As Wesley traversed the less smoggy lanes of the forest’s innards, he could feel the voices rumbling again, eager to sound their discontent.
“You think this little traipse through the woods will impress anyone? Huh? No one fucking cares, Wesley, least of all the things out here—to them, you’re just another thing to shit out after they’ve gnawed on you awhile. So your pathetic little show of courage is wasted—just like the corpses of those two little bitches you constantly pine for. They’re emptied-out dolls for some Mr. Dress-up in the earth now. Get over it. Turn around and maybe, just maybe, you’ll get a chance to go back to that hole you crawled out of—get yourself hollowed out like the rest of the smiling idiots down there.”
Wesley gritted his teeth, and his fist became a white-knuckled rock. He quickened his pace through the woods, eventually wandering off the clearer paths and into a mystery of heavy fog. He wasn’t sure whether he’d accidentally lost the trail, or if he had done it to spite the voices.
The voice sneered, “You fucking idiot! ‘Oh, you’re so brave, Wes!’ is just gushing out of those two cunts’ mouths, along with all the fucking maggots and flies! Now turn the fuck around before you get us killed!”
The voice was joined by one, then two, then five or six more voices, all screaming for Wesley to turn around. The clamor of vulgarity and angry pleas were so loud they began to blur his vision, which was already at the mercy of the ever-thickening mist. In moments like this, he wanted to split apart his own skull, dig out the lunatics squatting inside, and succumb to a silent oblivion. There would be remnants of his previous guests, of course—no emptied sanitarium is without its echoes—but at least he’d have something resembling quiet. Regrettably, insanity wasn’t something he could just scrape away.
After trekking through a maze of fog-eaten woods and enduring the constant ruckus of an un-exorcisable crowd of the mad, Wesley eventually arrived at a clearing. It was only when the mists started to clear and he was afforded a better view of the opening that the voices suddenly stopped. He began to rethink his hasty decision to enter the forest.
While the glade Wesley found was certainly host to various forms of strangeness—alien-looking mushrooms, wilting flora, suspiciously shaped rocks—nothing compared to the massive structure rising from its center. The roots from surrounding trees had somehow come together and, for reasons unknown to him, jutted upwards to form a winding meshwork of tubers, branches, and sinewy vines. The towering thing was tightly entangled, and where there were openings, families of bizarre saprophytes worked to fill them. Aside from its bizarre construction was the sheer size of the thing, appearing several times wider and just as tall as the trees whose roots contributed to it. Additionally, there was certainly a diablerie essence about it, a devilish effulgence that seeped from its twisted limbs as surely as the mists poured through the forest. Wesley couldn’t help but think of a gigantic minaret of embattled vipers—thousands of tightly interwoven serpents frozen in the violence of civil war.
Wesley was frightened to go forward, but eventually mustered the resolve to move. Putting one foot in front of the other, he started across the glen, stepping over exotic, never-before-seen species of flora that any scientist in the world would kill to examine. But Wesley was more concerned with apocalypses than accolades. His previous passions were dead, fruiting in the corpse of his old self somewhere at the bottom of the world. Sometimes, on good days, he believed he’d find them again, dig them up like old fossils and set them in a nice glass case to look at over a finger of Scotch, reminiscing. That was only on good days, though.
As Wesley drew closer to the forest monolith, he felt a subtle change—a tiny, almost unnoticeable rivulet of air coursing by him. He probably wouldn’t have felt it if he weren’t so on edge. The hairs on the back of his neck had become rigor antennae, shearing at the slightest hint of movement. Luckily, the airy disruption was constant, and he was able to trace it somewhere further around the twisted growth’s trunk. Slinking along the sides of the thing, he felt about its surface, searching for tactile hints of the strange draft’s origin. But he could only feel the ossified skin of a dead forest—the pallid flesh of creepers, twigs, and vines twisting up and into each other, stabbing the sky above.
Wesley continued to slide his hands across the thing’s rustic contours, meticulously reading its surface as if it were braille. As he walked further around, he realized his fastidious nature was being wasted, as the small breeze’s origin became quite obvious.
A colossal hollow stood in the middle of the strange woodland mass. It lacked the hallmarks of human intervention, but it didn’t seem to have occurred naturally, either. It was more like a hole had been punched through the world—an emptiness God forgot to fill in. As such, tongues of vine and other creeping vegetation grew around it, avoiding it. It reminded Wesley of watching a stream clash against a fang of stone—the current temporarily splits, unable to move its rocky adversary, and reunites with its aqueous twin on the other side. He wondered if the two things were even of the same universe, or if the hole was an unwelcome guest, forcing the world and the wooden aberrations neighboring it to move around it. Or perhaps even worse, they were of the same reality, a betrothal of cosmic and sylvan horror converging to bore a single, maligned weapon against a world that would see them relegated to the realms of madness and nightmare. Either way, its presence frightened him, and for a moment he again thought of running back to camp. However, that thought soon lost its legs, so to speak, when walls of mist began to converge around him. He wondered if it was a challenge. Grimland was a child of the Great Darkness, so it made sense, at least to him, that it might test him—to see if his actions could match his conviction, or if they were simply the barking of a dog with no teeth.
Wesley moved forward, fangs bared and ready to bite.
Inching closer, the hole seemed less like a tree hollow and more like an aperture into nothingness. The faint breeze he experienced before now felt like the drawing of breath, as if somewhere deep inside the umbral thing heaved a pair of lungs. Peering inside, the silence had teeth as well, and the darkness it dwelt in possessed an ancient kind of patience, the kind that waits out stars and eats the bright aura of their final death throes. Perhaps most suspiciously, it lacked the conventions of any physical abscess he’d ever seen—there was no physical end to its emptiness, only a void that looked as if it had been plucked from the starless deserts of outer space. He wanted to stick his hand inside, test the abyss, but he was afraid it might pop out into some other universe, one carnivorous and hungry, that preyed on the curiosity of fools who didn’t know when to call it quits.
A whisper abruptly slithered into his thoughts. “Here we are, at the precipice of yet another hole. I’m starting to sense a theme, Wesley. I can tell you this—there are no jolly-eyed puppets laying at the bottom of this one, and there’s no rotting mountain of polished flesh for you to climb, either. This is a pit you don’t escape, Wesley, you hear me? Go back. Go back and maybe . . . maybe we’ll talk.”
Wesley chuckled. “Are we going to go through this again? What are you going to try to convince me of this time? That you’re the voice of God? The Devil? Maybe you’re a calico hedgehog smelling of daffodils and fairy dust? You’re the consequence of trauma—a fucking voice in my head—nothing more, nothing less.”
As the voice responded, Wesley could almost feel a smug grin stretch across the psychic spaces of his brain. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? The unique clarity with which you see your pathology, I mean. Far be it from me to lecture you on the specifics of mental illness, but doesn’t it ever strike you as odd, how clearly you see things? After all, the worst part about having schizophrenia is not being able to distinguish what’s real from what’s not real. It’s a hallmark of the illness, as I’ve come to understand it—a deficit in reality-testing due to ‘hypofunctionality in the executive parts of the brain,’ or some jazz like that. The poor bastards just believe whatever those naughty little voices tell them. They can’t help it. But you, you don’t believe anything we say, do you? You’re able to diminish our existence to—how did you put it? Ah, yes, ‘Just fucking voices in your head. Nothing more, nothing less.’ Schizophrenics have a hard enough time admitting they have schizophrenia, let alone refuting the authenticity of those pestering voices. Why, it’s almost as if you don’t have the disorder at all.”
“Or perhaps you’re just bad liars,” Wesley replied. “You should come up with some better material, maybe then I might buy your bullshit.”
The voice chortled. “Behold, the Great Wesley Morrigan—the most powerful mind in the world! A man who can conquer the perils of mental illness without popping a pill or darkening the doorstep of a single head shrink! That brings up a curious point—why have you never decided to finish us off? The wasting houses have long been abandoned. It would be a simple thing to see a psychiatrist and get some drugs, silence us once and for all. Plenty of doped-up head cases out there living their lives, sleeping in their own beds and not between the padded walls of some looney bin. Oh, you convince yourself it’s because you need to stay sharp, ‘The meds will dull my mind,’ you say. But where’s the whetstone you’ve been honing your thoughts on, huh? You’re a washed-up scientist with no passion for the game anymore. The only reason you came on this trip is because of some half-witted ambition to ‘confront the darkness.’ Sounds like the plans of a blunted mind to me. No, you’re not afraid of becoming some drugged-up zombie, you’re afraid the medicine won’t work. You’re afraid of facing the possibility that something survived the Darkness, that something squirmed into that fragile little head of yours, like some eager little botfly, and made a nest of all your broken thoughts. Tell me, Wesley, have you ever wondered how you survived? How you somehow traveled across the ocean into some glade in the middle of East-Bumble-Fuck, England? How you were the only one living at the bottom of that pit?”
“I don’t need—" Wesley suddenly broke from his debate, turning his attention back to the gaping recess standing in front of him. A faint sound called to him from the depths.
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