Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Divorarel
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Beleth never understood the concept of mass sacrifice, why was it that quality was only better than quantity until the moment you were committing heresy, and who was going to clean up afterwards? Certainly not his standoffish master and certainly not his incompetent underlings. No point in going through all the unnecessary pomp and pageantry when you could get the job done with just one untainted soul.

One doe-eyed daughter tempted by vanity.

One would-be prom queen spurned by jealousy.

One aspiring starlet willing to do anything for the approval of others.

One shining star basking in the glory atop it all.

One withering old woman grasping at glory.

Beleth sat across from Bethany just as he had ninety years ago when she had been a little girl easily wooed into the tent of a travelling fortune teller on the wharf by plastic stars hanging from the roof and a fog machine. He had looked so much more glamorous back then. There was something haggard about him now sitting there in his mustard yellow three-piece suit with hints of a black bodysuit peeking out from beneath his sleeves and a tie pulled tight like a noose around his throat. It had not been strange to hear prophecy spill from the hollow innards of the yellow teddy-bear head that covered his entire head, it had been easy to ignore the frayed fur and torn ear, the way his bloodshot eyes stared out from the great gaping pits where colorful cartoon eyes ought have been.

It was only now that Bethany realized she had never seen him blink.

But who was she to judge? Time had been kind to her but even kindness had its limits and it seemed in some strange way that as glamor faded from his appearance that it had begun to fill her life like one bucket emptying another, the only times she’d failed the ones where she doubted him, countless surgeries had rendered her a modern mummy with more plastic than flesh stretched of a fading frame. With black sunglasses and gaudy makeup to distract from her encroaching mortality. The curtains of her villa drawn shut and only the flickering candlelight to highlight the host of her life and her guest for the evening.

“Oh Beleth, you’re the only man who never betrayed me.”

“You have bad taste in men, Beth.”

“Not so bad, just picky.”

“Seven husbands picky?”

“I get bored easily but I’ve high hopes for the eighth.”

“. . .”

“You never told me why you did it, why you picked me, I know you did. It’s okay to be honest with me. I figured out what you were long ago, what you really are, I’ll never understand why you like to dress it all up in a veneer of falsehood when you’re are the only real things in this world.”

“You like to hear yourself talk too much.”

“Oh that’s just the actress in me, you’re so mean, you always were. I thought you’d lighten up now that I’m old but I guess I like that about you. My only regret is that you never showed me your face. Can’t you do this silly old girl a favor an—”

And for just a moment she felt her heart stop.

“I suppose that wouldn’t be possible.”

“Not even if I wanted to.”

“All the same, I don’t regret it, I even brought you a gift to express my gratitude to you.”

“Is that what that is…?”

“Yes, I even wrapped it for you.”

“In its own flesh.”

“Yes.”

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“It’s nothing between friends. Don’t think I’m trying to obligate you to me either, I lived a full life. Ninety years is long enough for me, I’ll pass the spotlight onto someone else, but you know I’ve finally got my first great-grandchild and I wouldn’t mind another ten or fifteen years just to see them grow. I didn’t get much opportunity with my children and…” Beleth wasn’t the sort of man to repeat himself. Not even for the sake of clarity.

Well, Beleth had come too far to back down now, with a sigh he turned his attention back to the ritual. From his sleeve a remote, the wide-screen television flicked to life with the last faded recording of a one famous newscaster. From beneath the table, the flame-scarred handgun of an ill-fated hunter. And from his inner pocket, a string of teeth collected from a ravenous beast. A gloved finger to the curling ursine smile of his ursine helmet to signal her silence followed by the same reassuring ‘whatever you want’ she had tried to use to seduce him since she’d been old enough for such a thing. That last fateful forecast predicting an incoming storm buzzing every time he tossed one half of a deck of playing cards into another but no such set had she ever seen, dragons and kings and faeries peeking out between shuffles with an ominous eye flat on the back with such detail it could be felt peeking out from the second dimension.

“You were always so obedient, Bethany, that’s why I liked you. Always doing anything I asked of you. You only have to do one more thing for me and eternal beauty will be yours, don’t hesitate now, you’ve come too far and you’re too beautiful for hell.”

“I never doubted you,” She said with love in her voice. “But what a strange ritual.”

“Three objects, Bethany, three objects to recall undying vanity from its scattered place in the stars. Three objects and one silly old woman to act as an anchor. Say the magic words, Bethany, don’t lie and tell me you’ve forgotten them now.”

“Are you sure?”

“The words don’t matter Bethany, it’s the spirit behind them. Hurry now. The storm is ahead of us, the clock is ticking, do not miss the sacred hour or the opportunity will never come again.”

Beleth had never been much of a talker but when he did the world moved, she could hear it now, battering on her windows with sheets of rain. Rattling her old bones with thunder. She could feel every injury creaking in this old joints as she steeled her resolve and she spoke, into the empty ether, across the multiverse with a conviction that made the world bend at its seams. Once upon a time, Bethany had been a pure untainted soul but after ninety years of grooming she was wretched, bloated with corruption until she was nearly unrecognizable. What hadn’t she done in that time? Now she was ripe, like a cow waiting to be slaughtered, arms spared out to her sides as she offered her body, her soul, her mind gleefully to something beyond her comprehension.

The flesh sack oozed.

“Ooh Eeh, Ooh Ah Aah, Ting Tang Walla-Walla Bing Bang!”
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“My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddlestrings and harps, drums and tamboura I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.”
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet


It was the spirit behind the words, not the words themselves, and Bethany Laveaux had been groomed to fully embody the meaning of these words until her life itself became a part of their message. A few seconds of latency passed, the infinitesimal time of molecular motion as a receptor reached by its signal adopts a new conformation. The world pitched forward and Bethany's stomach lurched as if falling from an incredible height.

That was the first moment she knew with absolute certainty that she wasn't making it out of this alive.

Her body began to sweat and tremble from fever, aware of the sickness long before it registered to her mind. Dichotomies of emotion and feeling rolled over her in insane waves: fear and fury, love and terror, agony and ecstasy, pulsating in sync with her heart. The temperature in the room dropped far below any fit standard for human habitation, frost creeping over the walls. Steam rose from Bethany's sweating skin even as webs of ice glittered along her eyelashes.

It was, after all, very cold in the Ninth Circle.

Her eyes rolled into her skull, nails clawing futilely at the tabletop. "Oh, oh Beleth," she said lasciviously, then convulsed with laughter. "My whole life you've been preparing for this?"

Her eyes refocused, gaze locked on Beleth, on the man sacrificing her to summon a being others would have extinguished entire species to escape. If he could read it, all he would find in Bethany's expression was the pure animal terror that no conscious thought could inspire, only the implacable biological certainty of doom. It was sheer disbelief that compelled her to speak as she felt the changes begin.

"You want to use me to call this abomination? You're inviting it here? You want it to be free?"

~ mind & nature ~


Keith Richards was not well.

In the bathroom mirror a very tired man stared back at him, pupils severely dilated, flesh clammy to the touch. Adderall, cocaine, dexedrine, he had been abusing anything to stay awake. He wasn't sure how long he had gone without closing his eyes and hoped he would never need to shut them again, cherished their current wide openness, savored every single photon of light across every degree of their holy arc through the world to focus upon his retina and sear sweet reality into his brain, so he need not see the images his mind would rather conjure.

To fight the impulse to blink he focused on every object within his field of vision, even himself, as remote and distant from who he had been before as the farthest forgotten star in the night sky. Keith did this because he did not want, ever again, to see the darkness of his own mind reflected back at him. He recalled essential facts about his life as if the light of their memory held that darkness back.

His name was Keith Richards. He was born in a suburb of DC to a loving family. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be a newsman because he liked being in front of cameras and he liked being the first in the room to know what was going on. At university he had fallen in love but it hadn't worked out. There was a man at work who now had his job named Jerry, and Keith hated him.

In the corner of his eye he could see a holoprojection of the newsfeed he doomscrolled every night while the real world slept in blissful ignorance, distinguished Jerry's painfully fake expression of grief as the background ballooned into a still image of Charon Station1 pulled from before the disaster. Keith remembered the field of misshapen space rubble that remained. His body remembered every ear-shattering impact, the cartoon sucking noise of vacuum draining atmosphere from a room, bodies popping like seeds into the void. His mind remembered... did not want to remember... He shuddered.

No. He couldn't sleep. When Keith Richards dreamed, he was not himself.

He stumbled out of the bathroom into the rest of the deplorably filthy apartment, everything covered in a grimy veneer, the air stagnant like a tomb unopened for long moldering centuries. Dirty clothes and trash littered the floor, half-eaten food, pills scattered across the carpet, needles loaded with research stimulants, headsets with unused pay-per-view virtual reality video games and extreme pornography. Anything to dull the senses, to lure him away from the thought that repeated itself one thousandfold:

WHAT DO YOU SEE

Anything to stay awake, anything to stay himself for a little while longer.



Bethany's hands, spiderwebbed in varicose veins, lifted her own sack and poured its grisly contents onto the table: the fresh corpse of a tiny woodland mammal native to Hesperides IV. It was endangered unto near extinction, favorite among occultists for its mythological symbolism and tiny bones, excellent for divination.

Like a child throwing a tantrum with inexplicable vigor, her hands balled themselves uncompelled into fists and began to pummel the table over and over again, pulverizing her offering until it congealed into a red, wet smear that she spread over the table in jerking movements. Bethany's fingers skittered helplessly through the gore, her own eyes wide as her hands worked unbidden to assemble the viscera and tiny shards of bone into a coherent image of increasingly impossible resolution, details and unreal colors surfacing out of the blood and slime that could not, must not exist.

They looked upon a dreamy sylvan woodland alight with music and birdsong, forest creatures at play in their garden of delight, oblivious to the eyes that intruded upon their paradise. Sitting among the branches in the gently swaying canopy of a colossal tree, smelling deeply the perfume of its alien flowers, a princely fae returned their gaze with eyes the color of ice. Its beauty was divine, a perfect mirror of desire for any who beheld it.

It laughed, but the sound did not emerge from the portal but rather through Bethany's mouth, though her eyes never strayed from Beleth's own unblinking stare, reflecting how utterly aware she remained, and then abruptly her presence was snuffed like a candle in a hurricane as the great whirlwind of that ancient and eldritch soul swept hers away.

~ the body without organs ~


When it was broken at a crossroads not only in space but time, the other warring angels scattered Narcissus' flesh across the cosmos.2

For every million of these slivers extinguished by any of the myriad forms of violence in the multiverse, a single cell took hold, delivering the first complex biomolecules to the primitive atmosphere of a young planet; guiding the first symbiosis between microorganisms to produce multicellular life; duplicating a gene and leading a given species to dominate a highly inflexible niche in their ecosystem; introducing a mutation to confer sterility upon an advanced civilization religiously prohibited from modifying its own genome, and in another bestowing a panacea to treat all maladies.

On what amounted to a negligible fraction of a fraction of all worlds, but scattered throughout creation, the seeds were sown and bound by threads woven in dimensions invisible to matter, and they did not forget that they were once whole. Like neurons synapsing across impossible distances, single nodes in a network of indescribable complexity, they remained slivers of a hunger granted godhood, a being so hated that to be thoroughly destroyed only a third had been trapped in the darkest pits of Hell.

Its Mind absent the soul was shorn from inner experience, from self-consciousness, the Subject inverted into the Object, perpetually interrogating each mind it touched with its question, unable to witness itself. Her Body absent an animating force was blasted into its constituent molecules and scattered to the very limits of entropy. His Soul languished in the Ninth Circle, freezing wasteland of betrayers, in a cold that crystallized thought itself in ice.

Three deaths they should have died, but still the thing called Narcissus conspired to convert, consume, control, to reshape everything in pursuit of the Absolute, and so on each world touched by her divine flesh, the same story would play out, though it would be different every time.

Its end was a known conclusion reached along an unknown vector, predestined but not predetermined, and despite innumerable3,4 failures, there need only be one success.

~ soul 3 ~


Though it came from behind her demented smile, not one in the gleeful litany of voices belonged to Bethany Laveaux.

"It's been some time since I've enjoyed a view of the world from so small a perspective!"

The villa warmed from the glacial cold of Hell to an unpleasant warmth, air thickening as if by the breath of many creatures.

In the dreamlike otherworld, the fairytale prince bowed courteously. Blood trickled from the corner of one of Bethany's eyes and her mouth seemed unable to form words properly, drool pooling in her lower lip, but many other mouths had begun to sculpt themselves from her flesh. Great patches of mold flourished in the humidity, carpeting the floor and walls, disintegrating baroque curtains and bedsheets. The room pulsed in rhythm with Bethany's heart, and on each beat apparitions of the fae's glacial eyes peered at them from the walls, blinking in chorus.

"A fascinating geas," the entity possessing Bethany said in its many voices. Her expression was absurdly joyous, gaze never shifting from the eyes of her former lover, as if they were doors through which she might drag out his soul to join hers in oblivion.

"Into this small urn I could but scarcely fit the shadow of my shadow, yet I admire your artistry."

The ritual conditions were sublime; nearly a century of preparation had not gone wasted. The astrological configuration of the constellations at the time of Bethany's birth were meticulously calculated, and on this evening a number of celestial bodies orbiting Hesperides IV found themselves in syzygy. It was a powerful spell that held the Angel of Hunger's soul pinned to reality, and even had it wished harm upon its savior, it would require a great effort to follow that impulse. For the time being.

"Soon the vessel that was prepared shall present itself and our congress shall begin in earnest, but I would not squander the seconds in silence." Bethany's entire body was convulsing now, her eyes rolling back into their sockets, every hair standing on edge, her skin shriveling despite anti-senescence treatments that kept her looking forty years younger. She was suffering from multiple organ failure, her brain liquefying in the cauldron of her skull.

For an instant, her heart stopped, and the glamor was broken.

The beautiful forest was swept into the brazier of Hell and its teeming fields of torment, their view inverted so that the infernal plains were projected onto the walls around Bethany, and the wall of her villa teeming with Narcissus' questing eyes became the vision on the table between her and Beleth. Souls, an infinity of them, plundered and unraveled by demons sucking their anguish like grease from the bone, a madness of most heinous and complete violation. In the freezing depths there remained a face that was unearthly beautiful, even contorted in supreme suffering, reaching out towards them like rising smoke, drawing ever closer to the surface...

"Have you found yourself?" it asked in a silken and oceanic voice. "Everyone who looks finds themselves, if they have dared any kind of greatness. And you have, so tell me."

The being that wore Bethany's skin sat like a king addressed on its throne, so that all who petition it must fathom Hell and the truth of their punishment. Drool hung from her chin, reflecting a past state of the infernal horror around them on a molten thread. Her heart started, and again they were in the lounge of her villa on Hesperides IV, amid heavenly light and cherubic laughter.

"Why have you called me from so far away?"



The Sanya slum in Tokyo was a good place for a man to lose himself, but not a good place to seek peace and quiet. As Keith stepped into crisp fresh air of the balcony to smoke, he was instantly struck by the feeling of something amiss. He could hear the countryside shrieking of the cicadas instead of the usual noisy traffic a few streets away.

Distantly, a part of himself he did not recognize perceived that five new pinpricks of light burned in low orbit overhead. They seemed to be the source of a droning hiss in the back of his mind, though Keith's neighbors appeared unaware of these disturbances. He could hear jazz float out of the warmly lit house next door and the boisterous laughter of drunken Japanese voices from an apartment building halfway down the street.

He also heard the whistle of a knife cutting through air and pivoted to catch the arm of a person trying to kill him, its glass edge hovering a hairsbreadth from his neck. How did I do that he and the assassin must have thought simultaneously, though he could not see their face behind a tightly-fitting Mobius Corps tactical mask.

"The fuck--" The woman easily ripped her arm from Keith's grasp, falling into a fighting stance, knife held in a forward grip.



"Holy shit. Get Hesse out here. He's fucking bleeding all over the place."

A new voice -- Fatima Bashir's voice, their spotter, fixing another rifle on him from beside the coilgun and its wielder while another man wearing shades calmly stepped out of their van. Distantly he wondered what he was hearing, the agents' radio frequency? Their thoughts? Which eyes were seeing that scene?

The world around him was changing, Keith realized.

It had begun to flower with new meaning. Patterns sprang to life where there had been none, living geometry filling spaces thought dead, inert. Webs of relations spun infinitely deep, connecting all things. Between the bullets and the singing cicadas, the settling dust of the apartment behind him and the whirring microcircuitry of the Mobius agents' neural implants, between the paramecia in the falling rain and whatever life was stirring inside of Keith Richards, born in a suburb of DC, always loved being in front of the cameras...

"What do you mean he's bleeding?" someone else was asking, much farther away. Their handler, a Colonel Gideon Nguyen.

"Navarro, Nakamura, get the fuck away from that thing," the man holding the coilgun was saying at the same time.

"I mean Geronimo is bleeding out of his fucking eyes," their scout continued. "The psi-emitters--"

For an instant, Keith imagined a change in the topology of the space separating them, as if he could take a step,

"--they're working."

WHERE AM I

and stand beside them.

~ body 2 ~


So it was that long ago a technologically sophisticated species retrieved such a sample of the Angel of Hunger, consecrating it among their sacred mysteries, wresting many secrets from it for their scientific advancement. In the subtle ways of the flesh-that-was their desires became incrementally unfettered, until nothing was forbidden and they worshiped a significance they believed their own measure but which was nothing more than a shadow of their gluttony and lust, and reflecting upon themselves eventually they intuited something of the origin and significance of their discovery.

With their own methods they too reached into Hell to commune with the dead god, and in doing so witnessed the inevitable punishment that awaited them for the transgressions that had become their holy scripture, and Narcissus taught them the one certain path to freedom and to the Absolute: it must become them and they it, and in freeing one from their fate so too would the shackles of the other be broken.

His most devout fraction, as a people they devoted themselves single-mindedly to their mission, breaking their world to refashion it into a holy ark, plumbing with depraved obsession the secrets of sorcery and technology to devise the Apparatus, the heretical artifact that is a sarcophagus and a womb and a carapace for a god's body. In pursuit of the shape of their perfect vessel, the tombs of the Sacrificed People became choked with the aborted, until at last they achieved a form sufficiently divine.

As a species, they threw themselves into the ark's bioreactors in the final forging of the Apparatus and were compacted into a sufficient volume to be themselves enshrined in its center, where they might undergo their gestation into whatever was to come. In an age long forgotten, the Apparatus was buried deep within the earth of the world selected for the resurrection, then nameless but which would come to be called Hesperides, fourth from its star.

~ mind 3 ~




There was a terrible, invisible screech as a once human mind opened like a chrysalis, a tredecillion origami songbirds folded unto singularity crying out and spreading their wings all together to take flight. Only a shadow was cast in the physical world, but that shadow bleached it of color. The camera feeds of Mobius Corps drones were zoomed in on Keith's face as he stood up in the small crater formed under the weight of Fatima's psi-force. His remaining eye gently shut, teeth visible through a bloody furrow one of the bullets dug through his cheek, his expression peaceful, meditative, his the beatific sleep of a child.

WHAT DO YOU SEE?

A nine frame visual effect was the only augur before the Mobius video feed flickered, then Keith's eye opened to show a furnace of light peering directly into each camera lens, no matter the perspective from which they viewed the scene, and at 23:17:31 every single drone simultaneously had its connection fully severed.

The rest of what occurred has been extrapolated via confiscated footage, the testimony of Daikichi Nakamura, and Mobius Corps proprietary surveillance technology and later forensics.

Experts pored over those nine frames and their low res conclusions revealed something horrible captured ever so fleetingly by our technology, like a particle accelerator from the perspective of a fly, something the human eye could not willfully interpret even as a ghostly digital effect. It induced terrible vertigo in the beholder, the impression of a thing at once impossibly near and impossibly far adrift from the shores of our comprehension.

The sum of human knowledge poked dimly at it, for its flesh we could only paint through confidence intervals and statistically significant correlations, its actions through orthogonal variables contorting themselves to the most terrible correspondence of cause but if you saw it, you knew, science be damned.

Somehow, somewhere on some godforsaken hell-fucked planet in the multiverse, there existed an ecology so brutal that its evolution pruned a hundred thousand million phylogenetic trees to find whatever sick combination of nucleotides could produce a predator that made meat of minds and laid its eggs in the carrion left behind.

~ * ~


i am being keith richards while he is dreaming

i am dreaming i am the most beautiful butterfly, and that all who see my wings become me, and i am the web that they are caught in, and i am the spider and i am the enzyme in its venom and the proteins of the web and i am the bonds that tie molecules together and i am a vast and starving serpent coiled around this world and a thousand others in search of the treasure that will complete me and i am learning and in my dream i begin to wonder

who am i when i am not keith richards i am wondering and so i am being everyone

i am being analía navarro and i am being fatima bashir and i am being jonas hesse and i am being theo spyredes ...

... being kurihara sachiko and i am being yamagata akira and ...

... me ... you ...

WHAT
DO
YOU
SEE?

like flowers turning their petals towards the sun i am being my entire holy choir of angels as we raise our faces to heaven and together shriek a prayer to bless our transmigration, and i stop being them, and i stop being keith richards

i stop dreaming

my perspective of the ever-expanding fractal of fate is inverted and i see that rather than expand forever outward, its infinite lines are collapsing inward into singularity, the moment destined to be: into the Absolute

~ body 3 ~


Far beyond the wharf where Bethany Laveaux met Beleth on that fateful evening nearly a century ago, a great force shook the foundation of the planet itself, puncturing a tectonic plate along a fault line as it rose with unfathomable urgency after eons of sleep. The Apparatus trailed seafloor sediment and saltwater as it resurfaced after the long geological ages, hovering perfectly still over the ocean, its metal surface alive like obsidian liquid covered in reliefs and hieroglyphs relating the mythologies of the Sacrificed People.

Far beyond the outermost edge of the Hesperides system, still multiple parsecs away but exiting hyperspace to avoid an inadvertent extinction event, cosmologists noted the fluctuations of a very short gamma-ray burst. They possessed no instrument that could clearly detect the eldritch abomination that stole into their nest, but the Apparatus, the Holy Heptadecagon, had been created exactly for that purpose.

Nearly spherical, a circumradius of eleven cubits separating the center from the vertices of two different triangles such that six orbs sealed the device along its ensorcelled seams. They opened as the arrival of the Mind was detected by unfathomable technology. A seventh was affixed upon its face, for the Apparatus respected the divine law of prime numbers.

They were the nails pinning the Angel of Hunger to reality, orbs opening to reveal crystal latticework engineered towards psionic amplification. Their structure ultimately dated back to the early days of Narcissus' existence and to an entity that had once opposed its will before being subsumed6. This was the beginning of the moment destined to be: part of the Apparatus' design was to be a perfect goad for the Mind, mimicking a parasitic wasp's favored beetle, the lock-and-key model of an enzyme with its substrate, of sperm and ovum...

A moment passed -

I SEE MY SELF: the Mind resumed, given a body and eyes to see

- the orbs snapped shut and retracted into the carapace, sealing it once again. For a heavy second it lingered, then the Apparatus stirred, and vanished.

Hundreds of kilometers away, at Bethany's villa outside a small city, a few moments had passed after Narcissus' last question. Electricity convulsed her body as the Apparatus materialized over the horizon. Its accompanying shockwave shattered the windows of most businesses in the nearby town, though the villa of Bethany Laveaux was conspicuously spared. The children of Hesperides IV spilled onto the streets around the impossible monolith in the sky above them, and began to act strangely.



"Beleth!" Narcissus beamed through Bethany's deteriorating face at its summoner. "Incredibly compassionate of you to summon me like this, and even with a cramped little human mind that you've made so cozy for me. How can I ever show my gratitude?" Her body shook, losing hair, skin blistering as after intense radiation. Shrill laughter rendered like wind through a reed turned into a choking sob.

"I don't think poor Beth can take much more," they said with immeasurable sadness, degenerate smile relenting into a more desolate expression. Bethany hooked a trembling thumb over her shoulder in the direction of where the Mind and Body awaited the completion of their trinity.

"Why don't we reconvene and you can demand a boon or bind me to your quest?" Bethany's eyes looked so large in her wasting face, but they were hers again, beseeching Beleth, pleading with him. Overtaken by incongruent happiness her body said, "Grooming this poor girl from birth to be a droplet of my favorite nectar, raising me from the pit, all for a favor? You cheeky little fucker! Let's talk, but I believe my resurrection first demands a certain exaltation! Now, I'm on my way out and we think Beth might have something to say, so we'll leave the lights on."

The ancient woman gave a heaving death rattle and abruptly they sat once more in the sumptuous living room of her villa, alone, the insanity receding like a fever dream.

"Bel-" She was cut short as the massive exodus of energy registered in her broken body, eyes finding his as the light left them, fungal mold reaching up to gently embrace her as she crumbled like shattered marble, mycelia already growing through her pieces, incorporating her into the rhizome.

It was very quiet.

The crowds surrounding the Apparatus devolved into wanton heresy, here a savage orgy and there great throngs murdering each other for sport, but at the center the true worshipers gathered, forming ranks, awaiting the moment in which the stalled completion of the Absolute would truly resume, and that moment arrived. It would take time to gestate the vessel and for the Apparatus to fully interface with the Mind, but meanwhile, any proxy sufficed. The seventh Nail on the face of the Apparatus blinked.

A believer stumbled forward and fell choking to the earth, metamorphosing into a patch of wildflowers, and from them grew a great stalk bearing a passionflower, opening to reveal Bethany Laveaux in the height of her youth, perfectly unmodified from her human self save the addition of beautiful butterfly wings that hid complex fractal patterns which compelled the eye for their beauty.

Her followers took up the great song as their idol began dancing a minuet to their voices,

OOH EEH OOH AH AAH

As Bethany Laveaux danced she gestured to one side and swathes of her adoring new congregation continued their raucous prayer even while the clay of their flesh molded itself into new and startlingly different shapes beneath the screen of her glimmering wings, a Cambrian explosion of divine whim, and as the people of Hesperides IV saw her rise into the sky, they too cried out in worship of the only true principle by which to pursue the Absolute, to become indivisible, all-encompassing, to slake the inner hunger.

TING TANG WALLA-WALLA BING BANG!

To become Narcissus.

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"And in the evening the outlook is cloudy with a chance of rapture.”


And thus after ninety years of ghosting her every invitation Beleth had a front-row seat to Beth’s very last show, playing for one night only: The Death and Rebirth of Bethany Lavaeux.

Bloody.

Heaving.

Violent.

As all births were want to be, with his third-eye Beleth saw the trillions of years behind preparing this ritual, stretching forward in time then twisting backwards until the heart of it beat like a drum beneath their very feet. He saw Narcissus scattered during his battle with the war maiden Christina. He saw Keith running for his life. He saw Mire, and Colossus, and Soran.

He saw the end of an era and the birth of a new one.

He didn’t bother to answer Bethany when she asked him about his motives, because it didn’t really matter, Beth as he knew it would be dead in a matter of moments and any answer he gave her would only raise more questions at this junction. There was no solace for her in death; she had committed too many sins to die quick. Her only peace of mind would come if she could accept that in dying she was to become part of a greater whole, and when she refused to accept that for an answer, she dumped a dead possum across his carefully arranged fortune table until his brow furrowed with frustration and his already bloodshot eyes bulged for a brief moment.

“Well now, there’s no need to be dramatic about it.”

Then she was gone, the thing that had been Beth stared at him with lust in its eyes, licking its hungry lips. Dangling one bony leg over the other like a pair of rusty hinges laid over each other and saying without speaking that it was curious beyond words about what a man who walked around in a three-piece suit and a giant stuffed teddy bear head might look like beneath the cover of night. Horrible was his answer; Skinless, raw, and red. Shared in the lidless blink of his bulging white eyes before Narcissus drew his next breath and became intoxicated with something else then something else again, swirling in half-remembered sensations until he was gone too, and Beleth realized with no small frustration that this was going to take a while…

***

Like most celebrities, there had been no shortage of rumors about Bethany’s involvement with the occult during her long and lurid career. Unlike most celebrities there was a somber air of truth about them. Where other A-listers flirted with the headlines amidst stories of cryptid sightings and new age sciences she dealt in human trafficking, mysterious disappearances, and in grand conspiracy. Beleth had not told her to do so. Rather, at some point she had deduced the true nature of her life’s great benefactor for herself and had made moves to follow in his footsteps, whether she believed this would someday wind up with her standing by his side like a lovestruck puppy or some instinctual part of her could feel the bars of her life’s cage closing in around her with every passing year was something even she did not know for certain.

All that could be said was that without ever having any children of her own the Leveaux Family was very large and the evil they had brought into this world was very real, they gathered now, standing on the beach praying in their robed whispers as the ocean heaved a great monolith out from the deep blue.

The non-believers, those who had gathered from the beach and the resort and its surrounding town, could not stand the sight of it and so began to devolve into the madness that had defined humanity’s time in this fragile cosmos up to this moment. But not the trueborn. As the sound of blood pleasure echoed through the air all around them the faithful remained penitent until finally their ascendant goddess was reborn in all of her glory, a coiled beehive of honey blonde hair atop her head, twirling with a song in her throat and her arms wide open. That one of their own had died to see her reborn did not register in the least. And as one they began to chant over the din of chaos, a loud penitent chorus that drowned out the chaos around them, that spoke to the very core of human nature and quelled the beastly instincts that had driven them into madness in the first place. And it went:

OOH EEH OOH AH AAH TING TANG WALLA-WALLA BING BANG!

Louder, and louder, and louder still until the walls of her chateau rattled. Until Beleth could feel it sinking its claws between the wrinkles of what remained of his gray matter, bulging at his temples and behind his eyes with every gross brainy throb until his fist slammed down on the table.

“Enough!”

The meat, bones, and viscera of some distant endangered island ancestor of the opossum shot from his table. Humans caught in its path collapsed in heaps riddled with a thousand small and not-so-small holes where the gore had passed through them. Any material that reached the dually named Apparatus struck with so much force that they quite literally atomized on contact, doing no damage to the casket or the body within, and that which missed splattered against the walls of her home. All at once the world seemed very much smaller now. Bethany was standing on a stage before Beleth, the mighty Apparatus beside her the size of an obedient dog, her family on their knees like many small children set to watch a play staring up with wide eyes and in a voice of forced calm he said two words: “Sit down.”

And, some distant part of Bethany that still lived on inside of Narcissus listened.

***

“If I had it my way, you would still be rotting in the deepest pit of hell, Theo. But it is not my choice. I am but the messenger for something greater than us both," Beleth went back to shuffling his deck. “You may have heard of him, or maybe not, my boss is Beramode Aurelius Pendragon—King of the Night, and he has heard of you. Before you ask, I don’t know why he’s interested in you. You don’t ask a man like Beramode things like why. You ask what you can do for him and what he will do for you in return, in this case, he went through all the trouble of bringing you back to life so he could send you on a journey…”

“And I am your guide.”

It was during this speech that Beleth laid down the first card, a smooth vantablack rectangle with round edges, with an abstract assortment of monochromatic color as if several cut-outs from the same sheet had been arranged to form an image. An image that seemed to move whenever the eye was not looking directly at it. Upon this first card there were white stars. Just a few of them sitting against a wide canvas of perfectly black space staring up at him like little eyes that winked closed when he wasn’t looking and added new ones when he was: The Night.

He placed that card closest to him.

“Here he is, waiting for you at the end of the road.”

He placed another card right beside that one. A lone gunman with his mouth covered by a bandana and the brim of his hat pulled low, standing idle before a kneeling man in a blindfold and flirting with the hammer of his gun every time Narcissus was not looking directly at him, his eyes could not be seen but the audience would know without knowing they were bloodshot: The Executioner.

Placed just beneath The Night, tucked up against its right-hand corner.

“This is me.”

And a third one, a jester with a wide r grin, jingle bells hanging from the ears of his hat and the tip of his shoes. He was pranced proudly as he approached the long winding trail ahead of him unaware of the mocking crowds beside him, unlike a normal jester, he wore an odd out of place blue suit. How appropriate for The Fool.

It slid into place right in front of Narcissus.

“Would you look at that, it’s you, your road is long and treacherous.”

The first card of the first layer was upside down, facing towards Beleth, a bold knight cut in sharp pinks with flowing hair. A woman with her sword drawn against the darkness. The Paladin was always ready to stand against evil, wherever it may manifest next, with bright beams of light radiating from her sword and nary a shade of black on the front of her card.

But not entirely missing either.

“Now that would be interesting, unfortunately, she’s busy as far as I can tell. Another time?”

The second card showed an oriental dragon with its long body twisting around a mountain’s peak. Thunderclouds were clutched beneath its claws and fire thundered out from the inside of its maw. The Dragon all but spoke for itself and even Beleth seemed to have pity in his voice before he said.

“I do not think you are ready for this one quite yet, let’s see what awaits you a step below.”

The second layer had three cards all facing Narcissus. The King haughty upon his throne. The Beast tromping down the street with pride in its eyes, unaware of the damage it caused. And The Quiet lake sitting there with nary a ripple as tiny flower petals surfed across the reflection of a wide blue moon.

“My oh my, they’re all so eager to meet you, I’m almost jealous. But they’ll have to wait.”

The first card was green, an old skull stuck in the muddy ground with worms crawling through it, the dying leaves stirring occasionally in an unseen wind when Narcissus blinked and an eerie silence carrying into the room around them on behalf of The Forest.

Even Beleth was at a loss for words.

“. . .”

The next two cards fell together, pink and gold, The Prince may have been young but his grandiose ambitions could be seen playing out in the long shadow he reflected upon the wall in front of him. Adventure, women, fortune. Beside and beneath him was The Liar, or maybe it ought to be liars, judging by the number of masks hanging on the wall. Each one wearing a different expression with a hesitant hand reaching out for them from below that retreated any time Narcissus looked at him.

“Isn’t that cute, they drew themselves together. I hate young love.

With a snort he wrenched them apart and hung them upside down.

“They’ll learn their lesson, but not from you, moving on.”

The Pariah crouched silver and cowardly in an alley while The Hound stalked down muddy streets. Each one cast their hateful gaze towards Narcissus, one born of fear and one born of rage, but were waved away with a gloved hand before he mused long and quiet. Looking first at the cards and then at his guest and then back again before he finally drew a line starting with The Forest up to The Beast and ending with an inevitable clash with The Dragon.

”For the crime of over consumption I sentence you to walk the path of Nature’s Wrath, Narcissus. Should you make it back in one piece then perhaps my master will be willing to tell you of his greater purpose, or maybe not, fail on your journey and hell will seem merciful compared to what I have in store for you.” Somewhere inside the hollow teddy bear helmet cracked lips audibly peeled away from moldy teeth as, for the first time in ninety years, Beleth smiled. “Are you ready for your journey, Theo? I will give you an hour to prepare but when the clock strikes midnight the stars will take you away whether you want to go or not. I do not think you the cowardly sort though. I think you very much want to go.”
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Our observation of the Great Migratory Fleet was our twenty-second encounter with an advanced alien civilization and composed of the fifth, sixth and seventh intelligent species documented by our xenobiologists. It was a strange and puzzling encounter to our people at the time. Centuries prior our astronomers detected the abrupt cessation of radio emissions from stars of a neighboring galaxy and our science vessels hastened to the nearest spiral arm of our own to establish an observation post, fearful for the implications of a power that could swallow the suns themselves...

At the farthest limit of detection, threading a path through the deepest night between galaxies, we saw them. An innumerably vast flotilla of vessels from worlds and species with totally isolated beginnings now bound together in the most forlorn exile. They fled along an incalculable trajectory through space, as far away from the darkening stars as fast as possible. After societal deliberation a decision was reached and cosmologists broadcast our question along every conceivable vector of communication:

FROM WHAT DO YOU FLEE?

And like shadows upon the sea submerging out of sight and beyond knowing, their answer reached us: THE INVERSE HUNGER. The event occasioned much unrest throughout civilization, but over five hundred cycles have passed, and xenologists still debate the message's true meaning.
'Chronological Treatise on Imperial Xenosemiotics and Calendrical Divination', Iccarm LXXI


Imagine a bacterial world, the multiverse interpreted through the sensory systems of the first prokaryote, vastly more ancient than the simplest animal, the first insane rumor of biology and its futile evolutive defiance of the impulse driving all matter towards death at thermodynamic equilibrium. Scarcely the crosstalk of a few gossiping molecules enclosing a rogue handful of nucleic acids in a sac on the sun-warmed surface of the primal sea, infinitely less than a neuron, thousands of millions of years too early to conspire towards anything approaching awareness. Truly the lowest of all things that could be charitably called an ancestor of life, the ur-being, lovely in the way the first childish brushstroke of a master artist heralds the coming of great beauty in their future creation.

Thus was Narcissus seen through the lens of a soul so small as Bethany Laveaux, or even Theo Spyredes. Butterfly nets fishing for dragons.

The being Beleth spoke to in the actress' sumptuous mansion could barely be compared to what awaited him along the boardwalk of the resort town, itself less than a shadow of what awaited the multiverse, given time for its hands to find themselves, for many tributaries to converge into one almighty river. What Beleth heard was a faint echo, the most distant reflection in a nest of mirrors a thousand deep, background radiation from the cosmos whispering through a radio Beleth had carefully, over the course of an entire human lifetime, tuned to those magic words.

Ooh eeh ooh ah aah ting tang walla-walla bing bang...

That Beleth -- or his master -- called it Theo showed how gravely they misunderstood the scope of what they had just brought back, what they naively thought under their control, yoked by their spell, sealed under geas. Perhaps they had reason to feel secure for now, but Bethany Laveaux was nothing but a spark, the breath on an ember that lit a forest during a long drought, an entire multiverse more than ready to burn, desperate for it. So full of want and desire and dreams, teeming with potential, perfect kindling for the perfect flame. Hesperides IV was a Class-7 world of the inner rim, ripe with life. A canvas.

If Beleth's eyes wandered through the town itself on his quick trip to the shadow of the Apparatus he would find many strange things there. People fucking and killing one another like their lives meant nothing, because they didn't, their bones and flesh contorting impossibly in the aftermath of obscene baccanalia, here consuming buildings in great mats of fleshy mold and there devising an ossuary from bones self-arrayed in a profane collagen tower. A score or more worshipers maimed by the animal remains from Beleth's ritual writhed on the ground, smiling and crawling towards the reborn god before them, a god that without their knowing claimed their lives, their entire world as nothing but a prayer for its baptism.

No more than one could beg the sun for mercy, it could not help that its holiness burned.

All across Hesperides IV the biosphere reeled and screamed and began to change. Soon it would burn like a funeral pyre, and the flame would be a beacon. Many existed out there who had been touched by Narcissus' influence, and who watched the stars for the prophetic signs of her return -- worlds that fled at the sight of him and others which flocked to its worship, and even a few temerarious cultures that would harken to wage war and destroy him. Narcissus called out his return to anyone that cared to see.

The body that had once been Bethany Laveaux sat at Beleth's command according to some atavistic circuit carved into her cerebellum by sheer adoration, a path worn by a cherished thought. Beleth was subject of an obsessive and lifelong love for her. For this reason alone she mustered an inhuman will, harnessing something of the profoundly inhuman power that possessed her to offer Beleth one last act of extreme and deranged devotion before the show began, as perhaps in the act of his command their minds may have brushed: getoutgetoutgoawaycantbeherelovegoawaypleasegetoutoutout.

If the man in the bear suit reached out again to bless Bethany with the kiss of his command, he would find a very different person waiting for him. Someone horrifically jealous for his attention, with whom any contact at all promised dire peril.

Narcissus then did something uncharacteristic. He sat almost close enough to reach out and touch his summoner, listening amicably to his monologue, glacial eyes unblinking. The distorted Apparatus receded far away into the horizon, as if Bethany were its projection from a point at infinite distance. Beleth cycled through the cards of his prophecy, prattling on about creatures that existed at a scale Narcissus looked upon through a microscope. Hounds and beasts and dragons in the forest, princes and liars and pariahs, quiet paladins and executed kings of the night. He heard the tarot reading, but a remote sliver of his mind fixated on a single thought.

What king calls upon another through their court jester?

Such provocation by Beramode Aurelius Pendragon would not go unanswered, but first. For the crime of over consumption I sentence you...

Even as Beleth continued speaking and Narcissus quietly watched him, the executioner's audience descended into unsightly chaos. Coordinating among themselves as if driven by divine compulsion, the citizens of the resort town held each others hands and began to pile themselves on top of one another, forming a great mountain of wriggling bodies behind glittering fairy wings. Their flesh began to unsheathe from bones that snapped together into new articulations, rising into the stalk of a mighty tree behind the gently reposed expression of Bethany Laveaux. Their arms locked together, fingers interlaced into a great halo, a circular window with a view onto the surface of the moonlit sea.

Are you ready for your journey, Theo? I will give you an hour... A curtain of flesh rolled down over the empty space, a membrane over a drum, and in the skin shapes stirred.

"It's been so long since anyone's wanted to spend quality time with me, Beleth. We've been very lonely," Narcissus said softly. "I'm starting to feel more like myself again now that I've had a chance to spread my wings, and when we look at you we can't help but see so much pain..."

Images of horror resolved on the skin of great flesh-mirror that Narcissus fashioned for Beleth, brutal scenes of sin and debauchery, every permutation of violence enacted upon victims beyond number. Men, women, animals, ecosystems and planets, children and every form of innocence imaginable. Vistas from Hell but also torments more subtle, and Narcissus laughed like the shrill song of birds and flutes shrieking through Bethany and through a hundred other mouths, entire body shaking, a rain of thick spittle falling towards Beleth and the stage and his tarot deck.

Then he stopped, eyes as unblinkingly locked on Beleth as they had been since the man in the bear suit began speaking a few minutes earlier. Narcissus reached out with Bethany's delicate hand, in case Beleth might want to take it, to accept their embrace. To become a part of him.

"And you're right, I very much want to go, but if we're going to spend some time together, I want to know all about you. Who you are, what you want. What you did. What you see."


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