“Doors lead you nowhere;
Creatures are doors
Night’s full of darkness and dangers galore
Doors lead to nothing;
Flesh is a door
Light’s full of darkness and dangers and more”
– From “The Book of Twisted Song” by Ilios the Birthtaker
Dreams of the Nautilus, Part I: Flesh is a Door
Gideon needed to get out of his current mess. He’d taken the wrong turn, he was sure of it, but hadn’t been able to retrace his route once he had realized his mistake.
If the rough-drawn cloth map he had forcibly procured from the Inn back in the dry lands was accurate, he might be nearing the marshes. Not a good destination. No use trying to find his way back now, he thought, he had come to understand that such a course of action would be futile so near the Heart of the ancient fortress, Cannalbrae.
He knew the old legends, the old wives tales about how your mind could project things into being by the sheer proximity of the Heart. That was how vile old Ilios erected his fortress and from there spread his empire across the inner realms, by learning how to control his mind and harness the power of the Heart, or so it was told.
Festooned with daggers on leather straps criss-crossing his chest and back, armed to the teeth as it were, he nevertheless felt naked and terribly vulnerable, fragile.
The air was starting to turn gassy. He could smell the primal decay, the ancient muck that ate at the very fabric of reality as projected by the Heart emitting its gaseous excretions which could drive a person to madness. Madness, but something else as well; madness here could produce new worlds, new universes, abominations. Madness in the Heart marshes could have ramifications of dire depth.
He moved steadily through the increasingly mushy ground, the dirt giving way under his feet, pools rushing in to fill the indentations left by his prints. The dread miasma threatened him with its odd burning in his lungs, but he steeled his thoughts and thought only of a road going straight to the fortress. If he was strong enough in his resolve, than the Heart would heed his mind and change the land around him, allowing him safe passage. While the wetness of the marsh and the sickening air were certainly worries on his mind, it was the vestiges of mental projections from pilgrims who may have come before him that preoccupied him. There was no telling what manner of horrors might have sprung and destroyed their progenitors, left free to roam and prey on those foolish enough to travel through this hopeless land.
To his amazement, the land did begin to change around him. The murky marsh waters which had been lapping at his calves began to part as if sucked away, the prelude to a tidal wave. But no wave came as the waters dissipated and were absorbed by earthen walls that rose, caused by the same force that parted the waters, a corridors of suctioning earth to watch his traverse to the fortress.
He had been through many trials on his way to the innermost realms, taken lives he may have spared, committing crimes that would surely come to collect one day, all in the certainty that his cause was just. This little great trick with his mind, this was the first bloodless triumph he had achieved. It felt… good. There might be hope for him yet.
He had little time to dwell on this turn of events as he crested a small hill that gave way to a sudden drop into a dark, desolate valley, and at the bottom of that valley was the Heart fortress, home of Ilios Birthtaker, the dark world’s maker.
He had been only a child when they had found the dead man, the corpse in the copse. Raven-pecked and maggot-ridden, the body had been feasted upon by all manner of carrion-mongers and fungi, a paradise in the cold dampness of the copse’s shade. Rough hemp clothes, ravaged by the weather and vermin post-mortem, covered what parts of the body had not been taken over by a parasitic denizen.
Gideon and his three brothers used thick logs and branches to turn it over and found a sack under the corpse. The hempen cloth sack the man had carried and, apparently, fallen upon had within it three books. Two of those books were of little import, as Gideon and his brothers soon found after browsing quickly through random pages, but the third proved to be quite something else.
Bound in tough, thick leather, but like that of the cattle Gideon and his family were used to, was a copy of a book that had been forbidden for hundreds of years, The Book of Twisted Song.
The book had been written by none other than the tyrant creator Ilios The Birthtaker, named thus because of so many transgressions that to list them would be a study in eternity. Suffice it to say that the first time the moniker had been used with the name Ilios was when it became clear to the rulers of the various realms that the Heart had been tapped and the ability for it to create and give birth to new worlds and new creatures had been subverted, controlled, thus the birthing of the new was irreparably taken from the Universe. An alleged affinity for new-born children and afterbirth never confirmed – likely hearsay as is wont to be attributed by the peasant folk –, the sheer enormity of the crimes and their repercussions across the dimensions were still felt, nearly a thousand years since the advent of the Empire.
All four brothers scurried to hide the blasphemous tome, which was reputed to contain the secret of mad Ilios in its nigh-inscrutable prose, lest any curious passersby get a whiff that they had found something of interest, much less the terrible item in question.
Later that night the mischievous foursome gathered, huddled in candle-lit silence as they all read the book mutely with their eyes. The poetry in it was strange; it was clearly reminiscent of the nursery rhymes and limericks they were used to – nothing quite like the sober, adult stuff their parents read – but it had an edge, it left in the mind an aftertaste of darkness, the body uncomfortable as if covered in a film of filth. For days the scrutinized the works therein after the initial full reading, rapt and doggedly set upon uncovering the secrets that lay in it, but this was to no avail. After weeks, three of the brothers lost interest, reading it only for fun every now and then, but not Gideon. Gideon had had a seed of something planted in him, in his mind, something from the darkness, and it had taken root quickly. It grew with each new reading, and each new passing of the eyes over a passage yielded a sense of incremental understanding, ever-so-gradual, slivers, shavings of elucidation, enlightenment.
He grew strong, as did his brothers, but his mind grew exponentially sharper than theirs. This was widely known in the realm and he had garnered some small fame as one to bring a puzzle or riddle to. Gideon Knot-Breaker, they had come to call him by the age of seventeen.
But he was not content with being a young wiseman by trade, not enamoured with the idea of settling down to grow fat and grey in his birthplace, nor was he tempted by the idea of traveling into the greatest city of the realm, Asartha. No. He knew, from reading the twisted tome, that mad Ilios still lived, holed up in his fortress, holding the dreams of the Universe hostage, creation caged. He decided soon enough that he would sojourn to the Heart fortress and there set creation free.
Damn the light and damn the earth’s roots! He thought to himself as he propped himself against a damp rock wall, breathing heavily. And damn the Birthtaker a thousandfold!
He had been stuck in the fortress for days. At first it had been difficult to get in. It had defied his every attempt at a breach, the walls unyielding, no doors or windows through which to infiltrate the structure. Then he recalled one of the pieces of prose: The broken mind in kind will find the way to pierce the wall behind.The poem it belonged to was titled ‘The Unyielding’.
He had turned and walked backward… and hit the solid rock.
And then he recalled the admonishment in the foreword of the tome: When things impossible or dire be done, succumb with abandon to darkness. Before the light, before the word, before the rise of all the fold, there was only darkness.
He tried once more but this time with eyes closed. There was fear in him, for anything might sneak up on him and attack him, but he walked on, backward, until he felt something enfold him like a silken sheet, wrapping him and passing over him, and a moment later he felt the silken embrace relinquished. He opened his eyes and found himself inside a small hall, circular with stone awnings opening into stone corridors that each lead to a door.
Relying on a hunch, he picked the seventh awning he’d counted when he’d first gotten there and opened it. Once through, he instinctively turned to look back and was met by a sheer stone wall, as if no door had ever been there.
From that moment on his progress through the overlapping labyrinth that was Heart fortress had been an exercise in protracted horror and misery, pain and shame.
There were denizens there. Some said they had always been there in some eternal stead, some claimed to have been brought there by means unknown, some claimed to have actually been born there, but Gideon could believe it not at all. He had been using up his wits like some form of currency until he could rely on them no more. He was exhausted and now, lying against the cold rock wall, he could not seem to gather his thoughts.
Strange creatures roamed the halls of Heart Fortress, and their nature was hinted at in the tome Ilios penned. They were clearly devised by the mad man himself, as well he had made his fortress a temple to despair, so he had made his creations an homage to derangement, the epitome thereof.
One such creature, a crab-like thing with eye-stalks describing the entire perimeter of its shell, two scorpion tails and a pair of pincers larger than his head had been after him for some time and he had only now managed to thwart it, having found a sledgehammer he could only barely wield with some proficiency, and he let it smash the creature, collapsing its shell which produced copious amounts of off-white gunk that smelled of cess.
He had found the place where he had to go and there that crab-thing had attacked. Now the way should be clear, so he made his way there, winding through the maze that led to a large set of doors where a giant might walk through standing to its full height.
Gideon opened the doors outward and was met with a dead end comprised of bones. The way was blocked, cemented in skeletal concrete, an ossuary blockage.
One of the children of the fortress’ denizens had come trailing him unbeknownst to him and now the little boy made his presence known. Not startled, but certainly bothered, Gideon chastised the child a little before telling him it was ok, that he would help him get back to his parents.
Tired and irritated, he sat down, back against the wall, and decided to rifle through the damnable tome. There had to be something in it that would show him the way… and he found it. Flesh is a door, the title said, and he knew, from the first line, that this was the key. Doors lead you nowhere, it read, Creatures are doors.
What a strange turn, that. He had killed a creature, one specifically guarding this place, perhaps it meant something. He read on.
Night’s full of darkness and dangers galore, it went, and it seemed to mean little else but its literal meaning to Gideon. Doors lead to nothing, this could mean something other than just a door being a dead end. Flesh is a door, ah, the change in the turn of the phrase in comparison to its equivalent in the previous stanza, somehow conveying poignancy, a sense of heightened meaning. Then the final line, another variation to the equivalent of the previous stanza, Light’s full of darkness and dangers and more.
He thought he had cracked it.
He made the trek out back to where he had left the creature’s carcass and dragged it back to where the child and the doors waited. Liam said the creature could be eaten and, despite the foul smell of it, Gideon found that indeed it could and that its taste was surprisingly sweet.
Little Liam told him about the stingers and about how they were still quite deadly despite the creature being dead, told him that powerful venom could be extracted from it and weaponized.
After the meal, Gideon got the hunch that the creature’s venom-producing glands were somehow instrumental to getting through, so he set about carving them out of the foul-smelling husk. They were like overgrown prunes, but olive-colored, and cold to the touch.
He then asked the child if they used the venom for anything else, and Liam sheepishly said the adults sometimes took small dosages of it late at night to pass the time. It was, then, as he had suspected; the venom could also be a hallucinogenic.
He asked Liam to watch over him while he tried this himself. That night he did not sleep, but he was caught in a dream that always bordered on becoming a nightmare. He travelled a long desert of pitch-black sand, the skies covered in clouds of volcanic ash, the sun a dark, crimson red a little above the horizon. It was dreadful. And when he reached some sort of destination, a strange oasis of sorts, there was a small doll that looked like a boy. It looked like Liam.
There were small versions of the creature, miniatures no larger than his hand, and they were stinging the doll repeatedly. After a few dozen stings the doll turned to ashes before his eyes and a chasm opened on the sandy grown where the creatures and the toy’s ashes were, swallowing them up. The chasm then closed and a small threshold of light began to open and grow until it reached the size of three meters, the light projected engulfing him, blinding him into wakefulness from the sleepless dream.
Waking was grim for the knowledge he had earned. Waking was grim because there had to be another way. He could not sacrifice the child. He would take one of the adults, that was of no real consequence, but a child… a child he could not.
Without telling the child anything about his vision, he ordered the boy to walk with him, they were going back to his hovel, to his parents.
The way was barred. There was only stone, there was no corridor, there was no other way.
Gideon felt a strangled rage bubbling up inside him, anger at Ilios and his mad contraption, hate for himself for having had the fancy of coming here and being so stupid as to think he could accomplish anything, but he remained outwardly stoic.
He asked Liam if he was tired, to which the boy replied yes. Of course the child was tired; he had kept watch over Gideon through the night.
He moved to pick the child up and Liam’s head rested comfortably on his left shoulder as he walked back to the doors. He carried the child and sang to him until he fell asleep.
Once Liam was snoring, Gideon put him down and paced for some minutes, trying to gather his strength for what needed to be done, if not his wits so as not to go insane with horror at his own self.
He busied himself preparing the venom. He would give it to the child through the mouth. He could only hope the hallucinations were not too terrible as the child’s mind was taken by gods-know-what and that death came quickly for him.
He cried as the drops of clear, dew-like venom fell from one of the glands and crashed inaudibly on the child’s tongue. He used as much of the venom as he could in hopes of making the child’s death swift and as merciful as could be mustered. Then he waited. He waited and he wept.