“...We’re going into a horror story, and all you’re bringing is that?” I asked, pointing at the glint in William’s left hand.
“It’s a vial for procuring samples,” he responded, placing it into the pocket of his coat. “We don’t know what will be left over in that place, so ideally I’d like to take something small back with us if we need to high tail it out. There isn’t much else we’d need since we’re not trekking over a mountain or anything like that.”
"Really? Not even a snack?" I said, ignoring the fact I had eaten a hefty meal an hour prior.
“We’re ready. Follow me.” He picked up the thin paperback laying on the armchair and gestured towards a spiral staircase, hidden in a back hall outside the foyer. This would be my first time actually descending into the lower levels of the Mansion.
As we took descent, the cobblestones holding together the tight column of stairs began to smooth out, losing their deformity and dankness. I almost expected the basement to be cleaner than the upstairs rooms by the time we reached the bottom. Turning left, right, then right again, we came into view of what looked like the inner reaches of an old-timey but well-kept dungeon. Dozens of wooden doors lined a hallway that extended far off into the horizon, punctured by pinpricks of torchlight. It's definitely bigger on the inside I thought, trying to steel my nerves against the task we were about to take. We eventually found a singular door along the way, seemingly arbitrarily picked out by William. A peculiar rectangular indentation was in the middle area where a window might usually be.
“Put the book in the slot,” Will instructed. I obliged and after a two seconds the door swung open, revealing yet another endless vista of blackness. It was the same ocean of ink I saw outside the estate once within the safe, inner walls. This time, there were no torches to light the way. “And now we walk!” he said cheerfully. “Do you still have the medallion I gave you?”
I touched the golden pin he had given me as per our briefing many weeks ago. It was fastened securely to my hat, the six-pointed edges prodded my fingers. “Yeah, why?”
“Just make sure it stays there,” Will said. “Taking it off during our excursion into the tunnel could end up being an unpleasant affair.”
“What, would I die? Is this thing some sort of magical protection?”
“I didn’t say that. But also, yes.”
Do or maybe die, I guess. I gulped and refastened the pin.
We walked through the tunnel. My footsteps collided against nothing, yet I felt something holding me up. It was like walking on a massive invisible treadmill going in every direction. William’s coat was the only thing I could make out in front of me, billowing out and revealing the red lining within. “How much further?” I cautiously asked.
William turned, his pale skin becoming distinctly visible against the illusory black backdrop. As we matched gazes his mouth upturned in a smile. “Not much longer. We’ll know once we’ve reached the end of the portal.”
“How sure are you we won’t get, you know, stuck in this place once we’re through? I know you said you’d take care of everything, but um-” I began, but he held up a hand to silence me.
“The Abyss is capricious, not unfair Jake. As long as we are using its ability to open pathways in a non-offensive or profane way, we are free to move openly between my home and the many worlds without,” he calmly explained.
“Alright. If you say so.” The walk was, as you might’ve guessed, eventless. Despite the discomforting level of silence and the inhuman amount of excitement in my fingertips, I felt strangely at peace. This place had a vaguely droning, pleasing hum.
I flinched and looked around. I hesitate to say we had arrived because - like in a dream - I remembered always being here without causation. This indeed was Chicago, around Grand avenue. I could always recognize my hometown no matter the context.
The first thing I noticed was the weather was different. Back home it was a nice, cool 50 degrees Fahrenheit in April (which is the norm for my city). Here it felt like a Florida 85. The biggest difference was that this place was covered in guts and blood. Big and small guts, lakes of blood pooling in the streets and clogging the gutters. The stench of iron was ubiquitous along with an acidic, bitter taste that stuffed itself down your throat. I retched and covered my mouth for a second before wiping away the tears. “Fucking Christ,” I spoke after a brief silence. “What the hell happened here..?”
I shifted stance and felt the thick plasma squelch under my boots. The atmosphere was warm despite the irregular breeze blowing through the empty streets. Cars lay abandoned; some were embedded into store fronts and on top of bent street fixtures.
“You read the book. The United States has been ravaged by a force of nature beyond comprehension. I think all things considered, your city got off fairly well. At least probably compared to the East coast.” He bent down and began rooting with a finger through a puddle, picking up a dripping scrap of something and scrutinizing it. “I can’t say the same for the rest of the country however,” he muttered.
A thought occurred to me that made my heart stop for a brief second. “My family. My girlf - Jess... are they in this story too? Did they...did they survive?” I whispered. In my whole time hanging out with Will, I never once felt a pang of guilt about not letting my loved ones know what exactly we were up to. But could you blame me? They wouldn’t understand. They’d think I was unwell, and I couldn’t handle another three years in therapy. Not after I was about to get better.
Will stood and froze. His eyes widened and spun, turning into those two black circles I knew all too well. For a moment his mouth also disappeared as he apparently zoned out, before he abruptly turned towards me.
This was his Sight, something I understood to be imprecise but far-reaching.
“...You’re fine. They’re all fine, because they don’t exist here either.” I let out a sigh of relief, but in the pit of my gut I still felt that adrenal worry. The idea of my loved ones avoiding this disaster simply by virtue of not being real was a double-edged sword. Not to mention, Will had apparently just read my mind and assuaged my unspoken question: I didn’t exist in this Other, Redder Chicago either. Although I’m used to joking about that sort of thing the last thing I’d want was to run into my own corpse, mangled beyond recognition and fed upon by the mutts.
He pointed down the street. We had our target, the WGN9 News station. As we began walking west, we started to see the bodies pile up. The area we landed in had seen significant carnage, but was coincidentally devoid of most of the horror of this world. Dog parts of varying breeds were now strewn across the asphalt in fleshy skidmarks and shattered bones. There were a few human cadavers too, in various states of decay. I saw a hand still holding on to a dirty smartphone underneath a pile of flesh.
“Don’t touch those,” William spoke sharply as we passed a pool of dog pieces strewn in a large halo around a sewer hatch.. “They may not be moving like they were in the written account, but for all intents and purposes this after-story is free game in terms of what could happen.”
“I’m not an idiot, dude. I know better than to touch the goddamn alien dog meat,” I remarked, studying the pool as far away as possible. A Dachshund snout poked out of the outer ring, still wet and glistening. I felt the tears coming along so I looked the other way.
“These were dogs. And yet they are so clearly malignant in nature, it is hard not to argue they were created explicitly for the purpose of suffering.”
“So you’re saying someone did this on purpose? What do we got, a vengeful deity? Rogue tulpa? Maybe a really pissed-off reality bender?”
“85% certain it was intentional. Hard to say who did this, but the who may be less important than the why.”
“..Ngh,” I grunted. I wasn’t in the mood to hear his ramblings. We could save that for later when we were out of Red Chicago.
We kept approaching the broadcast station with Will occasionally stopping to inspect an odd piece of meat on the floor. Weirdo. At one point I saw someone or something skitter out of sight into a dense alleyway: they'd been watching us. But they were obviously too scared to confront the both of us, so it could’ve just been a lone scavenger roaming the streets. God knows why when everyone with a brain stem who survived the calamity was probably holed up inside their houses, but humans are strange and stubborn things. Mostly stupid. And by that logic, the two of us must’ve looked like madmen wandering the streets, from an inside observer’s view.
Soon we were at the front doors of the WGN station. It was hard to tell what lay inside due to the sheer level of grime and blood covering the glass, and the small crowd of bodies piled at the front door. I admit I’ve seen my fair share of gore online, but it still wasn’t enough to push back the growing revulsion in my heart.
Will was hesitant to pull them away. “I don’t like this,” he muttered. “The story made it seem like our little eldritch pets were running amok when the storm hit, so where are they all?”
“Maybe they all died after the event was done? Maybe the story was just a one-off event.”
“The story itself is at least half a page long, yet it was stretched into about ten to twelve pages. The Abyss clearly considered the story significant enough to warrant placement in my library, so where is the danger? Where is the reason we’re here in the first place..?”
We heard a smashing sound behind us and turned around. Something was tumbling within a nearby alley, the noises strangely starting high up and ending with a clang into the dumpsters below. At first, I thought looters were here to rough us up, but the alley was at least 30 feet away facing us so it's not like they had the element of surprise exactly.
What came out of the alley was far worse, if not expected ever since I set foot in this damn place. What looked like a medium-sized beagle/Spaniel mix came ambling out of the alley, only it wasn’t normal. It was covered in what was definitely blood and as it came closer I got a better look at the gory details. I could see right through its shattered skull into its brain. It was leaking out and pooling on its snout, dripping to the floor, leaving occasional squishy bits on the floor. At least two of its limbs were broken and dragging along the floor, giving it a weird hopping movement.
Oh, and did I mention the damned thing was talking? The not-dog was speaking in a mix of growls and audible English, its toothy smile visible through torn jowls.
- FOLLOW US INTO THE RED AND RETURN TO THE PRIMAL STATE - was a bit I heard before adrenaline kicked in and I started hopping over corpses to get to the WGN doors. I think my foot kicked someone’s head at one point. My fear was being drowned out by the alarm bells in my head, to the point that I tripped and accidentally tore a piece of my fingernail off scraping it against the door handle. I wouldn’t notice the pain until the end of the day.
“We need to get the hell out of here, NOW!” I yelled at Will. He grimaced and looked past me.
“Are the doors open?” he asked sharply. The doors didn’t budge when I tugged them. Across the street, the corrupt canine approached. It appeared to be getting excited and panted dramatically, bent tail wagging. I felt no love for that thing.
William caught up to me, almost tripping on a cadaver. “Jake, grab hold of my arm. We’re getting out of here.”
“What? How?? How is skipping with you arm-in-arm supposed to get us out of here?!” I cried hoarsely.
He grabbed my arm instead and straightened up. “Trust me. When I say jump...” The dog was closing in on us. I could see clotted blood tangled in its knotted fur, smell it. Death was approaching.
“JUMP.” We lifted off the ground and in my erratic state, I almost expected us to scare the monster away with our antics. Instead we just kept going upward and away, the ground and limping creature rapidly leaving us. I screamed again: we were floating upwards, backwards, into the station wall. I stopped screaming when we passed through it harmlessly and the ambient light dimmed. We ascended gently into the second story floor, into a stationary room. Will let go of me and I collapsed to the floor, grasping a shelf for balance. I gawked at him with bulging eyes: his form appeared ghost-like. “Okay, oka...we’re y-you ever going to tell me you could do that?”
“I mean, I thought you knew I could turn Intangible. You’ve seen me walk through walls back home before,” he retorted. His blackened eyes were spinning again, looking down into me with full attention. I felt an uncomfortable inner silence then shook myself awake.
“Yeah! I thought your stupid fucking mansion had hidden doors and stuff, like in cartoons.” I hissed, my voice dropping to a whisper as he motioned to be quiet. “Asshole.”
“Quiet. We’re looking for a computer or set of documents that can tell us where the brunt of the storm hit, there should definitely be something we can use there. But we have to be quiet foremost.”
We opened the door and peeked out. The hallways were empty, save for a few telltale signs of struggle. A bloody paw print marked the doorway. I had a sudden, chilling revelation. “Will? What if those things aren’t in the streets...because they got back inside? The story ends with the broadcast telling people not to let the dogs in, but we see them still get back in regardless. They can squeeze under door cracks for Pete's sake.”
He nodded. “It would explain quite a bit. I’m afraid we might have stumbled into the proverbial oven.”
I cussed again and we shuffled into the dim hall.
We silently and quickly began scanning each individual room, looking for our lead. I don’t remember when I became aware of it but I heard sounds coming from the floors above us. Human muttering. My spirit lifted for a second before I listened closer and realized there was the unmistakable clicking of nails against the ceramic floor. Dogs. Uncountable. For a moment, I felt like this was all just a dream and how I could be at home asleep on the couch with the tv running and a half-empty Malta bottle in my hand. It made sense, I couldn’t even remember how we got here, just like in a nightmare. When I slammed my shin into a desk and stifled a very real, very pained grunt, I solemnly knew it was too late to indulge that fantasy.
Will gestured for me to follow him. He just found the broadcasting studio.
We scanned the room carefully. Camera equipment was still propped up, long since powered off. Nearby, a sticky pile of flesh somewhat resembling a camera crew were pushed against the wall hastily. A bloody river was pooling near the door and as we approached the desk, found its original owner. The newscaster’s corpse was still seated and slumped over the desk with multiple gashes across the body, still glistening. Pretty sure it used to be a man, but it was hard to tell because of how fucked up it was. The color red continually spattered and contrasted against the green screen lining the wall behind. I felt for a moment like I was in the aftermath of a LiveLeak video and gagged again. Oh yes, real life gore isn’t the same as cartoon or even video shit. It's heavy like lead and sinks into your brain.
“What a shame,” Will muttered. I don’t want to say he was being dismissive, but he had an air about him that was as cold and observant as a doctor. He approached the desk and fiddled with something in the anchorman’s fist. It was still grasping a crinkled and blood-stained sheet of papers, barely legible if viewed from afar. As he read them, I heard more muttering above us. I don’t know if the dogs had heard us yet but it would only be a matter of time before they did.
“Jake, I found it.”
“What’s on there?”
“Last emergency broadcast. It never made it out of station. Even if it did, I doubt there were many left alive to hear it. Says the brunt of the storm passed over this part of the city about...five hours ago, at least. Apparently, a localized meteor of flesh crashed into the city about three blocks away. I think that’s on a street we passed earlier. Its what we’re looking for.” Will stuffed the paper into his inner pocket and motioned for me to hold his arm again.
I took one step forward then stopped cold. The corpse had moved. I knew so because I distinctly remembered its head being positioned to the side but now, it was facing forward. Looking at me with bloodshot eyes.
I pointed and opened my mouth to yell at Will, but the corpse was already lunging forward and meeting my screams with its own. Its limbs began to uncomfortably crack as they grew longer, lankier, flailing about like a newborn.
COPULATE WITH OUR FLESH, BE RENDERED UNTO THE DOG OF LUST
Will leapt backward and narrowly dodged the lunge and the corpse crumpled onto the floor with a sickening crunch. I noticed that its pants were also torn and exposed: instead of human legs, it had dog legs and a ragged tail wagging between them. Its overgrown talons scraped the desk as it scrambled to reach us, muttering word salad phrases and barking in between syllables.
Above us, a choir of howling and yapping began. The body was calling the dogs, and we were on the radar.
“Out, OUT!” Will bellowed and dragged me out the door. Shutting it behind me, I heard the corpse follow close behind. In my peripherals a frantic shadow slammed against the door, then slowly and impossibly began wriggling its way underneath the door space.
We ran through several hallways and found the exit staircase, tripping down multiple steps at a time and jumping to the landings with reckless abandon. Behind us doors were being slammed open by inhuman digits. The yapping and barking was getting louder. I saw blood rain down between the railings in increasing volume, souring the metal. As we approached the ground floor we were stopped by another chorus of dog-thing noises rapidly coming up to meet us.
YIELD TO US, MAN’S BEST FRIEND, ENGORGE US AND BE ENGORGED
We were stuck.
“To hell with this, we’re phasing again,” I heard Will hiss. He grabbed my arm forcefully, pushing us towards the back wall and once more we drifted through several layers of concrete and metal. The last thing I saw before we fell through the walls was a pulsating, red mound of paws, fur and teeth scraping their way down the steps, squeezing between the railings and peeking over the steps with once-innocently brown eyes ~
We weren’t quite at the ground floor when we stopped phasing, falling several feet and landing with a painful thud onto the concrete below. I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to fall into a bloody puddle before. At least we were away from the horrors inside.
“Egh...let’s not do that again dude,” I groaned. I dusted myself off and helped Will up. He was looking worn. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve phased quite a bit today. I might not be able to do it again, I’m getting tired,” he sighed. His pale face shimmered for a moment and I saw him wipe away an inky bead of sweat off his brow. He may not be human, but he had limitations like one.
“This way then. Let’s go back to the meteor we saw, we can pick up your sample while we get the heck out of dodge,” I said. He nodded in agreement and we limped towards the final goal.
“Crap,” I continued. “I wish I didn’t ask you about my family in this hellhole, you might’ve had more energy to search for the info we needed and never had to go into that building.”
Will dismissed the sentiment with a wave. “It comes with the territory. We knew this wouldn’t be a walk in the dog park.” He caught me frowning at him and quickly apologized for the bad pun, but we both ended up laughing about it as we trekked back through the carnage of Red Chicago.
By the time we reached the 711 landmark we were looking for, I felt like I had run a marathon. The adrenaline was wearing off and my limbs felt like noodles. My mouth was dry and my shoulders were aching from being bunched up in terror all day.
There it was, a massive pile of dog flesh.. Looking at it from the front, the sheer size of it was impressive: at least ten feet tall and covering the sidewalk adjacent to the store windows entirely. It was even still vaguely in a spherical shape. Jagged yellow teeth and decaying digits lined it in irregular patches, spotted occasionally with the obvious sheen of broken bones. A single, massive eyeball still attached to the cord swung complacently from a jutting limb.
Will straightened his tie and coughed. I could tell what he was about to do before he even said or moved or anything. “Dude...you are not going into that thing. You’re tired and need to rest up,” I snapped. He gave me a wan smile and replied, “It’s no skin off my nose. We don’t have time to linger when worlds are slowly being reshaped by this same corruption. No time left for squeamishness.”
I stood back reluctantly and watched as his eyes slid backwards into black pools. He shimmered and became slightly see through again as he began to walk into the mound of dog. I winced thinking about any part of me touching the sickening pile and looked away. This was insanity, but I made my choice many weeks ago that this would be the norm from now on. Ghost people living in pocket dimensions, hurricanes made from dog pieces, all of it was just blending into a nice smoothie of unreality I’d just have to get used to tasting.
Eight, nine, ten minutes passed. I sat on a bench that was at least partially dry of blood and waited. My torn fingernail was pulsing and given how much pain I was already in I briefly considered tearing it off all the way to get it over with. Truth is, I’m a coward, I’d never do it though.
Will hadn’t spoken the entire time he was in there and I was beginning to worry he wouldn’t come back out. I kept scanning the horizon waiting for those disgusting monsters to come crawling out of the buildings and sewers, howling and clawing for me.
He eventually came back. Will was gasping and holding something in his semi-translucent hand: the vial he brought with. Something was squirming inside of it but I didn’t get a good look. He looked up at me and grinned that madman grin of his. “I got it...got it!” he gasped excitedly.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A clue. Now let’s get out of he-”
He stopped dead and looked down. A thick red tendril had wrapped around his leg and was rapidly sucking his ankle backwards. He yelped and tried to phase through again but rapidly fell to his knees as it failed.
“Jake...take the vial and get it back to the tunnel leading to the-” a tendril wrapped around his neck - “thegh … Eghstate..!!” Will was being choked. He flickered for a moment as if to escape but solidified again as the tendril bit into his throat with canines: I saw ink trickle down his pale throat in rivulets. I started to panic. The dog mass began to groan and tremble, a horrid stench emanating from the pocket he just walked out of. I smelled rot, a twinge of wet fur, offal.
Somewhere in my lizard brain that toggle between ‘run’, ‘freeze’ and ‘fight’ switched on. Even I still don’t believe where it landed, some days.
I stomped the ever-loving-crap out of the moaning pile of dog flesh, feeling the bones crumble and fur slap against my boot. I think I started screaming too. Can’t remember much of that part. Pain and fear and even indignation were my saviors that day. My boot connected to an eyeball and the main tendril choking my friend and I heard something between a chihuahua and a human male yelp in pain.
“FUCK - OFF - ,” I barked back, slamming my boot a final time into a pulsating tongue. “SICK OF THIS - GARBAGE UNIVERSE.” The tendrils flailed and withdrew into the shaking mass.
Will stumbled to his feet and wrapped an arm around my shoulder for support. He looked calm, but also extremely grateful. And maybe even a little afraid. That was new. “You took initiative. I appreciate that,” he said.
“Don’t mention it,” I grunted between gritted teeth. He wasn’t that heavy, in fact kinda light, but my sedentary physique and depleted energy made him feel like a sack of potatoes. “Come on. We’re outtie.” As we began the home stretch walk, the red skies above us began to darken. Night was approaching and my hair stood on end as I heard the distant whines of the dogs inside the surrounding buildings. A warmth I hadn’t sensed before was whipping up: the city was becoming alive again, and its putrid denizens were collectively exhaling their foul inner winds through the streets. The blood puddles were still rippling from that same wind, pushing towards an unknown singularity.
We limped towards the open portal - a strange, static black gash hanging in midair - and took one last look at the carnage we were leaving behind. In the distance, the flailing mass of dogmeat was reorganizing itself in a last attempt to summon help. It began to sing. A demonic echo of frenzied howls and barking. Glass shattered as quadrupedal bodies and gelatinous beasts were flung out of windows. As we went back into the tunnel, we heard the undeniably angry chanting of many dogs, nipping at our heels and being eventually swallowed up by an infinite night.
Some time passed before William was ready to share with me the fruits of his discovery. By then, the fresh horror of Red Chicago and its now dog-ified citizens was locked deep away in the lock box of my mind, which would soon become swollen with many more in the coming months.
“I hope your morning has been okay,” he said, sitting down at the table in the dining room. I had a bit of yogurt sloshing around in me, since I knew he was planning on showing me whatever gross thing he rummaged around for a few days ago. “How’s your family?”
“It’s goin’ alright, I guess. They’re fine, I just...needed to spend a little time with them after that whole thing. Didn’t feel right coming back without at least telling them how much I appreciate ‘em,” I said without making eye contact. They’re my only family in this horrible universe, I thought inwardly. I need to treat them like it.
“I think we both know I’d feel maybe a little better if I finally got a peek at what you swiped from the story,” I sighed. He nodded and pulled a vial out of his vest pocket, laying it flat on the table. I leaned forward and squinted: something was wriggling around all slow-like inside the glass.
I picked up the vial and felt the movement inside. A mind-boggling thing lay inside. “I found it in the center of the mass I walked into, hidden inside the corpse of a mutt,” Will remarked.
If I had to make the closest approximation as to what I was looking at, ‘a living string’ would have to suffice. It was red and thin, but with several pulsating knots up and down its center portion. The ends appeared to taper off into nothing: not because they were so finely thin, but because they appeared to quite literally blend and dissipate into nothing like a wisp of smoke. The object was also shiny and near luminescent, casting a visible red light onto my hand.
“I’m really confused here. What am I supposed to be looking at?” I said slowly. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it's cool as hell, but what's the significance?”
Will stared at my hand, at the contents of the vial. “This isn’t just any string, Jake. Remember when I talked about how all worlds in this universe are connected? The universe is a living thing with a mind of its own. It has a consciousness, a soul. It has blood.”
He said, “what we’re holding here is a portion of its veins.”
I frowned and looked down at the squirming thing. Inspecting the inside of the red string, I saw the faintest flitter of black, a liquid night rushing back and forth between the tapering ends, disappearing and reappearing too fast to measure movement.
“Someone has torn out the veins of the universe, and the universe is convulsing from it,” Will said grimly. “They are becoming exposed.”
We sat in silence for some time, chewing over the things we saw and the words Will said. I then had an epiphany, one of many to follow. It was about the eternally-massive tunnels we traveled through, the encroaching ink wall that pooled around the Estate in predatory movements once you were safely within the mansion walls. I realized that it was just dark and wide enough that one would not be able to see the red-tinted vessels of the unutterably large thing we live inside of. A pulsating darkness so big, outer space itself was but a colorful haze within that muck.
We are so small, we might as well not exist.
As recorded within The Estate