Far below the blasted wastelands of what was left of the Turning World, in the bone-lined catacombs of the Undermaze, the King of Nightmare raced toward the healing room. The flesh of his Far Side form sloughed off his actual body, falling to the stone floor with wet plops. The shedding sensation was akin to being boiled alive over a low flame and being pulled apart with a dull blade. Nightmare endured and careened off the walls, and the skeletons embedded in the hardened, blackened dirt turned toward him with hollow, pestle-on-stone sounds. Red lights came to life in the hollow bone sockets. The ghosts of Nightmare's denizens were ever-watchful.
"Burns," wailed the bass rumble emanating from dozens of skulls. "Your Majesty... you burn..."
Nightmare smashed his fist into a protruding skull. The red lights winked out and the hallway went silent. Nightmare turned sideways to slip through a particularly narrow passage before taking a sharp left. The halls were endless, and they liked to remake themselves. Once upon a time, Nightmare could control the whims of the catacombs, but it was beyond him, now. They ran wild, particularly when Errvyn the Roamer was awake. That one was a thorn in Nightmare's side. With too much sane consciousness and memory of what he'd been before falling to Nightmare's kingdom, Errvyn wandered and rebuilt. Sometimes he obeyed without question, creating shortcuts in the maze of passageways that snaked beneath the flat plane of the Turning World, but other times, he had to be subdued, and that was an expenditure of energy that Nightmare could scarcely afford.
"The slick... the slick..." the voices chanted, slightly off unison and aggravating for it. Nightmare cut a right, halting abruptly at a blackened stone doorway. He put his hands on its smooth surface, felt it tremor in recognition, and Nightmare seeped through the barrier and into the blessed silence of his quarters. Small, narrow, the walls lined with dirt, and lit only by blue-green phosphorescent stones set in the walls, Nightmare's rooms were no palace, but they were sealed in Shadowrock, keeping out most the mad citizens that lived in Nightmare's realm. Only those whom Nightmare granted perpetual audience were allowed to enter.
A cot, furs, hide clothes, books bound in skins, and trinkets that Nightmare loved but could not remember why, were all the possessions he owned. He swept by them, ducking under an archway carved with the Fear language symbols that spelled Nightmare's full name. The adjacent chamber was divided in two: shelving storage and, on the other side, the healing room. He stripped out of his hide jacket and pants and boots, and he grunted when he touched his shirt and saw that it had melted to his form. With a Far Side curse, Nightmare limped into the healing room. It was the length of a human man on all sides, and Nightmare could stand upright within it without having to bow his head. The walls were embedded with stones, red and blue and green and black and white, all shapes and sizes and cuts. The blue and green stones glowed, providing what little light Nightmare needed. It was a comfort, being back in his Undermaze without sun or moon. The Far Side world was so bright and so open. Too much time there, and Nightmare knew he'd lose the tenuous connection he had to his own mind. It was for this reason that Walkers were never meant to linger in the worlds beyond the Turning World for any duration of time. They would forget their real names, their purpose, their... everything. Nightmare shuddered.
Nooks had been carved into a wall in the healing room, and in one of the nooks sat a black bucket full of gelatinous green salve. Long ago, the earth of the catacombs had positively oozed the healing salve. This chamber, and many others, had been built to collect it. Many a twisted dream or ghoulish thought had used the salve on their temporary Undermaze bodies to recover from battle wounds, construction injury, or self-inflicted trauma. Some had used it simply to remember enough of their purpose to serve Nightmare and his realm. The embodied Fallen had a tenuous grip on sanity, though it was a grip that could nevertheless last centuries. The stronger Fallen remembered longer what they were and who they served and what Nightmare did and why. These days, though, Nightmare had to remind himself on occasion that his purpose was threefold and simple: maintain the Undermaze, rule the lesser ‘mares, and condemn those who were ultimately lost to the Feed and the walls, for theirs was a world supported by the ghosts of outmoded paradigm.
Now the Undermaze was beginning to resemble the land Topside. It was scarred and dry and brittle. Lifeless. The salve dripped where once it had poured, and Nightmare had to conserve the resource for himself, else his entire land fall into chaotic ruin.
Nightmare dipped his bony fingers, still riddled with gobs of melting, sizzling Far Side form, into the salve. Carefully, he began rubbing the substance onto himself, sighing when the salve stole the pain and replaced it with healing warmth that did not burn, but brought flesh to life. He massaged, going slowly and steadily and recoating his fingertips only when absolutely necessary. The form fell away at speed, and Nightmare shut his eyes, relishing being so unburdened. He grimaced when the strips of hide cloth that had combined with the form flesh and stuck to his real body began to shrivel and draw away from his sinew and bones, and he peeled them off his chest and flanks, dropping them onto the chamber's floor.
"My... Liege..." murmured a gravelly voice, polite in its inquiry.
"Come," Nightmare allowed, and he glanced at the chamber's wall when it began to shift. Gems tumbled out of the way and dirt fled to cling to other parts of the wall so that a skull shaped like a kite shield could emerge. The forehead was twice as wide as the chin. The face was long and angular, and the single eye socket, jagged husk where once had been a nose, and protruding, toothless, upper and lower jaws were aligned down the center of the lower half of the skull.
"Adimoas the Wise," Nightmare said in greeting. In his life Topside, before falling victim to change, Adimoas had been a very great idea. The kind of idea that changed the pathways of lives, and, Nightmare assumed, likely did, judging by the strength and perseverance Adimoas had exhibited in his time as a wandering nightmare in his King's land. Adimoas had gone to the Feed willingly, and now, the spirit of one of the greatest, oldest ideas was the closest thing Nightmare had to a friend and advisor. He had retained the faculties of his Undermaze form, which few bone ghosts ever did. Nightmare allowed Adimoas inside Nightmare's chambers, away from the rest of the wandering ghouls.
The eye socket came to life, glowing red. "Mal'uud 'au Keen, My Liege Lord and Sire, the King of Nightmare, I bid you a welcome return from the Far Side world."
Nightmare said nothing, concentrating on smearing the salve along the ridges of cracked, sharpened ribs. What remained of his sternum was split in two, pieces clinging tenuously to the few unbroken ribs on either side and leaving a wide crevice that opened to Nightmare’s core. How empty he was; how hollow. He had no heart like the humans on the Far Side had. He possessed no organs. Time spent among mortals was time to think upon how little Nightmare was in the now, as compared to in the then. Every day, every hour, he was a little less of who and what he once had been.
"You appear well," said Adimoas.
"I appear charred." Nightmare tended to his hips and the oily black sinew that wrapped the bones of his long legs. His darkness lit up with colors in the light thrown from the gems, calling to mind mica flecks and soap bubbles. So many pretty things to be found Far Side. Too many.
"Too long on your mission?"
"It was no mission,” Nightmare paused. For a moment, he felt that, perhaps, his Walking had been a mission; that he’d gone with a specific intent in mind. Of all the worlds to which Walkers could walk, the Far Side land had long been Nightmare’s favorite. Yet, he could have gone anywhere, and he had traveled specifically to that land. Was there a reason? Or merely a whim?
As quickly as the feeling visited him, it was gone. He shook himself. Mere aftereffects of the journey. “It was an escape. I do not know how many more times I can afford to traverse the Veil." Nightmare shrugged. "I wish to enjoy what I have left."
"None of the other Walkers still walk between," Adimoas intoned. "You are the last."
"So you have said."
"My king has great strength, which will serve him well in dealing with my messages of the land."
"And so today you are the bearer of unfortunate news?" Nightmare asked, saddened that his home was no sanctuary. It was bad enough that Walking took such a toll and the return was an exercise in fiery agony. It had not been always thus. Nightmare recalled when Undermaze Veils to the Far Side and other lands were as common as the trees had been Topside. Going to and from had cost energy, it was true, but replenishment was easy to find. The Feed had perpetually grinded. The salve had poured. Now resources and means had all dwindled, faded, gone missing. Nightmare knew it was the end times. The balance above had been forever upset, and if the other Walkers had not found a way to stabilize it yet, he didn't have much hope of their finding a way any time soon. He did not want to think upon the days ahead, when his realm grew smaller and smaller and his bone ghosts grew evermore quiet and his citizens turned to so much malnourishing grit.
"I have news of all sorts, Sire," Adimoas said.
"Your eye and your knowing are most valuable." Nightmare sank to his haunches. "Proceed."
"Sire, I have learned where the Storyteller dwells."
Nightmare's head snapped backward, and he fixed all his focus and attention upon Adimoas' face. The ember in the socket glowed brighter. "How can this be?" Nightmare asked.
"He made himself known, and the knowing passed unto me."
"He has been in hiding for an age," Nightmare mused. "Why now? What has changed?"
"I could not speak on it, Sire, but one assumes it is knowledge upon which the Storyteller acts, for usually it is. Knowledge he perhaps went to gain and returned, so armed, to us here."
"'When the Teller walks, it is through Veil as well as Time,'" Nightmare quoted in a whisper. "If he went to the future or the past and gleamed some reason for this unbalanced blight upon our world..."
"Then he has come to us and passed word to me to reach your ears."
"Which means I must go to him." Nightmare gnashed his teeth. "And I have been a fool and spent so much fuel on a meaningless journey to the Far Side." Nightmare rose and stalked out of the healing room and into the larger chamber beyond it. "Going Topside is even more dangerous and demanding than passing through a Veil."
Adimoas emerged from the wall above a stack of books. "What you say is true, Sire. War has raged Topside, and the fires and the smoke touch the sky. Words reach me from all points across the land, and none is unaffected or untouched any longer."
Nightmare prowled the narrow room, angry with himself. "I know of this," he snarled. "Do you think me a blind king? I know of each quake that costs us another branch of catacomb. Hundreds of thousands of your ghost brethren have been lost to me, cut off by avalanches made from the echoes of the thunder up above. I hear the screeches of living 'mares trapped in fallen halls, and I know of each encroaching inch of my land as it creeps closer, collapsing upon itself. I feel the absence of the Walkers, the weakness that is apparent with every shudder of this world. I know my time is soon. And without me, there is no safeguard to stand between you and—"
Adimoas' eye sparked brightly enough to blind. "Speak not his name, Your Majesty," Adimoas moaned. "Please... I beg of you... please..."
Nightmare took a moment and regained his composure. He went to Adimoas' skull and caressed its ridges in apology. "I falter, Adimoas. I falter, and I fear for us all."
"It is energy you need," Adimoas said.
"Always. But there isn't enough. A thousand minor 'mares, and it wouldn't be enough to fight Topside."
"Ah, forgive me, but Sire assumes Topside would require a journey across the land."
"It usually does, Adimoas," Nightmare said. "More so now than ever, as so many of my halls have been destroyed and builders are few."
"But not all the builders are gone from you, my king. Not all."
Nightmare quickened, pleasure thrilling along his sinew and igniting in his bones. "Errvyn the Roamer."
"Yes, Sire." Adimoas was clearly pleased. "I have determined where Storyteller is, Topside in our Turning World. He has made it most clear to my servants, and I have reason to suspect he will not move."
"What reason is that?"
"He is surrounded by the Horrors," Adimoas said.
Nightmare felt his features pull into a grimace. "And still there is no word as to from whence these Horrors spring?"
"No, Sire. None."
"If ever there is something to be feared more than the one whose name you do not wish to hear nor speak..."
"Aye, Sire," Adimoas whispered.
Nightmare nodded. "We will do what we must. We will build to the Teller's position, and I will rise Topside to meet with him." Nightmare paced. "But that will yet still require energy for defense."
"As you say, Sire. Ever-prepared is ever-ready."
Nightmare paused beneath the engraved doorway. He touched the Shadowrock beams and wanted to weep when the power that used to thrum within them was barely a ripple beneath his touch. This world had lost itself. The time for contemplation was over. "Very well. I know what must be done."
Adimoas called after Nightmare, who returned to the healing room. Before Adimoas could fully emerge from the wall in that chamber, however, Nightmare had scooped two full fingers of the healing salve. He grasped an empty pot off its shelf with his long, bony, black-wrapped digits, and he carefully scraped the salve into the container. The resource was precious, the risks he would take were great, but their entire world was at stake. Had been for some time, now, and Nightmare had too long avoided his responsibility as a representative to the Topside. He was King of the Undermaze. He was a Walker. If Storyteller wished to see him, then see him, Storyteller would. And if Nightmare was the last hope, then he would become the unlikeliest of heroes and damn the collateral damage.
"Adimoas," Nightmare said, stalking under the arch and to the entry door leading into his chambers. "Estimate for me the number of bone ghosts who would come to your service if you called to them."
The flat skull appeared near the door, a light dusting of soil falling to the floor. "Despite the losses from the war above, I command thousands, Sire. All who are sane are loyal to you, for we know from what you protect us."
Nightmare inclined his chin to Adimoas in a gesture of mutual respect. "Then sound the word that the time is near in which I will need your legions."
Adimoas' eye flashed. "It is done, Sire, but might I know what it is you are planning?"
"It is best you do not know until it is necessary, but you have my leave to follow me and to watch the next phase." Nightmare slipped through the doorway, salve jar in hand, and it glowed faintly, adding to the hallway's light. Hundreds of skulls turned and stared, jaws falling open in hunger as Nightmare strode through the passageways.
"...the salve... the healing... the wonder..." The bones were chanting, the word spreading that Nightmare roamed with life in his palm.
When Nightmare came to a crossroads, he paused, bellowing his loudest intonation: "Errvyn the Roamer, I summon you to the Scrying Cavern." The bones set to whispering, and Nightmare set to walking. He wove through his kingdom, taking corners left and right and steadily descending. Through narrow passages and grand, wide chambers he strode. Deeper and deeper into the bowels of the Undermaze he walked, until the glowing stones had all but winked out of existence, and he had to rely on the red ring around his midnight pupil to see in the blackness. The rings showed him dead ends and rooms where 'mares lurked, watchful and hiding, else Nightmare be hunting souls for the Feed. There were few new citizens of the Undermaze. Once upon a time, hundreds of new forms were born into this land every day. It would have taken a Far Side year to roam all the tunnels and rooms, and that was only if nothing new was being built. The salve flowed, the resident clans fought their battles over territory and power, the Feed churned, and the King of Nightmare had ruled.
A pain slithered through Nightmare's hollowed insides. He quelled it and used its echoes to put determination in his steps. He followed the pull of the deepest pit of his catacombs, calling out to it and letting it guide him. He was his realm, and his realm was always listening. The hallways that still existed longed for his presence.
At the end of a long, narrow, low passage was a hole half Nightmare's height. Nightmare had to duck and crawl, curling the hand holding the salve against his body. He came out on the other side in a domed room, ten Far Side men tall and four times that in diameter. The cavern sides were smooth and black, sediment in the dirt twinkling like lost fragments of the Topside cosmos. There was a pit in the center of the cavern, a deep, dark pit, that some thought went on forever, down and down and down again. The bone ghosts feared this place, for they believed that in ages past, the Scrying Pit was the doorway through which other Walkers could enter the Undermaze. And there was one Walker in particular that no bone ghost nor 'mare, nor even the King of Nightmare, himself, wanted to contemplate, much less allow admittance to the kingdom.
Nightmare circled the Scrying Pit. The cavern was utterly silent for countless moments. Time was tricky for Nightmare; an hour or a day or a year could all feel the same. Time was more a Topside concern, and much more a Far Side demi god. Nightmare so seldom gave thought or heed to time. Let the Storyteller take that toll. He seemed to enjoy it.
Coming to a halt on the southernmost side of the Pit, Nightmare gazed into its depths. Once, much lost power ago, Nightmare could see visions dancing in the darkness. They would swirl and rise like a fire burned in the heart of the very world that rose here and only here. Nightmare sought out the blackest recesses in the Pit, willing it to share its secrets once again, of the future, of the present, of anything at all. Nightmare craved answers to questions he couldn't even remember, and he despaired, silent in his losses, but thinking upon the Storyteller and answers and the Walkers and those long dead.
Eventually, a rumble awakened Nightmare to full consciousness, and he watched the hole leading into the chamber begin to crumble. Wider and wider, as though someone chipped away dirt and rock and gems with a chisel, the opening expanded, and Nightmare waited, calmly and without any trace of fear. Weakened or no, end of the world or not, Nightmare was still this land's king. He had that position not because of birth or nomination, but because of strength and ability. He rested easy, a god waiting for an ant to show itself.
When the hole was twice Nightmare's height and width, the blackness beyond the entrance shifted and showed itself to be not darkness at all, but a living creature. Last Nightmare had seen Errvyn the Roamer, Errvyn had resembled a man, if a man had four arms and six legs and two heads. More limbs made for easier building, and two minds allowed one to plan and one to act. What each 'mare had been Topside was usually unknown to Nightmare, though he could typically wager a guess. Nightmare supposed Errvyn had been a purpose, a goal, but it, like all paradigms and dreams, eventually fell or waned. To Nightmare's realm, Errvyn had been banished, and he had taken form and had begun his second life, but now Nightmare could see how far gone Errvyn was to the insanity that eventually took all 'mares.
Errvyn the Roamer was a great, hulking two-headed beast covered in flayed strips of foreign skin, no doubt taken from fallen enemies. Bits of bone ghost skulls were tied on strings and draped around his necks and wrapped around all his upper arms. He'd lost four of his legs, the stumps oozing green pus, and the last two shook with Errvyn's weight. Tusks erupted from Errvyn's faces and he, like so many 'mares, had no eyes, but he had two mouths on each face. One head was missing most of its scalp, and brains pulsated in the cracked skull. Errvyn carried a staff that was also a walking stick and a digging spade, and he was nude under the flayed flesh trophies.
"Errvyn," Nightmare boomed. "You face your king. You will do so on your knees."
Two of Errvyn's mouths howled in protest, but Errvyn lumbered into a kneeling position, hands wrapped around his staff for support.
"As it should be," Nightmare said, one hand behind his back and the other one holding the pot of salve in front of him.
"Nothing..." Errvyn began, his voice shrill enough to cause tender ears to bleed, but the mouths on one head screeched in discordant harmony. Errvyn growled, tore off hunks of flesh from his makeshift clothing, and he stuffed the mouths with the strips of 'mare meat. The mouths made hungry little mewling noises, wetly slurping on their treat. "Nothing," Errvyn continued, "is as it should be, Majesty."
"How so?" Nightmare asked, humoring the creature.
"You are fading. The halls are dying. Even the ghosts are losing their appetites for conversation."
"And that is why I have summoned you to this place," Nightmare said. "Do you know what I hold?"
Errvyn licked his maws. "I smell healing slick, Majesty."
"So it is. I wish to bargain with you, the last of my great builders."
"State your business, Majesty, though pray be quick with it. My knees will shake to dust if I hold still too long."
Nightmare allowed Errvyn his arrogance to order about a king. "My servant, Adimoas the Wise, knows of a place I must go. It is where the Storyteller dwells." Nightmare paused for Errvyn's shudder. Speaking of other Walkers often had that effect on the 'mares.
"I need you to build a path and a stairwell to Topside. Do this, and the salve is yours."
"All of it?"
"All that I have in my hand at this moment to offer you."
Errvyn sank onto his crusty heels, contemplating. "I have conditions as well, Majesty."
"Is that so?" Nightmare asked, careful to contain his rage and impatience. He had, at least, that much control left in him.
"You need this hall, this stairwell, and I need more than salve."
"What is it, then?"
Errvyn took a watery breath. "I want freedom."
The request took Nightmare aback. He hadn't thought Errvyn so far gone. "You wish to roam Topside?"
Nightmare understood the magnitude of Errvyn's request and what must be done, though he appeared to hesitate. "This is a most unusual request."
Errvyn began to rise, and Nightmare boomed, "On your knees before me, lesser 'mare, or do you wish to see half yourself sent to the Feed while I spare the other parts to complete my tasks?" Nightmare's voice shook the room, and Errvyn, snarling, continued to kneel. "You know what awaits you Topside," Nightmare said after a moment, more calmly.
"I'll take my chances with the Shadow."
Nightmare's mouth twisted into a cruel semblance of a smile. "That is not his name, Errvyn. That is only his dwelling."
"I will not invoke him, Majesty, but I am sick of being another creature's slave. I will find the light Topside, and I will evade the Unmaker of Worlds."
"Oh, is that your plan?" Nightmare asked, much amused.
"You want your stairs or not, Majesty?" Errvyn grumbled, the pitch of the tone a blow to the senses. "We both know you can't build them yourself, and you've wanted rid of me for decades, now. We are truce-abiding enemies at best. What say you, Majesty? Salve and see me set free so that you might save what's left of this pathetic kingdom?"
"Salve and freedom, these are your terms?" Nightmare asked.
"They are," Errvyn agreed.
"And so you seal your fate," Nightmare spoke. "It is done."
In a blur that Nightmare had to sense more than see with the limited range of his red-ring vision, Errvyn flew around the pit to Nightmare's side. Nightmare thrust out an arm, catching Errvyn by one face, Nightmare's dagger-like nails digging and rending skin. Errvyn aimed the point of his walking stick at Nightmare's torso, but Nightmare held aloft the healing salve, threatening to throw it into the pit, and Errvyn stayed the weapon.
Errvyn's free head drew nearer as Errvyn elongated that neck. The chewing mouths were bloodied and lipping at the air, still hungry. Quietly they began to trill, and Errvyn's mouths beneath Nightmare's palm opened to speak. "Tell me of beginnings, Majesty Nightmare."
"Seek out Adimoas the Wise," Nightmare said dully. The piece of Nightmare that ruled and saved despite the costs was pleased that his plan would be easier to put into action than he could have suspected; the part of Nightmare that loved his citizens as his children was sickened. But when Errvyn squirmed, Nightmare squeezed Errvyn's skull, puncturing the exposed brain tissue to prove he could. Errvyn jerked in Nightmare's grip, but made no other sign of pain. "He will instruct you."
"As you command, Majesty, for I am still yours... for a while more."
"Once mine, always mine," Nightmare replied. He let Errvyn go, and Errvyn scuttled backward, out of Nightmare's reach. He bowed and fled from the Cavern with the same blinding speed. Though he appeared lumbering and wounded, Errvyn was as dangerous as ever. It paid to remember that nothing in this land was ever what it seemed.
Least of all, its king.
Friendly reminder that the first three chapters will be available for public access, all three to be posted in the month of October. $2/month Patrons will see those chapters early, and the remainder of the novel (Chapter 4 onward) will be for Patrons-only. Updates will occur monthly until your Demented Tour Guide can find more time in the day. :D
Thank you for reading!