3LBE #6
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Noctulos

by Tim Curran

 

God of deadwood, lord of shallow human graves, Freda thinks, peering from behind rotting curtains into the city of the dead. Purveyor of mannequin nightmares. I know who and what you are.

“Tonight I will kill you,” she promises the dank air.

She studies the dark, dead streets and their mulling throngs of inhuman humanity. Totemic cannibals. Blood drinkers. Head hunters. They serve him. They serve the bastard god and do not even know it. Him. He who sucks love and laughter and light and warmth and all things good and human. He the withered dead bush demigod of black satin nightmares and dayscreams. He who bathes in the virginal menstrual blood of a world vacuumed free of emotion. She knows him very well. His tears are wine and his breath sugar. She can see him in her mind and he knows he’s being seen.

October. Trees explode with Autumnal fires of pumpkin orange and fire red.

A sight to behold. It ignites the imagination. Colors. Sensations. Souls on fire. September is gone. Summer is a warm memory, a magical season of extinction. Hot kisses, humid nights, smoldering beach sands baked like glass, sultry evenings spent with cool drinks. Autumn is here. And has been for years.

“Noctulos,” Freda says and wants to vomit. “Thief of the real. He has even stolen the seasons.”

He is all midnight and black cells. Insatiable, gnawing desires that are all sterile and stillborn. Housed in a moldering tunic of hideous, petrified flesh with a leering depraved puppet face of plaster rot and damp, breathing fungi, he is solemn and solitary, his dreams are empty winter-blighted fields, the scream of freezing January winds. Yes, she knows him. Thin, sepulchral, a face of October monuments and gray, fallen headstones, his fingers are decayed church spires, threadbare of gauze-skin, and through it, not bone, but worm-pitted wood and dry rot. Eyes like dead silver moons, a voice like whispering centuries, he is crumbling and stagnant and hollow like a drum.

Freda closes the curtains, wanting to look no more. A feeling thing in a world devoid of feeling, she is a drop of warm blood on cold concrete. She is wan and pale, her features drawn, protracted even. She mirrors the humanity that has been murdered by Noctulos and nailed tight in a dolorous oblong box. She is a breathing floral tribute to the death of feeling.

She is the last one.

Some time ago, the others all died. Every man, woman, and child were smothered as they slept by the bleak, narcotic shadow of him. What he left in their place were mimics, dummies of wood and wax, dead-eyed things pretending life with saw-dust brains. Things that cannot feel. Freda is the last one. The last living one with blood in her veins and love in her heart and he hates her. God, how he hates her.

It is only when she closes the shades of her eyes as she does now, that he gets closer and closer. He wants her emotions, her life, and if he can’t have them, he’ll take her dreams to supplant the ones he is incapable of.

Stretched out on the sagging bed, Freda slips into the nightmare world.

His world.

She is in a world of stone and dead flowers.

Graveyard ambience.

A vault.

Here, in this mausoleum hallucination that is the yellow, fallen flowers of morgue photos, she waits for her lover. For her lover is death.

He comes to her like autumn to summer. There is no turning back. She smells October wind, noisome black earth. He takes her hand. He touches her skin, caresses her curves and valleys. Silk. He smiles then, all promise and whispered pleasure. His eyes are black, deep, cold. Her lips move to his and their touch is fire and ice, life and grave, all intertwined in one sensual skeleton dance.

In the distance, the gong of a funereal bell.

Who? she wonders giddily. Who is this beautiful man?

With a coo of mourning doves, he begins to make love to her, showing her sights, sensations she’s never dreamed of, all the while becoming something else. Metamorphosis begins in earnest. No more firm flesh and erotic daydream, oiled hot muscle and soft, searching lips.

Then she knows.

Knows as somehow she must have known all along.

She has been tricked again, seduced by insanity, loved by death. She was so hungry she did not realize or want to.

But now, now…

His hair grays, recedes, crumbles away into dust. His skin, once free of blemish like the finest cream, splits and cracks, peels away. Then the eyes, distending, sprout into huge, multi-lobed orbs that peer lasciviously into the nova depths of her soul, taste what they find there, lick it into acrid memory. And she is embracing a writhing, attentive thing that buzzes and buzzes as its bloated hindquarters plant the stinger in her, loving her with it. And the mouth parts, glistening with foul juice and intent, have her tongue and work it, pulling it deeper, deeper into the maw of squirming things.

And she screams and screams, white-hot, and blue, overdose of terror.

Her shrieking pleas echo around the concrete confines of the burial vault and she knows only bleakness and bitter cold.

And somewhere, a child sings.

She knows the voice: it is her own.

Nightmares shredded, frayed, spun into dust worlds.

Freda is awake but must be sleeping. She feels a thousand manifold lunacies weeping in the mortuary locker of her skull. Each one offers paradise, joy, blissful escape, but delivers only stark, bleeding madness and shrieking solitude.

Why? she asks herself, feeding a cigarette between trembling lips. Why am I the last one? Why did he get everyone but me?

But there are no answers. She is the dream child of hallucination, addict of time, living flesh memorial of a vanished race. Solitary agent of silent, extinct humanity, cat-and-mouse projection of naked, writhing dream. She is the last player in a game called genocide, the last breath, last hope repository of humankind and in her veins flows the drug of madness: emotion.

But she must think, she must plan and scheme. With every nightmare, he gets closer, the stink of his rotting afterbirth breath gets stronger. He is a mist of corruption, a fog of plague and creeping pestilence and she must stop him. She is the headwind of change that can blow and dissipate his noisome aura and noxious atmosphere of chewing shadow. So, the final husk of feeling and sorrow, she must destroy him and, in doing so, save herself and bring godhead blessings of freethought and communal love to the human mannequins and erase their deadwood smiles and melt their cold wax hearts. If she can defeat him, if she can obliterate what he is and is not, then all will be as it was. Children laughing. Birds singing. Lovers loving. Players playing. She must know these things again; the dream of feeling cannot die with her.

Freda smokes and peers out the ragged cheesecloth curtains. Dead world. Godless world populated by zombie puppets. Marionette strings worked by disease fingers of an obscenity from beyond space, beyond the pathless wastes of time. They pretend to be human, to be living and breathing and feeling. All the things they are incapable of. But Freda knows better. Mannequins do not love. A woodrot brain cannot imagine sonnets and songs.

Freda gathers up her tricks and temptations in a leather shoulder bag and slips out into a world that smells of ancient candlewax. She will find him tonight. In some dusty, barren, bloodless quarter of this city, he waits. Waits with cobra eyes and jagged jaws dripping with neurotoxins.

Tonight, there will be death or birth or nothingness.

The carnival of the damned.

Freda knows this is the place. What better cover for a freak of creation than a sideshow?

Freda’s thoughts: hulking, cyclopean, tiny, frightened, prance through the prison corridors of her skull with a steel summer brilliance, nipping and stinging her brain, mosquitoes before an August rain. She studies the mulling crowds which pass by her in dark stenches of cigarette smoke and fried foods. Her eyes are claustrophobic half-moons, psychic mirrors that reflect waxen hell netherworlds. Yes, she sees them. They are disturbing. Vacant, molded effigies that neither love nor feel. They cling to each other, mimic the actions of men and women but understand them no more than carved figurines understand the eruptions of cash registers.

She knows and knows very well.

He is here. His dead touch is everywhere.

An unknown wispy smile clinging to her lips, she leans against the outer flapping edges of the bingo tent and lights a cigarette. She smells clotted grease, mildewed canvas, and stillborn tears on the wind. A pair of lovers cavort through the midway, shamble past her like wind-up, piston-legged toy soldiers. There wear cheesy, chipped, emaciated grins on their garishly-painted faces. They laugh and kiss, but so do puppets when worked by hidden, manipulative hands.

They feel nothing, are nothing.

Further proof, she thinks flatly. He is here. Is very close now.

Freda begins walking in their direction, eager to follow them, to study them like insects under a glass. She thinks of killing them as if they can be killed. Can a stick of wood be killed? Can a lump of clay know pain? She could erase their perpetually smiling dolls’ faces, rend their limbs in a storm of sawdust, stomp their plastic hearts, gut them of cog, gear, and pulley. But it would do no good.

That which is forever dead cannot truly die.

She is a few steps behind them when they stop at the ostentatious perimeter of the HORROR HOUSE, chatting playfully amongst themselves. She looks beyond them and imbibes what she sees: a faded white-bone ticket booth that is angled to one side, no more alive than the mummy who works it. Lurid canvas splashed with gaudy colors depicting (or so they hope) the nightmares of men: severed heads and limbs, spilled viscera and blood, maniacal psychos toting chainsaws and butcher knives — the usual overabundance of walking cadavers and blood-drinkers in every possible state of decay.

Freda scowls as the couple pay the lemon-faced pretender at the booth, and slip into the spook house proper. They cast her one wary look and disappear. Oh, they know. They know what she is. They sense her warmth, her depth, and it maddens them.

Freda digs out two dollars and slides up to the ticket booth. The man does not look at her — one grimy paw takes her money, pushes a ticket in her direction. The fingers loiter on her own, are snatched back quickly.

Yes, yes, Freda thinks, you know, too, don’t you? You know I am not like you. That I am something you can never be.

The pitchman swaying near the entrance smiles down at her much as, some people say, dogs smile — empty, dead, canine. “Evening, miss,” he growls, staring at the round of her breasts beneath her sweater, knowing they are flesh and blood and hating her for it.

“Your ticket please,” he croaks.

She gives it to him, despising the cold mahogany feel of his hands.

“Going in all alone? You might get scared in there, you know.”

Freda grimaced. What would come next? Would the hunched little jackstraw automaton offer his company? It would be like being held, being comforted by driftwood washed ashore on a sterile beach. “I like to be scared. It’s good for the soul,” she tells him.

“As you say, miss.”

And then, the Horror House.

It is perfect. What better cover for a crypt-crawler like him? For a thing vomited from dark closets and the wormhole womb of obscene creation?

And in her mind one word:

NOCTULOS

She is in a glittering serpent corridor that twists, turns wildly, knotting up upon itself like coiled viscera. Soon she is completely disoriented. There are mirrors everywhere — on the walls, the ceiling, even the floor is composed of some polished, reflective material. She watches a dozen distorted, monstrous images of herself stalk along with her, equally unsure as she. Ahead, a vague form disappears into yet another shadowy corridor, leaves a dusty, smoking scent of ashes in its wake. She moves after it, a reek of musty wood and cloistered time assailing her nostrils.

I am coming for you, she thinks, the words hammering in her brain.

She enters a sullen chamber where the mirrors end. Where time and space and anti-reality intersect in fanged shadows, curving surrealistic angles, and gauzy shrouds of crystalline web that breathe and pulse with the starving faces of the unborn. There is mist. Jumbled harmonies sung by toad voices. Silent moonlight that falls to powder when touched. Convex floors that are walls and ceilings and all and neither. Everything is inverted, grotesque, misshapen. Somewhere, an iron bell gongs out hollow, echoing, discordant.

And a voice cackles with insanity and amusement.

Freda moves through bleeding blossoms of deathhouse flowers. Everything here is colorless, just blacks, whites, grays — a thousand hybrids of the same. She claws a boiling fog that spirals at her face. It makes a hideous mewling sound, freezes, fans out with myriad cracks, shatters and falls to her feet like broken glass. The air seems bloody and raw, translucent, a biological weave of extradimensional coffin silk. Ruined gulag faces of gray, fluttering satin leer and peer from cellar pits and zigzag balconies that lead nowhere. She is in a gutter between worlds, a depraved lunatic slum of gray mist, broken bodies, and sucking alabaster insects. The place that vomited Noctulos from the subcellar placental slime of sweet disease.

“Show yourself,” Freda demands. “I'm not afraid of you.”

There is movement behind her, shadow-show whisper, the rustling of leaves in a drainage ditch. She had expected many things of Noctulos. She had envisioned his fleshy perversions in detail. But the reality of him is staggering. He has huge, flaking eyes that are blanched leprosy. His skin is raw liver knitted with a snipping, snapping mutiny of black beaks that caw and cry. His face, if you can call such an atrocity a face, is a bloated purple-blue contusion of fluttering fungus slivered with white scars. All of which is washed by a soup of pink tears. And beneath the patchwork, surgeon-stitched flesh there is an evil, plodding, wriggling movement as if some burrowing parasites are trying to find their way out.

Grinning with three separate toothless maws licked by reptile tongues, Noctulos says, breathes, pants, “Beauty, beauty, beauty.”

“I am not afraid of you,” Freda tells him and she isn't. Repulsed, yes, but hardly afraid. She slips a hatchet from her bag. The only thing that worries her is what will emerge from him after she hacks him apart, opens him up.

“Not afraid?” he asks. “Why aren’t you afraid? Are you blind, child? Look upon me. Look upon me and despair.”

His skull is like a hinged, flexible thing that moves, changes, convolutes at will. The mouths become eyes. The eyes disgorge black spiny tongues. Worms slither from every widening pore. The desert confetti hair become snakes, his gnarled hands are soon huge spiders. His face splits in a laughing grin and vomits a spout of rotting ectoplasm at her.

“Now are you afraid?” a dozen, weeping voices ask.

Freda shakes her head, steps forward uneasily as the ground tilts, shudders. She sinks the hatchet into his belly. There is a rain of brown syrup. Screams in a distant room. A butcher’s dozen of creamy yellow disk eyes open up and shed tears that are rancid flower petals drifting in the electric air. Gristle, membrane, and sap, Noctulos stumbles back.

“I need your warmth, Freda,” his scratching glass voice begs. “I need it so badly. Look at me. I am like this because I am cold inside, destitute, desolate, empty. I am limbo and unbirth. I am waiting to be born. I need your emotions. You’re my last hope.”

Freda is not interested.

He is pathetic, nauseous, a hellbent child, spoiled rotten. She begins to hack, to chop, to split. Noctulos comes apart like decayed lumber, coils like a caterpillar trying to protect itself, pops like a squealing flesh balloon in a rain of black gushing putrescence, explodes with a million black fuzz spores.

• • •

His belly is a nightmare zoo of slashing claws, curling steel hooks, and biting teeth. But soon, even this is memory.

His is a running, sizzling, sputtering abstract pool of color in a film noir black and white world. Sweet, sour, stinking, hissing. And finally, a rush of heat and hope and warmth as his puzzle husk gives up all the emotions and feeling it has bled from the world. Freda is giddy with it. Like stars being born. Like fireworks. Like damp night giving forth to sunshine day.

And she is happy, happy, happy.

Nightmares within nightmares.

Freda wakes like an egg hatching, feels the piercing kiss of acupuncture needles biting her skin. And where, where, where is she? World of white and snow and pillow feathers. Blinding light. Swirling, mushrooming. An oven of static and distant voices.

“Noctulos,” she whispers. “Noctulos, Noctulos, Noctulos…”

She knows then. This is a hospital. They have brought her here after the battle in which she saved the sum of mankind. But why are there leather straps confining her arms, her legs? Why is she not allowed to move? And then she knows that he has won yet again. She has been brought here. She will be kept here. And those needles, yes, with those needles they will steal her emotions, they will bleed her of feeling, leech her of humanity in an IV drip, drip, drip.

Voices.

Tin can voices.

Not human.

White mannequin figures stand by the bed.

“Why, though?” a voice asks. “Why would a woman like that, someone perfectly normal, go into a mirror maze and hack up two people she didn’t even know? What the hell was in her head?”

“What’s in any of their heads?”

“But she doesn’t look crazy. Sleeping like that, Christ, she looks innocent and harmless. And a librarian, yet. Go figure. I wonder what’s in her head.”

“Garbage and blackness, that’s all. You just wait. You wait until you’ve been here as long as I have. The shit you see. Here, help me unstrap her.”

“What if she wakes up?”

“She won't. They never do. She’ll be out until tomorrow.”

Yes, Freda thinks, let them think I'm sleeping. Yes, yes, yes…

“OK, help me lift her up. Heavier than she looks.”

There is a steel shriek, an agonized screaming near and yet far. It echoes in sullen blackness.

“What’s the deal with that new one? The one next door.”

“The screamer? Says he’s possessed. Says something sucked his feelings away, stole them.”

“But isn’t that what she said? Something stole her —”

“Don’t pay any attention. They’re all mad. You start listening and you’ll see conspiracies everywhere like they do.”

Suddenly, Freda is not sleeping. She is alive. She is a greased bag of vipers that writhes and flops and fights. She buries her fingers in the eye sockets of the first man, pulls, pulls, pulls, until his howling face comes free in a wet flap. And yes, yes, yes! She was right! Inside, no blood, no tissue, no musculature, just cog wheels and gears and wires and gushing lubricants. Her fingers are drenched with them.

Running red.

And in the next room, a high, evil laughter from some black sewer of reality.

Noctulos.

 

Tim Curran has placed stories in Burning Sky, Hardboiled, the upcoming Mad Love CD-ROM anthology, Darkness Within, The Edge, and the upcoming anthology More Fungi From Yuggoth. He writes horror, crime, suspense, even westerns and war stories. He works in a factory by day and writes “this kind of stuff by night.”


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ISSUE #6

July 2000

FICTION

ART