Excerpt for Into the Astral Lands by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Acknowledgments

Thanks to my patrons: Jessie, Lisa, Melissa and Lakiesha. And thanks to D.W. Landsborough and James for beta reading the early drafts of this story.

This short story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, are used fictitiously. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the author, except where permitted by law.


INTO THE ASTRAL LANDS

Copyright © 2018, by Eric Malikyte

All rights reserved.

Cover art by Eric Malikyte






Into the Astral Lands

by Eric Malikyte


“Who are you?” Adam asked. “Why do I keep waking up here?”

The man tilted his head. There was always something off about him. It wasn’t just the fact that it was hard to tell what he looked like in the dark here. The only detail he could see was the smooth, acrylic mask that became visible when the man shifted position——a thing which almost never happened. There was a strange pressure that Adam felt when staring in his eyes——into what he assumed were the man’s eyes.

For weeks, he’d been dragged here in his sleep. His soul, snatched up from his body and carried off to God knows where. At first, he wrote the experience off as a mere nightmare that he couldn’t shake. But, dreams disappear. They ebb. The memory from this place——and he knew, somewhere deep inside himself, that it was a place as real as any other——never faded. It infected every aspect of his waking day. When he stared up at Earth’s blue sky, he could almost trace the outlines of that massive thing whose tentacles seemed to radiate out of an eclipsed, dying star. The corona bled out from the edges of some other body that blocked its light, and illuminated faint hints of its impossibly massive, twisting tentacles that blocked out the stars of alien worlds and distant galaxies. They covered the entire sky, as if they——whatever they were, and whatever they belonged to——constricted around the planet he now found himself standing on.

If it was a planet at all.

No matter how many times he asked, the man never answered his questions. He only stood there, staring through and into him. Perhaps he was studying Adam? Waiting for the right moment to speak? It was pure madness sometimes. To stand there, staring endlessly at the man’s silhouette. He dared only to look away for moments at a time, each time to study his surroundings. He found it strange how the land seemed barren, like pictures he’d seen of the moon. There were strange obelisks with jagged and fragmented surfaces that reflected the eclipsed star’s light. They seemed to sprout up from the earth, covered in a strange inky substance that clawed through the dusty surface like roots of some dying plant or tree. Sometimes, if he stared too long at one of those obelisks, he’d see teeth and eyes staring back at him, and he’d shudder, feeling a piece of his sanity peel away, never to be reclaimed.

Something always compelled him to look back at the man’s face. The man always kept his limbs hidden beneath some kind of long, draping cloth or coat that stretched past his feet, resting on the earth with fraying and torn edges.

The cries of a dying child echoed through that terrible place, twisting and wrenching at his heart. The masked man did not move.

And, eventually, the nightmare would end...

Adam opened his eyes. It was still dark outside. The ceiling fan was turning slowly, making that nearly inaudible grinding noise that was almost soothing in the stillness of the night. He had three hours until his alarm clock went off. Lilith’s cries pierced through the paper-thin walls from the other room. Part of him wasn’t sure if he was really awake. There was a silent fear inside him, as if when he entered his daughter’s room and carelessly glanced at the night sky through her bedroom window he’d see that same eclipsed star and those twisting tentacles, writhing, clawing, grasping, until they covered the entirety of the Earth.

He was having a hard time telling reality from that other place lately.

His wife rolled over and nudged him.

“Baby, I’m knackered,” Sophia said. “It’s your turn to feed her.”

She rolled back over and yanked the comforter off of him. He sighed and rubbed the heavy bags that dragged his eyes open. No, this was not that other place. He was sure of that now.

He stood up, feeling the weight of his tired, middle-aged bones——the flesh that seemed to hang on his skeleton as if draped on a coat rack——and walked into his screaming daughter’s bedroom. Her cries threatened to rupture his eardrums as he cradled her in his arms.

Holding her didn’t ease her anymore. Not since the nightmares started.

Maybe she knew?

Adam picked up the bottle with Lilith’s formula in it. He placed it near her mouth the way Sophia told him to. She started to suckle on the bottle’s nipple and quieted down. She’d start up again as soon as she had her fill, though.

With the silence came a persistent buzzing in his ears——or, perhaps it was at the back of his brain?

It was almost hard to recall the first time he held her in his arms. How bright the fire burned within him. Now there were only embers.

He stood there, holding his daughter, staring at the night sky. Maybe it was his imagination, but it almost looked like something was moving in the darkness...

“Oy! What the hell, Adam!” Sophia stormed into the room, snatching screaming Lilith and the bottle from his arms.

The harsh, piercing beeps from Adam’s alarm cut through the walls and arrested her senses. The sun was out now. Sunburst rays cut through the foliage of the tree outside Lilith’s bedroom window. Adam’s eyes blinked for a moment, as if he didn’t know where he was.

“What in the fuck were you doing, sleeping standing up?” She shouted. “It’s bad enough what you said to my dad last night, but this is absolutely mental!”

“I need to get ready,” he said robotically, walking out of Lilith’s room with stiff movements, like his legs were asleep.

How long had he been like that?

She set Lilith down in her crib and followed him into the bedroom, where he was slowly putting his trousers on, staring at the vanity mirror with a detached look in his eyes. She’d seen that look before, and it filled her with such indignation for him. Would he be so irresponsible?

“I swear down, Adam, if you’re hitting the pipe again, it’s out on the fucking street you go!”

He barely registered that she was there. He pulled his trousers up, buckled his belt, and slipped a dress shirt on, buttoning it as he dragged his feet into the bathroom. The door was locked. She banged on it, hoping for an answer, anything.

“Oy! Don’t ignore me, you fucker!”

Her mother always warned her about American men.

*****

Adam sat at his cubical, staring into the black mirror of his computer screen. The screen had turned itself off to save power. He was tempted to leave it off. The harsh light from it made his brain hurt lately. But, if he did that, his boss would yell at him. He hadn’t made a single sale all week, and his co-workers were already giving him side-ways looks.

He rubbed his eyes.

He couldn’t remember when the screen blanked out. Couldn’t recall how long he’d been staring into it like that.

“Adam!” The rough, sandpaper quality of Mr. Trent’s voice caught his attention. He turned around in his seat. “I need to see you for a moment.”

Adam stood up. His legs felt week. His head, light. Maybe he was coming down with something? Yeah, yeah that was a good excuse. He’d use that.

He entered his boss’ office. The cologne Mr. Trent used to mask his body-odor permeated the air, almost made Adam gag as he took a seat in front of the desk where his boss sat. Each time the man breathed, it was as if the very act of sitting was physically taxing. Trent was a fat man, but he always specified that he liked the term “big and tall” at office parties. Adam hated parties, especially ones where Mr. Trent was present. Sophia once referred to him, in her own special way, as an arse-licker. Mr. Trent kept his desk rather barren, except for the occasional box of takeout from the Chinese food place across the street. The box of noodles and meat sat open, its pungent odors mixing unevenly with his boss’ cologne and body-odor. Trent interrupted his favorite thing in the world for this. That couldn’t be good.

“What’s this all about?” Adam asked, trying to sound attentive, as though he hadn’t just been caught staring into a black screen for God knows how long.

Mr. Trent sucked his teeth. “You know what this is about. Don’t play stupid, Adam.”

“I’ve been coming down with something. I know I haven’t made a sale all week, but-”

“A lack of sales for the week is hardly your biggest problem today. That mess you made in the break room has Ellen threatening to go to HR. She thinks you’re some kind of Satanist.”

“Satanist?” He blinked. “I don’t understand.”

“I always heard that you went to Church, so I didn’t want to believe it myself, but-” Mr. Trent lumbered, stood up, and placed a photo in front of Adam. “-we took pictures. And we’ve got video from the security tape of you doing it, too, so don’t try to say that you didn’t. Proof’s in the pudding, as my grandma always said.”

His heart battered his ribcage as he held the photo in his hand, staring at the strange, demonic symbols that had been drawn on the white-board. His writing hand itched, throbbed, like it had just been asleep.

“The look on your face says it all,” Mr. Trent said, waggling his chins as he nodded.

He could feel the blood drain from his face, as if harvested from the proboscis of some parasite that had latched onto his neck. Adam recognized those symbols. How could he have missed doing something like that?

“Well?” Mr. Trent asked. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

He remembered staring at the fresh list of leads in his email, and how his eyelids had felt heavy. How it’d be so good to close them, rest them for a bit.

He remembered closing them. And then he remembered that other place.

How he had stood staring at the man with the dirty, acrylic mask. The memory was so powerful that he could almost feel the dry, freezing air of that other place burning his skin as he sat in his Boss’ office.

“Why am I here again?” He’d asked the masked man.

The man turned and looked to the eclipsed star. The dim, eerie light from the escaping corona revealed an elegantly carved smile in the man’s mask. The mask looked ancient, as if it were forged by a god long since dead. The light also illuminated his tattered hood, and draping cobweb covered cloak. It seemed to have the texture of rotted flesh. Its eyes were holes, and there was only darkness in them. But, when Adam stared into those eye-holes, he felt that familiar pressure.

The masked man raised three gnarled, blackened fingers, bidding him to follow him somewhere with a slow——almost meticulous——“come hither” motion. “Come, Masku. This place. The Spider’s strength grows.”

“I don’t understand!”

The masked man turned and started to walk away. Adam felt compelled to follow him, and so he did. The cloak dragged along the dusty earth, the frayed edges were almost like claws raking lines in the dirt.

The billowing cloak was mesmerizing to Adam. He almost didn’t notice the shifting landscape, the way the scenery seemed to change around them as they marched forward. An occasional glance to the sky made him shudder. Those impossibly massive tendrils that radiated out from that eclipsed star looked almost like the walls of a tunnel. And then they were the walls of a tunnel, slick with muck and slime. The eclipsed star seemed to have been replaced by a dim light at the end of the tunnel. There was a whistling sound and a sick, damp feeling that clung to his skin. It filled him with trepidation.

“Where are we going?” Adam asked.

The masked man did not answer. Adam’s footsteps echoed and reverberated off of the slick, mucky walls of the cavern. The tunnel never seemed to end. No matter how far they seemed to walk, the light never grew.

Adam was focused on the back of the masked man’s head, the slight shifts in position it made as he inched his way forward through the tunnel. And then——as if traversing a doorway——everything was different again.

Now, they were up to their knees in swaying, tall grass. The grass was the color of blood. It made clicking sounds when two or more blades touched. The sky was something else. It had the texture of a ruinous ancient structure. There were thousands of support pillars silhouetted against the only light source for miles; it radiated out from a central structure, above a spiral staircase that cascaded down from a doorway the shape of an open maw.

“Come,” the masked man said.

“In there?” Adam asked, fear chopping his words into jagged bits.

The masked man walked forward, and Adam followed, despite his trepidation——despite the gnawing, panicked feeling that he should turn tail and run for his life.

His feet dragged, almost as though they resisted the hypnotic urge to follow unceasingly that his body could not. The dragging feeling persisted, even as they entered the mouth door and assailed blackened steps with strange symbols in them.

And then, something tugged at his foot.

“What the-” Adam turned, looked at his feet. They were covered in some kind of ink, a black sludge that seemed to grip at his ankle like tiny fingers clutching at a cliff side. It was like the stuff that came from the jagged obelisks from the place they’d just been.

The masked man turned his head, looked at Adam’s feet, but it was too late. The ink tendrils yanked at Adam’s legs, and he fell flat on his belly, knocking the wind right out of him. The next thing he remembered, he was being slapped in the face by blades of razor sharp grass. The masked man was running after him one moment, and then the next, Adam’s body was carving a trench in that disgusting tunnel, and then...

He could have sworn that the man’s mask had a frown carved in its surface. An elegant sign of displeasure.

“Are you listening to me, Adam?” Mr. Trent said.

Adam snapped back to reality. He gave his boss a jerky nod.

“Jeez-Louise, you’re useless.” Trent sighed, heavily. “We can’t have someone like you wasting our customers’ time and offending productive employees. I’m sorry, Adam, but I’m going to have to let you go.”

Adam nodded. He wasn’t even disappointed.

“Collect your things, get out of my sight,” Trent said.

Adam stood up.

The memory from that other place was still clear in his mind. It was as if he was in two places at once. He had been lying on his side in the dirt, the reflective blackened surface of one of those obelisks rubbed against his skin, cutting at his very essence as roots of ink wrapped his body, climbing into his mouth. He remembered choking on them, feeling a sensation like the crawling legs of thousands of cockroaches making their way down his esophagus. The last thing he remembered before waking up in his office chair was the sight of an open maw with razor sharp, rotted teeth banging against the wall of the obelisk. He remembered being afraid. He didn’t want to be eaten by the mouths of that thing!

The masked man came running to his aid. He dragged him away from the obelisk and ripped the inky tendrils from his mouth and limbs.

But it was too late.

He went for the door——then he stopped——a sudden knowing fell upon him, a thing which escaped from his lips with a will of its own.

“Oreseth is coming.”

The words were uttered in a low, guttural tone that was not his own. When he heard them, he knew that this was what the message said in the photograph. He felt another part of his sanity peel away, felt it drift away like flower pedals in spring——carried by the winds of chaos.

Trent’s eyes glassed over when he heard them spoken. His lips quivered and twisted into a frown. He reached his twitching hands up, started to claw at his face with his fat, stubby fingers. He started to scream and hyperventilate. His boss’ final words were an incoherent mess of panicked nonsense. He was searching with his hands for something, feeling the desk——knocking the open box of Chinese food onto the floor with a clumsy swipe of his arm——then the floor, and finally the window. Found its safety latch. Popped it. And out his fat body went, as if grabbed by the eager hands of gravity itself.

Adam was found standing at the window, peering down at the splattered mess that Mr. Trent’s body made on the pavement below.

Trent was smiling, and so was he.

*****

The guards pulled him from his cell, dragging him along the corridor of holding cells to the room where they interrogated him the other night. His wife was sitting where the Detective who questioned him sat. Her hair was a mess. The guards cuffed his hands to a metal ring on the table, and then his feet to the chair, told Sophia that she had ten minutes, and left the room.

“Did you do it?” Sophia asked after a time. She asked him the same thing every time, as if she’d been convinced otherwise by her snobby bitch of a mother, or the media.

Adam shook his head. He found it difficult to speak since... he tried not to think about that other place. When he thought about that thing using him as a puppet, stretching its blackened, inky roots deep inside of him——to the center of everything, the thing inside——he was tempted to say its name, to spread its message. He’d only uttered its name once and look what it did! He couldn’t do that to Sophia. It took every ounce of will power he had.

“The cops are saying you did, that there’s witnesses.” She shook her head. She hadn’t worn makeup in days. There were dark circles rotting the flesh away beneath her eyes. He wondered if she’d seen that other place too? “They say that the DA is going to push to go to trial.”

“I... didn’t...”

“Oy! Speak up, Adam! This is serious. You could go away for life if they convict you. If that happens, I don’t know what Lilith and I will do.” She held her head in her hands and started crying. “We’re already skint as it is.”

It was an effort to reach his hand across the table, to try to touch her hand. The handcuffs stopped him. Metallic clanking rang off the walls. Her eyes vibrated through her fingers, staring at him. Perhaps she was considering how much humanity was left in him?

He resisted laughter at the thought.

“I have to go.” She stood up. “I have to pick up Lilith from daycare.”

He nodded.

She almost said I love you, but the words caught on the edge of her tongue. It was curious how he knew this. How he knew that her love for him was eroding, rotting the way a slab of raw meat spoils if left out in the sun for too long.

She buzzed herself out, and the guards took him back to his holding cell. Once he was tucked safely inside with his cellmate, his laughter took hold. His cellmate glanced up from his newspaper only once. He knew that once it started, it couldn’t be stopped.

Adam fell in on himself. His back slid against the stone wall as madness took him. His fingers clawed at the rough cement floor, searching for any kind of writing instrument to get the symbols out of his mind.

To get Oreseth out of his mind.

When the fits of laughter came, he felt that other place surrounding him, burning his skin, calling to him. The smell of rotting earth assaulted his nostrils. It took everything he had to keep himself from drifting off, from falling asleep, and traversing the doorway in his mind.

He’d been writhing on the floor for countless hours when he heard his voice. His cellmate had fallen asleep, covering his head with his pillow.

“My child, I heard about your ordeal.”

Adam stopped laughing. His throat was raw. He tried to say hello to Father Lorso, but only managed an arid gasp.

“No need to say hello, my child.” Father Lorso crossed his arms.

He wanted to ask if Sophia told him...

“They’re playing what you did on the news, you know?”

Adam shook his head.

Father’s tired, old eyes looked troubled. Maybe he could sense it? “It’s true, isn’t it?”

Adam couldn’t speak.

“Yes. I feel it. Something’s got you, hasn’t it?” Was there an air of joy in his voice? “Yes. You were always such a good soul. This clearly must be the work of the devil.”

Adam cleared his throat. His heart seized upon him. He grabbed for the bars of his cell. “Can... you... can you save me from it?”

Father Lorso’s callused, arthritic hands caressed his own. “God willing.”

*****

“Is this a nightmare?” Sophia asked, clawing her fingers through her messy hair. “I can’t believe you did it!”

She shook her head, tears ran lines of melted mascara down her cheeks. Adam sat staring at the wall of bullet proof glass between them. His hand had to be forced to hold the phone.

“My mother always said you’d go off on one,” Sophia said. “And it seems, rightly so.”

Adam looked at her briefly, really looked at her. There was an emptiness in his irises. His once healthy complexion looked——no, it couldn’t be turning gray. It must have been the lights in the visitation room. Adam said nothing and resumed staring at the wall behind her.

She remembered how the guards brought her aside, warned her not to expect too much. She didn’t believe them. Adam was usually pretty tired, sure, but he always looked at her. Then, they shook their heads, told her to sit down. They were quiet, like they weren’t too happy to be delivering a bad bit of news to her. They handed her a photo of Adam’s cell. There was an outline from where the blood had been marked, faint hints of demonic symbols that he’d written with his cell mate’s blood. The guards said that they caught him eating his brains. It was a crime scene photo.

Even through the trial, the guilty verdict, the sentencing, some part of her held on, believed that he was innocent...

But this was not her husband, not the man that she met in a bar down in London while he was on leave from his Naval post; the man that took her dancing and went to church and asked her to marry him in front of a golden flaked sunset at the Grand Canyon. That man had his problems, he was a recovering drug addict. But that was PTSD, she knew that. He hadn’t relapsed in years. This, though?

This was not the father of her child.

“Right, then.” She stood up, flattened her skirt out. “Be that way. No one’s going to help you after what you did, and Lilith certainly doesn’t need a murdering psychopath for a father.”

Adam’s eyes flicked briefly to her. The whites of his eyes were bloodshot. She remembered how he’d been the day he pushed his boss to his death, how he held Lilith in his arms, staring out the window with that same dead look in his eyes. What if he was thinking of dropping her too?

She shuddered.

Adam’s eyes once again returned to staring at the stone wall behind her.

She was about to tell him that she was taking Lilith back to her mother’s in London, that he’d never see them again, and that she hoped he rotted in jail... but, it seemed like a futile effort. Whatever had happened to her Adam——how it twisted at her heart and made her gut sink——he would not have answered, maybe he wouldn’t even bother looking at her again? She didn’t think she could take that.

Sophia straightened her hair out, rubbed her eyes with the sleeve from her coat, and buzzed for the guard to let her on her way.

*****

Adam had spent the last five days avoiding sleep. He knew what would happen if he allowed himself to fall through the doorway. He tried his best to keep his focus, to keep from drifting off. He even made a shiv to poke himself when he got too close to finding the door, and going back to that other place.

He hardly spoke at all now. His entire being, every ounce of his will, was now spent on staying awake, to keep himself away from that thing in the obelisk. Though much of his humanity was gone——he knew that——he still had some dim hope of salvation. He still held out hope that he’d see his daughter and Sophia again, that they might be a family again.

Father Lorso would keep his promise to deliver him from this evil. How long ago had that been? The trial had come and gone, and he’d been back to that other place several times. The thing in the obelisk took him again and again, each time, the masked man freed him, it was like they were playing tug-of-war with his body... no... not his body... his essence...

The thing inside.

He wasn’t allowed to have a cellmate any longer. Not after he’d been found chewing on the last cell mate’s brains. Adam had no memory of it. They didn’t believe him. He was too weak to argue anymore. The second trial went quite a bit faster than the first. The public defender didn’t bother arguing, didn’t even try the insanity plea the way they do on TV. They added another life sentence to the one he was serving.

Sophia wasn’t there. Maybe she wasn’t even in the States anymore? Back to her mother she’d crawl, with Lilith in her arms. There was nothing he could do about that now.

There were blackouts. Lots of them. He couldn’t tell if he was falling asleep and waking, or if time was simply passing over him. His eyes always burned like hot coals now, and his brain felt like it was rolling on needles when he turned his head.

“Are you listening to me, my child?”

Father Lorso was sitting in front of his cage. When had he gotten here? The good Father was smiling, showing his yellowed teeth. There was a guard behind him, standing watch. Father had lots of friends.

“Yes, there you are,” Father said. “I think we’re ready now, aren’t we?”

Adam tried to nod, but he lacked the strength.

“You asked me before the trial if God could help you with your-” Father cleared his throat, coughing into his wrinkled hands. “-unique case.”

Father Lorso’s yellowing eyes exerted a familiar pressure, and Adam tried to shake his head, tried to call out to the guards; but, again, he lacked the strength. This wasn’t Father Lorso! It couldn’t be!

“I’m afraid that I lied to you, my child. I’m not the man you thought I was. God cannot help you, as I’m sure you suspect. There are things much older, beyond time, beyond self.” Father smiled, reaching inside his cloak for something. “I always knew you were special, even as a child you had such unique gifts.”

An open maw smashes against the reflective walls of the obelisk, its teeth are black and yellow.

“Do you know who has touched you, my child?”

Inky tendrils slide down his throat. It feels like cockroaches——no——spiders! It feels like spiders crawl down his throat!

“I knew it, I felt it. Even before the news started replaying the story over and over on the television.”

The masked man comes to free him, ripping the tendrils from his throat, but each time, he’s slower and slower. Almost as if he’s losing interest in him.

“The one who wields such power that the very mention of its name drives the weak willed to madness!”

“No.” Adam’s voice was an airy whisper, a shadow of what it once was. “The masked... the masked man will free me.”

“Masked man?” There was alarm in Father Lorso’s face. He shifted on his stool and retrieved a tattered book from his robes, flipping through the pages until his eyes jerked open, wide with shock. “No. Not him.”

Adam managed a low chuckle.

“You fool. You think the harvester of the abyss wants to save you?” Father shook his head. “He serves the abyss, he wants what the thing in the abyss wants.”

“What?” Adam managed.

“The thing inside you.”

Father Lorso shook his head. “Why is he after you?”

Adam shrugged.

“There’s no choice then.” Father stood from the stool. He broke the chain that his cross dangled from and let it clank against the floor. His robes fell into a puddle around his ankles. Father Lorso stood naked, his arms opened up. The symbol that was branded across his chest was that of a spider with too many mouths, too many eyes.

“The Spider must be released from its prison.”

There was a syringe in Father’s hand. Father Lorso beckoned the guard over to him. There was a jingle of keys. A quiet clanking as the key turned. The gate screeched open. The guard held Adam down. Father bent down next to Adam’s exhausted body, pushed the needle into his arm. Adam’s heart thundered through his chest, his eyes burning and pulsing at Father Lorso’s tattoo. He had to be hallucinating.

He thought he saw hundreds of inky hands waving, grasping at nothing from the belly of the spider tattoo.

“Back you go, my child,” Father said. “Back into the Astral Lands.”

Adam felt what little strength was left in his body leave him as Father Lorso sat at the edge of his bed, cross legged, eyes closed. He felt the darkness. It was all around him. The freezing air from that place. He could see those faint tendrils that radiated out of the eclipsed star, twisting and wrapping, like ancient roots from a malignant oak tree that was older than time itself. He could see the obelisks that stabbed up from the dusty earth, like knives stabbing through an Eldritch doorway.

Father Lorso’s aged naked frame was there with him throughout the transition. His eyes closed, his mouth moving, speaking alien words that he couldn’t understand, that he didn’t want to understand.

He was lying flat in the dirt of that other place.

“Quickly now,” Father Lorso said, grabbing Adam by the arm and dragging him toward one of those jagged obelisks. “The Spider shall not wait.”

“Let me go!” Adam found that he could speak in this place. Here where the smell of rotting earth permeated the air around him, where the darkness was strongest. He pulled and kicked at Father Lorso’s legs, but Lorso was stronger than he looked.

“You don’t know what kind of an honor this is, boy!” The spider on Lorso’s chest was moving. It was no longer a brand, but a splatter of blackened ink that pulsed and shrank with each breath he took.

Then, Father Lorso saw something that made him stop moving. The smell of rotted flesh and decaying books. A familiar smell. Adam turned his head to see the harvester of the abyss. The expression on its mask was a frown. Its arms were pointed down, its back hunched, its cloak dragging, clawing at the dirt. The pressure that it exerted on Adam was paralyzing. Father Lorso was shouting. Trying to move. But he couldn’t.

Adam felt the cold slithering touch of one of those inky roots crawl up his leg.

No. Please! Please stop it from taking me!

The harvester of the abyss approached Father Lorso’s frozen, twitching incorporeal body. It raised its arm up. The drapery that covered those massive fingers fell away, and in the light of the eclipsed star, Adam could see that they were not fingers at all, but segmented appendages with the reflective quality of a snake’s skin. The harvester gripped Father Lorso, its appendages wrapped around his frail body, like three snakes constricting an emaciated deer.

Father Lorso screamed. The harvester’s grip tightened. Lorso’s body popped and broke and bent and shrank, until the harvester’s appendages squeezed so tight, that they reduced the old man’s frame to a mere inch in width. His eyes had exploded from his skull, mouth hung agape. The harvester tossed his body aside. There was a darkness that hung across Father Lorso’s body where he had been squeezed now, and Adam knew that he was dead both in this world and the other one.

The tendril that crept up Adam’s leg pulled, dragging him away from the harvester. The mouths smacked and drummed against the reflective surface of the growing obelisk. He tried to scream, but the spiders were already crawling down his throat, filling him, racing toward the thing inside.

He didn’t feel his body crash against the obelisk, but he felt The Spider’s touch the thing inside. He felt the Spider——Oreseth——twisting inside of his mind, cutting his essence to ribbons and re-purposing it. In that moment of contact, he saw something:

The Spider’s touch pierces the thin veil of his sanity.

The abstract of time is revealed to him.

He sees the molten Earth, billions of years ago. Two gargantuan beasts clash with each other above the surface. One; a spider with thousands of inky limbs that drip and dangle from its segmented body, and great, sprawling legs, with blinking crimson eyes, and a mouth that has millions of teeth cascading back into its maw. Its name is Oreseth. Two; a massive worm with six arms, and twelve yellow eyes that is disconnected from the circle of the Earth, its tendrils yearn to drain the life from worlds and feast upon the essence of those that live and die on its surface. Its name is Malo'Thul.

The Spider and the Worm clash. Their battle causes the entire Earth to shudder and break in half as they vie for dominance, to gain the right to find the weak place, where it's possible to pierce through. The Spider is powerful, but it is no match for the Worm. The Worm seals the Spider in the Astral Lands, beneath the circle of the Earth.

The Worm leaves. Oreseth cannot feel Malo'Thul from its prison. This, Adam knows, should be impossible. The only way to escape the sight of Oreseth is to leave this universe entirely, to break away from the cage created by Zhel'Azreth.

To become a god.

Oreseth believes that Malo'Thul has done this. It shouts from its prison, it rattles Adam's mind and strangles him in its maddening grasp.

Time speeds by Adam's eyes. From the Spider's prison beneath the circle of the Earth came strange creatures with many legs, who walked blind. They are the first of many creatures who will serve the Spider. Adam sees them all, though his mind cannot process their coming and going, their wars, or their evolution.

He feels as though his mind is at its limit.

He sees creatures——that seem to be made in the Spider’s image——building a gate made from strange materials beneath a sky of ashes. Their numbers grow fewer and fewer as the gate to the Astral Lands grows closer to completion. They create three keys to activate the gate, but they’re attacked by strange metallic invaders with wings made from light. The creatures retreat. They cower and hide within their ruins.

The Spider writhes and claws at Adam’s mind.

Adam sees the Antarctic. The sky is consumed by a single crimson star. And beneath it. Oreseth rises from the gate, dragging the Earth with it.

Adam wonders if this is the Earth’s future.

The harvester of the abyss yanked the ink roots from Adam’s mouth. There was a sense of loss at the severing of that connection. Adam’s mind was nearly gone. Replaced by the knowledge that the Spider had given him. The harvester wrapped its appendages around Adam’s body and yanked him free of the rest of the inky web of roots and tendrils, save for a single thread that remained stubborn.

Cracking noises echoed through the air as it stared at Adam face to face. The mask changed. A smile, or a grin, etched across the surface. It started to walk away from The Spider’s obelisk——its window into a world it can’t inhabit——dragging Adam with it.

“You are ready,” the harvester said. “The knowledge is ripe.”

Adam didn’t understand. His mind was reeling from the visions he saw. He yearned to be part of the Spider again, to see the rest of the story. He started to chuckle.

The twisting tentacles from the eclipsed star spiraled, transforming into the walls of a cavern slick with muck and slime. Through the cavern’s bright door of light, they crossed into a field of crimson grass, where the sky was a ruin of stone, supported by impossibly massive stone pillars. There were statues standing on the ruin now, peering down at him as the harvester dragged his body through the open maw of a doorway and up the staircase. The ceiling pulsed, breathed, like flesh. The steps were soft beneath his weakened body.

Finally. The harvester stopped. It stood Adam upright, facing the room they’d entered.

The walls seemed to be constricting and expanding, like the inside of some beast. The floor was stone, ancient and decrepit. It crumbled near the center, where scale became meaningless. The hole in the center of the room was a sprawling black hole. It was eating a star and several small planets.

The harvester lifted Adam into the air and dangled his body over the edge of the accretion disc. Adam tried to recall how he got there.

Somewhere, deep inside himself, he yearned for Sophia, to hold Lilith one last time. The harvester’s mask featured a smile that was full of jagged teeth. Dim, white, dots shined from within the eye-holes in its ancient mask.

It released its grip, dropping him into the black hole.

Time slows down. Becomes meaningless.

He feels his body——no——his essence, get stretched to the limit as it’s swallowed by the unquenchable hunger of the black hole. As he’s swallowed, Adam realizes that there are twisting things coming from the bright edges of the black hole’s accretion disk. They look like the roots of some ageless tree, or the tendrils of a beast from beneath the surface of some terrible ocean with unknowable depths.

Was this the thing that he saw in that other place, was this the truth of the eclipsed star? He feels himself entering the event horizon. His mind is destroyed and remade a million times. Eons pass. Worlds die.

Time is meaningless.

There are things that are beyond time, beyond self, boy. He hears Father Lorso speak to his younger self. He opens a small hole in the confessional and gives him a tattered book to read. The book fills Adam with nightmares and makes him cry for his mommy.

Was that how it started? Or did he make that up?

Time is meaningless.

The harvester is still carrying Adam. He’s always carried Adam everywhere. This is his existence. They walk through a city at the top of those terrible stairs. There are cracks in the towers of that place that are older than the Earth. Ruins float in the distance against a pulsing red sky, each block of shattered stone, a story of its own. Shadows race in the distance, hiding behind walls and doorways from the harvester of the abyss.

There’s a silhouette of a pyramid now on the horizon. That’s where they’re heading. They enter a doorway that eats light.

Time is meaningless.

He floats along with a never-ending stream of broken worlds, devoured stars, and a single thread that stretches crimson from a great tendril. It looks like there’s a tear in the wall of the abyss that has been mended. Adam feels something give way around his ankle. A thread of ink retracts back up through the event horizon. As it leaves, Adam feels what Oreseth feels.

The presence of another universe on the other side of that mended tear.

Adam no longer thinks of the Spider. Tentacles find his essence. Wrap around him. They guide him toward a pulsing green eye, where the undying roots of that ageless thing come from and become clouds of ash. The eye opens up, revealing a translucent mouth.

All he sees is green.

It wants the thing inside.

Its mouth shuts on Adam’s essence, and he ceases to be.

*****

Sophia shuddered. She stood up from her mother’s rocking chair. She walked across the flat, placed Lilith in the crib.

The urge to go outside was strong. She did so. The night sky was nearly black now. She was awakened by a terrible nightmare. The memory of it wouldn’t leave her. The strangest thing was that she thought of Adam as she sat in bed, trying to get a grip on reality once more.

She hadn’t thought of Adam in months. They said he died in prison. Some kind of weird sex thing with a priest. They couldn’t give details, investigation still ongoing they said. She honestly didn’t want to know, wanted to put Adam behind her, think of Lilith’s future, all that.

She felt her blouse for the pack she’d bought the other day. Mother would complain about the smell, but she deserved a smoke.

Sophia lit the cigarette and took a long drag.

That was better.

As she exhaled, though, she had the strangest feeling.

It was almost as if something was moving in the darkness of the night sky.


About the Author

Eric Malikyte was raised on a healthy diet of science fiction, fantasy, and a fear of the unknown. Thanks to shows like Sightings and The Art Bell Show, Eric developed a mixed interest in the sciences and the paranormal. He lives in Northern Virginia, where he spends time working odd hours and talking to his cat while he writes his novels.



A Message from Eric


Thanks so much for reading Into the Astral Lands! If you enjoyed this story and you’re not a patron yet, do me a solid and head over to patreon.com/ericmalikyte and pledge if you’re able.

There are tons of rewards for pledging! A dollar per creation goes a long way, and five dollars goes even further, but following me on Patreon and sharing the page also helps quite a bit.

Thank you so much!

-Eric Malikyte


Contents

Contents

Acknowledgements

Into the Astral Lands

About the Author

A Message from Eric




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