Will these be the last words that I write, or are they the first words of a new man? I can no longer trust my own
Will these be the last words that I write, or are they the first words of a new man?
I can no longer trust my own thoughts, but my memories are knives cutting into my brain, so that each step down this darkling path is carved with painful clarity into the inmost reaches of my mind’s eye. Here I recount my twisted track.
Before the late War, I was a visiting professor at the University of Munich. A colleague had suffered a violent death, though whether by his own hand or another’s, the authorities were never able to determine. I had known him better than most, so having no family, he’d entrusted me as the executor of his estate. That was how this volume, accursed or blessed, fell into my hands.
After the authorities had done with his body, I was permitted to gather his bloodied papers and belongings that he kept in the small and cramped apartments he rented in the city. The most valuable item amongst these was an ancient volume whose light-hued leather cover was soft and supple, yet by evidence of age and wear, was of the same antiquity as the parchment leaves bound within. And the rust-red color of the ink was distinct from the typical oak gall used by scribes before the age of printing.
The book was a philological treasure. Three different scripts, rendered in three different hands, in three columns on each page, surrounded by geometric designs—I hesitate to call them illuminations—whose patterns confused and beguiled the eye. Any schoolboy would’ve recognized the Church Latin, but the Old Slavonic rendered in the early Cyrillic alphabet was in my speciality, yet the third language was written in a script I did not recognize, nor for which I could find any reference.
Its characters were…troubling, but what turned my bowels to water was what was written in the languages I could decipher.
I am not a religious man, nor am I given to superstition, but for the matters discussed in the pages of the book, I have no better word than infernal, though this is utterly inadequate. The descriptions of worlds, entities, states of mind, and notions unutterable, claw at the mind like a devil scratching at the door. Alongside the body of the text were marginalia in a dozen other hands, in as many languages, expressing thoughts, cryptic or mad, in allusions and symbols that come to poets only in fever dreams. How this book was not burned in the course of centuries is a wonder to me.
I continued to teach, though more of my time was taken up with studies of the book. My dreams grew increasingly troubled, and I turned to drink to find some measure of sleep. One detail that stood out was a recurring symbol that I found repeated in other works, though only after long searches in the university’s libraries and archives.
With Franz Ferdinand’s murder in the Kingdom of Serbia and the Kaiser taking this as an excuse to start a fight with the rest of Europe, I decamped and returned to the Motherland, where I took up a post in the newly renamed Petrograd Imperial University in Saint Petersburg. Though at first, I despaired of being cut off from vital information in my searches, the archives of the university proved more useful than I originally anticipated. My research into old Church records, genealogies, and chronicles led to mentions of a so-called “Witch’s Chapel” farther north, closer to the border with Finland.
It was two weeks of back-breaking travel by carriage and horse cart on muddied and rutted roads, but I finally arrived at a half-forgotten estate that had moldered into a half-abandoned village after the local petty noble died and the Tsar’s tax collectors forgot about the place. It was high summer, and the air was so thick with moisture that you could chew on it, if you didn’t first choke on the cloud of flies.
The dull-eyed, thick-tongued peasants weren’t much help, but after some asking, they directed me to the Witch’s Chapel, with gestures to ward off evil.
It was a little ways beyond the outskirts of the village, built on a hillock, with nothing but stunted shrubs growing around it. The stone building was a little larger than a hermit’s cell. Its stones were weathered, pitted, and speckled with moss, but so close-fitted that you could not insert a sheet of paper between them. In style, it was impossible to tell who built it, but something told me that no Slav, Norseman, Celt, Greek, Roman, or Hun had set these stones.
The interior was cool, dark, and smelled of damp earth. Lantern light revealed an elevated stone basin at the center. And inscribed into the ceiling…were the characters of the book’s mysterious alphabet, bordering the very symbol which had drawn me here. It was a sigil.
Over the next several years, I went back and forth between the village and university, continuing my researches and cataloging what I found at the Witch’s Chapel. That is, until the Bolsheviks took power.
I hid the book, sold everything I had, and kept my opinions to myself, lest I should find myself in chains or dead in a ditch with a bullet to the back of my head. Yet, all the while, the obsession gnawed at me.
After Vladimir Lenin breathed his last, his hound finally slipped his leash to take over that pack of godforsaken curs and turn his rabid bite on the populace. Any man with a semblance of thought in his head was at risk of being purged. I took this as a sign to flee.
The railways and roads were watched, and I had no papers, legitimate or forged, to pass through the border posts. I also had no skill to travel through open wilderness. So, the Witch’s Chapel was my destination.
I took lodging with an old widow in exchange for chopping wood and milking her goats. She spoke little, so I had peace to sit and decipher more of the book. Survival had too long taken up my time and attention.
The codex was like the Rosetta Stone, with the same text recorded in three languages. As an exercise, from what I could dare to reread in Latin and Old Slavonic, I translated into Russian, German, and French. While the writing in the third alphabet likely said the same thing, it was so unlike any other writing system, that it was not susceptible to translation by any method I knew of.
But then I started on the marginalia. One passage, in a crabbed hand of Norman French, explained the rudiments of the unknown language as spoken, including pronunciation. It used a simple phrase as an example. Under the light of a full moon, I spoke it aloud. The guttural syllables of this alien tongue sounded like laughter in hell.
Over the next few weeks, there were stories among the peasants of children who had gone missing, only to reappear wandering aimlessly in the forest. One tale circulated of a new mother who had strangled her own infant, claiming that the child was an imposter.
It was during the next full moon, when I was working by lamplight, that I vaguely registered that the old widow was not in the house with me. This was not out of the ordinary, for she hobbled about to visit with neighbors until after sundown. She was often escorted by one of their children. But it was getting late.
I rose from my stool, stretched my back with a groan, and decided to check outside. As I opened the door, I heard wet thwacks, like a side of beef being cleaved. What met my sight was the old woman’s body twitching as a village boy, no more than twelve, was striking the pulpy mass of her head with a hatchet. At the creaking of the door, he looked up.
My muscles were strung tight with a jolt of horror, followed by bloody outrage. I strode forward.
Then our eyes met. He looked through me with a glassy, hollow-eyed stare and a smile that was too wide for his blood-splattered face. He rose to his feet and moved more like a marionette than anything living. In one hand he held the gore-stained hatchet, while the other hung from the strip of flesh at the end of his wrist. With a casual stroke of the hatchet’s edge, he parted the band of meat and let the hand flop to the ground.
I ran. I scurried like a hare fleeing a hawk. I had just wits enough to remember the book and the lamp before I threw open the shutters and tumbled out the window and into the night.
I could see my way under the light of a full moon and knew the area well enough to make for the Witch’s Chapel. But under the moon’s ghastly light, I could also see silhouettes of bodies in doorways and on the road through the village, standing out against the snow. Amidst them were small figures, moving amongst corpses, till they stooped to finish their work. So, the silence was broken by lone cries as bludgeon or edge was applied to flesh.
The Witch’s Chapel appeared as I made my way toward it. I spared a look over my shoulder. Small figures were following, not bothering with haste.
I made it inside. I set the lamp down and opened the book to the passage with the phrase I had uttered a month earlier. Drawn next to it was the symbol that stood out on the stone ceiling. Some intuition, some superstition, some desperate instinct told me that these words held power. I spoke them aloud.
The alien runes inscribed into the ceiling ignited with harsh light, while liquid luminescence spilled over the edges of the basin. My eyes were dazzled, but against the intensity, the outline of a child, utterly still, appeared in the doorway of the Chapel.
In the light that spilled forth, I could see that behind it stood more boys and girls, stained and spattered with dark blood, carrying hooks, cleavers, knives, hammers, hand axes, pitchforks, and other tools turned to implements of murder. They all had the same hollow eyes and empty smiles of the soulless.
But their gazes weren’t on me, but on the basin behind me. I turned and squinted at the liquid light that spilled over and flowed like quicksilver. With a hand to shield my eyes, I crept toward the basin and peeked over its edge.
It was a whirlpool circling into a void blacker than night. I have no words, no thoughts that could capture what I saw. For I was captured in its vast twisting depths and my consciousness was peeled away.
In that moment, I came to a revelation, there was no “I,” no “me.”
This flesh carried engrams recorded in its gray matter. It served its purpose in carrying the Key to the nexus called the “Witch’s Chapel.”
This flesh has ceased all biological functions.
The engrams of this flesh were carried to another. The simulacra of the next flesh, called consciousness, perceives the previous flesh, now frozen.
Described in terms known to this new flesh, it is a member of a special police unit reporting to the head of Joint State Political Directorate, tasked with investigating “abnormal events” which may threaten the security of the state. Its unit was searching for the previous flesh, evidence of whose research was discovered after its disappearance.
The Key and the memories gathered into it are now entangled with this flesh, but the memories shall be subsumed. The words will draw and entangle flesh anew, and the Work will continue.