by M.D Schultz
Far, far to the west, is said to be a land where the dead will dance at the appointed hour
|Clive the magnificent, Clive the fantastic, and Clive the illusionist; he had many names, but few held as much recognition as Clive the skeptic. A famous magician, he was renowned the world over for feats of daring, such as the tower dive in the city of Fordalgo. That plunge should have ended with his head split wide but instead landed him on two feet with a wrist full of pigeons, a bouquet, and a new bride still flush with bewilderment. He knew every trick, sleight of hand, and misdirection that made people like him famous, from hidden keys to cards sowed into the lining of his jacket, the world over marveled at the miracles he performed, but that was the problem. While men puzzled over his act, Clive was left without a mystery to solve. As the most celebrated con artist of all, he knew miracles for what they were, amusing bouts of misdirection that bolstered a man's faith well beyond his limits. To him, the only difference between a magician and a priest was the marital fidelity of the former. Spiritualism, meditation, ghosts, and demons; it was all the same. As a young man, he discredited faith healers unearthing the trail of money that blinded the keen and sickened the strong only to be healed overnight with an additional windfall. He accused priests of manipulating the masses with a higher power and created a new kind of faith built upon reason and free of the magical whimsies of ancient texts. Years of prosperity, wealth, and power only bolstered his beliefs. After all, what God would grant such favor to he who spent years disproving his existence.
As a young man, life couldn't get any better, but as the years drag on, men like Clive begin to face an immutable truth. Disbelief in a higher power and the reward of life after death is an easy pill to swallow for youth and its deceived immortality. Death's eternal embrace turn even the staunchest atheist into the devout, and so it was for Clive when his hair turned as gray as stone and fingers like spider's legs. There wasn't enough money, women, and power that could ease his mind heavy with fears nonexistent in his youth. The thought of endless nothingness was too much to bear, and so he sought to prove the existence of life after death.
To this end, he traveled the world meeting with spiritualists and high ranking officials in the clergy of religions, both renowned and unknown. He sat down with those who had once worked miracles only to be disappointed when they couldn't produce another. He scrutinized the most pious in hopes of finding a God supported by something thicker than playing cards. Yet, even standing at the sites where the transcendent had spoken, he heard no voice, and his faith was left broken. If God did exist, surely Clive had been abandoned, and so it was that in desperation, he turned to the occult.
Driven towards the most depraved forms of mysticism and witchcraft, he took part in satanic rituals and attended callings to speak with the dead. He witnessed blood rites and took hallucinogens swept away in a blasphemous current. The things he saw and heard sickened his stomach, but none of it was real, merely illusions produced from poisoned incense and drugs. It was all just another trick by talented con artists, but in his time amongst these pretend practitioners, he heard whispers of something far darker. Hints of omnipotent beings beyond earth's scale called the Ouroboros and the cults who followed them.
Following the advice of an old witch, he traveled far to the west past the ruins of babel tower and the crumbling cities of ancient man who once held dominion over time itself. Clive moved beyond the wounded basin and the floating mountains where gravity is warped beyond recognition. There on the edge of a vast forest far past the western sea was a small village unfit for mortal lives with homes claimed by nature; broken glass making room for enormous trees and unruly vines that choked the very foundations. Even if the houses were fit to stand, there were no tables, chairs, beds, or food, and the nearest river lay more than a mile from the salty sea. It was clear that people had not lived here for ages, and yet they came. Just like Clive, pilgrims from around the world arrived on the 28th day of the 4th month. They came in preparation to end a decade long ritual that had begun on these very grounds, a ceremony that would conclude with the opening of the grand mausoleum untouched by nature's fury. Not one vine, weed, or root grew upon its silvery stone and gothic masonry, the ground before it was scorched and free of life. Even the tree's bent away as if trying to escape from a terrible blight.
"What's going to happen?" Clive asked as the pilgrims gathered to offer their prayers.
"Don't you know? The dead will dance tonight." A young woman replied with a grin that spread from ear to ear. "The dead will dance for our lord."
He smiled in return, it was a claim he had heard on countless occasions but never seen delivered. Perhaps this time, he would be wrong; perhaps this time, he would see the proof he craved.
During his stay, Clive observed many unusual rituals, but to his surprise, none involved drugs or incense of any kind. Their faculties were unimpaired as they painted their faces and chanted in tongues he didn't recognize. As the sun rose and fell, they partook in elaborate dance and offered prayers to an unknowable lord, but Clive remained unconvinced. They were like children with an ouija board, and he was going to find the one moving the planchette. Still, there was something in their chants that caught his attention, something that seemed to call to him in ways he couldn't understand. Many prayers were offered as a way of giving thanks or receiving blessings, but this was more a warning. These people did not worship benevolence but fear. Clive translated only a single passage still found in the fifth chapter of the Tenebrae in aeternum.
"There, at the center of all things where light may never reach, where mass bubbles and convulses and vapors are rigid is seated the source, the wraith deity Cere-Gayzu. His existence is absolute upon the boundless plains where past, present, and future swirl in futility unable to extract compassion from his manipulations. Blinded by his hand, Cere-Gayzu knows the path and is the path upon which only the lifeless may tread. Lord of the inanimate and puppeteer of the thoughtless hunger, Cere-Gayzu existed when matter only knew darkness, and he will exist long after it returns."
There was something about this God that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand to attention. It was a warning after a fashion, but it was too late to leave without scars. With the sun gone, the moon, blood-red in magnificence, rose high into the sky. It was Cere-Gayzu's right eye, and it looked down upon them, steadfast as the doors to that ancient mausoleum opened screaming in protest. Many were hit by a rush of stale air as if the structure held its breath for decades, only now finding relief.
Inside the mausoleum wasn't at all what Clive had come to expect. There were no coffins or remains, just a vast hall as tall as the tallest tree held up by marble arches. At the end of the room was an enormous statue that bore many heads of foreign beasts with the body of a man and six arms outstretched empty of blades or tools. At first, Clive felt that this was an idol of Cere-Gayzu, but he was mistaken. The statue was merely an elaborate prop, for crooked upon its lap was a mirror that reflected not the sun nor the light of a man's eye but instead darkness so deep that even the brightest star would find no harbor. Yet, it was strange for as black as the mirror was he could tell it swirled and boiled, a mass of ink thicker than blood. This tangible abyss was the throne at which they worshipped. Yet, worship is a poor choice of words for the fanaticism that occurred at the feet of that blasphemous idol.
Ten minutes before the stroke of midnight, the promised hour of the dancing dead, thirty men and women drew blades sharper than the finest steel and plunged them into their hearts. Not a word of protest was uttered save the screams from Clive's lungs as a sixteen-year-old girl took her life with such sick satisfaction that it was not lost even as she gargled up blood.
Eight minutes before the stroke of midnight, Clive slipped upon the marble floor covering himself in the blood of a man whose vacant stare caught upon the abyss in the mirror, which now seemed to drip like a thick cream. Clive looked on with stunning realization; this was not a show nor an act of any kind. These people gave their lives for a fanatical faith, he had never before witnessed such devotion, and it made him genuinely sick.
Four minutes before the stroke midnight, Clive found his feet backing away from the horrors around him, but, in a moment of most grievous error, he stole another look at the mirror. There in the darkness, something moved. Something that he couldn't see but from the corner of his eye. Something heavier than the weight of the world and yet so empty that neither ocean nor sea could fill it. The abyss was its seat, and from there, the void passed over him like the maggot he was sparing him not a second glance for the whole of his being was not enough to draw even an ounce more of attention.
One minute before the stroke of midnight, he ran from that place, never once looking back sweat jumping from his body like fleas from a cat. He jumped from the hall just as the doors closed shut, and the bells in his head sung to an ominous hour. Even as he ran through the woods, he could hear whispers in the wind.
"Apud gaudium ego chorus." The words flew as fast as he and echoed as if still caught in that cavernous tomb. "Apud gaudium ego chorus."
Clive ran far from that village with the wind at his back until the cursed whispers were no more, and he collapsed with exhaustion.
In the morning light, he was found and taken back across the western sea, where he lived out the rest of his days in seclusion. You see, he had learned a valuable lesson and chose to live in the benevolence of light and the safety of ignorance for Clive the coward didn't need to see the devil to know that he exists.