The Three-Fingered Cult
In the latter half of my last year at university, during the cold, awful month of February, they found a body three doors down from mine. It was that of the room’s natural occupant, and had remained undiscovered for four days, only being unearthed on account of the godless stench it had begun to emit. I had noticed this stench and, rather than be around the faint whiff of it apparent in the lounge, had exited the building entirely and crossed campus to the library, but I had not taken it upon myself to report its presence, or even suppose anything approaching the ghastly truth of its source. I was in the midst of my usual desultory online rambling when the news broke unofficially: they were taking something out of the room on my floor, something large and wrinkled and black, something uncommonly like a bag—and, yes, that was Emily’s room, and, yes, that was the girl I’d slept with a few times in December, before she’d broken it off for what I dismissed as the usual fuzzy female reasons. Now I remembered her frayed reddish-blonde hair, her gently writhing body, the way she’d come quietly unstrung in the most delicious manner when I’d—
I snapped my laptop closed and shut my eyes, imagining what she must look like now, in a state of decay advanced enough to produce the odour I now recalled too clearly. Her softness would have remained, but the rest would be gone, or at least refracted through a grimed and twisted mirror. Possessed suddenly by a desire to see her once more before she vanished from my sphere of life forever, I dashed out of the library and across the brick and green in time to see the covered corpse come out the doors and disappear into a silent ambulance. I stood there for a few minutes afterwards, gazing down the street as a light rain began to patter from the frigid heavens. Then I decided the best way to honour the moment was to retrieve a cup of coffee.
I nursed a large cappuccino while staring out the window of a minuscule French-titled café at the intensifying curtains of water. The streets were dirty and gray, and gouts of slushy fluid contaminated the sidewalk as vehicles trundled past. The café was quiet apart from the interminable music which plays in all such establishments. I tried to read for a little while but soon gave it up, finding it easier to lean forwards and meditate on Emily’s demise, imagining her pale visage mottled with the first external marks of decomposition and wallowing in a sort of guilty despair. I checked my messages and found them mercifully free of any suggestion by those of my friends who knew I’d slept with her that I had contributed through positive action or unknowing neglect to what of course had to have been her suicide, our seventh this year, though the announcement concerning her death would, as always, say nothing of its cause… I sipped my coffee again. It was growing cool.
The bell at the entrance rang, and in walked a tall, black-haired girl with black lipstick and a spidery umbrella. She ordered an espresso, twirled the folded umbrella back and forth against the toe of her boot while she waited, then took her drink and sat two seats down from me at the window counter. I enjoyed what glances of her I could as she occupied herself arranging her things, then turned my gaze back out the window. The rain was even harder. A drenched woman with ratty hair ran down the sidewalk, her hands held over her head.
“Fancy seeing you here.”
I looked to my right. Yes, it was the girl who had spoken.
“As much as I’d enjoy having made your acquaintance,” I said in a slightly halting manner, “I don’t recall us having met.”
“You’re Max, right?” Her lips quirked upwards.
“Who wants to know?”
“Jesus.” I turned away from her and took a gulp of coffee. The lines of my face hardened a little, and I looked at her again. That same slight smile still played upon her mouth. “I suppose you’ve come to tell me how precisely I drove her over the edge, have you? I haven’t seen her since finals, and we barely texted after—”
“No,” she said.
I fell silent.
“She sent me a picture of you back when you were fucking her, and told me a little about you. I only came to reassure you.”
“What sort of picture?” I asked. “Wait. Reassure me of what?”
She drained her espresso in one long swallow. I watched her throat work to process the hot liquid. It seemed to cause her some measure of pain, pain which she tried her best not to betray.
“That you could neither have known of her impending death nor prevented it.”
“Somehow,” I said, “I’m less assured of that than I would be if we hadn’t met. And I would like my other question answered as well.”
“Totally decent, unfortunately,” she replied. “And I’m sorry to hear that.” She started gathering her things.
“Wait,” I said again. “What do you know about her death?”
“Only that I didn’t know it was coming either, and I knew her much better than you, including along the dimension in which you knew her, so you needn’t feel like you ought to or could have done anything to forestall it.” She walked over to the small trash can and deposited her empty cup before making for the exit.
I stared at her, queries whirling in my head. Then a new one surfaced, and I gave it immediate voice.
“How did you find me here?”
“Coincidence!” She flashed me a bright grin. “Honestly. I was going to come find you anyway, so it’s a good thing I met you here.” She undid the clasp of her umbrella and laid a hand on the door. “Come again this time tomorrow if you want to know more about her.”
Then she was off into the rain, her boots making little splashes on the pavement.
I hunched my shoulders and drank down a further portion of milky bitterness. Not knowing what else to do, I recentred my attention on my phone. Freezing rain was coming, I noted. I told no one of what had just transpired. I felt I was the target of some bizarre prank or campaign of harassment, and that anyone could be in on it, that there towered above me some complex machine of sinister intention whose aim I could not yet fathom. I shivered and bundled my scarf about my neck. My coffee was now too cold to enjoy.
The next day the email went out, deploring the tragic passing of such a valued member of the university community, offering various fortitudinous words and vanilla support services, and generally presenting a grotesque display of mealy-mouthed, quotidian incompetence in the face of this unwelcome sliver of darkness from the world beyond. A couple of my friends, whom I saw in person at morning classes, offered a few words of swift and pained condolence, as though my arrival had visited upon them the unfortunate obligation to extract some sort of splinter. Rob, whom I met for lunch and who knew me better, said nothing, and talked of other girls to turn my mind away from Emily. I almost mentioned the girl with the black hair, but upon realising I did not even know her name, I elected to continue the previous day’s silence.
It was colder now, and the rain had hardened into slippery sheets of ice, dusted with a fine confection of snow. I stepped gingerly over particularly slick patches as I headed for the door of the French-titled café—it was not staffed by a single Frenchman, I presumed the servers were some variant of Slav—but still almost fell as I went inside. I ordered a flat white and proceeded to the seat I had occupied the last time. I was deep into concupiscent daydreams of the woman I intended to meet when, think of the adversary, there she was, seating herself beside me, no stools between us this time.
“So you knew her better than me, including along the dimension in which I knew her,” I began, determined that this time I would at least make up on my end for the number of destabilising barbs she had thrown at me during our first meeting. “Tell me, how—”
“Quite good,” she cut in. I stopped, flailing a little. What was my next line of attack?
“You should ask me my name,” she continued.
“I was going to call you Homer.”
She laughed and gulped down half of her espresso in the same manner she had done the previous day.
“That’s not vodka, you know,” I said.
“I suppose you want me to savour the bitter taste.”
“Jacqueline Fenner,” she said, extending a hand.
I shook it in an exaggerated show of aristocratic refinement. Her fingernails were painted black. I glanced at her boots. “What about your toenails?”
She looked puzzled for a split second, and then sardonic understanding overspread her face. “Yes. And…”
She rummaged in her purse—black, of course—for a few seconds, withdrawing a set of contacts. She opened the case and popped them in, then stared at me with wide owlish eyes. Her irises were an inky black.
“Impressive.” I nodded my head and took a swallow of my drink. “Do you have black piercings? Tattoos?”
“Only this,” she replied, reaching into her cleavage and withdrawing a locket on a silver chain. The ornament was a pewterish colour, and shaped like a bulb or teardrop. She undid the clasp, revealing a bulb-shaped jet-black stone in high polish resting snugly in the cavity.
“What sort of mineral is that?” I regarded the thing with interest.
“I’m not certain,” she said, redoing the clasp and setting the locket back between her breasts. My eyes lingered there longer than necessary, and I looked up sharply enough to see her notice. The quirked smile lit upon her face, and she downed the rest of her coffee. I leaned back a little, glancing through the glass, pondering how I should pursue this. She was untrustworthy, I had to remember. Untrustworthy and almost unbelievably luscious. To share her bed would be to lay myself at her mercy. Would her mercy be kind? Would she—
“The reason she cut you off,” said Jacqueline, “is that there was a certain… darkness within her, and she did not want it to harm you.”
I pounced. “You knew about this darkness, and you say you didn’t know this was coming!”
“That is precisely what I say.”
I foundered again. Intelligent argument was not forthcoming.
“Never once did she give me the impression that she intended to commit suicide,” she said. “It… is difficult to explain why, because I knew her well, and the motivations of those we know well are often easiest to feel yet hardest to explain. You knew her a little. Did you see any such intention in her?”
I was forced to admit that I hadn’t.
“There, you see,” Jacqueline continued. “The way she explained it to me is that she was drawn to decaying things, that she wanted to see things around her rot and collapse. She did not want to see you rot and collapse. Does that make sense?”
I sighed. “In a sense.”
“What’s the kinkiest shit she had you do?”
A flush flew up the back of my neck. “You first.”
“You don’t want to know that.” She painstakingly removed the contacts from her eyes and deposited them in their case, which she stowed back in her purse. “Answer the question.”
I shook my head and snorted under my breath. “Motivate me.”
She seized my head and kissed me, pushing her tongue into my mouth. I responded eagerly, one hand going to her blouse, but then I pictured her black fingernails, and all at once there flashed within my mind the image of a long, twisting black worm invading my throat. I tore away and drew my searching hand behind my back, using my other to hold her head apart from mine. She fixed me with brilliant green eyes, breathing hard.
“A pin,” I whispered, my nose inches from hers. “Drawn across the skin. Not hard enough to make her bleed, but close.”
She didn’t move. “Did you ever see her fix a cockroach to a corkboard with a pin and watch it desiccate for months?”
I let her go and pushed my coffee towards her. “Finish this.”
“She did it with food as well. Ancient stuff in her fridge.”
I folded my scarf round my neck and buttoned my coat. “I’m going on a walk.”
“I’ll come,” she said, packing her things. “I’m afraid I can’t finish your drink. It’s too sweet.”
I left the shop, the bell ringing, hoping she would follow, but wanting to give the impression that I hoped she would not follow. She followed.
Snow had begun to fall again, this time in larger flurries. Honking automobiles and jabbering pedestrians half-filled my head with a cacophonous haze. I ran a hand through my sandy brown hair, finding a few crystalline white clumps sticking to my fingers when I withdrew it.
“So, what,” I asked Jacqueline, “did she want to be a serial killer or something?”
“Not in the slightest,” she said, trying to inject a note of reassurance into her voice. “When she did those things to bugs, and it was never anything higher than a bug, it wasn’t to torture them. She told me she wanted to be… in sympathy with them, to remind herself that she too would decay someday.”
“And, to you, this did not connote a suicide wish.”
“She was quite afraid of death. It was only by accepting entropy as the natural law of the universe, and telling herself it was absurd to work against natural law, that she could diminish that fear. Her displays, so to speak, were demonstrations to herself.”
“Suicide,” I said, shuddering as a cold gust of wind blew the ends of my scarf about, “does not oppose this.”
“You’re wrong,” she said. “She thought the important thing about death was that you couldn’t control it, that it happened to you regardless of your wishes. To take control of death by choosing the date at which it struck you would, again, run counter to the natural law, a law which her entire programme of self-reassurance drove her to accept.”
“I recall,” I said, “she had a more than trivial metaphysical inclination.”
“She was drawn to decaying things?”
“It was almost as if she had to be. Too much brightness, order, and success around her, and the pain of eventual collapse was all the more acute. Momentary repudiation of the entropic law was almost an insult, a slap, an obstacle to accepting that law. You understand why she did not want to inflict all this on you.”
I supposed that I did.
The trees in the park were bare and scraggly with snow, which was now descending more heavily. Jacqueline pressed close to me as we crossed a high causeway and ascended a hill. At length, I spoke again.
“Why do you think she killed herself?”
“Well, now we come to the crux of the matter,” she said. “I don’t.”
We walked on for a moment as the full import of her sentence percolated through my mind.
“Then…” I searched for words. “What?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Drugs. Some strange disease or other fluke.”
“Did she do drugs?”
“Only pot, and I suppose some sort of tainted batch could have killed her, somehow. But, anyway, I wanted to talk to you because I don’t think she killed herself, and there’s no one else I really want to tell.” Actual emotion had crept into her voice for the first time.
Again I felt the ghost of that gargantuan and complex machine hovering somewhere in the wintry sky. “Don’t take this completely the wrong way, but…”
“You needn’t believe me,” she said. “I just wanted to say it.”
I stuffed my hands into my pockets and gave a slow nod. We were nearing the top of the hill, desolate and wind-blasted, the grass short and depressed by dirty ice. Low bushes scrabbled at our feet.
The path forked. I turned to go left, but she grabbed my hand, pulled me right for a few paces, and then stopped and kissed me again. This time no ghastly image intruded on my delight, although I felt somehow that that machine in the sky approved of my capitulation to her charms. I slid a hand inside her coat and traced it along the length of her body. She pressed close and tucked her head beneath my neck, nuzzling me, stooping a little to compensate for her height.
“Walk more with me,” she said in a heavy whisper. “I like the cold.”
We walked southwards through the park, her black-gloved hand entwined in mine. I noticed bright glints at the roots of her hair, and aimed a query. “You dye it?”
“Yes,” she said. Then she fell silent again. I resolved not to disturb the peace until she did.
By the time we reached the southern end, it was newly dark, and the snow, now thickly plastered on the paths, had begun to abate. The bedazzling varicoloured lights of the city shone forth as we emerged onto a roundabout, and I felt that gargantuan thing recede in the face of the everyday rush of the banal. Jacqueline let go of my hand and ran her tongue along her black-stained lips. I touched my own mouth, aware it must have been contaminated with her gothic smear.
“Meet me here tomorrow, at this time,” she said, and her voice had returned to its usual arch lilt.
“And?” I said. “Or should I say ‘or’?”
“And I’ll show you something beautiful, or you won’t get to see it.”
“Where are you heading now?”
I frowned. “You live away from—”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “did I give the impression I was a student? I graduated last year.”
I nodded. “And what do you do, then?”
“That,” she replied, starting to walk away, “is what you’ll see tomorrow.”
“Wait,” I said. “How did you know she’d died, right after they found her?”
“A mutual friend.”
Then she was off down the sidewalk, and the darkness and swirling snow gradually enveloped her, hiding her from my senses. I stood there for a minute, warming my hands against my mouth, before descending into the subway, into refuge from the strange, intoxicating, black-painted night.
“She’s completely insane,” said Rob, after swallowing a large mouthful of sandwich. “She’s a honey trap, a pitcher plant. If she weren’t as hot as you say, she’d repel and disgust you. You’re like a kid wondering how hot the stove is. You’re insane too, in a different way.”
I reflected on his analysis. “I’m not saying you’re wrong on any particular point, or even in the whole.”
“You’re just saying you’re going to see her again,” he groaned. “Look, when she slits your throat, and you’re the next campus ‘suicide,’ I want you to spend your last agonising moments thinking ‘Rob was right, if only I’d listened.’”
“I am listening.”
“You’re listening, but you’re not understanding.”
“I am understanding. I simply choose to take the risk.”
He shrugged. “Look, you know, she’s probably a hooker. I’ll show you something beautiful, that’s what I do here?”
“I always thought a prostitute would get to the point more quickly.”
“Well, she gets to the point slowly, because she’s an insane prostitute.”
“She has a point about, um, about Emily,” I said. “We all assume she did it to herself because it fits the picture, and it’s been happening a lot lately, but—”
Rob put up a hand. “So she overdosed, or something. Still a sort of suicide. And if your hooker really thought there was something suspicious about it, she’d tell a policeman or a mortician, not some random dude. Unless, of course, she killed Emily herself, and you’re her next target.”
“Who are you calling a random dude?”
Rob finished his sandwich and got up. “You’re hopeless. If you make it back alive, be sure to tell me about whatever cool shit she shows you. Or, you know, maybe not.”
She was all in black—a long, inky, gownlike dress, polished boots, thin leather gloves, the roots of her hair freshly dyed, her eyes darkly shadowed, her purse clutched in one hand. Her silken black scarf wound tightly around her neck, and I saw a tremor pass through her as she attempted to conceal the extent of her discomfort in the damnable cold. My own extremities had begun to go numb, and I flexed my fingers as I approached her.
“Are you in mourning?”
“These are garments of celebration,” she told me. “Come with me.”
She crossed the street, and I followed, my eyes on her windblown locks. We made our way slowly down dingier and less appealing streets until she reached an antiquated building of rough-hewn stone, five or six stories tall, sandwiched between more modern constructions. Steps led down to a street-facing entrance; these she descended, hiking up her dress. I hesitated at the corroded, paint-peeled railing overlooking the sunken space.
She looked up at me and grinned. “If I wanted to do anything untoward, I’d make you enter first.”
Then she twisted the knob on a heavy metal door. It opened with a slow groan, and she slipped through the gap into the void within.
I waited until light burst forth from behind the door to walk down the stairs and go in after her. I found myself in a low-ceilinged hallway with lumpen gray walls and a concrete floor. Bare lightbulbs hung at irregular intervals from the ceiling, connected by a single length of wire which ran to the switch Jacqueline had flipped. I saw no doors, but at the end of the hallway, a deeper recess of darkness beckoned, and it was towards this that she strolled. I walked behind her, my right hand divesting itself of its glove and closing around a small craft knife I had purchased at a stationery store.
The shadowed well proved to be another staircase, spiralling into the lower depths. Again, Jacqueline went first, with no flashlight to aid her. I gripped the knife more tightly, my sweat beginning to coat its metal handle. The blade was covered by a plastic cap, but I could remove it swiftly. I had practised.
At the bottom mouth of the spiral was a corridor hewn out of bare stone. My heart thudded oddly. Here was an unmistakable signal of something ancient and strange. I grew conscious of the considerable expanse of warrened rock now sitting between myself and the upper world. No lights festooned this hallway, nor could I see anywhere a switch.
My guide turned to me and offered a hand.
“No,” I said. “Just light the way.”
“It would be… inappropriate for me to do so,” she said. “You can, though.”
She walked forward, and soon I could not see her. I retrieved my phone and turned on the light. Yes, there she was, still moving with unstudied nonchalance. I followed her, wiping my knife hand on my jeans to remove some of the sweat, then clutching the handle again.
Odd, deep echoes juddered through the place, nearly below the threshold of perception. Trains, perhaps. Water lines. A vibration passed through me, announcing itself in a peculiarly intimate and physical manner. I gazed at Jacqueline’s figure, the hips, the sinuous legs, the narrow, waspish waist. I imagined an ovipositor extending from between them, hunting.
Her sudden disappearance shattered my reverie. After a moment of bewilderment I realised she had passed through gauzy black curtains which hung a few yards in front of me.
“Come,” she called, her voice languid, dripping down my ears like molasses.
I removed the cap from my knife, keeping the weapon primed in my pocket, took a steadying breath, and went through.
I found myself in a polygonal stone chamber, its ceiling barely higher than I was tall, a little low alcove set into the wall on each of its many sides. I turned, pointing my phone, counting… fifteen, including the curtain through which I had come. Jacqueline stood from a crouch at my left, at the alcove nearest the door, and I saw a candle of black wax with a thin yellow flame just sputtering forth. The other alcoves were outfitted in a similar manner, and she went from one to the next, slowly filling the room with a dim, flickering glow. I was about to let go of the knife, perhaps to wipe the sweat from my palm once again, but then my eyes drifted to the centre of the room, and I kept my grip.
Sunken into the floor, rising about two feet from the jagged stone edges which surrounded it, was a sarcophagus of black stone, the base of which pointed directly towards me. At this end it was shaped like a normal coffin, but as it continued it bulged and took on more sides, becoming pointed at the foot, so that its top was the shape of a leaf or the head of a spear. I stared at the thing, shining my light, and I grew aware that the sweat of my palms had spread to my armpits and neck. Whatever resided within was concealed by the perfectly fitted slab of the same black stone which rested atop.
Jacqueline made her round with exquisite lack of speed, at last holding a match to the candle immediately to my right, enflaming the wick, and quieting the minuscule bit of wood with a puff of air. She took my left hand, still gripping the phone, between hers.
“Put it away,” she said. “And don’t stab me, please.”
I gave a guilty start, letting go of the knife and drawing my hand out of my pocket before I thought what I was doing, simultaneously allowing my phone to clatter to the ground.
“I never let you see it,” I said in a strangely winded voice, bending to pick up my phone and stow it in my coat.
“I know what a man looks like when he has a weapon he doesn’t know what to do with.” She sat on the edge of the sarcophagus, removing her gloves and placing them neatly on the floor, then unwinding and folding her scarf. She rested this on the rough stone as well. Her purse soon joined the ensemble. “Tell me, is it as beautiful as you predicted?”
“I’m not sure beauty is the correct word,” I said. “What’s inside?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never opened it.” She pulled off her boots and tossed them aside, revealing knee-length black stockings which she proceeded to peel down to her feet and remove. She now wore only her dress and that bulb-shaped locket.
“You said this is what you do” I persisted.
“It is.” She reached behind herself and began to unzip the dress. “Not this,”—she nodded at herself—“but this.” She looked around the room, encompassing the scene in her gaze.
I took an uncertain half-step back from her as the dress fell from her shoulders, exposing bare breasts. “I find your assurance unconvincing.”
“I ask for nothing but the pleasure of your company,” she said, standing and stepping free of her dress. She divested herself of a pair of laced black undergarments, lifted her locket from around her neck and laid it on the scarf, and reclined on the sarcophagus, spread-eagled, her legs open, revealing a scrub of very black hair. “Now, come. Unstring me. Enervate me.”
Something swam near the surface of my brain, halfheartedly demanding to be registered, but it failed to break through to full consciousness. Later I would realise it was a question—how had she dyed the hair between her legs the same inky shade as that atop her head, right down to the roots?
In the moment, with the pale fire of her nakedness burning before my eyes, I obeyed her summons.
“Two days.” Her flesh pressed against mine, her hair lay in a tangle across my neck, and her breath rushed across my ear. “Here, at this time.”
“I’m sorry to say I don’t know the current time.”
“You’ll have to guess.” Her nails crept across my skin, tracing imperceptible patterns. Queries crowded the space inside my mouth—how had she found this place? what was it, precisely? would the door be open two days hence? would it be utter foolishness to return?—but I felt it would be gauche and inadequate, somehow unprofound, to give them voice.
Did Emily see this place? The question beat against my skull, yet I feared the answer. The candles had begun to dim. Jacqueline ran her tongue along the line of my jaw, then stroked my hair, gazing at me, as if she could see the folds of my brain.
“Go,” she said, as if she were sorry to have to say it.
I sat up and began pulling on my clothes, fumbling for them in the low darkness around the sarcophagus. I grew aware of scrapes and bruises born of our naked dance upon the unprotected stone. “I don’t suppose you sleep here.”
“Sometimes.” She propped herself up on one elbow and stared at me with those bright green eyes, her tongue still moving, exploring what remained of her midnight lipstick.
Were her eyes luminescent?
I rubbed my eyes and turned back to my clothes. A minute later, I stood looking down at her. She was unnaturally still, only her head turning, following me like that of an attendant cat.
“Until later,” I said. I took out my phone to light my way through the dark passage beyond, but it was dead. “Could I borrow a candle?”
She giggled and shook her head.
“It’s very dark in there.”
“It’s only the single passage. You can’t get lost. Now, go. Leave the lady alone when she asks to be alone.”
I grimaced and walked back through the draped gauze to the thick stony blackness. I touched one wall with my fingertips, going quickly. As the dim glow behind me faded I developed the uncanny conviction that something else was here, just on the other side of the wall like a creature in an eggshell, or perhaps in the passage with me, its nightgaunted tentacles preparing to arrest me.
I whirled around—I was alone, so far as I could see, but the blackness pressing on my eyes was almost complete. This was taking longer on the way back, I was almost certain. Stark dread dripped down my spine. I switched to the other wall, walking backwards now, cocking my ear, sensing only the subearthly vibrations which had greeted me as I’d gone the other way.
My heel knocked against a hard object. I hissed, almost fell, stuck out my hand to apprehend whatever I had come across, and felt a perpendicular concrete ridge. Another one rose a little way back from it, then another, higher still. Stairs. Yes, I had reached the spiral.
The lightbulbs in the upper hallway flickered. I hurried past them and pushed the door open, almost gasping as I sucked the cold winter air into my lungs. I flipped the switch to douse the lights, then, remembering that Jacqueline was still below, flipped it again before closing the great metal slab. I jogged up the last set of steps, pausing to lean over the railing and study the entrance to that eldritch burrow which lurked in the heart of the postmodern city. It bore no trace suggestive of its contents. As grimy, commonplace downtown scents converged on my nostrils, I half thought I owed the last hour’s memories solely to a hypnotising dream.
The following day brought what is commonly called an “arctic blast” or “polar vortex.” My face was a numb, stiff sheet as I blundered into the coffee shop, and I found it difficult to twist my lips into the shapes necessary to form words as I gave my order. I watched the passersby with their hunched shoulders and turned-down heads. I had thought the cold would bring clarity, but it had not. I sat there, imagining my head a golden node, everyone else’s heads the same, my consciousness a thing that could fly from one to the next. I did not know whence the image had come, what had prompted it.
A shadow flashed across the street.
I jumped back, my hand clenching, staring out the window. Nothing. There was no one across the street, not in the place I’d been looking. Yet the memory of a tall, indistinct figure persisted.
A gruff, salty-haired man, peering at me with minimal concern.
I nodded and slumped my shoulders, allowing my eyes to drift back to their previous position. Maybe I could see it again.
A tall girl with black hair emerged from the left edge of my vision. It was Jacqueline, on the other side of the window. She stopped right in front of me, facing me, not smiling, but staring with great intensity, as if her eyes were hands attempting to extract my entrails. I met her gaze, and I could feel my face adopting a mask of concern. My view of her was uncommonly clear and bright, with the wan winter sun reflecting off the icy whiteness of the street and making minuscule prisms in the window, and I developed the idea that her left eye, the one on which I focused, was imperfect. Something marred the brilliant green, something that had not been there before. A black crease, reaching outwards from the pupil in jagged fashion, as if her eye were a window and her pupil a pinhole wound.
I closed my eyes, and the shape of the crack persisted, only this time in juddering white against my dark inner eyelids.
No. I opened my eyes.
She was gone.
“You’re fucking me,” I hissed. This would not do. I drank down a gulp of coffee, then, contrary to my habit, left the cup and saucer on the counter as I barged back out of the shop. I looked up and down the street, on both sides. She was nowhere. I briefly considered performing a search, choosing one side street or other to investigate, but the cold assailed me, and I was dissuaded. I dashed across the street and stood in the very spot where I’d seen the shadow—had I seen the shadow—and felt nothing, saw nothing.
Then a wave of lethargy overcame me. I looked back at the window which looked out from the seat I’d just occupied. A waitress came and cleared away my cup and saucer. She didn’t look outside. My fingers and face were growing numb again.
With great effort I put one of my feet in the air and planted it a foot to the right. I wrenched my body in that direction, slipped on the ice, and crashed to the ground. The fog cleared from my head, and I sprang up, shivering, quite uncomfortable. I regarded the spot in which the lethargy had seized me for long seconds, deep alarm flooding my veins. It held no visual quality to differentiate it from any other patch of atmosphere. There was nothing in the snow, on the sidewalk, on the wall behind. I swore again and headed off towards campus.
I could tell no one, not with any hope of belief or sympathy, much less assistance. This was an erotic fantasy, a living dream, which had somehow instantiated itself in the material world. Who could know it but he who was its focus, its target?
The beam of my flashlight landed on the gauze curtain. Already a faint candlelit glow emanated from within the pentakaidecagonal chamber. I turned off the flashlight, stowed it in my coat pocket, and entered.
Jacqueline was stark naked, and her skin shone a livid, glistering white in the dim firelight. She sat on the long edge of the sarcophagus, legs apart, elbows on her knees, chin in her hands, her eyes fixed on mine. I tossed my coat on the floor and crouched down before her, my face level with hers. She leaned forwards and kissed me, but I kept my eyes open, and there, there in her iris was that black crease, and it was longer.
I broke the kiss and stood up. An incongruity nagged me, picked at my clothing, even as in the phenomenal realm the strange girl before me picked at my actual clothing, peeling it away from my tingling body. I looked about me and perceived that my coat was the only thing in the room besides its two human occupants and the preexisting furnishments.
I had seen nothing in the corridors, despite pointing my flashlight nervously about. Had she come here naked?
Then her mouth slid over my cock, and I surrendered once more to the intoxicating phantasmagorium into which she had invited me during my previous visit to her subterranean lair.
…except that this time, when I reached my climax, it did not resolve into sudden relief, but continued, intensifying, affording no respite, until I buckled and fell sprawling on the great slab of black stone, and then it transmuted into the lethargy that had seized me in the street the day before. I lay there, unable to move, twitching or imagining I was twitching, as in that abominable state when one knows one is asleep but cannot force oneself awake, and my libidinal expectation refracted, turning inside out, dissolving and dripping down slowly into the sarcophagus below, and I felt myself tied to the cold surface as with a thousand strings of gooseflesh. I flexed my extremities, gasping, slowly regaining control, as Jacqueline rounded the room, her sinuous form bending as she blew out first one candle, then the next, then the next…
I was unable to make a sound, or move any great portion of my body, until she was crouched before the last flame, about to extinguish it as she had extinguished me. I mouthed some pathetic protest—what was that?—but the words only half-manifested in my throat, and then the darkness was absolute.
I sensed an inky reptilian sort of thing slide towards me, and then she was on me, her body twisting around mine, her eyes wide as she brought her face close to mine.
Her eyes glowed.
My voice came out a whisper. “What are you?”
“Only a woman like any other woman.” She wound her arms around me and pressed hard, her flesh overspreading mine like cold, gelatinous slime. “I gave you a taste of dissolution and surrender.”
“I would rather not taste it again.”
“There is a principle at work infinitely greater than your preference,” she murmured. “It is about acceptance of decay, submission to the natural law and to He who embodies it.”
I shuddered. “Did you kill her?”
She stiffened, and the tone with which she replied suggested I had said something unspeakably vulgar. “We do not kill. Death is primitive, unenlightening, the simplest possible submission. Our arts are high, they aspire to—though of course they can never reach—the height of Him to whom they pay homage.”
“What is it you want of me?”
“To show you a door which stands ajar in the immemorial mists and which, despite yourself, you very much wish to see.” She paused. “You brought your knife.”
My silence confirmed her supposition.
“Use it on me, the way you used the pin on her.”
I pushed her away, my arms slick with her sweat, my hands searching for the pants bunched around my ankles. “No.”
Her own hand brushed mine as it searched in a crumpled pocket and withdrew before I could snatch the wrist. Her breathing quickened a little, and I knew she had found the knife. I scrambled backwards, off of the sarcophagus, and began feeling my way across the floor, searching for the outer wall.
“You must, before you leave.” A plea crept into her voice. “You must. I gave you a glimpse of the world beneath and beyond, now give me the same.”
I found the wall and sat against it, reached down again to reclothe myself—but then she was upon me, pressing a little length of cold metal into my right hand. “You will have to use it on me to escape. You can do it in a frenzy, and perhaps end my life, or with slow and exquisite patience, with my willing body beneath your hands.” Her fingers went to my cock and stroked it, and I felt at once a surge of lust and the lurking return of that damnable fatigue. “You want me at your mercy. You must tell me you want it.”
“Then you must tell me what you’ve done to me!” I hissed.
“I told you,” she said. “I showed you the door towards which your deepest soul already slides.”
I saw how useless it would be to ask for any clarification, and at the same time I felt an overpowering wave of anger, and I knew I wished to punish her, to cause her pain, to wreak vengeance for whatever malady she had inflicted upon me. What of it, if she welcomed what I wrought? I would give her more than she wanted.
“Only in the light,” I said.
“Very well,” she agreed. I heard a smile in her voice. “Then we must uncover the inner chamber.”
She pulled away from me, and a few seconds later I heard the low scrape of weighty stone. All of a sudden, while no light issued from within, I could perceive dim shapes in the absolute darkness, in muted grayscale. There she was, bent over, straining to push the cover off the tomb—was it a tomb?
Seized by a new impulse, I lunged forwards and took her from behind. She stopped moving, her head dangling, hair feathering over the slab. This time I would do it properly, I would banish the strange tiredness which could, after all, be only some odd sexual malfunction originating in my own body, never mind her cryptic mutterings…
“I will do it again,” she whispered, between heavy breaths, “unless you pleasure me first.”
With the greatest reluctance I stopped and withdrew.
She straightened up and looked at me, her eyes the only things not in grayscale, two luminous orbs. “Invest your knife with yet greater cruelty,” she said, before bending again to divest the sarcophagus of its cover.
I leaned down to help her, and we pushed until the thing had fallen aside with a great crash, laying half on the side of the opening, half on the floor. The sarcophagus descended about a foot below the level of the chamber.
Inside it lay a human skeleton, the blackest thing in my field of vision. It was perfectly articulated, its arms at its sides, but for the fact that two fingers from each hand—the smallest ones—were missing. The same was true of the toes, and the skull seemed shrunken relative to the body which accompanied it.
Jacqueline gave the top of the skull the lightest touch with her index finger, and the entire skeleton crumbled into ash, forming a vague human outline at the bottom of the tomb.
She climbed in and lay atop the outline, her back against the black dust.
“Do not come in after me, lest you feel in full again that which you imagine you detest,” she said.
My eyes were riveted to her, but I had hardly reacted to the ancient cadaverous apparition. My mental processes had entered the realm of dream logic, and I could exclude less and less from my picture of the world, my categories of the possible. I uncapped the knife, reached down (there, there was a note of that lethargy, travelling up my arm like a localised contamination), and raked the blade across her breast. A trickle of fluid, black in my colourless vision, burst forth, and she arched her back in ecstasy. Her apparent transcendence only increased as I traced the blade across the other breast, down her side, the middle of her abdomen, her thigh…
“Yes… god, please… may He open me, may He release me… oh… may he use thy hand, thy blade… to… dissolve me… may… oh, yes… finish me, finish me!”
I interpreted this final command in straightforward fashion, dropping the knife and stroking her within that odd black hair, my fingers feeling as though they were moving through something thick, as if the air in the sarcophagus were heavier than that outside.
Then she came, and there issued from between her legs a gush of viscous fluid which looked the same as the blood which marred the wounds on her front. Cold alarm and nausea shot through me, and I sprang back, my hand stained with the stuff, searching in my coat for the flashlight. I found it, turned it on, and aimed it at her still-writhing body.
The fluid which leaked from her vulva was black, as was the blood oozing from the knife cuts.
I dropped the flashlight and scrambled away, blundering through the gauze cover, trying to pull my pants up as I ran. I tripped and fell, and, too stricken with terror to let even a sound escape from my mouth, I writhed on the ground, my motions a parodic echo of hers, finally refastening the accursed scrap of clothing.
Something cold brushed the back of my neck.
I let loose a great cry and stumbled forwards, crashing straight into the stone wall of the corridor. Seams of the fatigue with which Jacqueline had infected me stole upon me again, emanating from the throbbing impact point on my head, as I crawled in another direction.
My head passed through a certain patch of air, and a lack of will closed like dense fog on my brain. I still moved forwards, but at a quarter of my previous speed, and I struggled to recall precisely why. I had to escape from someone, get somewhere. Where? Above? Above what?
Frozen hands gripped my ankles. The outer flesh of the smooth, oily digits seemed to sink beneath my skin, spreading the awful cold through subdermal structures, but I felt no rent or tear in my own body. The hands were not even strong, pulling at me with childlike insistence, but I was too weak to resist. My face juddered, scraping the hard stone beneath me. It was a long, slow, agonising journey back to the chamber. As I reached the mouth of gauze the force of my will came halfway back, and I wrenched by feet free of those detestable hands, but then there were warm, wet hands at my back, pushing me forwards, and I stumbled, unthinking, over a hard black lip onto a smear of ash and dark slime.
It was horribly cold in the sarcophagus, but the cold was like sugar, and my whole body was as a tongue, the boundary between it and the outside world seeming to dissolve, the frigid outer air flooding in to mix with my blood and create a new, lethargic substance answering to a will greater than my own. My eyes twitched. I could barely move. My breaths were slow but thin, and I felt a cold well in my lungs, whispering to me not to try, not to take in air, not to resist.
Her face was before mine, in staticky gray, and her expression was an indistinct watercolour, her eyes burning, aroused, that pupil-touching crease twitching like a worm. She opened her mouth, and I saw she held my knife, its point dripping. She drew it across the tip of her tongue, and more black blood spurted forth. She forced the slashed appendage into my half-resisting mouth and kissed me in a long, languorous passion, clutching my head as if it were an egg she strove to crack. The liquid corruption, the burning ice, crept down my throat and stifled the feeble movement of my chest.
I woke up in bed, besieged by a deep disquietude. The lethargy still half-held me in its grip, but it trickled away as I lay there, my heart pounding, afraid to attempt movement lest I found it was beyond me. When I felt strong enough, I turned over and lowered my legs to the floor. It was hard, dizzying, but not impossible. The lights in my room were off, and moonshine glinted through the blinds. I was very thirsty, I realised. I crouched by the little fridge and drank down most of a water bottle in a series of desperate swallows. After that, my head cleared a little.
It had been a dream, of course. After my odd experience at the coffee shop, and before setting off to see Jacqueline, I had returned to my room. Once there, I had fallen asleep, and the entire second meeting in that accursed chamber had not happened outside my head. Already the memories were fuzzy. That spot of fatigue on the sidewalk… I hadn’t been sleeping well lately, I hadn’t been eating well, and that was what had caused it. I had not seen a figure in that spot. Jacqueline had appeared in front of the window while I sat in the café, yes, but that crack in her eye, and its momentary persistence in my visual field, was an illusion brought about by the pre-migraine auras I occasionally suffered. The migraine had hit while I slept, explaining the dizziness, tiredness, and thirst I had encountered upon waking.
I opened my laptop—the glare dazzled me—and searched for my mysterious interlocutor. To my immense dismay I found that she was a real person who had graduated from the university the previous year. The bare fact of her existence, then, was almost certainly material. My meetings with her were not Nashian hallucinations. Except for the last one, yes. The last one had not happened. It could not have happened.
The room, the dormitory, the campus, the city, the great hostile sky bore down on me with an oppressive weight. The shadows of my dream lurked in every corner, stalked the edges of my eyes. I wanted to leave, to fly out of here. The familial abode in Massachusetts would put distance between me and the demons that crouched beneath this city. Would it be enough distance?
My hairs pricked. There were eyes, eyes on me. I crossed the room and flipped on the light.
Pinned to the inside of my door was a mouse. Four needles ran through its splayed feet, and one pierced its head.
I booked the first flight to Boston and took hardly anything. The orange upper lip of the sun barely grazed the horizon as the plane lifted off. The fear which gripped me eased only slightly as the wheels left the ground and the great winged metal tube shot into the sky. I did not know what I would say when I arrived home, but I knew I had to escape the cold city in which an unspeakable evil dogged my steps. I rubbed my hands together and shivered, looking out the window, searching the lightening gray for some foul tentacle that would emerge from the dawn to drag me back to that underground nightmare.
The journey was short, but this flight would be long. I closed the shutter.
I felt as if I were in another dream as I strolled through the Boston airport. I had no luggage to fetch, only the heavy bag slung over my shoulder. I craved the light normality I saw around me—men in suits drinking Starbucks, women in skirts ogling oversized tablets, the glitter and bustle of the whole vast deracinated hub—but I knew I had been irrevocably separated from it. Even if that last episode had been a dream (of course it had been a dream!), I had travelled abysses these staid fortunates around me could not fathom. Their eyes seemed as marbles, their mouths as those of fish, their minds dumb machines, trained on the surface ordinary, unchiselled by the depths of true fear.
The subway ride to the centre of the city was like the flight, in miniature. Things were out in the tunnels, not assaulting my senses directly but hovering on the edges of awareness, insinuating their presence with sullen meningal whispers. A brief shade of nostalgia for my home as I had once seen it rose up before me, my sole possible salvation, and I attempted to wrap it around my chilled body.
But once I emerged into the bright winter air of Boston, this shade dissipated. I stood in clear sunlight, the brown twigs of trees feathering the sky around me, the bustle of modern façades to every side, and out of the very corner of my vision, I perceived about a hundred yards down a car-thronged street the barest glimpse of that apparition which had assailed me near the coffee shop I’d haunted.
This was enough. I knew. It, she, they had followed me here. In fact, following was the wrong way to describe it, and geographical reasoning the wrong sort to employ. They had had me in the city from which I had come, and they had me now. I had never left their hands.
The prospect of home turned dismal. I had worried what I would tell my family, how I would explain my sudden appearance; now I saw that this was a secondary concern, for they would be there as well, just as they were here, just as they had claimed me in that dæmoniacal dream chamber. I walked to a café, bought a coffee, and wandered through the park. The glittering crusts of snow assumed a sharp, sensual urgency under my gaze, their beauty painful through the veil of distress.
I loitered downtown for hours, eating nothing, browsing bookshops without seeing the titles. At length the winter white turned gray, and the sun dimmed as it plunged behind the curve of the earth. The prospect of carrying on the fight, of spending the night in the city, with no way to tell what was watching or from where, curdled my blood. Gradually I surrendered to a deep resignation, and my slow tread led me to the train station.
The little suburban appendage that contained my home was quiet and dull, the streets peopled only by cumbersome vehicles and the odd evening dog-walker. I made no eye contact, bothered with no greetings. A glacial cloud, repellent to thought in an almost magnetic fashion, settled on my mind, and confused, half-exposed pictures of what might await me at my door drew the pinpoint of my focus.
The house, at the edge of the town, was dark. No light shone from the windows. Two cars, silent, unmoving, sat in the gravel driveway. The door was closed. I had not contacted my parents, and I now felt anew that to do so would be useless. An answer would compel a false response; no answer would confirm my worst conjectures. I paused, gazing up at the pentagonal silhouette, framed by the dark evergreens of the woods behind. Then I plodded up to the entrance.
A polygon of fifteen equal sides was carved into the wood of the door. I traced it with a curious finger, then tried the doorknob. The lock was not engaged.
I stood motionless for long moments, the knob in my hand. One push would grant me access to the house. All was silent. A gust of cold air enveloped me, drawing a shiver. Cloudy tendrils of breath materialised in front of my mouth.
I pushed my way into the house, slammed the door behind me, locked it, and whirled around.
A cursory search confirmed that no one was home, and every light in the house was off. The house was orderly, showing signs neither of prolonged abandonment nor swift disruption. No food was out, but the refrigerator was running, and the light came on when I opened it. Electronics sat attached to chargers, their tiny lights blinking. Not a single door was shut—all were either wide open or ajar. The beds were neatly made, and the blinds were drawn.
I pulled out my phone and found it dead. Attaching it to an outlet did nothing to alleviate its condition.
The landline did not function.
It was cold, even away from the door by which I had entered, and I kept my coat on, dropping my bag in some forgettable corner. I saw that the back door, the one which led to the brief space of grass before the woods, stood very slightly open, welcoming the winter wind. I walked down the back hall and opened it wide.
Jacqueline stood in the backyard, looking up at the trees, long locks of black hair fluttering in the breeze. She wore a long overcoat, but her lower legs and feet were bare. A second after my eyes found her, she turned. Her thin body, beckoning from the depths of the half-buttoned garment, languished half-swallowed in shadow.
“Why fifteen sides?” I called.
She cocked her head, her glance inquisitive. I repeated my question, and she approached me with deliberate steps, until she stood mere feet away. The luminosity in her right eye was undiminished, but her left now showed a black cloud, oozing outwards from the twisted crease. She spoke, and there was something wet in her lungs, bubbling in the spaces between her words.
“Upon His body five limbs, and upon each limb three points.” She stepped closer, and her freezing breath wafted across my face. “Would you like to see her again?”
It took me several seconds to find my voice. “Her?”
Jacqueline shook her head, giving me a small, amused smile.
“I don’t believe in resurrection.”
“Neither do I,” she said. She took my hand in hers. Her flesh was terribly cold, its temperature lower than that of the outside air, and a buzzing fatigue spread through my arm as she caressed my fingers. “The term for which you search is not resurrection but… subduction. She is beneath death. The perfection of her nonexistence has decayed.”
I could find no words with which to reply.
“Come with me,” she whispered, and her voice assumed the luxuriant tone of a lover’s plea. “You have nothing left elsewhere. We have chosen you. You will be His. You”—she pressed a finger to my chest, and the all-too-familiar lethargy invaded my heart, made me stagger and nearly fall—“are already His.”
I saw no other option. All that was left to me was the satisfaction of my deepest, foulest curiosity. I nodded, and she led me across the grass, clasping my right hand in her frigid left as we penetrated the eldritch forest before us.
After hours of slow, silent progress, we reached a great clearing, three sides of which were hemmed in by the trees, one side of which bordered a dark, stagnant pond. Near the pond, a shape identical to that of the stone sarcophagus had been excavated from the ground, to a depth of about one foot. Nowhere could I see the relocated soil.
Behind the first line of trees, Jacqueline removed her coat and placed it on the ground. She was naked beneath but for her teardrop locket. She looked at me, indicating that I too should divest myself of the garments of civilisation.
“It’s cold,” I muttered.
“You know that no longer matters,” she said, before entering the clearing.
I undressed and joined her. My eyes surveyed her form, and I felt a pang of attraction, but I was afraid to indulge it for fear my fatigue—which, strangely, had not prevented me from walking for hours—would overtake me as it had in the chamber.
Others, alone or in twos and threes, stepped out of the woods, their nude forms joining ours in a rough semicircle around the shallow depression in the earth. Many were quite old, and most were afflicted with bizarre degenerations and deformities—a shrunken arm, a sagging face, deep lacerating scars out of which dark fluids trickled. All had black hair.
A cloud shifted, and the glow of the moon introduced a modicum of clarity to the scene. I realised with an awful chill that all of these naked wraiths were looking at me and Jacqueline. Some, I noticed, particularly the older and more rotted ones, did not have all of their fingers and toes.
Then, with a crackle of twigs, a very large man, perhaps six and a half feet tall, with broad shoulders and an odd, deep fold in his stomach, emerged from between two pines. In his arms he held a blackened, half-decayed body whose head still sported clumps of frayed reddish-blonde hair.
He deposited the body in the sarcophagal depression and arranged it with great care, splaying the arms and legs outwards in symmetrical positions. A wave of slow dread overtook me when I saw that her fourth and fifth fingers were missing. Her feet had been similarly shorn of their outer digits, and I noticed odd lines on her face, two extending up her jawlines from the corners of her mouth, one bisecting the death-gnawed flesh from the upper lip to the hairline. They looked as if they had been carved with a knife.
The large man faced me. His eyes were absent, and something leaked from the concave holes.
Jacqueline nodded at him, and he walked up to three scraggly, rot-seamed men who had entered the clearing as a group. One of these men handed the eyeless labourer a shovel, and he began to dig at the edge of the pond, forming a ditch or canal into which the putrid water flowed, seeping closer to the body.
My guide undid the clasp of her locket and removed the bulbous gem, stroking it. The tip, I noticed, was very sharp.
“Now you will see,” she said. She kissed me, and I felt her wounded tongue, the awful droplets which it left on mine. She approached the excavation, stood erect, and brandished the jet-black ornament.
“We serve Thee in life, in death, in the realms beyond!” she screamed, and her voice was suddenly piercing, ragged, rattling, as if snakeskins and verdigris-smeared copper tubes vibrated in her throat. Her fellow celebrants, still standing at semicircular attention, opened their mouths and began to emit odd hisses and croaks. “We look to the strange aeons to come, and we welcome Thy dominance with utter surrender!”
She slashed her own throat from ear to ear, and gouts of black fluid spewed across the body before which she stood. She dropped to her knees, her head limp, the horrible ooze still trickling for long seconds. The large man continued to dig—the canal had nearly reached the depression. I stood treelike, my mind a near-blank.
When the man finished his job, and the water flowed in, mingling with Jacqueline’s sacrificial spray, she raised her head and drew once more to her full height. She pointed, and the digger retreated to the outer ring, laying his shovel before him and joining the congregants in the production of those bizarre utterances.
Jacqueline reached out and took hold of the corpse’s hand. Then she pulled.
The body stayed where it was, but something crawled out of the pit and stood at Jacqueline’s side. Its shape was recognisably Emily’s, but it had no depth. It was absolutely and preternaturally black, darker than the deepest æthereal void, and every inch of its body displayed this same quality, so that no features were visible beyond the silhouette, and it looked as if it had emerged from a lower-dimensional order, as if it existed behind the pond and the trees and the winter air, and these things were a tattered veil ripped aside by its mere presence.
I took a backwards step, but the individuals to my right and left gripped my arms, and their touch sapped my will to resist.
The corpse-born shadow released Jacqueline’s hand and came up to me, folding me in its arms, pressing its body to mine. At its touch, I felt its definite though unviewable third dimension, identical to that of Emily’s which I had come to know and crave. A great numbness stole over me, but there appeared in my mind, like the antennae of some forgotten insect sheltering beneath a rock, some other faculty by which I nervelessly perceived the shadow’s shape.
I stared at the blank black space whose hidden eyes must even then have searched mine, my thoughts congealed in paralytic surrender. The creature pulled me towards the ground, and I obeyed, unable to take any other course of action. It crawled atop me, rubbing against me, running its hands over my skin, blotting out the moon’s faint globe.
Then it copulated with me. In place of waves of pleasure I felt waves of cold, each one extinguishing a greater measure of what passed for memories of warmth, each one driving to extinction some fragment of realisation that things had not always been this way. Jacqueline stood over me, smiling, and low, buzzing ululations issued from the ring of cultists around us. My climax, whose arrival I scarcely anticipated, was like the manifestation of an icicle within my flesh, the blossoming of a great weight which fastened me to my prone position.
The shadow withdrew and stood. Drops of inky fluid fell from between its legs. It gripped my ankles, Jacqueline my wrists, and the two things carried me to the now water-filled depression.
They lowered me in. The moment my back touched the corpse, the dead flesh began to dissolve into a numbing slime. I caught scattered glimpses of other things—the unreflective water of the pond, beginning to disgorge dark shapes, shadows like the ones which held me, some of these abominably ancient and subhuman in their aspect—before I lay in the position the corpse had occupied, the slime beneath me fading into the frigid water. The voices of the others drew closer, and I perceived the advent of foul, ageless incantations, performed in an unrenderable tongue. Jacqueline and the black creature released me, and the former raised her voice once more in high and fanatical screams:
“Hail He whose strength is our weakness, whose height is our depth, whose preservation is our collapse! Hail He who opens the way beneath and the path beyond! Hail He who rends planets and drains stars! Hail He whose voice resounds across the deepest void, He who approacheth as surely as warmth approacheth cold, as light approacheth dark, as life approacheth death, as these in turn decay in His embrace! Hail the Enervator! Iä! Iä! Iä!”
Something grasped my right hand and tore the two smallest fingers away. I felt no pain. Rough appendages did the same to my left hand, my left foot, my right. Jacqueline bent down, wielding her black bulb, and rent first one cheek, then the other, then cleaved a long line up the centre of my face. Then she drove her fist into my unresisting mouth, reached into my throat, and drove the instrument down, down, until it pierced the back of my neck and the dead water flooded my lungs. She extracted the precious item and withdrew, giving me a final lingering kiss as my breath stopped, my vision blanked, and my mind fell into sense-blotting snow.
When I awoke, the sky hung above me with cloudless midday clarity. Ice half-fastened me to the shallow pit, but, afflicted by a sudden spasm of cold, I disengaged myself without too much difficulty and stood, naked, shivering, chunks of ice still attached to bluish stretches of skin. My throat was curiously numb, and when I felt the back of my neck with probing fingers, I found a solid plug of frozen water.
The pond had frozen as well, and the ice bore no trace of the strange inky quality the water had exhibited. The trees stood tall and severe, the evergreens thick, the broadleaves bare. I peered in every direction but could descry no movement, no presence. I was alone.
My clothes still sat in a pile just behind the treeline. Nestled in the folds of my shirt was my knife, the blade clean, the plastic cap fastened securely. I picked it up, discarded the cap, and regarded it for long moments. I lay the sharp metal against my forearm and pressed, cutting deep.
Black slime oozed forth.