Even now the place still haunts me, where the acrid stench of death hung still in the damp air that filled my lungs like the warm smoke from a funeral pyre carrying the spirits of the departed.
It was here, in this horrible ritual hold, that the great expanses of the cosmos laid bare before me in their magnificent and horrible wonder, where I stole my first furtive glimpses of those wandering black planets. There, in a crumbling ruin dimly lit only by the profane fires of an unspeakable ritual, whose errant columns, erected by some long-dead and long-forgotten race, which seemed to stretch infinitely towards the heavens, that I saw those fractures I had seen only once before. Where before I had seen them amongst the mouldy tomes of that infinite library of Babel, where they had seemed almost quaint, now was their horror revealed before me: man-shaped rifts into the inky and unfathomable darkness, dark silhouetted manifestations of the inextricable will of the cosmos, here to see done the unknowable causes of the dreaming universe, dark with sinister nightmare possibilities. There in the warm air of that moss-covered hall buried deep in the lungs of the slumbering giant at the far edge of the world, filled with the mildew of untold sunless millennia,
we saw a woman, dead and crumbling before us, her expression stark but sardonic, be called toward that terrible expanse.
A black, oily river began to flow above us, called forth by a great urn, forged of maddeningly smooth meteoric iron, and burning with the heat of a thousand suns. I saw, too, a horrible parody of mankind crawl forth from the vessel, a horrible chimaera of twisted human flesh that moved in a sickening display of warped motion. In place of teeth were heads, an arched back for its nose, two bodies slapping against each other like a sick, corpulent parody of intimacy in place of lips, and its eye sockets filled with a dozen grasping hands.
But still the worst horror revealed was that which came before us last. A vast and horrible Creature I can describe best by analogy swam forth from that murky cosmic rift overhead. The Thing was to that oily, black river of the stars what the primordial barnacles are that cling to the bottom of clouded rivers. Its form shifted with awful geometry I knew not possible, suggesting a form of only fleeting association with the material. The Thing had not shape, but a size I estimate to rank among great whales and other abyssal abominations that lurk below the waters in depths where the sun cannot penetrate, and where the dusky sapphire hues give way to the same dismal midnight as from which this Thing came. Pallid slime oozed from tenebrous leathery appendages which faded into clouds of foetid abyssal vapour which swirled around it in infinite polygonal eddies as its seemingly fleshy projections lapped at each other monotonously before disappearing into the strange folds of obscene shapes and curves at once seemingly both concave and convex, only for more to present from those same pleats of Its metamorphosing silhouette. Immense glassy, goat-like eyes sporadically dotted the Thing, seemingly capable of grand omniscience. To gaze upon it was to submit to the psychic hunger of beings that feed on the minds of men, and its stare was a burning thing that charred the flesh black and stole away the nervous feeling. Yet still, the worst realisation was that the insidious, daemoniacal horrors we beheld before us, that churning, fiery, soul-filled urn, the fleshy monstrosity, and that faintly corporeal nightmare beast, were in fact the three human figures we had felled in this ghastly place.
The stone we had brought with us had entrapped the souls of the two we had fought in the chamber above, and now they had been let free to entangle themselves into these ghastly shapes. Why they had fought us so vivaciously as men if their goal was to find their own deaths and become these Things, I know not, nor why they had not been killed prior to our arrival. My only guesses are that if it was not something required by their profane ritual, they sought to weaken us before their transformation into these abyssal figures. But these creatures, what was now so petrifyingly terrifying about them was that these Things that had been just minutes before entirely human, were, not just in form but also in behaviour, so hideously inhuman. The gaze of the cold, broad-pupiled eyes that dotted the semi-material polypous Leviathan stared with a bored dullness or tedium, the same stare one might cast at an insect as it darts its way across the underbrush. The urn, still in a profane quasi-meditation of brimming souls burning with hellish vistas of deathly violet meridians, and the awful playfulness of the corpulent man-monster as they sought to extinguish us even still warrants an icy shiver through my body as I reminisce upon them. Given that my comrades and I were, after having steeled ourselves to the horror, underway in attempts, both martial and magical, to fell or banish or otherwise snuff out these abominations, it was all the more unsettling that they seemed to hold our lethal efforts in such benign concern.
After having banished the horrors to whatever cosmic graveyard or prison, we took stock of what had happened. Nyja had fallen in the battle, but Cirrus, learned in priestly things, used the onyx gem to bring him back to life. I do not know if it was the battle we had all witnessed, the sight of death, or the gem imparting some sinister imprint on his psyche, but I sense this was the moment he truly broke. From this point, Cirrus was odd, more than he had been before, and distant. He was not cold, but it was as if his mind was perpetually elsewhere, enraptured by that infernal box he had employed to rid us of that corpulent monstrosity. To this day, I know not his fate, and only hope he never deigned to enter whatever horrid place that insidious contraption opened.
Once we had collected ourselves, we began our return to the world, winding through the ghostly forests where the earth meets the sky. It was then we noticed a new star staring down upon us, burning bright with hatred, sputtering and popping far above us, like a twisted mirror of our own humble campfire: a war-camp in the sky and our camp of refugees on the ground. The days were silent, save for the wind whipping across the snow, as every day brought the chill of the dead, and every night the heat of the fire, ever burning far above. I felt a great longing, for what I still do not know, but even then, I could feel the watchful judgement of time, lying in wait to read my entrails like some covetous cosmic haruspex, and the ever-present red star staring down upon me. The journey back to Godhome was solemn, lonely, and filled with this introspection, an oscillation between great relief and pride in what we'd accomplished, and great anxiety and anticipation for what we may not have. It felt like a lifetime passed in silence before we arrived again at civilisation, and when we finally did, an uncanny feeling took over me. A cold spectre seemed to hold the place and its people in its grip, a haunting malignancy, so terrifyingly unaware of its own presence. It was as if I could feel the bones of the dead cracking and breaking under every footstep, the cobblestones buckling underfoot and giving way to the underworld, the land of the dead, a horrible quicksand of the spirit. I'm not sure if it was the place that had changed, or me. No one else would know what we'd done, they couldn't. The four of us went our separate ways after that. I returned to Varas at great danger to my self, but even if they were to be my last days, I wanted to live them at home. I lived under a pseudonym for some years, before managing to amass enough evidence to clear my name. I returned to my family's manor, but it's not as it was. It never would be: its halls are empty save the servants, and the rooms collect dust, but there is a stinging chill I cannot ascribe to the ache of nostalgia.
I am still unsure of how many lies we were told in the proceedings, if the other attacks even took place, if the “ritual” in Caithos even failed, or if it was simply a way to gather souls in preparation, as well as our attention. Knowing we had been goaded along the entire time, fed one elucidating falsehood after another, I can only trust the things I experienced myself, and even some of those things I sometimes doubt the authenticity of. Some of what the Black Dawn did still made little sense to me, and I am still unsure if they were simply the musings of madmen, or if they hid some terrifying genius behind them. That we managed to defeat them tells me their plans were not watertight.
The most terrifying thought, though, is that we were meant to vanquish them, relieve them of their material tethers. We never got a hollistic overview of the goals of the Seven Lights cult, or even of the Black Dawn, only what they told us. Might the world not have ended if we hadn't been rid of them? Might they had wanted to be slain, as they had in their human forms? Might our felling them allowed them to ascend to some other state?
I am often roused from a dreamless sleep in a cold sweat, and even safe in my bedroom, walls of stone and a shingled roof protecting me, I can still feel the weight of its presence: that burning, red star.