(Warning: LONG. Also not funny. One wonders why you'd want to read it at all. Oh well.)

We came to the Ethereal Realm on the very early morning of the 28th of July, 1910. Captain James Troughton’s Special Rifle Brigade, of which I was a serving member, was assigned to protect a small scientific unit consisting of three highly secretive magician-scientists.

They acted in that haughty manner common to men of intellectual stock around common soldiery, understanding our importance to the mission but accepting it with nothing more warm than an air of reluctant tolerance. The only one who was even moderately cordial was the American Richard Statler, a boundlessly enthusiastic fellow on loan from some Tennessee paranormal institution. His presence had been requested by the leader of the expedition, Dr. Harding, a greying man in his fifties who would exchange words only with the Captain, and even those were brusque and to the point. His first name was and remains unknown to me, as do his qualifications. Equally mysterious was the third member of the party, a quiet and nervous Scandinavian with round spectacles, a hooked nose and an angular beard. The man, identified to us as Ericsson, seemed gripped by a permanent state of excited terror, and never spoke when one of his colleagues could speak on his behalf. When caught alone, he answered monosyllabically and excused himself within seconds.

The three of them and our unit of twelve had had to sign a tedious pile of documents assuring our silence, an arduous process we were all quite used to by now, being specialist bodyguards for London’s highly secretive Ministry of Occultism. From the basement of that well-hidden institution we were transported by some abstract gateway to the same location’s equivalent within the Ethereal Realm. We emerged cacophonously into a wide plane of some bizarre species of grass, bathed in the eldritch light of dawn, a light somehow more speckled and orangish than the sunlight of which we were accustomed.

Our visit had apparently been arranged some time previously by our scientific cohorts. Some members of the Ethereal Realm community were present to welcome us. Presumably in some age long ago they had had some evolutionary ancestor not dissimilar to a human, but now only their faces and bipedal bodily structures remained to give that effect. They were shorter than us, averaging at four or five feet, and their heads were hairless and much larger than ours, tapering almost to a point at the crown. Their skinny arms hung limply from their shoulders and in place of hands they possessed fingerless fleshy blobs. The rest of their bodies were concealed beneath finely-patterned, brightly-coloured robes. Bending their elbows to uncertainly shake Dr. Harding’s hand seemed to require the most tremendous effort on their part.

It soon became clear that their form had developed from centuries of total dependence on magic. Physically, they were as deformed children, but it wasn’t long before they demonstrated power worthy of Gods. Instead of walking, they levitated effortlessly everywhere. Consequently their world had no roads, and I found myself wondering about the condition of their concealed legs and feet, if they even had such things. When called upon to perform even the simplest task for which you or I would employ our hands, they relied solely on telekinesis.

They made no noise, but their intentions were somehow communicated to Ericsson, the Scandinavian, who whispered them to his colleagues. The man was, I surmised, one of the rare telepaths of the Scientific Realm, brought for solely this purpose.

Communication within our party soon became an infuriating game of Chinese Whispers. Ericsson would convey the intentions of the magicians to Statler and Harding, who would pass them onto the Captain, who would in turn announce them to us. By this method I very gradually discerned the purpose of our expedition, but by the time the facts had been made perfectly clear to me, we had been journeying for several hours and were being levitated across the waves of a broad and glittering sea. Too late to turn back, but the thought to do so did not occur to me. Knowing what I do now, the desire to go back and scream at my younger self to flee is unabated by the impracticality of such a task.

Though our primary purpose was scientific research and report, the magicians were hoping that while we were here we could do them a service in return by taking care of some ‘problem’ in a land to the north. Just as we regarded the magic-users with awe, they were unreserved in their fascination for our rifles and physical stature, and the scientists would often find it quite difficult to pry the magicians’ attention away from us, the guardsmen. As Statler explained to us with characteristic American glee, all disputes in this world are solved through magical combat, but even the most powerful magical creatures were unprepared for the bullets and technological weapons of the Scientific Realm.

It was apparently proving difficult to extract much information from the magicians as to the nature of the threat we were being expected to combat. They became visibly anxious to even discuss it, if it was an ‘it’ and not a ‘he’ or a ‘them’, for they seemed confused as to whether our quarry was living or dead, sentient or not, an individual or an army. All we could gather was that the entity or entities had conquered a large section of land, and that a great number of people had ventured into them, never to return. Those that did returned insane, raving, often injured in the most unspeakable ways. They would convey nothing but meaningless expressions of suffering, and these poor wretches would be swiftly imprisoned to avoid paining other telepaths with their grisly thoughts.

When Ericsson was being informed of this by the magicians, he became pale and distressed, quaking visibly at the joints. When passing on the details, his speech was littered with pauses and stalls, and he made strange gestures with his hands. It was clear to me that the telepathic images he had received were considerably more disturbing than he could illustrate with words. Harding and Statler didn’t seem to make the connection, and continued chatting earnestly amongst themselves, taking the occasional photograph of the mysterious lands that passed by far below.




The orange sun was resting on the horizon by the time we arrived at our destination. The mages touched us down in a thickly forested valley formed within the arms of a crescent-shaped mountain range. I use these words for convenience’s sake, for both the forest and the mountains were so alien to our eyes that comparison with earthly features feels unjustified. The ‘trees’ were flesh-coloured and had a smooth and rubbery texture. They lacked branches, each one instead being formed from a single tapering shaft, coiling insanely about and tying itself into knots as it grew. The distant mountains that loomed over us had a great many needle-sharp peaks like a gigantic bed of nails that seemed to have little to do with natural formation.

The ‘trees’ were clumped thickly but there was enough space between them to afford the pitching of our tents, so we made camp where we had landed. The magicians retired to some kind of magically-conjured dome under which they planned to meditate, as far as I could gather, but the thickness of the field made me feel that its main purpose was defense, not shelter. Their attitude was increasingly nervous, but they seemed reassured by our presence.

It was almost dark and I was helping my squadmates with our tent when we heard raised voices coming from the tent that the scientists were sharing. For the first time Ericsson’s voice was loud and clear, expressing an urgent desire to abandon the mission and return to our arrival point, to commiserate ourselves with research of the surrounding area and await the return transportation. His colleagues refused adamantly, of course. The forest was a much more valuable source of materials, and the requests of the magicians could not be ignored, not while diplomatic relations between the two Realms were civil but cautious.

Ericsson’s usual quietness had finally been given volume by fear. When he spoke, the modulations in the sound made it clear that he was shaking uncontrollably. But when asked for the reasons behind his terror, he stuttered and deflated. I now know that the horrors he had glimpsed simply could not be spoken of in reasonable terms, in a way any non-telepath of the Scientific Realm could understand. But even then I felt myself strangely disturbed by the conversation. A terrible feeling grew in the pit of my stomach, amplified by the growing darkness and the bizarre trees that surrounded us like the encroaching fingers of a clenching fist.

My sleep that night was a restless one. The silence only served to wear on my nerves. I tossed and turned for several hours, haunted by my thoughts. Where were the cries of birds, the rustle of wind, the skitters and stumbles of wildlife? Nothing stirred the air. The forest was frozen in time. A dead place.

Eventually, I slept.




I was awoken before sunrise by Ericsson screaming. It being the only sound for hours it brought me to full wakefulness, and my instincts kicked in. I burst out from the tent, rifle in hand. Several other soldiers had had the same idea, and we exchanged a few confused glances before a second scream tore through the night air.

Captain Troughton seized the initiative and flung open the scientists' tent flap just as Ericsson screamed again. He was soaked through with sweat and had kicked aside his sleeping bag. His body slammed again and again into the ground, wracked by violent spasms. His hands were clutching at his temples so tightly that thin lines of blood were extending along his cheeks.

Statler and Harding were trying to hold him still and keep his jaws apart. Ericsson made a concentrated burst of effort and tore himself free of their grasp, shoving his way past the Captain and I and falling to his knees in the grass.

“It hurts,” he said, squeezing out the words with difficulty.

Harding came out next, and cast a single look around. His heavy brow crushed itself into a frown.

“Where’re the magicians?”

I noticed for the first time that our Ethereal Realm guides had vanished, along with their defensive dome. The ground where they had set up camp was torn up and covered in frantic grooves and unidentifiable prints, the plants broken and tattered. When Ericsson gathered his wits for long enough to take this in, his hands flew to his mouth, and he began to sob.

“It hurts,” he repeated. “They’re in pain. So much pain. They’re not far away.” He pointed, unnecessarily. The territory had gone undisturbed for a long time and the newly-formed tracks created an unmistakeable path through the trees.

Everyone was awake, now, and a similar realisation was spreading through the party like a ripple. The residents of the Ethereal Realm were our only means of returning to the Scientific Realm. Even if the transport point hadn’t been hundreds of miles away, none of our people had the magical knowledge or equipment to perform the gateway ritual.

In the face of this dire development, we responded by falling into the very human coping method of mindless professionalism. Dr. Harding was qualified in medicine, and he immediately saw to Ericsson. The Captain ordered several of us to spread out and secure the area, while he himself inspected the site of the kidnapping.

Statler was the only person with no business to keep his mind occupied. He stood unmoving, not having taken a single step since his first emergence that morning. His fingers fidgeted at his sides, a nervous smile stretched his mouth, and his eyes darted around, watching every movement.

It was Harding who eventually gave the order that a search and rescue would have to be mounted. Everyone had been avoiding the issue, consciously or not, and his argument was valid, although inexplicably repulsive. Captain Troughton called his men together and randomly selected half of us to accompany him in following the tracks. I was among those chosen, despite my silent prayers as he moved along the ranks. I knew with a clarity I could not explain that some great and underlying horror was at work. This was not the first time I had worked with telepaths, and their flights of emotion were not unknown to me, as was the fact that only a fool dismissed them. I had never seen a psychic so riddled with fright as Ericsson.

As we walked, and once the chatter of the campsite behind us had passed from earshot, I held my rifle close to my breast, the coldness of the bayonet against my cheek bringing a little comfort. It was close to dawn, and hints of that peculiarly orange light had begun to highlight the features of the forest. Would that it had remained dark, and kept us in full ignorance of our surroundings. As more and more light came, more and more shadows played treacherously around our growing circle of visibility.

Still the forest was silent but for our noisy footwork upon the alien grass. Unfed, my imagination began to play tricks. Twenty minutes or so into the mission I fancied I saw a group of shadows come together and take the form of some fantastic, inhuman creature, watching us without movement. It seemed to flinch when it felt my gaze, and fled in a most unnatural fashion, stumbling like some gigantic, clumsy spider. I dismissed the notion.

Finally, the Captain held up a hand and we dutifully froze. All was still for a perplexing moment, then he turned to face us. His mouth was set into a thin determined line, but there was something wild in his eyes, and a stillness to his expression that indicated a strong feeling greatly repressed. He called for me by name, and beckoned me forward.

He pointed off into the distance, and asked for my opinion on a silhouette that was now visible in a clearing beyond an upcoming pair of tree trunks. I followed his finger, and we both agreed that it was a building.

As more sunlight broke through the canopy of tangled rubber more and more of it became visible. It was a large five-storey building sitting innocuously in the middle of a flattened area of ground. It had the hallmarks of a hotel, and the architecture was quite modern, if a little rustic. It could have been ripped from any seaside resort in the British Isles. But this was not the British Isles, nor even the right plane of existence, and the building was at once familiar and deeply disturbing to behold.

Wordlessly, carefully, we approached, and noticed that the building was suffering from disrepair. Several of the windows were cracked or smashed in, and the whitewash was yellowing with filth. Upon performing a complete search of the perimeter, we found only more questions: a rotting wooden fence enclosed a yard behind the structure, in which could be seen piles of unused building materials, wooden boards, and metal rods.

The trail of ruined ground led right up to the double-doors at the hotel’s front entrance, and several similar trails led off into other parts of the forest. If we would continue our search for the missing guides, the building would have to be explored. Not entirely to my surprise, for I can immodestly say that the Captain considered me one of his most trustworthy officers, he ordered me to accompany him inside, along with three other soldiers, while the others kept guard and explored the surrounding area.

The baffling unworldliness of the hotel hung around it like a bad smell, and a sickness in my gut worsened as we approached the entrance. As the day had worn on I was becoming aware of a growing sense of unreality, as if I were dream-walking numbly through a tunnel of phantoms. That feeling was now at its height. I fancied I could hear garbled whispers on the edge of hearing, the voices of many hundreds of souls engaged in excited discussion in a language I didn’t understand.

The Captain and the others were feeling something similar, I could tell. Slowly, Troughton tried the door. It opened with a little resistance and a drawn-out groan of old hinges.

My feelings of detachment increased as we stepped inside the lobby. The air felt thick and syrupy, and a sudden bout of dizziness almost caused me to stumble. Everything seemed blurry, and I had to concentrate as hard as I could on the tiny details of my surroundings to maintain focus. The light playing off varnished floorboards. The rips and damp patches in the ugly yellowish wallpaper. Every coarse grain and splinter in the wooden reception counter.

What was this place? The denizens of the Ethereal Realm did not build such structures. The intelligent pseudo-humans of this world dwelled exclusively in chambers formed naturally from trees and plants, magically persuaded to grow into useful shapes. Using tools and technology to construct was as fantastic a concept to them as their effortless use of enchantment was to us. So who had built this clandestine hotel? Some previous visitor from our world, bringing with him cart after cart of resources for the project? It made no sense.

There were three doors, besides the one by which we had entered. One behind the counter led to a small, barren office that afforded nothing. Another led to a stairwell, and Captain Troughton immediately despatched the men to search the upper floors of the building. Only he and I remained to investigate the third door, and only I would bear witness to his fate.

It led at first to what I presumed was some cruel mockery of a dining room. Several circular tables were placed with no consideration to aesthetics or practicality, draped in ancient tablecloths that were turning green with decay. The whole effect was not a place intended for eating, but an attempt to imitate one without fully understanding the point.

We were making to move on when a sound froze us in place and tightened our grips on our rifles. A gentle, moist crack, like a man’s teeth pulling away from a chicken leg. Quiet and unassuming. If our guard had been even slightly dropped and we’d been making the slightest amount of movement noise, it would probably have gone unnoticed.

It was followed a few seconds later by another, almost identical sound. After that, it was clear that the source was beyond another set of doors to the north. I met the Captain’s gaze in a silent debate before he, being of sterner stuff, reached for the handle. In this little, insignificant gesture he saved my life. His greater courage was to be at his own expense.

The room beyond was bare of furniture and illuminated only by a shaft of amber light from a single window directly opposite the door. In the curious way that the smallest detail catches one’s eye first, the Captain’s gaze was drawn to the floor.

A narrow trickle of red liquid was making its way along the floorboards to his feet. As if attached to some invisible string, my gaze travelled up to its source.

It was one of our magician guides. He wasn’t dead, not yet. He lay directly in the path of the light from the window, skinny naked body and useless little arms and legs splayed out. His entire body quivered in spasm, just as Ericsson’s had. The thin, watery blood of his race was freely crawling from a thousand tiny wounds of every size and shape.

Something was beside him, half-concealed in the shadows. Something black and spindly, crouching alertly like a grasshopper poised to leap away. A pair of red hands like bundles of dry twigs were slowly and carefully digging claws like briar thorns into the magician’s sagging face and peeling away little red strips of flesh and muscle.

That face is what I remember most. What skin remained, and which was visible through the viscera, was contorted with agony. His eye sockets were filled with blood, blinding him. A high-pitched hissing sound on the very edge of hearing was emerging from his tiny, atrophied mouth. My stomach wrenched guiltily when I realised he was trying to scream.

Impulsively Troughton took up his rifle and fired into the air, as one would scare a wild animal from a carcass. The thing that tormented our guide didn’t seem to notice straight away, until I saw that those horrible fingers freeze in their work, and a smooth, white, head-like oval turned slowly towards us.

It stood, slowly unfolding its body like the raising of a great and forbidding black tower, and while only half its body was visible, silhouetted against the rising daylight, I could see that it was humanoid. Only by the greatest stretching of the term can I say this, however, for beyond the fact that it possessed two arms and two legs, there was very little that was human about it. It was grotesquely tall, close to eight feet, but with a small, elongated head. Most of its body was concealed under a long black garment that reached down to the floor, more ornate and substantial than the usual robes worn by the sentient residents of this world.

The Captain was already pointing the quivering barrel of his gun towards the shade, and after it had stood unmoving for several seconds, observing us, his nerves gave out. A second crack of gunfire rang.

I don’t believe the entity moved. If it did, it was faster than my eye could detect. But somehow the monstrous figure was no longer in the path of the bullet. It had disappeared from sight.

Captain Troughton spun around, and our eyes met. His face was dreadful. He seemed about to say something, but then he heard a noise and his expression froze. Slowly, ever so slowly, he turned his head to the left.

A skinny red hand shot out from the shadows beside him and fastened around his face, cutting off a yelp of surprise. With unnatural strength, he was pulled off his feet and into the shadows of the room. For an instant his hand clung desperately to the doorframe before being wrenched away with a crack of knuckles.

I stood rooted to the spot, only half-aware of the sweat that soaked into my clothes and my continuous mouthing of silent oaths. Too petrified to intervene, all I could do was stare unblinking at the darkness until my eyes were accustomed enough to make out my captain.

He was pinned against the far wall, crushed into a corner by the window. His feet were a good eight inches off the floor and his limbs were spread out, held in place by the same invisible magical restraints that imprisoned the magician. Only his fingers were free, and they were frantically clenching and unclenching as the shadows in the room began to flicker and pulsate.

There was a sensation I find hard to describe, like the world being pulled away and snapping back, then the demon was standing in the light, one hand outstretched towards the Captain.

This was my first good look at the creature. As well as being inhumanly tall it was stick-figure thin. It wore a black coat made of some glistening, rubbery leather which would have been quite tight-fitting on the shoulders of a conventionally thin man, but around this monster’s limbs it hung loosely.

I tasted bile in my mouth when my gaze travelled up to the head and I saw that it was utterly featureless, lacking eyes, ears, mouth and nose. An expressionless oval of alabaster white, but I was nonetheless certain that even without a single organ of sense the figure was somehow watching the Captain struggle with a perverse curiosity.

As he took a slow, languid step forwards, I saw for the first time that he was holding some kind of spear, although whether it had been merely concealed by the position of his body up to now or he had conjured it from thin air, I cannot say. It was almost as long as him, so he could lean on it like a walking stave. The head, just above the point where his hand gripped the shaft, bloomed out into four huge, curved blades at right angles to each other, and the opposite end that dug into the floor was a viciously sharp point. It was forged from a strange black metal that seemed to reflect a dim grey light that wasn’t falling upon it from any source I could see.

The tall thing’s vacant face was a mere foot away from the Captain, now. The demon appeared to be surprised by the appearance of a normal human. His stance was like a schoolboy inspecting a trapped insect. All I could see of the Captain’s face were his eyes, wide and glimmering…

The blades thrust forward. The tall man struck like a tarantula, advancing with painful slowness before attacking faster than I could blink. Troughton’s shriek could only partially drown out the nauseating clicks and squelches as the weapon probed and sliced and crushed.

His blood burst forth so violently that streaks of it spattered across the still-struggling form of the magician guide, several feet away. The suddenness of the splatter was enough to snap me from my trance. I turned and ran.

The two soldiers Troughton had sent upstairs were waiting in the lobby, drawn by the screams. There must have been something truly ghastly about my face, because they instantly broke into a run to match mine. The next thing I knew I was outside, wanting only to get far away from the mysterious hotel and its grotesque caretaker.

I could still hear the Captain screaming. I’d heard him scream before, in battle with any number of monstrosities, but this time there was no trace of rage, or bravado. It was scarcely even a scream of pain anymore. It was more like the confused screeching of a child, or retard. Our mentor, the strongest man I’d ever known, was undergoing anguish so great that it had robbed him of his mind. The image of his shivering body as it was systematically pulverised snatched at my mind’s eye, and guilt made me take a single look back over my shoulder.

We hadn’t escaped unnoticed. It was standing in the doorway of the hotel. Stock still, staring with that same eyeless inquisitiveness. But it wasn’t chasing. I slowed my pace.

Then the demon did something which I have tremendous difficulty describing. It held a bony hand aloft, and a wave of something burst forth from the hotel. As it passed us by, sound seemed to fade in and out and my nostril hairs quivered.

For a moment, all was conspicously still. Then one of the men gave a cry and I saw movement in the distance. Shapes began to appear over the crest of the hills behind the hotel. A great number of them, writhing and struggling over each other like bees patrolling a hive. They were fast, too; we were standing dumbfounded, and by the time it occurred to us to keep running they had halved the distance between us.

I longed for the return of that deep and unnerving silence that had troubled my sleep, for now I was faced with the alternative. The air was filled with the coarse metallic scuttling of a hundred gigantic spider legs, thundering into the ground again and again, churning ground and destroying plants.

I tried to keep running. But my lungs were boiling with exhaustion and soon our pursuers were so close I could feel the stirred-up dirt raining upon my ankles. I heard a yell from somewhere to my side, and turned my head to see one of my men – Crawford, I think – disappear beneath a rank of pointed steel legs that revolved like a gigantic mower.

After that, my confidence left me. Something caught my foot, and I faltered. The great clattering was upon me, and I buried my face in my arms, willing only to face this madness blind.




For several minutes, the world was a bewildering sequence of noise and movement. I felt myself being hurled back and forth between spindly legs, not carelessly, half-deafened by the rhythmic machinelike cacophony and the screams of the men. Then I was grabbed around the ribs and legs by what felt like silken ropes, and I was being carried like a baby in a sling.

I summoned the courage to uncover my eyes. The ground was moving along a few inches below me. Above, a canopy of flexing yellow cartilage. Four great metal limbs, each constructed from what looked like two short girders with a rusty knee joint, conveyed the creature. I was held in place by a collection of long, twitching feelers that protruded from the underbelly.

My eyes swivelled madly around, seeking a solution. My right arm was free, but the creature failed to respond to any of my frantic claws and punches. In testing my left arm I discovered that my rifle was still at my side, securely pinned to my torso by my bonds. I couldn’t free it and the butt was broken in two, but the bayonet was still attached.

Desperately I grabbed for it, and opened a nasty gash in my hand. The pain seared its way up my arm and helped to steady my hysteria. I took a deep breath, carefully unfixed the blade, then quickly thrust it into the belly overhead.

It didn’t react in the slightest. It didn’t even slow down. I jammed it in again and again until the muscle strain felt like fire and whimpers of frustration were slipping unbidden from my mouth. Finally, the blade inadvertently stabbed a spot near one of the grotesque leg joints, and the creature mis-stepped.

Lent a wisp of hope, I kept attacking the same spot, lodging the bayonet in the quivering mass and sawing it back and forth. Finally the leg buckled and collapsed, becoming motionless. The feelers loosened, and I fell heavily into the grass. I had enough sense still about me to quickly roll out of the way.

Adopting a crouch, I was finally able to take in the creature, and as I took in its hellish anatomy my face crumpled in disgust. A shapeless blob of tissue, like a meter-wide handful of dough torn roughly from a larger mass, struggled to remain upright upon four prosthetic metal spider-legs that appeared to have been shoved randomly into the twitching flesh. The only natural appendages were a bed of writhing feelers that ran along the underbelly, and which I had until recently been a prisoner of. There were no orifices from which to make noise, but the wailing of rusting metal joints seemed to create impromptu moans of pain as the creature turned around and around. The wounded leg was severely disabling its movement.

Driven partly by revulsion, partly by fear that it would reassert itself, I took up my bayonet again and continued to stab it, roaring like a savage. I disabled each of its legs in turn, kicked it onto its back and worked madly at its vile belly. Slicing, gouging and shredding until the legs moved no more.

When I had reduced it to a deflated mound of ruined flesh I fell back, panting, leaving the blade embedded in the corpse. The smell was foul, but there was no blood. Spurred again by mad curiosity, I hunted through the body, but found nothing I could call an organ, or a brain, or a skeleton. The creature was nothing but a mass of cartilage, a half-chewed toffee on legs. It couldn’t possibly have been moving on its own. It made no sense. It shouldn’t be.

Indeed, to look at its disentegrated form, I almost began to doubt my own memories of its insect-like movement. But the throbbing of my hand brought me back to reality, and the tracks that stirred up the dirt all around were real enough. There were no sounds or signs of life; the other monsters had had enough time to move on with the men. That infernal silence had returned. I bandaged myself with scraps of cloth torn from my coat, and followed the tracks back to camp.

The camp was deserted. Only the tents remained, crumpled by a stampede of heavy, pointed feet. I fell to my knees and inspected the shambles of the ground, attempting to read the prints and divots. A row of army boots had planted themselves firmly, forming a wall to meet the intruders head on, while the smaller, lighter prints of the scientists had hid behind. But by the looks of it, attack had come silently from several angles. The spider-creatures had simply rushed through and seized every man without slowing.

The soldiers had treated it as a battle. But this was nothing of the sort, any more than the pigs are in battle with the farmer. No shot was fired, not a single drop of blood wasted. This had been a harvest.

I could feel stress taking its toll upon my mind. Home was further and further away with every step I took, taunting me with its indifference. The Ministry of Occultism did not send rescue teams. That was their policy. The Ethereal Realm was so alien and potentially dangerous that all expeditions were pre-emptively written off as acceptable losses. A policy that had once made perfect sense to me, but which now hung all around like a vile black fog, drawing up great sobs of anguish from my gut.

My only shred of hope was that the prisoners would not have been killed. The creatures had not done so to me. Perhaps the men were merely to be enslaved. Slaves could be rescued. Perhaps some of the magicians could be recovered, and could release us from this insane universe. Somewhere within my consciousness I could sense the illogic of it all, but I hushed it.

The many tracks of the spider-monsters joined together into a single group and had trodden a new path. I followed it as fast as I could, shoulders sagging with exhaustion to the point that my knuckles scraped the ground.

As I ran I couldn’t help laughing bitterly at the thought. This force was undefeatable. The magicians had probably been helpless to reclaim this land for many years. But they’d placed so much faith in the mysterious power of the Scientific Realm that they’d waltzed freely in here with us. And what had we brought? A single platoon with Winchester rifles. To this enemy, we were nothing. We were ants picking at a leviathan.




The track led to the angular mountain range to the north. After about an hour’s travel on foot the great peaks began to loom forebodingly over the scenery, blotting out the light. The ‘trees’ began to thin out, and I was suddenly at the base of one of the great pointed mesas. It was another symptom of this world’s strangeness that there was virtually no transitional area between the forest and the mountain. There were no foothills, nor even a gradually steepening slope. The alien grass simply gave way in an instant to a sheer vertical wall of dark, shining rock, as if the great spikes had simply burst fully formed out of the ground one day.

The tracks led to and then divided themselves between a selection of cave entrances. There were three of them, each perfectly circular and about six feet across. I peered within, but each tunnel descended into total darkness after a few feet. The walls were smooth and unnaturally carved. I was reminded of a gigantic anthill or termite mound.

Warm air flowed gently from the depths of the caves. It brought a strange sound to my ears. Like a large number of children whimpering in unison from a great distance away, mingled with frenzied insectile scratching.

I took off the remains of my coat and wrapped it around the butt of my useless rifle to create a makeshift torch, and lit it with some matches I had somehow been able to retain hold of. I swallowed hard, thought of my comrades, and entered the second of the three caves.

I thought of calling out, but hesitated; it would undoubtedly draw attention to myself. But then again, my torch was already doing that, and the tunnel remained narrow and utterly devoid of alcoves in which to hide, so stealth was impossible anyway. I called the names of a few of my soldiers, but the only response was the same distant twittering and the hiss of wind.

The ground suddenly became soft beneath my feet. I started at the sensation. Not wet, like mud, but dry and yielding, like a leathery mattress. Or… meat.

Yes, exactly like meat. Like walking on a path paved with a bed of thick steaks. The thought made me shudder, as did the wet slithering noises it made as I walked.

I held the flame closer to one of the walls, and inspected it. They weren’t rock anymore. Now they were pinkish and decorated with thick, pulsing veins. Aghast, I prodded it with a finger; it was as soft to the touch as the floor.

I’d been holding the flame increasingly close to the wall, and I suddenly became aware of what I can only describe as sweat glistening about a small, wart-like extrusion. I accidentally let the burning stick touch it, and all my confusion transformed to horror when the fleshy stalactite recoiled frantically from the heat.

Instantly, I turned around and ran. Something behind me emitted a grotesque pig-like squeal. The idea of saving my comrades evaporated, and my only conscious thought was an urgent desire to get away from this nonsensical place.

Something was wrong. That is, something new was wrong, apart from the incalculable number of things that were already hideously wrong about this situation. I had been running for several yards, but the ground was still soft and flesh-like. I should have been back in the tunnel of stone by now.

When I was absolutely certain I had run far enough to have been back in the open, and was still in the tunnel of meat, uncertainty nagged at my concentration. I misstepped and tripped. My body fell upon the quivering flesh, and I felt the unpleasant sensation of warm, sweating skin against my face, sticking to my clothes and sucking at my extremities.

I reassembled my addled thoughts, wrestled myself onto my elbows, and almost retched with fright when I saw what I had tripped over. What I had taken for a group of stalagmites were incontrovertibly teeth. Three yellowed fangs lodged in a glistening section of gum. As I watched, they moved gently in and out, chewing upon thin air in anticipation.

I struggled back onto my feet and continued to run. This time I had lost my torch, but I did not care; I found blindness more comfortable. I rhythmically placed my hands upon the walls and pushed to accelerate myself.

A minute passed and I gradually gathered my senses. The tunnel had been curving and fluctuating in ways I was certain it had not done before. I slowed and stopped. I must have taken a turning without realising, somehow. I considered retracing my steps, but all was pitch darkness in both directions, and I could only have gotten more lost. My sense of direction told me I must have been heading back towards the cave entrances.

I continued, walking carefully, repressing my tension. Ever since I’d entered the cave I’d felt a warm breeze, but only now did I pay attention to the curious hissing noise that accompanied it. It paused intermittently and seemed to have no clear source, as if the very walls themselves were emitting long, laboured breaths from every pore. Come to think of it, none of the bizarre, vaguely humanlike sounds I had been hearing seemed to grow fainter or louder, no matter where I moved. It was as if they originated within my own head…

Light! I could see red light spilling from around a corner, such as from the light of dusk. I broke into a run, already planning my escape from this cursed land, integration with some faraway people of the Ethereal Realm, the possibility of returning home…

I stopped when I reached the light’s source. I was not outside. Rather, I had reached a large, vaguely circular chamber that acted as a nexus for – in my despair, I counted – eight different passageways. The illumination came from a network of thick red veins running along the walls and ceiling, pumping a strange glowing liquid that cast a dim but sufficient red light.

The thought occurred – a painful, gleefully tormenting thought – that I had only come further and further from the exit, and had passed through some kind of outer labyrinth to reach an illuminated internal section. I felt so disquieted that I reflexively turned on my heel to go back the way I had come.

But it had changed. The tunnel now sloped downwards, and the glowing red veins ran all the way along the passageway. I looked around for a familiar darkened tunnel, but all the exits were illuminated.

It says something for my growing sense of credulity that I immediately accepted the notion that the maze was altering itself behind my back. I was dismayed, but just like in the hotel I was beginning to feel detached, as if my eyes were merely windows at the end of a long, dark hallway, and my body merely some contraption that I was piloting from a control panel far away. The whispering and the hissing – and now, a faint organic pulsating – were making me drowsy, and I found it harder and harder to focus my vision. Perhaps some malignant force in the stuffy air was bringing increased illness with my every breath.

Consequently my memories of this time grow patchier and patchier. The next few minutes are the last events I can place in any sort of coherent order.

I chose a random passage and followed it, covering my ears to block out the background noise, and found myself in another connecting room. I remember being strangely drawn to a cluster of wrinkled boils on a nearby wall. They were gently swelling and deflating with almost imperceptible subtlety, and were being fed by several of the glowing veins.

And this is the moment that utterly scatters my memories, addling all the sights and sounds that followed, scrambling all my recollection of an expanse of time that could have been hours, days or weeks. Because one of the strange boils fluttered and spread open, and I saw that it wasn’t merely a growth. It was an eye.

A misshapen crimson iris focussed on me. Three additional eyes opened all around it. Behind me I could feel eyelids unfurling, and fascinated stares burning into me from all directions. I backed away, covered my head with my arms, cried out, but they refused to even blink. The whispering and the breathing and the pulsating became louder and louder until they felt like tiny fingers scratching inside my skull.

I may or may not have passed out then, or it may have been later. This is where my memory loses all sense of time and causality. I remember events, but not the order in which they took place. Some of them may have occurred more than once. Some, I suspect, have yet to occur at all. But throughout it all, cementing all my disjointed thoughts together, I remember the eyes, always there, watching from every angle.

I saw the spider-monsters again. At that point, I knew somehow that they were called Engineers. One of them was bearing down upon me, and my heart froze, but it merely bumped me gently aside and continued along the tunnel. Was I unimportant now? Or was some other purpose in mind for me?

It might have been the same one, but I saw an Engineer in one of the larger chambers, hunched over a body I recognised as one of the men. Its flexible feelers were working busily at his shuddering body, and he was screaming in the most ungodly manner. At first I thought it was killing him, or eating him, but it was taking too long for that.

I should have tried to help him. Perhaps I did. Perhaps he was the one who attacked me, but I’m fairly certain that that was Dr. Harding.

I was standing on a ledge looking down upon the biggest chamber I’d seen yet. It was the size of a cathedral, and dominated by a massive, twitching pillar of bulbous red flesh in the centre. Possibly some kind of nexus for the glowing red veins, because hundreds of them were snaking out from it along the floor and ceiling.

The chamber was absolutely teeming with Engineers. Some were carrying men. Some were tearing the clothes and equipment away from the struggling cargo. The naked men were passed onto still other Engineers as part of some haphazard production line. They would disappear beneath the squatting monsters, and their shrieks would join the cacophony of torment that bustled through the air.

I must have tried to do something. I remember feeling impotent and furious. I was making my way down a slope of cartilage towards them when Harding attacked me.

In him, I saw the product of the hellish factory floor. He was stripped of clothing and shuffling towards me with difficulty, because a metal bar had been driven through both his legs, holding his knees a few inches apart. His hands reached for me, and I saw a similar arrangement bracing his elbows.

I had been trying to talk to him, to calm him down, but his mind was gone. He lunged, swinging a bayonet. He pinned me to the ground, and I saw what they had done to his face.

A pair of metal staples had been lodged in his upper jaw and were pinning his lower eyelids open. His lips had been split open and peeled back, held in place with four misshapen nails. And he wasn’t holding the bayonet. It had been driven through his palm.

The intrusions to his body had not been made with care. Blood drooled from every part of him. The agony alone would have completely eaten away his sanity.

I brought up my knee and it rang heavily against the bar between his legs. I heard it shift within his flesh, and an inhuman moan escaped his teeth. I shoved him off and ran.

The tall man was there. He stands out strongly in my displaced memories. He roamed the tunnels of flesh, occasionally glimpsed at some distant entryway, watching like some ornamental statue. I saw him march stiffly past a window-like orifice, barely feet away from me, and my legs gave way beneath me. By then, I may have been in the cell already. Or maybe it was he who put me in the cell.




I have no way of knowing how long I have been imprisoned since then. The passage of time cannot even be measured by any conventional standards in this place.

My cell is a bubble of cartilage buried within the walls of flesh. Circular holes serve as windows, blocked by tendons as tough as steel bars, that allow me to look out upon the monstrous central chamber where the men had been converted into mindless slaves to torment. I see it all, again and again, with no coherence or causality. I see them as they were first brought in. I see their transformations. I see them shamble grotesquely about with their hellish piercings. I see the shapeless things they became after that, staggering mindlessly through the byways of the labyrinth. I see them being finally absorbed and becoming part of the surreal architecture. I see all of it at once, every horrifying moment laid over each other.

Sometimes the windows shrivel closed, and I am alone in darkness. Again, for how long, I do not know, but it is long enough to numb my mind with tedium and drive me close to insensibility with that tortuous question: why was I spared? Was I part of those inhuman experiments, some kind of comparison? Or, as slowly occurred to me like weeds growing upon my mind, is my fate to experience some other form of torment, some agony more sophisticated than mere blades and spikes?

On occasion some eldritch force will tear my soul from my body and my essence would be allowed to wander, to glimpse other ‘special’ prisoners, perhaps to further sap my spirit. Statler, the American, is there, in a cell similar to my own. He spends most of his time wracked with a violent madness, screaming, hurling himself against the walls, but they are too soft to damage his body.

Most of the other special captives are unknown to me. A dishevelled man in the remnants of a three-piece suit and a narrow-brimmed hat is kept secured to a muscular wall, in pride of place like some human trophy. Sometimes he is young, barely 30, sometimes he is elderly and wasted.

There is a bald, bearded man in some archaic druid’s costume. He has been reserved for truly vile torments. I see him held in place at the bottom of a deep, lonely shaft, his arms and legs secured by tentacles that permanently stretch him. Every time I see him his pale, white face and body are covered in a different set of dementedly creative pain devices.

Mere tearing of the outer skin, such as what Harding and the soldiers had suffered, is nothing compared to what this wretched creature undergoes; sometimes I can see that great chunks of muscle and bone have been removed from his head and torso, and metal contraptions are lodged inside the holes, forever teasing and churning his innards. Sometimes his face is covered wholly or partially by glistening white cloth, as if even our lunatic captor is repulsed by what it has done.

He screams, at first. After a while, he can do nothing but croak. Then he makes no noise at all, his throat stressed to permanent ruin.

The last special prisoner is Ericsson. He comes to the window of my cell to speak to me, on the occasions when I am allowed to see outside. For reasons he has never explained he is allowed to move freely about the maze. He is always twitching with nervous excitement when I see him, terrified at our predicament but as giddily fascinated as a schoolboy.

It is often hard to make sense of his statements, as he simply chatters madly at me with no apparent concern for my understanding or response. As far as I can gather, his telepathy has allowed him to communicate with the monstrous intelligence behind this nightmare. A tiny, limited communication, but enough for Ericsson to learn of its nature.

I remember his exact words, because I have little else to ruminate on. I couldn’t say in what order he made these fevered statements.

“The King. He’s the one.” He made a throaty choking noise that was apparently supposed to be a name. “He’s the one who holds us. He’s all around, watching. He has been since we arrived on this continent. The trees… the trees are his limbs. The Engineers are his fingers. God help us, we walked right in. Right into him.”

“It’s pain he wants. It feeds him. He drinks down the torment of others. A psychic vampire. There used to be more, but they clashed, and ate each other, and the King was the only one left. He kept on absorbing pain and magic until he WAS magic. Until he WAS pain.”

“Sometimes he glimpses our world. He likes it. He envies it. There’s a limit to how much pain magic can create. But technology... we’ve been finding new ways to hurt each other since history began. He wants to be like us. That’s why he built the hotel. Everything he does to us, we gave him the idea. It’s because of us. All of us.”

“You don’t even know what pain is. In the camp, when I picked up that wave of agony, I thought it was coming from our guides. But I was wrong. It was coming from him. The Prince. He’s been through forms of torture we can’t even begin to comprehend. The King actually grew bored of his pain. Can you imagine what that must take? The King NEVER gets bored of pain!”

“His body is just a corpse. That mass of flesh under the mountain in the Ethereal Realm. It's just a gateway. This place is his true form. A plain beyond space and time. Beyond reality. He turned us into figments of his imagination. Maybe that’s all we’ve ever been.”

“The King is a beast. That’s the most foolish part of it. He has no sentience. His mind is nothing more than that of a fattened pig. He could be the most powerful entity in any universe and his actions are no more calculated than a dog chasing a bone. Randomness and magic turned a dumb animal into God. Think on what that means for our world. Is it the same for any God? Millennia of crusades, holy wars, prejudice, hatred, all in the name of some all-powerful sheep or dairy cow?”

Even while he speaks, I can look over his shoulder and see the fate in store for him. Eventually he is turned into another of those mindless, shambling slaves, his flesh peeled open with wires and pins and his limbs twisted and crippled. I can only recognise him by his beard. It is on the back of his neck.

I don’t yet have memories of being one of them, but it will happen. Statler’s cell sits empty. He could have been any one of the monstrosities that have staggered by my window. Eventually, the agony of anticipation will cease to amuse. I know that at any moment I will feel those chattering metal legs around me and the thought twists in my stomach and it hurts.

When I am taken, all my memories will fade, crowded out by eternal suffering. My imagination takes over and I see myself struggling through the body of the King, wracked with agonies and unable to remember any other existence. I know that I will have no more thoughts of freedom or safety or home because my very understanding of the concepts will be lost to me and it hurts.

But for now I am a man and my mind is still my own. I am still a rifleman of Captain Troughton’s Special Brigade. I am still an Englishman in the service of the Ministry of Occultism. They sent us here to write reports. So this is my report. I know it will never be read and it hurts

I have carved every word into the fleshy skin of my cell walls, painstakingly tearing every stroke with a sharpened button from my shirt. The King’s foetid blood runs in rivers down the walls and the glow keeps me awake and the smell chokes my senses and it hurts

My hands are tattered and bleeding and my fingernails are gone and it hurts

I run out of space on the walls and it hurts

I find more space on my arms and it hurts and my legs and it hurts and my chest and it hurts and my face and it hurts and my eyes and it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it

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