The sleeping man’s apartment came equipped with a fire escape. After squeezing myself carefully through a large window, I paused to survey the night air and the dank alley below. I pondered my chances of getting out of the city alive—or more accurately, awake. My eyelids had already gathered more weight than was normal, and sleep seemed more and more like the only solution to my diminishing endurance. Yet sleep was the very den of monsters that had stolen New Victoria from the waking world in the first place, and I was certain such creatures would make for poor hosts should I decide to pay them a visit.
A twin fire escape clung to the building across the alley. The distance was outside my comfort zone but not my ability. A mighty leap saw me to the other side, my silence embracing the impact and keeping my presence from the city’s many predators. I climbed the fire escape to the roof, ever aware of the things that might be looking down at me from the black gulfs of carrion sky, eager to catch me off my guard. Yet I also felt my family’s vigilance surrounding me like smoke—they were just as eager to catch whatever thing might mistake me for prey and render it subject to their gleaming smiles and thunderous laughter. When I arrived at the top of the building, I caught sight of a glassed-in penthouse replete with a spacious veranda. Interestingly, a large telescope sat affixed to the outermost rim of the balcony.
The worlds that wheeled overhead were pale alternatives to the sights I hoped to glimpse by pointing the wonderful device downward, so I aimed my magnified gaze at the concrete forest around me. With any luck, lit windows might grant me further insight into the delightful nightmares that pretended to be an abandoned city. A lingering curiosity concerning the strange quartet of women caused me to turn the glass toward the east end of the town, the direction from which they had most likely come. Their original number had dwindled, my father having seen personally to the subtraction, but I was curious to know the fate of the remaining three.
After some effort, and as if responding to my unspoken wish, I caught sight of something moving through the hallways of the hospital I had previously visited. It was one of the women. She was strapped to a hospital gurney that was being conducted down a poorly lit corridor. The gurney was propelled by a power largely imperceptible, as I could only discern some kind of presence by the effects it exercised upon the shadows it touched. The darkness of the hallway seemed to adhere to the invisible thing, clinging to it like tar and supplying it with only a minimal suggestion of shape and size. The outlining shadows described a thing of nonsensical construction—an organism that begrudged nothing to the traditional symmetries of earthen biology, and partook its shape solely from the unprincipled reasoning of chaos. The unorthodox creature continued to push the gurney down the hallway, occasionally wiping the dripping shadows from the amorphous swelling that rose high and hideous from her abdomen. From behind her stretched flesh the dim outline of the germinating nightmare was scarcely visible as a mass of shifting darkness, twisting and flipping as if were trying to put itself together one inhuman limb at a time. Suddenly the head of the thing obtained a terrible definition as it pressed hard against its cage of flesh. It seemed to turn its attention toward the captured woman, leering into her panicked face. The unborn creature projected its hungry glare beyond its gilding of human skin, laying a cold glow across the dull and sightless eyes of its mother, eyes that had long since lost their connection to the world beyond and behind them.
The woman was finally delivered into a large room lit only by a small collection of thin candles. After placing the woman in the middle of the room, her monstrously pregnant guide waddled back down the hallway by which it came, leaving wet shadows in its tracks. The woman struggled against the bonds that secured her head, arms and feet to the gurney. However, after careful observation I realized the movements were not her own, but rather the actions of the thing within her. Her body—nothing more than a massive gestational sack—began to rapidly swell beyond the scope of the gurney, her bulging folds of expanding flesh spilling to the floor and rolling across the dirty tile like tides of thick mud. All the while the woman’s facial expression never changed—her mind and body had become nothing but the debris of madness, just a broken doll splayed out in the aftermath of a tornado.
The thing that had once been a woman began to burst apart from the inside, releasing a septic spray of inhuman fluids that drowned all the candles in the room save one. By the glow of that lone candle, the infant nightmare stripped off its mother like wet clothing, dropping what was left of her in a steaming heap of molten flesh. The creature waved its dainty inhuman hand before its eyes, inspecting the solidity of its new world, perhaps wondering if its hand might turn to smoke, or if the air would transmute suddenly into a cold sound that only the dead could hear. Evidently quite satisfied with its new accommodations, it smiled with a thousand tiny teeth and walked off into the darkness of the outer hallway, disappearing like a secret floating into silence.
“They’re our brides, breeders of foulest nightmare, those women. Men like you—why, you’re our beasts of burden, naturally.” The voice came from behind me. I whipped around to find a man floating above the floor, a ridiculous stovepipe hat on his head, his eyes the strangest I’d ever seen. Where conventional eyes should have been there was only a thin covering of flesh. Yet it was behind that seal of skin where glowed a bright set of alien-blue eyes, bright enough to backlight the tiny network of veins and other nuances of intervening tissue. The radiant blue of his eyes-behind-flesh was the color of sleep, and it washed over me like gentle water, sweeping me out to strange seas. I knew I had to escape the glow of the creature’s billowing eyes. They possessed a depth far deeper and more dangerous than the distance from the balcony to the ground—so I jumped from the building.
I tumbled far longer than necessary to complete my descent, and the further I plummeted the lighter my body felt. By the time I reached the streets below, I was nearly weightless. When my feet finally touched the ground, I looked up at the city—it had changed considerably. It was the dread face of the New Victoria I had witnessed only once before. I suddenly realized my mistake. I hadn’t actually fallen from the building, but had suffered a far worse fate—I had fallen asleep.
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