Part 1

It all started with a dream, not a grand dream, nothing ambitious, I just wanted freedom. Now, all I dream is the same, a coming apocalypse. Every Night and every quiet contemplative waking moment my thoughts and dreams are haunted by the same 20-year-old memory and the nightmarish visions of our near-future. Dreams of the night the heavens above my home split apart and hellfire rained down. Dreams of the damned and their agonized screams as their collective hands, fused and deformed eternally, reach for the sky pleading for mercy and release. Dreams of what’s to come, the rift in the sky spreading and growing large enough to swallow the entire world and humanity being plunged into an era of unfathomable horror from which it would never escape. I dreamt of my fate, and the role I played in all of it. I dreamt of the crimson throne room kneeling before the harbinger of our doom as her bishops placed an ivory crown upon my head, my head and his. Rewards for bringing forth “Her” reign. I dreamt all this every single night and I would wake from every single dream awash in undispellable despair.      

It all started with a dream, yes it’s obvious now that was the genesis. Within our dreams, so much of the paths we walk are birthed, traced and retraced time and time again. When you’re my age it's almost a certainty that you'll look back through your entire life and dream of returning to the rosey days of youth, back when the world was vast and vibrant. But I can’t do that, won’t do that. It was in those rose hued days that I was caught in the tangle of causality. Tragedy set into motion by those dreams, those selfish dreams. So what is a man to do when he can no longer dream of rose-colored pasts or brighter futures? I can only feel envious of those who can fall asleep without worry of the sweat drenched, anxiety fueled fever dreams.

I wasn’t the one at fault, not entirely at least. Much like an accessory to murder I stood complacent and watched the perpetrator commit his crime, that is my sin. Can’t say I wasn’t warned though so I’ll take my share of the blame. In my youth, a man told me that our lives are nothing but the consequences of our choices. At first, I disregarded it, laughed it off. However, the consequences of the sins we committed have been unraveling themselves before my eyes over the course of 2 decades. So who got the last laugh? The way things played out, no one.

I awoke yesterday to the murky twilight that precedes dawn, bleary-eyed and anxious. 2 days left before the 20th anniversary of that night. I knew this time I wouldn't escape it's call. Over the last few months, within my dreams they’ve beckoned, no demand for my return, either willingly or forcibly. I made a call to the “other” party involved, the true catalyst in all of this. We decided it would be best for both of us to make the journey home. We had no idea what awaited us and what would happen, but it would be best to answer the calls lest we incur any unwanted consequences. Knowing that might be the last time I’d see my family, I quietly slipped into my daughter's room to plant a kiss on her head and without uttering a single word to a still sleeping wife, I stepped outside into a world teetering on the edge of apocalypse.    

As I started to drive I thought about what my life had come to. The wife, the kids, the white picket fence and the white-collar desk job. It all seemed so mundane. Of course, any sense of normality was corrupted long ago but I still made an attempt to go through the motions of maintaining the appearance of an everyday Joe. A family man wanting to provide what’s best for his family and maintain a sane, stable household. All just faux traditionalism, feigning worry for the future that awaits our children in the face of great societal change, all while knowing of what truly awaits us. It's almost funny to me when I see the men and women of my social groups clutch their pearls over the most inconsequential things. I mocked it all once, this kind of life and the ideals that perpetuated it. Drunk on teenage hubris I once wished it would all just crumble away. I wonder what old me would say if he saw me now? And why did I care?      

The drive to Salt Lake City came and went in a dizzying blur and by midday had found the shitty dinner we agreed to meet at. He sat hidden away in a corner, despite his imposing appearance he always blended into the background. Approaching him I was shocked by how little his age had dulled his features. A myriad of faded tattoos and week old stubble hinted as his age but his hard set eyes still radiated a youthful fervor. He bore the resemblance of the cruel emperor Caracalla especially in their shared resting scowl. Though he was a year older than me and neared forty he looked 10 years younger.  

"It's been a while, Jack," he greeted.  

“Not long enough, Don.”

He let out a chuckle. Don’s usual cynical gruff was always broken by his laugh, an almost childish sound that used to come off as sweetly innocent. Now, it felt more condescending than anything.

“Hungry?” Don asked.

“Don’t really have time to waste.”

“Eager to rush towards death?”

"I doubt we'll be that lucky," I said getting up.

My response drew another laugh from Don as he followed me out. The next few hours were spent on lonely highways, barreling towards that wretched place. The mere thought of it caused a tempest of unrestrained dread to whip about violently through the landscape of my mind. A serene calm tends to prelude the most turbulent of storms. I found mine in the nostalgic dreams that followed my slumber, peace for the first time in 20 years.

I Dreamt of Sunset Valley, my former home. A tiny Ohio town with a population that barely broke 5,000. Small and closed-minded, everyone knew everyone and small-town gossip was rampant. It was stifling for those who longed for more than a life of conformity and condemnatory glares. In Sunset Valley no one ever moved in or left. The people that lived there had done so for generations and  it was generational reputation dictated the social hierarchy. Don’s family, The Moretti's, had been the town fuck-ups for decades and so naturally no one really respected them. I was lucky to be born into a family that was hardly notable. The only expectations placed on me were to keep my head low and stay out of trouble. My family feared the townspeople and the ire of their judgment. Unfortunately for them, I was too unruly, selfish and stupid to obey my family’s single request. I guess that’s why the day I met Don was truly the beginning of the end.

I was introduced to Don through a mutual friend. Dark hair, dark eyed, dark mood, tall and well built. Don was the local pot dealer and during my teen years, cannabis seemed like a simple enough rebellion. We could've just stayed as dealer and buyer but there was something magnetic about Don, a pervasive charisma that made him impossible to ignore. He didn’t take shit from anyone, not from other teens, adults, authority figures or an entire town’s dogma. He was willing to carve out his own path regardless of who disapproved.  And though Don might have had a boisterous presence, the man himself was actually quite reserved, preferring to keep to himself, he didn’t like unnecessary interaction. I guess he appealed to a part of me that felt small, hopeless and I felt the need to get closer to him, befriend him. As if a bit of his lionhearted nature would rub off on me and I wouldn’t feel so uncertain of my future, of my place in the world. It took time but eventually I broke through his stoic exterior, I became his closest friend and I found that elusive driving force that motivated him so much, A dream that we grew to share. But the pitfalls of youth are that our hearts always crave more, too greedy for stagnation our bond grew beyond what was considered acceptable. For as long as we remembered there was a line drawn in the sand and in our youthful bravado we eagerly crossed it.

As morning light roused me from my slumber I became aware of a dull ache deep in my chest. My eyes blurred and I wiped away the tears beginning to form, for the first time in 2 decades my dreams hadn’t been plagued by horrors that befell my home but instead a yearning for the blissful, reckless days of my youth. Anger set in when I realized why not even the passage of time had weakened his influence over me. I turned to face him, I was angry that I couldn't bring myself to hate him, that he made me ache for something that had died and been buried decades ago. I was angry because I didn’t know if he felt the same, or if I was just the last remaining shard of a long-forgotten past. If he was aware of my current resentment he didn’t show it, Don just yawned and asked if we could switch seats.

I took the wheel as he tried to get comfortable in the passenger's seat to rest. I drove for a couple of hours before the pains of hunger forced me to pull into a nearby rest stop. Its rundown diners and shops looked far more appealing than ever. I took only a few steps outside before I felt the sensation of being watched. I spun around to face the nearby woods, however, it was from my periphery that I finally saw movement, shaky and wholly unnatural. I turned to face it and was met with the sight of a gnarled figure peeking out from behind a tree. It noticed my gaze and tried to move closer, it’s malformed bones splintering and cracking beneath its pale flesh. The way Its limbs strained and contorted should have been impossible for any healthy organism on this earth. Anyone else might have brushed it off as a severely injured animal hobbling about, but I had seen them enough in my dreams that I knew to recognize their sporadic movements. I rushed back into the car and floored it out of the rest stop as I shook Don awake.

“What is it?” Don asked in a groggy voice.

“I don’t know but I saw something, something wrong, Jesus Don it was all sorts of fucked up.”

"Saw what? What did it look like?"

“I think it was one of her scavengers.”

Don was fully awake now, brows furrowed in concern.

"Well shit. You’ve seen them too then.”

“In my dreams.”

“Well I guess things are getting down to the wire.”

“The fuck's that supposed to mean!”

“It means that the things we’ve seen in our dreams are starting to bleed through into reality,  it means we and the whole world are officially on borrowed time,” Don said grimly.

“So that’s it then? We’re just willingly marching towards our death? Ours and everyone else's. Christ Don I’ve got a family to worry about! What about them? I should just turn this car around and try to-”

“You know you can’t do that, you’ve had the dreams. The ones of being dragged back to sunset and into the gates of hell. You know what will happen if we turn back.”

“So what the fuck am I supposed to do?”

“Not much you can do. I’ve been planning something for years now but, I’m not sure how that’s gonna play out in the end.”

“Once again, what the fuck does that mean?”

Don only answered with an indecipherable smirk.

With that, he settled into silence and I chose not to press him further. It didn’t matter anyway, soon enough we’d be in the presence of “Her” unrelenting evil and our lives would more than likely be forfeited to her. So I choose to sulk in silence and spend the next few hours driving. The sights and sounds blurred together into an amalgamation of barren highways, noisy car engines, and the acrid smell of gasoline. When it was my turn to switch with Don he suggested pulling over so we could both get some rest and since we were ahead of our schedule I agreed. We drove into one of the many seedy motels that dotted all the highway and threw myself on the undoubtedly filthy pull out sofa bed. Though a myriad of fears were flooding through my mind, exhaustion was the most prevalent of burdens. I could deal with what awaits us in the morning. For now I’m content with letting the hum of the ceiling fan lull me to sleep and let the ghosts of memories long past haunt my dreams.

A kaleidoscope of memories cycled quickly through the dreamscape of my mind, pausing for painfully long on the moments that defined my life and my foretold my downfall. I was forced to relive them with unsettling lucidity. I saw the old forsaken town of Sunset, that inescapable place daring me to break free from it’s grasp and how I swore I would, how Don swore we would. And then I recalled us, the night that defined us. I remembered the gusts of cool midnight air dancing through loose clothing and tickling sensitive skin, the faint smell of asphalt and burnt rubber, and the way my arms tensed around Don as he accelerated his brother's bike to dangerous speeds. We stopped at the city limits, the looming highway beyond was an impassable barrier we swore would one day crumble. A promise sealed with a kiss, a promise to break free and go as far away as possible from it all.

“Fuck if I know, California or Nevada ,it doesn’t really matter. As long as it's far away from this shithole, if it’s with you I’m” where his exact words when I asked where we would even go. They were crude but said with such sincerity that I grew to cherish them.  

Fast forward to the end of that school year when Don graduated. It was a surprise, given his long list of suspensions that prevented him from walking, but the fact that he had been handed his key to his freedom was enough. I wasn’t so fortunate, I was only a junior, another year barring me from the same luxury.

Our summer came and went with little fanfare, we spent it as any adolescent boys would, indulging in generally harmless mischief. By the time the school year started, I had grown impatient and moody. Don noticed this change and spent most days lifting my spirits and it worked to bring a fleeting sense of ease that all but faded by the next school day. March 13 is the day it all went to shit. It started mundane enough, I listlessly made my way through the school day awaiting its end, if I knew it would be the final day I wouldn’t have spent it lamenting about the tedium of everyday life. I could've spent the day saying goodbye to everyone, making amends, anything else. If I had gotten the chance maybe I would've found some closure and the 20 years that would follow wouldn’t have been so guilt-ridden and desperate. But instead, the school day ended as usual, Don picking me up and us heading to the usual spot.

At the edge of town was a heavily wooded area that Don was particularly fond of. Beyond its tree line you could find yourself completely alone out there and with isolation came privacy, an undervalued commodity in this town. The infamy surrounding the woods was effective at scaring most people away, rumors of Satanists and pagan cults performing sacrifices and rituals circulated throughout the town during the satanic panic that characterized much of the 80s. Rumors that fascinated don and it was under his suggestion that we began exploring the woods.

Specifically, a massive cave entrance that dropped down into unknown depths. This cave never being fully explored led many of the older town residents to claim that it was a gateway to hell and that it was integral to the rituals of the miscreants they feared so much. Don and I spent a lot of time in those woods searching for the monstrosities let loose on to the world through the gates of hell. That night however was spent entangled on the hood of his starlit car, dreaming of the future, entranced by the freedoms it promised. As Don leaned in closer for a kiss, a voice cut through the night air.

The hell you boys doing?” it asked in disgust.

I jolted up to see that it was Bruce Anderson, the local town “hero”. Bruce had been closer than anyone to leaving Sunset Valley after receiving a football scholarship back when the high school still had sports programs. An injured knee anchored him back to the town and as he aged he took it upon himself to be the unofficial town sheriff, policing local hot spots for delinquent behavior. I think because fame and glory were once within his reach that he lusted so fervently after the little power could hold over the residents of a small town. Then again all it took was a little misused power and mass hysteria to fuel the fires of Salem. Whatever the case, he liked poking his nose into other people’s business, taking moral high grounds and dictating acceptable behavior and language.    

“You know I could tell your parents about this."

"Does it look like I give a fuck?" Don responded coldly.

"C' mon man let's just go," I pleaded with Don.

"Fuck that, I'm not gonna let him get away with the shit he constantly pulls. Hey, Bruce you know you're a worse gossip than a bored housewife!"

Don always had a way of getting under people’s skin and it was obvious by Bruce’s darkening expression that his last comment stung. To have his manhood challenged by the considerably younger Don infuriated him. He took a threatening step forward as he spoke his next words.

"Let me ask you a question boy if the sky were to split open and the hand of God reached through to smite you and only you, what would you say? would you still be this smug?"

"Well, I'd say that I'd have it coming and that it’s about damn time. But I'd also say that I wouldn't be the only one that deserves it, I mean didn't you knock up a 17 year old? Last I heard she wasn’t doing so well.”

Bruce's face contorted in anger. If Don had stung him before, this time he tore into the man’s very core. For all his pride in his unwavering faith, it was juxtaposed with his boastfulness about how red-blooded he was. There is a special irony with men like him, claiming piety and virility within the same breath. It’s that irony that made it so easy for Don to back Bruce into a corner.

"Know this boy, our lives are nothing but the consequences of our choices. You’ll face yours soon enough."

He turned and walked away with a huff, never knowing just how eerily prophetic his threats were.

The girl that Don was talking about was Alice Easton, her recent suicide rocked the community and In a town that thrived on rumors, it was hard to get cold hard facts as to what lead to her death. The more believable ones claimed that her parents forced her to abort to save face and that she was so ashamed or guilt-ridden that she saw death as her only solace. Rumors as to who the father was tended to point to Bruce more often than not, as his inappropriate comments towards underaged girls were well known but seldom talked about, and whispers of his salacious relationships had plagued him for over a decade at this point. In the past everyone let it slide as he was the town's gold star resident. However, this time reverence could not shield him from such severe accusations. The few facts that were known were that Alice was definitely pregnant, as confirmed by the town doctor and that her death was ruled a suicide. This was only one of Bruce’s many sins. A foolish man layered thick with hypocrisy and unintentional irony, if only he knew he too would face his consequences soon enough.

Don drove me home in silent anger, I hated to see him seethe, my inability to calm him made me feel so powerless. By the time we reached my driveway, I settled on giving him space. As I was opening the door to leave his hand shot out and grasped mine. I turned to him and saw that his face had softened. Don had a rough exterior that seemed near impossible to crack but very rarely he showed a shy, pensive innocence. For a man like Don to show such vulnerability meant that he truly trusted me, it was a revelation that left the heart with a tender ache.

"Hey, just wait for me ok. Just one more year, and we can drive far away from here. Go wherever the fuck we want, so just wait for me.”

"What's the matter, Don? You know I will, I always do."

"Sorry, it's just this place, these people, they piss me off. I'm just worried that they'll get to you."

"They won't. They haven’t for 17 years and they won’t now."

Don let out a half chuckle, half sigh. He perked up as he spoke.

"Tomorrow night let's make it past that highway and into the nearest town, get a sneak peek of what's past this place. We can spend the whole weekend driving around, seeing new things."

I eagerly agreed and we planned to sneak out late at night and just drive until exhaustion forced us to turn around. I spent the following day locked in my room, procrastinating on weekend assignments and avoiding my parents. It was nearing 10:00 pm by the time I heard the familiar sound of Don's car engine as he pulled into my driveway. I rushed out to greet him but saw immediately that something was wrong. Don had a crazed look in his eyes. He said nothing when I got into his car and only responded with a grunt when I greeted him. Instead of driving towards the highway, he went the opposite direction towards the woods. He shrugged off my questions of concern.

He finally pulled over as we neared "Hell's gates" cave entrance.

"I fucked up, I fucked up big time," he lamented.

My questions and pleas were met with silence and instead led me to the trunk and popped it open, I peered in and nearly doubled over trying to hold back the urge to vomit. Waves of nausea radiated throughout my body as I took a step closer. The inside of his trunk was stained with blood, some of it pooling in the corners but the thing that stuck with me the most was the glazed look in Bruce’s eyes and his partially exposed skull slick with crimson. Another thread pulled loose, this was the moment our lives unraveled.  

I jolted awake with the sound of the motel door being flung open with incredible force. I tried to get up to confront the intruder, but my body was locked in place by a tremendous weight., I was completely paralyzed, unable to even open my eyes . The stench of death wafted into my nose as I felt a being approach the foot of my bed. The sound of contorted limbs snapping and tearing preceded the arrival of the creatures I had encountered earlier, the scent of offal decay accompanying them. several beings now stood in the room, their unintelligible whispers rose to shrieks that reverberated throughout my entire body. I was on the verge of cracking from the sheer sensory overload when a voice, otherworldly in its tone, spoke and deafened all others. I recognized it as the voice that spoke so often to me in my dreams.

“She who sits upon a crimson throne awaits,” it said

The crushing weight subsided and I rose to gaze upon the being. It stood there levitating several inches off the ground. It wore a blue cloak that obscured the entirety of its body. Behind it stood four Flesh Constructs, they seemed to be made of mostly human parts, as some of its limbs were recognizably humanoid, however, patches of fur, teeth, eyes, and limbs suggested that local wildlife was assimilated into their crude forms. The cloaked being gave a nod and dematerialized leaving nothing behind but wisps of navy blue smoke. The flesh constructs collectively let out a garbled yelp then proceeded to writhe their way out of the hotel, the sound of their bones resounding in the late-night air. Don and I just stood in quiet bewilderment.  

“Well, I guess that’s good as to sign as any to get the fuck going,” Don chuckled, breaking the silence.

“Why would one of the bishops be here?”

“Maybe they were eager to greet us, or impatient?”

After a few more tense moments spent in silence we got up and set out to make the final leg of our journey. The few hours we drove were spent in silence, Don’s face and emotions indiscernible. I sat silently in self resignation, I heard the bishops say it many times in dreams. We wouldn’t leave Sunset, not this time. She who sits upon a crimson throne demands our life as a tribute, to be part of her unholy court. I know now that ever since the day Don killed Bruce that her invisible hand held onto us by the throat. Her greed ensured that no matter how far we fled we would always return to her, whether by choice or by force. The nightly dreams, the stalking creatures, it was all her doing.

We finally reached the city limits sign on that seldom traveled the highway and turned on to the road that would lead us into town. After our departure from Sunset the road and the hill side were hidden away, made inaccessible to anyone. Until now, I knew that it would be waiting for us to cross its borders. What I didn’t expect was the vile site that awaited us upon cresting the hills into sunset. I knew the sky above sunset would still be shattered and torn open, but to see the majority of the town to be blanketed in pulsating muscle and flesh brought out a visceral gut wrenching fear I didn’t know was possible.  Unfamiliar structures dotted the outskirts of the townscape, new additions constructed entirely of flesh and bone and bound by sinew. I was left  speechless by the sight and even Don seemed taken aback, no witty retorts to break the tension and horror. This cemented everything, there really was no turning back, this was the end, not just for us but for the world. Upon the completion of the capital she truly claims her throne and throws the world into chaos. And by the looks of things it wouldn’t be long, we’re the final pieces, the reason why the bishops acted in such urgency.  

It’s a funny thing actually, I should've seen this coming but I never truly accepted the possibility. How can you when faced with such a tragedy? Can anyone truly claim to be content walking to their own death? Can anyone claim to be at peace knowing that they would be the catalyst for so much suffering? The closure has evaded after 20 years of contemplation. I fear for the fate of my daughter, my loved ones, and for all who read this and know of what's to come.

A man once told me that our lives are nothing but the consequences of our choices, I guess it’s time to face ours. I started the car engine and drove towards Sunset, towards her beckoning hand, towards our end.

Part 2

It’s strange how things can be so set in stone that struggling against them seems less than futile. And yet I and the world remain unchanged and alive. Yesterday I was so sure that all I knew would be erased that I lost the will to finish telling my story, confessing my sins. So now I’ll do just that, I’ll tell you everything that’s happened because if anything, you deserve to know.  

On the night of October 18th, 2000, after a brief confrontation, Don split Bruce’s skull open with a wrench, stuffed his body into the trunk of his 1983 mustang, and drove us to the “Gates of Hell.” I hate to admit that my shock was short-lived, and when he asked me to help him dispose of the body, there wasn’t even a second of hesitation. I knew it was wrong, that we were committing an unforgivable crime, but I was too selfish to let my dreams slip through my fingers. Terrified of losing Don, my freedom, my perceived future, we threw Bruce’s into the inky depths of hell. A pair of children tossing a coin into a well, wishing for the world. At the bottom of that well, in the depths of hell, our wish was heard, and the world fell into its hands, to gift to us and to keep for itself.

The sound that Bruce’s body made when it hit the cave floor made me cringe, a sickening and fleshy crunch. I didn’t get to ponder the sound long; the moment it was birthed, so to was some great expulsion of seismic force. The ground beneath our feet shifted and split with violence I didn’t know was possible. With haste, Don got me into his car and sped away as the magnitude of the tremors grew in their intensity.  

“Fuck it; we’re leaving right now! This is the perfect cover. Maybe people will think that Bruce fell in because of-”

“Don!”

I interrupted him and pointed at the sky above.

He had been so preoccupied with the earth tearing itself apart that he didn’t notice the sky doing the same. The skies above splintered, cracked, and tore away from itself, revealing the black void that lay beyond sundered realities. In that empty and timeless place, a monstrous eye blossomed into existence. It’s sheer size dwarfing all of Sunset, it’s sclera was stained a deep scarlet, and its golden iris were marked with unknown and elaborate runic symbols. Its pupil darted around wildly before settling its focus directly on Don and me. I could feel its malicious intent burning, scaring itself into my very being, a primordial, and insatiable hunger. It retreated into the void momentarily, and in that space of time, the earthquake subsided, and the whole town settled into silence. It didn’t last long, Don floored the car, and the screeching of his car’s wheels tore through the night air as we finally escaped from dirt roads onto pavement. Don’s panic was made evident by how frantic his driving was, taking sharp turns at incredible speeds and taking us farther and farther away from the town.

When the earth began to quake once more, it did so with doubled fervor; the seismic spasms jerked the car with such force it threatened to send us flying off the road. I had a gut feeling that the earth and sky synchronized to some extent, so I looked back up at the sky. What I saw was beyond comprehension, a sight that rendered mind and sanity, leaving only a deep, unyielding trauma. A colossal, grotesque hand was beginning to reach through the rift. For a moment, I thought it would reach down and snatch us up off the ground and drag us into the dark dimension it originated from. The fear was so pervasive that I couldn’t even let out a scream, the breath caught in my throat, and my heart hammered with such speed and force that I feared it would burst from my chest. I let out a harsh sigh of relief when I saw that the hand was not reaching for us but instead the town center behind us. That’s when the screaming began, the collective screams of a small town roused from its slumber only to see that the heavens above had been ripped open and hell itself was bleeding through. I saw the town shrinking as we drove further away as the hand grew closer to closing the gap between heaven and earth. We had reached the edge of the hills when it finally made landfall, and the shrieks reached a deafening crescendo that echoed throughout the hillside, yet we did not stop driving, nor think of turning back or calling for help. We neared that highway that barred us from escape so many times and flew past it with little thought. The second we crossed it, the screams, tremors, the nightmarish hand, and even the road behind us, it all vanished. Where there once was a turn off that led you into the hillside and onto Sunset valley, now was grasslands, the hillside where Sunset should have been was nothing but thick forest, untouched by man for centuries. A whole town, thousands of lives all erased in a few moments, swallowed up by the creeping void, the impermeable darkness, an otherworldly tyrant, and our juvenile greed.

We drove in silence; the longer we sat in that stillness, the larger the gap between us grew. By the time the car was running on fumes, and we were forced to pull into a gas station, I knew that Don and I would never be the same. We stayed together for about four months after that, hopping from hotel to hotel, odd job to odd job, and city to city. I never heard anything about Sunset Valley, though it’s not like I ever asked. Don and I never talked about it, tried to bury it, leave it behind, but the dreams never let us forget. One day, while Don was working, I just walked away, caught a bus, and left for California.

Despite it all, I somehow found a way to fall into the façade of stability. It all went by so quickly; every waking moment was a blur; my whole life fast-forwarding before my very eyes. When did I meet Rachael? When did I get married? A white dress, red roses, A child born, my daughter’s first words. When and how? I don’t know; it was all simultaneous to me. It was only in my dreams where it all was truly clear, lucid, real. When the realities between the waking and slumber bled into each other and became one, that’s when the trance I was in was finally dispelled. What now? How do I move forward when I spent the last 20 years on autopilot, distant and disconnected from reality. Maybe that’s the nature of trauma, locked in that perpetual state.

When I reunited with Don a few days ago, I thought I could never forgive him. In the dinner, where a single smirk carved into his handsome face was enough to leave me in reminiscent awe, it was still far from my mind. On the drive to sunset, through countless miles spent on highways and rundown gas stations and I dreamt of our best moments, the grip of anger never loosened; it redoubled in frustration at what was lost and what could never be relived. And when we crested the once hidden hills of Sunset and gazed upon the corpse of our old home, and saw that it became the foundation of a flesh bound capital, I fell into crushing, soul-rending despair. Now that it’s all over, I’m glad I got to see him one last time; I hope that he found some solace in the end. I couldn’t have made this journey alone. I wish I could go back to that moment, atop the hills overlooking Sunset, looking down at the hell below. I would’ve let him know that he wouldn’t face this alone, that I all wanted to finally move past this. Instead, we both descended into that town, no words or even an acknowledgment shared between us.    

When we reached what was once the Main street, we stood in awe at how it had changed. Storefronts and offices were now blanketed in raw meat and pale flesh; the floor itself was one pulsating organic mass. The car stalled before we reached it, and were forced to walk on its grotesque surface. I cringed every time I felt blood vessels and organs squirm and burst under my weight. Don walked ahead with the unsettling confidence; I struggled to keep up and called out, asking him to wait.

“For what? We’re out of time, Jack.”

“Take a look around!”

He paused and scouted the area, taking only a brief moment to acknowledge the gathering hoard of flesh constructs. The creatures gazed at us, through a myriad of eyes, with curiosity but kept their distance. They were only here to witness our arrival and had no interest in impeding our trek into the Crimson throne room. We walked quickly through and headed towards the woods, not wanting to see what our homes had been terraformed into. I got a closer look at the new structures as we passed them and realized what they were, ribs. It was a massive ribcage, bits of sinew and viscera clinging on to them, encasing the entire town. I didn’t care to find out what nefarious purpose they had.

We reached the edge of the woods; here, the forest was mostly free of the flesh that had grown over the rest of Sunset. The exception was a single path of scabbed over with diseased tissue. Its stench was near unbearable, so we decided not to walk on it and instead took an alternate route alongside it, knowing well where it was leading us to. We walked in silence, just like so many times before, and it was infuriating. Don would either withdraw into silence or explode into hostility when confronted with extreme stress, but I wasn’t going to let him get away with it this time.

“Hey, slow down. I’m not gonna let keep getting away with ignoring me! Not after-”

“After what?!”

“After what you’ve done.”

“I fucking knew it! You blame me for all this shit, you of all people,” Don said with a rising edge to his voice.

“Because it was your fault! You were the one who killed Bruce. It was your idea to dump him in that fucking hellhole. It was all you! All because of what?”

Don lunged at me; I tried moving out of the way, but his speed was incredible, and I couldn’t dodge in time. We both went down and tumbled down into a nearby ditch. Don pinned me down and got real close to my face. Anger, desperation, and anguish above all, shone in his eyes.

“Bruce was the one that came to me. He wanted someone to take the blame for Alice; he demanded that I confess to being the one that knocked her up, to clear his name. And if I didn’t, he’d tell everyone about us. I was scared-”

“Of what?! Of being exposed? I thought you, of all people, wouldn’t care about something like that. I thought you of all people had the strength to stand up to him.”

Don was taken aback by my words; as his grip loosened, and he retreated into that seldom seen timid persona, I broke free from his hold and shoved him away from me. I pushed my back into a corner, trying to create as much distance as possible. Don’s stern expression softened into one of sorrow; his voice was calm and melancholic as he spoke.

“You’re right; I didn’t and still don’t care what others think of me. I wasn’t scared about me; I was afraid of what could and would happen to you. Idiot, you still had one more year bound to that place. The thought of what could happen to you in that year, the thought of you being hurt, the thought of losing you, It terrified me.”

I stood in complete disbelief, unable to respond, and yet Don continued to dismantle the anger I once held for him with every word he spoke.

“You think of me as this remorseless monster, but you’re wrong. You think because I refused to spend years in a guilt-fueled haze that I don’t regret anything? I constantly feel the subtle self-destructive destructive urges clawing at the corners of my mind. But what good would it do if I buried myself in self-pity and gave into my worst habits? Numbed it all booze, sex, and drugs? Or worse yet, forced myself to fall in line with the rest of society and hope that it fills in the cracks. What would I gain? The only way for me to move forward is to cut away the past and take each step on my own accord.”

Don took a hard breath and continued to speak, letting out all the emotions and thoughts, and longing that he had been bottling up for 20 years. He let it all out to the only other person that could understand.  

“I’m a selfish fuck, I’ll admit it. I wanted it all with no compromise. I wanted you by my side to the very end, I wanted to defy every single person that looked down on me, and I wanted to break free from this place. It’s ironic, I guess, in the end, I still lost you; there was no one left to defy, and I can hardly call this freedom since I ended up back here anyways.”

Don let out a sigh and visibly contemplated whether he should speak or drop it; he settled on the latter.

“Do you know what my mom tried drilling into my head ever since I was a kid? She tried to raise me to ‘want nothing, take nothing, leave nothing. To live as if you were never even here.' It was the Moretti motto; no one liked us to begin, so why make it worse? If I had listened, maybe none of this would've happened, but living like that isn't living. I refuse to live for anyone but myself."

He said that last sentence with that same youthful conviction that had mesmerized me 20 years prior. But, we weren't teenagers anymore, and that same juvenile sincerity wasn't going to pacify me this time.

"That's not fair; you can't just absolve yourself of any wrong-doing with a few words. I won't drop this."

"Of course I can't; that was never the plan. I came here intending to put an end to all of this. If you won't believe me, then I'll show you.

"How? I don't understand what you're fucking saying."

"Christ, how many brain cells did you kill these last 20 years? I'm saying that I've got a plan."

"Bullshit, how could you plan for this?"

"I didn't spend all this time just sitting on my ass; I spent years figuring just what the fuck happened."

"So enlighten me, what the fuck happened."

Don explained how the nightly dreams that had haunted us both were the most significant clue. It was a hint left behind by otherworldly, fanatical beings whose hubris led them to nonchalantly throwing out the regal title of their ruler, "She Who Sits Upon a Crimson Throne.” I had heard that title many times, I had my guesses to what it meant, but nothing was ever concrete. That's what Don found, a tangible answer; he searched thoroughly, through public documents, college records, but it wasn’t until he joined a shady group interested in the occult that he found a lead. It led him to the "Grimoire of Madness," an ancient text outlining the many cults and practices of centuries past. It took years to get hold of a copy, did dirty work for a few private collectors, and that shady organization. A few hours with the book was his payment. He told me of all the insanity that filled every passage, the horror of every page he quickly flipped past. He finally found what he was looking for in a section on a cult infamous for human sacrifice and blood rituals. The chief deity was the most prominently featured, called "Verith, King of the Malcontent Heart and He Who Hates.” Amongst his pantheon, the most esoteric of deities mentioned was referred to only by the title "Heiress to the Crimson Throne.”

"It has to be her! I looked for that version of her name and found so much more; what they've been calling her now is a recent name change."

"So?"

"So it all lines up! I can piece together what happened and how she was brought here. This town's history and its mysteries were hard to find but not impossible; files and records always exist somewhere. I had to pull a lot of strings and do a lot of favors with bad people to get the dirt on this town."

“What did you find?

"In the mid-60s, a small group of hippies gathered in these woods here and formed an inter-faith community. Of course, the locals were upset but couldn't do much due to the lack of a police force. So for years, these hippies lived out there and got into some bizarre, occultic shit, and they just kept spiraling into the more fucked up territory. It was the Manson murders that finally pushed them over the edge, and in the early seventies, they started worshiping a collection of deities they referred to as ‘The Court of Crimson Throne.’ Chief amongst them was this ‘Crimson Heiress.’ They got it into their heads that she was a wish granter, and with the right offerings, they could wish for her to start some kind of revolution, typical hippie bullshit. But what they were doing was little leagues, local wildlife, and a few pets weren’t going to get her attention. The Grimoire states explicitly that only the sacrifice of the most revered person in the vicinity is enough to summon her. The town was smaller then, and no one was genuinely noteworthy; by the time the satanic panic started setting in, the hippies were chased out of town by an angry mob. They found that cave entrance littered with animal bones and formed their conclusions."

I stood in stunned silence; it all fit. Though public opinion about Bruce was starting to wane, he was still the most respected and influential person in town; he was the missing key. Who would’ve thought two stupid teenagers would, by accident, be the ones to complete apocalyptic rites set into motion decades prior. We couldn’t have seen it coming; no one could; the realization began to unravel the anger that had bound me for so long.

“So, what now? Is there anything we can even do?” I asked.

“In the grimoire, she’s stated to be a lesser deity, because for ‘her’ to fully occupy our world she has to anchor herself to a physical body and declare herself ruler through some elaborate coronation ritual. Until then, she’s only partially connected to our world, linked by something that entered our world the moment the rift was opened. Since humanity hasn’t been enslaved yet, I believe she hasn’t taken a body, or at least it’s not complete. Leaving only one link binding her here, if we can find it and destroy it…”

“You really think that would work? It can’t be that easy; nothing ever is. We could search this whole town and still not find shit.”

“It more than likely will be in that cave, in her throne room. It’s something foreign to our world; when we see it, we’ll know.”

“Even if we do find it, what then? I don’t see how you plan on destroying an artifact like that.

Don patted the backpack he was carrying.

“This baby is loaded with a dozen grenades and a few incendiaries, oh, and I still have this baby.”

Don waved around a revolver; I recognized it as his father’s old Smith and Wesson model 27, the steel glinting faintly in the filtered sunlight.  

I couldn’t help but laugh at his plan, typical Don. Dedicated years of his life to this cause, and that’s the best he could come up with.

“And if that fails? What then?” I asked

“I do have one final contingency, but I’d rather not resort to using it. It took me years to get hold of the sonuvabitch, so I’d rather hold on to it. But if the need arises… well, I’ll just leave it in your hands.”

I mulled over my options and realized I had none; it was far too late to turn back. It was either go down without a fight or die throwing a literal hail Mary. I owed it to family, my friends, and myself to at least try. I turned to Don and said, “fuck it,” before I could run ahead, Don grabbed my shoulder and pulled me aside

“What’s… what’s her name?”

I could’ve played dumb, feigned not knowing who I was talking about; in all honesty, he probably already knew her name. But I owed it to him to hear it from my lips.

“Rachael”

“Do you love her?”

“At some point and time, I did. But you know how things are…”

“People drift apart…”

“Yeah, and things…”

“Are never the same.”

He pondered for a moment before he asked his next question.

“Who are you here for?”

“Her name is Sophie; she turned six a little while ago. She’s got my eyes, you know, my eyes and my nose. Do you want to see a picture of her?”

“Save it for when this is over,” he said with a small laugh.

“And who are you here for?”

He was quiet for a moment before answering.

“Myself.”

I didn’t know how to respond; maybe there was no adequate response; all I could do was give him a reassuring pat on his shoulder as we walked forward towards the gates of hell.

The cave entrance was decorated in flesh blossoms, stained a variety of hues. Bruised violets, gangrene rosettes, blackened buds. A menagerie of the fantastically fucked up, a grotesque garden in full bloom in the courtyard of hell.

“I can’t fucking believe we have to go through Satan’s asshole to get to this bitch” Don suddenly quipped

“Don, this isn’t the time.”  

I said it in a tone as serious as I could muster; I struggled to keep a straight face, and Don noticed and let out a half-laugh. Even I had to admit that the orifice that lay before us was hysterically insane. Still, it was impossible to fully settle into hysterics knowing what it led to. The once sheer drop was now sloped and had smooth pink flesh encasing its entirety. It truly resembled an intestine, and so too did its offal odors. Don was the first one to step in, visibly cringing when he lifted his foot to see that the bottom of it was covered in a viscous, clear fluid. He shone his flashlight light around and revealed that the cave went on for a considerable length. I stepped in to follow him and the moment we both entered, the groves and flaps of flesh dotting the walls of the entrail/cave system stirred and opened. Eyes, dozens of eyes of all shapes and sizes focused their gaze upon us. Some were tiny black dots while others were as large as my torso, irises bright with livid incandescence. Pupils were bent and warped into alien shapes, hateful polygonal forms with sharp angles that hinted at the pain they so desperately wanted to inflict. They were everywhere, lining the walls, floors, and ceilings, watching from all angles, I knew they belonged to her, The Crimson Heiress. As we walked, the entire tunnel shifted in response, undulations of muscle pushing us forward, each wave coming and going in perfect rhythms. The deeper we went, the lighter the tissue became, shifting from moody reds to pale uniform pink. It took only 14 minutes to reach the entrance to her throne room. The passage widened into a far larger chamber; at the end of the section, a massive bulbous appendage was mounted to the wall’s center, a small fist-sized opening in the middle. The realization that it was meant to vaguely resemble a cervix made me seriously ponder the nature of this structure and entity.

“You know, under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t go anywhere near something like that,” Don spoke up.

Under normal circumstances, I would’ve chided him for his lack of self-awareness, for saying something so incidentally revealing with no hint of irony. But “normal circumstances” have been a rare commodity for us these last few decades.

I was the first to enter the throne room; I went fist first into the fleshy mass. The opening dilating to make room for my passing. It was a violent and horrific affair as I struggled to my way through the canal, that ever-pervasive slime coating my body. When I finally burst through to the other side, I made sure to swing around to face the pseudo-cervix immediately; I didn’t want to meet her alone. When Don’s hand reached through, I took hold of it and pulled him through. When he finally got his bearings, he looked up and let out a barely audible sound. One that conveyed a great shock, a horror so profound that stunned silence was impossible. He gripped my hand with such strength that it ached, and I squeezed back as I steeled myself to turn around. At the moment I saw, the second my mind processed the sight before me. I knew it was my greatest mistake.

No, that doesn’t properly describe the emotions I felt at that moment; maybe no words exist in the human language to properly describe it; all of them seem so derivative. I imagine the syllables and sounds used to form a word to accurately describe the feeling would be long, sharp, painful, and incomprehensibly complex. Sounds that encapsulated burst eardrums, split fingers, eyes gouged out and ground down to mush by one’s own hand. Sounds of mothers and their children being fed a thousand monolithic mouths, tongues savoring the agony of mortality. Of men tearing each other apart, fists, fingers, and teeth stripping away flesh down to the bone. It was all insanity-inducing.

Insanity wasn’t mercy that would be granted to me; no, instead, my mind forced me to take in the sight, even in my darkest of dreams, nothing came close to this level of depravity. A mass of wriggling flesh made up of hundreds of human bodies, naked and fused into what could have only been her throne. I knew them, the people trapped in that mass,, and they knew me. I saw the unmistakable expression of recognition cross their collective faces when they saw us. Their voices rose to hysterical, guttural shrieks; having lost the capability to speak, it was the best they could do to express the despair they felt. I saw the face of Rosie James, a flower shop owner who was a good friend of my mother. Her face was contorted in anguish. I saw Conrad Firth; he was on his death bed the night Sunset fell, having been a smoker for 30 years, he developed lung cancer. He fought it every step of the way, if he had died a few hours earlier, if only he had thrown in the towel the second he was diagnosed. He looked upon us with unquenchable hatred. At the very base, acting as a trunk of sorts was the contorted body of Bruce, a smooth black sphere buried deep into the center of his chest. His eyes darted back and forth between Don and I. I looked away; I couldn’t bear it; they had all been alive, conscious and, in unimaginable torment for the last 20 years. It was a blessing that I didn’t see the faces of my parents. If I had, I would’ve lost my mind then and there, torn out my eyes, and bashed my head in. I hoped Don was given the same mercy as I collapsed into his chest, and he fell to his knees; we held each other and fell into a numb silence.

“Rise,” said a familiar ghastly voice.

That blue cloaked bishop levitated above us along with three other cloaked figures of varying colors, Red, Yellow, Purple. I guessed it was the rest of her bishops. What role would we be assigned in her court, I wondered. I didn’t get to ponder it long as the blue one spoke again.

“Stand and face your queen; she has long awaited your arrival. For the arrival of the Crimson Princes, Future Heirs to The Crimson Throne.”

As if possessed, we turned to face the throne once more. My mind reeled and struggled to fight against looking at that wretched thing once more, but my body refused to comply. A massive form now sat on the throne, mercifully obscuring the majority of it, except for the base containing Bruce. It was Her; she possessed a body that was a bastardization of the female form. Arms and legs devoid of flesh, revealing muscle and blood vessels. A massive pelvis consisted only of bone and two prominent, flayed breasts. Her head was severely misshapen, resembling the swollen heads of those that perished at sea only to have their ocean battered remains wash ashore. From her shoulder blades, thick bundles of nerve fibers extended out and linked her to the base of the throne, directly to the smooth black sphere at the center of Bruce's chest. The most striking features were her eyes, scarlet, burning, marked with familiar eldritch runes. It was those very eyes that peered from the fractured realities, through the heavens above Sunset and onto us. Those insatiable eyes that hungered for conquest, for dominion, for corruption and the vilification of all she set her hateful gaze upon. And so she spoke.

Birthed from the womb of cosmic entropy, conceived from stray postulations of the 2nd born ‘He who hates,’ I arose from amniotic fluid of a billion sundered realities and fed upon the world that lay before me. Uncountable civilizations fell under my ceaseless conquest. I was to feast upon it all, to devour the whole of existence. Until ‘The Hateful God’ had me imprisoned within the infinite labyrinthian recess that ran concurrent to all that is and is not. But you, lost children of creations long forgotten, have given invitation, no, demanded that I take my rightful place upon a throne stained crimson with the blood of all that has and will exist. And you, lost children, have been rewarded, a place amongst my court as princes, heirs to the sanguine empires, deification within my pantheon, and your innermost mortal desires fulfilled. So look upon this palace of viscera, and know that it is my fetid womb and the genesis of a new era. Take pride in knowing that you will be part of its legacy.”

Her voice should have been one that could shatter mind and poison flesh; it should have been the voice of a dictator hardened to steel or of a being that could not and should not be comprehended. Instead, it was tender, matronly almost comforting. That was the terrifying part; with that voice, she had commanded genocides on an unprecedented scale. This was the source of so much torment in our lives, yet anger could not make the fear I felt recede. I was reduced to, as she said, a small child, lost and weary. I wanted to run away, bury myself in that misery that hung over my life for so long and sink into apathy, but I owed it to everyone that suffered because of me to at least attempt redemption. Though nearly paralytic fear coursed throughout my body, I forced myself to speak my next words, they came out as a pathetic whimper, but they were spoken nonetheless, and that showed with extreme effort I could challenge her.

“Why did you do this to all my friends? We didn’t wish for this, so why subject them to something so cruel?”

As soon as I finished speaking, a dire thought came to mind, did I wish for this? Deep on a subconscious level, did I hate the people of Sunset enough to long for their punishment? That couldn’t be it; I knew what I desired most, so who? For a moment, a jolt of anger arose from within me, did Don wish for this?

Your’s were not the only ones granted; the third prince, the catalyst for my arrival too, had his wishes granted. See, this lost child feared that which he could not comprehend, that which strayed from the standards set by his forefathers. So he dedicated himself to enforcing the order that defined his existence, for to have it challenged and defiled would be to have his very being torn asunder. So I made him the center of this place’s existence, the pillar that binds our planes and the future overseer of this corner of reality.”

“What kind of fucked up monkey's paw shit is that? And what about us? You can’t call the last 20 years a wish granted,” Don yelled.

His voice was enough to break away from the panicked state I was in. I like to think that maybe, just maybe, my voice was the one to stir him from his.

She twisted her lips into a smile, a sickly grin that spoke of malevolence that permeated her every thought. Her eyes focused on me for a mere moment before her hand lunged out at dizzying speeds and took hold of me. I was flung violently into the air, the world spun around me, and I felt my limbs flail about before something caught me. The sudden stop caused my head to whiplash, and the stinging in my skull made it apparent that I had suffered a concussion; it took a moment to gain my bearing, but when I did, I saw that a giant flesh tendril had formed from the ceiling and grabbed me before I collided into it. I could hear Don’s panicked voice pleading with the crimson heiress.

“Wait! Stop, why did you-”

“To get a rise out of you.”

“Just let him go; you can take me instead.”

Lost children shouldn’t bargain with their mothers; your demands have already been met, and yet you beg for more. Unruly child, I should punish you, unruly child you know not the meaning of agony, unruly child, how should you be disciplined?”

“I promise never to challenge or disobey you; I am grateful for what I’ve been given and will ask for no more,” Don replied.

The Crimson Heiress’s smile softened and the tendril coiled around me loosened enough for me to fall through its grip and be caught by Her’s. She then bent down and placed me back down on the soft fleshy floor. Don was at my side, helping me up; he mouthed a silent apology as I leaned against his shoulder.

“You are to refer to me as ‘The Mother Of Lost Dreamers, Daelteph,’ That is the name I have chosen to take upon my coronation.”

She gestured with her hand, and the whole throne room blossomed into complex and intricate regal displays. Columns, halls, pews, tables, and pseudo-floral centerpieces formed instantaneously, carved of flesh. Coagulated blood, bruises, scabs, and calluses accentuated elaborate designs branded into the flesh; in a nightmarish way, it was almost beautiful. Wisps of colorful smoke, navy blue, gold, indigo, and scarlet all rolled in and materialized as the four bishops. They carried a massive circlet, jagged antlers spilling out from all around it. At its points, the calcified remains of some creatures were impaled, their faces locked into an eternal scream. Most of them were unrecognizable as beings from this realm except for the human one at its center, trophies from previously conquered worlds. The bishops floated towards Daelteph, intent on placing the crown upon her head. I knew when that happened; it would be the end for us all. I took hold of Don’s, squeezed it, a gesture he returned; we knew that it was now never.

Don slipped a small object into my pocket, took off his backpack, pulled out a single pin, and flung towards the base of the crimson throne. He let out a casual, almost comedic, “hey” as the pack soared towards Bruce. Daeltepth turned her head at the sound, her face contorted into anger at the sight. The way she was positioned made it impossible to intercept the explosives, or so I thought. She let out an incredibly fast and powerful kick and caught the pack with the edge of her heel. It must have been her intention to fling the bag away from the throne, but as soon she made contact with it detonated. The explosion sent a deafening shock wave throughout the throne room, followed by a series of smaller staccato-like explosions and bright flashes. When they ceased, I could see that most of her right foot was obliterated, and the incendiaries had caused her calf to catch on fire. She turned fully to face us, leaning her weight on her remaining foot, flames spreading to her thigh and pelvis. Her face was twisted into an expression of pure rage, fury so profound it could never be truly expressed by human faces. Don gave me a quick knowing glance, his eyes communicating an unshatterable resolve, his eyes telling me, “it’s up to you now.”

He turned to run, and maybe he could have outrun the now seriously impeded Heiress, but before he could even take the first step, three tendrils burst from the floor and lashed out at Don; he dodged all 3 of them with ease rolling out of their grasp. As soon as he landed on his feet 3 more tendrils burst underfoot; Don must have spent the last two decades honing his reflexes because his reaction time was inhuman, dodging and weaving out of the way at incredible speeds. He dove out of their reach and used his hand to pivot mid-dive out of the way of a new tendril that had formed; however, he was beginning to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. I was shocked by how long it took for one to catch him at an angle who couldn’t recover from and pin him down.


Daelteph, having extinguished the fire during the confrontation, got down on her three remaining limbs and charged forward. As she passed me, she struck me with the sole of her foot, sending me flying backward. I landed near the base of the throne; the wind knocked out of me. I let out long, painful heaves and struggled to take in air, my entire body ached, but most of all, my diaphragm burned with an intense pain every time I breathed; the kick must have cracked a few ribs. Six consecutive shots rang out, followed by six meaty impacts, the sounds brought me to clarity, and I forced myself through the pain to stand; my only thoughts were Don; I had to help him. I saw that Daelteph now held him in her left hand, and his gun lay at her feet, her torso was riddled with bullet holes, but it seemed like she didn’t even notice that the revolver had punched several holes through her. A stream of incompressible obscenities spewing from her lips. The floor in front of her split open, causing Don’s revolver to fall into the gaping crevice. I saw hundreds of tendrils form alongside the walls chasm, all of them wriggling and failing. At the end of each, a different instrument of torture was attached, prongs, drills made of bone, fine needles, mouths with jagged teeth, cleavers, and uncountable others. She held Don over the pit, lowering him slowly into it. The longest of the tendrils, one with a bone sickle, lashed out and slashed at the base of his ankle and made a shallow cut that drew blood.  The tendril then lowered, and a few drops of blood fell into the crevice, driving the rest of the twisting mass into an even greater fervor.

Panic and adrenaline surged through me, masking the pain with the need to act, the need to save Don. A sudden recollection jolted me into action, and I dug into my pocket and pulled out a small dagger, Don’s contingency plan. It was sheathed in a scabbard made from a material I had never seen before; it felt almost gritty, it’s grainy texture comparable to sandpaper. It was pure black, void black, so dark that it visibly darkened the area around it, pulling in and dimming light around it in a perfect radius of about 6 inches. I unsheathed it, and the dagger itself was even more mysterious and otherworldly. It was made of a metallic material, silver in color, and seemed to be incredibly reflective; a halo of multi-hued light shone off its surfaces. It was tiny, only 2 inches from pommel to tip, but incredibly elaborate and ceremonial engravings covered its entirety.  The strangest part was that it seemingly ionized the very air around it; merely holding it unsheathed sent waves of volatile energy throughout my body. This couldn’t have been created in our reality, it was far too alien, but if anything could shatter the seal that bound Daelteph to this reality, it would be this.

I knew where it was; she said it herself, the pillar that chained our worlds together. I sprinted to the very base of the throne, searing pain once more pulsing through my body, and dropped down to my knees at the bottom of the throne. I averted looking at Bruce’s face, looking at anybody in that writhing mass, even as the screams and moans intensified. I tried raising the blade but found my body refusing to comply; a cold chill ran up my spine at that moment. That paralytic fear returned; I was frozen in place, terrified thoughts forcing themselves into my mind.

“What if it didn’t work? What torment would Daelteph subject me to for my betrayal? Should I just do nothing and give in? Maybe my family would be spared; maybe I would be rewarded.”

I felt shame for even pondering those things; I had spent so much of my life locked in passive fear and bouts of apathy. But I had also fought against the vices that would have plagued so many in my state; I hadn’t resorted to substance abuse, alcoholism, or sex as a coping mechanism. And my mind was still intact; yes I had suffered long periods of dissociation, but in my dreams, my mind was also hardened, that was evident by the fact that was still sane. How many others would’ve had their minds warped, twisted, and broken apart from what I’ve seen here, from what I’ve been through? That was my hidden strength; I could resist that paralytic, insanity-inducing fear. My whole life, I had fought to resist and break free from the forces that sought to control me. This wasn’t any different; this was the chance to finally cast off the chains that had bound me into that pathetic state for so long, fear, trauma, regret, all of it. I refused to fall into the trance they had held me under for so long. I know now that everything that has ever happened was building to this very moment; this was my life’s crescendo.  

Dispelling hesitation, I drew the blade, held onto it so tightly my hand stung. I positioned myself so my face was level with the small black sphere in the center of Bruce’s chest; it looked as intangible and imperceivable as a black hole. I raised the blade, and with the greatest resolve I had ever felt, tried to drive into it the center of the sphere. But like two magnets of the same charge, the object repelled each other, as if the existence of these two contradicted each other to such a degree that some innate universal force drove them apart. As soon as the blade was deflected away, Daelteph twisted her head to face me and let out a world shuddering roar. The Bishops that had been on standby still holding the massive crown dematerialized into smoke, letting the crown fall to the floor, and rushed towards me. I recentered the blade and tried once again plunging it into the seal, but like my previous attempt, I was met with a torrential current of energy repelling the blade away. But I held firm; with both arms keeping the blade in place, I pushed forward inch by inch, slicing through that universal force that fought with all its might to keep the two separate. The air around me was charged with ionized particles, and I felt the explosive energy searing throughout my veins, inflicting the greatest agony I had ever experienced. Still, with my muscles strained to their limits, I pushed forward until the blade was less than a millimeter from the sphere. At the moment, a giant flesh tendril formed behind me, the edge calcifying into a massive bone spear, the bishops materializing above me simultaneously, each brandishing a bronze pike. As all 5 of the pointed weapons were thrust down towards me, I used the last of my strength to throw the entirety of my body, and it’s weight into one final push. I was mere nano-seconds away from being torn apart when the blade finally made contact with the seal, and both shattered instantaneously; the emanation of energy that was released must’ve shaken the very foundations of our reality.

The throne immediately calcified into the ivory bone and the calcification rapidly spread out throughout the throne room, petrifying the bishops and the tendril in place, locking them into an eternal state of assault. Another scream ripped out from Daelteph, and I turned to see that she had dropped Don onto the still fleshy floor, narrowly avoiding the tendril filled crevice. The tendrils themselves had ceased their violent flailing and instead spasmed meekly as they fell to the rabid calcification. I could see that the Daelteph's body itself was beginning to turn to bone, but much more slowly, she was fighting it every step of the way. Her foot and foot stump had already fused to the ground, and the calcification was spreading up her thighs; she was no longer mobile and instead had drawn her hands to her face in clear distress.

Though I was at the point of complete fatigue and my body ached with the worst pain of my life, I ran, ran faster than I had ever run, to Don’s side, and held him up.

“We did it; we really fucking did it,” I said, raspy and breathless.

He let out a small pained but sincere laugh, I could feel the tears beginning to form, but I pushed them back and instead rested some of my weight on his shoulder. I turned to face the throne, the faces of the people I knew and loved still fused into each other; they looked like marble busts, their expressions showing that in their final moments of life, they felt relief. I was glad that I was the one to give them solace in the end. I really thought that would be the end of it as if it, that it would be that easy. I was snapped back into reality by the horse, ear-splitting shriek of Daelteph; she hadn’t calcified yet; the petrifaction had progressed up to her pelvis and was starting to spread to the base of her spine. She delivered a series of powerful blows to her spine in an attempt to sever it, all while screaming.

“I won’t allow it; I spent an eternity locked away in that boundless place, to escape its hold only to be banished by motherless children! It was your hearts that called out to me; it was the dreams of the lost, the castaways, the bohemians; I answered your call! Is this not what you yearned for!? I will not leave this place; I will not return that prison, to be ground under my father’s heel! My dream of escape will not end here!”

Daelteph finally succeeded in detaching herself from her lower body and now stood on both her hands. Don and I gave each other a nod and turned to sprint out of the cave. We set off towards the pseudo cervix that acted as an entrance. It was ivory white and fully dilated, the opening now wide enough for us to dive through, Don going first, spearing through it in an almost graceful, dolphin-esque manner. I was right behind, clumsily rolling through, but I was on my feet in an instant, and both of us set off running towards the cave entrance. I had hoped the bone cervix would at least slow down Daelteph, but she tore through it like tissue paper and was right behind us. My body had reached its breaking point a while ago, and now it was starting to fail on me. Pain, exhaustion, and injury was beginning to still my pace; Don slowed for a mere moment to keep let me catch up to him; his arm reached out and grabbed mine; it was what I needed to push myself to move forward, if only for a little while. Daelteph had closed the gap considerably and was now at our heels. If we could at least make it into the woods, we could split up, and one of us could survive. I didn’t want to come to that; I wanted both of us to escape from that place, alive and intact.

I could finally see the cave entrance up ahead, pale moonlight shining down and reflecting off the ivory bone that the entire cave system had converted to. The eyes were still there, now calcified; they were oddly beautiful in the light, under any other context I would have stopped to admire their elegance. We ran past them towards the ever-expanding ring of moonlight, Daelteph almost directly behind us; as we came upon the exit, we leaped out with the last vestige of our strength in hopes of creating as much distance as possible. Daelteph had the same idea; using her arms, she lunged out of the cave and landed on the ground in front of us, the impact displacing dirt and grass. I collapsed onto the ground, completely fatigued and no longer able to move. Don was at my side trying to get me on his back to no avail, I yelled at him to run that only one of us had to die here, but he refused to budge. Her massive hand was upon us, her fingers curling around our bodies and closed my eyes, hoping that death would come quickly.

I stayed in that still darkness for each second stretching out for an eternity. My heart hammered in my chest, each beat pulsating a dull ache throughout my body, my lungs and ribs burned with scorching agony every time I took a breath; at that moment, I was ready for death to still my pain. It never came; I slowly opened my eyes to see that the fingers and palms of Daelteph's hands had turned white, pale bone reflecting the light of the moon, set on the backdrop of a clear cloudless sky, the scars that once raked across its facets finally gone. The petrifaction spread quickly up Daelteph’s arms, and to her chest, thin veins of bone spread up her neck and into her face and formed small patches. A sinister smile spread across her face as she spoke.

“I see now, you are no mere lost children, nor are you lost dreamers; you knew from the very beginning what your heart yearned for. What a grandiose dream it was, but alas, all dreams must come to an end, and so too must its inhabitants. I enjoyed my fleeting time here, but if I must return to my reality, I will do so with poise. However, know that every single longing thought and fleeting dream makes its way to me. As long as there are lost dreamers pining for what lies beyond their reach, there will always be a door from which I can enter.  Farewell, little dreamers, heirs to my throne, princes of the endless dreamscapes. Await my return.”

And with that, she completely solidified; her body stood as a monument to the havoc she reeked in so little time. She could’ve plunged the world into her dark dream of an empire the night she arrived here. She instead let us live out 20 years of her twisted version of freedom, 20 years of her haunting our dreams; I guess, in the end, it was her hubris that led to her downfall. I was just glad that this time it was truly over. Don and I just lay there on the forest floor, looking past the tree canopy at the sea of brilliant stars that stretched on infinitely; they had never looked so beautiful in my life, so bright, so vivid. And so we lay there, in comfortable silence, letting our minds and bodies rest.

I awoke to the first rays of dawn, the light morning mists forming little dew droplets on my eyelids. I sat up to see that don had his back to me; he was facing towards Sunset. Still unbearably sore, I walked towards him, and he turned to face me and gestured towards the town ahead. I was left in awe at the sight that lay before, all of Sunset had been calcified; what remained was the ivory capital of an empire that never was.  It was like stumbling upon the ruins of a civilization long lost and entirely foreign. I know that the sight should have filled my heart with melancholy, but instead, a profound relief put me at ease. I knew it wasn’t a fleeting solace that would dull and fade with time. Now that ghosts that have long haunted Sunset and I have finally been laid to rest, I have nothing left to grieve for.  

I took a picture of Sophie out of my wallet and placed it into Don’s hand; he studied it for a moment and let out a hearty laugh.

“Damn, she really is the spitting image of you.”

“Maybe you can meet her sometime.”

“Maybe,” he said vaguely.

“We’ll meet again, won’t we?”

“Of course we will; it’s the way things are; we’re bound no matter how you look at it. First, I have some stuff to take care of old obligations. I’m not sure how long it will take, but when I'm through, I’ll stop by to check up on you, meet the missus and Sophie. Just wait for me ok.”

“You know I will, I always do.”

Don insisted that I leave him there, that I make the journey home alone, that I needed the time to mull over all that’s happened. I believe that it was because his journey wasn’t over yet, that he didn’t have a home to return to. It was a journey he’d have to finish on without me, but I’m glad I was there for a small part of it, that he was here to help me reach the end of mine. I don’t know where I’ll go from here, but I know that the paths I’ve walked and the dreams I’ve chased all led me to this end. I can only wonder what awaits me in my dreams.

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