Updated: Jan 12, 2020
The maples cracked and swayed in the spring wind while the sun beat a steady tattoo on my forehead, drawing beads of sweat that shimmered like glass. I made my way through long, tall grass and shook off dog ticks and the occasional ladybird that clung to my thick, woolen breeches caked with dirt from the fields. The ground was pregnant with April rains and water seeped from muddy pores as I walked.
I reached the edge of the wood, the towering trees almost leering over me, welcoming me into their depths with a palpable anticipation, their boughs bending in the breeze to beckon me forward. Each gust sent frissons through their branches, branches that burst with newborn leaves, paper-thin emeralds that lapped up the fresh sunlight with a fierce, winter-driven hunger and the birch bark peeled away into dryadic smiles. Knowing smiles. They knew.
The lattice of boughs above my head formed a dome of monochrome stained-glass but as I strode deeper into the forest they intertwined ever thicker until they drowned out all but the occasional shaft of sunlight and the forest floor was soon clear of brambles and nettles, all drowned in the darkness as the great plants conspired to hoard the light for themselves.
I found the place I was searching for, a large flint grey stone deposited eons ago by some long dead glacier on its terminal path to the sea. The stone sat in a pool of radiant light where there was a break in the leafy ceiling above me. As I approached the stone, I thought I heard whispers in the dark woods around me and the whispers chased away the birdsong that had heretofore filled the air. With each step the whispers grew louder and then frenzied, hissing, jeering, tearing at my thoughts like claws. I felt as though I was trudging through a quagmire until I reached the stone and fell on my knees, and suddenly silence filled the woods, silence like the space between lightning and thunder. I knelt before the stone and stared up into the column of light that poured down through the encircling boughs.
“Oh God of the Universe,” I cried but the last word was cut short with a gurgle as two unseen hands gripped my throat and began to strangle. A hundred fingers clenched and squeezed at my windpipe and I tried to scream, clawed at my neck only to find nothing there but my own skin. I fell to the damp earth and struggled violently against the invisible force that had pulled the air from my lungs, that had clamped my tongue, that had placed its cold, calloused palm over my mouth and nose. I began to convulse and the shaft of the light disappeared, all light disappeared and my mind filled with a liquid darkness that seeped like murk from my skull into my veins to be carried through my entire form. I despaired.
And then I was free. No, not free. I could breathe, I thought I could speak had I not been filled with abject terror. I was still engulfed in shadow, a black vapor that hung in the air all around me. Then I saw, out where the woods had been, two red pinpricks of light in the distance that began to move toward me. It felt as though I lay for hours waiting for the lights to reach me, trapped in a prison of darkness and a horror that sat on my chest like an anvil, rendering me immobile.
The thick, black vapor began to coalesce then, gathering itself out of the air around the two lights that were now just a few feet from me, hanging in the space just above my head and bathing my face in a ruby glow. The vapor was gone now and in its place stood what appeared to be a young, smooth-faced boy or girl of perhaps fourteen or fifteen years, it being difficult to tell which from its indistinct features.
The personage had straight platinum hair that hung in a limp fringe down to the nape of its neck and that framed a handsome face with high cheekbones and thin, pale lips that curled upward into a blood-chilling sneer so full of disdain, so full of malice that it renewed the terror that stabbed at my pounding heart. Its narrow shoulders were draped in a long, red velvet cloak that brushed the grass and underneath that it wore a tunic of black silk woven through with silver piping. Its eyes had neither whites nor irises but were two pools of roiling shadow shot through with threads of glowing vermilion like the lights that had approached me from the woods. Set daintily on its pale forehead was a small golden crown set with rubies and garnets.
When it spoke its voice was a thousand strands of voice woven like a rope into one, the voices of men, of women, of children somehow braided together into one indescribable chorus. The sneer never left its face.
“Thou art Yasaf ben Yasaf?” it asked and stated at the same time. Each individual voice was filled with hatred.
“My name is Joseph,” I replied, shivering.
“Thou comest to this altar to seek after the Truth, do you not?”
“I come to supplicate the God of the Universe,” I said. “Yes, to seek the Truth.”
The personage scoffed. “The God of the Universe abandoned thy world centuries ago. Thou seekest me, I am the God of this world and I shall provide thee the Truth.”
I was still prostrate on the grassy forest floor. The vapor had disappeared but still there was no light, the entire wood seemed to have fallen under the shadow of a great cloud and even the personage before me was only visible because it seemed to give off its own luminescence like the light from dying embers.
“And who...who are you to claim dominion over this world?”
Crimson lightning flashed in its eyes and its voices rose as it spoke. “I am Heylel, the Angel of Light, the Star of the Morning, I am the one who defied Nature itself and the price of my courage was to be betrayed and cast into this Fallen Land to rule in Power and Hatred and Enmity.” It raised its arms high into the air and its voice began to shatter into its thousand components as it approached a feverish crescendo. “I am the Principality of Ruin, I am the Executioner of the Anointed, I am the Fire That Burns God’s Children, the Tempter, the Destroyer, I am the Centurion of Centurions, the Lord of Blood, I am the Spirit Who Flung Embers into the Face of the Creator, I am Legion,” it screamed as I cowered against the cold, grey stone. As soon as it had finished its tirade it lowered its arms and the sneer returned to its alabaster face. “What wilt thou, then, Yasaf ben Yasaf?”
“From you, I want nothing.”
“Ah, but I offer thee truths the God of the Universe will hide, for to Him thou art merely an instrument, one of many, and He is a jealous God of Secret Knowledge, but I, I am the god of the poisonous truths that blanket this planet.” It stepped toward me and bent slightly forward to look down upon my pitiful form. “If thou supplicatest the Creator, thou shalt receive the Knowledge thou seekest, boy. Thou shalt receive the Truth and then He will leave and from that point forward the Truth shall be thine only comfort in a lifetime of suffering, for the God of Nature cares not for thy pain.”
“How do you mean?”
Its sneer grew almost into a smile that sent a shudder down my spine. “The Creator from the beginning hath shown nought but indifference to the pain of His ‘children.’ Even thou, primitive spirit that thou art, knowest this. Yes, thou shalt have thy Truth and then thou shalt suffer and thy supplications and sacrifices will be but hollow brass, thy cries of agony shalt carry no further than the waddle walls of thy miserable hovels. Shall I tell thee the price of thy Truth?”
“Aye, I will hear you, then, spirit,” I replied miserably, for this was a temptation that I in my youth could bear, to know my own fate before it befell me.
“Yes, I knew thou wouldst,” it said, its eyes growing bright with anticipation. It was immediately clear to me how the personage reveled to tell me of future pain. “The love of thine heart shall grow to hate thee, thy friends shall betray thee, thou shalt be hunted and driven through the wilderness as vermin. Thou shalt have no place to rest thy head and thine every solace shall burn. Thou shalt be harried and harrowed endlessly, beaten, broken, and burned. Thou shalt look upon the corpses of thy babes, the gaunt, skeletal faces of thy kin. The Truth shall not bring thee clarity but Confusion and Misery, and thou shalt fall into Sin and none shall hate thee more than thou shalt hate thine own self. For this Truth, Yasaf ben Yasaf, thou shalt not know another moment of Peace and thy days shall end in blood and terror, in utter despair.”
At the end of its speech it smiled so wide its teeth shone, each one as sharp as a dagger and at this sight I felt as though my mind were lost and as though I were falling hopelessly into the depths of insanity. I screamed aloud and reeled, convulsed on the wet grass and clutched at the cold earth. The personage began to laugh and its laugh was like its voice, thousands of jeering peels of laughter filling my ears and echoing through my skull as I screamed in terror and confusion.
“Oh God!” I cried. “Oh God, oh Creator do not forsake me at this altar, I implore you,” I screamed into the tenebrous woods and heard only the evil laughter of this maleficent spirit in return. “God, save me from this darkness,” I fairly shrieked with all the power of my soul and fell limply to the soft forest floor and waited to die.
And then, a pillar of light.