The Gate to Nothing

This Week’s Prompt:36. Disintegration of all matter to electrons and finally empty space assured, just as devolution of energy to radiant heat is known. Case of acceleration—man passes into space.

The Resulting Story:It Fades,It All Fades

The prompt this week is one of a cataclysm made by human kind’s ascension to an unacceptable height, specifically beyond the bounds of the earth into the stars. There are echoes of similar stories in both Classical and Biblical stories of hubris that we will discuss before examining the possible story routes this might take, from stories of survival to stories of despair. And perhaps how each could take the form of horror.

Hubris is a tradition among the Greeks for years. It is perhaps best and most famously expressed in the story of Icarus, where in Daedulus is imprisoned by King Minos in a labyrinth of his own construction. Daedalus constructs two sets of wings using wax and feathers in order that he and his son might fly across the sea and escape. He warns Icarus not to draw too close to the sea, or the waves will engulf him, or too close to the sun, where the wax will melt. Filled with joy at his wings, however, Icarus flys toward the sun and then plummets to his death as his wings melt away.

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Bellérophon, one of the first heroes of Greek Myth, likewise meets his death in ascending. With the horse Pegasus, he attempted to ascend Olympus after slaying the Chimera. He attempts this twice over Pegasus’s protests. The third time, Pegasus bucks him per Zeus’s instructions, and Bellérophon…well, plummets to his death.

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These two stories of hubris, however, are personal tales. The prompt is regarding one of more cosmic significance. And for that, there is the time honored tradition of the deluge story. The deluge is a tradition across the world, and often has something to do with humanities…problems. Among the Greeks, the Deluge was over the decline of Bronze Age man. Among those of the Near East it was due to the noise caused by humans, disturbing the sleep of the gods. The Bible implies, by placement, that the flood was caused by perhaps the Nephilim or the raising of the Tower of Babel. The Maya story varies, but reasons include transgression or neglect of proper duties.

I could not locate the cause of the Hindu flood, which was also survived by a man with a boat. This begins the second theme of these myths: after the deluge, the survivors (if there are any. The Maya story has every member of that race of mankind destroyed) repopulate the earth and often play some role in defining the laws that are to come. This next race of human kind is almost always shorter lived and less grand then their ancestors as well. But they are more pious or perhaps more strongly instructed to avoid offending gods in that way.

The flood then is the means by which the divine punishes mankind for stepping past his bonds. But…well, the heat death of existence is a good deal more permanent then that. Heat death is the reduction of all movement, all existence to nothing. The prompts to something more like the end of Ragnarok or the floods of fire in Revelation, which have a sense of total annihilation. These though are eventually followed by rebirth. The death of the Sun in Egyptian and Aztec myth is more akin perhaps, but still not quite imminent enough.

No we must abandon folklore here, I fear. It is too cheerful and lacks the sort of dread and doom that this story seems to imply. The fear being invoked here is one of emptiness, of annihilation in every capacity. It’s an almost tragic doom decreed by fate. And for that, inspiration might come from the realm of Poetry.

Particularly, the poems around the end of World War 1 come to mine. T.S. Elliot’s Hollow Men at the end becomes that disturbed and doomed atmosphere. The Second Coming by Yeats is much similar, although one filled with dread of a coming future more than a wasteland. There is in both, however, a sense of collapse of the world and everything around it. From these we might create an account of the final days of the universe.

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The horror of annihilation must be balanced against the implicate tragedy. After all, while a slow death of existence is somewhat horrifying in the existential way, it is …well, rather dull. By definition, little happens as the universe winds down. It is a whimpering slow death, not the grand death of dramas. How to make that engaging then?

Well, partially this can be achieved by drawing an omniscient description of decay, but a purely descriptive story is rather boring as well. No, it occurs rather more interesting to describe how the last man becomes the last. The wandering of two souls, one on the verge of death, the other weighing whether to follow him into the void that expands forever outward and inward. Or perhaps the person struggles in vain to reverse the collapse? That might be the best yet.

Yes, an island floating in the void, as the ground around it breaks apart, as the plants begin to wither provides an excellent marker of time as things end. Who these people are is another matter entirely. I am not sure myself. I would be in favor of scholars and scientists, stereo typically those most capable of such feats as to hold back the flood gates of oblivion.

That is all I have for this prompt this time. But maybe, in this broken jaw bone of lost kingdoms, you have seen etched something grander. Something more beautiful. Or more dreadful. Similar topics have been discussed here and here.

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The Shedu

Prompt This Week: 21. A very ancient colossus in a very ancient desert. Face gone—no man hath seen it.

Research: Look Upon My Wonders, And Despair!

Dear His Imperial Majesty and Protector of the Faith,

As you requested, I have continued to take a record of the disturbances that plague your kingdom. I have ridden far, from the jewel of Istanbul to the southern lands where Arab tribesmen dwell. And it was there I encountered my unfortunate delay.

I was investigating reports of a lost manuscript, one from Bablyon that had been smuggled south and lost in a sand storm, when I heard from a travelling merchant of another oddity: a statue in a mountain, near the Basket of Gold.  Raiders from the early days of the Caliphate had settled around it, and was haunted by djinn of ill repute and fickle nature.  The merchant, who introduced himself as Rostam Al-Dahak, offered to guide me to those who inhabited the area now, who he assured me where more civilized folk.

Thus, with steel by my side, I made my way out into the Azir Mountains, south of the City of the Prophet a good ways before we arrived at the strange tribes men. The merchant made good on his introductions, speaking some unfamiliar tongue. He explained that besides the Holy Koran, the people here knew not a wit of Arabic. They spoke some language of their own, precious to them since Babel. Despite that, he spoke some as well.

The tribesmen, simple folk with iron weapons bought with wool and sheep, where a bit alarmed at my presence. Rostam explained that they were very wary of outsiders, particular men from Medina. They thought the secrets of iron and textiles the work of ghuls and desert spirits that conspired against the Prophet. The belief seemed strange at the time, but we shall get to that shortly.

For the time being, Rostam brought me to the headman, a man that the Lord of Creation granted a long life and a healthy mind. His beard was short and white, a cloud puffing out of his chin. He wore a woolen robe and hood even indoors, and spoke with Rostam briefly in their own language.  The elder meddled with some beads before nodding along a bit. What follows is the best transcription I can manage, translated by my dear Rostam, and summarized for purposes of time.

There is, according to the esteemed elder of the tribe, a mountain that was hollowed out by an ancient sorcerer, who tamed the winds and forced them to raise metals and jewels, that he might have a paradise hidden form the eyes of the Lord. Vain in his deeds and hopes, he made metal halls and shining stars, binding strange servants of brass and light. Fiery ifrits were forced to serve him, and in the dark halls he prayed wastefully to idols carved in stone and offered sacrifices atop fiery altars made by the giants of Ad and Gog.

The foul sorcerer could not, of course, avoid the gaze of God. Even in that time before the Prophet, peace be upon him, walked the earth, holy men abound. A number of them gathered around the entrance to the sorcerous chamber.  They pounded their staves on the ground, and uttered many prayers to end the abominable practices that occurred there.  And there faith was that of the esteemed desert hermits, such that the Ineffable One moved the mountains.

The earth shook and scarred as the, as Rostam put it, wind of death descended into the hold from its resting place in the peak. Howling like raging wolf, it descended upon the halls, many armed in its terror and strangled all it found with a hundred limbs of smoke. And it tore and rent all of its contents, its singing swords, its women of metal, and its dark writings.  But the power born in Ad’s statue frightened the wind, and it cowed about it, before being recalled unto heaven. So the place still stood, surrounded by the work of the Carrion Wind.

The elder started then speaking in hushed and more rapid tones, and Rostam did his best to convey the knowledge.  They said that the mountain had laid abandoned thus since, but raiders and nightly demons still made offerings to the strange statue, that its foul powers aid them.  They walk atop desert storms and storms with drums of thunder when it is pleased. When it is not sated, the shepherds see hosts of locusts and worse growing on the distance.

The elder admitted to Rostam that he could show us the way to the strange fortress. It was not a hidden place, he said, to those who knew the mountains. He sent with us a shepherd who had slipped into sleep that day. He laid us faithfully, if reluctantly, to the mountain. A pillar of stone that was stained black in places. Wounds seemed to have been struck along it sides, such that a number of springs bubbled strange rivers out. A great cavern stood along the side, between the four rivers of bile. Surely, great shadow of the Lord, it was something forsaken by Nature and Man if not by the Lord of the World.

Rostam and I proceeded alone. Not even the stern shame of sloth would motivate our guide to enter that dimly lit cavern. Lanterns in hand we entered the belly of the beast.  Its sides shone as if wrought from iron and steel, and were cool to the touch. The ground was a single piece of metal, a passage way more completely crafted than any other. The reflection of the fire danced upon the sides. The air was thick as we descended deeper and deeper. At last we lighted upon the room of the Carrion Wind.

There was in fact a statue there, a colossus unlike anything these tribesmen had ever seen. I, however, and no doubt yourself, Commander of the Faithful, recognized it swiftly. A tall and might form, that resembled a lions, with something like a man’s head, and a pair of thrown back wings. Two bull horns poked from its top. Certainly, it was nothing more than a mere pagan idol. It was well made, certainly, with the only flaw being the cracked and smashed face.

There was blood splattered, of course, along the bottom of it. And a number of shimmering swords were cast about it, shimmering like the walls in the lantern light. Rostam shivered as a chilly breeze came up from the depths of the mountain. No doubt greater secrets or oddities lay there, a treasure trove lost to time.

I was examining the statue when the light first flickered strangely across it. The smooth skin grew small dusty hairs.  As I raised the lantern closer to examine the workmanship, I saw it move more certainly. With a low moan it breathed in. The cavern shook as it breathed out. I started back as the lumbering thing stirred, its shoulders stretching. Its beard unfolded, slowly, into a multitude of limbs. Its wings rose and fell, the entire cavern swept by its movement.

It had no face still though. Its head was jagged and broken, it’s face and skull apparently smashed in.  It slouched forward and lumbered off its platform with cool assurance, swords breaking under its paws. The tendrils flickered out, stroking the air absent mindedly. I sat silent and still as it paced about. Rostam…Rostam did not. He cannot be blamed. The beast’s visage was the fear work of nightmares, its face bleeding sap and its body bestial. I must commend Rostam, for only shouting in panic and attempting to run.

The creature, if it had any sense, surely had excellent hearing, and immediately pounced upon, a boulder of muscle crushing him. The beast made a noise, a gurgling noise, and raised its head a triumphant lion over a lamb.  Its tendrils gripped Rostam’s clothing, and tore flesh and cotton apart with ease. I rose slowly, considering what could be done against such a creature, faster than the wind and stronger than steel.  I decided swiftly that if this was to be driven from your Imperial Majesties lands, a division of men twenty strong, armed with rifles, might suffice. If the Most Generous be willing.

It shouldn’t then be noted among my sins that I fled. I did as quietly as I could, careful not to step upon a single blade or piece of rubble. I moved as slowly as I could, the steel floor catching only the slightest of my movement. The beast was pre occupied with tearing into Rostam’s flesh, though as I began to pass it, I noticed it was not actually devouring him.

The creature was instead jabbing the pounds of meat onto itself, probing its own face for a mouth. It turned about sluggishly, making a strange moaning. After several ponderous steps, it lowered its head and pushed about several of the swords, its  root like limbs struggling to grip them.  Gradually it pulled its head up, stuttering as it did. A beard of blades surrounded it as it turned toward the exit, it long breath growing strained.

I have, I admit, put little effort in placing the location of that fortress. Nor can I explain what occurred to the beast, although I speculate that perhaps the elder misunderstood the story. I suspect, possibly, that the great creature has –unfortunate for itself – a great intolerance to blood. Whence it came I cannot say, nor whether those blades were its or others. The mountain is a strange one, but it is a danger that can be avoided, should we simply wall it up with stones and boulders. A simple solution, I think.

 

Your beloved Servant.

 

I believe this story may have been a misstep. I could not quite get a grip on a deeper horror, or rather, found it much harder to express than an initial draft focusing on a British empire. I was a bit too eager to return to a good corpse I think. Something I will keep in mind as I go on.

What about you, my brothers and sisters? Was it frightening?

If you enjoyed it, consider looking at the previous visit to the Ottoman empire.

Also, a note: This story did draw some inspiration from our good friends at horror prompts. Check them out for some good off-kilter poetry.

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Look Upon My Wonders, And Despair!

Prompt: 21. A very ancient colossus in a very ancient desert. Face gone—no man hath seen it.

Resulting Story: The Shedu

This prompt brings to mind a number of the things. Firstly, and most obviously, the poem Ozymandias :

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.” (Shelley)

OR

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place (Smith)

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The poem of course relates to the great Pharaoh Rameses II, and supposedly the Pharaoh of Moses time. Egypt held British imagination, and by extension Mr. Lovecrafts, for a multitude of reasons. Firstly was its staggering age. Egyptian civilization ranges from 5000 B.C.E. to 0 C.E., longer than any civilization elsewhere in the world. The preservation of that nation, the elaborate burials and the sand covered monuments, also elated the modern world which played with the notion of eternity. It was a bit of otherness that was nearby and attached to antiquity.

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And Egypt is famed for a number of monuments, perhaps most famously the Pyramids and the Sphinx. The Sphinx surely is more in line with our prompt (since the pyramids bare no face), and is common in Mr. Lovecraft’s conception of Nyrlanhotep. The Crawling Chaos’s most famous name is ascribed to ancient Egypt, as a lost Pharaoh lost Pharaoh of a bygone age. His faceless form (here conceived by cyanyurikago) may well have been created in response to this prompt.

Sphinx

But the sphinx offers some interesting potential. The prompt elicits some prehuman creator, and if we are to construct a monument that has been created by something inhuman, an inhuman body might help. There is the precedent of similar forms across the ancient world (as the ancient aliens people have noticed, albeit incorrectly), particulary with Greek sphinxs, the Lamassu of Mesoptamia, and a number of creatures in Southeast Asia.

We then have a few notions tied up in the story. Firstly, we have the idea that some knowledge has been forever lost to humanity (the face, at the least), and that some intelligence has robed mankind of its place as the first to build (an existential dread, as others have come and gone before), something of the nature of time (the desert evokes worn down nations, and with certain organizations attacking the remains of desert dwelling civilizations lately, a topical fear), and something of the nature of life. After all, if the makers cast it in their image, they certainly only barely resemble human beings.

To its lost nature, we certainly have a precedent in Lovecraft and elsewhere, with a number of lost cities to pick from. To leave Egypt, we have the city of pillars,Irem. Located in the Arabian desert, Irem was supposedly the home of occultists and things worthy of God’s wrath. Mr. Lovecraft expanded it as the home of disturbing and alien creatures, particularly reptilian things. We might also look to the ancient Zoroastrian and Persian texts that talk of Hankana, a fortress for Afraisiab.

IndianaJones

Someone like this, but more professional.

From all this, however, we can gather a notion of who serves the best protagonist. Whoever suffers the most from the horror, feels its stings the most accutely, should be the victim. Best, then, some archaeologist or antiquarians, who worries about what has been lost. Given the Middle Eastern nature of most of these, our good friend the British Empire might provide a good servant. There is some trouble, constantly poking at the Empire for protagonists, however. Some other arrogant power would have to do. A cold war expedition, perhaps from the United States in the region?

The problem there is that the Union has never felt eternal. Always it seems to be at risk, and its reign as superpower has been punctuated by existential dangers (from within and without). Perhaps the other direction then? Something more ancient? We could return to the era of the Ottoman Empire,who held sway over both Egypt and for a time Arabia. Certainly we could lead into our story with a discovery by our lost investigator. An Ottoman occult investigator certainly is something I haven’t heard of. Or an occult institution.

What is added, however, to the horror of each empires? The British discover of course, that their place is not special. That civilization did not spring from the Isles or Rome, but somewhere they would right off as backward and worthless. The Union finds that as well as increased dread that something that cannot be known exists in the world. The United State’s age of supremacy was built upon an understanding of the world that was near complete (or felt so). What wasn’t known could be discovered, nothing was beyond the pale of human understanding.

The Ottoman Empire of course suffers a bit like the British (though depending on the placement of the desert, not nearly as much) and its own eternity is a bit more imperiled. Depending on the time of it’s discovery, the dual element of declining empire and the lack of men as mighty as the prophets may play into the decay as well. The British and the United States lack a belief or idea of decline, for the most part. The old man of Europe died a much more awful death than England did, a decay more than a sudden dispersal. Still, I’m torn.

What do you say, dear brothers and sisters? From which land shall we sew our lost story? For some added difficulty, I may try and complete the latest horror prompt from these fine folks, and draw from the word “seed pod”.

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