Beyond The Holders
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[Continued from Jack Empty]
It’s been a long day at the office. You’re tired, you want to go home and put your feet up; get a little rest. See how the kids are doing, maybe ask your wife about her day. You go home, open the door; the blood’s everywhere. It runs out, down the steps, into the street. The wife’s been gutted, eyes cut out and her face is contorted into something raw and animalistic. The kids are hanging from the roof, throats slit, left to bleed out like pigs.
The shock hits you like a brick wall: who did this? Then you see it, teeth bared in something almost mistakable for a smile.
It’s nothing like you, but it’s you. One heart wrenching moment away, if those kids do that one more time, if the wife doesn’t get off your back…
The thing looks at you: you’re next. Better hurry.
The room I enter is almost completely bare: there is a table that’s seen better days, a rug even older than the table, a wooden crate clearly for me to sit on and a strange man in a suit sitting on a stranger, metal crate. He’s shuffling a deck of cards, “Step into my parlour,” he says. He laughs at his own joke. His grin is slightly disconcerting.
“Who are you?” I ask, moving near the corner. I keep my eyes trained on the man, trying not to blink. Something scares me, about the way his arms move while he shuffles the deck. There isn’t any- I don’t know what to call it- residual movement? His arms are moving, but it stops there: there’s no shoulder motion and he’s not looking at his hands.
“Call me Old John. I assume my letter found you well? No confusion about the purpose of our meeting, no questions about what exactly will occur?” He won’t stop smiling. It’s… weird. I’m not sure if he’s a ventriloquist or if I’m just having a hard time making things out in the dim light. I’m pretty sure his lips aren’t moving enough, or in time with his speech, “The girl lives, you live, everybody lives- happily ever after, too. Isn’t that great?”
“What do you want exactly, John? You don’t seem the kind of man predisposed to charity work.” He’s stopped shuffling at some point and the deck is resting on the little table. Odd, I could have sworn it was in his hands a moment, less than a second, ago.
His grin widens. I think the skin on his face might snap, like elastic stretched too thin, revealing something vast and ticking beneath the surface, “Really? How odd. I like to think of myself as quite the humanitarian. Have a seat, my boy.”
I think his nose must have been broken at some point in the past, maybe several times: it’s very crooked. I look him over for other signs of battle, other scars, other nuisances; I want to know what kind of fight he’d be. His hair is clipped very short, maybe a half inch at its longest and is fairly uneven and patches of scalp are occasionally visible. I note a few scars on his head, they look to be, in my opinion, teeth marks. As he draws a card from the deck I see a large, thick, ropey scar winding its way up his arm, disappearing beneath his sleeve. His cufflinks are silver, with diamonds carved to look like beetles adorning them. They look familiar.
I take my seat, the box substantially less comfortable than standing. He’s placed the card on the table, face down. I think it’s a tarot deck, I don’t know why I think that.
“Glad to see you taking a load off; you do so much work, try so hard. ‘A man can surpass the standards of his peers and superiors, but should never surpass his own,’” he looks at me knowingly, like some private exchange has passed between us. He draws another card, placing it face down next to the first.
“How do I know she’s alive?” In the movies and television shows they yell it, or say it with force. I say it barely as a whisper. It’s not accusatory; it is a question one poses to themselves, late at night. Hypothetical.
“You know; to put it bluntly, because certain things drive us, move us. If she is dead, part of you will never recover, it will destroy so much of you that you might as well be dead; something else will move about, wearing your skin, but it won’t be you. If she is here, you have won, if she isn’t… well…” His voice is calm, terrifying. I try not to look at his face. He is wearing a very nice pinstripe suit. It is a smoky grey. I realise that this is washing the colour out of his skin; he’s not an albino he’s… I draw my focus away from that too. There’s another card on the table. No, two more now. Four total. I think I’m going to be sick.
“Why is there a skyscraper in the middle of the north Canadian wilderness?” Change the subject. Change is good. Keep moving. Five cards.
“You want to see her so badly. I can feel it, in my dusty bones and in my secret heart. I frighten you. She’s very frightened. So frightened… so lonely… You’re sick, you know that? Disgusting creature.”
The cards are face up now, the four Pages: Cups, then Coins, then Wands and Swords; then the last card: The Devil. I want to scream. Hate boils up in me. But I don’t yell my next words; I hiss them, “Do you now who I am? Do you know what I can do?”
My vision is drawn to his rictus; “I know many things, Jonathan Ian Dempty. I know your madness, the taste of your mind; I know what things stir where your soul belongs. I know the drugs you take to keep the nightmares at bay, I know the drugs drop in their drinks or press against their face. I know the curves your knife carves, together, in the dark. I know how it feels to take a life. I know where you hide the bodies.”
Throughout his rant his expression doesn’t change once. He sounds intrigued, excited, maybe even concerned, I am sick. Not violently. Just on the inside. The idea hangs there for a moment before dispersing. I think that that must be what insanity’s like. Thinking you’re flawed. Knowing you’re flawed.
“I’m leaving; I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“We can run some tests,” he says as I leave the room, “We can find out what makes you the way you are.”
I ignore him, descending the darkened stairwell. Again the question wells up inside. Who built this place? Why? It doesn’t matter, though. Ignore. Ignorance.
I reach the ground floor, thirty-one stories beneath the room that I met him. I kept track because this place descends farther down, without winding or changes in the stairwell. Just a constant wind downwards, doors on your left and right. The thought occurs; where do the doors on the left go, the ones pointing outside? There were no balconies, no breaks in the- ignore. Ignorance is bliss.
I open the door out, readying to go to my stolen car. When the door opens it’s not the same forest I came here in, not even a forest: it’s the arctic or Antarctic, a frozen desert.
“Perhaps you’d best stay inside? It’s cold out and you don’t look prepared.”
I turn around, startled, wondering how he snuck up on me, but there isn’t anyone there. I tell myself it must be strange acoustics, allowing him to call down the stairs and still be heard clearly, “What the hell do you want?” I yell, even though I just told myself I shouldn’t need to.
“Wasn’t it obvious?” his voice whispers, I pretend it’s not coming from the wastes to my back, “I want to make you a god.”
He sends me into one of the subbasements. I don’t fight it; I’m universal flotsam, pushed about by the seas of reality. Poseidon, fish-god, blind as all creatures of the deep, Earth shaker, horse-father, cyclopean deity, is it you who rules the depths below the frozen lands? Or is it your wealthy brother, Hades, forgotten god of fearsome death? Oblivion patron, does ice freeze at your word? Do the stars go blind at the wave of your hand? Whose is it, to rule over cold and destruction?
When I reach the room he directed me to I open the door to my left, the ones leading ‘outside’ (But didn’t the tower curve the other way when I ascended? Why is the path out always at my left? What would happen should I change my course, now? Ignorance. Forget your questions, they hurt too much) and find myself in a sort of theatre. It is made out of stone, but not the strange, black stone of the Tower; this is natural, grey stone. I call it a theatre for its shape: the walls form a trapezoid while the floor and ceiling turn downwards at about a thirty degree angle, before evening out fifteen or sixteen feet from the far wall. In the level area John is setting up some sort of film.
“Glad to see you found your way back,” he says without looking up. He’s changed his outfit, thrown a lab coat over his suit.
“Back?” I ask, “I’ve never been here before.”
He looks at me, still smiling, “You never left.”
He takes out a screw driving, fiddling with the old projector; one of the old ones, using actual film reel. Something about makes me want to say it’s from the period before color, after sound. I notice he’s set up an old wooden table and chair a little ahead of the projector, to the right.
“So. What did your mother say when you announced that you were going off to war?”
He’s fiddling with the machine, making small talk. It’s like this is just another day for him, natural that he should be doing this. I’m reminded of a cat playing with its food.
“Why don’t you ask her yourself?” I say it impetuously, like a child’s accusatory word at their parent.
“Jonathan, at this point do you still believe I have her?”
“I suppose not,” I sigh, giving in to his game. “She was… disappointed I suppose. Heartbroken, maybe. It’s hard to describe.” I trail off for a moment, remembering, “She accused me of giving in, I don’t know to what.”
“Yes you do.”
“It’s ready, Jon. Take a seat.”
The film starts abruptly; there is no count down, immediately I’m treated to a view of a chair, almost indistinguishable from the one I’m sitting in. It is directly parallel to my own and I do not take notice- and if I did I would not be disturbed by- how incongruous this is to the positioning of the camera. It is like a mirror, reflecting back a grainy world of black and white (and grey).
There is no action for a few seconds and then my captor, John, walks across the screen. It is quick, but I am sure I see him and momentarily I wonder if it he was, in fact, an aspect of the project or if he really moved here and now. It is confirmed to be an aspect of the film when he walks across again, this time from the opposite direction. He enters view a final time, this time dragging a young girl with him.
He sits her down in the chair, the one identical to my own, like a reflection to my own, and she stares, mouth agape, right into my eyes. I am horribly unsettled. John crouches down with his knees bent awkwardly and begins to whisper in her ear. Twice he quickly points directly at me. After a minute or so off this he steps behind her and again crouches down, stroking her hair like a parent. He draws a knife and carefully, slowly, begins to bring it up to her neck. He has it pressed against the far side of her neck but she doesn’t seem frightened of him, she simply stares at me with awful horror. Suddenly, John presses down and pulls-
The scene cuts.
Sound begins to fill the room from what I hope are microphones behind the make-shift screen, it is a droning monologue and it sounds like we have picked up partway through.
“-properly preserved we reach what the lessons of Ienpw and Ausare could only attempt to teach their people. The possibilities are endless! We can reach new heights in the sciences of biology and zoology, preserving animal carcases for millennia; imagine if the cavemen had the foresight and ability to suspend all the animals of their day.”
As he says this the camera panes over a shelf filled with various preserved animals and their body parts. All are held in strange orbs that appear to be empty save for the creatures inside them. Wires do, however, run from the base.
“Or perhaps we could consider medicine, the preservation of origins for as long as we desire, or the holding of blood at any desired temperature without interference of strange herbs and potions.”
We continue panning revealing a similar shelf containing, as the narrator said, various human origins. Or they appear to be human; I see several I do not recognise. All are held in the same contraptions as before.
“And down this train we reach the root of my endeavours, what I set out to do all those years ago,” we appear to zooming in on most of a human head with part of the lower jaw and one of its eyes missing. “Immortality.”
The lone eye opens. Scene cuts.
We are now looking at a blurry, shaking figure. I believe I have heard of how they set these up on film: an actor sitting still while moving one part of his body in a set of movements, usually his head, after that the film is sped up resulting in an indistinct shaking figure. The actor here appears to have been rapidly moving his whole body. Audio starts.
“HellO, cHild. HeRe is NEWS: DOMINATION. DESTRUCTION. wHat dO yOU dreAM oF? I DREam OF YOU. i DreaMEd YoU To lIFe. I DReaMed yoUR wORld, yOur UNIVERSE. CaN yOu hEaR US? cAN yoU HEar ME? i sEE YOU. I sMEll yOUr DREAMS. hELp uS… DREAM tHE WORld, cHIlD. HeLP ME dReAM YOU. dO yoU WANT YoUr MOMMY, Jon?”
I look at the table, and see a group of photos and drawings and pictures all laid out in front of me. Lazily, drowsily, I peruse them. Seeing a picture of Old John I pick it up and carefully set it aside, in a little area cleared out along the side. I can fit four more. I pick up the next one that takes my fancy, Leonardo’s Vitruvian man. There appears to have been a hole burnt into the drawing, over the heart. I set it aside. Next, I pick out a picture of a large ruby, strange shapes swirling at its core. Now I examine a photo of a large tapeworm, set it aside. Finally, a pair of broken glasses.
Almost immediately I snap out of it; looking about me heavily confused. Was that some sort of hypnotism? I suddenly have an intense urge to know the time.
“Five thirty eight,” remarks John, seeming to read my mind. “It’s very common for participants in the Totenberg Series to experience a passionate desire to know the time. For some reason they never ask about the date.”
My worry lifts, this, at least doesn’t seem to paradoxical. John is examining the cards I have set aside. Ignore how the other cards have been cleared away in the few seconds my eyes were off them, “You like what you see?”
“It is… surprising. Why did you select this one?” As he asks he taps his finger on the photo of him.
“It was the only thing that was really, I don’t know, familiar out of the bunch.”
John nods at this, “How about the ruby?”
“It reminded me of a recurring dream I used to have when I was a kid.” I feel like I’m under a psychological examination. I wonder why I’m being so cooperative; could he have drugged me?
“And the glasses?”
“I’m not sure.”
“What about the other two?”
I shake my head, “Still, no.” John begins pacing about the room. I grow very uncomfortable when he’s behind me, when I can’t see him- I keep imagining a knife. The details of the last segment start slipping away. I remember the audio clearly, except for the last word. It started with a J; Jon or John or Jack or Legion… What remains crystal unclear are the actions of the Figure beyond the first few seconds. Did he get up? Did he stay still? I know whatever he did frightens me, like so many other things today. What am I afraid of? What commonality is there between the things that scare me today, like a small child?
It occurs to me that I should get up, when I do so I find myself inches away from John’s face, “I’ve made a decision. Come with me.” John walks to the door taking far fewer steps than he should be able to.
Courage returns to me. Stupid, idiotic courage, “No. I’m not going with you until I get some answers.” It sounds clichéd, but what else fits the bill? “What is this place? And who are you?”
John is suddenly only a foot or two away, the change is startling, a wave of nausea hits me; I focus on the AG logo on his lab coat.
“You brought it with you, right?” for the first time he doesn’t sound bemused or intrigued, but a little… sad.
“You know full well! What else could I be talking about? What else could even remotely explain it all?” his smile has contorted into a sneer of disgust, the first facial change I’ve seen in him since I arrived.
Almost guiltily, I take it out of my coat pocket. He looks at it for awhile, shaking his head. It seems like the dementia has left him along with that strange power, now he just seems a sad, old man.
“You know that these were once part of a whole. You know certain of their secrets, as a Seeker must, but you fear the unknown. Did you fare better with what little description the tales offer? Don’t answer that, it doesn’t matter.
He pauses, thinking, before starting up once more, “They were once whole, but were scattered like a herd of sheep or other cattle. Some put it to the metaphor ‘like the bones of a dead man’ but I do not appreciate the comparison. They did not die, besides. This tower is a… construct. A memory, if you will, formed out of a dream. It was given steel by lifeless things much like gods so that They could be… lured here. It confined them and allowed certain measures to take place. The cycle starts here and so it must end. I have made it my domicile for the protection it provides: it can withstand the cycle, for it is not wholly real.”
He looks at me, and something in the look tells me that that is supposed to answer my first question. He moves on to my second;
“Me? I have many names, but they don’t matter. What you need to know this that I'm older than Legion, kept alive by profane deals and unholy pacts. Most of Them have passed through my hands at least once. I'm not exactly a Seeker and not really a Holder, but something else. If you ripped off my skin you'd find nothing underneath, 'cause I've got jack inside me. I'm empty." Jack looked me in the eye, “And you know who I am now, don’t you?”
His grin was horrible. Any humanity I thought I saw slipped away, like a loose-fitting mask. I could feel pressure on my brain- no, on my mind. The idea drips through my head on spider webs: I should be screaming. My jaw is locked in place, I’m paralyzed.
“Now, pet,” says Empty “We don’t want you running away now do we?” His hand jerks in the air, as though it is holding a leash. It occurs to my how terrifyingly massive he is, as my legs follow him of their own will.
We exit through I door I had not seen before, one located along what I’ll call the east wall, if we assume that I entered from the north. Jack is still talking.
“Has it occurred to you, Jon, that there are no lights in my Tower? Has it occurred to you that you should not be able to see? Has it? Of course, you can’t answer me. I am humouring myself with rhetorical questions, and what else can they be when I parlay with insects? What are they but questions posed to myself.”
He chuckles; his laugh is reminiscent of the bays of hyenas or the rustling of metallic feathers, “You see because I wish it; you see only what I want you to see. Jon, can you imagine how I feel amongst creatures that I can only see as insects, as pets, as amusements? Can you imagine the crushing loneliness that it is to be a God amongst the beetles? Of course you can, you’re a megalomaniac!”
He laughs again, louder, the glass on the containers I am pretending not to see shakes, I pray with every fibre of my being they don’t break, “The Totenberg Series confirmed what you were suspicious of: you are special. You have… Potential. Potential for a great many things; you have destiny. You could be the next ‘Chosen Seeker’ as the gnats elevate those amongst them that exhibit some excellence- in the old usage of course, ‘to excel in a field’ not synonymous with ‘perfection’. You could be the one destined to keep them apart. You could be a messiah or a great many other things, but I have selected for you.”
We enter a new area that appears to be composed entirely of metal grating, suspended in a void by long chains, dripping with unknown substance. Then I notice, to my unending relief, that there are lights placed along the roof of the corridor. I will be able to truly see once more!
“You do not seem overly concerned with this development but, I suppose, you have taken it all in stride. Except for what you don’t understand. Ylao Herself, how you fear the unknown! There is the normal discomfort of humans, but you have true and violent dread of it. Here we are.”
The passage seems to have simply hit a dead end but then I notice: a table and two crates. Could this have been the room I first met Jack in; perverted through the lens of his mind?
There is a cup, on the table. I can hear his words echoing in my mind, ‘Drink up, Johnny Boy…’ That’s not my name, I want to say, but once more he choruses, ‘Drink up, Johnny’s Boy… Drink from your Grail… Taste of the 49…’ Yeah, shut-up old man.
For a moment I consider my other options. Only a moment, because then I realise I have no other options. ‘Johnny’s Boy, Johnny’s Boy, Johnny’s Pet’s Son… Your Grail… Your Grail…’
Pick up the Grail, holding it up to the light. I consider the words of its story, one of the few I’ve examined thus far; ‘If you drink His blood, you'll either go mad or become the Antichrist. Only your fate can decide.’DRINK YOU LITTLE FUCK! Christ, alright, calm down.
I keep my hand steady as I raise the cup to my lips: it doesn’t take genius to think that hell on earth might be bad. I press it to my lips, tilt my head back, downing as little as-
The pain sears through me, I vomit onto the grate. I’m distantly aware that I’m on my hands and knees; that Jack is laughing, looking at the cup. I vomit again. My minds on fire, I see the space around me warp and twist. Jack’s everywhere. He’s between the atoms, between the stars. He’s in my shadow, in my head. The skin’s a mask: sheep’s clothing for the wolf to hide in. I can see my mother; she’s bawling shouting things at Jack. He doesn’t even look at her, it’s like he’s not aware she exists. I realise I can’t hear anything but distant static.
I giggle as I become acutely aware of someone screaming and assume it’s me. I guess I wasn’t fated, you asshole.
Sound pops back into clarity, “I’ll kill you for this, you fucking asshole!”
“Pet, not now; not on Antichristmas. Antichrist, what an adorable term; might as well call you ‘Nero’- old six sixty six. The term’s usage in the original story comes from a mistranslation of a description of one of the earlier entities to hold your seat, Jon. He was call ‘The Enemy of the Church’ church became Christ, etc. The actual position is somewhat foggy, a figure that embodies power and its corruptive influence. You will shortly know it better that I could ever explain it, Jon.”
He’s right. I can feel my bones changing… my mind expanding… my sinews twisting… my organs melding and separating. My skin is just a mask, who’s wearing my skin?
With unnatural energy I left myself to a standing position. Everything has changed so much, I could never explain it. I take a step toward Jonathan’s mother.
“What are you going to do now, creature?” says the little shadow, “What will you do now?”
I focus on him, “Little shadow; you created me, little shadow; you tormented me. The Dying Ones have stories of djinni and golems to warn each other of what it is to tamper out of their breadth and keen. Did you think yourself above their law?”
“I am not of their law,” says little shadow as he puts the cup on the table.
“Little shadow, do you fear the fire? Does it burn your legs, your thighs? Does it burn you ch-” Little shadow charges me with strange power, I am thrown back against a wall of our little corridor. I hiss at him, returning the attack. I remove a gun from one of Jonathan’s pockets, letting off a burst of ammunition to the little shadow’s face. Little shadow screams raw fury, a massive hand grabbing me by the face, beating my head against the wall with force enough to crush bone. My head deforms momentarily before beginning to reassemble. None the less, I am jarred.
Little shadow prepares to redouble his assault when the variable he foolishly ignored begins to act as I expected it to. The woman picks up the cup.
“You two are going to get off of each other, now,” little shadow goes rigid, terrified. I smirk.
“You are both going to stand with your backs to the wall. You will then, very calmly, tell me how the hell I get out of here.”
“Pet, you don’t want to do this-” begins Jack, but the woman cuts him off. Is that I hint of dismay in his cock-sure smile?
“You don’t tell me what I do and don’t want, Jack. Fuck you, after what you did to my son.” I smile at the old broad. She’s clueless, but she’s on my side.
“You don’t understand human interaction, Nero,” says the little shadow. “If she was on your side she would have let you go free. Now Samantha-”
“Shut. Up.” As the woman says this she tips the cup dangerously, “How do I get out of here? Any takers?” I consider the nature of the question. If memory serves it should appear, at this point a straight away. I risk a glance around little shadow to where the way had been. It is gone. This comes as a surprise. Much knowledge is open to me now; I ponder the nature of the building.
“You have five seconds,” says the woman. I can feel in the back of my mind that little shadow is about to say something.
“He never loved you, you know. He was like me, as incapable of that as you are of killing us. You’re a child, Samantha. You always will be.”
I look at little shadow, “Was that about Jonathan?”
“No,” whispers the woman, she’s crying; actually crying! “He’s talking about Jon’s father.” For a moment she stands there, I feel little motion to my left. Little shadow is about to take action, “Eat fire, asshole.”
The stupid girl throws the blood in shadow’s face and the whole place erupts in flame. I stand there, basking momentarily in how easy it was to kill them both when the fire suddenly gutters out. I look about, confused, seeing the two ruined corpses lying on the ground, one on top of the other and… no cup.
I shake my head, realising what occurred. The little shadow smothered the flames with his own void! Clever ghoul! I grab the shoulder of the corpse I take to be little shadow’s and flip it over to access my prize. I admire the grail, temporarily empty though it is, before setting it on the ground. I must, after all, find my door.
As I begin branching out with my new found senses something spears through my back, on the left side, puncturing through where my kidney once was. I look down.
“You’re supposed to die by fire!” I almost whine.
“You were close. There’s more to it than that.” The corpse does something I take to be smiling, “But that did hurt like all hell. I’ve lost a lot of skin.” his other hand shoots up to my chest and begins tearing away strips.
It hurts as he skins me. The pain is almost indescribable. It’s like walking through a forest fire. Or eating knives. After a while I stop struggling against him, letting it occur. He seems to eat more than just my skin… he eats my memories… he eats my power. I preserver. I hide away as much of myself as I can here, in this place. You touch my mind here, and I touch yours. He has me caged, but not imprisoned. I am the king of this world and you shall bow.
I am you, one heart-wrenching moment away.
|Last modified on 2010-08-03 20:59:20Average Rating: 4.75 / 5 (4 votes)Viewed 13281 times|