Mother told me to not weep. Though she lay dying…
Rumor of her passing — imminent, pendulous — no doubt had spread. I heard the whisperings all about me as I made my way through the halls of the sanctuary. Many of my brothers even stopped me in my stride and asked of her wellbeing.
Our numbers were few. And with Mother so ill, I envied the dead and feared for the living, for we were doomed to a horrific fate.
Still the air remained pregnant with the odor of the Poison Wind. Wherefore this miasma had entered our sanctuary I know not. Not even Mother knew. But all about us was a sick, repugnant fume — somehow sweet and tantalizing, concomitant with a bitterness which struck flame in the heaving breast. As children we were warned against such peril in the wasteland outside the sanctuary. Few ever were permitted to depart and of those few, even fewer returned with tidings of the outside world and what provisions might be found. All news was dark — the land beyond the doorway, naked and void of life became (long before I was born) the subject of fear in the hearts of all Mother’s children from their earliest days to their final breath.
But worse than the reek of the Poison Wind was the smell of decay. The myriad of our brothers who had fallen when first the air became rank with the sigh of death now lay rotting in the coldness of the vaults where they had been stored. Though we burned incense and unleashed pleasant perfumes, the cadaverous smell — the evil lurking within the very atmosphere with the mildewing of flesh and the vileness of that wind always remained prevalent. Sinister.
I did not wish to leave Mother’s side. I, the only other soul present in the chamber, watched the labored rise and fall of her breast as she struggled for breath. She was, in that moment, more beautiful than ever I had beheld her. It was Death’s crippling nearness to her heart which made her glow; ashen and pale — her eyes shone ethereal with an acuteness of pain which birthed in her frailty a foundation of luster. Otherworldly, her beauty seemed in that moment to outshine the stars, which I had seen only in dreams and imagining — discovered in books of lore long dead.
It was that celestial gaze she then bent upon me; with slender hand motioning for me to draw near.
“My son,” she said — barely above a whisper, the words escaped from between the pallid lips in a voice I did not recognize—a phantom of the strength of tone, the utter melody that once was.
“What is your wish, Mother?” I took her hand in my own and knelt beside her.
“My son,” she said again.
She struggled then; the words caught in her throat. When at length she managed to speak, it was with a voice far removed from the music of the past — a hiss. Her eyes wandered, roving wildly as if they sought to find whatever it was upon which she wished to focus.
“I do not know what evil will befall with my passing,” she said. “You and your brothers are bound to me. My will is your will. The blood within me, your blood. My mind…your mind.”
“You will not die,” I said, though of course I knew in my heart that death drew near.
No doubt perceiving this, she paid no heed to my attempt to sooth her, and said, “You must leave this place. You must lead your brothers from the sanctuary.”
“You don’t mean — ” I swallowed hard, incapable of saying the words stinging the tip of my tongue to be unleashed.
“You must go into the wasteland,” she said.
I wished to protest, but her wandering eyes at last found me and I was stricken dumb by her gaze.
“You are strong,” she said. “You are the strongest of all my children. You will lead them. There are others, my son. There are others of our kind out there in the wide world. You must find them. You must…”
She faltered in her speech, her voice fading. Her head fell back onto the cushions. She closed her eyes. Though shallow, I discerned her breathing. The lids fluttered, the eyes ceased to rove, locking themselves upon a space on the wall. Then, concealing sight once more, she swallowed hard and, in a tremulous voice whispered, “Go.”
In fear I rose to face my brothers. Whatever evil Mother feared may rise with her departure dwelled already beyond the door. I do not know how long a time had passed since the Poison Wind first came, but in the period following its rise, madness had befallen the sanctuary. With my own eyes, I had witnessed the terrors unleashed since the opening of the great doorway that allowed the grey fog which brought death to enter. While the dead rotted away in the supreme dark below, the living fell into sickness and despair. It was not merely a physical ailment which the Poison Wind had brought, but also the decay of the mind. Collectively, my brothers descended from grace into darkness. With hope in tatters, they wandered the halls without sustenance of any kind; simply waiting for their turn to die. But before death were thirst and hunger.
I had seen them drink. I had seen them eat. Waiting, waiting for a brother to die before taking of his blood and feasting of his flesh. Like demons they gathered ‘round the fallen, rending, savage through skin and sinew — severing veins in vampiric greed. Devils of desperation tearing the foundations of sanity from their roots of clay. Yes. All this I viewed. And when hunger was great, they did not await the expiration of their kin, but slaughtered with the rage in their stomachs and the blackness in their souls. As I stood over Mother as she lay dying, I wondered how ever I was to gather my brothers and convince them to follow me into the wasteland. Would any of them see any semblance of hope in departing the sanctuary? Would any think it better to die outside the walls than simply to wait for the final blow of the Poison Wind to take each of us until all that remained was the smell of rot and the memory of our peaceful years, faded beyond dim remembrance? Even now it seemed this was the way life always had been. So accustomed had we grown to the presence of death and the air of things unspeakable that the past appeared nothing more than a dream recalled in longing.
Hopeless though it seemed to gather any of my brothers to my cause, I left the chamber, bearing Mother’s final wish in my heart.
I looked and saw one of my own stood outside Mother’s chamber. Locking the door, I pocketed the key and turned to him.
“Is she dead?” he said.
“No,” I assured him. “But we must leave. It is her will that we depart.”
“And go where?” he said.
I told him all that Mother had instructed.
“‘Others of our kind,’” he quoted. “In the wasteland?”
“I assume so,” I said. “Or beyond it.”
“But” he said, “that is suicide. We have no supplies. No food. No water. We have been — ”
“I know,” I said. “But I do not wish to find out what will happen when she…when she…” I could not finish the sentence.
“What does she believe will happen?” he wanted to know.
“I do not know,” I said. “She merely said she knew not what evil will befall once…it happens.”
“There is great evil here already,” he said. Then, thinking of it, he said, “I will go with you.”
“Gather as many of our brothers as you can,” I said.
He made to leave.
“And make haste!” I added. “We may have little time.”
“Where will you be?” he asked.
“I will be waiting for you at the doorway with as many of our brothers as I can gather.”
With a bow, he parted from my company. I walked in the opposite direction, making my way to the upper levels and the door of sanctuary.
While it had been my design to bring as many of my brothers together as I could find, what happened next was, unfortunately, to be expected.
The sanctuary lay in silence. All was dark, save for the torches on either side of the stairways and the halls. But the quiet of which I speak was an ululation compared to the hush which suddenly fell as a wind, sweetly perfumed swept past me. The torches sputtered and dimmed; then went out. And this new silence crashed upon me with the weight of all the dead. I felt in my mind a resistance to the will of some outside force. I knew Mother had died, and that now, the evil feared had come. Somehow, I endured. I fell upward upon the stair, grasping at my skull as a horrible, instant ache struck between the hemispheres of my brain. Cold, shrieking air had infiltrated the quiet of my psyche and I heard, from all levels of the sanctuary, the cries of my brothers in unspeakable agony.
At length however, the pain subsided and the fit faded. I alone, I believe, survived with my sanity. I heard still the shrieks of agony from above and below. Seizing a torch from the wall, I hurried by its light up the stairs.
The sanctuary lay in ruins. At every turn, I saw my brothers lying in fits of anguish, their dark bodies writhing as they clawed at themselves. Tearing through their own flesh, they bled onto the floor, and this blood and skin they brought to their gaping maws; feasting upon themselves, many dying as they tore their own throats open.
I wanted to help them. But I knew this was the end of days. The Poison Wind had claimed Mother, and her death had claimed us all. I know not why I was spared.
Passing the dead and dying I found the door of the sanctuary and entered the wasteland.
A world of stone greeted me. High columns, gnawed by time, crumbling on either side of me. I at first was blinded, for all my life I had known only the light of the torches and now for the first time viewed the sun. So accustomed was I to the cold of the sanctuary that I feared I would burst into flame, for the day was hot and the stone underfoot burned my skin.
From behind, I heard the cries of my brothers in their death throes. I could bear the sound no longer and closed the doorway, silencing them forever.
Only then did I weep.
But I did not linger. No. I could not. I had no provisions. No food. No water. Not even clothing, save for the rags about me. What was required now was haste to find others of my kind.
Long was the road of columns, many of which had fallen in the grey sands of the waste on either side of the walkway. To that land, though I knew it was there the scouts found the provisions for the sanctuary, I dared not go. I remained upon the stone.
I had read that night (the world below the moon) was cooler than this (the world below the sun), so after placing some distance between myself and the doorway, I sat in the shade below what appeared to be the fallen face of an idol, the great holes of the eyes and the gap where once there had been a cheek filled with the grey sand of the waste.
I journeyed only in the night, unable to rejoice in the sight of stars or the moon. I encountered no one. What little flora I passed, I recognized as some of the plant-life upon which my brothers and I often dined. This alone sustained me. But there was no water.
At last realizing I had no choice, after I-do-not-know-how-many nights, I left the stone and began searching the wasteland. During the daylight hours, there were great, fallen statues in whose shade I rested; waiting for nightfall.
Then came a night when I saw, at a little distance, a familiar sight: A doorway in the sand.
Yes! It was as Mother had said. There were others of our kind out in the wide world. In the moonlight, I saw their dark forms gathered about the doorway, which they opened and made to go inside.
In desperation, I called out to them, and they halted.
I called for help, waving my arms as I stood upon the stone arm of a fallen god.
To my great rejoice, after they had spoken amongst themselves for some time, four of the figures made their way toward me.
Indeed, they were of the same kind as I. They wore rags and bore torches, their eyes gleaming in the light of the flames.
Leaping from the great arm, I approached the coming figures and met them a little way further in the sand.
Only one of their number came to me. They called for me to halt and this figure came near.
“Who are you?” he said.
“Brother!” I cried. “I am the same as you!”
“Have you come to save us?” he said.
I did not know how to answer this, but when he began coughing, I knew what had occurred.
“We are in desperation,” he said. “Our people are dying, and Mother is sick.”
Credit: Marten Hoyle
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