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CHAPTER 2: THE RITUAL

"Carnal, spellbinding, explosive—Joseph Sale wields his blazing prose to pierce the shadow of the human soul and immerse us in a story of such intensity, it will leave you speechless."
-Christa Wojciechowski, author of Oblivion Black and Popsicle

*Note* UK Spelling


CHAPTER 2: THE RITUAL


Like a famished pilgrim, Alan stepped under the shelter of The Black Star, now perceiving who had questioned him. It was a dwarf man wearing all black, save for a bright yellow skullcap. His face was long and sepulchral, with drooping eyebags and a thick, sloping brow, yet he offered a glimmering, goblin-like smile that could not help but alleviate Alan’s flagging spirits.

“You have finally arrived,” the dwarf said. It seemed his voice was naturally harsh and deep, but now that Alan stood on the other side of the shutter, he heard a lilting music in it as well. “My name is Petruccio.” Petruccio extended a hand and Alan shook it. His grip was very firm.

“Are you Italian?”

Petruccio laughed loudly at that.

“Come, the Mistress is waiting.”

Alan followed the dwarf to a black door that, even under the neon sign’s light, was so well designed that it was almost impossible to distinguish from the wall. With a deft motion of the hand that was unlike the turning of a key or doorknob, the door swung open, revealing a staircase down. The dwarf took the steps carefully—they were not designed for his shorter legs—and Alan followed at a respectful distance and pace. The door swung shut behind them of its own accord.

The walls were brick, but of the faded, yellow kind. Some of them looked partially crushed, as though sagging beneath an immense weight, although that seemed off given that the front of The Black Star was only a single storey. There was a crude metal railing on one side of the stairwell, and LED lights flickered on overhead as they descended.

Alan wanted to speak to Petruccio. He had a thousand questions. But he also felt that if he voiced too many inane queries he would be cast out, unworthy to receive the secrets of this place. Better to remain silent, hold his tongue, and allow the answers to reveal themselves. He had journeyed far metaphorically and literally to get here, paid extraordinary amounts of money to an informant on the dark web for the location. He might as well drink every moment in, rather than grasping desperately for explanations. He felt more able to relax now because that fateful word—Carcosa—had meant something to the watcher at the gate. Alan wasn’t crazy, not entirely.

At last, the staircase ended, and Petruccio and Alan came into a hallway of dizzyingly lavish extravagance in comparison with the bare exterior and stairwell. The wallpaper was a deep crimson and the walls hung with paintings that looked like works of the great renaissance masters. Yet… when Alan peered closer, their landscapes and figures were far more harrowing and bleak that anything painted by Michaelangelo, Raphael, or Da Vinci. Indeed, the closest parallel that Alan could conjure to mind were the haunting nightmare-scapes of the Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński. But even they, vivid and beautiful and grotesque as they were, lacked something that these strange paintings evoked with every brushstroke: a sense of ecstatic and terrifying mystery. Yes, it was the juxtaposition of the clarity of the way certain forms were rendered—corpses dangling from a gibbet, locusts filling the sky with glinting wings, monstrous beasts trudging through marshwaters—and the ephemeral and inchoate nature of the backgrounds: clouds where melting cities were glimpsed, where forests faded into wet garden mulch, where solid stone blew away as grey wind—that produced such an effect upon Alan. He stood ensorcelled and mesmerised, unaware that he was rudely ignoring his guide.

Petruccio, however, understood, and waited patiently until Alan was able to tear his eyes away.

“Who painted these?”

“You are not ready to know yet.”

His heart thudded even harder in his chest.

“Will I find out?”

“Perhaps. Please, come with me.”

There were many doors leading away from this hallway, but Petruccio directed Alan to one on which a strange sigil was emblazoned. A short line running left to right quickly plummeted ninety degrees downward, then rose at forty-five degrees, then doubled back on itself, crossing the downward line underneath the first horizontal one. If he squinted, it almost looked like an Egyptian Eye of Horus, but reduced to basic components.

“Go through, please,” Petruccio said.

Alan touched the door, half expecting to receive an electric shock, and it swung open on easy hinges. Within was a small waiting room, its primary feature a long chaise longue.

“I’ll return when she is ready.”

The dwarf departed. Alan heard a key turn in a lock.

Letting out a slow exhalation, he sat upon the chaise longue. It occurred to him that this type of sofa was most commonly used in therapy—at least in the stereotypical movies. Hadn’t Freud devised this set up so his clients couldn’t see his shocked reactions to their confessions? He seemed to remember reading that somewhere.

Alan lay back on the sofa. He knew he was a madman, but sometimes madmen were right, sometimes madmen reached the truth by circuitous means—they gave of themselves more than most people in society were prepared to give. Now there was a thought worth clinging onto.

As the minutes drifted by in waiting, he wondered about petty things. It irritated him that his mind, perhaps on the precipice of a divine revelation, lingered on such sundry details, but he couldn’t help it.

He hoped he had enough money, for a start. No payment had been asked for up front when he had booked his “appointment”, which was most unusual. He’d had to dial an eleven digit number that he hardly believed was real. To his surprise, a woman had answered. She said very little, merely asking for a date and time. He had given it, she had confirmed, and the call had ended. He had been tempted to redial again to see what would happen, and also partly to convince himself the call had really transpired and wasn’t just a figment of his overreaching imagination.

He worried about his body, too. Could he handle it? He had put himself through a lot over the years, and it was beginning to take a toll. He was on the wrong side of thirty-five. As I approach the journey of my life halfway… That, he knew, was Dante Alighieri. The middle point was where the poet had gone on his epic adventure into Hell. Alan could only pray for such an illuminating experience.

After dismal minutes which seemed to drag on for eternity, the sound of a door unlocking roused Alan from a kind of trance-like stupor of anticipation; the door opened and Petruccio stepped through, a subtle smile on his face.

“Mistress Cali will see you now.”

Alan stood on trembling legs.

He followed the dwarf through another door in the crimson hallway and into a corridor similarly lined with exquisite—yet horrifying—paintings. One, in particular, arrested his motion, to the point where he goggled at it like a fish. It depicted the night sky, but looking closer, the stars were alien. A part of him thought this would simply be due to the imaginative faculties of the artist. Why bother laboriously recreating the constellations in their proper arrangement where an astonishing effect might be created with freer placements? And indeed, the effect was astonishing. The night was not pure blackness, which might have been dull, but a roiling and layered vista of purple, indigo, and onyx. If he looked closely he could see currents and waves in the darkness formed by the subtle colours, as though it were not the night sky, in truth, but the deep sea. Yet, the stars were not randomly placed. He could see a familiar pattern in them. Was it phallic? These weren’t just yellow-white dots of paint scattered randomly on a canvas, there was meaning here.

“What you’re looking at is inside the constellation of Taurus,” Petruccio said.

Alan swallowed.

“And that brighter star?”

“Aldebaran. The Eye. Come, my mistress is patient, but hates the unpunctual.”

Alan nodded fervently, and set off again after the dwarf.

At the end of the corridor was a black door trimmed with gold. Upon it was the number 0. Given their conversation just a few moments before, Alan could not help but think of an eye, or perhaps a yoni, but that was his desire talking. The excruciations of delayed satiation were now beginning to debase his mental faculties, warping everything into a sexual talisman.

Petruccio opened the door and motioned for Alan to step inside, the sly smile still playing across his otherwise granitic face. Alan stepped inside and the door promptly shut behind him. Once more he heard the sound of a turned key. He swallowed down a thick bolus of spit, tasting the acid of his fear.

The room was unlike the previous hallways. Sparse, its walls and floor of rugged sandstone. The only illumination came from a pair of twin braziers burning softly at the far side of the room. They were far away, which gave him the impression the room was expansive. The darkness was thick, and even the firelight seemed unable to lift it. His wild imagination conjured the image of an unseen pit just in front of his feet. He nervously laughed at such a primitive fear. This experience might do many things to him, but surely they would not just plummet him to his death… Or would they? This operation was undoubtedly illegal, and he a criminal. He had asked for an experience like no other, perhaps death was all that was left to him?

Gritting his teeth with determination, he strode forward into the dark, towards the twin burning lights.

“Stop there,” a feminine voice commanded.

He halted, his entire body rigid. The voice had been deep, sensual, authoritative, the kind of voice that emanated not from the throat or even the lungs but the belly, the centre of power.

He looked about him, hoping to see who was speaking, but as far as his eyes could discern, there was no one with him.

Along the shore the cloud waves break, the twin suns sink beneath the lake, the shadows lengthen—in Carcosa!

The song caused every hair to rise upon his arms and the nape of his neck. His heart felt like it might explode from beating so fast. Breathing had almost become difficult.

“What is Carcosa?” he whispered, unable to stop the question tearing from his lips.

He was answered by a clanging sound. He felt a tightness about his wrist. He looked up in surprise and saw that he had been manacled, a chain descending from the unseen ceiling. A second later, his other wrist was clamped. He let out a pathetic yelp as he was hoisted up, a hidden mechanism raising the bonds; he now dangled by the chains, metal cutting into his flesh.

The darkness before him began to undulate. No, it was the firelight, playing off—a woman’s flesh. But flesh blacker than onyx. He had known lovers of every skin tone, but never anything like this. Her skin was darker than tar, darker than obsidian, darker than the abyss. Her lips were the red of menstrual blood. Her eyes were yellow lamps, serpent-like, and painful to look upon.

“I am Cali,” she said.

The rational part of Alan’s mind reeled, clutching desperately for the sword of truth that would cut through the illusion. A thousand explanations rattled off their hollow litany in his mind: she is wearing special contact lenses, her skin is painted, you have been drugged. But the irrational part of his brain told him that this was no ordinary woman, that she had been touched by something beyond the human sphere, something Alan had been searching for his whole life: Carcosa.

She was naked, though bejewelled, glorious necklaces and bracelets jangling softly as she moved, their gemstones winking in the flickering light. Her facial features belonged to no ethnicity he could easily place, or perhaps all of them at once. Her body was hard to parse, it fitted so well to the darkness, but he saw voluptuous breasts—and unlike the fakeries of pornstars and prostitutes, these swung low, nearly to the belly button. Her hips were so wide it was as though they were made to girdle the earth. Her forehead, where the third eye was said to reside, was marked by a yellow spot. Her proud lips pouted like flowers, and her eyes revealed to him the sacred mystery of his own thundering heart.

Breathless, he waited for her to speak, or sing, again.

“Alan Chambers?” she said, after what seemed an age.

“Yes.” A whisper.

“You have been seeking me, or rather, seeking what I guard, for a long time.”

Yes.” He could have wept again. He could not believe it. He was here. He stood at the final threshold, the final gateway to the Infinite he had always craved.

“What you are about to undergo is known as the Ritual of Five. Should you pass the ritual, you will be bestowed the Yellow Sign, and granted entry into Carcosa.”

Alan’s mind spun. Carcosa was a place, a place. It seemed so obvious, but the fragments he had collected over the years had woven words such as Carcosa, Hastur, and Yhtill into sentences and allegories too complex to fully unravel their meaning. All he had known was that in them lay the answer to the riddle of his own strangeness.

“But you should know that few pass to the fifth level,” she continued. Her eyes bored into his. She had not yet blinked. “Some perish in the attempt. Most simply fail. Of course, losing their goal, having come so far, drives many to take their own lives.” She paused, allowing the gravity of those words to sink in. “This is your very last chance to turn back, Alan. If you choose to go forward, there is no telling what you will become.”

“I am ready.”

“Are you sure? Remember, this is your last chance.”

Alan smiled, a Satanic rictus.

“Do with me what thou wilt!”









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