Not who. WHAT.
The creature before me is more shape than substance. It is humanoid in design alone; beyond that, it is not hyperbole to say this thing is not human, rather an amalgam of flesh and anachronism.
Its face is protensive, split endlong into five separate, distinct slices. Each slice is a poor simulacrum of the last; the faces protrude from the creature’s cranium, wriggling within hairy, wrinkled skin-pouches distinguishable by inattentive, jostling eyeballs. One eye per pale, translucent sac; this is the only symmetrical aspect of the formation.
The eyes roll freely about in their cystic pouches, careless. One or two of them notice me, the rest observe the soupy white tunnel surrounding us.
Everything about its skin is veined, pitted, pocked, and boiling. In stretches, its surface is blue, gray, brownish pink, maroon, and greenish white. Several parts of it look ready to burst.
It has many arms and legs, although it uses few for locomotion. Some of the limbs are equipped with singular, finger-like appendages gripping seemingly random objects: a bow, a shape resembling a giant bird’s beak, an apple, a chain, a seashell. The rest seem to be reaching, feeling, experimenting; occasionally one of the limbs bends back toward the body sickeningly, touching the head briefly then going completely limp, as if chastised.
One of the limbs—one of the few with anything resembling a hand—holds an egg. The egg is taller than I am, grey, and covered in hair and veins.
The creature has three mouths that do not move when it speaks. It speaks incessantly, at length, and apparently telepathically. It lurches slowly, deliberately toward me, commanding the space between us with vile jibberish. It accosts me in every imaginable language. I don’t hear this in the usual sense; instead, I understand—with my mind—that it is communicating with me.
“Disingenuous! Claw. Cloaca. Sialogogic. Cavitary, prolapsed fractally. Pungent. Du du du dubious! Prrom. Glangla, thrripthra qtwokkog, id est, edis rehto eht no retteb era sgniht epoh tsum ew?”
want me to
“Hello?” The word dies on my lips.
The creature flails; all of it moves at once, as a crowd.
Limbs I hadn’t yet seen fray apart, themselves becoming limbs of limbs. Treelike, it seems to unfold. Parts of its torso web and split, poly joints unhinging to reveal smaller nesting ungulae.
The creature blinks
its whole self
It moves with alarming speed. It was there, and it is here. Before me. Upon me. Over me. Its shadow becomes my own. I am consumed by
f e a r
I open my eyes one at a time. The thing is inches away from my face, leaning over me. Its body sags toward my own.
Simultaneously trying not to scream or vomit I mouth, deafly: “What…where, am I?”
“I is crossing.”
Okay, I understood that…
“Ah… oh. Uh….”
I’m backing away. Warm mist rolls across my neck and shoulders. Wisps of the tunnel wall lick at my arms, back, and legs. My body revolts, electrified. I step sideways and fall onto the soft tunnel floor, which erupts in a cloud of flumes around me. Drunken, writhing ballerina tornadoes twist up from the floor and dance away.
“What do you want?” I say too loudly, as I try to shimmy away from the creature. “Don’t come any closer.”
All of this happens silently before me:
All five of the creature’s eyes alight on me, glisten, swell, then burst at once leaving five dark, wet holes. New eyes grow and fill the gaps. It begins to convulse violently. Its vesicles shake. Limbs retract into the torso. The more massive appendages absorb the smaller ones. A sphincter on its side loosens, puckers, opens. Bony arms reach around to place their treasures carefully inside the new hole. Faces push outward from beneath the skin around the creature’s neck. Tortured, gnawing mouths stretch forth, then retreat. The skin becomes chameleonic, awash with hues of red, purple, brown, pink, green, yellow, blue, and uncountable colors I cannot name, swirling as oil on water.
A moment later the creature completes its transformation. It is more humanoid than before; less treelike. It stands on two legs, naked and sagging and grotesque before me. The five new eyes seem to hang awkwardly from a head that is upside down, dangling from a neck that is too long, too bent. A sharp, pointed nose protrudes above each eye. Above the noses are five gaping, smiling mouths. I see teeth, black and gray and grinning.
The mouths move in unison: “Betra?”
I nod furiously.
“Nethgirf ot naem tndid.”
I blink. Once, twice, thrice, frice. It is still existing.
“What shmize I go by?”
Name. It wants to know my name.
“I am… ah…” fuzzy. I am something. What was I? Before I was here.
“Mmmahh,” the creature mocks my vocalization, pleasantly. All five of its mouths smile. A thin arrow juts out from a bleeding knot on its foremost arm, the end of which is curled into a blurry mess. It doesn’t seem to notice.
“Are I go toothy city?”
The creature stretches its cleanest arm, pointing at something behind me. My body refuses to let me turn to look.
“Sa. Betra.” Staring. Both of us. My skin goes cold. The fog seems to spread away from me. One of the five mouths curls in a snarl. The creature’s skin darkens. The eyes begin to widen slowly as it opens its mouths
I turn away
and in the distance, beyond the circular end of the tunnel, I see the long, dark outline of a massive structure plummeting toward me. Scramble to my feet. Knees shaking. My pants are wet. I’m suddenly aware of how tight this clothing is. Everywhere my skin feels suppressed, suffocated, swollen.
The hairs on my neck stand on end.
IT’S RIGHT BEHIND
I spin, bringing my hands up to stop it, but the creature is walking away. Quite far away, actually. The egg balances on a woven basket on its back, bumping up and down with each step it takes. I watch the egg grow tiny in the distance until the tunnel mist swallows it all together.
Then I breathe.
Turning, I see the creature. In front of me.
I scream. No sound comes out. The creature screams. Too much sound comes out. Mechanical agony. Distorted octaval ripping. Augmented tonal nightmares. It moves. Closes on me.
Its scream tapers; its muscles weaken, relax. Its eyes twitch and loll and search the tunnel around us until they find me.
The creature speaks. This time, I feel the vibrations in my chest. Its voice is deep. Low as an oceanic titan.
“You must go into the city. She waits for you.”
The creature leans forward, throat bulging. A face emerges, pressing against the flesh of the neck. The skin crawls apart, revealing a new head with one huge eye hanging in an open socket. The creature’s outer head leans back to give the newcomer space to operate.
“You ask the wrong questions, Mah.”
“Instead, consider this: you are nowhere. This is nothing. You are everything. This is always. Where you were is not. Where you go will be. Do you see?”
“Take the egg. It will get you where you need to go.”
The creature turns slowly, waddling side to side until the prominence on its back is revealed to me. It kneels and shrugs the woven satchel from its shoulder. The egg lands on the mist, which seems to cushion the fall.
“How is this going to help guide me?”
“How do I carry it? It’s too big.”
The creature stands and revolves until it faces me once again.
“When you reach the gates of the city, you must remember not to speak. We have been destroyed by your sound once yet. You will do worse to the dwellers there.”
“What will happen… if I… if I speak?”
“If you are caught, you will be Separated.”
“What… I don’t…”
“Take the egg to the city. She waits there for you. You will understand soon enough.”
The creature shuffles toward the end of the tunnel whence I began. At last, it disappears behind the fog. I search the mist with my eyes but do not find it.
I am alone. With the egg.
Turning, I see the dark shapes of the city taking form. The tunnel appears to have slowed and shrunk. Buildings creep past either edge of my vision. I feel the speed of my vessel as we descend closer to the ground.
When the tunnel comes to a stop, the fog unrolls, forming a lake around me. Taking the woven satchel by the handle, I swing the bag up on one shoulder, stumbling to keep the egg in balance. It is not nearly as heavy as it looked. It is cumbersome, though. The size makes it awkward.
With one hand gripping the woven strap over my shoulder, I take my first step on solid ground. The city is dark and cold before me. I see it stretching up beyond an expanse of grey clouds, as domineering as the mountain to the lone tree.
The sky is void of stars.
Darkness forms new constellations for me.
And the egg leads me into the heart of the mountain.