Once upon a time, there was a building. Deep in the dark woods it was nestled, far away from prying eyes and eyes that would rather see other things. Old and imposing it was, a gothic monument of cold grey stone, huddled there between the looming pines. Its hallways were narrow, and lined with locked doors of thick, ribbed metal. And behind each of those doors was a little room, and in each room was a bed and a toilet and a single beating heart.
She was curled up on that bed, leaned back against the wall, not moving. Her hands twitched like spiders in her lap as she whispered a poem to herself, again and again. “Bright, bright, shines the moon…”
The door came open, with a skreel of hinges and a sound of shoes on stone.
She snapped her head up, tilted it from side to side like a bird. Who was it? To judge by the heavy, wheezing breath, it was Dr. Lars, and with him a guest. What sort of a guest? Male, she thought. Heavy shoes, a rustling coat. Dr. Lars muttered something to him, something he thought she couldn’t hear.
“Now, I warn you, she is a bit…odd.”
The man didn’t reply, and Dr. Lars cleared his throat. “Um, Morwen? There’s someone here to see you.”
She recognized something about the way he smelled, but she couldn’t quite place it. People, and earth, and animals of some type, but there was something else. Something…strange. “What’s his name?”
“Mr. Ferguson. He’s here to –”
“Mr. Andy Ferguson?”
He spoke now, and his voice was so instantly recognizable that she wished he’d spoken sooner. “The same.”
“How is your youngest son doing?”
“He’s doing better, thank God. The chemo really seemed to…help…” He trailed off, murmuring to Dr. Lars. “Why did you tell her about that?”
“I didn’t. As I say, a bit odd.”
She turned her bandaged face from one to the other. She loved listening to people talk. Or anything, really. Anything that could communicate, she could just sit and listen, for hours and hours. She remembered one story, a Deep Epic, in which there was a trialogue which lasted for days…
“Morwen!” Dr. Lars said, quite sharply, and she snapped herself back to what she presumed was the present. “Mr. Ferguson would like to ask you a few questions.”
“Please don’t call me Morwen. I don’t know where you’ve picked up that silly name, but it is not mine. As for the questions,” she said, turning to Mr. Ferguson, “Three, Tau Ceti, and the spring equinox. That help?”
Mr. Ferguson was quiet for a moment, and she could hear Dr. Lars’ beard scratch as he smiled. Or maybe frowned. It was difficult to tell with him, sometimes.
“Why…yes, it does, actually. Thank you.”
“Of course. Do you need anything else?”
He hesitated, and she sensed he had gotten to the real reason for his visit. “There is one thing. Have you heard of something called an Ulos?”
At last, the point. She’d been wondering if he had found that yet. “An Ulos? Yes, I have. Do you want to hear that story?”
“If you don’t mind.”
She stood up from her mantis-like crouch, breathed in, breathed out. Turned to them. And began to speak.
“Once upon a time, there was a man. This man had a strange shape, wore strange clothes, said strange things. He had been called from his home, a dark place, far, far away, to a little town, and when he arrived, he asked the people why they had called to him. They told him that they required something from him, a small service, and that in return they would offer food and lodging. He accepted, and performed the service they required. Gradually, though, they became sickened by him. Who, they asked, would have such a shape, wear such clothes, say such things? They decided that they had made a mistake, and so they drove him out, into a house far outside of town, and there they left him.”
She was in the rhythm of it now – deadly calm, moving her hands and her feet and her head in complex pantomime, acting out the story as much as narrating it. For this, the Storyteller used to say, was how stories were meant to be told.
“But not everyone abandoned him. The mayor’s daughter, who brought the man food every week, listened to his strange tales of far-off places. She befriended him, and so, when she asked for his help at a price of his choosing, he accepted. And that night, under his guidance, she did things. Terrible, terrible things.
“She was tried, found guilty. She pleaded with them, saying that her crimes had been a necessary sacrifice. She told them that the man would bring them wonderful things, if only they would do as he said. But despite her cries, they hanged her, and followed her last words to the house outside of town.
“They found the man there, and killed him. It was easier than they thought it would be, for though his strange shape protected them from their weapons, he did not move or fight back. He just stood there, with a sad smile, and told them they were fools.
“No one knows quite what happened to the town after that. But they do know this. Each drop of the man’s blood, spattered on the walls and the ground, was called an Ulos. And each place an Ulos fell…”
She paused. She could hear Mr. Ferguson’s shallow breath, hear the scribble of a pen in a little notebook. “What happened where an Ulos fell?”
She grinned, so wide that her cheeks pushed up against the bandages that covered her eyes. “Each place an Ulos fell…a thousand cities, a thousand civilizations, disappeared into the dark.”
There was silence for a moment. She twitched her head curiously, from one to the other. Had she said something wrong? She had said wrong things before – people would ask her to tell a story, and she would, and they would get very angry…
Mr. Ferguson was talking again. “If you don’t mind…may I speak to Morwen? Alone?”
She heard Dr. Lars shrug. “If you wish. She’s relatively harmless. Will five minutes be enough?”
“Five minutes should be plenty.”
Dr. Lars walked slowly off down the hallway, and when he was gone, Mr. Ferguson stepped into the cell and closed the door. “You say your name isn’t Morwen?”
“No, it isn’t. I don’t know why the doctors call me that, but it’s not my name.”
“What is your name, then?”
An interesting question. She might have had a name, once. Before. But if she had, she didn’t remember it.
“I’m the Storyteller’s Apprentice. I don’t need a name.”
“I see…Well, I’ll just call you Morwen for the time being, if that’s all right?”
“Fine.” She shrugged and folded herself back down into a huddled bundle on the bed.
“Right. To business. I work for a group of people called the Late Revelationists, and –”
“And you’ve found an Ulos. And you wanted to know more about it, so you asked Dr. Ramey where she gets her information from, and she sent you to me. Is that right?”
“Crikey, stop doing that. Yes, that’s exactly right. And we’d like you to come back and take a look at it.”
She grinned. An Ulos! She hadn’t actually been in the presence of one before. She’d heard stories, of course – the story of their origin, and the stories of what happened in places where they popped up. But she’d never actually been near one. What would it be like, something like that?
“Oh! Yes, please. How do you want to get me out of here?”
“By car, a week from now. The Tanners will fill out the necessary documents under the names of your family, and take you into their custody.”
“Wonderful.” She didn’t really care about getting out, but she did care about going somewhere new. She had been wondering when this would happen, after all. And it wasn’t just because this was how the story went, either. She wanted to be in the presence of the Ulos, wanted to feel its strange, alien nature. That was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and she would almost rather die than miss it.
Mr. Ferguson’s voice cut into her thoughts again. “Well, that’s settled, then. I’ll see you in a week, I suppose.”
He walked out, and she ignored the shriek and boom of the door as it closed. She ignored Dr. Lars as he came back and locked it, ignored the nurse as she came in later with dinner. The story of the Ulos had taken her mind to strange, far-off places, and she had no intention of coming back.
The Tanners came a week later. Well, she presumed it was them – she didn’t really pay much attention when she was brought to meet them. They drove her off in a stately black motorcar, through the deep, cold woods and down to where Black Arrow Ranch stood at the foot of the mountains. She had pulled herself back to reality at that point, more or less, and she felt the crunch of gravel under her shoes as they led her up to a large building.
Porch boards creaked, old and tenuous. A doorframe squealed as Mrs. Tanner pulled it open. Beyond it was another door, and then a large room, with people breathing and murmuring at the other end. Her outstretched hands brushed rows of benches on either side, and…was that…?
“The Storyteller has arrived. Morwen, these are the Twins.”
The Twins…She listened to them, breathing in tandem up there on what she guessed was some kind of dais. They weren’t the Twins – well, not just that. They were the Conjoined Minds. Only ten there had been in history so far, all of them worshipped as oracles or demigods. And here she stood, before a pair, like some kind of Babylonian prince.
“You are the Storyteller?” They spoke in tandem, too, as though they were one person with two voices. And behind them, the others spoke as well, in voices too low for even her to hear.
“No. Not yet.” She tipped her head back and forth, trying to get a better idea of where they were. “I’m his apprentice.”
“But you can tell us what we need to know?”
“Probably.” She leaned a hand onto one of the benches, trying to find something to ground herself. The voices in unison, coming from so close together, were throwing off her sense of direction. “What do you need to know?”
“You have been told why you were brought here?”
“Yes.” She tilted her head, so that she could only hear them with one ear. It helped, a little. “You’ve found an Ulos. And you want to know more about it.”
“We wish to activate it. And we wish you to tell us how.”
She supposed that made sense. That was what people usually wanted, after all. “Take me to it, then.”
“Dormant. It enters an inactive phase periodically.”
“I didn’t know they did that.”
She could feel their gazes hold on her for a long second, and the silent others staring as well. “We were told that you were knowledgeable about such things.”
“I guess? I think I am. I don’t know everything, though. Just the stories…How long will it stay like that?”
“It should reawaken within the week.”
“Oh, good.” They had moved slightly closer together, and it made the double voice a bit easier to listen to. “Until then?”
“You will remain here. A place has been prepared for you to stay. You will be notified when it awakens.”
“All right.” She felt Mrs. Tanner tap her on the shoulder, and she turned to follow her, relieved slightly to be leaving their presence. One of the people on the dais muttered something, and one of the Conjoined Minds snapped a response: “Your opinion has already been considered. Do not question our judgement, Hartmann.”
The Ulos awoke three days later. They kept it in a big building that she suspected they had built purely to house it, offset from the rest of the ranch and tucked into the shadow of the mountain. She felt that shadow for a moment, pleasantly cool after the heat of the field, but Mr. Ferguson was leading her too quickly for her to register it properly. And then, without so much as the creak of a door, they were inside.
It was a strange place. Most wooden buildings acquired a particular environment with them - musty smells and dust motes that gathered in the nose and throat. This building didn’t have that, which meant either that it was very new or that something was preventing things like mold from forming. And to judge by the thing before her, it was not the former.
It was huge, a titanic ring, spinning slowly in the air. She could see it, somehow, in her mind, like a monochrome afterimage, or a particularly vivid dream. It had a presence to it, that let it imprint itself onto her brain, let it show itself to her. It made a sound, a faint hum and buzz, but a hum and buzz that spoke more of an ancient, forgotten language than of blank white noise. And below the ring, she could see things. Don’t go towards it, there’s a hole, Mr. Ferguson had said, but that wasn’t why she backed away, or why she laughed slightly under her breath. It was because of the things the Ulos put in her mind, down there where the hole would be. The sort of things that could only exist in imagination, and not the imagination of anything a human could understand.
“Well?” the Conjoined Minds said, and she turned towards them, glad to let the Ulos’ visions stay behind her. “Can you activate it?”
“It isn’t active already?” If this wasn’t active, she couldn’t think what was.
“Not quite,” Mr. Ferguson said. “It’s still…subconscious? I don’t know quite how to describe it. It’s awake, but it’s not active.”
“Right…” She turned back towards it, stared up at it. It spun there, like an immense, empty eye, like a Shiddigar in some far-off galaxy.
“Can you see it?”
She ignored them. In most of the stories of the Ulos, they wanted to communicate. They had something to say to the things that found them. So how to talk to it?
Well, as the Storyteller always said, begin at the beginning. She cleared her throat, stood up as straight as she could. “Can you hear me?”
No answer, except for Mr. Ferguson’s irritated “Do you think we haven’t tried that?”
She tried again, in a dozen languages of Earth, and then in some fifty that weren’t. It ignored her completely, and its quiet hum didn’t change. Perhaps it couldn’t hear?
“Has it spoken to any of you at all? Or done anything equivalent?”
“No, of course not. We wouldn’t be here if it had.”
“How did you find it?”
“We were looking for a new well. Little Jamie screamed, said there was something under the ground, said he could see it in his mind. It was just sort of there when we came back the next day, floating above the test hole. Both the ring and the hole have…grown since then.”
“Can I talk to Jamie, please?”
“No…” Mr. Ferguson swallowed. “He went catatonic in his sleep the night after. He…died the day before we came to you.”
She gritted her teeth, trying to pay attention to him. It seemed to get bigger when she didn’t look at it, looming like a shadow, growing and growing. It felt…heavy, made it hard to think. “What’ve you tried already?”
“We’ve tried talking to it. We’ve tried flashing lights. We’ve tried reading it passages from scripture, and from certain other books. After you told us your story, we tried daubing blood on it. Nothing.”
She nodded, but it was more out of habit than anything. The visions were stirring her brain up. Old stories were floating to the surface, stories of primal and ancient things, stories of the beings, the civilizations, that had watched the beginning of the universe and those that would watch its end. Stories that she had forgotten she even knew, overwhelming her already fragile grip on reality. Where was she? Who was she? And why in the name of the Void was there an Ulos?
A hand grabbed the back of her jacket. “Morwen? Don’t go too close.”
She turned, hissed, slashed with one hand like a cat. She was on the ground, suddenly, on all fours, her head dangerously close to that writhing, hollowed-out horror below. Who was this? Barapas? Erikson? Nahi-ra? Who were the others? Why couldn’t she see them? What had happened to her eyes? They were pulling her away from it, across rough dirt, across a threshold into open air. Slowly, the visions faded. Slowly, the stories settled.
She stood, swallowed, brushed some of the dirt off herself. “I’m…sorry.”
“What happened? Are you all right?”
“Yes…That…happens sometimes.” She decided not to mention the fact that the reason it didn’t happen the rest of the time was through sheer force of will. “You’re Mr. Ferguson, right?”
“Okay. Good. I just wanted to make sure.” She pulled her jacket around herself, feeling her breathing start to slow.
“Morwen…Are you certain you’re all right? What happened?”
The Conjoined Minds, now: “It spoke to you? What did it say?”
“No…No, it didn’t say anything. The visions just…messed with my head. I should be fine.”
“And why did you feel the need to attack Mr. Ferguson?”
She rubbed her forehead. “I didn’t know who he was for a moment. I didn’t know who I was. But I’m all right now.”
Mr. Ferguson again. “When you say visions…”
“The visions it puts in your head. Itself, and the things in the hole. You can’t see them?”
“I don’t think so. What are they?”
She giggled slightly. “They’re not even remotely describable. But they’re weird.”
“Is it likely that if you return here, this will happen again?”
She didn’t recognize that voice. Part of the Conjoined Minds’ entourage, presumably. “I…don’t know. I hope not.”
A silence, full of whispers and mutters, until finally the Conjoined Minds spoke up. “Enough. This will be discussed during a meeting. For now, we will return to the complex.” They turned and started walking back across the field, and the others followed.
They must have had their meeting quickly. She was slightly impressed, actually. This was where the story went wrong, after all, and she had had a vague plan to try and get off the ranch before it did. But it couldn’t have been more than a few hours before Mr. Ferguson and another person (man? She thought it was a man) came into her room.
“What’s the matter?”
“Morwen…I need to tell you something.”
“What is it?” She stood up, nervously. His tone suggested that he had come for the exact reason she thought he had.
“There has been a…change of plans.” He paused, searching for words.
The other man broke in. “The council’s come to a decision. They want you moved to the bunker.”
There it was. “The bunker? What for?”
Mr. Ferguson spoke up again. “It’s…well, it’s a bunker. No surprises there. It’s designed to protect its inhabitants against…more or less anything. You should be safe there.”
“From the Ulos?”
“Yes. And its…effects on you.” He sighed. “Please don’t misunderstand me, Morwen. I don’t like this any more than you do. But the council is afraid of what could happen if the Ulos had more time to interact with you.”
“Of course.” She sighed internally, but it wasn’t as though there was anything she could do about it. Or if there had been, she had waited too long to try. “All right. I suppose we’ll go, then.”
“Thank you.” He sighed with relief, and came over and guided her to the door.
The bunker was a corrugated labyrinth, cold and deep and smelling of metal and age. It was accessed by a switchbacking concrete staircase, a staircase that went down so far that she stumbled when it finally stopped in a little square atrium. Beyond was a maze of hissing doors and winding passageways, all of them barren and empty, the only sounds the buzz of a distant generator and the quiet hum of ventilation. By the time Mr. Ferguson said “Right, this should probably do,” she was utterly lost.
“Feel free to wander around, I suppose. I am going to have to lock the entrance door, though.”
“Fine.” She ran her hand along the wall, started moving around the room. It was small, blank, and devoid of furniture, except for a little bunk mounted on the wall. She found a corner, curled down into a ball in it.
Mr. Ferguson said something else, but she ignored whatever it was he said. Her mind was starting to drift again. It kept drifting, long after he left, while she explored the bunker like the Minotaur in its labyrinth, running her hands over and over its cold walls. It kept coming back to the Ulos. How to activate it? The stories always just said that it was activated, never how. Well, that wasn’t quite true. There usually seemed to be a death involved. But how to make use of that? It wasn’t as though it wanted to be fed. It wanted to communicate. She needed to know how it spoke. And that thought led off into others, thoughts of how other things communicated, and the stories associated with them. They were practically infinite, after all. She just needed to work out which one…
A voice echoed through the metal halls. A familiar voice. One of the Conjoined Minds.
“Morwen? Are you here?”
She began to wander towards it. It intrigued her, in an academic sort of way. Why would the Conjoined Minds come down here? If they wanted to see her, surely they would have sent Mr. Ferguson.
“Morwen?” It was right on top of her, now, and she flinched as a hand grabbed her shoulder. “Oh, good, you’re still here. We were afraid something had happened to you. Have you been eating at all?”
“…I don’t think so.”
“Why not? There’s almost two weeks’ worth of food going bad in the entryway.”
“Oh.” She took the slice of bread she was offered, nibbled disinterestedly at a corner. “Where’s your sibling?”
“Up above. We wished to ask something of you.”
“What is it?”
“The Ulos must be activated. Soon. There are those on the council who are having doubts, and there is not enough time for them to continue.”
“And we are still completely in the dark as to how to do it.”
She shrugged. “So am I.”
“You don’t know anything?”
“Not really. Only that it wants to communicate, and that however it communicates involves a death.”
“What? How does that work?”
“I have no idea. Believe me, I’ve been thinking about that this whole time.”
“Of course.” There was silence for a moment as she finished the bread. “How literal was that story you told Mr. Ferguson?”
“As literal as any of them are.” She swallowed, concentrating on keeping her mind in place, and so she missed part of what they said next.
“– literal are the rest of them?”
“I don’t think that’s the right question, honestly. I think the right question is, what’s literal and what isn’t?”
Another silence. “Are there other things like the Ulos?”
“Oh, all sorts of things. Nightstones. Kra-Shairi. The inhabitants of the Shrouded Worlds, and the things that aren’t planets that orbit the Rotting Stars.”
“And how do you communicate with those things?”
She grinned the Storyteller’s grin, and she told them.
She told them the things they wanted to hear, and then she just started telling stories, weaving them into one another as the Storyteller had taught her to do. She told them of yantok and star-things, of vast, alien intelligences, artificial and otherwise, of the Merchant of Kerebros and the ballad of Iqim the Unspeakable. She told them folktales and fragments of epics, stories of a structure and a rhythm which made human minds balk with discomfort. And when she was done, she stood there, feeling them watching her and waiting for more.
And as they waited, another story surfaced in her brain.
She thought she told it – at least, she heard the Conjoined Minds respond. But it was as much memory as it was speech, playing like a record in her mind. It was, loosely, the story of where the word Ulos had come from – or more accurately, the story of the horrific language that had originally used the term, and the towering things that had spoken it. It was the story of their dark home that was neither a planet nor a star, and of the very strange effects that their presence had had on matter. And the way they had communicated…
She stopped suddenly. “I know how to talk to it.”
“Talk to – to the Ulos?”
“Yes. Do you have a blowtorch? Or something similar?”
“It needs to be heated up, in very specific patterns. And it needs water. Lots of water.” She was walking quickly now, back towards the entrance to the bunker.
“What – now?” She heard them running to catch up behind her.
“I thought you wanted it done quickly?”
“Well, yes…Yes. Of course. Whenever you’re ready.”
The Conjoined Minds watched her as she stared up at the ring swimming psychedelically before her. It was the strangest experience, visualizing something and being able to put your hand out and actually touch it. And while ordinarily, using a blowtorch would have been far more dangerous than even she was willing to attempt, the image in her head changed in response to the heat. She could see where she was cutting, well enough to keep from hurting herself.
She didn’t know how long they stood there, drawing strange symbols onto the Ulos’ surface, throwing water onto them when they were completed and watching it absorb the steam, exchanging the blowtorch’s fuel cans when it started to sputter. It was a strange ritual, but it was working. She could feel it working, hear it in the growing intensity of the Ulos’ hum, see it in the way that it gradually started to spin faster and faster.
And then, at last, she stood back, turned off the torch. “It’s done.”
“Are you sure? It’s not doing anything…”
And she dropped the torch and ran.
She heard the Conjoined Minds shout something, heard them come running after her. She ignored them. She had activated the Ulos. She had to get away. Because when it communicated, it took a life, and she didn’t want it to be hers.
There was a roar, from behind her, and a fluttering sound like fire burning. One of the Conjoined Minds screamed, and she couldn’t tell if it was with fear or with pain. Maybe it was both. She kept running, running, across the field. And then, quite suddenly, she could see.
Everything was visible, in the same strange monochrome as the visions had been. There was grass, the gravel path, the cows and the fence, the stars wheeling overhead. And there were other things. Mercurial towers, of sorts, or tentacles, or pillars of flame, rising from the ground in a perimeter far greater than the bounds of the ranch. And there was a mammoth light from behind her, like a sun glowing in the nighttime sky. And she couldn’t help herself. She turned. And she looked.
The Ulos had risen from the shattered ruins of the building, and had grown a thousandfold. It was a nesting, intricate mass, hundreds on hundreds of rings, carriage wheels, circles of sigils, up there in the sky, spinning in one dimension, two, three, four, five. The Conjoined Minds were there before it, one of them screaming with their hands to their head, the other one an infant child, wailing on the ground. They must have followed her out of the building before they realized what was happening. And beyond it the pillars rose, rose up against the mountains, rose to form a looming hall roofed by the whirling, protean stars.
And it spoke.
It didn’t speak through words, or any kind of sound. It was all visual – changes in the trees, the stars, the cows, the pillars. They grew, they stretched, they warped. They lashed like whips, burst into fireworks before reforming into the things from the pit. She stared at it, all of it, baffled, frightened, confused. It was clearly speaking, speaking to her. And she had no idea what it was trying to say.
She should have stayed. She knew that. The Storyteller would have told her to. He would have told her to stay, to collect the story, to tell it again. But the human instincts that were buried under the endless alien tales were twitching and thumping, telling her that she wouldn’t be able to tell it again if she didn’t run, escape from the looming thing in the sky. And so she stumbled backwards, turned, broke into a frantic sprint, knowing the whole time that she would never make it past the pillars before it grew bored, or angry, or simply finished speaking. But she ran nonetheless, on adrenaline and fear, towards the drive and the road which her mind associated with safety.
And the Ulos fell, with a shock wave that was neither sound nor vibration. And where the Ulos fell, a thousand cities, a thousand civilizations, disappeared into the dark.
Written by StalkerShrike