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This nightmare is never hot like the others are, which are tinged with adrenal colors and flaming, primal emotions.

I’m standing before an ensemble of everyone I’ve ever known and loved as they observe me silently. Despite their stitched, corpse-like lips they are able to whisper directly into my ear. Below me the dead ground pulses with something unknowable and cold. I feel nauseous and the pit in my stomach grows the longer I stay in this place. No matter how far I run, I get taken back to this spot as if I’m on a massive treadmill.

Why can’t you just listen.

Maybe you should become a teacher instead.

Shave your beard off.

You aren’t even trying.

I’m fine.

God has abandoned you.

You’ve gained weight.

Stop talking to me.

Nothing.

Shoot yourself in the head.

Shoot yourself in the fucking head.

I waited so long for you.

The ground starts to seep ink, gouts of it splashing my clothes, drenching me. My skin disappears into that muck as it starts rising and choking me, swallowing me as I drink it in return. As it reaches my nostrils, I see the tips of the heads of everyone floating by me in a circle. It's stinging my eyes.


Do it.


I willingly fall into the Death Posture and dissolve to the bone.


Hi, I’m Jake. I’m a 25 year old art student and I have a bit of a death wish.

That’s why I ended up as an apprentice to the eccentric being known as William See, who is living in a mansion floating in the ever-present Abyss. Dimensions lower than ours can manifest themselves as literature within his massive library, however something recently began to twist and disturb the contents of these books. William believes it to be the work of a long-lost aristocracy which wields dangerous and uncontrolled ink magic. Parallel universes, monsters and the occult are all real.

This was the recap I’d been repeating in my head for the past couple days after our misadventure in the old train tunnels. It helped provide a little bit of stability to an otherwise nonsensical year when recited enough times. Having another world to escape to separate from the ‘real’ world - which was currently burning from a variety of societal and political ailments - was both a relief and new source of stress. A bit like taking slow poison to counteract another poison.

Although Will proved to be impressed with my work in dealing with not one, but two ungracious ghost corpses, he was showing some hesitancy in bringing me along on the next outing. All he’d been talking about in hushed tones this week was the looming threat of the Aniloss cult. His usual agitation at being in an uncontrolled situation was the predominant flavor of his interactions and it was starting to grate on my nerves a little. Though, I was at least preferring his peculiar company to my own. Whether it was having uncomfortably short conversations with my parents, thinking about ways I could’ve retroactively initiated the breakup so it didn’t hurt as much, or otherwise trying to find motivation to finish projects, I was just done looking at the same four walls and talking to the same people every single day.

On a particularly rainy day, I was summoned to the estate. Will, in his paranoid state, had been rapidly scanning a specific collection of books within his collection. Long story short; he happened upon a short novel that had literally just shown symptoms of this cosmic sickness we were uncovering. Feverishly, he showed me the main summary as the wording began to twist and rewrite itself slowly.

Sammy Smith, bored as usual, sat by his lonesome at his cardboard stand at the edge of the cul de sac. Despite the weatherman’s insistence on the weekend’s coming sun - something only a small town like Heaven’s Grove would bother taking pride in - the sky was turning a peculiar light shade of magenta. Sammy looked down at his Mickey Mouse watch, the little cartoon hands pointing in opposite directions. 11:30pm. Mom’s lunch was ready in five minutes. Sam felt a quick pang of child-level guilt as he hastily put up the “Closed” sign on the stand. He turned to the south of the street, where a group of shrubs blocked the view of the curving sidewalk, and there he saw a peculiar thing; a single, dark red strand hiding inside the leaves. A piece of licorice candy, shiny and beautiful!…..

I turned over the book to read the synopsis:

Winner of the John Newbery Award, “Heaven’s Grove” is the story of a smalltown boy with dreams of becoming a candy store owner. What starts off as an innocent endeavor with a lemonade stand quickly turns to a hilarious and heart-warming romp from his small hometown of Heaven’s Grove, Maine to the big city where he meets a quirky cast of characters who help him achieve his goal.

A slice-of-life story about a young boy selling lemonade in a fictional town in Maine, in 1999. Sounded like some Scholastic type-shit. Not my cup of tea, but what could be the harm of exploring a little, right?

Will didn’t turn to me as he spoke. “We’re going in here now. I want to see the phenomenon myself.” I looked at him. He was staring intently at the novel, reading. Watching hungrily.

“Yeah man, of course. I’m ready when you are.”

Suddenly, the front door of the mansion shook with resounding knocks. We both stiffened and stood at attention in the cramped study; I reached for my firearm, but realized I left it on the rack at the front. Will motioned and silently, we crept up to the large window overlooking the Abyss in front of us. Nothing was on the porch, and of course nothing was floating out in the void beyond the stone steps.

Someone slapped the front of the window with a pale hand, making us both jump back.

“Let me in, cun - ”

It was Fraea. Will apparently didn’t need much convincing and threw open the massive oak doors leading to the foyer. Fraea’s small form stumbled forward and into Will’s suddenly awaiting arms. It was with dawning concern we realized she was injured. No, maimed. Her pale arm, torn right down the center joint, was barely hanging on by a scrap of flesh. A thick trail of ink was plodding out of the hole in a solid line.

“Jesus Christ,” I managed to mutter.

“Jake, grab her for a second. I need to grab some reserves. Don’t let her pass out.”

I stood there for a moment, struggling to find a non-intrusive way of holding her in my awkward hands. Surprisingly, she wasn’t hard to lead to the armchair in the study. Instead of grunting in pain, she just looked up at me through her aviators and smirked. “This ain’t shit, honey. You should see what yer boy there can do with a pen spear,” she teased.

“I honestly don’t wanna know,” I said.

Will came tromping back from some obscure corner of the mansion. “Leave the kid alone, Fraea. You’re in no state to joke around.”

She pouted. “Aww, but that’s all I can do at this rate, Billy! They fucked up my swinging arm. I was gonna use my shooting arm, but - ”

“Don’t call me that.” He was carrying one of those pen staves, this one specifically the length of a ruler just about. He stabbed it directly into her exposed thigh, a swirling cloud of the stringy black stuff puffing up temporarily and then being sucked down into her flesh. “Who attacked you? I have my theories, but I want you to tell me.”

Fraea’s broken limb magically began sewing itself shut, the void inside her wound gradually shrinking into a dot. She sighed and swung her tiny fist a few times. Good as new, apparently. She turned towards him and motioned him closer. As the two whispered to each other I turned back to Heaven’s Grove, who’s pages had grown nominally heavier during all the excitement. I was only half-listening admittedly. I was far too preoccupied with the ever-mystifying procession of reality shuddering in my hands.

“How many? There couldn’t be th … ”

“ - telling you, at least six, seven of the fucks. They all … same sigil on their b - “

“Damn.”

“ … unno how they got in. But they’re not taking the armory … going ba - “

“No … can’t, not alone.”

“ - saw Demagot’s wight there… recognized the wound … ”

Will was silent for a moment, then actually sneered. As in full on 50 percent extra mouth-curling. The room felt colder for a fraction of a second.

“Those absolute … wenches. They could’ve well left it alone, and now they’re targeting ME? I’m coming with you.”

“‘Course you are, Billy. Wouldn’t want anyone else there to help me get back my artwork.”

At this, Fraea glanced at me, a small hint of apology in her face.

I stood up, tossing the book aside. “So, we leaving now or what? I’m kind of itching for a fight myself. Maybe we can take care of this book deal when we get back.”

Will shook his head and stared at me. “We’re going. You’re going to stay and investigate the story.”

I froze in place. “What? You said earlier you don’t want me going anywhere alone. You were saying Fraea’s place got wiped by wights, yeah?” I looked at her and she shrugged. “Why can’t I come along?”

Will sighed and adjusted his stupid tie. Oh boy, here comes the condescending exposition.

“I would love nothing more than to observe the phenomenon taking place in that book. It would be an enlightening experience, by all accounts. But now that I know for certain the Family is onto our snooping, they’re going to be expecting us to retaliate. And frankly - “ he fixed me with his black gaze. “ - I don’t trust you’ll be able to adequately handle them. The Aniloss brood is a scheming, vile bunch. They won’t hesitate to exploit your most obvious weaknesses with their brand of magic. Even an Abyss-forged cannon wouldn’t be of much help versus an experienced ink witch.”

“I can’t honestly believe you. Fucking A. So send me into the book on my own. I’ll take notes so you don’t miss out on your precious studies while the REAL world is being destroyed on the outside.”

“Jake, the lives of the people in those books matter too. They may live in lesser realities, but they exist too.”

I fell flat. Fraea watched behind her shades passively, resting her chin on her good hand.

“Why do you think the worlds in those stories go on even after the narrative ends and it all goes to Hell? There are real, ongoing lives there. By studying what’s happening, maybe we can figure out a better way of combating this … cosmic sickness. With or without Aniloss interference.”

He beat me there. But the only thing I could think to myself was, how can I give my life for people I’ve never met when I don’t even care about myself enough to get my shit together? Funny how life puts you in cheeky, cliched situations like that.

I sighed in defeat. “Fine. Tell me what I need to do.”

----

An hour later before the two departed, I was instructed to place the novel in the appropriate portal slot, land in the story, and observe everything that happens. When things started going to shit, I was to evacuate and come back to the estate. I didn’t have to worry about spending a lot of time inside; supposedly, time passed differently in that world, and what could take days for events to play out there would only equate to maybe an hour or so outside.

Will and Fraea were armed to the teeth: on Fraea it looked rather normal, having black metal daggers and strange runes etched into her hastily-built armor. Hell if I knew how any of it worked. On Will it looked scary, with his trench coat’s sinister and tattered appearance. In his right hand he wielded a pen-spear so large it almost looked comical. He looked like he meant business.

“Good luck. Don’t mess this up” was all he said before the two slammed the doors shut behind them. I flipped him a double bird for his hypocrisy and made my way to the portals. I put on the strange golden medallion - which I affectionately referred to as a ‘safety pin’ - that kept me safe from the disintegrating properties of the interspace. Cannon in-holster hidden beneath my bomber. Bookbag full of provisions, even though I might not need them.

And I walked through the portal doors into the waiting nightmare on the other side.

----

As with all nightmares, you ‘wake up’ disoriented and unable to remember how you got there. No cold sweats for me this time. I was suddenly standing on some barely-trodden road leading into a thicket, but I could see that it gradually was turning into a cement paved road. Three feet from where civilization emerged, I saw a large wooden sign:

WELCOME TO HEAVEN’S GRCVE, MAINE

“Where God rested on the 7th day!”

Population: 1,649

I tried to think of it like a field trip as I followed the road into the town, which was hidden behind about a half a mile of thick trees and undergrowth. If not for the subtle scent of cinnamon and the distant rattle of a motor, I probably never would have thought there was a town here to begin with. For all intents and purposes this specific forest did not exist in my world, yet there it was, outlined in blaring red marker on a portion of my map.

As I went through the town gates I saw part of the sea churning over the cliffside. The town looked like a more humble, brick version of Nova Scotia. Old white boats rocked lazily in the harbors below during the cool morning. Men and women, seemingly with nothing better to do, ambled about from building to building with the occasional small talk. When I first entered the main road, a few folks eyed me with casual interest before ignoring me entirely.

As I passed the town hall, a somewhat portly, cherubic woman greeted me. In one hand she held a basket.

“Hi stranger! Are ya’ visiting for the annual Rest Day festivities?”

I turned and flashed my best ‘I’m fine’ smile. “Hello. Uh yeah, actually, I was just passing through the area and I read on my ph - in a paper that you guys were throwing some sort of event.” I pulled that out of my ass, but going off what she just said and judging by the various red and gold banners spread across certain lampposts and building facades, they were right in the middle of planning the whole thing. I also had to mentally reel back some of my wording: the story took place in 1999, so obviously any mentions of technology or fads past that point were certain to be met with suspicion or confusion. I didn’t know what to expect out of this seeing as I never went to Maine in the base world either.

“Oh good! So you know all about the bake sale, the carnival games, etcetera?” the woman beamed with her red lips. I felt a little more at ease seeing that she really was just a normal person.

“Yeah! Yeah, definitely. Um. I was actually wondering if there was a hotel I could hit up beforehand, if you have, uh, any. I don’t plan on staying for more than a couple days.”

“Ah you betcha, you’ll wanna’ head straight up Rover road about two miles, then turn right at Elmer Park. There should be a tiny building, that right there’s an inn you can stop by. And while you’re going, could I interest you in some of today’s pastries? This stuff’s in high demand right now!” She reached into the basket she was holding and pulled out what appeared to be a red velvet cupcake. My mouth watered a little, but being slightly out of shape caused my guilty ego to speak out.

“I’m fine, thank you. Filled up on trail mix. I’ll have time to eat some later for sure though.”

“Oh, you betcha. You have quite an accent stranger, where ya from?”

“Chicago. Uh, I’m Jake, by the way.”

“Well nice to meetcha, Jake. I’m May Conners, welcome to Heaven’s Grove again. Hope you have a good one!” We shook hands. She was warm, pleasant. I started to naively think to myself that maybe my trip here wouldn’t be terrible after all.

As I continued trekking uphill through the paved road, I passed a myriad of festivities taking place at odd intervals between the inner town and what I presumed was the residential area, which was a grouping of smaller, quieter houses pushed back beyond a treeline. Some people were engaging in a variety of sports activities in their front yard, some were selling sweets and other assorted goodies which my nose picked up on when I first stepped foot into the area. I liked it; it reminded me of the smaller neighborhood I grew up in where block parties and garage sales were plentiful. People seemed happy. Maybe it really was Heaven after all.

Eventually I reached a roundabout, which probably meant that I had walked too far. There were only about three houses surrounding me by now and each bore the same red banners I saw at the front of town. As I started doubling back, I saw a boy sitting at a shoddily made lemonade stand made from cardboard. The introductory protagonist from the story, Sam. I wondered briefly what sort of life he led here, outside the scope of the novel. If he had the same issues and dreams I did outside. Did he realize he was the main character of his own story?

As I approached the kid. He looked up at me with a cheerful grin, professionally straightening out the cups and sitting at attention.

“Hey mister, you want some lemonade?” he called as I passed.

I stopped for a second and studied the pitcher; the lemonade was red, a lot more vibrant than the usual pink variety. “Mmm, maybe later kiddo, I’m trying to lose some weight. What’s the flavor by the way?”

Little Sammy shrugged. “I found some licorice and squeezed it into some lemonade. I call it, uhhhh, lick-o-rishnade.” He grinned proudly. One of his front teeth was missing and I suddenly felt the smallest pang of sadness. I wished - for a brief moment - that I could be a kid again, when simple shit like this was all one thought about. Being an adult tinges everything with this stupid meloncholia.  “Mom says I can’t have candy, but licorice isn’t candy so … I’m puttin’ it in the juice.”

“Clever. I’ll maybe stop by and buy some later, kiddo.”

“Okay. Bye mister.”

As I turned to head back, I heard Sam pouring a glass of the stuff for himself. He really seemed to be enjoying the fruits of his labor, so to speak.

I didn’t realize until later but the earnings jar that was sitting on the edge of the stand was startlingly empty, despite the big sloppy $1 painted on the front of the box.

----

I finally checked into the tiny inn sitting on the outskirts of town, which was little more than a two story log cabin. It was around 2pm when I checked in at the front desk, where a bored looking guy who looked like he just got out of bed sat reading some book. Books books books. I was inside one of those things, just like he was, except he didn’t realize he was just a character. Just thinking about the nature of such a thing started to irritate me so I spoke up first and asked for a room.

He didn’t glance up. “Tryna’ get away from all th’ ruckus outside?”

I stammered then realized what he was talking about. “Oh! The festival. Yeah, I mean, it's … fun. I don’t really know what it's about, truth be told.” I slapped some bills onto the counter. “I’m from Chicago.”

The guy looked up and nodded. “Ayuh. You look like someone from the Windy City. Ya’ got that Great Lakes scent on you.” He scooped up my bills and scrutinized them a little too closely. For a second, I thought he might somehow realize they were from a different timeline/dimension altogether and I sweated a little. Satisfied, the scruffy fellow pushed them into a drawer and handed back a couple crispy bills. 1999 circulated tender. Cool, in a meaningless way I guess.

“Mhm, can’t fucken stand this thing we do every year.” He sighed and popped a cigarette in his mouth. He offered me one and I politely refused. “I mean - fffuuuu - I don’t hate the nice folk of this town. I’ve been livin’ here for ‘bout, 26 years? Older than you, by th’ looksa yer stubble. Its the same shit, neighbors start makin’ a bit of a ruckus for a few days, settin’ up here and there. Bake some heart attack food, get the kids to do some stupid musical bits. Act like we’re the hottest shit since sliced bread for a few weeks just cuz some city yups dumped their college funds here.” He glances at me. “No offense.”

“None taken.”

“They’re all louder than usual this year.” He leaned in with his cigarette, the lights above throwing his face into harsh shadow. The man had gaunt cheeks and bloodshot eyes, emphasizing his already tired demeanor. “Ain’t gettin’ much sleep lately. I mean I run this dump on my own 24/7 already, alone since my wife died in ‘86, but the townies been making a lot of noise at all times of day. Ayuh, lot of it.”

“So what is it they actually do?”

He took another drag and handed me the keys to my room. “For Rest Day? Well, we’re supposed to be doing more calm-like activities, y’know, artsy shit, reading circles, making sculptures. I mean it's supposed to be like eh, God-like, I guess. We’re a God-lovin’ town if you haven’t noticed. Rest Days ‘sposed to be a day of quiet reflection and creativity.”

Both of us looked to the door where some kids ran past screaming, waving red pinwheels and flying little paper fish puppets on sticks. I suddenly became keenly aware of a low buzzing noise: the sound of a living town where literally everyone was moving about.

“This shit ain’t Rest Day. It's loud, it ain’t humble or God-like. I’d like some peace and quiet for a whole year after this one.”

“Well, maybe you should invest in some ear plugs, old timer. Name’s Jake by the way.

He stuck his hand out and firmly shook mine. His coarse hands felt more real than anything that had happened to me in the past year. “Dale. You keep your head about you, ya hear? And ayup, might jus’ go about doin’ that if this fuckin’ racket keeps up.” Another screaming kid ran past the eastern window and he slapped the glass.

“Shaddap!”

----

For the rest of the day I sat inside my tiny room not quite knowing what to do except observe the outside world. Despite the subtle weirdness of the town’s activities, I felt fairly safe. My notepad was filled with funny little doodles halfway past my character designs, long since abandoned for half-assed school notes and reminders for reminders long overdue.

On a page with a large-chested warrior carrying a massive hunk of iron in the vague shape of a sword, I had doodled a series of circular glyphs. None of the shapes meant anything to me but their thick, dark outlines brought my mind some comfort.

I looked down. Might as well take a nap for a bit and explore the town later. Maybe have a pleasant dream about Miss Conners feeding me some red velvet cupcakes.

Christ, I need to work on my candidness.

As I reached for the blinds, I noticed two people standing in the alley below my window. A young man and his girlfriend, it seemed. To my mild disgust they were making out furiously and although I couldn’t quite see their faces clearly, I could tell the dude was really getting in there with the tongue action. Eugh.

Enjoy it while it lasts buddy, I thought to myself bitterly.

I noticed that something was off about their movements. In the evening light, their necking looked rubbery and unnatural. The motions reminded me unpleasantly of the wight I shot down in the tunnel systems back home.

I craned my head a little closer, still unable to see clearly due to the glare of the window and the shadow of the alley. I turned off my lamp and prayed nobody would see this. I whipped out my iPhone and turned on the flashlight, aiming it down through my window. I was just close enough the light shone down to the tops of their heads.

My discomfort only grew when I saw them pull apart slightly, just enough I could get a good look at what was going on. But first I heard them.

Wet, sloppy noises. Not like kissing, but a gross suction noise like when you step in a mud pool. It was mixing with the low buzzing of the town in an alien rhythm of sorts. And right between their lips, pulsing and flowing with worm-like motions was a thing.

A thick, ropey strand of what appeared to be taffy. And it was … glowing? It was casting small, eerie rays of red light on the walls nearby.

I couldn’t move. I was transfixed by what I was seeing, feeling a knot grow in my stomach. It was like when you know something bad is coming, and you’re preparing for it but its only a matter of seconds away. That tension.

The guy looked up at me and the thing retracted into his mouth. He smiled so I could see his gums. Glowing red like an exposed womb. Teeth shattered and repositioned into candy shards.

“Tastes like licorice, mhm,” I heard him mumble.

----

Ended up not getting much sleep that night, myself.

I spent most of the night watching my drawer pushed up against the flimsy door, begging that the boy from the night before didn’t break it down. I had my cannon tucked safely under my pillow but for whatever reason I didn’t even think of taking it out. Perhaps out of fear.

One of the night terrors I had when I finally succumbed to sleep portrayed him confusingly as one of the dog-flesh creatures from my past encounter, squeezing under the door while howling and flapping his red appendages through the cracks. Woke up in a pool of sweat and a little blood where my nails had bitten into my palm.

I looked at some notes that I had managed to eke out the night before

  • weird/loud town; usually quiet
  • Catholic sect?
  • People are unusually friendly
  • Sammy hasn’t sold any lemonade despite his pitchers being nearly empty
  • red shit in ppls mouths (very fucking bad!!!!)

Dissatisfied with my own research, I looked at the clock. 8:33am. Unfortunately I didn’t have William’s strangesight, but I did have decent intuition and deductive skills. Enough so that I realized finding Sammy Smith might be my best bet at uncovering the origin of the town’s strange behavior and sights.

I threw on my second set of clothes and walked downstairs where Dave the innkeep sat hunched over a bar stool at the front desk. He wasn’t moving. As I inched closer nervously, I heard a soft snore and the stench of booze hit me. Dude was extremely hungover. He somehow seemed less tired now than he did while awake, as if he had been dealing with this for a long long time.

Walking out the front door, I was met with a resounding cry as a parade of townies danced past the front, making strange hand signs and bending at uncomfortable intervals. One of them was a young girl, maybe 15, who held her hand out to me frantically as if to say “come join!”

I politely waved her away and she just kept dancing manically along with the crowd. It was so, so loud today. Why did it feel like I was walking through a jello made of sound? At odd intervals, I saw red stains in the shape of bare feet printed onto the cobblestone path.

I made my way through the festivities of Rest Day, my sense of unease growing as I interacted more and more with the denizens. Children were cartwheeling dangerously down hills, some of them slamming into the hay bales below at high speed. Groups of chattering women grouped together and sipped red wine, speaking in high pitched tones: it sounded like nonsense to me. The men were feverishly tearing down what looked like the skeleton of a barn and rebuilding it, but the architecture was all wrong. All the while, laughter and buzzing filled the air. It was more subtle than my first adventure, and more disconcerting.

As I made my way back towards the cul-de-sac, I noted that the streets were absolutely littered with red velvet muffin wrappers. The party from last night must have continued into the following morning. I dared not approach the sweet bits laying about. There was something odd about them, something vibrant and living that made my head hurt just looking at them.

Thankfully, nobody seemed to be in the area, and I saw Sammy’s lemonade stand laying abandoned near the path leading into the backwoods of the neighborhood. Unholstering my cannon semi-consciously, I trekked into the forest as the sound of the town died out behind me. It didn’t occur to me I was basically following a kid into a forest with a loaded weapon, but sometimes context can look bad, can’t it?

The trees swayed from invisible winds as alien warbling echoed from the leaftops. Clearly, the insane rapture of the town did not stop at the boundaries of civilization. Looking down, I recognized the remnants of further snacks, muffins, pastries, emptied paper cups. Sammy was nearby.

Approaching a clearing, I scanned the bushes for any sign of movement. Behind me, the cosmic buzz was ebbing in waves. That’s when I saw the boy, crouched in the center of the clearing facing away from me. I held the gun behind my back in uncertainty; was this how you’re supposed to deal with otherworldly problems, via brute force?

“Little guy? You okay? Where are your parents,” I called out with my last bit of courage. He didn’t respond. The kid was munching down on something.

“Sammy? Bud?” I approached carefully. The sound of leaves crunching underfoot were drowned out by the humming auras.

“...Ohhhh, I looooove these red snacks. I do love ‘em. I made it myself, see? Yummy yum yummers,” the kid gibbered to himself.

“I foundid these candies deep in the ground, pulled ‘em right out and made lick-o-rishnade. My family couldn’t get enough. Just in time for Rest Day! Right here in Heaven’s Grove, where God rested on the six… s-seventh dayyyy…!

Pistol gripped in hand. No sudden movements. “Bud… put down the candy, that stuff’s no good for you.”

Sammy kept on chewing and muttering through bites. Loud sloshing accompanied his rambling.

“They came from the ground!” He slowly started turning around. The buzzing was hurting my ears, so much so I had to cover them. His hands and face were stained with that unknown red, more crimson than blood. More shiny.

Sammy Smith grinned up at me and revealed he was missing all of his teeth. Where pearly whites once were, red tendrils of that stringy stuff were poking out, feeling their way around. And then they centered on me.

“Wanna taste, mister? Came right from the ground. Made it myself. My insides hurt!” He crawled up to his feet and shambled toward me. Something inside his skull started shifting around, making him pulse and glow.

“Stop, get back!” I cried, pointing the gun at him. Please don’t make me do this. Please God.

The town behind me rose in an awful chorus. Somewhere above the treeline, a celestial body began to dip down in the arc of a comet, traveling linearly. It glowed an apocalyptic red as it slowly made my shadow grow long. Sammy kept staggering forward, his body making horrific cracks and sloshes as the otherworldly flesh he’d been devouring began to manifest itself. Thick, knotted ropes extended from his mouth, pushing his jaw to inhuman width. Black-tinted pustules rose along his arms, threatening to burst. Ink? Enamel stones ruptured along his belly and took the vague shape of a stomach.

The boy no longer resembled the kid from the beginning of this story.

I just wanna eaaaaaaaaaaaaat,” the thing whined at me. His eyes ruptured and leaked onto the forest floor.

“Fucking stop!” I shrieked. I pulled the trigger and felt the blast push me wayside. I don’t know what I was thinking, I wasn’t ready to take a life … but I also didn’t really have a choice. But the shot merely grazed Sam and sent him tumbling to the ground. It only took a few seconds for him to begin pushing himself back up, shambling once more toward me as gouts of pus shot out of his wound.

So this was the sickness. The townies had discovered the red veins of reality and consumed them, thinking them to be delicious party favors. In a rush, I ran back towards the center of town. Maybe I could still save some innocents, bring them back with me. Behind me, Sammy’s cries were drowned out by the hum.

The streets were barren as I jogged back into civilization. The decorations so faithfully pinned up were now being swept in a great, intangible wind. Past the cul-de-sac, past the residential areas and small shops, I eventually staggered into the open plaza.

Here, nearly every single townie was congregated in all their horrific glory. Warped appendages raised to the sky where the celestial glow was plummeting, casting nonsensical shadows against the cobblestone ground. I hid behind an overturned cart stand, trembling as I planned my charge past them back to the inn. And the horrible noise was at its apex here, forcing me to cover my ears.

That’s why I didn’t notice the shadow creeping up behind me until it was too late. I felt warm hands clutching my leg, then back, then wrists as it helped me spin around blindly.

Miss Connors - the portly greeter -  was standing above me, looking down with her same warm demeanor. Her arms were freshly transmogrified into a grotesque tree of limbs, combining and splitting from themselves until they ended in vaguely-humanoid hands. Several were wrapping themselves around my own limbs, some were holding what appeared to be red pastries that pulsed like hearts.

“Care to rest with us, hun? We have alllllllll the treats you could ever wish for, hun! First you have to kneel and partake of His flesh, so that you may have everlasting life. God is coming, hun.” Her eyes rolled back into whites, jaw collapsing open and revealing a tongue made of teeth and flesh. Her many hands tightened their grip on my limbs.

I gritted my teeth and tilted the cannon at her, and fired. Square shot, directly in the neck. Instead of leaving a hole, it nearly lopped her whole head off in an impressive explosion as seering bits of ink showered on my skin. I felt the grip loosen and I shook her off, dashing away from the plaza towards the nearby inn. Nearby, the townsfolk rose in an anguished choir as they noticed me and began to ooze a path away from the central fountain.

I slammed the door behind me as I looked around for Dave. Nowhere to be seen, but the red trail leaking out the back door told my heavy heart all I needed to know about my short-lived friend. Coming here was useless. Around me, the doors and windows began to shudder, banging with ferocity. Red light leaked in through the remaining openings, blinding me still despite the lack of volume.

“Not real, not real, not real -

The insane following had me trapped. I closed my eyes and let the drumming throb of Heaven’s Grove consume me.

...And

I opened my eyes and found myself standing at the opening of the outskirts of town. The harsh red light bathing me dimmed a little and I turned to look at the cause.

In the distance - somewhere in the town center, I imagined - sat an odd radio antenna tower that wasn’t there before. The light at the top was crimson red, unblinking, and in a fraction of a second I saw the thing’s true form as I looked upon that orb.

Thousands, tens of thousands of intertwined tendrils, red like the string from Anomalous Weather, like the sweets Sammy peddled to the townsfolk, writhing in unison and five times as tall as a real tower. The orb atop the antennae was a vaguely humanoid mask, pale and unmoving against a tattered cloth sky that met with the ground. The living monolith opened its string-mouth and whispered (shouted?) into my brain in a Planck instant. For a brief moment I thought my skull would crack in half from the deafening buzz, and then all was hushed as I saw its words float in front of my eyes.

DESCRY, THE TOWER. I HAVE TURNED THOU HERE FROM THE IMPENDING RUINATION OF HEAVEN’S SIN; THOU ART NOT OF THIS WORLD.

My mouth lingered, trying to swallow gobs of saliva as I formed a sentence. “Whuh ... what are you?”

COGITO VERITAS. LIVING DESIGN.

“ - G o d ?” My brain pulsed ominously. Primal fear.

FALSE. THE ONE WHO RECTIFIES ANOMALIES IN THE GRAND STORY; THIS ONE IS IRREDEEMABLE. ALL WILL BE LAID FLAT ONCE MORE.

“B-but why? Can’t you save these people? They did nothing wrong.”

TANGENTIAL. IF ALLOWED TO CONTINUE, THIS TOWN WILL DEVOUR OTHER REALITIES. ALL WILL BE LAID FLAT.

“So why did you save me?”

The briefest of apathetic pauses. ODDITY. NOMINALLY SIGNIFICANT. THOU SHALL SEARCH FOR THE CAUSE.

A small heartbeat electrified the air around me. “So…do you know what that is? What should I do?”

FACELESS.

“Huh?”

I AM BLIND TO THE HUMAN RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS. WHERE THEY WORK, A STATIC PREVAILS.

I stood dumbfounded. A single person caused this? Then what did the Family have to do with any of this?

OBSERVE. THOU WILL KNOW HIM. FOLLOW HIS KIN, AND THEY WILL LEAD YOU.

“I don’t understand. Why can’t you help us!?”

FOLLOW HIS KIN. AND THE DREAM MAY YET CONTINUE.

“You - ”

SINK AGAIN INTO CHAOS.

There was a bone-shattering rumble. In an instant, everything went dark. When I opened my eyes again, the red tower was gone from the treeline.

I walked back down the path to Heaven’s Grove, the knot in my gut throbbing in unison with my head.

30 minutes later, I could not find a single trace of the town. Nothing but empty dirt and absence of fauna. No red string, no townies obsessed with worship, no little boys with bursting skin. Even the rolling hillsides were laid flat like a wrinkled shirt.

None of it existed anymore.

When Will found me later, slumped on a mansion sofa, I was in a catatonic state with my hands wrapped around my head like a toddler. I stayed that way for five more hours.


He wouldn’t believe me after I came ‘round. Or rather, didn’t want to believe me.

“You met the Wraith in Red? The Tower? Jake, that’s impossible.”

“Why is it impossible… three weeks ago, I didn’t even believe in the occult, in ghosts or magick … ”

“You met a living deity of my world so casually, and I just - “ All the jealousy seemed to leak out of his body. He was covered in battle wounds and sluggish; I didn’t even bother to ask him how the siege on Fraea’s foundry went. I just wanted to forget everything that happened.

“From what I’ve read up on … The Tower only shows up when the state of the world has gotten very, very bad. And if what you’re telling me is true, I think the Aniloss clan is working with someone who’s very powerful. Capable of tearing up entire plots of timelines like they’re pulling out weeds. And you … you seem to matter in this grand scheme.”

He looked at me. Those strange blackhole eyes of his went to work, but apparently he saw nothing. Will sighed and loosened his tie.

“Come on. I think you need some time away from all this. But first, have some tea to calm your nerves.”

He left and came back with a steaming mug. Inside was red tea. I groaned and shuddered uncontrollably as he spilled the cup onto the rug.

“Shit, sorry.”


As recorded within The Estate

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