Cadmus was brought back to consciousness by the change in the rhythm of waves slapping the ship’s hull. For days he had been relying on the steady cadence to stave off both nausea and nightmares. The latter had provoked the crew to confine him to the bilge, and his screaming only abated when the boatswain had given him the last of his opium stash.
He could hear the crew moving to their stations and re-rigging the sails. Lots of orders were shouted as the pilot began negotiating a delicate course. We’re making port, thought Cadmus. What should have been a relief was instead a wave of dread washing over him. It seemed safer at sea, he thought.
At length a crewman opened the hatch and Cadmus was free to ascend to the lower decks and finally emerge into the glare of the noonday sun. Ancia, he thought dully, surveying the approaching waterfront. The spire of the University Chancellery still commanded the city, but it seemed much less awe-inspiring now.
As the ship neared the quays, Cadmus sought out the purser to retrieve his effects, having lost his berth when the crew imprisoned him. He hadn’t boarded with much, just his riding kit and his portfolio. He accepted the latter gingerly, as if it might burn his hand.
When the ship was finally moored, Cadmus discreetly apologized to those crewmen who had borne the brunt of his ravings during the voyage. He thanked the ship’s master for accepting his abrupt passage and then, after taking a deep breath and hunching forward as if he were leaning into a gale, he disembarked.
A customs officer in discussion with the quartermaster broke off to intercept Cadmus. “Your name, sir,” he asked, “and place of origin?”
“Dr. Gabriel Cadmus. I’ve been posted at the University for ten years.”
The officer looked him up and down skeptically.
“I’ve been on sabbatical,” added Cadmus.
“Very well,” replied the officer. “Welcome home.”
Cadmus winced, but the officer had already returned to inspecting the cargo. Cadmus turned to look up at the spire once more, then started down the street that would take him to the top of the hill.
He hadn’t taken twenty steps when he was struck by a familiar scent. He had visited the waterfront many times over the years, but he had never before noticed the opium dens. Now he identified two before the first intersection. He narrowed his vision and quickened his pace.
By the time Cadmus had reached the main piazza, it was mid-afternoon. He suddenly realized that he had no idea what day it was and whether anyone would be in their offices. Then he remembered that he didn’t care.
Heads turned as he strode resolutely through the foyer of the Chancellery, and climbing two steep flights of stairs did little to diminish his momentum. The custodian outside the Secretary’s antechamber was startled by Cadmus’s appearance, but admitted him nonetheless.
Secretary Bullicanto seemed to have gained as much weight as Cadmus had lost while on sabbatical. “I am glad to see you have safely returned, Dr. Cadmus,” he said. “When did you arrive?”
“This very day,” said Cadmus. “I must see the Chancellor immediately.”
Bullicanto smiled mirthlessly. “Quite impossible. His Magnificence is engaged all day.”
“The matter I need to discuss with him is of paramount importance. The entire realm is in grave danger!”
“How distressing,” replied Bullicanto, wrinkling his nose. “Have yourself a bath and a change of clothes. Come back tomorrow when you’re more presentable.”
Cadmus stared uncomprehendingly at the obtuse Secretary, at the wary custodian in the corner, at the hallowed walls and vaulted ceiling of the solemn office. They are already ghosts, he thought. What do I hope to accomplish here?
He retreated without reply, drifting through the halls and across the campus to the faculty dormitory. Those few who recognized him kept their distance, and habit alone brought him to the door of his old quarters.
Upon entry, he saw indications that during his sabbatical the Head of House had assigned his apartment to a new resident. There was a time when he would have been indignant at such presumption, but now he just went to his wardrobe and located his old lecture gown, which was no longer too tight around his abdomen.
Cadmus heard the door open behind him, and he turned to see a surprised young novitiate staring at him. He started to apologize, but the novitiate marched forward and seized him by the shoulders. “Gabriel!” he exclaimed. “It’s me, William!”
Cadmus frowned, momentarily unable to parse this simple statement. Then comprehension struck him and his knees gave out as he collapsed into the embrace of his younger brother.
“William!” he cried after he had partially recovered. “What are you doing here? It’s not safe! You have to leave!”
William pulled back and looked into his brother’s anguished face. “Gabriel, what are you saying? When did you return? Where have you been?”
Cadmus closed his eyes and sank onto the bed. “I’ve been to the New Lands, beyond the Sunset Sea.”
“That’s amazing! What did you see there?”
Cadmus’s face twisted into a horrible grimace and he started to sob. “Oh, dear William,” he keened, “you must leave at once! Go home and take Mother somewhere safe! Stay with Cousin Joseph up in the valley. Don’t come back here!”
William could see that his brother was delirious with fatigue and ceased interrogating him. Instead he had a warm meal brought to their quarters, and afterward he drew him a hot bath. He never left his side, watching over him as he struggled to sleep.
The next morning William continued to neglect his offices in order to attend his brother as Cadmus prepared to meet with the Chancellor. The only item he brought with him was the portfolio he had clutched all night. Cadmus was so anchored by William’s presence that he asked him to accompany him for the meeting, and William heartily agreed.
Bullicanto was ready for them when they arrived, having summoned his assistant to keep his office during the meeting. Cadmus noted that an additional custodian was also loitering in an alcove as the Secretary led them into the Chancellor’s office.
The high-ceilinged room was brightly lit by two large windows on the east- and west-facing walls. Only the Scriptorium received more sunlight. An oak table longer than a man’s height was in the middle of the office with an empty lectern in the center. At one end a slight man sat on a spare stool, dipping his quill in an inkwell and writing furiously.
“Your Magnificence,” intoned Bullicanto, “may I present Dr. Gabriel Cadmus and his brother, William.”
Chancellor Lacon looked up sharply from his manuscript to appraise Cadmus. Apparently finding nothing noteworthy, he pursed his lips and set his quill back in the inkwell with deliberation. He stood and straightened his gown.
“So, Dr. Cadmus, you have returned,” said Lacon. “I do hope you are in good health. I trust your sabbatical was both intellectually and spiritually rewarding.”
“Thank you, Your Magnificence,” replied Cadmus, bowing reflexively. “It was…it was quite the opposite.”
“Yes, the Secretary here tells me you were rather disturbed yesterday,” said Lacon. “Come, let us sit together so you might unburden yourself.”
Lacon led them to a cluster of high-backed, cushioned chairs near the western window. He and Bullicanto took the seats facing the interior of the office, leaving the best view of the harbor to Cadmus. William hastened to pour a cup of water for each of the others from a pitcher on a low table.
“I must admit, Dr. Cadmus,” said Lacon, “that I did not inquire too closely into the reasons for your sabbatical. Perhaps it would be of some value to go into that a bit first.”
Cadmus looked at William, who gave an encouraging nod.
“Yes, well,” Cadmus began, “my decision to take leave of my post was prompted by a need to personally verify the accuracy of some notes I had come across in my studies at our Library. The notes were unsigned, but I recognized the hand as that of a former member of the University faculty.”
“And who might that be?” asked Lacon.
Cadmus paused. “Abolard of Fluss.”
“The heretic?” gasped Bullicanto.
Cadmus nodded. “He left some extensive commentary bound up with an older copy of the Metaphysics. It suggested some theoretical possibilities that could be illuminating.”
“And how did you become familiar with the handwriting of a heretic?” pressed Bullicanto.
Cadmus turned to Bullicanto and found his umbrage. “It is well known, Secretary Bullicanto, that Abolard’s first dissertation has been found to be free of heretical thought and is available to any scholar approved by the Head Librarian. That is how I learned his hand.”
“And what did the Head Librarian say about these notes you found?” asked Lacon. “Or did you neglect to report them as required?”
Cadmus’s silence impugned him. Lacon raised an eyebrow and glanced at Bullicanto. “And what ‘theoretical possibilities’ could have been so intriguing as to provoke such a departure from scholastic discipline?” asked Lacon.
Cadmus stared out the window, shaking his head ever so slightly. Bullicanto reared himself up for another charge, but Lacon stayed him with a wave of his fingers.
“His notes contained speculations,” Cadmus said finally, “that physical dimensions such as distance, extension, and weight were not constants but rather artifacts of certain natural properties, properties that might be manipulated.”
“Manipulated how?” asked Lacon.
“The notes did not say. It was the beginning of an inquiry, not,” Cadmus hesitated, closing his eyes, “the conclusion.”
Lacon twisted his mouth to the side. “So how did you imagine you would ‘verify’ these speculations?”
“I saw no other way than asking him myself,” admitted Cadmus.
Another pause. “You mean,” sputtered Bullicanto, “you sought out this heretic and spoke with him? He has been excommunicated. His Magnificence’s predecessor expelled him from the University more than a dozen years ago.”
“I am aware of those proceedings,” Cadmus said wearily. “It doesn’t matter. We are all damned in any event.”
Bullicanto looked imploringly at Lacon, but the Chancellor wasn’t interested in blasphemy at the moment. After a tense pause, he asked, “Where, Dr. Cadmus, did you in fact go?”
Cadmus looked at William, who was struggling to contain his dismay. I have to try, Cadmus thought. I have to save him.
Turning back to Lacon, Cadmus launched into his narrative. “I traveled to all of the great cities of the Continent. Even in those lands where the Church’s influence is weak, few would admit to any knowledge of Abolard. Those who did dismissed him as mad.
“Finally, in Fornil I discovered that he had gone to Glenburgh to consult with David Trent, the astronomer. When I arrived at his observatory Trent refused to see me until I offered to show him Abolard’s notes. Once he read through them he became distraught. Abolard had indeed seen him, he said, but he left almost a year previously. Ever since, Trent had been plagued by disturbing dreams of the skies screaming at him.
“Why did Abolard come to see him?, I asked. What was he seeking? Trent replied that Abolard had been keen to learn the latest observations regarding several heavenly bodies. Together they charted the planets’ motion and compared it to the calculations produced by Trent’s equatorium. In time it became clear that Abolard greatly wanted to know the date of the next Great Conjunction, the alignment of four other worlds with our own.
“Once Abolard had satisfied himself with the redundancy of their observations and calculations, he took ship for the New Lands. He told Trent he had obtained passage to Kingston, but Trent had gotten the sense that Abolard had another final destination in mind. Somewhere he was anxious to reach prior to the Great Conjunction.
“At the time of my visit to Trent, his estimated date of the Great Conjunction lay three months in the future. It took me seven weeks to reach Kingston. They have little use for scholars in that bustling port, and no one could provide any clue as to Abolard’s whereabouts.
“Unwilling to abandon my quest, I cast about to discover a reason why one might come to Kingston that didn’t involve trapping fur-bearing animals. As it happens, a community of religious apostates had been founded upriver from Kingston: the town of Everhope, on the banks of the Snow-wash, above a tremendous cascade.
“It seemed as plausible a destination as any other. I bought a draft horse past its prime but that looked in better care than the barge offering passage to the portage. My unfamiliarity with the terrain turned a one-day journey into three, but once I found the river again above the falls it was straightforward.
“Everhope wasn’t much more than a collection of small barns and a mill on the river. I saw several scattered farmhouses as I approached, but no one either greeted or challenged me. The only two-story residence in town functioned occasionally as a temporary lodging house, and it was there that I started my inquiry.
“No one could remember a traveling scholar or anyone calling themselves ‘Abolard,’ but there had been a visitor that had arrived at about the right time for someone who had departed Glenburgh as reported by Trent. This man had refused to identify either himself or his creed, but he did ask some pointed questions about the abandoned monastery on the hilltop overlooking the town. The townsfolk told the visitor that the monks had all died of a mysterious disease over a year ago, and no one had dared go there since. The visitor departed the town immediately thereafter, but recent reports of curious lights and noises from the hilltop had led to the common assumption that he had occupied the monastery.
“The next morning I set out on my mount toward the hill, but I wasted a couple of hours looking for a trail that no longer existed. I was in the middle of crossing a meadow filled with wildflowers when it started.”
Cadmus drained his cup and his hand trembled as he held out for William to refill. Bullicanto looked skeptically at Lacon, who wore a vexed expression. Cadmus took several deep breaths before resuming.
“I heard it first, an arhythmic vibration that resonated in my bowels. I halted the horse, afraid that I might lose my balance. Looking up, I saw the sky marred by…by a Wrongness. A wound in the heavens, a slash in the air, starting immediately above the hilltop and slicing mercilessly over me and back toward the town.
“As the rent skies parted, out poured an unholy light of no possible color. It entered my head through my eyes and filled my throat with a bitter, oily taste. I can still taste it now, as I fear the Wrongness has corrupted my mind. I close my eyes and the Unlight shimmers greasily in every corner.”
Lacon glanced at Bullicanto, then raised his eyebrows at William, who put a reassuring hand on Cadmus’s shoulder. Cadmus came out of his reverie, then grinned maniacally at Lacon.
“You think me mad, don’t you?” said Cadmus. “I haven’t even touched on the true horror yet. Shall I stop? Would you prefer to spend your remaining days in merciful ignorance?”
“That is a scandalous way to speak to His Magnificence!” barked Bullicanto. “This nonsense is beneath the dignity of the Chancellery.”
Lacon scrutinized Cadmus for several moments. “You may well be mad, Dr. Cadmus,” said Lacon, “but I do not believe you are fabulating your account. Nevertheless, be aware that you are close to exhausting the credibility accruing to your tenure at the University.”
A sharp laugh escaped Cadmus, but he quickly suppressed it, screwing his eyes shut. Bullicanto snorted and shook his head. When Cadmus opened his eyes again, William could see the beginnings of tears. He helped his brother drink again from his cup, but Cadmus had lost his thirst. He looked around at the others with a wan smile, then bowed his head. No turning back, he thought.
“The wound had split the sky,” continued Cadmus, “but it was immediately obscured by a cloud that sparked and flashed and changed color as it mixed with the clean air. It billowed forth faster than any thunderhead, quickly casting the entire river valley into shadow. The hue had mostly condensed into clouds of brown and pale yellow.
“I was overcome with dread and wanted nothing more than to get out from underneath the unnatural cloud. My mount shared this sentiment, but there was no obvious refuge. The town and the hilltop were both equally distant, exposed, and covered by the cloud. Then all reason and hope were banished forever.
“Enormous, dark protrusions emerged from the cloud, like impossibly long and thick logs soaring through the sky. Thousands of feet long, dark and ominous, they stretched out and down, bracketing the town. They flexed inward, and I could make out discrete segments in the nearest trunk. It was mottled green-grey with a rigid carapace to which clung wisps of the brown-yellow vapor. At its terminus were two scything hooks the size of carracks.
“The gusts of wind caused by the extremities’ descent intimated their monstrous bulk, and I could not help crying out in anguish as they slammed into the earth. The tremor shook everything for miles, and it was all I could do not to be thrown from my horse. When I had regained control of my mount, I could see that there were eight extremities in total, four touched down on either side of the river. They flexed in unison, and I shut my eyes lest they witness confirmation of that which my mind was desperately trying to deny: the colossal trunks were in fact mere appendages of an even more blasphemously immense being.
“When I dared look up again, I saw that the central body of this Abomination had emerged from the cloud as if it were dismounting the steed it had ridden into our world. The rear portion was bulbous and heaved like an ocean in the sky. It was dark and massive, with several uneven growths and bulges, covered with black ropy hairs. From the far end protruded a gray nozzle-like orifice.
“All eight legs emanated from the next portion of the body, which was as slick as the rear was coarse. Scales or plates the length of castle walls folded and buckled as the Abomination spread its legs to lower itself toward the town. And then its terrible upper body came down into view.
“Apart from its incomprehensible size, the forward part of the Abomination resembled nothing so much as the arms, torso, and head of a woman. If not for its ashen-gray skin and uncanny eyes, one could almost call it comely. The hair flowing from its head was white streaked with sickly green, and its cruel mouth was lined with yellow teeth the size of manor houses. But the worst attributes were its unholy eyes.
“Neither pupils nor sclerae were visible; the same nauseating Unlight shone out of the Abomination’s eyes as if they were windows into the world beyond the wound. Everywhere it directed its gaze, nature quailed and men fell into despair.
“As the Abomination lowered itself further and reached out its clutching hands toward the pitiful townsfolk, I finally recovered some of my wits and fled. My horse needed no spurring to fly downriver. A chorus of screams reached me, and I looked over my shoulder to see a dozen poor souls tumble from the Abomination’s hand into its mouth. I shall never forget the moment when their cries were suddenly silenced as the Abomination closed its mouth and convulsed them down its gullet.
“I rode all night, reaching Kingston shortly after dawn. I sold my spent horse at great loss in order to take passage on the next ship leaving port. My only thought was escape; I dared not report the fate of Everhope to anyone lest they detain me as a madman.”
“Imagine that,” said Bullicanto drily. Cadmus ignored him and focused on Lacon.
“Don’t you see? Trent’s calculations were inaccurate! Abolard must have taken new observations and refined their estimation. I arrived in Everhope at the moment of the Great Conjunction!”
Lacon leaned back, puzzled. “How do you come to that conclusion?”
Cadmus buried his face in his hands, then looked up with a pained expression. “He opened a door! A door between worlds! The Great Conjunction created the door, Abolard opened it, and that Abomination came through to destroy us all!”
Lacon turned to look blankly at Bullicanto, then back to Cadmus. “That is…quite a tale, Doctor,” he said delicately. Cadmus made one final attempt to compose himself.
“Your Magnificence,” he said with more calm than he felt, “I implore you to seek an immediate audience with the Doge.”
“Whatever for?” asked Lacon.
“Why, to warn him! This Abomination threatens our entire civilization!”
“You are suggesting that I tell His Excellency that a woman-spider the size of a mountain has appeared in the New Lands and will cross the Sunset Sea and destroy Ancia? Do I understand you correctly?”
Cadmus’s shoulders slumped and he slowly exhaled. He looked at William, whose face was filled with apprehension. His limbs felt numb and weightless as he turned back to Lacon. “That is correct,” he said plainly.
Lacon skewed his lips again and gazed out the window, then raised his eyebrows didactically as he looked at Cadmus. “And the notes you had hoped to show to Abolard, do you still have them?”
Keeping his eyes on Cadmus, Lacon said, “Secretary, if you would be so kind.”
Bullicanto stood and extended his open hand. Cadmus opened his portfolio and withdrew the pages that had led him on his misadventure. Bullicanto accepted and flipped through them, noting their number.
Lacon had a wary expression as Bullicanto secured Abolard’s notes. “Doctor Cadmus,” he began solemnly, “my primary duty is to the welfare and preservation of this University. I cannot permit any scholar under my charge to imperil our standing with lurid and, frankly, grotesque fantasies, to say nothing of injuring my reputation by presenting them to His Excellency.”
Cadmus fixed his eyes on the harbor and mentally withdrew as Lacon continued. “You will not repeat a word of this account to anyone outside this room, nor will you besmirch this University by engaging in further…speculation as to the activities or theories of the heretic Abolard. Are my decrees in any way unclear to you, Doctor?”
Cadmus shook his head.
“Speak when His Magnificence asks you a question,” seethed Bullicanto.
Cadmus blinked and looked into Lacon’s stern face. “I understand, Your Magnificence.”
“Secretary Bullicanto has told me that when you arrived at the Chancellery yesterday your appearance was disheveled, and he detected an odor associated with opium abuse. At the time I discounted this report, as I could not imagine that a scholar of your accomplishments could have fallen into vice. Your preposterous story, however, has compelled me to reconsider.”
“Master William,” Lacon continued, “Your brother’s rehabilitation is now your chief duty at this University. Please see that he receives all necessary rest, care, and seclusion,” he said, placing particular emphasis on the final word.
“Of course, Your Magnificence,” said William. “Come along, Gabriel.”
Cadmus allowed his brother to lead him out of the Chancellery, his gaze lowered and his mind stilled. Upon reaching the main doors to the piazza, however, Cadmus balked and looked up, frantically searching the afternoon sky.
“It’s perfectly safe, Gabriel,” said William. “I’ll take care of you now.”
Cadmus stumbled over the threshold, his gaze locked on the heavens, drifting at William’s side. William grasped his brother’s shoulders.
“Gabriel, look at me,” he insisted. “I know a renowned leech by the name of Abraham. I know he can help you. His services are dear, but I’m sure I can persuade His Magnificence to assist with that.”
Cadmus at last seemed to see his brother. His anxious expression dissolved into torment. “William! I told you to leave the city, and now you know why! Go home and take Mother somewhere safe, somewhere it will not come!”
“Gabriel, listen to yourself! You need rest and you need help. Let me help you, before Bullicanto calls the Inquisitors.”
Cadmus placed his hands on the sides of his brother’s head. William could see that Cadmus’s tears had returned. “Get out of the city!” screamed Cadmus. “Take Mother away! Forgive me,” he added, tugging William’s head down and sending him sprawling onto the paving stones.
Cadmus fled the campus, making random changes in his course, but there was no pursuit. He was soon overcome by fatigue and sorrow, collapsing in a strange alley and sobbing.
A hand touched his shoulder, and Cadmus thought William had found him. He rolled away to see that it was only a boy, albeit the same age William was when Cadmus first left for the University.
His horror refreshed, Cadmus struggled to his feet. “Go home, boy,” he said. “Look after your family.” He stumbled out of the alley into a quarter of the city he did not know.
Cadmus kept wandering through the streets of Ancia, doting on the buildings and homes and people he had never bothered to discover until now. Until it was too late.
This city has witnessed so much, he thought. It survived the rise and fall of the Empire. Its cathedral was over a thousand years old. How many lives and memories claimed it as their home? All doomed.
With no conscious purpose, Cadmus found himself near the waterfront, at the door of an opium den. The sun had already disappeared over the horizon and the street was awash in shadow. Cadmus walked through the door as a leaf falls from a bough.
He found peace, for a time. In his pipedreams, he returned to the land of his youth, but all of his family was still alive and lived in a splendid house on a hill and no one had to work or wanted for food. He visited the Imperial Library and fascinating people from far-away lands showed him wondrous things. In his bliss, Cadmus allowed himself to be led deeper and deeper into the stacks of books until all light faded and the darkest secrets of the universe exposed themselves to him.
At length, however, his coin ran out and he was evicted from the opium den and dumped among the beggars to starve and suffer withdrawal. Cadmus did not beg for food, and he only drank from the gutters, hoping he might contract dysentery. He was haunted day and night by his fevered memories, and only his enfeeblement prevented him from hurling himself from the wharf into the bay.
The veil between his nightmares and his waking life finally dissolved when the bone-rattling tremors from Everhope spilled out into the filth-strewn alley and started shaking the nearby hovels. Cadmus’s eyes fluttered open to observe that the screams of primal terror resounding in his head were being emitted by his fellow wretches, shambling and crawling in every direction. He tried to curl away from it all, but the continuous earthshocks and kinetic panic left him no refuge.
He staggered to his feet and squinted at the mid-morning sky. A yellowish haze pawed at the sun. A fresh tremor almost knocked him to the ground, and then Cadmus’s world was plunged into true shadow.
The Abomination of his terror-dreams lurched and shuddered over the streets of Ancia, bulging with nauseating growths and bristles, and now rippling with countless smaller creatures clinging to its swollen abdomen and scuttling down its towering legs.
A woman in rags cried out and slammed into Cadmus, not seeing him in the artificial dusk. He fell face-first into a puddle of piss, and the city-wide hysteria seized him in full. He desperately did not want to see the Abomination’s more human portion with its grasping hands and otherworldly eyes.
A hideous screeching rent the air, and Cadmus reflexively looked up to see the gray tube at the rear of the Abomination convulsing and spewing forth a greenish-white gas that streamed over the city and fell onto the buildings and streets like sickly garlands. It billowed and flowered like the gusts that herald a hurricane. Cadmus could see it spread across every possible avenue of escape.
A door to a nearby house hung open, the occupants having fled. Cadmus hurried inside and bolted the door behind him. Across the dim room he could see an aperture and stairs leading down into the darkness. The screaming and rumbling from outside became abruptly louder, and Cadmus darted toward the stairs only to trip on something unseen and pitch headlong into the root cellar.
It wasn’t very deep and Cadmus didn’t break anything in his descent or landing, but he remained where he fell nonetheless. He tried to convince himself that being out of sight meant he was safe, even going so far as to turn his face to the wall and pretending the dank corner of the cellar was the entire world.
Cadmus smelled the thick gas rather than saw it as it shrouded around him. It was a nauseating miasma, sweet and salty vapors that he could feel as it intruded into the openings of his clothes. It curled and congealed and hardened about his limbs, preventing him from moving even if he had the energy or will.
He lay there for hours, riding waves of nausea, dehydration, and despair as the sounds of the cataclysm unfolding above filtered down to him. Crashes and booms, howls and rages, wails and whimpers. Even if he could shut his ears, he knew the lamentations in his head would never quiet.
Unable to sleep, unable to die, Cadmus fell into a stupor, hallucinating in the dark. Nonsensical shapes and creatures danced before him, distracting him from the cacophony of horror. He fancied they were the souls of the damned, recently slain and on their way to Hell.
A particularly violent crash dispelled his visions, followed by a strange flashing at the top of the stairs. Any light would have been blinding to Cadmus’s eyes, but when the beams reached down and shone on his immobilized face, the bile in his throat was supplemented by an all-too-familiar oily taste. The Unlight had found him.
Once his eyes were no longer dazzled, Cadmus’s first thought was that the Abomination had somehow become small enough to enter the cellar. The monstrosity coming down the stairs had the same bulbous hindquarters supported by eight horned legs and the same upright human forequarters. As it approached and leaned over him, however, he could discern that the human portion was male. It had the same terrible eyes, of course.
The creature moved with fierce deliberation, tearing the strands that bound Cadmus with remorseless efficiency. Its powerful arms seized and lifted him effortlessly, and Cadmus had no strength to resist. It then turned and carried Cadmus outside, cruelly showing him what had become of Ancia.
The true Abomination remained crouched over the city, although it was nearly motionless. The yellowish-brown smoke that attended it like the train of a wedding dress mixed with black smoke from fires that had broken out in the panic. Most striking, however, was the greenish-white filament that coated every visible surface.
It was everywhere. The viscous vapors had found every open door, window, and chimney, trapping thousands who now wept helplessly. Cadmus could see dozens of the Abomination’s minions moving throughout the city, collecting doomed residents.
He wrenched his neck back and twisted his shoulders to get a better look at his captor. Unlike the true Abomination, the skin of the human portion of this miniature version was thoroughly blemished. There wasn’t a square-inch that wasn’t bruised or burnt or perforated or rotted. But what horrified Cadmus the most, what nearly shattered what remained of his mind, was that, beneath all the mutilations and disfigurements, he recognized on his captor the face of his brother William.
Cadmus opened his mouth to scream, but it was several moments before his hoarse and exhausted throat could produce any sound. He failed to form any intelligible words, but the William-creature was as heedless to its captive’s distress as were the rest of the Abomination’s minions.
They trotted through the city, clambering up the sticky strands to cross rooftops when it made for a more direct route. They passed underneath the Abomination’s bulging hindquarters, and mounting the roof of a warehouse revealed that the Abomination had lowered its forequarters to the ground, facing away from them, with its head and shoulders resting atop its folded arms, which in turn lay across the toppled Chancellery spire.
Cadmus looked up to see a brown orifice in the abdomen pucker open and begin to extrude a dark glistening mass. It was greenish-black and gelatinous, expanding to the size of a hillock and beyond. It was still emerging from the Abomination when the underside made contact with the buildings underneath and started to crush them.
As the mass finally dropped free, its translucency showed scores of creatures twitching inside, each suspended in a separate cell of membrane. Nearby flattened and slime-coated neighborhoods gave evidence of previous hatchings.
The minions bearing their captives converged from all over the city at the head of the Abomination. Approaching from the rear, Cadmus could not yet see its face or the Unlight of its eyes. He wished nothing more than to be insensate; blind, deaf, and numb to everything.
He tried one last time to find solace in his brother’s face, but it was a grim mask dominated by those alien eyes. “Have pity, William!”, he cried. “It’s your brother, Gabriel! Don’t you know me?”
The William-creature did not break its stride, but it did incline its head down to shine its uncanny gaze at Cadmus. Its eyes flashed and shifted into a different spectrum of Unlight so fierce that Cadmus flinched. The creature then spoke, but while it was William’s throat that formed the sounds, his soul did not animate the voice that came out of his mouth.
“YOU WITNESSED OUR ARRIVAL,” it said. The words encased Cadmus’s heart in ice. “YOU ATTEMPTED TO WARN YOUR KIND. YOU WERE NOT HEEDED.”
The creature paused, impassively staring at Cadmus’s bewildered grimace. Then it spoke one last time, “THIS PLEASES US.”
The swarm of minions marched around the Abomination’s folded arms and approached its resting head. Its cavernous mouth was open, and a tongue wider than the palace steps extended over its lower lip. One by one, the minions hurled their frantic captives onto the tongue, which rolled back and consigned the victims to their visceral fate.
Hoping against all reason to glean some meaning or purpose to this calamity, Cadmus tried to look into the Abomination’s eyes, but they were fixed on the horizon, indifferent to the procession of horror at its maw.
With a clarity that chilled his blood, Cadmus realized that the Abomination was in fact seeing through the gazes of all its minions simultaneously, drinking in their captives’ despair as they approached their doom. Indeed, the William-creature was still watching Cadmus, who finally tore his gaze from his brother’s hijacked face. As they passed beneath the Abomination’s nose, Cadmus looked dully at the gigantic tongue, and he was certain it was waving at him.