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A Warning to Thinkers

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[From a recently discovered pamphlet dated circa 1790, written by a Father John Carrington]

It is unusual for a man in my position to address himself to non-believers. I am a man of God, and so rarely spend time speaking with those whose outlook on the world is so contrary to that which I traditionally espouse. However, I consider it necessary to relate a warning to those who do not believe, and not in the manner traditionally associated with a man of the cloth.

The truth of the spiritual world is one too terrible simply to describe, and in mere description I should lose the opportunity of illustrating that which I must impart most assiduously to those of you who represent such a great and dreadful danger to the rest of us, though you do not know it. Instead I will relate what happened to me one night some thirty or more years past, on a vessel sailing between England and the colonies in the Americas.

I was not then a priest, nor a believer of any particular stripe or calling. I was merely a shipmate, a cabin boy charged with the attendance of the officers on board of whom there were but three. The vessel was for transporting cargo, the hold being empty but for four passengers we had picked up in Southampton before departing. This was before the War, when England and her colonies were still at peace and France had largely given up her pretentions to the continent below her holdings in the Canadas.

I was young, and capable, or so I thought, and had effected to carry a short blade which I fancied looked something like the beautiful sabres carried by the officers I had secret designs on becoming one day. No doubt they knew what a hopeless dream it was for a boy of my background, but none ever reprimanded me for it or saw fit to deprive me of my little sword. I was well liked, times were relatively prosperous and all seemed well. We set out to sea on the long Pacific crossing in high spirits.

The passengers we had picked up were not traveling together. Three were priests, dark-robed and tight-lipped. They said very little to anyone and kept themselves very much apart, peering intensely at the sky and muttering to one another. I did not like the way they watched everything so closely, as though looking for something fearful in each person, cloud or wave that went by.

The other was a middle aged man who’d purchased his way on board with a very large bag of coins. It had been clear to our shrewd and calculating captain that he wanted to be out of England and in the Americas no matter the cost, and the captain had ensured that he exacted the very highest price from the poor wretch. He called himself a philosopher and a writer, hoping to find an audience in the New World for his thoughts and revelations deemed too radical for that of the Old. Looking back, I sorely wish I had pressed him on what it was he wrote and preached, for it would serve as a useful enumeration of what to avoid for those whom I am attempting to warn.

In any case, the going was good for some weeks. The seas were fair and the wind was favourable, and the captain and officers needed little from me besides my usual routines. So it was that one day, having idly wandered below decks during a point when I seemed not to be needed, I came to a sudden stop, straining my ears to hear more clearly the peculiar chanting which was echoing around the dark wooden passage. The fear it struck into my heart was enough to blind my senses to the movement of the wooden floor, betraying a suddenly tempestuous sea.

I grew more frightened as I approached the room in which I knew the priests were staying, and the chanting grew louder. Candlelight flickered under the door, casting long shadows along the floor. It was then that I heard the muffled whimpering which could only be a man restrained and in distress. My fingers strayed to the hilt of my little blade, but my courage failed me even at its reassuring touch. I feared to approach the door, and so I fled, back up the stairs, hoping to reach the captain’s cabin where he was holding court with his officers. The movement of the floor beneath my feet was now far more alarming, and I stumbled more than once.

Emerging on deck I found myself in the teeth of a gale, rain lashing at the sails and clouds blackening overhead. The storm had come out of nowhere, rocking the ship against great swirling waves the like of which I had never before seen. The captain and officers appeared shortly, and ran about shouting to the men as I stood staring up at the incomprehensible tempest. I managed to catch a junior officer, and shouting above the howl of the still-rising winds, which sounded increasingly like the screams of the damned, I informed him of the unholy chants and fearful whimpers below decks. Casting a look amongst the activity on deck to make sure his absence would not imperil the ship, the officer turned to follow me even as the darkness of night descended and baleful red stars began to burn overhead, though such should have been impossible with the rain harrying us with such fury even had it not been midday.

I led the terrified officer below decks, certain that the Hellish events must be the work of the black-robed ‘priests’ and determined to thwart them if such could be done by mortal men. The scene which greeted us as we entered was one which I have since seen many times. The priests stood in a triangle around the bound form of the philosopher, whose eyes bulged at the sight of us which must to him have seemed miraculous. The priests each held knives upwards in an attitude of supplication, as though entreating some spirit to attend their foul works. Such could not have been taken for anything but devil worship by any god-fearing Christian, and the officer did not hesitate. Two priests were dead before I had cut the philosopher loose with my blade, falling to swift and sure strokes of the officer’s sabre hefted with all the conviction of righteous outrage. The third escaped, ducking below the swiping blade and following the erstwhile prisoner as he ran for the stairs.

Following the two, the officer and I returned to the lurching deck, emerging into a nightmare landscape I fear is beyond my powers of description but which I must, to my horror, attempt to relate to you.

Between the writhing black clouds purple lightning flashed, silhouetting ominous shapes against ripples of diseased light. The night sky ignited, burning shadows twisting as though with the agony of birth, and in my mind I felt an immeasurable intellect struggling to awaken. The ocean heaved and thrashed as though in protest, an endless vista of black, churning seas inexorably bowing to the waking whims of the depthless sentience taking shape beneath it. The wind seemed to howl with the horror of the mortal world, its turmoil like a herald of the slumbering immensity rising relentlessly towards ghastly, unfathomable consciousness.

It seemed to me in that moment that our reality was but a dream, an illusion which with the waking of the sleeper must return to chaos. To face such a notion, to see reflected in the roiling depths the awful lie that our lives are no more than a fragment of the endlessly deranged caprice that is the true nature of the universe, that time exists only as a passing curiosity, that is to know true madness. I could almost feel my mind bend and flex, buckling and straining under the immensity of that horrific revelation.

I feel sure I would have been lost. My soul teetered on the edge of eternity, all sense of rationality shredded by the sheer endlessness of the beyond. I stared oblivion in its face, as the madness beyond reached out to claim me.

But in my last, shrieking moments of unravelling sanity, I whirled upon the person of the philosopher and drove my blade through his heart. I did not think, was beyond such luxury by that point; driven by an instinct I knew was right. In that moment time seemed to pause, as though wrong-footed, hesitating between order and chaos like lightning caught mid-strike. As the body sank to the deck the air stilled, the thrashing of the sea subsided, and the howling demons in the sky faded from view against the veil of a blue sky made visible once again. The swirling tempest gasped its last with the dying breath of the philosopher, and even as the life flew from his body the talons of madness released my mortal mind.

I stood silently on the becalmed deck and let the dagger fall from my hand. No one spoke. The captain stared first at the body, then at me. Finally he looked to the black-robed priest, whose grave countenance mirrored the terrible truth we had all glimpsed at such cost.

“You have a choice,” said he, his keen eyes roving between us all, “you have seen what lies beneath our world, and it is not Hell with its fires and devils. It is not Heaven with its angels. It is oblivion that awaits this world with the waking of the Sleeper who dreams it.”

“What is it, priest? What terrible demon is this Sleeper?” the captain whispered, his face white, his words now carrying easily over the gentle breaking of the waves against the hull.

“It is a being of chaos, of insanity and boundless horror. Our existence is a passing flicker of its unfathomable mind, and it must not awaken.”

“And what is it that will keep it asleep? We will spread the word to all we meet, mankind will know of the truth –“

“Never think it!” snapped the priest, glaring hotly at us all. “The thoughts of man are part of its dream, and no dream dreams the dreamer. We must focus men’s thoughts away from it. Away from any thoughts that stray even close to it. Mankind must believe in a fiction, his mind directed firmly towards harmless lies. Truth carries too great a cost.”

I recalled the horror of the fearful ritual below decks, and shuddered as a spoke.

“What of the ritual then, priest? Was that to keep it sleeping?”

The priest nodded grimly.

“Every few years, the thing rises close to self-awareness once more, and must be sent back down into its unconscious reverie by a small measure of the horrors in which it delights in the blackness of its soul. My brotherhood have done this countless times over the centuries, distracting it long enough to send it back into its endless slumber, selecting for the sacrifice a particularly dangerous individual.” He gestured then to the philosopher, whose well-meaning works threatened to drive men to the questioning that would see the thing awaken.

And so it was that I became a priest. And so it is that I tell all I meet to think of Heaven, pray to God, and question not what the Church tells you. Safe, harmless pieties and nonsense scriptures. But to you, the atheist, the thinker, the philosopher, I say this: Beware the questions you ask and the truths with which you grapple. For when you reach the edges of understanding – the impossible, the unanswerable, the meaningless chaos behind the façade of our reality – you stand upon a deadly threshold. Step too far, and you court the end of all existence. And when the time comes for the ritual to be conducted, a better sacrifice than you shall be hard to find.

Be warned.

 

End

Bio: Steven D Jackson is a British writer currently concentrating on short creepy stories. If you like what you read, check out his other short stories and novels at http://sdjackson.blogspot.co.uk/.

 

 

 

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