Finally! said the figure. Now we can talk.
“Oh,” I said. “Okay. Hi.”
I gave it a little wave. The figure stayed motionless, and though I saw no eyes, no facial features at all, I knew it was studying me.
“So. What did you want to talk about?”
It waited a long moment before answering. It is strange, it said eventually, to see the focus of our hatred. To finally meet the creature that has brought upon us such misery.
“Uh,” I said. “Beg pardon?”
The second the words left my lips, the candles behind the figure all went out, as though blown out by a gust of wind. Suddenly, the walls of the room darkened as shadowed figures rose from the ground. I thought at first they were solid, 3-D like the one in front of me, but no. They were flat and trapped in the walls, like the ones in the hospital had been.
I swiveled and looked at them, about to ask what was happening, when the figure on the dais rushed forward with inhuman speed and wrapped a clawed hand around my throat.
You will free us! it said, lifting me into the air enough so that I was on my tip-toes.
It's a dream, I thought frantically. I can breathe. It's my dream, I don't even need to breathe!
Unfortunately, my weak attempt at lucid dreaming wasn't convincing when faced with the reality of my throat being crushed. I lashed out, kicking and trying to pry his hand from my neck.
You will release us!
I moved my mouth, trying to talk, and nothing but strangled wheezing came out.
Then, the creature dropped me. I collapsed to the floor, on my hands and knees, and gratefully sucked in a lungful of air and odd light.
"I didn't do it," I managed.
The hum of the shadows stopped abruptly.
“I didn't do it, and I don't know what you're talking about!”
I dragged myself up to my feet and faced the creature.
"I don't know why you've been following me. I don't know why you're all mad at me!"
Following you! The creature's words boomed in my head. We are not following you! You dragged us here! There came a hissing sound, like a hundred angry, spitting vipers, and it took me a second to realize it was coming from the shadows on the walls.
“I didn’t!” I said, half to the figure, half to the shadows. “I don't want you anywhere near me!”
The word struck me like a blow, my face stinging with actual pain, and I flinched away from the raw anger behind it.
You and the core and the other! You and the hundreds of fragmented corruptions, you and the broken nature of this world! You’ve trapped us here!
I probably should have questioned it. I probably should have stopped and considered, what with all the other crazy stuff going on with me lately, maybe I did do something to trap them all. But absolute certainty pressed against me like a comforting wall.
"No," I said, drawing myself up to face the figure. "I had nothing to do with this."
And something in my voice or demeanor gave the creature pause.
It stopped and tilted its head, and I again felt the sensation of it peering at me, of it looking into me. I met its gaze where its eyes ought to have been, and waited.
There was a long silence.
Eventually, it said, You are. . . Correct.
The words came out slow, halting. You mimic the core and corruption and fragments, but you are not it. You are not them.
The shadows on the wall let out short, mournful wails, then vanished back into the floor.
We had been. . . hoping. We have been trying to contact any components for so long. You were the first with a compatible meat structure. You were our only chance.
Then, the figure flickered. It looked like a graphics error, a glitch in some computer program. Scattered, blocky, inverted. When it reappeared, it was back on the stage, facing away. A synthetic screeching sound, like an audio corruption, emanated from it, and though it bore no resemblance to the sound as I knew it, I was suddenly sure the creature was laughing. Not happy laughing. Bitter laughing. The kind of sobbing-laughing that’ll turn either into crazed cackling or weeping.
“Look," I said, moving towards it. "Can you tell me what's going on? You guys are the shadows that have been following me around, right? At the hospital?"
No. And yes.
It appeared to think carefully before speaking. We are not present. We are not within your world. What you’ve seen out there are phantoms of our existence. Even now, as you speak to me, you see only faint shades of our being.
"Okeedokee," I said. It felt like this shouldn't make sense, but I couldn't figure out how to poke any holes in it just yet, so I pressed on. "Where's the rest of you?"
Trapped. Between worlds. We fled our destruction and were caught here. We need to be free! You need to free us!
The creature’s voice, or what passed as its voice, grew louder and louder, blaring in my mind. The liquid light on the floor splashed back in rough waves, like water being blown back by strong winds.
"I need more information!” I said, raising my voice through the howling wind. “Why did you leave your world? Why come here at all?"
I stood up and tried bluster through, not wanting them to see how anxious I was. "What if you're the bad guys here, huh? How do I know you're not here to take over the world, or eat the planet, or something?"
We sought only refuge! it said. We sought only a world that would offer us some protection from those that would destroy us!
"Who's destroying you? What's to stop them from coming here?"
Devourers. Assimilators. They burrow holes into the sky. They unravel the matter of worlds and dine on the tattered fragments of reality. Like us, they travel dimensions and universes. Like us, the corrupted nature of this universe has prevented them significant entry.
“O-okay,” I said. “Uh. Take it back a sec. You-- Uh. What do I call you?”
The creature paused for a long moment, watching me. I could feel it calculating, considering, processing; the intensity of its thoughts felt like a strange, popping heat emanating from its not-skin.
I do not understand, it said eventually.
“Uh. I need something to address you by. Or, like, tell you apart.”
The creature glitched again, coming apart in shuddering, flickering chunks.
It looked at the shelf of candles, turning its head in such a way that I saw the silhouette of its face. I’d been expecting somewhere in the back of my mind for the creature to have human features, just ones I couldn’t see. Nose, lips, maybe not eyes, but something in the realm of human.
Instead, the creature’s face was a solid, curved, beak-like shape that jutted out from under its hood. Its entire head was shaped like a sideways teardrop, and what I had been thinking of as its face was the pointed-end. I just hadn’t noticed it due to the void-like darkness.
Nehorai, it said, its voice jarring me out of my stare.
It didn’t elaborate.
“Okay. Nehorai. Right. Hi.” I gave another little wave, and gestured to myself. “I’m Brandon. Probably. It’s a little confusing. And you’re giving me a lot of information that I’m probably not in the right mind to process right now, so if you could maybe slow it down so I can keep up, I’d really appreciate it.”
I smiled and tried to look encouraging.
Nehorai stared at me long enough for it to be awkward before saying, Your meat is wrong.
This didn't feel like a good start.
"Okay," I said.
Your mind. The meat that stores your mind. It moved closer and brought its pointed face near mine. It is odd.
"Oh, wait, my brain? Aw jeez, not you too," I said. "Either I'm crazy and you're not real, or I'm not and you are! I can't have it both ways."
The electricity pulsing through your primitive human brain-meat is wrong, it insisted. It sends false data to the rest of your meat. It interprets false information as true, but . . .
It trailed off and studied me. I don't know how I knew that. It didn't change, didn't move, but in my head I could feel it trying to puzzle the problem out, puzzle me out.
It is your malfunction that makes you useful, it eventually declared. Your meat is broken, but that brokenness allows you to communicate with me. That brokenness allows you to receive from the Other.
“Okay,” I said. "Let’s start there. Other. Other what? Is that the thing keeping you trapped in the N'th dimension?”
Frustration bubbled out from Nehorai like a swarm of stinging insects. I flinched and stepped back a pace to get out of its biting aura. Nehorai didn't appear to notice; it crossed its arms and hunched slightly, like an irate human.
Yes. No. We suspect.
“That. . . doesn’t help.”
In my minds eye, I imagined spikes of frustration stabbing out of him like a sea urchin. I took another step back.
It is difficult. Your mind is primitive, your language more so. Limiting concepts is trying.
“I want to help,” I said. “I mean, probably. Maybe. Unless you’re going to take over the world or something. But if you’re telling the truth about just wanting to unstuck yourselves, and if it will get you out of my hair, then yeah, I want to help.”
There is the core, it said finally.
It is a stain marring the fabric of your world, an infected wound across your creation. It is untouchable, unapproachable. We have only begun to monitor its physical manifestation-- or what can be called a physical manifestation. Even that is only semi-corporeal, semi-existent in your plane of existence. Very much like ourselves, come to think of it.
“Holy shit,” I said. “And that thing, that core, is corrupting the universe?”
To an extent. Your universe itself is of an elaborate and unsustainable structure. That was our error.
Voyaging from one plane to the next, one dimension to another, is not an unfamiliar concept to us. We’ve traveled to many worlds, across the dimensional ranges, to the very edge of the outer reaches.
When the time came to flee, your world appeared to be a perfect choice, untainted by that which we sought to escape. We did not account for the fact that it might be of a different construction of our own. We did not anticipate it being so. . . vulnerable. So lacking in structural integrity.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
To put it frankly, Nehorai said, Your universe is decaying.
I waited for something more.
"And?" I said when it was clear he was done.
And what? he said. Your universe is dying. It is ripping apart at the seams.
“Shouldn't we do something" I said. "Are we going to die? That sounds bad. Shouldn't we do something?"
Don’t waste your energy, Nehorai said. It has been this way for the past several trillion years, and will remain so for the next few trillion. Concern yourself instead with that sun of yours exploding, as that is a far more urgent issue. I estimate it has only another seven or eight billion years before it becomes a problem.
“Okay,” I said, feeling light-headed. “Okay. So our universe is badly made, and that’s why you're stuck?”
Nehorai’s demeanor shifted, and I felt its anger change with it, growing colder. The area around it grew chillier by several degrees.
The wound I mention has partially manifested. But that partial manifestation is enough for its corruption to seep into your physical realm. It has created living embodiments of itself, spreading through the world like a virus multiplying.
At the heart of it, there is a creature, it said. A malignant, malevolent creature. The corruption of the core made manifest. The one who binds, the one who destroys. The one who has trapped us between worlds, trapped us in shadow. Its presence rots the foundations of this universe and prevents us from leaving, and it must be stopped.
"Holy shit," I said. "What is it?" I said. "One of the void monsters? Something else?" I'd-- no, Alan, I corrected myself-- had run into a few inexplicable things before that didn't seem to have anything to do with the Void or Iotech. Maybe there was some kind of new evil. . .
We are limited in form and ability in this state, but we are able to observe. There are many such creatures with the same essence on the prowl, fragments of the Core. You encountered many of them a mere few hours ago. But this particular monster is the source of them. Its presence calls them like moths to a flame.
"So a really big void creature," I said.
We mistook you for the creature at first because your essence was masked by its own. Your damaged meat offers you some affinity to it, allows you to latch on to its essence in some way.
It took me a second to process that.
"Wait, Alan?" I said.
Nehorai hissed. Alan, it said, dousing the name in kerosene and setting it alight. The corruption given life. The hand of the Core. The prison-maker.
I shook my head. "Listen, I know that guy. Sorta. I've been that guy. Whatever’s going on, I'm pretty sure it's not on purpose--"
Regardless! it snapped. You can contact it. Destroy it.
"Hey now, I'm not destroying--"
Then instruct it to free us!
"I don't even know where's he's at, or if he'll even talk to me. The dude's got trust issues up the whazoo, and I'm not exactly in the most stable of mental states right now," I said to the quasi-dimensional shadow being from the n'th dimension.
Then find it! Bring it to us, make it understand. If it is not malevolent as you say, then it will help us willingly. If you are wrong, we will destroy it.
"Okay, okay," I said. "I'll try to find him and see what I can do. I'm sure there's a way to figure this out if we can all just get into the same room as one another."
Good, said Nehorai. It tilted its head a little, as though listening for something.
If you have any more questions, ask them now. They will restart your heart soon.
It took me a second to parse that.
Your heart. You were struck by a car and died on the pavement, but that will not last long.
“Wait,” I said. “You mean the only reason I can talk to you right now is because I’m dying?”
Dead, said Nehorai.
“Fuck,” I said.
So you will contact the Other and convince it to release us?
“I can’t do any of that if I’m dead!" I said. “Or if I'm stuck in a hospital with all my bones broken! Shouldn’t you be a little more concerned about that?”
Do not upset yourself. You will break the connection.
Dead, Nehorai calmly corrected. But you will live again and survive. As we speak, emergency medical services is attending to your needs.
“Great,” I grumbled. “There’s no cops, are there? Am I going to get into trouble for the psych hospital thing? A monster crashed through the wall, and I’m worried they’ll blame me.”
I know not what will happen after our meeting, it said. I am not a prophet.
“When will I wake up from this?”
Right. . . . now.
I opened my eyes.