” So it really happened? I demanded to know how I could be not just alive, but physically intact after those things gorged on my flesh.

“I told you how the slime works, didn’t I?” He gestured to my hand as I wiped more of the sticky black shit off my body with it. “They come after the sun goes down. They feast. The black pool revives us, regenerates us...so they can come and feast again the following night.”

I thought I already understood what my life would be, even if I didn’t want to accept it. But as he spoke, the rest of the grisly ‘big picture’ slowly unfolded before me. It can’t be. Can it? The evidence of my senses told me so, but my mind stubbornly rejected the unbearable implications.

They’re farming us. Has to be. Not exactly, but something close. There’s no need to breed us with one another, not when they’ve got this black pool to dump us into when they’re done feasting. We’ll just come out good as new, every time....almost, anyway.

I’ll never really get used to being eaten alive night after night, but after the first couple times I grew accustomed enough that I wasn’t afraid of it anymore. It became part of the rhythm by which I marked the passage of days.

As I carved another notch into the base of the broken stalagmite I was using as a calendar, my hand itched. But when I scratched at the itchy spot, the feeling only intensified, so I took a closer look. I found the beginnings of a fingernail sprouting from just beneath one of my knuckles.

I balked. But sure enough, that’s what it was. I had enough to worry about already, so I ignored it for the time being. On my way back to the sunlit pool, I tripped over something which I discovered, upon bringing it into the light with me, was my own bloody femur.

I gagged and dropped it in fright. It became real for me then. Completely, unreservedly. I’d just held my own remains, there was no longer room for doubt. That’s when I at last accepted that I was down here for the long haul, not just until some miraculous escape opportunity presented itself.

That’s a terrible habit to fall into. Thinking of yourself as the main character in a story, who can therefore never come to serious harm. “I don’t know how I’ll make it out of this” you might think, “but it’ll be okay.” Not because it necessarily will, but because the alternative is too distressing to contemplate.

I’m not going to be okay. I will never be okay again. My future, so far as I could tell, would be a possibly never-ending cycle of feasting and rejuvenation that I could imagine no escape from. So, I began at least trying to make myself as comfortable as possible.

No easy task, given how little I had to work with. But the bugs left scraps of my skin behind that I soon realized I could tan in the sunlight. I used my own urine in place of tannic acid as I once read you can make salmon leather that way. The only alternative was to make stiff rawhide which wouldn’t be much use.

It was a complete disaster the first few times I tried it. But that gave me time to strategize. If I pinned one of my arms or legs beneath a sizable rock just before they came to feast, more often than not it was still there after I pulled myself from the black pool.

That gave me much larger contiguous pieces of skin to work with. That, plus an increasingly refined tanning methodology, soon produced usable pieces of leather. I noticed in the process that two of the others, who never acknowledged me until now, were closely studying how I went about it.

I asked what they wanted, but got no response. So I just kept at it until I had enough for a blanket. It was promptly stolen from me. I made another in the same way, and another, until they had all the blankets they wanted. Only then was I left alone with mine.

Eventually I had enough for crude but serviceable garments. The others were routinely collecting their own remains by this point, copying the tactics they saw me use to trick the bugs into leaving whole limbs behind.

It didn’t do much to keep me warm, but having clothes to wear restored some meager feeling of control over my own life. Even though every night, I could do nothing else but disrobe and stack all of it beneath a nearby rock if I wanted it to still be there the following morning.

What a strange feeling, to wear your own skin. I suppose I always have...just not so indirectly. Indignity upon indignity, though of course that was far from the worst of it. The days blew by in this manner as I continued stockpiling my remains, this time in order to fashion weapons from the bones.

But at the same time, I noticed my body changing. Not at a linear rate either, but with accelerating severity. First it was the fingernail under my knuckle, which then sprouted into an entire additional finger. Then I found a new eyeball just above my right nipple which I could actually see out of.

The human brain isn’t wired properly for more than two eyes, so I kept it shut most of the time as otherwise it was nauseating. Just a bandage on a gaping wound, which only further widened by the minute. Teeth appeared on one of my shoulders, eventually forming into an eyeless set of jaws.

My hair started falling out. Slowly enough at first that I wondered if perhaps it might be down to the stress. But before long I was totally bald, and could feel that even my cranium was starting to change shape.

I fretted and wailed, realizing that not even the purity and self consistency of my body would be spared, but it made as little difference as ever. The bugs still came to feast every evening, and I still dragged my drenched body out of the black pool every morning like clockwork.

I estimate a month went by, give or take, before I changed so much that the bugs no longer recognized me as human. The others aren’t as far along and have shunned me due to my comparatively more grotesque form.

The fools. They don’t realize they’ll be like me soon. If I’d known on my first night what I knew now, I might’ve sought closeness with them. That ship has sailed, hardly the first I’ve watched indifferently from the shores even before I wound up here.

It didn’t stop the bugs from feasting on me. However, when I next strayed from the sunlit area surrounding the pool, they didn’t come to shoo me back towards it. It was the first significant change in their behavior I’d so far witnessed, so it stuck out in my mind.

It only took the next feasting cycle to convince me it was worth it to press further into the darkness. Whatever I might find out there, it had to be better than this. There’s not much I can think of, however foul, that doesn’t beat being torn apart and eaten by giant insects.

So, upon dragging myself out of the black pool the next morning and scrubbing my body as best I could, I set off into the shadows. Not hoping for escape, as by then I’d given up on it, but for change. Any change at all to the usual cycle.

I’ve changed enough now that I don’t fear the unknown anymore. I am the unknown. Maybe that’s how it happens for anyone. There’s not likely to be anything out there, hiding in the darkness, that’s worse than me. So I left the others behind.

Despite my convictions, I felt foolish walking away from the only guaranteed light and warmth in this place that I knew of. What if the darkness really does go on forever? Without the black pool to regenerate me, wouldn’t I simply starve to death after a while?

But even that was preferable to business as usual. I didn’t even look back, no sense in inviting temptation. I found myself wishing for a mirror as I walked. The only sense I had of how advanced my mutation had thus far come were the parts of my own body I could see, and the reactions of the others.

I had nothing resembling skin anymore, except on my face. Instead, my limbs were chitinous. An exoskeleton. Not quite insectoid, still flesh colored, but also unmistakably inhuman. The movement of my elbows and knee joints now felt almost mechanical, as did the movement of individual fingers.

Oh, those fingers. They’d grown so long and spindly since I arrived. The tips, now hard and pointed, were coated in countless tiny little bristles that were very sensitive indeed. What would’ve become of me if I stayed by the pool?

No way of knowing, and no intention to ever find out. But based on the changes to my body, I could work it out for myself. This must be how they increase their numbers, by this gradual metamorphosis from human to insect. For what purpose?

With no sense of their intelligence, it was enough to assume they were simply pursuing an instinctual drive to continue their species. When they herded me back into the light, it suggested some rudimentary intellect...but even ants deliberately farm other insects.

I almost wished I’d stuck around to observe their behavior more thoroughly. I couldn’t make myself go back out of curiosity though, I knew enough about them by now to stay the fuck away. I just kept walking until exhaustion forced me to collapse and sleep, then continued when I next awoke.

That is, until I reached the end of the darkness. I can’t really wrap my head around how there could be a physically discrete end to it, but there was. When I passed out of that wispy black fog, I suddenly witnessed something so beautiful to me that I struggle to describe it. A sight I dared not hope for all this time.

Freedom...of a sort. There had never been any cavern walls. I could now see that the cavern floor and ceiling didn’t come together anywhere, standing awestruck at the very edge of what I’d assumed until then was a subterranean cavity.

Where is this? How can all of this be at the bottom of some random hole in a field? A vast expanse of faint white fog spread out in front of me, punctuated by split stone pillars. Natural formations near as I could tell, if improbably regular in their distribution and proportions. It struck me as similar to a forest of petrified tree trunks, shrouded in luminous white mist.

The pillars were clustered closely enough together that I could faintly make out movement in the one nearest me. The two halves of the pillar almost came together but not quite, leaving a thin sliver of open space between them.

By my estimation, about the same distance as there was from the floor of the “cavern” I now stood in and the ceiling. That’s when it dawned on me. I was currently standing within one of those split stone pillars. The space where they don’t quite meet.

It was never anything like a cavern. Am I even underground? What is all of this? What the fuck is it? How can it be here? As if to underscore my confusion, a flock of winged insects lazily passed in the distance, changing direction as a unified swarm in the manner I remembered seeing birds do it.

Those memories already felt like a lifetime ago. Back when I still thought this was only a hole in the middle of a field. Confronted by overwhelming proof to the contrary, all I could do was stand there, dumbstruck by all of it.

If this was all inside of a much larger cavern, I could see no signs of it. No rocky floor or ceiling were discernible on account of the white fog. The visibility was much better than the black fog, such that I could see even relatively distant split pillars. So if there actually are a floor and ceiling, they must be extremely far above and below me respectively.

The pillars must connect to something though, surely? Bit by bit, I pieced together in my mind a rough idea of how this place must be structured. Imagining then that it was possible for me to fully understand it, or that it couldn’t still surprise me.

The flock drew closer. I didn’t realize I was in any danger until it was nearly upon me. I threw myself to the ground just in time to avoid being knocked out as the swarm rushed overhead. They took up roost on the ceiling, clinging to stalactites.

Sensing an opportunity, I picked up a rock and threw it at one of them. Startled, it fell from its perch and I lunged at it. Wrestling something so vile, with so many bristly legs isn’t my idea of a good time. But once I tired it out, it grudgingly accepted its new passenger.

The winged bug proved much more docile than the ones which tended to the “cattle” at the sunlit pool. By tugging at clusters of long bristles behind its eyes I found I could steer it much as you would a horse. I had some doubts as to whether it could still fly with my added weight.

Those doubts were put to rest as it took flight, wings beating deafeningly to either side of me. I panicked as I had no idea how to direct it while airborne, but it seemed to instinctively maintain the appropriate altitude for traveling between the empty spaces which bisect the stone pillars.

Like countless little worlds unto themselves. Or islands in a sea of clouds. No telling what I’d find in the next one, but all I dared hope for was that it would be different from what I left behind. The next split pillar loomed larger and larger as I approached.

But something else also came into view. Just a massive, faint silhouette at first, which grew gradually more solid and clear. Even when I could see it properly, I couldn’t make sense of it. Something like a biological blimp?

The gas bag was covered in huge bioluminescent, transparent bubble-like pustules. Dozens of long, thin tendrils dangled from the creature’s body, like those of a jellyfish. Winged bugs buzzed around it, helplessly attracted to the light emitted by the pustules.

What is it? What could it possibly be? I had to get a closer look. A bulging cluster of what I assumed were vital organs dangled beneath the gas sack. On the tail end was a sail-like fin I assumed it flapped from side to side for thrust.

Without warning, the instant I flew close enough, one of the tendrils whipped towards me. In the split second before it impaled my winged mount, I noticed the tips were sharply pointed. I tumbled off its back...right into the open edge of the split pillar.

I blacked out on impact. Death, finally. But of course, I couldn’t escape so easily. Instead I awoke with a pounding head, coated in both the winged bug’s blood and some of my own. The creature which stood over me, studying my wounds with apparent concern, was at least as mutated as I.

He looked gaunt and white as driven snow, his mouth a ring of sharp little teeth with nothing resembling a lower jaw. Quite like the mouth of a lamprey eel. He was covered all over in weeping sores and his left leg terminated in a stump that apparently wouldn’t regenerate for some reason, but he could prop himself upright nonetheless.

He did this using a fleshy, pulsating trunk of flesh which sprouted from the left side of his head and neck, then extended down to the ground, terminating in something like a betentacled round foot. Despite myself, I recoiled from the sight.

Surely I’m no less disgusting by now. This new creature, formerly as human as I was, continued to study me for a time. I sensed no hostility from it, only curiosity. Then it spoke. It startled me, even though I knew of no reason it shouldn’t be able to.

I live in a world of monsters now, where I can assume nothing about anyone. Even the bugs may be brighter than they seem. It spoke with a man’s voice, asking if I could walk. I found I could stand alright but I’d landed on my arm, which felt as if I must’ve broken it in several places.

Shooting pain nearly made me collapse, but the stranger came to my aid, holding me on my feet. I mistook it for kindness until he slipped a leathery loop of rope around my neck. I pulled away and tried to flee, but it only tightened as he yanked me back.

“What do you want from me?” He told me I couldn’t be trusted yet. That I might be dangerous, but that if I came quietly he could heal my injuries. I grudgingly obeyed, taking note along the way that the rope had the same consistency as my garments.

The entire time I was on the lookout for opportunities to slip my bonds and make a run for it. But once we reached the middle of the pillar, such thoughts immediately evaporated. Before me stood a dingy white fortress, walls made of rough, pale bricks. Once we got close enough to examine them, the main doors turned out to be fashioned from bones, lashed together with leathery cord.

“I don’t understand. There’s no black fog here. Where I came from, there was this dense black fog everywhere.” He explained that the black fog is an illusion meant to keep us from straying too far from the “rejuvenation pits”, as he called them.

“Once you crossed the boundary, it no longer had any hold on you. So the illusion fell away. That’s also how the rest of us escaped.” The rest of us? He swung the door open and my jaw dropped. There was an entire village inside, populated with all manner of partially metamorphosed monstrosities like us.

The absolute last thing I expected to encounter down here was any semblance of civilization. As he led me inside, I studied the various tents distributed throughout the interior of the fortress. The tent poles were all fashioned from bone, the fabric was predictably the same sort of leather I’d fashioned my garments from.

“This is incredible. How did you build all this?” He pointed to one of the mutants, currently busy pouring steaming white sludge into brick shaped molds. “The bricks are made from powdered bone, bound together with an adhesive made from boiled ligaments. Our own remains, fished out of the black jelly.”

Indeed, there was a pit of black goo in the center of the settlement with a shaft above it. I stopped in my tracks, but he reassured me we were safe. I didn’t believe him until he led me to a stable, also made from lashed together bones, in which several bugs were restrained.

Another monstrosity milked the abdomen of the nearest bug. It secreted familiar black sludge into a bowl fashioned from the top half of a human skull. “You’ve...been down here a while” I muttered, “haven’t you.” He stared wistfully into space. “We all have.”

I then asked why they didn’t simply build a structure with which to reach the surface. “No need. We can just ride the bugs. That’s how we conduct raids of the surface to bring back more food for the captive insects.”

I choked. “You what? You mean to tell me you bring innocent strangers down here and feed them to those things?” He didn’t take kindly to being judged. “We’re just making the best of a bad situation. Same as you were before I found you, isn’t that right?”

I insisted it wasn’t remotely comparable. “After all you’ve been through, how could you subject other people to it?” He assumed a subtly defensive posture. “Who said anything about people? If you saw them yourself, you wouldn’t...Look, there’s a lot you don’t know about this place. You’ll understand if you go up the shaft.”

In order to do that, I first had to fix my arm. This entailed biting down on a piece of leather as one of the villagers amputated it with a saw which was itself carved from bone. After that, I submerged myself up to the neck in their black pool. When I emerged, my arm had fully regrown.

The next step was to request permission from their leader. They warned me before entering his tent, the largest and most ornate of the bunch, that he’s suffered more mutation than any of them. It turned out to be a severe understatement.

The tent interior was dark enough that I could barely make him out. Or her. No way to tell until it spoke. But even when the first words escaped its convoluted mouthparts, it was too far abstracted from human vocal patterns to say anything concrete about who or what this creature was before the bugs did their thing.

“Why have you come here” it gurgled. I explained everything as best I could remember, from the day that I saw the suited men removing the insectoid remains to present. “...I see. Do you come from another settlement?” I shook my head and described the time I spent by the sunlit pool with the others.

The mountainous, jiggling mass of mismatched body parts released a guttural sight. “Primitives. How I hoped you had resources to pool with ours. No matter. I’m told you don’t yet comprehend where you are. What it is that you’re inside of.”

I disputed that, describing the cosmology of this place I had so far worked out in my head. “Still just a glimpse” it insisted. “You have my permission to ascend the shaft and see for yourself. Then you’ll understand.”

That’s all I needed to hear. Soon I’d be back home. None of this would matter. I wouldn’t need to understand anything more about this place if I could escape it! The hobbling creature with the lamprey mouth then led me to the center of the settlement.

Another of the mutants brought me a docile bug fit with a saddle and reins. I was offered brief lessons in how to ride it but I declined, eager to be on my way. With a little experimentation I worked out on my own how to control the beast. Gripping the edges of its carapace tightly to avoid falling off, I rode it up the nearest wall of the fortress and onto the rocky ceiling.

I then made my way to the bottom end of the shaft. What exhilaration when I passed over the rim and began ascending it! At last, a way out of this fucking nightmare. On and on it went, the tiny speck of light in the distance growing ever larger along the way.

The closer I got, the more the texture of the tunnel around me changed. Where it had been rocky at the bottom of the shaft, it now transitioned gradually into a soft, undulating, fleshy material I couldn’t guess at the nature of. Nor did I particularly care, so long as I could leave it behind and return to a normal life.

I emerged onto the roof of a rusty, circular iron building of some kind. All manner of pipes and clunky air circulation machines surrounded me. When I looked back at the tunnel I stepped out of, I nearly collapsed in shock.

It wasn’t an opening in the Earth, but the orifice of an unfathomably long, thick tendril which trailed up into the sky. When my eyes followed it up to its source, just as promised, I at once understood. The entire sky was blocked out by a massive, pale, veiny creature.

Jet black eyes all over its surface from horizon to horizon periodically opened and closed. “What the fuck is that thing” I thought. “What holds it up?” As I scanned my surroundings I realized this was just one of thousands of towers, densely clustered, blanketing the landscape in every direction as far as the eye could see.

No grass or trees anywhere. Just endless rusty machinery, pipelines snaking across barren, rocky terrain from one tower to the next. It was bitterly cold, so it must’ve been fumes in the air rather than heat which made distant towers appear hazy. Everything further than a mile away shimmered subtly, like a mirage.

I began coughing erratically as the thick air pollution invaded my lungs. My eyes were also beginning to water. Everywhere I looked I saw another thick fleshy tendril, like the one I emerged from, reaching down to the top level of every other tower. Where am I? There’s no place like this on Earth that I know of.

Rather than wait to be seen, or worse, captured, I headed back into the tendril’s orifice. I didn’t especially want to, having just seen what it’s attached to, but I still meant to return home somehow. “This just wasn’t the right way” I told myself.

The transition was reversed this time, fleshy walls slowly hardening into stone as I progressed. Gravity also changed direction along the way, something I failed to notice before as the excitement of escape consumed me.

But there would be no escape for me. At least not that easily. When I arrived at the bottom of the shaft, my disfigured friend with the eel mouth was waiting for me. I can’t readily interpret his expressions, but he did look more than a little smug.

“Do you see now?” he asked as I dismounted the bug and led it back to the stable. “I’m not really sure what I saw” I confessed, “but whatever we’re inside of is alive.” He nodded soberly. “A form of life which dwells natively in interdimensional space. Having evolved to such a size that even all of the life on a single planet cannot sustain it, instead it connects itself to countless different places and times in order to feed.”

It made sense of what I saw. I also had no reason to doubt any of it, given that even my immediate surroundings would’ve been unbelievable to me before I was abducted. He went on to explain that the black stuff is what it uses to digest nutrients, as well as serving a purpose similar to blood.

“The insects exist in symbiosis with the larger organism, capturing prey which they divide more or less evenly with their host. Their larvae gestate within the jelly, entering the bodies of those rejuvenated by it, transforming them.”

I knew that much. Still, every time I thought I finally grasped the scale of my environment and the severity of my situation, it only expanded further. “...Is there any way to kill it?” He shook his head mournfully.

“In all of our searches we’ve found nothing resembling a brain, a heart or other organs. It could be that they’re further down, towards the core. Or it could be that the portion of the organism we inhabit is only the part which intersects with three dimensional space.”

I couldn’t accept it. Something of this nature couldn’t be allowed to go on living, given how it nourishes itself. “Can individual openings be blocked, or destroyed?” He confirmed it, but added that the creature could simply withdraw that tendril and connect to some other point on the planet.

“There is no hope for creatures of our size to kill the thing we’re standing in now, any more than a few ants could kill you. But there is still hope that you might return home, if you remember which of the shafts you were brought here through.” In fact I didn’t. I’d been in such a hurry to leave that place, I just headed straight for the nearest pillar with no thought of how to return.

I calmed down somewhat when I realized it had to be one of the immediately adjacent pillars. So long as I didn’t lose track of this one, I could simply check the pillars around it one at a time until I found the one I came here from.

At their leader’s insistence, I put that off until the next day. Insofar as there’s such a thing as a “day” down here. When it came time to sleep, the lights were covered with leathery hoods. There was no obvious source of electricity. When I took a closer look at one of the lights, it was just a translucent sack of bioluminescent vapor they must’ve harvested from that blimp-like creature.

I felt reluctant to make myself vulnerable to a bunch of strangers. Hideous, deformed ones at that. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the distinction between them and myself existed only in my mind. I’m just as strange as they are. Or as normal, in another sense.

As I settled into the bed, though it was fashioned from bones and cushioned with leather I knew all too well the probable source of, I couldn’t help but be delighted by how comfortable it was. By comparison with sleeping on cold, damp rock anyway.

It was the closest thing to real, physical comfort I’d felt since before the abduction. How incredible that such different creatures from such different backgrounds, possibly even different planets of origin, could come together and put their literal blood, sweat and tears into improving one another’s lives.

I surprised myself by choking up as I thought about it. Then once more when I found myself thinking of Camille. I couldn’t exactly say why, but neither could I stop picturing her. Recalling the home cooked meal she brought me when I moved in, or how she came to check on me the night of my abduction.

At least I spared the poor girl. At least she didn’t get tangled up with such a trainwreck of a person. My thoughts then turned to Shawna. That’s her name, surely? I could have at least bothered to learn that much about her. What I wouldn’t give to crack jokes with her now.

What I wouldn’t give to have it all back for that matter. Any of it, really. To see the sun, the trees and the clouds. Even a swamp! How I wished to smell the air again. What a fool I was to turn my nose up at it, simply for not being exactly what I prefer.

The possibility that it could all be taken away so abruptly never crossed my mind back then. That I might one day be plunged into a world of darkness and despair, where even the most frivolous aspects of the world I once knew would become my fondest memories.

I cried hot, salty tears while wishing desperate, impossible wishes. To have my old body back. My old life. It wasn’t that bad, was it? No it wasn’t. I only isolated myself because of a broken heart. All the while, ignoring people who might’ve helped me fix it...because they weren’t her.

If only I had another chance, I’d make things right. Those beautiful, friendly people with their shining faces. They’re not monsters. I was the real monster, even before this. What poor fortune those girls had, in particular, to meet me.

I think that’s why I never pursued Camille. She was just such a sweetheart, I didn’t want to poison her. Didn’t want her heart to become polluted upon contact with my own. Thank goodness I’m out of her life now.

When at last I drifted off, shadowy forms once again swirled about my subconscious. But this time, they began to coalesce into something. More and more solid, until I recognized it as Camille. Soft, gentle, sultry. Beckoning to me.

I tried to apologize for everything, but she put a finger to my lips. Then replaced it with her own. How I longed for it all this time without even realizing what I wanted. Perhaps not allowing myself to. Then I felt a strange sensation in my throat.

Before I could react, something wriggled up my throat, through my parted lips and into Camille’s mouth. She withdrew, choking. I tried to help her as she collapsed, but her convulsions only grew more violent. Finally she lay still.

When I felt for a heartbeat, her eyes and mouth suddenly opened and cockroaches poured out. I cried out in terror and fell backwards. The shiny, crawling black torrent just continued to issue forth, leaving behind only an empty Camille-shaped bag of skin.

I awoke screaming. The fellow who found me the other day rushed to my side, asking what was the matter. “Just...Just a nightmare.” He patted my shoulder and nodded knowingly. “The trouble with nightmares down here is that you cannot truly wake up from them, except into another.”

He recounted how nightmares plagued him for the first few years after he was brought here. “I wouldn’t say my dreams are pleasant now. Just that what they show me isn’t all that different from our surroundings. It’s amazing what you can grow accustomed to.”

I didn’t want to grow accustomed to any of this. I wanted out. I wanted my old body back. I cried, and to my surprise, he held me. I didn’t fight it. There was no denying that, whoever he’d been before, he understood what I’d gone through since my abduction.

Of all the places to bond with someone. Of all the things to bond over! But strangely, it was nice. Just to be with someone I could feel certain had experienced suffering similar to my own. He stayed with me until I calmed down, then departed for his own tent.

The old me would’ve immediately turned him away just for being strange. Perhaps it’s not only my body that’s changed. I got to wondering whether the metamorphosis might, in some ways, be an improvement. It proved distracting enough that I soon returned to sleep.

When I next awoke, the village bustled with activity. The flimsy leather walls of my tent did nothing to muffle the racket, the cause of which was revealed as soon as I emerged from its flaps. A procession of mutants came in through the main entry, bearing leathery sacks of something or other on their backs.

“What’s this all about?” I asked Eel mouth. “There’s been a successful raid! Not of our own shaft but a neighboring one.” I wondered if they might’ve been through the shaft I was brought down. When I described the field and the garden trail to one of the creatures, now busy unloading his sack, he shook his malformed head.

“Just another planet the bugs have already overrun. They don’t fare well on worlds populated with intelligent life, but the worlds with only rudimentary fauna make for easy pickings. Or sometimes it just connects to an earlier era on that same world, before intelligence arose.”

I wondered whether it may have tampered with the history of life on Earth in this fashion. I’ve never seen any cave paintings of giant bugs though. If there are some, anthropologists would probably mistake them for magnified depictions of normal insects.

He pulled a football sized chrysalis from the sack and thrust it at me. “What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked. He carefully cut it open with a knife that looked to be fashioned from a bone shard, the handle wrapped tightly in leather.

The translucent white pod split open to reveal a bizarre little larval creature inside. Beady little black eyes, a mess of pudgy little legs similar to those of a caterpillar and a body closely resembling an unusually shortened grub.

It repeatedly squeaked...in fear? Can it feel fear? “What is it?” I asked. “This is what the little white worms become if they’re not implanted. If allowed to fully mature, they imprint on the bugs. Then they serve them tirelessly as drones, subsisting on whatever scraps they can scavenge.”

Not as reassuring as I hoped. But something about the wiggly little bundle charmed me as I cradled it in my arms. “It’s not often that we can steal so many” he added. “Look after yours, you won’t get another any time soon.” I asked why I should want one to begin with.

He demonstrated by massaging his own pudgy white grub until it secreted a familiar black fluid from its abdomen. “This way if we’re injured or hungry during a raid, we can make our own black jelly on demand rather than having to backtrack all the way to our own pool.”

He made them sound like convenient portable appliances. But the thing I now held in my arms as it gurgled and squeaked appeared very much alive. “What should I name it?” He frowned. “Don’t get attached. They’re short lived and infertile, that’s why we can’t simply breed more.”

Don’t get attached? Shouldn’t be a problem, that’s what I’m best at. If I could believe that nutter back at the sunlit pool I came from, it’s even how I wound up down here in the first place. Or at least it has something to do with it.

One of the mutants asked for a hand with his bag. I declined, explaining that I meant to return to the shaft I was brought down here through shortly. “Well that’s a hell of a way to repay our hospitality. You just breeze on in, we heal you, give you a bed to sleep in, then you’re on your way?”

I could find nothing to say in my defense. So I wrapped the little grub in a leather blanket, stashed it in the tent I slept in, then joined the others in their task. To my surprise I found it quite satisfying to labor alongside them, working up a viscous black sweat as I exerted myself.

After we finished distributing the grubs, there were several tents in need of repair, as well as maintenance to be performed on the outer surface of the brick walls. I didn’t agree to all this, they just kept piling on more work. But I also couldn’t turn them down given how helpful they’d been.

“Feeling overloaded?” My eel mouthed friend joined me, the two of us lifting a replacement brick into place. “Actually it’s nice to be useful” I admitted. “In my old life, I didn’t fit in anywhere. There just wasn’t any place for me.” He raised one eyebrow. At least I think so, his face is rather lopsided. “Were you really looking?”

I mulled it over while we returned to the fortress interior. There was a modest banquet prepared to feed us, a trio of bug corpses in the process of being divided up into sections and cooked. I had to fight back the urge to puke when the smell hit me.

Eel mouth laughed. “They taste better than they smell. It’s a lot like lobster, actually.” I didn’t believe him, but my growling stomach persuaded me to take a chance. I’d have pinched my nose if I still had one.

“Of course, you don’t have to eat anything if you don’t want to. Just soak in the black jelly for a bit and the hunger goes away.” What he left unsaid is that there would be a price. That each time I did so, it would only further corrupt my body.

So, driven by a mixture of exhaustion and hunger, I dug in. The tender, jiggling white meat proved every bit as satisfying as I was led to expect. Lobster might be pushing it, but it really was quite tasty, and to be surrounded by merry company while I ate was its own sort of nourishment.

Following the meal, I volunteered to help clean it up. I knew I meant to leave soon, but some part of me craved just a bit more time with these creatures. These...unlikely comrades. The feeling turned out to be mutual.

As I mounted a winged insect with Eel mouth’s help, he lamented that I was leaving so soon. He handed me the little grub, which he’d tucked into a satchel. “I’ve gotta go back” I insisted. “That’s all there is to it.” He asked if I was happy there.

What a strange question. I brushed it off, thanked him for everything, then headed for the rim of the pillar. His words returned more than once to trouble me on my journey. Was I happy there? I suppose not. But still, what else could I do but return?

There’s my family to think of. There’s Goblin. Surgeons may still be able to reverse much of what’s happened to my body...though I couldn’t imagine how to explain to them, or anybody else, how I became like this.

I wished for a compass as I approached the edge. Some way to navigate in this baffling continuum of identical looking pillars. The best I could come up with was to remove the bioluminescent gas sack fastened to my mount’s harness, propping it up on a pile of rocks. This way I wouldn’t lose track of where I set out from.

With that taken care of I took flight, setting off for the pillar nearest me. On the way, wind rushing past, I peeked into the leather satchel to find my chubby little passenger sound asleep. Now that I got a good look at him, he’s not that ugly. Or her, maybe?

On a whim, I tickled one of its legs. It quivered, then promptly rolled up into a ball. Didn’t even know it could do that. Below us, great puffy clouds of the ever-present white vapor rolled past. I could say nothing of what lay beneath them...except that I dare not investigate.

Only when the next pillar was nearly upon me did I remember that I’ve never actually landed one of these things before. However it seemed to understand what to do on its own, and a minute later I was dismounting onto the rocky shores of what I hoped would be the final stop on my journey.

The trek was long and arduous. I might’ve ridden my mount, but didn’t know what I might find further in, so I didn’t risk it. I brought blankets, but the longer I stayed down here the more I adapted to the cold. It seeps into your body after a while, you stop fighting it, and it becomes the new normal.

The mutation probably has something to do with it. I first noticed while laboring to earn my meal with the others that my new body is significantly stronger. There are aches and pains where some part of it is halfway formed, but for the most part everything but the appearance is greatly improved.

I don’t remember when I stopped shivering. The first month was now just one long smear in my memory. I just know that once most of my humanity bled away, the discomfort vanished along with it. I still laid down some blankets before sleeping though.

The grub groggily poked its head out of my satchel as though hatching anew. It cautiously extended its little feelers, waving them about until satisfied that it was safe to come out. I don’t know why it slept next to me, the inside of the satchel was probably warmer.

“You weird little monster” I muttered. As if in response, it gurgled, chirped, then threw up on itself a bit. With some experimentation, I found that it made a wonderful pillow. If it objected to this new arrangement it gave no indication, instead falling asleep after a few minutes and emitting a droning sound I interpreted as snoring.

I followed suit, exhausted from the day’s travel. As I was now in possession of both an endo and exoskeleton, I discovered that when I focused, I could feel the latter expanding slowly. Decompressing the way your spine does as you sleep, because the weight’s been taken off.

I thought about anything and everything, unrelated fragments popping into my consciousness as they often do just before I fall asleep. How could my life have turned into this? How could it ever return to normal, even if I find my way out?

To think all of this was down here, or wherever it is, all along. For my entire life maybe? Or longer. Waiting to be discovered by some poor fool at the bottom of an innocuous hole. Curiosity kills the cat...if it’s lucky.

I dreamt I was a young boy again. Perhaps three or four, playing in the back yard. With some effort I flipped over a large stone, then recoiled in shock. The flattened soil beneath the stone teemed with beetles, worms and spiders, all of which must’ve burrowed under it for shelter.

They scattered this way and that as I backed off, brushing at my overalls to make sure none of them got on me. “What are you up to, kiddo?” I turned and clung to my father’s leg, tearing up. He chuckled. “You know, they’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”

I was about to respond, but when I looked up at him, his head was that of an insect. Bulbous compound eyes, chittering segmented mouthparts and a pair of long, delicate antennae. I screamed, and my face froze that way. A single perfect, eternal scream of absolute terror, resonating forever.

I awoke to find the little grub gnawing on my head. A few bugs clung to the ceiling nearby, as well as a pair watching me from beside a stalagmite with idle curiosity. As before, they made no motion to stop me.

A few hours later, I spotted a black pool in the distance. There were people around it. Not naked captives, but about a dozen uniformed figures. I slowed my approach, ducking behind one stalagmite after the next until I was close enough to covertly spectate.

This shaft was fitted with a mechanical lift, which another uniformed figure stepped off of a moment after it arrived at a platform designed to receive it. The others formed a line and saluted. Soldiers of some kind?

The one I assumed to be their commanding officer performed an inspection, then issued orders I couldn’t quite make out from this distance. A long, flexible rubber hose was fed into the black goo. Then one of them flipped a great metal switch on a control box attached to the lift.

The faint but unmistakable sounds of a pump echoed down the shaft, and the hose began ravenously slurping up the black stuff. While they were occupied with all of this, I took the opportunity to get closer.

From this distance I could at last study them properly. Their uniforms were all black, in an archaic style. They wore dull, black leather jackboots with pants that bulged unnecessarily at the hips, and button up shirts with breast pockets bearing pointed flaps. The long, thin strap of a saber belt ran down their chests at a steep angle.

Their faces were stranger still. Lean to the point of emaciation, so white as to border on translucent. Their eyes, sunken into their faces, were jet black. Most wore helmets with a pointed spike on top, as though they were meant to be used as a weapon of last resort.

Their commanding officer stood a full two heads taller. He wore no cap, but a mane of shiny black hair he was now in the process of carefully combing back. He had compound eyes, proportionally much smaller than I’ve seen on the bugs, roughly the size of oranges.

He also sported a pair of long, thin black antennae which blended in with his hair so well that I didn’t notice them right away. Pulsating black veins showed through his skin wherever it was thin enough, and his uniform appeared to be alive.

Not leather. Not fabric or even metal, but a writhing bodily sheath of segmented black tendrils. Slithering, surging, the entire garment dynamically rearranged itself to follow his movements. Who could manufacture something like that? Or...grow it? Who are these people?

A pair of the soldiers carried a muzzled, bound insect onto the lift. Pressing one of the buttons on the control box, it began to ascend. I backed away, having seen enough. Whatever world they came down that shaft from, I knew I wanted no part of it.

Who else is aware of this place? Even as this unfathomably large, strange creature feeds upon countless worlds, some of them have evidently turned the tables. If I were to explore far enough, would I find research outposts? Colonies even?

None of my concern. It will be enough simply to escape. I was so lost in thought as I headed back towards the rim that I didn’t notice the bulging mound before me until I was nearly on top of it. Almost like a bubble. Formed by volcanic activity, maybe?

When I leaned in and put my hands on it, I felt warmth. More than that, after I removed my hands, the handprints left behind were almost transparent. I wiped away what I now realized was an outer layer of fine, gray dust.

What’s going on in there? I could make out warm yellow light and signs of movement. I don’t know why I wasn’t more careful. I guess I figured the worst that could happen to me already had. The last thing you expect, at the bottom of one hole, is to fall down another.

But that’s exactly what happened when I leaned a little too hard on the brittle shell, which gave way without warning. When I landed, it was in a pool of glowing yellow gel. Like backlit honey. I rubbed it out of my eyes and surveyed my surroundings.

I stood waist deep in luminous, sticky yellow gel amidst a tangled mess of thick black tentacles. Something similar anyway. They were thick as logs, emerging from within the waist deep pool and snaking up the sides of the pit. The air stank powerfully of sulfur down here.

Several dangled from the ceiling around the breach in the bubble I fell through. Twisting together in some places, spreading apart in others. Their stretchy black skin wept the glowing yellow goo wherever I clawed at it while trying to ascend, like sap bleeds from a tree.

At regular intervals along the gently pulsating black trunks, there were clusters of membranous bubbles filled with glowing yellow vapor. It felt strangely familiar. I just kept climbing, leaping from trunk to trunk like a monkey, constantly searching for new footholds.

Then something floated past. I only barely noticed the first one, but when another drifted into view, I recognized it as a miniature version of that blimp creature which skewered my first mount. The bubble under my hand burst, about a dozen tiny floaters erupting from it and spiraling upwards into the air.

A nursery? This whole thing must be someplace for them to spawn. Judging by the fact that I’d seen only one fully grown specimen so far, probably only a tiny fraction of the little creatures sailing lazily through the air all around me would survive to maturity.

I found myself wishing that I would’ve mutated a set of wings earlier. But after about an hour of careful climbing, fighting the urge to pinch what’s left of my nose lest I fall, I pulled myself back through the ragged opening. Is this place just holes within holes? With progressively stranger worlds at the bottom of each?

I found my satchel where I left it, propped up against the hazardously delicate shell.The fall cracked my exoskeleton in several places and badly bruised the few soft parts of my body, which I intended to heal. The little grub was none too happy that I interrupted his snooze.

Even so, with some gentle massaging, he secreted enough black jelly that I was able to mend all of my injuries. In return, I plucked one of the little floaters from my body and fed it to him. Several more were stuck to me on account of the foul smelling yellow crud which I had yet to scrub off.

After I finished doing that, I set off once again for the rim where my mount awaited, this time paying closer attention to the terrain. When I came across more smooth, bubble like domes, I took great care to be sure of my footing, and to avoid touching them anywhere.

I pressed on despite my exhaustion, neglecting to sleep on the off chance that those uniformed goons might’ve followed me. What a relief it was when I finally found my mount, still tied to the stalagmite where I left it!

As I flew to the next pillar, I caught myself missing the village. The bustle, the commotion, feasting alongside the others as they laughed and sang. Perhaps it’s better to be in the company of monsters than alone.

Once I landed, dismounted and tied the obedient creature to a nearby stalagmite, I set off for the black pool I knew I’d find at the center. This place has a logic all its own. I’ll never really know the “whys” of it, but it’s easy enough to learn the “whats” by simple exploration, trial, and error.

That’s a dangerous way to learn, however. Falling into that spawning pit was an indefensibly stupid mistake, one I resolved never to repeat. From that point on, anything unfamiliar was automatically suspect. Not because it could kill me though. Death is far from the worst possible outcome down here.

Every time my stomach growled, I stopped for a short while to massage some black jelly out of my strange little stowaway, which I then rubbed into the few remaining patches of skin on my body. It hit the spot and kept me going, but I could feel the last of my residual humanity evaporating.

I distracted myself by thinking up a name for my traveling companion. Eel mouth’s warning be damned, I had to call it something. After some deliberation, I settled on Horatio. No real reason, except that it tickled me to give such a distinguished sounding name to this odd little bug.

Following another two day’s travel, I arrived at the black pool only to find it surrounded by naked, frightened captives. I wasted no time informing them that the black fog is but an illusion to prevent them from straying too far from the pool.

To my dismay, they laughed at me. One even threw a stone, which missed me only by a hair. That’s when I remembered how I must look. I tried to convince them that I was human once, and that they’d become like me soon enough if they remained by the pool.

“What’s your name then?” I turned to face the fellow asking. It should’ve rolled off my tongue. But I’d been down here so long by that point that, try as I might, I honestly couldn’t remember. “Listen...I know how this is going to sound, but...I forgot.” He scoffed and turned away.

Most of them ignored me after that. The few who didn’t were nevertheless intractable. However fervently I assured them I’d come from a larger world beyond the black fog, one which they had not yet seen, all I received in return was mockery.

“Eat us already, demon. That’s what you’ve come for” one of them growled. Frustration mounted, twisting my guts into a knot...until I gave up. Just like that, the tension vanished. I don’t actually need to help these people, do I?

They don’t want my help anyway, and you can’t force help on somebody who doesn’t want it. I could spare them weeks, months or years of suffering if they would listen, but they won’t. Some people have to learn things on their own.

I searched for some way in which it was the wrong decision. Wasn’t I absolving myself of an important responsibility? But regardless of which angle I examined it from, I’d already done everything that could be asked of me.

Up the shaft, then. Now that I knew there weren’t more uniformed ghouls or something worse waiting for me around the black pool, I returned to the rim for my mount. It took another two days to reach it, but once I did, the journey back to the center took little more than an hour.

It raised a few eyebrows when I arrived at the black pool riding atop my winged steed. I wondered if I should repeat my offer to lead them past the black fog. But what for? They had their chance. They’d have another when I return from the surface.

If they decide they want my help after all, they’ll ask for it. With that, I determined that I would not allow the matter to trouble me any further. Instead I clung tightly to the winged beast’s carapace and rode it up into the shaft.

The ascent was as tiring as ever, but also unusual. This time rather than grey stone all the way through, or a slow transition to strange flesh, the tunnel instead went from stone to wood. When I emerged from the other end, it answered one question but raised countless more.

I crawled out through a hole gnawed in what looked to be a finely papered wall within an astonishingly luxurious, well furnished home. Not remarkable in itself except that it was about a dozen times too large.

A finely carved, polished oak table towered over me like a highway overpass. The rug lining the hallway was so large that I sunk into it up to my knees. More long, narrow tables lined either side of the handsomely decorated corridor...both above and below.

For where a ceiling should be, there was instead another floor, but upside down. With the very same rug lining it and the very same tables to either side. I mistook it for a mirrored ceiling until I noticed the tables were in slightly different positions.

This is Earth, surely? Those were humans at the bottom of the shaft, like any others I’ve seen. Yet once again I found myself someplace I felt certain could never exist on the Earth I knew. Even the window at the end of the hall yielded no clues, as from this angle I could see only a black expanse on the other side.

I took flight, weaving around the leg of the table and gaining some altitude for a better vantage point. The tables lining either wall turned out to have dollhouses atop them. Though because of my small size relative to this environment, they were in fact full sized houses to me.

Only when I landed to explore one of the dollhouses up close did I discover that it was a replica of the larger house around it. Same wallpaper, same vertically doubled hallways, same polished wooden tables...with smaller dollhouses on them.

These ones were actually an appropriate size for dollhouses, relative to me. I inspected the intricate little details, including a set of even smaller dollhouses, until a commotion from the next room over drew my attention.

When I went to investigate, I found a pair of weary looking men dressed up to the nines, seated at either end of a dinner table. I introduced myself. Neither responded, or even so much as rose from their chairs at the sight of an intruder.

They were alive alright. I could see them breathing and, when I approached, their eyes were following me as I moved about. But their mouths were stitched shut. I circled around them slowly, looking for some explanation for their behavior but finding nothing.

Exasperated, I withdrew a knife fashioned from a bone shard and cut through the stitches so the poor man could speak. The first thing out of his mouth was incoherent blubbering. Sounded like a combination of relief and fear.

“Y-you shouldn't be here!” he whimpered. I told him that I came up the shaft, and could bring him down it with me. “You don’t understand!” he seized me by the shoulder. “I can’t go anywhere! I can’t move! Dolls can’t move! They can’t speak either, I shouldn’t even be talking to you!”

I began to entertain the possibility that I was speaking with yet another madman. “Dolls? What dolls? Listen, the fog around the black pool you came from isn’t real, it’s-” he broke in, now so anxious that he was visibly shaking.

“He’s coming. He’s coming!! Don’t you know how furious he’ll be? You didn’t move anything did you? If things aren’t exactly where he left them, he’ll...he’ll…” I heard distant footsteps. “That’s him!!” the man tearfully wailed, snapping back into the same rigid pose as when I found him.

I tried to rouse the other fellow opposite him, but without avail. Neither would even acknowledge my presence now. The footsteps grew louder. I explored the lower floor and found both men and women carefully holding various poses, dressed up in clothing which, despite fitting them decently, was clearly made for dolls.

None would react, except to fight me off and resume posing any time I tried to physically budge them from their positions. The footsteps grew louder. I flew from house to house and found the same thing in them all. Men, women, and a few children. Their mouths stitched shut, their bodies frozen in poses evocative of domestic life.

The footsteps grew louder, now nearly upon me. None of it made any sense. I didn’t want to leave before I understood it, but the more I explored, the stranger it all became. My confusion peaked when the source of the footsteps rounded the corner.

Oh. Of course. Of course the hallways would be as they are. I was rendered so speechless I couldn’t even scream when it came into view. The lower half was that of a man, wearing a fine pair of suit pants and polished black dress shoes. But so was the upper half, inverted.

Four legs in total, both sets unnaturally elongated. The lower set walked along one floor while the upper set walked along the other. Every footstep sent out minor quakes, the resounding thud of each shoe coming down all but deafening me as it drew near.

I looked back at the two men, both staring at me wide eyed and sweating bullets. Why? What happens if that thing finds me? What’s the big deal if I tamper with these dollhouses? Where the fuck am I even? What the fuck is that stomping, suited creature? How, even among infinite possible worlds, could a place like this exist?

Not for me to know. Like the stubborn captives at the bottom of the shaft, I couldn’t help these people. They weren’t having it. So I climbed back onto my mount, took flight and headed back for the shaft entrance.

...Except it wasn’t there. I did a second pass, then a third to be sure. Where the hole in the wall was on my way in, there was now smooth, unbroken wallpaper instead. The bizarre behemoth came to a stop before the table I now clung to the underside of.

Could it have noticed me? Was it looking through the rooms of the dollhouse for me, even now? I didn’t see any eyes on it. I held my breath. Not sure why, I didn’t see any ears on it either. It lingered for a time, then moved on, stomping along until it rounded the corner at the far end of the hall.

I gasped for air, then struggled to regulate my breathing until my heart settled down. It can’t just be gone, I thought. The hole can’t be gone! I can’t be stranded here...not here. Not after I’ve come so far and survived so much, it can’t all come to an end in a place like this!

I buzzed about, warily straining my ears for footsteps as I explored the vast manor. Was it the footsteps? Did the creature I came here from within sever its connection to this world out of fear? How long must I wait until it reattaches itself?

As I weaved between the legs of the upside down tables on the ceiling, I contemplated living out the rest of my life here. In this obscured, tucked away little pocket dimension, this backwater of the multiverse. Could I subsist on scraps? Does that suited, stomping behemoth eat anything?

As if in answer, I came upon a darkened kitchen. Vertically doubled just like the hallway, though the fridge extended fully from floor to ceiling. Whatever’s happened to my eyes in the past few months rendered them perfectly able to see in the dark, aiding my reconnaissance.

There were bugs here. My heart, though I can no longer be sure there’s only one, leapt into my throat. In the middle of the floor, a scattered few bugs foraged for crumbs. How could that thing eat, anyway? I didn’t see a mouth on it.

But where there’s bugs, there’s a bug hole. Just then, the kitchen was bathed all at once in light. Blinding at first on account of my eyes having adapted to the darkness, I didn’t understand why I heard the bugs around me stampeding away.

I felt a gentle but increasing wind from above, and a shadow fell over me. My mount took flight on its own, and once my eyes finished adjusting, I understood why. The suited creature’s shoe came down just behind me with an ear splitting, earth shaking impact.

The shockwave jostled me about, but I held fast to the carapace and directed my mount towards the underside of the fridge. There would be nowhere else in the room that it couldn’t reach me, undoubtedly why the last of the bugs were seeking refuge there even as I watched.

I landed just short of the gap between the floor and the fridge, then skittered under it. Oh, what a relief it was to once again be engulfed in darkness! The thundering footsteps continued behind me as I followed the small herd of bugs...towards a hole at the base of the wall, behind the fridge!

I would’ve cried except for the urgency. All I could think of was to direct my mount towards the hole as fast as it could crawl. As if it weren’t real, but a cruel mirage. But it was real alright! I laughed aloud with relief as I barreled through it.

Now that I had some breathing room, I took the opportunity to reflect on what I saw. So many questions that would forever go unanswered! But when what sort of answers could I expect? There are none of those down here, only more questions.

I swore not to let my curiosity get the better of me next time. Even though I was warned that the holes could close at any moment, it didn’t become real for me until it happened. Why did I risk exploring the manor? Foolish in retrospect. But then, it was something new. Something I hadn’t seen yet.

I emerged from the other side of the tunnel to find the usual black pool below me. What an oddly welcome sight it was. Even knowing full well what it does, that it shouldn’t exist and that I still don’t really understand it...at least it’s familiar.

The rest of the bugs swarmed through the hole behind me as I dropped to ground level, then set out for the pillar’s rim. Exhaustion from the ordeal I’d just endured forced me to stop and make camp, though with my mount I might’ve easily reached the edge before the day was out.

When Horatio crawled out of my satchel as before, I noticed he was moving strangely. Slower, more stiffly than before. Had I fallen on the satchel at some point? Was he cramped from spending so much time in there?

“You look as tired as I am, little fellow.” He crept over to me, clung to my body and emitted a series of feeble trills. I fed him some dried meat on the off chance he was simply hungry, but he only threw it up a minute later. I wish I knew what these things normally eat.

To my own surprise, I started talking to him. I’m no stranger to loneliness. But for years now it’s had no power over me, so I don’t know why I felt the need to spill my guts all of a sudden. The close call back in that mansion maybe. The disappearance of that hole touched a nerve.

Ever since the village, hope grew within me that I might actually make it home. But that’s no more certain now than it ever was. It’s just a story I tell myself so I’ll keep moving. A plastic carrot dangled before a tired, broken down mule.

I believed it less and less with every repetition. But if I tell it to someone else, I can believe that he believes it. Or at least that the lie isn’t as transparent to him as it is to me, if only because he doesn’t understand a word of it.

It’s like when you’re little, and you tell your stuffed animal that everything’s going to work out in the end. You’re the one that’s scared. But maybe if you can keep your voice steady and say it in a grown up sounding voice, it will really happen.

Horatio rolled into a ball. I did my best to wrap myself up around him, pulled a blanket over us and went to sleep. A dreamless sleep, mercifully. The only remaining refuge from what my life has become.

While packing up blankets the next morning, I noticed Horatio was developing a limp. He wrestled free when I tried to examine the affected leg. There was also mild discoloration around his eyes. An illness? Can these things become ill?

I set aside my concern, reasoning that Eel mouth would know what to do, and crawled atop my mount. It huffed, the resulting stink cloud searing my nostrils. Once at the rim I took flight, scanning the horizon for any sign of the beacon I left behind to guide me.

Nothing. No telling where, in this seemingly endless expanse, I’d been deposited. I felt despair creeping up on me again, so I squashed it. “I’ll find that beacon” I told myself in a shaky voice. It’s all but certain. If not at the edge of the next pillar, then the one after that.

Of course it wasn’t. The hours rolled by, many times I had to land so my mount could rest and eat some of the dried meat from my satchel. Whenever I checked on Horatio I found him still rolled up in a ball, unresponsive to touch. He wouldn’t even take the floater I offered.

Must’ve gotten less sleep last night than I assumed. I told him about sleep deprivation, about how lousy I always felt even before any of this happened to me. About how I could feel my body slowly falling apart from it. Of course he didn’t react.

As I threw one leg over my mount, I made sure Horatio was swaddled up snug as could be in the satchel and that the strap was secure. Then I made my way to the edge of the pillar and took flight. As ever, I came across no region of this place which looked distinct from any other.

I asked myself more than once how I meant to find the beacon. Not sincerely, but as a sort of self flagellation. What was I thinking? How did I ever imagine it would be enough to find my way back? So focused on berating myself that I didn’t notice the looming shadow ahead of me until it was practically on top of me.

I banked right in order to give it a wide berth, recalling what happened the last time I got too close to one of these things. Only for it to change course...seemingly in my direction. I changed my heading again, and the shadowy mass followed suit.

I didn’t panic though. Not even when it began to gain on me. Passing interest, I hoped. Once or twice I tried merging with a flock of winged bugs for a while, then departing from it. But it did nothing to distract my pursuer.

No, I didn’t panic until it started firing upon me. As in, bullets. I couldn’t believe it at first, startled by the muffled, distant series of pops until a bullet struck my mount in the left wing. It faltered slightly, jostling me about.

I still didn’t fully understand what was happening until the immense silhouette bearing down on me finally got close enough that I could see it properly. An airship as expected, but artificial. The gas bag covered in a whisper thin, intricate sheath of black lace.

Below the crew cabin hung a sprawling net of the sort you might trawl for sea life with, instead brimming with entangled winged insects, all of them struggling fruitlessly to free themselves. The design appeared utilitarian in some respects but darkly, delicately beautiful in others.

Ornate patterns in the lace radiated outwards from the nose of the gas bag. Probably continued along the sides as well, though I couldn’t see from this angle. All I could see over my shoulder was the bulbous, menacing business end of this bizarre vessel and occasional muzzle flashes from turrets mounted to it.

I descended and abruptly slowed, hoping its considerable mass would prevent them from slowing down as quickly. It worked. I glimpsed the astonished, furious faces of several crewmen manning the antiquated looking machinegun turrets as they rushed past.

All of them ghastly pale, gaunt, and clothed in familiar black military uniforms. Shit! Shit, shit. I continued shouting obscenities, though the howl of wind whipping past drowned it all out. They must have spotted me leaving the other day.

Either that, or I just had the incalculable misfortune of catching their notice during my exploratory flights. Another spurt of machinegun fire, this time with better aim, shredded my mount’s right wingtip. The beast’s convulsions suggested it was also hit in the body someplace.

I began losing altitude, so I yanked the bristles behind its eyes upward...but to no avail. The next hail of bullets struck me as well, in the shoulder and thigh. I cried out in agony but held tight as my mount spiraled downwards in search of someplace to land.

My thigh and shoulder burned. I grit my teeth and struggled to focus on regaining control. What looked like a cloud layer below grew larger and larger until it enveloped me. For the next minute or so I couldn’t so much as see my own mount.

The color shifted rapidly from white to yellow as we plummeted through it. The stench of sulfur stung my nose, stronger and stronger with each passing second. However I yanked at the bristles, the damned creature wouldn’t respond.

The reason why became clear once we burst through the underside of the cloud layer. The wings weren’t even beating anymore. That’s when it began to tumble end over end. I held on for dear life, pinning the satchel between the bug’s carapace and my stomach.

As the world spun around me, I caught sight of jagged brown mountains, barren plains and a winding river. No trace of green anywhere, nor anything else which looked like it might make for a soft landing.

I’d have to settle for a wet landing I decided, and fought with the unresponsive creature in the hopes of guiding our descent towards the river. The best I could do was to let go of it the moment we were directly overhead.

Wind roared around me, louder than ever, as I dropped like a rock. I wanted to spread out so as to slow down somewhat, but I also meant to clutch the satchel close to my body. I couldn’t do both. The impact was abrupt and jarring, knocking the wind out of me.

Of course my first instinct was to suck air back in. I got water instead, or something like it. I couldn’t smell what it was until I broke the surface, thrashing and coughing. I held the satchel above my head as I waded, still hacking up the vile soupy fluid, to the nearest shore. Once there, I set the satchel down before pulling myself onto land.

I then collapsed in a violent coughing fit until I vomited, splattering the shore with the contents of my stomach. Stomachs, maybe. Only then could I pick myself up and check my body for injuries. The bullet wounds burned even worse now, whatever’s in the water irritating them something fierce.

Then I checked on Horatio. Peeling back the soaked flap of the satchel, I found him wriggling weakly, discoloration no longer confined to his eyes but instead covering most of his body. I didn’t imagine the dip we took just now was helpful.

Still, at least he hadn’t drowned. I thought to massage some secretions from him with which to heal my wounds, but realized that would leave the bullets lodged inside. Instead, I spent a few minutes trying to dig them out with my bone knife before blinding pain forced me to stop.

Fuck. I threw down the knife and pounded the muddy shore. FUCK! It was the first time I cried since the village. I thought I had a handle on this fucking place. Thought I’d seen everything in its bag of tricks. But there’s always more.

Forlorn, I scanned the landscape around me, finding nothing remotely encouraging. The soil beyond the shores of the river quickly transitioned from moistened mud to what I expect it must look like when dried.

It was cracked everywhere, fractures wide enough to fit a finger into spider-webbing across the desolate plain for as far as I could make out. Just dry, cracked clay forever in all directions, save for the banks of the river I’d fallen into.

When I noticed that none of the mountains had visible tops, all of them protruding up through the cloud layer, I realized I must actually be looking at the bases of various pillars. With no other indication of which direction to go, I headed for the nearest mountain.

I continued weeping on the way, but crucially, I also continued walking. I didn’t come this far just to lay down and die. It was a crushing setback though. I really thought I was close. Thought I knew what to expect from this place.

It never occurred to me that there could be essentially an entire other world down here. Ever since the village, I assumed I knew everything about this realm, or at least everything I would ever need to. How could I have known that beneath Hell, there’s another Hell?

Isn’t that just the way? Every time I think I’ve fallen as far as anybody possibly can, the ground gives out under me. The air, noticeably denser down here, stank unbearably of sulfur. The sky was piss yellow and permanently overcast, with no gaps through which to get my bearings relative to the world above.

I recognized it as the same thick yellow vapor from the spawning pit. It must be heavier than the white mist, collecting down here below it. But then, how do they float? How do those gas bag creatures float, if this is what’s inside them?

Of course it wasn’t important and I knew I would probably never find out, but it did wonders to distract me from the lingering pain of my wounds. The one in my thigh in particular, which pulsated agonizingly with every step. There was no keeping my weight off it either, on account of the satchel.

I couldn’t limp properly. I could do a hurried sort of hobble, but that hurt even worse than walking normally. I could feel my face contort every time I put my foot down and shifted my body onto it. If only it would go numb! Of course it refused to. If anything, it only hurt worse as the hours dragged on.

“At least I’m not alone” I mumbled, gazing down at the little bundle in my arms. Horatio gurgled, then slowly rolled up into a ball again. Wish I could do that. Then again, that’s kind of what I was doing before I wound up down here.

To think there was a time when I craved solitude. Back when I thought I was better than all those so-called mutants I lived in the midst of. They’d undoubtedly recoil in fear and disgust if they were to see me like this.

For the entire time that I was confined to the sunlit pool by my own ignorance, before I discovered the nature of the black fog, all I could do was feel sorry for myself. I can’t pinpoint when the reversal occurred, but now I felt pity only for the poor, decent people whose happiness I diminished.

It hurt to dwell on. More so than the bullet wounds, to the point where I couldn’t bear it and sought some alternate means of distraction. For a while I counted my steps. Then I sang to Horatio, though it was really to myself.

The cracked, dismal terrain stretched out seemingly forever ahead of me. I must be closer to the mountain than I was before, but there was no visible indication of it. Onward I trudged, nevertheless, for lack of any other option except to lay down and die.

Maybe that’s my way out of here, I thought. This long, grinding misery could finally come to an end. It wouldn’t be so bad if I’d stuck by the black pool, I’m certain of it. If I’d just let them finish turning me into a mindless beast...

I’m only suffering so much because I’m still conscious. Still intelligent enough to reflect on what life was before this happened. If I just let them finish stripping away my humanity, this pain would’ve vanished along with it.

It’s only Hell until you give in and become a demon. Then it’s simply home. Whatever you cannot overcome, you must either adapt to or be destroyed by. To refuse to adapt to new surroundings is to declare war on them. To invite, and deserve, the suffering which results.

At least that’s how it seemed to me as I plodded through the desolate brown expanse, cursing my own stubborn nature with every step. “It only hurts until you adapt” I repeated to myself. Land is Hell to a fish. The deep sea is Hell to humans. But not because either are designed for the purpose of torment.

The abomination of desolation. That phrase kept repeating in my mind. Where have I heard that before? One of my old roommates I think. That’s what this place is. Nothing captures it as well. The abomination of desolation. The abomination of desolation. The abomination...

The wind picked up. Gentle when I arrived, now buffeting my body and bearing along clusters of dried mud flakes through the air. More than once, a flake wound up in my mouth, turning back to mud before I could spit it out.

Still others frequently blew into my eyes. The gale grew more and more violent, mud flakes whipping past with increasing density until I realized a storm was upon me.

Nothing to do but press on and endure it. Even when it toppled me, what could I do except pull myself to my feet and forge ahead? When the silhouette of a jagged outcrop drew near, I almost didn’t believe my eyes.

Wouldn’t have been much comfort before the storm. Up close, the formation turned out to be made of obsidian or some similarly brittle black mineral. The larger dagger shaped protrusion branched out all along its surface into smaller, pointed shards.

Any shelter in a storm. I nestled in as tightly as I could without slicing myself on it, holding the satchel close. In the process I bumped something behind me. When I turned to look, it was human remains.

Despite the raging winds, the excitement of discovering the first trace of humanity I’d so far seen down here compelled me to examine the pitiful heap. Long since reduced to bones, still wearing a tattered, faded uniform bearing a hammer and sickle insignia.

I couldn’t read the name embroidered under the insignia, but recognized it as Russian. Must’ve had the same idea I did, taking refuge here while a storm blew past. Only to pass away, in his sleep if he was lucky.

I then noticed some odd contraption on the skeleton’s wrist. Like a bulky wristwatch with several dials, a busted speaker grille and a little red bulb which must’ve last illuminated years, even decades ago. The fractured grille revealed torn wires inside.

If he fell down here, as I did, the watch must’ve broken on impact. Then again it should’ve also broken every bone in his body. He might’ve flown down here on a winged insect. But then how did the watch break?

Who was he? How did he wind up down here, I wondered. Abducted from his home like I was? His uniform seemed to suggest otherwise. Do the major world governments already know about this place? Perhaps they’ve sent expeditions before.

But then, why is he alone? Did his buddies leave him behind? More questions I would never know the answers to, as the dead are famously good at keeping secrets. Whoever he was, his troubles are over. I was not to be so fortunate.

Once the storm passed, I set out for the next outcropping. I lost my bearings during the storm, but the mountain was now visible again. The closer I got, the more numerous the outcroppings became. I grew so accustomed that when I saw the first ruin, I initially mistook it for another outcropping.

I slowed on approach, still unsure what I was looking at. The architecture was altogether alien. Angular, monolithic and brutal. A monument of some kind, I assumed, as I could see no entry or exit. No windows, no doors, nothing I would expect it to include if it were a dwelling.

I might’ve explored it more thoroughly, except that I spotted another like it on the horizon. Traveling from one to the next on my way towards the base of the mountain, their frequency increased until I was surrounded.

There must’ve been a civilization here. Hundreds of thousands strong. Millions? But the more ruins I encountered, the more I began to notice a certain theme. None were usable for anything. Even those which resembled buildings.

A staircase wound halfway up the exterior of one, halting before reaching the top floor. What looked like a doorway proved to simply be a tunnel passing straight through the solid mass to the other side. The windows were actually just shallow carved reliefs, not openings to a hollow interior.

The next was a chunk of a maze. Like somebody cut out a section of a much larger obsidian maze and plopped it down here...though I could see no signs of fractures, and it was built on what looked like a permanent foundation embedded in the terrain.

Somebody built it like that on purpose. Multiple entries and exits, no rhyme or reason to it, absent the larger context that would’ve given it purpose. Why? Why build this? I’m no archaeologist, but shouldn’t the ruins of a civilization look lived in?

Shouldn’t it all be designed for practical purposes? Homes, roads, walls for defense, farms and so on? Nothing I’d seen so far looked useful for anything. Even the structures most architecturally similar to buildings were deliberately designed to be purposeless.

I couldn’t fathom why. The amount of labor involved to build all this had to have been staggering. All that for nothing. For thousands of enigmatic, derelict ruins. Perhaps the final legacy of a sick culture?

Yes, that’s it. A demented people who devoted themselves to building all of this, for no other reason than to leave it behind. Temples, maybe? Tributes to the god of madness. Still, I took some encouragement from it.

It was a significant change, for one thing. Welcome indeed after that long, dreary trek across the wasteland. The increasing occurrence of these ruins as I approached the mountain suggested I was onto something. That I was headed in the right direction.

For what, I couldn’t say. Something. Anything besides more wasteland. It didn’t seem possible that these ruins were natural formations, but I still couldn’t comprehend why they were built. Ruins don’t just spring out of the ground. A civilization had to exist here at one point to construct them.

I kept returning to that thought over and over as I made my way between the towering, abstract shapes. Working myself up, convincing myself that they might not be extinct. That there may still be humans down here, and something resembling a society.

A few of the obsidian structures were recognizable as parts of an enormous statue. Did it topple over, scattering its constituent pieces across the landscape? I could see no signs of damage, save for erosion.

What if these were built by those assholes who shot me down? What if I was heading straight for an outpost teeming with them? At least then I might find some answers, if I could isolate one of them from the rest. Or even hijack one of those airships.

At least then I’d be somewhere. That’s the heart of it. I’d already wandered through more nowhere than I ever cared to see. So eager was I to follow this path to its end, that it took me some time to realize I was being watched.

Out of the corner of my eye, taking care not to let them know I was aware of their presence, I spotted several shadowy forms darting between the rooftops of those queer obsidian buildings. Fleeting, like apparitions.

Their numbers grew as I walked until dozens carefully studied me, lining the top floors and stairwells to either side. What are they? What do they want? Despite myself, I clutched the satchel to my chest. It’s not the grub they’re after, surely?

Once there were enough that they felt safe, they no longer made any effort to hide from me. They must’ve been human once. Two arms, two legs and a head. But such slender limbs, their torsos coated with thick, black fur.

Their heads were all wrapped up in filthy white gauze, dried stains where blood soaked through under the eyes. I called out to them. First introducing myself, then asking what they wanted from me. There came no reply.

Instead the creatures quickly encircled me, emerging from tunnels carved into the monoliths, and from crevices between them. How delicately they crawled, bodies contorting to follow the unique contours of each structure as they scaled its walls.

More and more, teeming, flowing along the walls around me. Surging and coursing like rivers of strange flesh, sinewy limbs rhythmically shifting to find new hand and footholds with spider-like grace. I called out again, this time a warning. Once more I received only silence for my trouble.

Then, an ear splitting groan filled the air. I clutched my ear holes and doubled over, scanning my surroundings for the source. The crawling, bandaged things immediately scattered. When I spotted the cloaked figure on the horse, it answered one question but raised another.

Should I also flee? If those things are afraid, shouldn’t I be as well? The figure finished blowing into a hollowed out ram’s horn, stashed it within its cloak, then awaited my reaction. I couldn’t make out whether it was man or woman. Or human, even.

The cloak consisted of a billowing, gauzy sheet of black fabric which totally covered their body, without even holes to see through. For the brief moment its hand was exposed while it blew on its horn, I could see its arm was skeletally thin, covered in a brittle layer of translucent brown skin.

The beast it rode on was stranger still. For one thing, it had no head or even a neck, just a four legged torso. The legs were proportionally those of a horse, if elongated, and they did terminate in hooves...but the rest of the creature’s anatomy lay fully outside of Earthly taxonomy.

It was sickly pale, as with many creatures I’ve so far encountered down here. On account of the lack of sunlight I assumed. It had prominent ribs which shone through the skin, not just where the ribcage ought to be, but all along the torso from front to back.

The cloaked figure reached out and beckoned me. I backed away, and began to flee until I spotted a fringe of crawlers peering at us from distant rooftops. Waiting for me. “I mistook you for an outlander” the figure suddenly croaked. It startled me to hear it speak, though by now I should really have assumed it.

“The outlands...are a graveyard. The decaying remains of a once great empire. Lingering spirits from that age eagerly afflict those who come here. The heretics we exile to this place are changed by it. They degenerate, becoming as bestial and ravenous as their false doctrines. It is not safe here.”

I protested that I didn’t know about any of that, and was only trying to find my way home. His posture shifted almost imperceptibly. “...I see. Then it’s your good fortune that I found you. Follow me.” I hardly wanted to, but I also didn’t want to be left alone with those crawling, bandaged wretches.

It brought to mind something eel mouth told me. That there’s no waking up from nightmares down here, except into another nightmare. The only choices I’ve had since my abduction were between one horror and another. All I could do was pick the one that looked survivable.

So I followed him. All the while watching closely for any sign of betrayal, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. Some time later, we left the obsidian ruins behind and were soon surrounded by structures of a very different sort.

Crude imitations of multi story city buildings, fashioned from frameworks of lashed together bone and wood. Wood? I looked again. Sure enough. Where did they get it? I saw no trees on the way here. Taken during raids on the surface?

That wasn’t the only difference. There was some sort of growth which coated everything. It’s difficult to describe except by comparison. Ridged, skeletal...spidery? A flowing, branching, tangled texture which crept up the sides of some buildings and fully engulfed others.

I asked the cloaked figure about it, but received no reply. He only rode in silence, practically unmoving except for his cloak. A fungus? It didn’t look alive. It now coated the ground as well, crunching beneath my feet as I walked.

So dry that it crumbled when stepped on. Maybe it was alive once, now only a desiccated layer of dead matter blanketing everything. Infesting it. How I wish I could at least describe it! Like billions of thin, veiny roots snaking all over every surface, merging with one another in some places and diverging in others.

Something like frayed, mistreated fabric seen up close, an irregular grid of stiff, mangled threads, but made out of congealed dust. Besides the bones embedded in the buildings around me, there were also scattered skeletal remains underfoot, including countless fractured skulls.

So there really was a whole population of humans down here. Thousands at least, though there was no telling how long ago. Soldiers, like the ones in black uniforms who shot me down? Or like the poor Russian fellow whose bones I found behind the outcropping? Or worse, native to this place. Generation after generation may have been born, lived and died here, never knowing anything else.

Soon we arrived at the center of the city, where a sight beyond all expectation took my breath away. A massive cathedral towered over me, absolutely consumed by the skeletal, threadlike substance to the point where I couldn’t discern whether some of the architectural details were deliberate, or part of the growth.

Dead center of the facade, between two rectilinear towers, was a gaping round hole. As if the church had a mouth which hung open, sucking in the noxious air. I couldn’t get a sense of scale from down here, but the hole must be at least a hundred feet across.

“Here we are” the cloaked figure declared, raspy yet warm. I stared at him. “What do you mean? Where are we?” He gestured slowly to the cathedral. “The home you seek, whether or not you know it yet. You are far from the first lonesome wanderer that I have led to this place.”

Something about how he said that make me tense up. But the last time a stranger led me to a settlement, it was at least somewhere comfortable to sleep. Somewhere with food, where I could heal my injuries.

Stomach growling, bullet wounds still burning incessantly, I rejected the nameless dread which held me back and instead helped the cloaked figure dismount. With that, the two of us proceeded to the gargantuan front doors.

“You’re lucky I found you when I did” gurgled the cloaked figure as he rapped the door’s knocker. “Time is short.” I wondered what he meant, but was too anxious about what might be inside the cathedral to press him for details.

With a long, low pitched groan, one of the doors swung open just far enough for a wary eye to peer at us through the gap. “Outlander”, it whispered in a voice dry and harsh. My escort insisted otherwise. “That’s what I thought, but I saw them reject him. Besides, aren’t we to welcome the lost? Are we not to wash their feet, to nourish them that they might join us in awaiting his coming?”

The as yet unseen doorman withdrew, unfastened a series of chains, then swung the door open just enough further that the two of us could slip inside. The interior of the cathedral was, if anything, even more bizarre than the outside.

The doorman was in fact a woman, though I could only barely tell. Her face was as I imagined my escort’s must be, based on that brief glimpse of his hand. Brittle, brown, translucent. Like a well preserved mummy.

Her lips weren’t rotted away, but withered to the point that they did nothing to cover her cracked yellow teeth. Her arms and legs were so bony and atrophied that I could scarcely understand how she moved about.

The others were the same way. Desiccated. Skin like parchment, clinging so tightly to their skulls that they could hardly be said to have faces. All wore cloaks similar to my escort’s, but with their faces exposed. When I turned to ask why, he was gone.

“There are always wanderers like yourself in need of guidance” the woman explained, sensing my confusion. “His labor is never ending. To find them, to lead them here in time for his coming.” There it was again. “Whose coming do you mean? The fellow who brought me here?”

She smiled faintly. At least I think so, the corners of her mouth turned up. “Take a seat with the others. Time is short. If you must speak to the shepherd, you may do so when he returns. But you are plainly weary from your travels, so rest.”

I did as instructed. Every architectural detail of the church interior was fashioned from bones. Major structural elements fashioned from spines, a humerus here and there much too large to come from humans, and spiral flourishes made from the radial arrangement of shoulder blades.

Then there were the skulls. Great stacks of them, comprising entire walls. As if to spectate whatever went on in this place. A bone staircase wound up and around these walls, leading to a platform suspended by chains just beneath the massive, round opening I saw on the way in.

While taking all of this in, I became aware of many sets of eyes trained on me. The black robed multitudes, seated in a circle around some flickering light I couldn’t make out from this angle. Their eyes followed me as I sought out someplace to sit.

When I did, they parted so I could at last see whatever it was that so enraptured them. To my astonishment, it was an old fashioned television set. The case faded and stained, falling apart but still functional.

“How is there electricity?” I asked. They said nothing, just returned their gaze one by one to the television screen. Beneath it sat a video cassette player, also deteriorated enough that it surprised me it still worked.

On the flickering picture tube I saw scenes of nature. Just barely. The tape was by now so thoroughly worn out from repeated use that the picture quality was terrible. Washed out, faded and grainy, colors so distorted that the grass and trees only appeared green during rare moments of clarity.

But still, they watched. Engrossed by the imagery on the screen, and as I watched them, I understood why. A meager but precious reminder of the world they once knew. The world many of them were likely torn from long ago.

When the tape ended, there was a flurry of activity as they fought over who would rewind it. “Hurry, hurry” one of them urged, “I want to see it again!” Of course I thought, I’m sure they all do. “Settle down” an elder admonished them. “Remember, the time draws near when we’ll all see it with our own eyes.”

...Come again? I begged for clarification. They only looked at me, some smiling faintly as the woman at the door did earlier. What? What is it? What does it mean? How maddening that they would receive me, yet continue to treat me like an outsider.

Why should I do as I was told? Why should I remain here if my every attempt to learn more about what sort of people they are, and what sort of place this is, will only be met with indifferent silence? I was about to stand up and tell them off when I felt the first tremor.

I wasn’t the only one. The rest all perked up in their seats, pupils dilated, withered lips contorted into so many wide grins. “He comes”, one of them whispered. The next tremor felt slightly stronger, as did the one after it.

“He comes! Were you not told that the time is near? That the very hour of deliverance is at hand? You who have waited longest, and you-” he gestured to me. “-who have only just arrived. Let he who still doubts on this, the final eve, remain a doubter! Let those doubters be left behind as we, the patient and faithful, go on to our reward!”

The rest clapped, laughed and chattered excitedly to one another as the tremors continued to intensify. Around me, the bones began to rattle with each impact. Something’s getting closer, I felt sure of it. Something big.

The cloaked multitudes stood up from their seats, abandoning the little television which was so important to them a moment ago, and began ascending the stairs. Single file, orderly and quiet, but with expressions of wild excitement on their faces.

I ran to one of the narrow vertical windows by the door, hoping to identify the source of the tremors. I thought back to that manor with the dollhouses, and the stomping, suited creature which dwell in it. Not here, surely?

My heart raced as the tremors continued, stronger and stronger, now audible in the distance. It couldn’t have followed me. No way. How would it fit through the tunnel? Fear paralyzed me as I peered just over the sill of that narrow window, framed with spines.

The truth was worse than I dreaded. I worked myself up over the prospect that the baffling mirrored monstrosity followed me here, only for it to be something totally different. Something unlike anything I’d seen until then.

I couldn’t believe the size of it. A mile high at least, head immersed in the cloud cover. Its flesh a mottled white with patches of beige. Pulsating black veins showed through everywhere except on its legs, as those were coated with a layer of mud flakes and other grime from the feet up to the knees.

Being so large that it couldn’t move its considerable mass any quicker, it appeared to march towards us in slow motion. Leaving a craterous footprint embedded in the barren, cracked terrain behind it, then creating another in front where its foot next came down.

“We have to get out of here.” I whispered at first, not realizing it. Breathless because of the spectacle unfolding outside. “We have to get out of here!!” I yelled it this time, but to no avail. They just proceeded up the steps with a precision that suggested countless rehearsals in anticipation of today.

I scanned the city outside for any place more secure than this in which I might hide. But without knowing where the giant meant to step, one building was no more or less safe than the others. Trapped like a rat, I frantically peered out every narrow slit of a window I could find in search of some distant cave or other shelter I might still escape to.

Once it was close enough, I could make out little jet black eyes speckling its skin here and there, blinking sporadically as it moved. My stomach turned. I could feel myself losing my mind as it bore down on the cathedral, the only small mercy being that the cloud layer concealed its face.

That is, until it stuck its head into the church through that great, round opening. I screamed and fell all over myself trying to get away, but it had no obvious interest in me. Its eyes, six red slits, widened slightly and focused on the devoted multitudes gathered on the platform before it.

As I watched, its mouth opened, then the maniacs disrobed and began to climb in. One after the next, some even helping those too elderly and feeble to do so on their own. In they went, stepping over its lower row of teeth and crawling onto the tongue, then towards the back of its throat.

Once they were all inside, it closed its mouth and started to chew. I heard muffled cries of pain, but only briefly, before it swallowed. The impossible beast then looked directly at me. I froze and wet myself.

For a long, tense moment I lay there waiting for it to eat me. To tear the cathedral apart, pluck me from the wreckage and finish me off. But it didn’t. Its many eyes slowly searched the rest of the interior...then the gigantic head carefully withdrew through the opening.

What the fuck was that? What was that? I cried black, sticky tears as madness took me. Why? Why build this place? Why come here and wait for so long, just to be eaten? Was there no other meaning they could find in their lives? Or did they really believe it was the way out?

...Could they have been right? I wouldn’t have believed, before all this began, that there could exist a world like this at the bottom of some random hole in a field. For all I knew, their mangled bodies were now someplace else. Perhaps being healed in a black pool.

But then even if they were simply being digested, at least their suffering would be over soon. Perhaps they felt that if they were going to be eaten one way or the other, they might at least control when, how, and by what.

Like me, when I learned to make blankets of my own skin. Resigned to the impossibility of escape, simply trying to make themselves as comfortable as possible. It really is remarkable how comfortable you can get at the bottom of a deep, dark pit. You just have to belong there.

The impacts resumed, violently shaking the structure around me, toppling some of the skulls out of their piles. All of a sudden, I found myself wanting to follow it. Despite what I just saw, something within me forced my body to its feet, then out through the double doors.

It wouldn’t eat me. An assumption I admit, but with a firm basis. It had the chance, but I wasn’t even worth the effort. Probably only bothers showing up here because it’s guaranteed an easy meal. A snack, anyway.

Once outside I paused for a moment, stupefied by the scale of the creature now walking in the other direction. Towards another cathedral perhaps, for its next meal. I then set off in pursuit, cursing myself even as I did so.

It’s pure insanity to run towards such a thing rather than away. Yet I continued chasing after it, because it was something different. Something I hadn’t seen yet. Reason for caution, but also for hope.

How I wished for my mount. If only I’d seen where it landed! My thigh throbbed terribly with every step as I hurried, fast as I could manage, after the lumbering giant. Every ponderous step sent out shockwaves which nearly knocked me over again and again, until I worked out that I should follow it from a safer distance.

A few times it seemed to sense it was being followed. It stopped, knelt until its head was below the cloud layer, then surveyed the landscape around its feet. Whenever its eyes opened, brilliant beams of red light issued forth, which it swept around the landscape like search lights.

Because of its slow movement I had ample warning, such that every time I was able to duck behind a building or outcropping before it could spot me. More than once I was nearly too slow, and spent many tense minutes waiting for the giant to lose interest and continue on its way.

By the time we reached the outlands, pain and exhaustion forced me to stop. Between the bullet wounds and forcing myself to hobble all that way, it was all I could do to make it that far. The giant slowly plodded on ahead, leaving me behind.

That might’ve been the end of it...had the second giant not appeared. A distant silhouette at first, obscured by the thick yellow haze until close enough that I could see it properly. The first giant turned to face it, and before I could so much as guess at why there were two, they launched themselves at each other.

Blow after blow they fought, fists sending out shockwaves that I felt through the ground. The second giant was somewhat smaller. A juvenile? Could there be a whole species of these creatures? I climbed the exterior stairwell of an obsidian monument to get a better look.

The smaller giant bellowed, reverberations hammering my eardrums. Like a greatly amplified fog horn. The moment it got ahold of the other giant’s arm, it wrenched the whole thing loose in one swift motion, tearing it free from the socket.

I gasped. But the larger giant seemed all but indifferent to the injury, planting its fist in the smaller giant’s shoulder. Why do they fight, I wondered. Is it territorial? Something to do with mating, or simply their nature?

The smaller giant, when struck, lost hold of the arm. It tumbled a ways, devastating the obsidian ruins beneath it. Then the arm began to melt. Flesh liquefying, rearranging itself...into the shape of a much smaller replica of the creature whose body it was torn from.

The miniature giant ran straight for the largest, fusing rapidly into its leg the moment it came into contact with it. As I watched in awe, the assimilated flesh reformed into a new arm, sprouting from the stump of the old one.

It just went on like this, the two behemoths trading blows, tearing each other apart and reforming until the lesser giant was at last defeated. With its head ripped off, the body offered no resistance as the larger giant absorbed it, growing considerably in the process.

It made some sense of why they fight. To heal, or to grow. But where did they come from? Are they native to this place? I crept among the monuments until I came upon where the smaller giant’s head had fallen.

Still alive somehow. Can they even die? Crawlers approached on all sides like vultures circling their prey. I expected them to swarm it, picking the skull clean before moving on. Instead, the eyes opened. Dazzling red beams shone out of them, sweeping across the gathered mob of crawlers like a spotlight.

Every crawler that the light touched collapsed in convulsions, as if they were having a seizure. Then after a moment of stillness, they got up. No longer furtive or wary in their movements, instead calmly approaching the giant’s head as though mesmerized.

The head opened its mouth as far as it could. After what I saw in the church, I had a good idea of what to expect. The crawlers approached with chilling calmness, feeding themselves into the gaping maw. As they did so, new flesh began to regenerate below the head, bubbling out of the stump. Taking the form, even as I stared, of a tiny but proportionally correct body.

They kept coming, faster and faster, now crawling over each other on their way into the giant’s mouth. Whenever a pocket of crawlers emerged from hiding, the giant’s eyes came to bear on them. The red light struck their bodies, they collapsed in quivering heaps, then got up and joined the rest.

The larger giant turned slowly in the distance until facing me. For a moment I worried it might’ve spotted me somehow, but of course it was instead the regenerating head of its fallen opponent which captured its interest.

Though it was now growing at an astonishing pace, it wasn’t fast enough. The larger giant, who I followed out here in the first place, brought his foot down on the disembodied head. It burst spectacularly, showering me with sticky black blood and jiggling chunks of brain.

I was immersed in the black sludge until clawing my way out, desperately sucking in fresh air, or as close as it gets down here. Is this…? It was. There’s no mistaking the smell, or the texture. The black slime now coating my body, which had been inside the lesser giant’s body a moment earlier, was the same substance from the sunlit pool.

The two must be connected, but I couldn’t imagine how. Instead, before the giant could lift its foot, I scrambled down to ground level and climbed onto it. Even having seen what it could do. The red light. The gorging.

I was just too tired to carry on otherwise. The coating of black slime which I now figured for giant’s blood made for effective camouflage, as the giant’s foot was also drenched with it. I expect if not for that, I could never have evaded notice for as long as I did.

The giant lifted its foot. I didn’t anticipate how fast it would be. Though the giant appeared from a distance to move slowly for its size, the motion of its individual limbs was still harrowing for someone stuck directly to its skin. I held on as tightly as I could without compromising my hold on the satchel.

Whenever it put its foot down, I had a brief period of relative stillness during which to climb. Hand over hand, pulling myself up the muck stained flesh with much less pain than expected. Wind howled by, threatening to deafen me as I carefully made my way up the giant’s leg.

My ascent was made much easier than it might’ve been by the thick, coarse black bristles protruding from the giant’s flesh. During the climb, I noticed my shoulder and thigh no longer hurt. I thought it might just be adrenaline until I wiped some of the black crud away. I was shocked to find the bullet wounds fully healed! Damn it all, now the bullets are stuck in there.

At least the pain no longer hobbled me. I doubt I could’ve continued to climb otherwise. Even so, it took me what felt like a full day just to reach the giant’s hip. From that vantage point I could just barely make out a few swarms of crawlers following at a distance, having not yet given up, perhaps hoping I’d fall.

I took the opportunity to check on Horatio. He lay curled up in the satchel, breathing shallow. I tried massaging some black stuff out of him in the hope that his own secretions could be used to heal him, but he recoiled when touched. I also cautiously rubbed some of the giant’s blood on him, but it made no difference that I could see.

The giant was now so tall, since absorbing the other one, that his upper body was fully enveloped by the cloud layer. I could find no place to sleep that I didn’t feel certain I’d fall from. So I made my own. Cutting a long, curved slit in the giant’s skin, I pulled it back far enough to climb inside. It was every bit as foul as expected, but it was also warm and secure.

Easily the strangest place I’ve ever spent the night. The giant, so vastly larger than I, didn’t even notice the incision. Just a tiny nick, nothing to fuss over. The rubbery flap of skin, roughly four inches thick, healed around me somewhat during the night.

I cut away the healed over portions with my knife when I awoke, wiped the accumulated black crud from my eyes, then resumed climbing. It’s impossible to express my exhilaration upon penetrating the cloud layer and glimpsing, for what felt like the first time in years, the familiar forest of split stone pillars.

It evoked nostalgia of all things. What a perverse feeling, given the circumstances. I wasn’t home yet. I’d only managed to return to a more familiar nightmare. Although when I tried to recall what “home” looked like, to my surprise many of the details eluded me.

I lived...in an apartment. I think. There was a girl who lived in the next one over. I had a cat, didn’t I? It’s just been so long. Having been through so much since then, brain formed and reformed hundreds of times, my memories of the world I once knew were now faded. I began to wonder if that place ever really existed.

Maybe just a pleasant dream I had. Something I held onto so I wouldn’t give up and die so easily. No...it can’t be. Can it? What a cruel trick to play on myself, if so. It didn’t make much of a difference though. I had other goals now. To find the village. To save Horatio.

That’s the best I could hope for, realistically. Someplace safe to live. Something small to hold onto, and take care of. Given enough time, I might even forget that cruel, beautiful dream. Then I recalled the little television in the cathedral.

Green grass. Blue sky. That’s where I came from! Even if I could recall nothing else with clarity, that tape had to have come from somewhere. The television had to come from somewhere. I remember television! I remember…

Images, sounds and smells trickled back into my brain. It was real, all of it! How could I almost let it slip away? Oh, what I wouldn’t give for something green. Just a leaf, even, so that I could feel it on my skin. So that I could smell it.

That’s not too much to ask, is it? A single leaf? Or a blade of grass. Even a single blade of grass would satisfy me. Yet not even the lumbering gods of this realm can grow so much as a blade of grass down here. Not with all their power.

Step by belabored step, the giant made its way towards one of the pillars. Why that one in particular, I couldn’t fathom. But when it arrived, I at once understood why it fought the lesser giant. Why these creatures strive to absorb one another.

The giant raised its arms, now able to just barely touch the rim of the lower pillar with its fingers. It must know that’s the way out. But it’s futile, surely? An escape tunnel isn’t much use if you’re too big to fit through it.

When I figured out it meant to stand there for some time, fingers on the rim of the pillar, I got it in my head to climb its arm. The trouble was how to make such a journey without being spotted. I tried climbing up the underside, but it proved too dangerous. More than once I lost my grip and nearly fell.

So I threw caution to the wind and ran for it. Dodging bristles as I went, heart pounding, legs pumping on ascent. The giant didn’t even notice until I had the misfortune of bringing my foot down on one of those ubiquitous, beady black eyes coating its skin.

I felt the arm judder beneath me as it cringed. Then it slowly shifted its body, raising one hand as if it meant to swat me like a fly. Much too slow! Its hand came down behind me with the usual bone jarring impact, but that hardly even slowed me down.

Upon reaching its hand, the picture grew clear. The creature’s immense finger separated, morphed into a roughly human sized replica of the larger being, then set off for the center of the pillar. Then the finger regenerated, before once again separating.

It shapeshifted as well into another human scale version of the giant. As my eyes adjusted, I discovered a long single-file line of the creatures, marching single mindedly towards the center of the pillar. Towards the black pool, and the shaft.

It made me wonder at what measure of intelligence the giant might possess. That’s quite a clever trick after all. No doubt once topside, the procession of distorted, grotesque humanoid things would merge with one another, forming a larger and larger giant.

Like dripping yourself through a keyhole. I imagined the confusion and terror that would result in whatever world the giant meant to invade. But only for a moment. It once again reached for me, and as I’d stupidly remained at the pillar’s rim, I was nearly crushed.

It continued groping at the rim behind me, bellowing in frustration. Once satisfied I was fully beyond its reach, I slowed down and allowed myself some time to rest. Still coated in the vile black crud, head to toe. Mud flakes as well. How long has it been since I was clean? Have I ever been clean?

Still, what a relief to have finally escaped that horrid, sulfuric wasteland. The pillars were no more inviting than before, but I was at least back on the path I intended to follow before cast down into the world below. The deep beneath the deep.

Hours of wandering did not profit me, as I failed to find any roosting winged insects to commandeer. I hoped that setting out from this place would be as simple as it was before, but I soon worked out that I must’ve just been lucky the first time.

Nowhere left to go but towards the center. I dreaded it, not wanting anything to do with the giant’s progeny. But nor did I want to wander this cold, damp stone expanse forever. Dragging myself through this hopeless void brought back memories of my first month down here.

I got to wondering what became of the others. The ones I shared that time with, gathered about the edges of the sunlit pool. Bugs now, surely? Or perhaps they found out for themselves the true nature of the black fog.

For that matter, what about the village? The more I dwelled on memories of that rare safe haven, the more I missed it. What a fool I was to find such an oasis, only to abandon it so readily. I didn’t know, at the time, how much worse things could get.

“At least I still have you” I whispered to Horatio, opening the satchel to peer down at him. He lay there motionless. Not even curled up. I jostled him, now somewhat worried. Even when touched, he didn’t react. Didn’t so much as wiggle his chubby little legs.

I stopped cold, and surprised myself by tearing up. Without even noticing it, just by having him along with me all this time, I’d done exactly what I was told not to. I’d begun to love this weird little monster...if only as inoculation against loneliness.

I was warned, too. I knew from the outset that they’re short lived. Of course I didn’t listen. Horatio’s body felt stiff and cold as I carefully pulled it free of the satchel and laid it down on a blanket. Couldn’t even bury the poor thing on account of the stone floor.

What a hell of a thing it is to bind your life together with something you know isn’t going to live that long! It would’ve been so much easier to just never start caring about it. Doing so was a recipe for certain heartbreak, but I couldn’t help myself.

I was just so lonely. So crushingly, agonizingly lonely. But what for? The villagers welcomed me with open arms. It’s not like I wanted for company. I had it, but chose to leave. To isolate myself. Despite knowing the pain of rejection, I’ve been so quick to reject others. To brush away their outstretched hands, spurning their every effort to connect with me.

Just then, Horatio twitched. I burst into laughter, overcome with relief. Had I simply given up too soon? For all I knew he was just hibernating or something. His twitching intensified. As I watched, my smile faded. I tried holding him still, but he only spasmed even more violently.

Then, something black and glistening poked out of his rear. I gasped and dropped him. It extended, slowly at first, revealing itself to be some sort of impossibly long worm. Or leech? More and more of it came out. I backed away and fought the urge to vomit.

It just kept coming. Now at least ten, maybe fifteen feet long, still not all the way out. A parasite of some sort? It made sense of Horatio’s symptoms. Of his worsening condition these past few days. But for it to be this long…

Once the tail end finally pulled free of Horatio’s body, I snatched him away in the hopes that, with the parasite gone, he might recover. Only to discover he was now just a hollow shell, so light in my arms that I knew there was nothing left inside.

I screamed, more in anger than fear. To think I carried that thing with me all this time, silently gestating within my poor little grub... I grabbed my bone knife and severed the damp, black worm’s body. It thrashed in pain, contorting into loops.

I can’t even have this much, can I? Not down here. I can’t have someone to hold onto, someone to protect. Everything’s finally been taken from me. Tears continued falling from my eyes as I relentlessly slashed at the writhing horror.

Only after I’d cut it into chunks and smashed each one individually underfoot did I stop. I still couldn’t stop retching. All for nothing, all for nothing! Everything I suffered, in hopes of returning Horatio to the village in time. All for nothing.

Now I’m truly alone. I guess I always have been, but I also felt as if this place was changing me. As if I’d learned something. Just an illusion, much as the black fog. All up in flames now. But then…maybe I’m not here to learn anything. Maybe I’m just here to suffer?

It was such a natural thing to search for meaning in my suffering, I didn’t even notice I was doing it. I wanted it to count for something, for this unending nightmare to be important or necessary in some way. But it isn’t, is it?

Just another pitfall, believing that life is a story. That whatever happens to you happens for a reason, and has some special meaning to it. None of this meant anything, I felt certain now. Sometimes confusing, horrible shit happens, and it doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s just the universe being its usual ugly, cruel self.

I felt fucked. Utterly, irreversibly fucked. Even my first night down here wasn’t this bad. Physical pain is nothing to me now but an irritation. But this place...it gave me something small and vulnerable. Something to really care about, just so it could then snatch it away.

Forlorn and empty, I wandered. For how long I cannot say, I had no more interest in the passage of time or anything else. I never realized my own emotional dependence on having something to take care of. The more I reflected, the more certain I felt that I used it as a surrogate for human connections. A safe outlet for those feelings, even before I was abducted.

I could only endure my life before all this because of Goblin. I just didn’t notice because I took Goblin for granted, like everything else. I’d have laid down and waited for death long ago if I had nobody to talk to, nobody to dote on.

I was so buried in despair that I almost walked right past it, but the dull yellow glow just managed to catch my eye. I’d wandered to the rim again...and there, on a stalagmite, was the bioluminescent sac I once placed as a beacon!

It took me fully a minute to believe what I was seeing. Then another to comprehend the implications. A shock ran through me. The village! I doubled back and ran for it, fatalistic imagery of what must’ve become of the settlement flashing through my mind.

Feet pounding rough, cold stone, thighs pumping, I made my way towards what I expected would be a bloodbath. My freshly rejuvenated body proved stronger than ever, carrying me swiftly towards the fight.

When I arrived, it was both better and worse than I expected. The giant spawn were uncountably numerous as I feared, but the villagers looked to be mounting a surprisingly organized defense. They’ve been down here long enough, perhaps this wasn’t their first time fighting these things.

I hung back, spectating from behind a stalagmite. I’m ashamed to say it but I couldn’t yet tell who would prevail, and I didn’t want to throw my life away on a lost cause. As I looked on, villagers clad in armor fashioned from leather and bone hacked furiously at the giant spawn using bone blades they must’ve carved into that shape by hand.

Each time they split the creature in two, it formed two smaller ones. Which were then slashed in two, and so on, until they reached a manageable size. That’s when they were scooped up and deposited into gourd-like containers made from human skulls.

I laughed aloud, despite myself, at the ingenuity of it. If you can’t fully destroy whatever it is these creatures are made of, you can at least divide them into small portions and contain them apart from each other.

As I thought: this must simply be the latest in a long string of encounters with giant spawn, which drove the villagers to develop a system for defeating them. Yet the longer I spectated, the more numerous the spawn grew, overwhelming the armored villagers.

The containers quickly ran out, after which the villagers left standing found themselves waging an unwinnable battle against enemies which could no longer be contained, and which were never possible to permanently slay in the first place.

Having seen enough to know what would happen, I turned to leave. “Not my problem” I thought. “I don’t know those people.” But my heart stopped me. That isn’t true, is it? Of course I know them. The only friendly faces I ever ran into down here. The only ones who showed me real kindness, and acceptance.

How could I turn my back on them in their hour of need? I couldn’t abide it. There was no wriggling out of it either! Any way I looked at the matter yielded the same conclusion. I could do nothing except throw myself into the fray.

So I did, howling at the top of my lungs in a show of bravado I hoped would overpower my fear, or at least conceal it. All I had to bring to bear on the enemy was the bone knife, but it sufficed to slash open the throat of my chosen target.

It stumbled backwards, taken by surprise as it was in the middle of laying into one of the villagers when I butted in. The villager stood there stunned, but only for a moment. Between the two of us, chopping our shared adversary down to size wasn’t difficult.

But then the bits sprouted arms, legs and heads. They sought each other out and fused into fewer, and larger humanoid figures until all of our work was undone. The reformed giant spawn then started towards us again.

“You see?” the villager cried in exasperation. As I drove the giant spawn back with reckless swings, I asked how they repelled these creatures before. “There were never this many” the villager explained, severing its leg at the knee with a well placed slash.

To one side, I spotted the village chief in all his horrific glory. To see him properly, not concealed by the darkness of his tent, was really something. What a beast! What a mind rending spectacle! Tentacles whipping about, sending giant spawn flying this way and that. Thick, muscular limbs abruptly smashing their heads into splotches of black paste.

I left him to it, and amid the battle carrying on around me, sought out the bone cart piled high with hinged skulls. Keeping furtive watch to ensure I wasn’t snuck up on as I did so, I opened one of the skulls and plucked out the frustrated little figure within.

This place isn’t pure madness. There’s a certain logic to it. So while I couldn’t be certain of what I was about to try, I did have a hunch it would work. I pulled its head off, gripped the body in one hand, held it upside down and squeezed.

A spray of black blood at first, until most was out. Then a trickle. Then finally nothing. When I opened my hand and studied the crushed remains, they were motionless. More importantly, the mangled little body did not regenerate.

The blood. The black blood! That’s the key, isn’t it? It was always the key. From my first night here, I knew it held the power to mend broken bodies. To regenerate living tissue, albeit imperfectly. It’s all in the blood.

“It’s the blood!” I shouted. The villagers nearest me, startled by the outburst, gave me only brief notice. “Their blood!” I shouted once again, “Drain it and they won’t be able to fuse! They won’t be able to heal themselves if they’re fully drained!”

They ignored me. Except for one, whose particular deformity I recognized at once. The trunk sprouting from one side of his head and neck. The concentric rows of sharp little teeth. Eel mouth! He ran to my side.

“I knew you’d return” he gushed. I scratched my head sheepishly and replied “I didn’t.” He begged me to explain my plan to him, so I did. It wasn’t difficult, two against one, to pin down one of the giant spawn.

Eel mouth beheaded it with a bit of hacking. Then the two of us lifted the body by the waist, upside down, allowing the black blood to drain from inside. Crucially, we didn’t allow the body to rest in the pool of blood. Nowhere did the two contact one another.

Because of that, to my inexpressible relief, the body remained limp. The head reformed into a smaller humanoid and escaped, as neither of us had taken care to separate it from the blood which collected around our feet during the exsanguination.

After piling the drained body onto the cart, Eel mouth instructed the others by example. They caught on quickly, and soon bodies were stacked so densely on the cart as to overflow onto the cavern floor around it.

By this time we were few, as the giant spawn had already slain most of the villagers before I arrived. It wouldn’t matter if we won, everybody could be resurrected by the black pool. If we won. If not, it would all be for nothing.

The giant spawn would recover their own, perhaps in the same manner, but leave us to a permanent death. To a rest which I craved not so long ago. Absolute victory to whichever side could overwhelm the other, with no permanent casualties.

Experimentally, I dragged one of the slain villagers into a particularly large pool of giant’s blood. The wounds regenerated, but only partially. It just wasn’t enough without full submersion, and I couldn’t retreat to the black pool at the heart of the village with so few left to defend it.

All or nothing, then. Yet despite the abysmal odds, I felt a savage, erratic energy surge through me, as well as a deep sense of belonging. To be here, fighting for something which truly matters to my heart alongside the only friend I managed to make in most of a decade...it felt powerfully right!

I was, at last, exactly where I ought to be! For my own fulfillment, and to achieve the most good that a broken, corrupted wretch like me possibly can. Battling the forces of evil, back to back, with an unlikely but undeniable brother in arms.

Merry mutants are we, righteous and bold, fighting to save our precious home! Not the false homes we left behind, but the true home that we made together! From our very flesh and bone! Our bodies may be impure, but our hearts burn more fiercely than any human’s ever will!

The nine of us gradually dwindled to seven, then to five. But the method I devised worked wonders! The bodies accumulated until they engulfed the cart entirely. I retreated from the frenzy several times to relocate bodies, as the blood coating the cavern floor soon spread perilously close.

Slowly but steadily, our battle of attrition bore fruit. Their numbers diminished, and as they did so, it became easier to finish off those that remained. I made a point to crush the severed heads to slow down their reformation until I realized that the smaller humanoids they turned into were consistently fleeing back towards the rim.

Straight back to the giant. Must be why the invaders it was sending our way soon slowed to a trickle, then stopped coming altogether. It knew that we’d figured out its secret. That it no longer stood a chance of defeating us.

But then, who cares why it stops so long as it does? The others seemed unbelieving, swords still at the ready as I waved mine in wide, lazy circles about my head, whooping with raucous abandon.

Eel mouth followed suit, laughing with relief, then broke into song. The rest joined in, mobbing the two of us as we carried on. When at last that revelry died down, we got to work dragging our slain comrades to the black pool.

One by one we submerged them. An unholy baptism. One by one, they crawled out of the sludge without so much as a scratch on their bodies. Sometimes an extra eyeball or finger though. The black pool gives, but it also takes away.

I couldn’t feel bothered by it then. Still hopped up on adrenaline from the battle, so narrowly won. After setting the pile of bodies ablaze, we gathered for a celebratory feast presided over by the village chief.

His multifarious tendrils doled out roasted, split insect legs to everyone present. Quite like crab legs, good enough eating under normal circumstances but sweetened considerably by the exhaustion of battle.

After eating their fill, several villagers made a bonfire and danced around it to the sound of a drum set consisting of human skulls, played merrily by a mutant with six arms and at least as many eyes. As I ate, Eel Mouth took the seat next to me.

“I really did know you’d come back.” I didn’t dispute it, but only because my mouth was full of insect meat. His words were like jagged bone daggers thrust into my chest. My self doubt must’ve been plain as day, because he then qualified what he’d said.

“All that matters in the end are our actions, so it’s enough for me that you returned. However unsure you were at the time, that’s how it is for everybody in their critical moment. One of those scant few chances in your life to massively change its trajectory for the better.

I don’t need to know how long it took to decide, or what went through your mind before you pulled the trigger. All I know is that you came back, and that counts for everything.”

I teared up, and when he leaned in to hug me I not only allowed it, but returned his embrace. Over the next hour or so I recounted to him the details of my journey, from when I last left the village to my arrival at the battlefield.

When I described Horatio’s death, his eyes softened. He put a hand on my shoulder and confessed that they all went through something similar at various points. It surprised me to find my experience was not unique, though I suppose it shouldn’t have.

It made me reflect on the commonality of human experience, and how emotionally encapsulated my old life was. My suffering, my brief moments of happiness, my struggles and triumphs were all relatable milestones also experienced by countless generations before me. I just couldn’t see it that way.

So much I couldn’t see until it was ripped away. The illusory nature of separation. The notion that we lead totally separate lives, when simply being the same species means our life experiences will greatly overlap. Stubbornly imagining nobody could understand my misery, while rejecting anybody who attempted to.

It’s all so clear when viewed from the bottom of this pit. Only when engulfed in darkness, with the aid of its contrast, could I at last see the light. With the last of the weight removed from my heart, I found I could no longer feel sorry for myself. For what happened to me following my abduction.

Only brutal punishment and prolonged, grinding misery could dislodge my stubborn heart, so entrenched in its dismal view of the world. Of humanity. For that matter, I didn’t even value my own humanity and connection to other humans until I grew as outwardly inhuman as I’d allowed my insides to become.

What a pitiful fool I’ve been. What a blind, stubborn fool! That admission didn’t provoke the shame I expected. I felt only elation. A sudden unburdening, the shackles on my heart finally cast off. I felt...free. So I got up, meaning to join the others dancing around the fire.

Eel mouth grabbed my wrist. When I looked back in confusion, wondering if he intended to come with me, he instead dropped a bombshell. “I know where the shaft is.” I met his gaze, now trembling, unsure if he could possibly mean what I thought.

He did. “We found it during a raid, not long after you left. It looked awfully familiar to me. Everything was much more advanced, you know. Further along. But then, I was taken from Earth some centuries back. It certainly matched details I remembered from your description though, I can lead you right to it.”

I should’ve leapt at the chance. But something within me, something new, held me back. I was in no hurry to leave just then. Surrounded by friends, feasting, dancing and song. If I left now, I thought, what will I be leaving to?

A world which reviles me as a monster. Where I don’t know anyone and never wanted to. A world where I’ve already burned every bridge, and a community to which I am now as alien as they always were to me.

Still, there was my family to think about. I at least wanted them to know I was alright. I partied with the others well into the evening, and spent the night in the same tent I was given before. Could I really leave this place, I wondered. This place, and these people.

You can indeed become comfortable at the bottom of a deep, dark pit. You just have to belong there. But if you can find belonging in such a place, isn’t that good enough? Isn’t that what’s truly important, what so many spend their lives in search of? Wandering through a cold, dark abyss, a world every bit as strange and hostile as this one, hoping to find some measure of warmth?

It’s so bizarre down here. But home can look like anything! Often how you least expect it to. Home isn’t a place, after all, it’s people. Or even grotesque, mutated monstrosities, so long as you accept each other.

The more I dwelled on it, the more difficult a decision it became. But in the end, even after sleeping on it, I decided I couldn’t make it by myself. I still had connections to my old life, people who care about me back on the surface that I couldn’t ignore.

So it was that upon sharing my story with the others over breakfast, and packing for the journey, I once again set off from the village. Wondering, as I did so, if I wasn’t making as terrible a mistake this time as it was before. Having Eel mouth with me afforded a degree of comfort.

The mounts we chose were docile enough. Agile too. I was obsessively careful this time to scan my surroundings for any trace of danger. If I were to be shot down again… but no airships appeared. No floating, bioluminescent mass of sharpened tendrils.

All in all, an uneventful flight. Eel mouth set down on the pillar rim first, then I followed suit. Sensing my anxiety, Eel mouth handed me a short sword. “I don’t expect you’ll need it” he assured me.

I didn’t. We rode our mounts to the black pool without incident. I half expected the others to still be there. Instead, it was crawling with bugs. I looked to Eel mouth for explanation. “They raid the surface just as we do. The tunnels only reliably stay open for the bugs anyway, so we often time our raids close to theirs.”

He assured me there was no reason to worry, I’d just have some company on my way up the shaft. With everything in order, I embraced Eel mouth again and thanked him for everything. “You sound like you don’t intend to come back this time.”

I confessed that I really didn’t know. He accepted that, nodding somberly. We said what we both feared might be our final farewells. Then I climbed onto my mount, took a deep breath, and prepared for ascent.

The climb was longer than the others. At times I wondered if I had the right shaft. But then the starry night sky came into view, framed by the tunnel entrance. Just as I recalled from the night I was taken.

The bug ahead of me crawled out onto the surface, then my own cleared the rim of the tunnel. What a nostalgic sensation, after all this time, to feel the breeze of a warm Summer night. Behind me, bugs continued crawling out of the tunnel and heading off in different directions to forage.

As I watched them creeping along in the shadows, only able to make them out because of my new eyes, I thought back to how naive I’d been so long ago. Back when I thought I was the worst thing that could possibly be hiding in the dark. I didn’t then realize the extent of what darkness can conceal. Of what could be hidden down even a dull, innocuous hole in the ground.

The sound of laughter and flirtation startled me. Suddenly aware of what hell it would raise should I be spotted by anyone, I withdrew into the shadow of a communal dumpster. What looked to be a pair of students sauntered past, thankfully too interested in one another to pay close attention.

What a sensation, to be the monster lurking in the darkness. To be on the other side of that dynamic for the first time, understanding at last what sort of thoughts must run through its mind. Yet I bore them no malice.

I felt no hatred for anyone. My transformation completed, reborn from that hole in the ground into a world I was now seeing with fresh eyes. One which I at last longed to be a part of, to engage with. But which, in this twisted body, I knew I never could.

I thought about finding Camille. How I wanted to apologize. To pour my hearts out. But I’d just terrify the poor girl if she saw me like this! I couldn’t bear it if she were to recoil from me in fear. My every heart would be crushed, one after the next.

The kindest thing I could do for her, I decided, would be to leave her alone. It was nonetheless difficult to pass by her door without knocking on it. Temptation clawed at me, but I remained firm in my conviction.

Then I arrived at the door to my own apartment. Every bristle on my body tingled. Every little sound made me tense up for fear of being seen, as I couldn’t avoid the light just above my door while I struggled to force the damn thing open.

When it gave way, I tread delicately into the darkened room, soaking in the familiar surroundings. Goblin hissed and backed away. I knelt and made the usual friendly noises. She paused, seemingly confused. As if she recognized me, even like this.

Everything sat exactly where I left it. How long was I missing, all told? Surely the landlord noticed? I thought this place would be empty or rented to somebody else by now. I couldn’t make sense of it until, wandering by the bathroom, I caught a glimpse of a pale nude figure reclining in the tub.

He gasped. I couldn’t see his face clearly through the crack in the door, just barely ajar, but I knew. I still remembered glimpsing that creature from within the darkened bathroom, so long ago. To see it from the other side at last made everything clear to me.

I hurried back the way I came. To my surprise, Goblin followed. I scooped the hairy little critter into my arms and, taking care to avoid street lamps, withdrew into the night. When I felt safe enough to stop and catch my breath, the weight of what I’d seen descended upon me.

The tunnels don’t just connect the creature to different places, but to different times. I knew it well, yet never anticipated this. It meant that I could change things if I wanted. Couldn’t I? Would some cosmic force prevent it?

No, surely I could change history now. I could prevent my own abduction. Prevent the incomprehensible blur of suffering, of nightly dismemberment and rejuvenation which awaited me at the bottom of that hole. The old me.

But wouldn’t I cease to exist? If I prevented my old self from being abducted tonight, what would happen to the me that exists as a result of everything I endured down there? I might blink out of existence.

The old me would carry on as he did before. Living his life the way I did before all of this began, learning nothing, undoubtedly refusing to change. I would go to the grave a monster, in some ways uglier and more malformed than the way I am now.

The black pool didn’t really change me into something fundamentally different, did it? It just turned me inside out. Took the pent up, hideous mess at my core and put it on the outside for all to see.

I found myself confronted by the realization that I’m better this way. Honestly, truly, an improvement over who I was before. And upon coming to terms with that, I couldn’t stomach the idea of undoing all of it.

He doesn’t deserve to live. Not as he is. He may be easier on the eyes, may physically fit into this world in a way I never will again, but he’s not fit to live here. Despite brief moments during which I thought it was so much pointless suffering, I now felt convinced that it was necessary.

Glimpsing my old self, feeling nothing but violent disgust, that’s what sealed it. What ensured the night would unfold the only way it could. I returned to the apartment with Goblin in tow, again slinking from shadow to shadow for fear of being seen.

But then, there’s no danger of that is there? I wasn’t seen last time. The door was already busted down when I arrived. One of the bugs must’ve noticed my interest in the apartment and decided to investigate. I found the splintered wreckage of a chair just inside, one I dimly remembered propping under the door handle once upon a time.

It’s surreal to know exactly what you’re going to do before you do it. You might think that would make a difference, that you could decide to take some other course of action. It feels as if you could! But you tell yourself that you don’t want to. That you have good reasons.

I did, too. Our actions aren’t random after all, but the result of decision making. Of circumstance. All things being the same, if you were to rewind time by five minutes, you’d execute the same series of actions the second time as you did the first.

Only a thought experiment to anyone else, but I could say it was true with real certainty as I sought out the ambling, six legged beast through the pitch black interior of my apartment. There it was, perched on his back, proboscis piercing his neck.

Good. Time to take your medicine, you sickly, rigid little ape. After the bug crawled off his paralyzed body, I lifted him onto its carapace and went to work securing him to it using the sticky webbing secreted from spaces between each segment. For this very purpose, most likely.

After watching the bug leave, I tracked down my phone and texted my family. Cryptic but reassuring. Just that I’m not in any danger, that they shouldn’t worry, but that they also shouldn’t expect to see me again...and that I love them.

With that taken care of, I fled the apartment. From the wreckage of my old life, destroyed by my own hand without a shred of remorse. There could be no more qualified judge to carry out that sentence! No one who knew as certainly as I did how richly deserved it was.

My final business in this world now concluded, I rubbed the mangy head of the purring lump tucked into my satchel as I climbed onto my mount. I second guessed myself, but only briefly. I never belonged up here. I never made a good human.

I make a pretty good monster though. And in the only important way, I feel more human now than ever before. Now I know who I want to be, and where home is. So long as I have this grumpy little critter to take care of, I’ll want for nothing.

After savoring the breeze one last time, hearts soaring with unbridled satisfaction, I descended into the Earth. Towards a life of my own choosing, and the world in which I belong. Down, down into the darkness, toward the black pool.

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internathunal: I was held captive by your sense of style. I would love to see more from you. I enjoyed this immensely.

: This is a very interesting book - mostly because the heroine is quite charming and well rounded, and has very real issues to manage in her life. Most of all,. I loved the view inside of the life of a South Asian girl/woman, the emotional self-talk, the customs and preferences, the expectations a...

: The book was hella great. You never know what's going to happen next. There's a lot of clues that shows to the next scene. I thought Miley and David would marry each other in this book but too my disappointment, they didn't. I have a ques. Will there be a part two to this book?

Gavin Lafayette: I really like this story! The author has created characters that are well-defined and complicated, and the plot is intriguing. There are so many places this story could go, and I am looking forward to reading the second book as it comes out..

Prasino45: Hi! I happen to see your updated chapter on FF.NET!It happened to be about you coming onto Inkitt with this story! I've been a fan for a while! I'm a scqualphie writer myself. I ship them HARD! Love this story! I'm gonna do a reread as you said you changed some things! Glad we both made the switc...

Sammi Chan: THIS WAS AMAZING!!! My favorite part of this story was the slow build of Merlin and Arthur's relationship. Their relationship was rlly nicely fleshed out and so good :) The way that you handled the magic reveal was super enjoyable. I rlly liked the switching POVs. Good!Mordred was cute and I'm rl...

skippybash12: This story has engaging characters that you care about and a plot that is unpredictable and exciting. It is well written with a believable voice. Great weekend escape and if there was a sequel available I would buy it today -

Olivia N J Hamel: I want this book. I love it so much. It is so enjoyable to read and to have a copy of this always, I would be very happy, to always be able to come back and look at it again.

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Flik: Hi! ^.^ huge fan of yours on ff.net! When I saw the note about this contest on The Way We Smile, I couldn't help but rush over here, create an account, and vote! XD Seriously love this story and would recommend it to anyone! :D best FT fanfiction out there. Amazing story, amazing concept that wa...

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Sara Joy Bailey: "Full of depth and life. The plot was thrilling. The author's style flows naturally and the reader can easily slip into the pages of the story. Very well done."

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Ro-Ange Olson: "Loved it and couldn't put it down. I really hope there is a sequel. Well written and the plot really moves forward."