Having parted ways with Terra, I return to the cave as darkness descends upon the ever waking city. I somewhat expected to return to a cave full of monsters that snuck in from Tenebrous but thank the lord, nothing slipped through. Glancing toward a pile of rubbish, I see Gen’s arm sticking out limply, still clutching the now empty pudding cup I gave him earlier. It seems he fell back to sleep after eating his pudding cup.
If I had to guess, he likely did not even realize I left. ‘I am a bit sad he did not notice. At least I do not have to calm him… and I am certain he would have been concerned if he had noticed me abruptly leaving.’
Entering the gate room, it is the same as I left it, with the gate still shut tight. I put one hand on my chest and shake the other. To prepare myself to walk into the one place I hate more than anywhere, I pace around the center of the room. My intention is to march in circles and then step into Tenebrous as if I am merely strolling through a typical door. After that, I presume what happens will be far from ordinary, so I intend to accept it without much fuss. With all I have experienced, accepting what should be impossible will be the easiest part of this.
I begin pacing. ‘I shan’t run. I shan’t run. I shan’t run.’ I repeat in my head over and over again. ‘I shan’t run. I shan’t run.’ I slip in but one new phrase in between my repeating thoughts. ‘Open the gate.’
The swords of the two stained glass people that seemingly guard the gate fall to their sides and the two slide apart, opening the gate. Yet, I ignore it and continue pacing. As I pace around the room, I drift more and more toward its outer edge.
I watch my bare feet silently taking one step after another. If I look up, my resolve may shatter. This continues until I move so close to the gate that the edge of my arm is rubbing against the glass wall. I shift my footing and move through the gate and into the Tenebrous Place.
Forcing myself to look, I find a distorted version of that scene from when I was hanged, save for the sun and the crowd of people gathered around to watch my demise. Yet, now that I am here, I realize the willow tree that was already large is now obviously enormous. Its trunk is big enough for two dozen people to spread their arms and wrap around it and the limbs run as high as some of the shorter buildings in New York.
‘...Aye. I have entered. The gate room should be right behind me.’ I turn around to ensure the gate is there, discovering naught but unending darkness that seems to threaten my sanity.
The gate has vanished. ‘...Nay.’
With my night vision, I can see a tad better than my previous visit, but even so, it is only around five or so feet—even my night vision has difficulty bringing any light to this place.
‘This… this is… nay, I shan’t run. Earl would not wish for me to come here if it was dangerous. He must have known this would happen.’ As I am forced to relive my nightmare of eternal darkness and isolation, I count as I did back then. ‘One. Two. Three. Four. Five… Ten’
When I reach ten, I turn and gaze upon the hill with the gigantic willow tree. Everything is utterly silent. I stand a few feet from the edge of the grassy hill. The willow tree’s now barren limbs bend toward the grassy hilltop, and without wind, they are as cold and still as the dead. Above it, a rope that is thicker than a man is tall, sinks down from the abyss overhead and unravels just before reaching the treetop. The rope's strings wind into every nook and cranny of the tree’s branches, making it resemble a matted mess of thread. The whole thing puts off a faint glow that illuminates the hilltop.
Unable to move, a dim light appears from behind me, yet all that should be behind me is the dark of Tenebrous Place. The light pat of feet against Tenebrous’s smooth ground beats in my head with every step of whatever it is approaching.
‘Nay, this cannot be right. Only something extraordinarily evil could dwell in this place. I have been tricked...’ I shake my head; there is not a need to panic when the outcome is plain to see. This fever dream I have been experiencing for weeks is sure to end here. ‘Apologies, Terra, but Lucifer has cometh for me. I escaped and then returned; what a ninnyhammer thing to do. He must be laughing at me… Nay truly this is Earl’s fault… aye, I blame Earl.’
Something stomps the ground in front of me. Lifting my head, I prepare to have my sins judged; I can only pray desperate pickpockets and thieves are looked upon leniently. I puff out my chest and stand my ground for what I believe will be the first and last time before I am snuffed from existence. The cattail kicks nervously as I prepare it for battle, just in case one is even possible. Anything that wanders this diabolical place has the potential to be far beyond anything I could ever encounter in New York or the world for that matter.
‘Do not attack unless absolutely necessary.’ I turn, the cattail flexes, but there is nothing. ‘Huh?’
“Griev—” A deep growl, resembling a demonic tongue, speaks yet pauses abruptly.
I recoil, taking a rapid step back. My head drifts downward where the voice came from and a hint of soft light radiates. ‘Is Lucifer really shorter than even me!?’
There stands a girl, one that is all too familiar. She looks to be about ten years old, has messy cherry red hair, a few freckles spaced here and there, and an emaciated appearance. Her skin is pale, like a corpse, and her eyes do not have an iris or pupils; they are just solid white with a few blue veins winding toward their centers. The girl’s attire consists of a dull white gown, a worn pair of canvas shoes tied closed by twine, and an additional long strand of canvas that she ties around her waist. The gown is stained at various places and torn around the hem and sleeves. In her right hand, she grasps a four-sided lantern with elaborate carvings and engravings. Each side of the lantern has a different stained glass: black, red, purple, and gray.”
My eyes move up and down this undead girl before me. ‘That resembles… that resembles me as a child, except it is as if someone just removed them from a casket!?’
She coughs, swinging her head, which causes her already disordered hair to become even more disheveled. With every cough, their voice becomes higher in pitch.
Sticking out her tongue, I see it’s black as coal; withdrawing it, she coughs once more and then declares, “Grievance:” She performs a satisfied nod after saying that single word. Her voice is now high toned, innocent, and youthful. Continuing, she says, “This one has been awaiting your return for quite some time. This one waited for so long they decided to do other things.”
I take another step back. ‘That… that demonic growl came from this girl… Is she a demon in disguise!?’
“Request: This one asks for an apology after being forced to wait,” she says, squinting her eyes. “This one is embarrassed to say they were waiting with anticipation for this meeting after not seeing one another for so long.”
With nary an idea of what she means, where to go, and having just spoken to Terra for so long, I reflexively ask in my mind, “Why dost thou resemble my younger self?”
Her expression becomes flat; she shakes her head with a scoff. Lifting her hand, a rectangular card appears in her fingers. It looks old, worn, and as if a single touch would cause it to crumble. The card has a faint shimmer. Upon it are markings written in blue ink, except I am not confident it is a language at all. I stare at the words; they make me feel weak and delirious.
She glances at me and purses her lips. Blue ink oozes from the pores of her pale flesh and drips lazily toward the card.
“Inference: This one understands they shouldn’t anticipate an apology.” The blue ink mixes with the words, some of the symbols are crossed out, and new ones emerge.
“Thou can actually understand me!?”
“Answer: Of course this one can. It would be an issue if this one couldn’t. However, this one shall only listen when this one is deliberately being spoken to, for now anyway. Especially after this one was unfairly being blamed for things just a moment ago.” She flexes the card one more time. “Warning: A spirit cannot properly comprehend the tongue of souls. The user should understand this from their previous experience with the forced knowledge upload and the Cosmic System’s words of caution.”
My left-hand moves to where my mouth should be while I point with my right. “That word—user! Nay, surely not!” Only a single thing has ever referred to me by that name. “It cannot be!”
She opens a hatch on the lantern, revealing a purple flame dancing within. “Statement: Only this one could hold a sample of the user’s own consciousness,” she says with a proud titter.
I rapidly glance at my kiln, the lantern, and the girl.
She twists the card back and forth, making certain I perceive it before she places it in the lantern’s flame. It burns away in the blink of an eye without even a hint of smoke.
The Earl Soul Interface wishes to welcome the user to what has currently been designated the pantry within the realm designated, by the user, as Tenebrous. The interface invited and requested the user’s presence, so the future of this location may be discussed before the user’s seed concludes its germination.
Note: The Earl Interface would also like the user to know they have spent countless laborious hours preparing the pantry for the user’s visit
I read the wall so fast I hardly understand it, but that is not important to me right now; I understand its implications and that is enough.
Shutting the lantern’s hatch with a clang, the girl puffs out her chest. “Salutation: Greetings to the user. This one was designated Earl by the user centuries ago.” She hits her chest with her right hand. “This one is a proud and ‘spirited’ interface.”
What feels like several minutes pass in silence, she waits patiently for me to absorb this insanity. Finally, I am able to say anything. “Thou art Earl!?” I shout, examining every detail about her time and time again. “How!? Why!?”
“Clarification: Since this one and the user were permitted to return by the Cosmic System and the user planted their seed, this one has been preparing the interior of the tower as well as assisting the user in the background.”
“Assisting me!” I shake my head and yell into the depths of my mind, “Thou rarely answer me!”
“Retort:” She walks closer to me and bumps her lantern against the kiln, prompting my hand to shield it. “This one does not answer the user’s query if the question is presented with excess room for interpretation. If this one doesn’t know the answer, this one will not answer. If this one feels the user may jeopardize their own odds of survival, this one will not answer. If the user’s soul doesn’t provide or have an answer, this one does not answer. Occasionally, this one is simply busy, and this one does not notice the user’s query, so this one does not answer.”
“To be frank, I do not know how to respond to most of that! But busy!? There is naught here, just unblemished darkness and an enormous tree of horrors!”
“Subsequent Retort: This one is offended and hurt by the user’s insensitive words. This one is proud of what they have accomplished and would like the user to know that they are responsible for the following: translations between soul and spirit, calculations of various utilities, biological analysis, tracking of seed progression, directing of seed roots, simulation of adaptations, mai-”
I back away, placing space between myself and her. “Aye! I believe I do not understand thy reasoning, but I do understand that thou art responsible for many things!” My hands motions toward them, gesturing at them frantically. “But again, why me as a child!? I thought thou wast a man, that is why I named thou Earl...! Actually, I thought thou wast a purple wall, to be honest. Though I did hope otherwise, this is a tad much!”
“Answer: Something as inconsequential and material as gender means nothing to this one. As for why this one is presently utilizing this appearance, it’s because it soothes the beast spirit that stowed away within the user’s kiln centuries ago.” She raises the lantern, waving about, searching for something. “But this one cannot seem to locate it at the moment. Which is why this one was moving about the pantry, searching for it. Statement: This one will maintain this appearance in order to not frighten the beast spirit. This one believes it’ll turn up to be a bothersome distraction again before long.”
‘Earl, my faithful purple wall, is in actuality some sort of imposter that twisted and stole my childhood appearance to please an unknown “beast spirit” that stowed away in my Kiln centuries ago… I did say I was willing to accept anything but…’
Sighing, she shakes her head, pointing toward the hill. “Request: Now, no more questions. It’s time we discuss what you came here for; after all, this is an important time for all of us.”
She steps around me, motioning with her hand that grips the lantern for me to follow. The squeak of the lantern swinging is the only noise that breaks the quiet. While they walk by, I slowly turn, watching as the person that looks like myself as an undead child strolls up a hill toward a leafless willow tree. As she approaches, some of the threads unwind, revealing copious amounts of bodies with nooses around the napes of their necks.
One after another, the threads divide and bodies tumble from the depths of the limbs. Each time one is untangled from the mess of thread they drop, the rope becomes taut, and the body bounces before swinging limply.
‘This is a nightmare...’ My eyes rapidly move between the endless darkness and the horrifying tree. I ultimately decide to turn my head toward the ground; I do not wish to gaze upon the faces of whoever those people are that dangle from the willow. Staring at the ground that I seem to be standing on, what appears to be some type of black marble. ‘I shan’t run. I shan’t run. I shan’t run.’
With tiny, shuffling steps, I follow behind Earl and toward the grass hill. I refuse to look up and watch the bodies appear from the tree. I simply walk to the edge of the hill and peer at the grass. The ground changes from the strange hard marble to grass abruptly, with grass appearing and stopping at a clear threshold. Surprisingly it still has some life in it, though some it has begun to turn yellow. At the edge of the marble and grass, I hesitate to take another step. The last time I walked up this hill was to meet my demise and the last time I walked down it, Roanoke met theirs. Not to mention the scene I just witnessed.
‘I shan’t run. I shan’t run...’ I step onto the hill and keep climbing it higher until I approach the peak and see Earl’s canvas-wrapped feet.
“Observation:” she says with a sigh. “The user isn’t going to understand if the user refuses to watch.”
“We shall return to the topic of this awful willow tree in a moment.” I suppress my urge to berate her and ask, “So tell me, why? Why am I here right now? Thou shouldst understand I resent, nay, despise this place!”
She waves the lantern around so I cannot ignore it as she begins to speak, “Rumination: Despise and resent? That is absurd. This place is not something the user can avoid any more than a creature of flesh can avoid breathing. It’s a place for spirits, and the user is a spirit that exists in a wholly material form.”
“That does not explain anything! Why here; why did it have to be this place?”
She motions for me to look upward. Wishing to get this over with, I do as she asks.
My gaze of violet meets hers of white emptiness. “Explanation: All things find their way to Tenebrous eventually. There is no greater, primordial place in existence, no place with so much untapped potential. At least, that is what this one believes.” She pauses for a moment and then adds, “Of course, this one knows nowhere else, so take it how you will. Regardless, the user, their soul, their tower, and this one shall rely on it from here on out. We all share a connection with it and each other. This one’s primary duty as a noble kiln soul interface is to ensure all four of our existences continue forever. So, this one requests that the user cease making it such a tedious and difficult task.”
“That seemed rather indignant, Earl. Hast thou always been like this?” I shake my head, motioning toward the tree and darkness. “I am trying my best, but this place is everything I abhor, and now there is this tree of nightmares here as well.”
Her face turns downward as she thinks for a moment before she turns it back up. She tilts her head, places a finger on her chin, and makes an inquisitive expression. “Query: Would the user feel more comfortable if there were more light? It may be a bit of an odd sensation.”
I squint but nod despite her odd change in behavior. “More light would ease my nerves.”
“Proclamation: Then on this day, the user and this one shall take the next step toward unimaginable magnificence.” Spinning around, she lifts the lantern toward the tree and opens its hatch, exposing the violet flame within. “Now, let the user’s own flame alight this place they so abhor.”
The tree’s trunk combusts and is instantly immersed in a violet flame. I flinch and watch the flames climb upward while my eyes avoid the many bodies and their faces. The violet flames reach the rope that intertwines itself amidst the willow’s branches, moving between the uncountable strands before bursting up the massive rope that squirms in the sky. Once it reaches what must be the large ropes peak, the flame arcs outwards in all directions, building a sphere of violet flame. This sphere hovers hundreds of feet in the air above the willow tree, anchored by the abundance of entangled threads in its branches. Despite the flame, both the willow and ropes do not produce any sounds or crackling.
I glance around; Tenebrous’s dark has retreated so far away that I cannot even perceive the darkness anymore—the intensity of the light resembles that of a purple moonlight. Instead of darkness, there is just vacant barren land made of perfectly flat black marble as far as the eye can see in all directions. My eyes float back to the flaming sphere.
“Subsequent Query: Does the user feel it?” She shuts the lanterns hatch, embraces it, and leans toward me. “Does the user’s consciousness have any new sensations or awareness within it?”
With my gaze fixed upon the burning moon, I barely manage to ask, “New… new sensations; what hast thou just done to me?”
“Answer: In a way, this one has just turned on a nerve within the interior of the user’s body. Supposition: Perhaps, a single nerve with no stimuli isn’t enough to produce any sensations worth mentioning. To be honest, this one doesn’t experience many physical sensations themselves, so I was hoping the user could describe it.”
Lowering my head, I peer into Earl’s vacant eyes. “Prithee! Just stop and provide me an answer that is not so obscure! What has been done!?”
“Explanation: This one will now give the lecture they had intended originally.” Loosening her embrace on the lantern, she raises her arms wide, motioning toward the surrounding world, the tree, and the sphere above. “This place is what the user and their soul knows as Tenebrous, the realm of spirits. After germination, this is where the user shall establish an environment for both fauna and flora with the additional possibility of drawing in unsuspecting prey to harvest Essence. The user should give gratitude to their heretical former acquaintances for their sacrifice in the accelerated construction of the Tower’s interior. Without them, germination would have taken longer with less growth within the interior.”
“Acquaintances? I hardly know anyone art thou certain!? Wait, Earl, those people are they…”
She laughs and gestures toward the arms of the willow. “Answer: They are acquaintances in a way and they’re spirits, so they aren’t corpses like the user may be thinking.”
“They are not corpses… they are spirits, like me, and I know them…”
She hugs the lantern once again. For the first time, I see her smile, causing me to flinch. All of her teeth are razor-sharp and appear as if they could draw blood if someone merely touched one. “Statement: This one cares for the fate of no other being except for the user, so this one took great delight in enacting revenge upon them on the user’s behalf. An eye for their very person, as this one understands revenge. Still, this one only thinks they felt delighted. It’s difficult to comprehend. ”
“I… Revenge?” I cannot bring myself to say anything more. This is too odd.
Nodding eagerly, she runs her fingers across the lantern with evident fondness and continues, “Request: Therefore, this one would enjoy knowing what retribution means and feels like to the user. This one cannot recall ever having experienced such a thing, so can the user describe it to this one? Is it bitter, is it sweet, a mixture? I wish to comprehend it and experience it alongside and through the user.”
Watching this brutally eerie display, I understand that it is now practically impossible for me to not look upon the people who dangle near me. I have had few I would describe as acquaintances that I would desire revenge upon in both life and death, much less such a large number.
‘I know exactly who is in this tree.’
Forcing my eyes toward the hanging people, I relive the memory of that day. I recognize many of them instantly; they are the people from that day so long ago. Although their nooses are alight, they themselves are not. So without the flame, all of them appear the same as that day and wear the exact same attire as they did then: breeches, stockings, felt hats, doublets, petticoats, and other such familiar dressings.
I peer at their figures and faces. Never did I expect that I would see these people again, not even a single moment. “It… it’s them, the townsfolk—Roanoke.”