It has surprised me, since leaving the compound, how little people understand about the world around them. I don’t even mean the secrets hidden from them deliberately by the Veil; I mean some of the most basic things, that you’d think they would have noticed or picked up. The Ark of the Covenant isn’t supposed to have magic ghosts or whatever in it, but the ten commandments that God gave to Moses, after he led the Israelites out of Egypt. The times when you can see the moon in daylight are the same phase each month. And Easter is held every year on the Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox. It’s easy enough to understand, and yet it’s a mystery to most folks, who just check the date on the calendars they bought at their nice, clean shops, or Google it on their phones. What luxury all of those things are.
It wasn’t like that where I grew up. Easter was special. Every Good Friday, our community waited for the moonrise. The Book of Revelation tells us that the moon will be red during the three days we spend celebrating Christ’s death, and on the Sunday, the apocalypse will come. Every year of my childhood, we donned robes and waited. Every year the moon rose white. The relief and disappointment that warred each time in my parents’ hearts was written plain across their faces. They wanted us to grow up and have children of our own and live full happy lives, but they also wanted the endless cycle of rebirth and suffering to end.
Easter Sunday was always wonderful, though. It was the one time we were allowed to eat lamb. We watched as the priests slit their throats, one by one, the blood gathered and used for sacred purposes. And then we would go and look at the eggs.
The compound was located, very deliberately, at the site of a Tear. Again, you would think the average person would know about these places, and yet they don’t. Perhaps they couldn’t cope, knowing how thin their reality really is. In any case, we would go hunting for eggs on those mornings, to see how their progress was going. When I was younger, the shells were always grey and opaque as the moon, but as I grew, they got more and more translucent and their colour changed, getting pinker and pinker until one Easter Sunday morning, they were half my height, and as red as my blood. As warm as it, too, or warmer. They gave off warmth, even though I was sure that the compound itself had grown colder over the last year or two.
The eggs hatched that night, as we slept.
It was the screaming that woke me. I couldn’t work out at first what I was hearing; but then I remembered what it said in The Book of The Overcoming.
And so the angels of the end of days will sound their trumpets once they wake, but you will not know what you hear. There will be wailing, and a great rattling of bones, and then thy songs will cease, for mankind will finally be given peace.
It wasn’t quite like any of that, but it did remind me of something. Birth cries. Piteous and unignorable.
Other noises started soon enough; shouting that began as words but ended up high and pained and terrified. And singing; songs of praise. Those sounds were human.
I realised that the creatures must have started feeding.
I had had it drilled into me that when the time came, we were to go to them, and not fight; but as the years had gone by and it had become clear that the eggs were, at last, ripening and the end of days was expected to come within my lifetime, my resolve had firmed. I would not be meat for The Beast.
I had not even realised I felt this way until our neighbour was brought to bed with a baby, when I was twelve. We went to see her afterwards, to help. She had offered me the newborn to hold, and I had shaken my head wildly at her and said I was too scared. I had been terrified that I would squash it or drop it; somehow damage this fragile, precious thing, but the mother had misunderstood.
“Do not worry, girl,” she had said to me. Her smile was weak; she looked utterly exhausted. “Childbirth will not be your lot. You shall be spared a woman’s labour. You will bring something else into the world.”
I went home and started packing my bag that very night, because that was not what I wanted. I wanted to grow up. I wanted to live, and have children and grandchildren, and die an old woman.
I pulled that bag out from under my narrow bed in my parents’ house now, and instead of making towards the cave, I went instead for the one exit out of our enclosed little world—the archway, we called it—as I had planned to for years. My body would not help nourish the creatures that were here to do the work of ending existence in this plane. Not if I could help it.
“It is time!” My mother called out to me as I walked past her room. She had lit a candle and was braiding her hair in preparation, her eyes shining with the same light she got when she looked at the eggs, when we prayed for this day.
“Yes, it is,” I said, and did not look back again. She was already lost. I had already mourned her.
I had envisioned my escape, practiced the route. I wanted to use the farthest path to the archway, since that would put a steep cliff of solid rock to one side of me, offering some protection; but as I headed towards it, I saw our leader, Holy Father Gabriel, standing there all in grey, flanked by two curates holding lanterns to supplement the weak early dawn light. Even as I watched, he started ringing a bell, holding it aloft with his powerful right arm.
“It is time!” He called out, just as my mother had done.
I could not go that way.
I had planned alternative routes in case exactly this situation should occur, but I had not expected to find curates and initiates blocking each path. I could feel panic clouding my thoughts just when I needed to think. I hid behind a cart and watched, searching for an answer, tempted to pray. I was at the gate to the final path that would get me to the archway, but it was blocked by Brother Barachiel, who was the biggest young man in the compound. He rang his bell and watched everyone go past with his head high but his eyes narrowed.
I put my fingers in my ears, trying to block out the screaming and the singing and the ringing of the bells, and then I saw him: a boy with a pack on his back just like mine, hiding in a bush. I knew his face, but he was a few years younger than me and I could not recall his name. He was watching Brother Barachiel as well. I had just resolved to go over to his hiding place to see if we could formulate a plan together, when he jumped up and tried to make a dash through the gate.
It was madness. Barachiel didn’t even need to run; he just took two long strides and then he had the boy by the arm. The boy struggled, and Barachiel belted him right across the face with his heavy brass bell. He cried out and might have fallen to the ground, but Brother Barachiel hoisted him over one shoulder. He signalled to someone down the main path, and then joined the procession of people heading for the caves.
“It is time!” He cried.
I felt frozen to the spot; but the gate was unguarded. I looked quickly to the left and right, because I could hear bells. Brother Michael was coming this way—it must have been him that Barachiel had motioned to, to take his place—but he was not here yet.
I walked calmly towards the gate, waited until a large group of people would block the street’s view of it, and slipped through. And then I ran.
I wanted to be quiet; I did not want anyone or anything to hear me, and I wanted a head start if anyone came after me. The screams were audible even here, even as I ducked so that the bushes would hide me from sight. I only stood up straight when I looked back, and could not see the road any longer.
I was taking shuddering breaths, and my hands were shaking. I needed to make less sound, and not only because someone might hear and come after me. I did not know if the creatures would stay where they were born, waiting to be fed, or if they would venture out looking for us. I did not know how sensitive the creatures’ ears were. There was so much I did not know. But still, I made my way, passing crops and pastures and then—I was at the rockface.
I turned left and within minutes, I could see my destination.
The archway was found in a small temple made of large stones. Some of them were as large as a child, but the temple was not much bigger than the main room in my parents’ house. There was a simple doorway into it. I had only been inside a few times.
In case of an emergency, all children in the compound were told, as part of their maturation ritual when they reached 15 years, how to use the levers to open the great stone door. I had practiced it in my mind over and over—to push the first, then the second, then drop the first and lift the third—and as I stared at the great stained, rusted metal controls, my heart filled with relief.
I had made it. I would not be consumed by a Veil creature. I was about to get out. I was finally going to see the great blue sky, to see other people speaking other tongues, wearing other clothes, learn of other customs. I would live.
I started shaking. My bag fell from my shoulder. I dropped down to pick it up, and that was all that saved me.
A group of dirty-white long things like tentacles, or intestines, each no thicker than a finger, went past where my head had been not a moment earlier. They shone wetly, reminding me a little of an undercooked egg, and flopped around for a moment on the levers before dropping onto my right ankle, exposed over my boot.
I screamed. It hurt. It hurt like nothing I had ever experienced. Stinging, burning; and layered over it was something violating. I struggle thinking about it even now, but it was as though it wasn’t just burning through my skin, but also through the reality of my skin’s very existence. Like it was taking that away from me. I felt a wash of feelings that were not my own—desire and hunger and a strange sense of timelessness. It was so overwhelming at the time, it was years before I could recognise what must had happened. The thing was imposing its own consciousness upon me. I experienced its want for me, the way it viewed me as a thing to be consumed entirely as though I were feeling those things myself, and the revulsion and shame nearly undid my mind.
My screams now didn’t even sound like my own physical voice, but like the frightened howling of a soul trying to escape from an existential threat, and it was like song to the creature. This was the only song it wanted. I was drowning in its greedy satisfaction as well as the pain; but then something changed. It was what snapped me out of my horror. My hand had closed so tightly around the strap of my bag that the rough brass buckle had cut into my palm. It was just a normal cut, not even properly bleeding, but it brought me back to myself. My bag was in my hand and I had supplies, a plan.
I felt horrible—so horrible, it felt ridiculous that I could move at all, but I did. I moved my arms. I reached into my bag for the knife I had packed in it. I had made it so sharp, it cut into its own leather sheath on the way out. I twisted, trapping the creature’s tentacles under my leg, and sliced them away.
The thing let out a high squeal; a horrible sound, but I was distracted by the way that the tubular, grey things fell away. They twitched and pulsated in a way I still struggle to think about. A yellow grease bled out of them and the smell was so foul that I immediately vomited onto what remained of that “limb”. When the liquid from my stomach fell onto it, it bubbled like strong acid.
I looked up and saw the rest of the creature’s body, then. It seemed partly made of light, or perhaps it was glowing. Perhaps it was just that it was translucent. It had more of the intestine-looking tentacles, but most of it was a strange non-shape that confused my senses so much, it was like falling from a great height or spinning around and around. Realising I was going to vomit again, I instinctively moved forward. I threw up onto what passed as the thing’s torso and it screamed and collapsed onto the dirt path. It lay twitching, while I gasped for breath. Where my bile had hit it, it looked like something half rotted and liquefied, giving off gasses and noxious-looking sheets of grey-blue dust.
I heaved, trying not to breathe through my nose, and reached into my bag again and pulled out a jar of salt. Rare and precious in the compound, I had had to steal small amounts of the crystals over a long period of time; but salt is mentioned in the holy books again and again as something sacred, and so I had packed it. I opened the jar, praying to God that this worked, and threw it over the main meat of the creature’s body.
I do not know if it was my prayers or the salt, but the thing stopped crying and started letting out awful gurgles, as it shrivelled like a slug. If the smell had been bad before, it was a thousand times worse now—like the entire earth was decomposing in a way that encompassed not just physical, but spiritual decay as well. It hit my mind in a way that had me lying on the ground next to the creature, writhing. I was beyond disgust into an aversion so great it threatened to overpower my sanity; but I could feel the cut on my hand as I convulsively clenched my fists.
I tried to reach for the rest of the physical pain, but it was gone. The surprise helped me come back to myself. I managed to look down, holding my shirt collar over my nose, and saw that a thick scar, white and shining, covered the place the creature had touched me.
I started to make a sound like laughter, a relieving, hysterical noise that made my body heave.
I was not un-whole. And the Veil-thing was dying. It would not take me.
And yet, there was clearly no more time to wait. I pushed myself up onto my feet and reached for the first lever.
First, second, first, then third. That was the sequence. It was apotropaic. We had been warned never to simply pull the third lever, which very clearly was the one that actually opened the archway door, without performing the full sequence. When we asked why, we were told only Holy Father Gabriel could do that, if he had a divine sign it was necessary.
I watched the first lever cause a series of metal plates come around the archway, and the roof of the temple, as though bracing it. I looked at what else was there; I guessed the second lever would lock these in place.
I looked at the brick walls, the ceiling. If they needed to be supported when the door opened, did that mean the building would collapse otherwise? I couldn’t guess why pulling the first lever back was necessary but I did understand one thing, as I looked around at its giant rocks, that I had never understood before: the archway could let people out into the heathenistic wider world a way that let them come back in; or it could be made to collapse in on itself.
Was that to stop the creatures getting out? Or us? I could still hear the screaming, of my friends and neighbours—perhaps my parents—perhaps Holy Father Gabriel himself—being devoured by those things.
I thought of Brother Barachiel, hitting that boy.
Us. It was for us.
And yet, surely it would keep the creatures from escaping as well. Although; hundreds of eggs must have hatched. Would the things know how to get out of the compound without being shown? The creature had forged some link with my mind; could it have taken the knowledge of how to open the door? Could they all do that?
Was I running, just for them to come after me, and destroy the outside world as well?
I strapped my bag to my back.
I pulled the third lever.
All of the metal plates fell to the floor, the clanging and crashing masking the sound of the screaming. The door started opening with a great creak, and the ceiling made an ominous noise, dust and dirt dropping from a dozen places as the stones moved; and then I saw movement to my right. I had a moment of a glorious hope that it might be another human who had made the attempt to flee, who could come with me, but it was another creature; much larger than the one I had destroyed. Perhaps this one had already fed.
I ran through the narrow opening that the door had made.
Tentacles tried to come out after me, even as the entrance to our compound caved in, as the rocks collapsed over it. I slashed at them, and they fell, stinking, and were covered by the rockfall.
I was hit by rocks on my way out, but I did make it. Just me. How many of the other children had resisted, only to be dragged or carried to the creatures? How many adults? Did any of the rest fight? It was years before I could stop thinking about these things.
We should have been told the truth about the archway.
We should have been told the truth about so many things.
I went back to that valley about a decade later, with a lover who liked hiking, camping. We trudged for days, until I found the place. It was Easter. The moon was white. I found a sunken hole in the ground filled with rubble and rock, and grown over with weeds. I saw no signs of a way into a secret place, and no eggs. I thought of my parents, and of the other young people who did not escape.
I salted the earth—there was so much salt, out in the wide world—and said we were leaving.
To this day I do not know if we in the compound had been misled about the creatures’ purpose. If they ever meant to come out into the wide world at all. I do know that no deity or prophet has come to tell me that I am an abomination for defying the will of God.