Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
Whatever exists between the worlds of the known and the unknown is a mystery to me. I know only the things I have seen and experienced in this realm: in the here and now. All else is up to interpretation. But there is a forbidden matter I have long kept hidden from the knowledge of others for fear of what their conclusions may be. Now, as I lay in my deathbed, I no longer care what my fellow man thinks, or how he will perceive the events which I now will lay into detail. It is for the sake of my sanity that I share this story of the city and the they who dwelt there.
The city had no name, and I do not recall viewing any signs along the road I traveled that hinted of its whereabouts; of dining or of lodging to come. I knew only that I had journeyed long in the night and, as the pale sun rose in the East, the realization came to me that, without rest, I could go no further.
It seemed not strange to me that the sun crept little over the mountains far away. Still within the pallid sky some few stars blinked with life, and by the slight glare of the dawn I beheld, at some distance, towers in the mist.
Nothing in the sight of the city seemed at the moment ill. I did however view it with some wonder, for even at a distance, and with so little visibility in what scant light the sun in slow ascent offered, it appeared unlike any settlement I had seen before. The towers of glass and steel appeared strangely wrought in likeness more of spirals than of any structurally intelligent architectural design. It seemed, as the golden glare of dawn descended upon them, that these buildings were colorized in many hues; almost prismatic in appearance and all gathered in close proximity to one another, giving the impression that the structures themselves were not separate in any way, but stood all as part of a mad, detailed whole.
Thinking this to be the mere imagining of a weary mind, I paid little heed to the sight and made my way from the road toward the city while the sun seemed so reluctant to rise and the wind sighed within the silence.
With a little more distance covered, my initial impression of those bizarre towers seemed truth. Indeed, quite like a coral reef, they appeared connected without a joint, the colors mesmerizing; glass and steel merging with dyes as of prisms. But as I came closer to the city, the vision of hues was removed as the mist grew in density and a grey sight lay before me. I felt perhaps that I had encountered a ghost town, for as I neared the outskirts, I saw the few high windows discernible in the haze were shattered or coated greatly in what might have been dust but that I have come to believe may have been ash.
It is not the period of years which have passed since I entered the city that birth difficulty in detailing what lay there. All was shrouded in a dawn mist that shone but faintly with a frail, blue light reminding me more of a moonlit phosphorescence than the glow of the sun.
But when I entered—when the first, dilapidated abodes materialized within the fog, unease befell. The mist traveled with me in strands of miasma; carrying within its vapors a smell I cannot define. Below its surface, the scent carried with it some slightly pleasant attribute, somewhat reminiscent of an old book’s spiced perfume, but overbearing this was a stench pervading all that bore within it the perception of something akin to sound. Repugnant aroma which could be heard and felt as something with which the air grew malignant—a living being with a voice of its own that whispered in my ears so that though the streets were empty I walked aware of a surrounding presence.
It was not only the impression of sound within the scent which made me feel I was not alone. It was not even the manner in which the curtains in what few windows featured cloth seemed to sway from the other side of the dusty glass. It was that, from all around, I heard the whispering of many voices: Indecipherable. And though I could not quite discern the words—if words they were—breathed within the mist, I knew these utterances were not of any language then (or now) known to me. In some way, it seemed to possess a certain musical quality. A certain form of piping—discordant and horrendous to the ears.
This disquieting sound I attempted to ignore, for (as I have said) I was weary and much in need of rest before continuing my journey. I made my way up the street toward the interconnected towers, which had seemed so vibrant from a further distance, but which now lay colorless and enveloped—nearly concealed in the cerulean haze.
Further on, the street widened and there came into view a schoolyard. Until now, I had seen no living creature in the city, but now—in the field before the playground, standing in front of the weather-worn and grey bricks of the edifice itself, I beheld the forms of three children: all little girls in garments of grey with their backs turned to me, heads bowed as they stood huddled together.
In spite of the fear I felt, I thought perhaps one of these children may know the whereabouts of a place where I could find reasonable accommodations until such a time as I could feel rested enough to continue on my way, so I stepped into the grass. It was dry below my feet. I looked and saw the blades were dead and crunched underfoot with a white coating of frost. This was impossible. I stood in that moment in the heart of summer, but the atmosphere of this place hung pendulous and pregnant with chill.
Something within me—perhaps some basic instinct to survive—told me to not approach the youths standing some five yards away. Instead, I called to them, asking if they knew of an inn in the town.
Slowly, the children raised their heads.
I saw no hair. No golden locks or pigtails common among little girls of their age. I saw heads concealed in canvas sacks of a color like that of the frost upon the dead grass underfoot. And the ropes of these bags were tied tight at the neck, so that when the children faced me, there was no possible manner in which they could be breathing in any of the cool, fetid air; and there certainly must have been no means by which they could see me through the canvas.
It was not the condition of their heads which froze me. It was the things they held in their hands. The child to the right held an ice pick of rusted metal. To the left, the girl held a hook from whose opaque blade clung a rag of something which dripped a black liquid into the grass. That something which clung to the menacing tool clearly belonged what the youth in the middle held by the neck in one hand while wielding a blade in the other.
For a time, nobody moved. But when at length the children did stir, it was the girl in the middle who shifted, lifting the carcass of the left hand and bringing the blade of the right into the dead flesh. Not blood, but the same black pitch-like substance of the hook her companion bore spewed forth. And bringing the steel from the cadaver, the girl stood for a mere breath before again digging vehemently into the beast.
As I stood rooted by an all-consuming trepidation, I watched as the child brought the knife out and time and again bore into her prey. What broke the spell and gave me the ability to turn away was the moment I grew aware of the sudden nearness of the trio. So distracted had I been by the incessant slaughter that scarce did I notice the children approached me, the killer’s friends raising their weapons.
It was my intention to go back the way I had come and call for help, but after leaving the masked children and returning at speed to the street, I saw I could not recover my tracks, for the way was blocked by the figures of four men. As they came, they were mere shadows, slowly gaining substance as they made their way through the mist. Each man wore the same type of colorless garb and their faces and heads—like girls in the schoolyard—were masked beneath canvas. Three of the men held gleaming switchblades while the fourth carried a scythe.
Not wanting to discover the intentions of the men or the children with their weapons, I decided the only thing I could do was make a run toward the towers. There was only one street in the city. The houses in the dead, frosted lawns may have proven hiding places, but I could not simply run into one abode with these demented beings so close, for though their eyes were hidden, I knew they could see me.
It was when one of the men turned his blade on himself that I ran. He did not expire. No. Merely he laid the edge of his knife against his arm and carved into his own skin, unleashing more of that black substance; a cascading of ichor.
As I ran, I looked about me to either side, hoping to find some other street I could turn down to avoid making my way near the towers. I could have run through the lawns and between the buildings, but to do this, I would have had to climb tall, rusted fences—and I feared others pursued me. I did not like the idea of any route which may have hindered progress toward finding a way out of the city. Less than this did I find any comfort in the idea of running below the eyes of the towers whose topmost chambers pierced beyond the sight of the heavens. Also, it did not seem wise to leave the street, for other citizens made themselves known in the windows of the buildings: all faces concealed by the canvas bags that I soon realized were not merely the hue of frost, but which were coated in the ice of that early morning whose sun had yet fully to rise. And each man, woman and child wore those clothes without color and bore weapons, many of them assaulting their own skin as they sauntered toward the doorways and out into the day.
I dared not look over my shoulder for fear of what number of pursuers I might have seen, but at length I could bear it no longer and cast a glance backward.
My pursuers were far behind—silhouettes in the haze. Fearing the worst, I wondered if their hidden eyes perceived me through the thickness of the air and, for the briefest of moments before the collision which followed, thought of why they lagged and did not pick up their pace. But so long did I gaze that I felt an obstacle before me, striking hard into the person of a man and falling prostrate.
Towering over me, the rope of his canvas sack tightly wound at his throat, a man stood cutting into his own breast with the blade of an axe. Sap-like gore oozed leaden from severed veins.
Sightlessly seeing me through the mask, my enemy brought the axe from his own flesh and raised it above his head. With little time to react before he brought it down upon me, I moved swift as I could out of harm’s way. Not fast enough. As I made to roll onto my right side, the blade of the axe buried its way into my left shoulder.
Crying out in pain, I found myself again lying prostrate; now with the blade sticking into flesh and bone. I felt my own blood hot and steaming as it issued from the wound in the icy air. While it did not sever my arm from my body, the axe was buried deep and my assailant struggled to remove it. Placing a foot upon my chest, he fought to tear the axe from the meat and bone, at length prying it free and raising it for second assault.
Despite the agony and terror afforded by the situation, I resisted. Grabbing him by the ankle, I pushed upward with all my might, taking him from his feet so that he stumbled back several paces. This I used as an opportunity to rise. Grasping my injured shoulder, feeling the blood gush and run between my fingers and over the back of my right hand as I (no longer caring if I found any further obstacle) ran from the street toward what appeared to be a diner, judging by the colorless awning and the windows lined in neon sputtering lifeless and grey.
Heedless of the fact that I was trapping myself and had no real plan of action, I wrenched open the door of the diner and hurried inside.
The mist followed.
Within, all was silent. The mad whispering of outside was cut off from reality and I stood with only the sounds of my pulse, my bleeding and my rapid breath—with the blood in my ears and the distinct perception of the lack of sound in the surrounding.
The diner was clean and, under different circumstances, would have been an ideal place to sit and eat in the throes of relaxation—without a single care in the world. But these were not the circumstances, and I now realized the peril on which my life now hung, for I clearly had brought myself into my own trap.
In fear, I looked all around the diner and felt a moment’s respite that I was alone. But when I peered out the window and saw the man with the axe making his way to the sidewalk, and the silhouettes of several of his brethren in the mist behind him my anxiety, to the amplification of the pain in my wounded shoulder, returned in full force.
Hope, however, did not seem lost. I saw, across the counter and through the kitchen, a door under a grey sign marked EXIT.
Instead of circling the counter, I leapt over its polished surface and through kitchen door. Hurrying across the floor, I grasped the knob of the exit just in time to hear the twinkling of the bell in the entryway as the man with the axe entered the diner.
But I could not turn the knob. My right hand, so terribly coated in blood, slipped from the brass and I could not get a decent grip. In a moment of desperation, I lifted my hand up underneath my shirt and, with this coating (like a glove) between skin and metal, was able to the open the way and run outside.
I do not doubt my sanity, but what happened next has made me fear for it for many years. I know that, though at the time I attempted to tell myself it was a nightmare, it was not the fabrication of a sleeping mind. These events are true. For when I escaped the city, I yet bled from my shoulder and today I wield a scar. But when I stepped out from the diner and found myself not in an alleyway or on a lawn of dead, frost-bit grass but in the selfsame street, facing the man who wielded the axe as though I never had set foot within any building, I felt a discernible cracking in my brain as, with this impossibility, my sanity fought for its own crumbling foundations.
For a fraction of time, my sanity indeed fled, for I despaired and thought of surrendering. I remained still, waiting to allow the masked man to strike at will. But when he raised the axe and brought it down, my instinct to survive was rejuvenated and I reached with my blood-drenched hand and wrested the axe from his hands. He showed no resistance. It was as though he had offered the thing to me.
Thinking not of his sudden lack of will to unmake me, I took the axe and, swinging with all my might, brought the blade into his diaphragm. For a few seconds he stood, stricken dumb like one who has encountered an issue for which he has no solution. Bowing his head, he looked to the blade within him before falling first to his knees, and then backward onto the ground so that his bent legs lay beneath his back and the black fluids flowed out of him to form a pool below.
Though this was now my chance to make a run for it, past (though I dreaded the idea) the mighty towers still some distance away, curiosity took hold and I lowered myself onto my haunches beside the dead man. The knot of the rope was tight, but did not resist being untied. Without reluctance, wanting to see the face of my foe, I tore the canvas sack from his head.
Rising quick as lightning, I nearly stumbled and fell at what I saw. A merciful God most assuredly would not allow such a sight to exist in the mortal realm. It was the unclean, tortured masque of the very personification of melancholy. It was a countenance of suffering; eyes yet aflame with something like life leaking black tears down the gnarled, knotted and unholy features of mutilated eons. Many lives were in that face—all torn asunder by anguish of a flame expired; of plethora of existences twisted in ruin and the terrors of the soul in sacrifice. Rotted and weeping, ceaselessly weeping, the cadaverous form, gnawed by time had welcomed the death that could not be offered to himself by his own hand.
I stood so long staring at the dead man that I did not notice the others. When at last I looked away, I was surrounded by a ring of dark figures; a circle growing tighter as they drew terribly close.
But they did not attack.
Looking from their brother, lying dead in a pool of the blood-that-was-not-blood, they regarded me through the canvas they wore and offered to me their weapons, each waiting in his or her turn to be slain.
I could not offer them the reprieve they so desperately desired. I say I did not lose my sanity that day, and this is why. I refused to aide them. Though they attempted to stop me, clinging to me, and pleadingly offering their blades as I broke through the ring and their masses, making my way back the way I came—avoiding those terrible towers and what may have dwelt beyond the shattered, ash-ridden glass—until I came at length to the road I had left behind.
When I returned to the road I so long had traveled upon, I did not look back to face the city again. I believe that it had faded away as the sun at last rose over the mountains so that my shadow lengthened before me and I made my way back to my home, leaving all hope of my long journey away behind.
I die here now, writing these words. I know well the road where I encountered the city, though never once did I return to it. I have studied that place. Hell’s Length they call it, for many a weary traveler has gone there never to return. I do not know why the things that dwelt within the city at first attempted to slay me and then, when I took one of their number, viewed me as a potential savior. I do not know if the city still stands, or what has happened to any traveler unfortunate enough to vanish from that place.
Above all, I do not know what was within the towers which I see even now in my mind’s eye. Whatever terror lurked in those high chambers haunts me as an unseen evil, always on the edge of a dream as I waken. What demonic glimpse this is I dare not to ponder. But as I now sit at the end of my life, I have the distinct impression that I smell the lovely perfume of an old book. But with this, a scent most foul comes to me. An aroma which, so great is its repugnance, so substantial its weight, seems to possess some presence of life and sound.
Credit : Marten Hoyle
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