Short Story: The Great Beast Watches from a Well of Stars

I finished this a few months ago and halfheartedly shopped it around to a couple of the big sci-fi and fantasy zines who will remain nameless (one rejected it, the other never replied), but to be honest I’ve never felt that it would really fit comfortably into any of those slick ultramodern publications anyway, and so I rather like the notion of offering it to the public free of charge.  At any rate, it is an homage of sorts to both H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, especially the latter, and since Poe made criminally little money on his masterpieces of fiction, I think it even more appropriate that I don’t make a dime on this piece, in artistic solidarity with one of my greatest literary heroes.  Like I said, this is basically a Poe tribute piece and is written in a style I hope anyone but the most astute of Poe scholars might initially mistake as a found story of the author himself, though with a bit of genre bending to give it a modern edge.  Enjoy!

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The Great Beast Watches from a Well of Stars

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita. – Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

How sweetly the harlot slept, as without the faintest discomposure, nor any portion of guilt to cause her restless nights.  In this, the Year of Our Lord, 18—, I, Jean-Paul Dupuis, found myself in a peculiar state of agitation, owing to my knowledge of her malignant deeds, as I took in my beloved’s slumbering form. Yet even now, amidst this soul-splintering torment, I meditated on her lovely anatomy, so allusive of our celestial antecedents.  In her physical attributes none outshone the others, for they were ideally proportioned and in no degree visibly marred or less than exemplary.  Her locks of silky ebon undulated across the embroidered silk coverlet and boudoir pillows on which she floated, breaking into streams and cascades northeast of her crown like some dark river delta, perhaps of the opaque and poisoned shadow-waters of the Styx.  Though I could not see them presently, I knew that my beauty’s eyes were the luster and tone of polished black chalcedony; it was just as well that I was unable to gaze into them now, for the spark of their treachery would surely undo me.  The lips of the recumbent Venus, gently parted to allow her faintly audible inhalations and exhalations free movement, were three-quarters the red of the poppy but contained the full measure of the flower’s intoxication.  And her flesh!  The shade of almonds it was, and it tasted always of the neroli and jasmine with which she perfumed herself daily.

It must be said that intellectually she was my equal, tutored in all the traditional arts and sciences, and well-instructed at that, for her father had spared no expense in the education of his favored child, his precious Sylvana, eldest of the three D’Alessandro daughters.  Of the prominent languages she was superbly fluent in four—English, French, Latin, and of course Italian—and passing ordinary in German and Greek.  Her mind was canny and inquisitorial; rarely can I recall a moment since I had become acquainted with her—oh four summers ago, when, at thirteen years, she had scarcely left girlhood behind—that she had not some tome or other in hand; or was entranced in the study of her natural surroundings; or proceeded to torment the nearest person (often myself when I was given sanction to accompany my father to the D’Alessandro apartments, though I was only recently into my third decade myself in those days) with a seemingly endless round of inquiries and requests.

Fondly now I bethink on those singular stirring years, of how the pioneer agitations of love had altered me.  It was as if, following my squalling debut on the stage of the Earth, I had been a shipwreck victim cast hither and thither all my life upon the waves, knowing neither the sights nor smells nor tastes of dry land, caught for lonesome eons in a pitiable skiff surrounded only by the dreary abstruseness of the eternal sea.  Then, after twenty-two years adrift, to wash upon the shores of Paradise itself!  It is fully beyond one to form even the beginnings of a report as to the nature of this bewitchment our most eminent poets have christened romantic love, although many have shot for the mark, and perhaps a few have come near it.  Certainly I am most unable to encompass the sense of it in words, save to say that for a time I reposed amongst the seraphim, feasting on the manna of my ever-renewing passion.

My Sylvana and I were wed nearly three years after our introduction, following her sixteenth birthday and the reception of my inheritance, and I purchased for the Dupuis homestead a large, unusual Tidewater in Southern Louisiana, near Metairie Ridge, called Amaranthine Gate, where I might oversee the sugar cane plantation I had acquired from the monies of my birthright.  The manse was in a moderate state of disrepair though certainly habitable.  The property, however, would require a great deal of cultivation and grounds-keeping, as it was overgrown and unruly with dense foliage.  Not only the customary flora of the Mississippi Alluvium—swamp cypress, oak, loblolly pine, sweetgum, weeping willow, myrtle, dogwood, magnolia, buckeye and cottonwood, flowering shrubs such as wild rose, honeysuckle, mulberry and elderberry, vining plants like poison ivy, muscadine and morning glory, and an escalating array of ferns, mosses, worts and lycophytes—but a myriad of eccentric plants I had never before encountered anywhere.  These were of exceeding interest to Sylvana, whose numerous skills included sketching, such that she began to create a compendium of pencil and pastel drawings of the unusual specimens with the aim of publication at some future date.  She had even taken it upon herself to name these species in true scientific fashion.

The grounds of our estate, comprised of some one hundred twelve acres, rested on an attenuated incline, with Amaranthine Gate posing grandiosely at the height of a bulging hillock.  From its facing side, the cottage and surrounding environs were pleasing to the eye, if verging towards dilapidation and a kind of baroque over-ripeness that owed less to the building’s design than to the general demeanor of the space it occupied.  This, I supposed, could be remedied with some expert arboriculture and landscape engineering, of which I had lately taken an interest.  Anon I would consult my boon companion, Roger Beverly, an architect of steadily advancing renown and well acquainted with the eminent Andrew Downing, to aid me in the rejuvenation of Amaranthine Gate; nonetheless, at the time I had more pressing duties insisting on my regard.

If the domicile, though imposing, was generally unremarkable, at least in its current condition, and the property of which it served as fulcrum mostly of accord with the greater region (unidentified plant life notwithstanding), Amaranthine Gate possessed one curious and exotic attribute for which I could unearth no record in local periodicals nor in any other documents.  The delineation of this unnatural accent upon the land very nearly eludes me, but I shall offer what I am able in the form of language to this end: whilst the facing end of the landmass that Amaranthine Gate crowned could be thought a mild and attractive slope, astern this façade was wholly betrayed, for not eight feet from the bottom step at the property’s rear the earth dropped into a sheer, ragged escarpment, perhaps forty feet in height, consisting primarily of dusky strata mixed generously with a compact soil from which dozens of tree roots of multifarious complexity had sprung and now depended freely en plein air.  At certain periods of the day, most especially at its beginning and end, as the light which struggled through the high bristling trees came thin and crepuscular, these corrupt and cankered appendages appeared to move, almost imperceptibly, of their own volition, and looking on them overlong provoked one to cast his eyes away quickly and put the ghastly illusion at his back, hopefully soon to be forgotten.

Yet it was what lay at the foot of this unholy cliff which most indubitably birthed the more powerful passions—perturbation and a kind of torpid, hypnotic fear chief among them.  Small fetid swamps were in no small number in these parts of the country, but this particular one stood apart as something of such foreign character that I had neither seen nor read nor heard of its like in all of my studies and travels.  No matter the time of day or the state of the atmosphere outdoors, the pool’s tranquil surface was as a mirror held up to the clear evening sky in summer—its unchanging hue a bluish-black the precise shade of the midnight firmament, and all bedight in its immeasurable spatter of celestial pearls.  This marvelous bog, appearing to the eye from above almost perfectly circular and of a diameter equivalent to about half Amaranthine Gate’s length, was girded nigh entirely by tall, tightly ranked oaks, swamp cypresses and the rest, so that one lost sight of what lay through the trees very quickly, with visibility beyond a range of twenty feet quite impossible, even when standing at forest’s edge.  Those trees nearest the water also began to arch at their tops, culminating, at the apexes, in an angle of twenty to thirty degrees, near as I could make out from my vantage point on the upper portico.

Undoubtedly the slough’s most horrendous articulation was likewise its most guarded secret, for it only bodied forth on certain occasions, and only when one was left alone in its midst.  Having caught and encaged the viewer’s sight with its own (in these times the recognition of its resemblance to the black interior of an immense eye was most unavoidable), it began to tug at his soul, coaxing that soul to take leave of him with some nearly irresistible wile or other, and only the eventual onset of his natural resistance to death—inciting him to panic—could tear him away from its pull.  While trapped on its hook, the brackish monstrosity’s unfortunate victim saw into its otherwise obscure depths with utmost clarity and at once knew the abominable truth that lay at the heart of it: this grossly corrupt, blasphemous thing was none other than the eye of the first fallen of God’s angels, Lucifer himself, peering out into the Earth from his Abaddon, and so I came to call it the Devil’s Eye, or the Eye of the Beast.  It could be said, then, that the swamp had no bottom as such and opened straight into the pit to which its master had been eternally condemned.

True, in the early months of our lives at Amaranthine Gate I more often spurned the Oculus Diaboli even as my dear Sylvana found herself drawn to it, or rather to its surroundings.  I had not yet spoken to her of my discovery of the true nature of the falsely modest pond behind our home, incurring that she would soon open its algae-encrusted Pandora’s Box for herself, and this she did.  She too chose not to lay this newfound burden upon me, but I knew.  Oh, I knew!  I spied it in her star-crossed midnight eyes, as she doubtless detected it in mine.  Even so, I could not bring myself to renounce it altogether, as despite its intractable and undeniable evil, this cauldron of night waters offered to the man bold enough to face its psychivorous maw—and strong enough to resist it again afterward—a certain vitality and vigor, and a lordly astuteness to rival that of the greatest philosophers of Antiquity!  More and more I came to replenish myself upon its banks.  I apprenticed myself to the clandestine, arcane knowledge it offered up, and soon enough I apprehended that I was indeed its prized student and that it had been beating an ethereal path for me leading to itself long before I had ever set foot on the grounds of Amaranthine Gate.  As to the wherefore of its choosing me, I could only speculate, though this I will not do.  Blasphemy wears many faces, friend, but I believe its most insidious to be the mask of questioning.  If God had not meant me to face the outlandish trial, then He would not have allowed me to reach this destination, and it could only be by His design that I was here at all.  Now it became clear to me that it was not simply fate—my Lord trusted that I had it within me to conquer the devil himself, and to dredge from his mucky, darkling eye all that could be known in this world!

This, then, is how I learned of my bride’s disloyalty.  On the night before the unwelcome knowledge was granted me, I had not slept well, having fallen into that agitated condition in which the dread of insomnia was the very thing that kept me awake.  Rising from bed around two hours past midnight, and seeking solace wherever I felt it might linger, I was led—in my hypnogogic state—to the rear entrance of Amaranthine Gate and out onto the narrow strip of high ground there overlooking the Eye of the Beast.  I descended in a sure-footed if abstracted manner the arduous left-hand pitch, till I reached an anemic scleral arc, the bog’s left bank.  Unseen in daylight, a cataract of fog now caravanned in creeping revolutions above the waters, though the starry specks were still visible through these mists, diminished perchance by half.  Cacophonous orchestras of nocturnal things played in their Sturm und Drang custom in full-shadowed pits as the small hour chill clamped and curdled my exposed flesh.

At the first I knew not what I waited for, only that I was meant to wait.  Ere long the revelation came to me, wherewith—and this I swear to Heaven, Earth and all that lies between—the Eye of the Beast . . . it blinked.  In a gleam of the eddying mere I beheld her, my lovely, my sly, my inconstant Sylvana, committing her vile deeds with John Collins, the fiend!  And again with Philip Gravois!  And . . . but this could not be! my ally and brother, Roger Beverly!  Et tu, Brute?  And we had been married not even a full year!

* * *

We arrive again at the present dilemma, as I sit silently at the side of my dreaming Jezebel and observe her easy breaths.  Three days past the Night of the Epiphany I have been tormented and uncertain how I must proceed.  She had to be dispatched, this was clear, but the question that plagued me was how it should be accomplished.  Countless images blazed through my mind, shewing every variety of execution known to me; I could settle on none.  Nearing the point of psychic exhaustion and resigned to settle on a far more conventional means of annihilation than I ascertained suited her (Sylvana was magnificent in every respect, not excluding the breadth and audacity of her crimes), only then did it dawn within my vexed brain what had to be done.  No sooner had it struck me than I marveled at the very perfection of it.  Aye!  What else could it be?

The preparations were made and the date set for the coming Sabbath, April the fourteenth, one day past March’s terminus for each illicit coupling she had carried out in the weeks I had been away from her.  The number could not have been fortuitous.  ’T was God’s work I plotted and no other day would do for it.  I took leave of my wife then, being unable to look on her shameful countenance longer.  The next two days I spent in unwholesome establishments just north of our glorious cabochon of the Mississippi, la Nouvelle-Orléans.  I dared not enter far into the city proper, as I had received reports from my underlings that a plague of yellow-fever had begun to ravage the masses there.  But I ventured as far as I would, half hoping that the bloody disease would find me anyway.  This was not to be, and I lost myself to melancholy and spirits, which are, in my most abject humours, of a piece.

My taste for West India rum, of late tempered by my connubial and occupational duties, had rebounded on me three-fold.  La Perle Violet, the most recent public house of choice, served a delightful rum punch, of which I was into my fourth when my own Judas strolled into the tavern, surveying the carousing rabble until his eyes lit on me.  He had already donned his bright, grinning mask of congeniality and false innocence before he’d crossed half the distance from the door to my compressed corner table, roaring, “Lo!  Dupuis!  How goes it, friend?”

And well! I thought.  If my dear acquaintance would make such accursed pretense to my very face, so too shall I; and that I did, whereas my features became as a mirror held up to his.

“Well met, Monsieur Beverly!” said I.  “Take a seat there.  How now, mon frère?  What brings you out?”

Beverly landed in his chair with agile aplomb for one who had been so breathless only moments ago.  He propped his cane and top hat against the nearby wall, adjusted the collar of his ashen roquelaure and furled the end of his mustache, inciting me to wonder when he had become such a dandy, a trait in men that had long perturbed me.

“Ah!  Half the alehouses and taverns in Southern Louisiana I have searched you out, and at last I have found you!  I came round your place this morning, only to find you absent, and your Sylvana in a hopeless and worrisome state beside,” Beverly informed me.

My innards of a sudden went curdled and gelid.  “How unfortunate,” I murmured. “Did she say what troubled her?”

“Aye, she tells me you left Amaranthine Gate two days back without saying so much as farewell to her, or to where you were headed, something you have always done.  That I know for myself anyway, as you and I have been acquainted with one another since we were infants on our mothers’ knees.  She feared you might have . . . taken ill, what with all the disease rife in the city these days.”

Draining my mug of rum punch, I pondered over his words.  “So, she thinks me mad.  Is that it?”

“She is frightened for you, Jean-Paul.  She claims you have not been yourself these last two weeks or so.  You have the look of something aberrant about you, she says.  And if I may be so bold, sir—you do appear to my eyes to be somewhat harrowed and unwell.  I dare say, perhaps this is not the ideal place for you now.  Pray, go home to your beloved and to your bed.  You need rest, and a gentle female hand to restore your health, I should think.”

I snorted.  “A gentle female hand?  What do you know of a gentle female hand?” I asked him, in full understanding that he must have known something of it, owing to his dalliances with my bride.  “You are as yet a bachelor, monsieur.”

This point doubtless stung him, but even as remorse began to well up inside me, I altered mental course abruptly and forcefully, wrestling down to my soul’s chasm the errant bit of conscience.  Thereupon, the abhorrent thing now fully subjugated, I inwardly spat on it.  I might have forgiven my old friend anything else, even murder of a beloved relation, but this!  This lay past the bourn of my tolerance.

“There is no need to debase me so, friend.  And I do have a mother, after all,” countered Beverly.

“Why, I beg your pardon!  As you say, I am not quite well, and you know I take to drinking at times when my nerves trouble me.   I suppose I should return home.  The Eye of the Beast comforts me . . .”

Beverly noticeably blanched; I apprehended from this that I had misspoken, and only on second thought did I realize what I had said.

“Say again,” he appealed.

“I would rather not.  ’T is the drink speaking, not I.  Cast it away and forget it.  I mean to say Amaranthine Gate comforts me.  And Sylvana, aye, she as well.”

The architect got to his feet, taking up his hat and cane again, and proffered a hand to assist me in standing, which I took.  “Come, then.  I shall escort you home,” he said, an obvious effort to prod me into following through on my words before I had the advantage of annulling them and remaining at La Perle Violet.  Still, I could not turn away such a kindness, for the ride back to my estate this night was surely abounding in perils: blackguards and highwaymen as eager (or more) to slit an unwitting rider’s throat as rob his purses; sludgy, engulfing stretches of earth that would callously suck a horse and his man to their choking chthonian deaths; vengeful malign spirits, forest brutes and sundry creatures of eld hiding in wait to bound upon careless gallants and devour their stricken faces with bone-bursting traquenard jaws.  Here was I, in a compromised state, easy prey to any of these deadly obstacles, and I welcomed the company.  The late hour ride was indeed eventful in its way, and though my friend traveled beside me much of the course, the final few miles I rode alone.  Woe unto me, nonetheless, for I would never see my companion Beverly again.  Nor would anyone else.

* * *

The appointed time ever neared.  In those approaching days I forgot my anxieties, or dispossessed them rather, becalmed by delicate afternoon hours spent watching—from my favorite Hepplewhite chair positioned on the upper portico—the mysterious slough astern the mansion.  I had lately rechristened it the Star Pool or Astral Well, owing to its most alluring feature, and because I had come to see that nothing so marvelous could originate from, nor be a component of, Mephistopheles.  The Well had, after all, explicated to me the fact of Sylvana’s adultery in the descrying glass of its surface.  All the while I heaped blandishments and flummeries upon my dear one and played the uxorious mate to the utmost, keeping her chariness and worry stifled.  At length the day came and all was ready.

I met her in the dining room for supper, for which my darling had prepared a copious meal of roast capon, cowpeas with rice, corn maque choux, dilled potatoes, and for dessert a lovely strawberry pie.  The food was excellent and I thanked Sylvana for it, complimenting her genuinely in her skill in the kitchen, another of many arts and sciences at her command that I would very much suffer for lack of in the advancing weeks.  On rising from the table, I accepted a glass of sherry, a digestif to crown the prince of meals.

“Will you not have some, dear?” I proposed to my lady-love, who appeared to me more wise, charming and beautiful than she ever had in the few years I had known her, no doubt the effects of my unsettled heart.  Well, women may heed such an enervated call; they are built for it, I expect.  But men, who are certainly the closer of our species to the mechanisms and architectures of the Divine Plan, must not waver when our moral duties are put before us so perfectly.  And so I will not.  “Come now, Mrs. Dupuis.  Do this for me.  Have a sup of sherry, and accompany me on the portico.”

“But, I cannot, signore!  I am frightened of the lights that come out of that hideous swamp.  It is cursed.  We should remove ourselves from it, and from this place!  Alas! I can no longer bear it.  Please, my dear, do not make me do this!”

I noted her cunning act—such verisimilitude!  She could have walked the stage with the most accomplished of tragedians.  Mon Dieu!  Did her talents have no end?  But I was no amateur, I am pleased to proclaim; I had thus far not betrayed myself to Sylvana.  In any event, whereas I had God with me in this endeavor, failure was inconceivable.

“The Star Pool is radiant indeed, but the poor thing cannot compare to the light emanating from your fair face,” I informed Sylvana.  “I must have you by my side tonight, only this once, and tomorrow we may discuss selling Amaranthine Gate.”

Reluctantly she accepted her own sherry, saying with a sigh, “Let us go, then.”

Now wearing my comic mask to assure her of my pleasure, I took my glass and hers, starting for the balcony.  Then I stopped, saying, “The air will be cool.  You should take your coat, my dear.  I could not endure it if you took ill for pleasing me.”

“Perhaps you are right,” said she.  “Go on ahead.  I will meet you there.”

I nodded, turned and stepped out of the dining room, making my way to the rendezvous point.  The breeze was not too brisk, I discovered, but this mattered not.  It was the opportunity to be alone that I required, and here it was.  Withdrawing from my pocket a silver-filigreed flacon, I decanted from it into Sylvana’s glass one-half dram or so of laudanum.  A few minutes passed and she arrived, at which point I surrendered her sherry to her and took a sip of my own.  She looked uncertain about her libation, though she could not possibly have known what was in it beyond the wine itself.

“Drink, mon amour.  It will ease your nerves, I promise you.”

Sylvana obeyed.  She had never been a great lover of alcohol, even the sweeter varieties, and she had little tolerance for it.  This, along with the effects of the laudanum, conspired to deliver her into an amiable and dreamy state almost at once.  I could observe that she grew wearier with each taste of the medicine I had concocted, her eyelids depressed and inviting, her limbs unrestrained, which was her truest configuration, surely.

“I – I should sleep,” she muttered.  “I fall . . .”

And she did, or nearly so.  First her stance softened and her body swayed; then she stumbled toward me, and I caught her before she could tumble to the boards.  I gathered her up in my arms, lifting her to the rail of the balustrade and setting her upon it whilst holding her yet, to prevent a dead plummet to the earth below.

“No, non sono pronto per dormire, Papa!” Sylvana maundered sulkily.

“Hush, hush, child.  You must have your rest,” I returned airily, kissing her brow with all the false fatherly care I could muster.

Standing high over the liquid portal of night that waited below, I gazed momentarily heavenward, then dipped my sight back to the Astral Well again.  A rare occasion was this, I thought, that the pond’s blue-black complexion, dashed with beaming sylphid tears as it was, finally reflected faithfully the sky that arched above it.  Moreover, only in that singular moment—as I perched at the very boundary of the Unknown with my beloved cradled close, preparing to offer her in sacrifice for her own sins and damning her to a sunless Eternity—was the Well’s near incessant thirst plainly and paradoxically slaked.

“Placet!” Sylvana howled without instigation, as if my thoughts had been laid bare before her and she was driven by unnamed forces to assent to their authenticity.

Here it was, my last earthly view of a woman whom I both adored and despised, caparisoned in her finest linens, scented with attar of rose, her tresses like black pennants wavering in the bland eventide breeze.  She was still quite unaware of her destiny, although her eyes had crept open and she had begun to look about, settling her eyes on the Pool.  Presently some degree of assimilation, followed by a tepid but burgeoning fear, took hold in her.

“Jean-Paul?  Cosa—?”

Before long I withdrew from the interior of my redingote a length of coir rope that I had previously arranged into a running bowline, using it to cincture Sylvana’s arms behind her.  With her wrists secured tightly, I lifted my own fallen angel with both hands and, fortified by the strength of Heaven, released her to a short and desperate flight.  She sailed in a remarkably graceful arc for all that, an exquisite soprano aria bursting forth from her lips and skipping across the gloom before being swallowed up with its source by the now-spuming lacus.  I expected much impassioned struggle from her, but there was almost none.  She sank—or was drawn down, as by a maelstrom—at once, and was gone.  A subaqueous, murky purple-blue light flashed briefly just before the disturbed waters calmed, becoming perfectly still again in a distressingly quick time.  That was the full measure of it, I am afraid.

* * *

For days afterward I dwelled morbidly in my rooms, subsisting on water, bread and plums, such that I feared I might truly be ill.  It was an impression not far from the reality, surely, though my malaise was more of the affective variety than the physical.  Some perplexing cast, a spirit of dreadful aspect, had snagged onto me, and in these dim hours I knew only doubt, regret and loss.  My overseer, Roderick Corvus, came to my chamber door many a time during those days, requesting my presence in the fields and prodding me about the health of myself and Sylvana, and each time he came by I continued to ascertain that our sickness persisted.  Ultimately I gave him full authority over the plantation, going so far as to draft a will that surrendered the entirety of it and Amaranthine Gate to him should anything . . . permanent befall me.  This satisfied the nefarious imp, just as I knew it would, and he troubled me no more thereafter.

When I felt strong enough to abandon my rooms, attaining unto the greater part of my former self, I took a strolling tour through the house.  All was as Sylvana had left it.  Even the supper we had enjoyed on the night of her dissolution—now rotting and pestilent with moaning, turgid black flies—still rested on the dining room table.  Afterward I slipped outside the house and rambled about the property, yet I avoided the back yard area and the “Astral Pool”—that awful blight on Southern Louisiana and the indubitable bane of my existence.  No satisfaction or peace could be had after the taking of Lady Sylvana’s life; I was as doomed as she.  We would meet up with one another again in Hell, but there was bound to be no joy in it, only an all-enduring resentment alloyed with a kind of dysphoric nostalgia, with just the right amount of the old affection left in both of us to bind our mutual miseries for all of eternity.

No, I refused to accept that!  God has ordained in the Holy Book that adulterers must be put to death, and I have only fulfilled my Christian duty to Him.  My guilt arose from the fact that I still coveted my beloved’s presence then, my love for her as yet not extinguished.  With the Lord’s will carried out, my duty now was to occupy myself with the business of my heart’s melioration and the resumption of the governance of my estates.  The former, I presumed, would be rectified in a consummate pursuit of the latter; so I took to it at once, wresting the reins of the plantation again from Corvus, though I promised to remunerate him graciously for his increased industry and responsibilities in my absence, which appeased him for the time being.

For the next fortnight I had much to do.  Harvesting time was upon me for three of the fields on the plantation, and the slaves always grew surly and uncouth in these days of high heat and hard toil.  Providing them with cane knifes could be troublesome if they were not closely observed and kept in check.  ’T was a season of many diversions and sleepless evenings, and it was in this season that I first fancied that I glimpsed her specter from my balcony, a thinly distributed, drab-white eminence standing buoyant on the swart unchanging surface of the Devil’s Eye.  She paused, thoroughly and uncannily static where she hung over the water, oh, some five minutes or so, not even a phantom wind stirring her dress or her hair, and then billows of nothingness rolled vertically through the figure, growing wider with each circuit until she had all dissolved away.

At the outset I thought that I had merely dreamt her.  My assumption proved faulty, however, as the eidolon returned many times following, first going round and round the pool fixedly—as of some clockwork contraption on a circular track—in five to twelve minute intervals, and after many days of this, operating in a more typically human manner, even if somewhat studied and utilitarian.  This was alarming enough, but naught could have braced me for the day she began to haunt Amaranthine Gate itself.  Betimes, prior to her first manifestation proper, I heard what resonated in my ears as the keening of a mad horde of insects, though I had long disposed of the remains of the last supper Sylvana and I had shared, and a search of the house from top to bottom revealed no such swarms.  I had become consumed with the disembodied buzzing and chased its origin to the top of the stairwell once, where the apparition did make its presence known to me near about the Nones of July.

For some immeasurable span I could not move, as inert as my dead bride had been in her earliest spirit incarnation hovering atop of the Eye of the Beast. Terror clasped my chest as she sailed down the spiraled steps, coming nearer to me with every downward stride.  When I saw her eyes—glowing vividly chatoyant from within—I released a stentorian wail to rival the bell of Cathédrale Saint-Louis and dashed from the room into the next.  There I waited for the beat of my heart to settle into its common rhythm before I returned to the bottom of the stairway, only to find the entity vanished.  Another day passed before she returned, and I had by then resolved not to flee from her, a promise to myself that I kept, though dread had not forsaken me.  I accosted the unearthly remains of Sylvana where she abided at the inmost point of the room, shuffling cautiously forward to a distance of perhaps ten feet away from the phantasm, daring go no closer.

“Wh-what do you want of me?” I demanded.  “I will not be chased from my home!  Do you hear me?”

At this the pale, translucent Sylvana readily turned opaque jet, with her form sparsely salted with stars that flashed as brightly as the sun, and then she was restored to the gossamer chimera of her primal existence, all within a matter of seconds.  That blazing eruption of light had stung my eyes and temporarily blinded me, yet even as I staggered backward somewhat, trembling and benumbed, I stood my ground.

“I seek not to displace you,” the eidolon divulged in a voice that was somehow chasmal, full and distant all at once, as if comprised of many speakers shouting in near perfect unison—and from far inside some broad cavern—the very same words.  That is not an altogether faithful interpretation of the strange intonations that issued forth from the creature’s mouth, but it is as close as I am able to come to one.  The ghost continued.  “I have journeyed here only to impart knowledge.”

“Knowledge, you say?  It was that which damned you!  You may return to your master with whatever odious knowledge you possess.  I want none of it!  If I had not seen the evidence of your infidelities, I would have lived happily all my days!”

Here the specter appeared to be saddened.  Ah, so she did feel the weight of her misdeeds on her conscience, never mind that the opportunity to amend them and free her soul from the everlasting fires was no longer attainable to her.

“I am afraid you misunderstand,” said she.  “It is not the truth of what is that the Egress unveils.  It is the truth of what will be if a particular shaft of time is not altered from its current trajectory.  You have taken the life of another human being for acts which did not occur, but which would have occurred in time owing to your eventual lapse into cruelty and brutality, and its accumulative effects on the one you have killed.”

This was an outrage, the devil’s lies and nothing less!  But could Lucifer not also impart the truth when it served his ends, and had he not done so at the pool?  So then, what were his truths, and what were his lies?  Alas!  My God!  How could I have been such a fool?

“But this is not the reason I have come.  I am here to show you something of humanity’s future.  Come forth.  I will lay my hands on you, and you will know what no others of your kind know at this time.”

In my distress and confusion, as tears of rage and shame streaked like falling stars down my shaded face, I shambled toward the prophetic revenant, hoping that the old tale was true which avowed that to touch an unmoored spirit meant death for the living too, for it was I who deserved the grave and not my poor, mistreated, murdered bride, my most beautiful and magnanimous and, yes, unblemished helpmate and companion, my dearest, sweetest and unsurpassed . . . Sylvana.  Her angelic hands reached for me then, and rested without burden on my brow, and then I was granted a view of the atrocities of the Inferno that awaited me, such as even Dante could never have envisioned:

I saw giant mechanical bees that tumbled through the skies and spat flames from their antennae, and men were riding them as on horseback.  I saw men with heads like some other insect, their faces all dead, rounded eyes and long rumpled proboscises, and they were carrying rifles.  I saw thousands of men, women and children, nude and emaciated from famine, marched before large pits and shot dead near the pits, so that the weight of their bodies carried them over into the piles of dead in those manmade valleys!  And still more of them forced into dull, featureless gray rooms—obscenely pressed together and sprayed with some sort of ether that killed them instantly!  I saw their bodies raked into rows of ovens like pieces of firewood!  I saw Orientals take up their children and smash them into trees!  I saw another of those massive mechanical things, this one more resembling a dragonfly, and it soared high over a great city, and then it defecated, and its excrement fell upon the city. And where it struck, a gargantuan toadstool made of smoke and fire and thunder grew up, and beneath it, where once had stood a fine city, there was naught but acres upon acres of charred earth!  I saw a man enter what looked to be a schoolroom with neat rows of small children, boys and girls alike, and lift a terrible weapon, gleaming and black as sin.  Soon the weapon raged and released many bullets at once, striking the babes dead as they cried out in pain and terror and scrambled over the bodies of the already fallen!  It was a New Massacre of the Innocents, but it was only one of many.  I saw . . .

“No more!” I cried.  “Please, no more!  I beg of you!”

The visions ceased, Sylvana—or rather, an avatar or incarnation of the Star Pool which had adopted her shape, I now knew, though I did not understand how I knew—withdrawing her ghostly arms from my crown.

I went to my knees before her.  “How can you expose me to this?  ’T is too much for any man to bear!  Too much!”

“I say to you, go forth and bring wisdom to the masses.  Tell them what you have seen.  Among humankind, you alone now possess the knowledge of your future, and you are therefore charged with bringing enlightenment to all of your species.”

 “But what of Sylvana?  Does she suffer yet?”

“She does not.  I will trouble you no longer.”

 Here the apparition dissipated.  In its place what I can only characterize as a bitter absence of life or spirit became palpable for a time, and then it too passed on, leaving me alone within my prison and my Hades, Amaranthine Gate.  A mere haunting I could have endured, and even embraced as my due.  That would have been comparatively ambrosial next to the horrors that now plagued my mind.  I considered the avatar’s advice, but I could not undergo speaking of my history at Amaranthine Gate more than once, or for any longer than I must.  Therefore, I undertook to put the sordid tale into writing in this journal, which I have done and which you now have read, I suppose.  You may do with it as you will—share it, examine it, doubt it if you must, or make kindling of it.  The burden is no longer mine.  As for me, I go to join my beloved in her watery grave.  Before I decamp from this terrible place, I will impart to you the only real wisdom I have attained here.  If you believe nothing else, believe at least this: the Great Beast lives, and it watches us all from a Well of Stars . . .

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