Bogleech.com's 2014 Horror Write-off:
" Ghost Tide, Part 1: Sleep "
"Atop the tallest of earth's peaks dwell the gods of earth, and suffer not man to tell that he hath looked upon them."
-H.P. Lovecraft, “The Other Gods”
It was a beautiful sunny Scallopday afternoon in the city of Carson’s Landing. Lid was selling her fish in the square.
“Fresh fish!” she called out. “Sprat! Smelt! Big fat lampreys! Five ducats apiece! Get ‘em before the ice melts!”
Her voice broke as she cried out. She didn’t feel ashamed. She was too exhausted for that. Lid was always exhausted. Every morning she was up at five o’clock to catch that day’s wares, clean them, organize them, and take them to market by eight, where she would stay until night fell, taking breaks only to eat meager meals and refill the ice buckets so the fish didn’t spoil. Then she went home to sleep for a few hours. Lid felt lucky that she had any time to sleep at all.
A strand of her limp mouse-brown hair escaped the bun it was tied up into and fell over her face. She pushed it away with her work-gloved hand, accidentally wiping a bit of fish slime onto her forehead. She didn’t notice.
“Only eight ducats for a trout!” she cried out again, grabbing one from an ice-filled bucket on her cart and brandishing it over her head. “Best fish in the city here!”
Most of the people around took no notice of her and her fish cart. Scallopday was a leisure day, and most people had better things to do than buy lampreys. People flowed all around her and her loaded-up wagon without stopping, like many-colored fish - dressmakers and barmaids with their flowing apron-fins, burly off-duty dockworkers bulging out of their shirts like hermit crabs in too-small shells, vast schools of shiny-suited accountants and businessmen. Occasionally another woman dressed like her would pass by, in heavy boots and work pants, usually with a cart of their own. Young men and women, nearly indistinguishable in the androgynous fashions of the day, slipped sinuously through the crowd, chasing after one another. Rich and elderly gentlemen, dressed in suits with lapels like stingray wings, accompanied ladies in big bell-shaped dresses, multicolored jellyfish, sauntering past with chins held high.
Lid shook her head at the ladies as they walked by. She pitied the rich, especially the women. Those dresses looked like hell to her.
Occasionally somebody - a hungry beggar or a schoolboy who had skipped breakfast - would emerge from the crowd and hand Lid a handful of triangular bronze coins emblazoned with a single wide-open eye. Lid would pocket the ducats and give them the fish of their choice.
“Empress bless you,” the polite ones would say as they walked away. Lid would vaguely nod or mumble something back.
The crowd would part only for two kinds of people. One was the Monks who would occasionally come by, instantly recognizable by their uniforms - murky grey trousers and coats festooned with silver buttons and badges, pointed boots, shaven heads. They carried vicious sharp scalpels in their coat pockets. Everyone in the crowd would move aside in unison to allow them through, almost by instinct, like a school of fish parting for a shark. Nobody wanted to get on the bad side of a servant of the God-Empress.
The other kind was the Wide O’Wakes. Nobody wanted to touch them. As they passed, the crowd parted wide and then sealed up again, like the wake behind a boat. It was as if they were contagious.
Her eyes followed one such Wide O’Wake as he walked through the parted crowd. He was a tall fellow with pale skin and a hooked nose. He walked with a stumble and was dressed in dirty rags. He stared straight ahead with his bleary red eyes. The lids had been removed, of course.
Most of the empire’s criminals were shipped off to penal colonies to work their days away in distant parts of the empire. The special fate of the Wide O’Wakes was reserved for those who acted against the God-Empress. Vandals, blasphemers, thieves of imperial property – all taken from their homes and mutilated. Their homes were sold. Their possessions were all burned. Lid could barely look at them.
The Wide O’Wake was headed towards a preacher on a street corner, a wild-eyed old man with dark skin and a bushy white beard. He stood atop a makeshift platform made from a crate, and was surrounded by a crowd of young people who watched him with amusement. The Wide O’Wake stood in the back of the crowd and listened.
“There were many gods in the beginning!” boomed the preacher, brandishing a cheap-looking book bound in thin maroon eel leather. “When the world was dry! They drifted down from the sky, planted their feet in the sand, and sculpted the first men and women from the bark of trees! But then, up from the depths came Kramut! The All-Fanged One, Uncle of the Gods, He Who Dwells Beneath Himself! Kramut swallowed the gods! One by one they were torn apart by his chopping jaws and digested in his bottomless throat! Only we, their creations, survived, but we are besieged by Kramut on all sides! We are besieged by his dark children, the ghosts that unceasingly torment us! We must be strong, brothers and sisters! Strong of will, strong of moral, and strong of- OOF!”
The preacher was interrupted by a group of children running recklessly through the street who slammed into his legs, knocking him to the pavement, much to the amusement of the onlookers. Lid snorted as the preacher struggled to stand and compose himself.
“Impudent urchins!” the preacher roared. “May you never sleep!”
“Wasn’t me, sir!” one of the kids shouted back. “Musta been a ghost that did it!”
The children then laughed and danced away. As they went, they sang a nursery rhyme that Lid remembered singing as a child:
Ghosties, ghosties, underneath your bed! Ghosties, ghosties, dancing in your head! Ghosties, ghosties, creeping in the den! Ghosties, ghosties, never sleep again!
Never sleeping again didn’t sound that great to Lid. She had faint memories of being a child and of thinking of sleep as a punishment, a cruelly imposed end to carefree days. Now, sleep was precious, and there was no time to be carefree anymore.
“Alright, sir,” said a Monk, as he helped the preacher to his feet. “How about you come with me? I’ll take you home.”
The preacher was flabbergasted. “I will do no such thing!” he exclaimed. “I must spread the word to the people! They must be saved from Kramut!”
“That is a myth, old man,” said the Monk, spitting out the word that like a rotten oyster. “Go on home or I’ll have you charged with promoting false idols.”
Lid watched as the Monk took the old man away, half-aiding half-dragging, right elbow interlocked with the preacher’s left. The Wide O’Wake followed, grunting and stumbling after them.
It was an alright story, she supposed. More interesting than what the God-Empress put out, anyway. According to her Monks, the souls of sinners, rejected by God, roamed the world eternally as vindictive ghosts, and you had to follow the one true way and pledge eternal loyalty to the God-Empress and all that nonsense if you didn’t want to become one of them. Lid didn’t quite believe it.
She looked up at the sky. It was beautiful that morning, cloudless and pale blue, the sun framed almost perfectly between the bones that loomed over the city, the tower-sized ribs of some long-dead sea beast bigger than the city itself. The city’s geotheologists claimed that the bones belonged to a demon, a vile servant of the long-extinguished forces of the devil. It was the last casualty in God’s war against the great evil, and its remains were now the site of the biggest city in the world’s greatest empire, ruled by the descendants of God itself.
Lid didn’t quite believe it. She had a suspicion that it was just some big fish. Either way, she didn’t care. She had no time to worry about big bones.
“Got any catshark?” barked a voice next to her.
Lid nearly jumped out of her skin. She wheeled around, dropping her wagon to the pavement, and swung a fist wildly. The man behind her jumped backward and laughed.
“Easy now, Lid’ya!” he guffawed. “It’s just me! Y’ain’t bein’ touched by ghosts!”
“Scared the piss outta me, Tom,” Lid huffed. “Lucky I didn’t clock you, idiot.”
Tom and Lid had grown up together. He was the only person who ever called her by her full name. Not even Lid’s adopted parents had done that.
She and Tom lived in the same orphanage until Lid was adopted at thirteen. Tom was kicked out of the orphanage after coming of age. They had met again years later, after Lid’s adoptive parents had vanished at sea. Tom hadn’t adjusted to adulthood well. He slept under an overpass near the east side waterfront and played his concertina on street corners for spare ducats. He was the happiest man Lid had ever known.
“I ain’t that lucky,” Tom said, doing a little hop back and forth. “Couldja spare some catshark for a poor old man without no home?”
“You ain’t old, Tom,” Lid said with a snort. “And you won’t get nothing for free here. Some of us have to make money, y’know.”
“I make plenty money!” Tom said, feigning outrage. “Them people down at the docks tip me good, and they oughta! Everybody oughta have some music in their lives.” He waggled his fingers and moved his hands in and out, miming the playing of a concertina.
“Keep yer music,” Lid said. “I like money.”
She picked up her wagon and turned to leave, stepping squarely on a stray lamprey that had been surreptitiously placed underfoot. Her foot slipped on the slimy fish and flew straight out from under her. She came down hard on the cobblestones. In her ear, she heard a strange laugh, a quiet creaking wheeze, the hallmark of the ghosts.
Tom slapped his knees in laughter. “They got you, Lid’ya!” he barked. “The ghosts got you that time!”
Lid sat silently on the ground, red-faced.
The ghosts first appeared in Carson’s Landing about sixty-five years ago, or so it said in the books. They assimilated into the city as easily as any other immigrant, barely making themselves noticed save for the occasional rearranged closet or moved piece of furniture. Nobody knew exactly why they did it; it seemed like the vengeful souls of the godless would have better things to do. Lid wasn’t even sure they really did it at all, or if there really even were any ghosts, and everybody’s minds weren’t just playing tricks on them. Nobody could see them, after all, only fall victim to their pranks.
In the days when the ghosts were said to have first appeared, Carson’s Landing had been almost twice its current size. Since then, the sea had slowly crept up on the city, swallowing the beaches and the parts of Carson’s Landing outside the embrace of the ribs. Back then, the sea was a place people took for granted, where they went to enjoy themselves. Back then, it wasn’t so ever-present, not so malevolent, not such a force constantly threatening to swallow up the world. Or so it said in the books.
All that had happened about thirty years before Lid was even born. She couldn’t imagine that any of it was real.
“Glad you could have a good laugh, Tom,” she said from her seat on the pavement. “You gonna help me up or not?”
Tom leaned down and held out a grubby hand. Lid took it and stood up, brushing off her thick grey work pants.
“Some ghost must be laughin’ his ass off right now,” Tom chuckled.
“Ghosts ain’t real, Tom,” Lid said.
“Then who put that fish there, dummy?” Tom cackled. “Weren’t no Wide O’Wake!”
Lid grunted in response. He was right. The ghosts seemed to like bothering Lid much more than the average person. They were constantly setting up traps for her to trip on.
“So I was thinkin’,” Tom said.
“That’s a first,” Lid said.
Tom ignored her. “I was thinkin’ you and me could go out some night, eh? Down to one a my regular bars, maybe this Boneday. We can get drunk, you can see me play up on a real stage...”
Lid rolled her eyes. Tom asked her this about once a week.
“Not interested,” she said. “Besides, I don’t have no time. Some of us gotta work for a livin’. Speakin’ of which, you’re eatin’ up prime market time, so get outta here.”
“That’s yer whole problem!” Tom said, ignoring her again. “Ya never let yerself relax! Yer always workin’ all the time!”
Lid sighed. “Better than never workin’ at all,” she said, “And livin’ under a bridge like a bum.”
“I’m just sayin’,” Tom said with a shrug. “One a these days yer gonna burn yerself right out.”
Suddenly, a voice in the crowd cried “Make way! Make way!”
Lid and Tom turned around at the shout. The crowd had stopped. Everyone began to back up, revealing the palanquin of the God-Empress.
The palanquin was a large windowed box covered in dark purple paneling, with dark tinted windows and rails that extended horizontally out from its front and back. These rails would normally be held by porters, but in this case, the palanquin simply floated in the air, about four feet off the ground, and drifted forward through the air like a boat through water.
The palanquin floated, unmoving, in the middle of the square. Some of the younger members of the crowd leaned in quizzically, trying to see how the thing stayed in the air. Some of the older ones were kneeling.
All of a sudden, the palanquin headed directly for Lid and Tom and pulled up beside them.
“Can I help you?” Tom said brightly.
“Why, yes,” said a delicate voice from within the palanquin, emanating from the violet curtains that covered the palanquin’s windows. The voice was unfamiliar to Lid, but it had to have been the God-Empress. Only the God-Empress had the power to command ghosts to bear her about, or so the Monks said.
“Your friend and I have some business to discuss, dear,” the God-Empress said to Tom. “Could you come in here, Lidia? I’d like to ask you a few things.”
Lid and Tom looked at each other.
“I, uh,” said Lid. “I got my fish cart out here still, I don’t want to leave it in case somebody steals it...”
“Oh, I’ll have one of my friends take it home for you,” said the God-empress. “It’ll be perfectly safe.”
Hesitantly, Lid reached for the door of the palanquin, opened it up, and climbed inside. Tom waved goodbye confusedly as the door closed behind her and the palanquin sailed away.
Lid had no idea what to do with her hands. Her gloves were all covered in lamprey slime and fish grease, and she didn’t want to ruin the plush interior of the palanquin, so she held her hands up in front of her like a captured criminal.
“It’s quite alright,” the God-Empress said with a delicate laugh. “Just put them to the side, honey. I’ll have the cushions cleaned.”
The God-Empress had ruled since before Lid was born, but she didn’t look a day older than thirty-five. She was covered by purple and black gossamer robes that draped elegantly over her body as she lounged on the cushiony interior. Her hair was massive, a frizzy black ball that hung over her head like a volcanic cloud of soot. All of the exposed parts of her skin - her face, her hands, her bare feet - were powdered with thick white makeup, her lipstick was jet black, and her eyes were covered by a pair of little black dishes held together with silver wire that looped around her ears like a pair of glasses. Around her neck she wore a strange pendant shaped like a little sea monster skeleton.
Her strange beauty was astonishing. It made Lid feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless, she did as the God-Empress said and took off her work gloves, setting them to the side. Her hands felt vulnerable and cold without them.
“Isn’t that better?” the God-Empress said, smiling. Her smile was like that of a giddy child, complete with crooked teeth.
“Uh huh,” Lid said.
“Come a little closer, please, Lidia,” the God-Empress said, beckoning her with a finger. “Let me get a look at you.”
Lid scooted a few inches closer to the God-Empress. The God-Empress didn’t take off her eye-dishes. Instead, she slowly reached out with both her hands and began running her fingertips over Lid’s face, slowly and lightly: up her cheeks, and jawline, across her forehead, down her eyelids, back up into her hair. Lid sat perfectly still, sweating.
“Wonderful,” the God-Empress said in a trembling whisper. “Absolutely wonderful.”
“Uh,” Lid began.
“Shhh,” the God-Empress said. “Don’t spoil it.”
“What- what did you want to talk to me about, uh, ma’am?”
“Oh, nothing,” the God-Empress said in a sing-song voice.
“I’ll tell you in good time, honey,” the God-Empress breathed. “Just let me look at you.”
The God-Empress continued running her fingers across Lid’s face, grinning in dazed ecstasy. Lid tried hard not to react.
“I’ve been watching you, Lidia,” the God-Empress suddenly said.
“My friends have been watching you,” she continued. “Ever since you were a little baby. They’ve told me all about you.”
“That’s weird,” Lid said.
The God-Empress laughed, taking her hands away and putting them on her own face. “I love that about you, honey,” she said, as though speaking to an old lover. “You always speak your mind. I never get tired of it. That and your work ethic, too. Such a hard worker, you are. I really admire that about you.”
“How would you know how I-”
“Every day my ghost friends see you,” the God-Empress cut in. “Selling your fish down at the docks. Don’t you get lonely? You must. And that friend of yours, Tom… he must not offer the kind of companionship you want, I assume?”
Lid furrowed her brow. The Monks must have been spying on her - but for how long? Could they really have been watching her since she was a child? Were they behind her adoptive parents’ disappearance? Had they spirited away her real parents, all those years ago, just to make sure that she would be here at this moment?
“I can give you everything you want,” the God-Empress whispered, reaching for Lid’s face again. Lid scooted backward, out of the God-Empress’ reach.
“I don’t want nothin’,” Lid said. “‘Cept to get outta here. You could offer me that, an’ then leave me alone, please.”
“I’m just so lonely in my tower all day,” the God-Empress went on, suddenly sounding on the verge of tears. “I’ve always been so lonely. The Monks are always so busy, and the ghosts just aren’t the same as a person. But I love them just the same, don’t I, my darlings?”
The God-Empress spread her hands and looked around at the empty and silent interior of the palanquin, beaming.
“Well– But– ” Lid mumbled.
“Wouldn’t you be happy with me?” the God-Empress pouted.
“No!” Lid said. “Not if you kidnap me off the ghostdamn street!”
“I could give you everything,” the God-Empress said, sounding taken aback. “Everything and anything you ever wanted.”
“Well, what I want is to get outta here,” Lid said. “Stop this thing and let me off.”
“Think about it, honey,” the God-Empress said. “No more work! No more selling fish in the square!”
“Don’t call me honey,” Lid growled.
“You would rule this city at my side,” the God-Empress went on. “When I grew too old to rule, you would become the next God-Empress! I would teach you how to speak to the ghosts! I could bring back your parents! The empire would be yours! All I ask in return is that you love me!”
“No!” Lid said.
“Is it so hard for you to love an old woman like me, Lidia?”
“My… parents?” she asked.
“Your adoptive ones, of course,” the God-Empress said nonchalantly. “Not your real ones. They died. Extended sleep deprivation can do that to a person, or so I hear. But just think: in their last few weeks of life, they knew the truth. They saw the truth for themselves. I’d say it’s a worthwhile trade, wouldn’t you?”
Lid stared down at the floor of the palanquin.
“But your adoptive parents are fine,” the God-Empress went on. “They might be in a bit worse condition, after all that time in the penal colony. But I’m sure they’ll love you just the same, Lidia. I’m sure of it.”
“Don’t call me Lidia!” Lid exploded. “Shut up! I’m so sick of yer talkin’!”
The God-Empress cocked her head.
“Now, Lidia,” she said, smiling gently. “It’s unwise to speak to a child of God that way.”
“Oh, boat off,” Lid spat. “You ain’t no child of God. You ain’t no God-Empress. I bet there ain’t even no ghosts at all, and you just have some trick to keep this box up in the air. I bet you’ve been lyin’ to everybody ever since you got the throne, tellin’ them that you’re a child of God and puttin’ your name on all those books fulla lies. Well, you’re ain’t lyin’ to me, and I ain’t comin’ to live with you, so you can just drop me off right here, ‘cause I ain’t interested.”
Finally, the God-Empress’ smile broke.
Slowly, surely, the God-Empress reached up to her ears and unhooked the wires from around them, lowering her eye-dishes. Her irises were hazel-colored, but her whites were completely red, like her skull was filled with blood. She had no eyelids.
“Look into my eyes,” she whispered, “and call me a liar.”
Lid stared into the God-Empress’ bloody eyes. She felt herself shivering.
“No,” Lid said. “No, you ain’t a liar. You’re crazy. You’re the craziest damn person I ever met in my life.”
The God-Empress bared her crooked teeth.
“Let me out,” Lid said.
“Never!” the God-Empress screamed. “You must love me! I want you to love me! You must! You must!”
Lid kicked the palanquin’s door open, hopped out onto the street, and ran.
“Lid!” the God-Empress screamed after her. “Lid! Come back! Please, come back! I love you! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry…”
The God-Empress’ screaming grew quieter. Lid continued to run until she was out of earshot, and until she could no longer see the palanquin, the ugly violet thing stopped in the air above the street, tilted to the side like a wrecked ship washed ashore.
Lid stumbled down the street towards home.
She had run for about a mile before running out of breath. Even then, she didn’t stop. She staggered along, limping on her cramped-up left leg and breathing hard.
As Lid hurriedly hobbled along, she glanced around, her eyes darting like eels. Everything she saw out of the corners of her eyes was the God-Empress, staring into Lid’s back with her bloody eyes and reaching out with her bone-white fingers. A playful gull buzzed her head and she almost screamed.
She counted herself lucky that no one was around. Everyone was still in the inner city, shopping in the market square, taking their families out on the town. She was blessedly alone on the waterfront.
Suddenly, a man about her age lurched out from an alley and began stumbling towards her. His bare feet were caked in filth, and his clothes were little more than rotten rags. His eyes were red and raw.
“Help,” the Wide O’Wake croaked. “Help me.”
Lid tried to rush past him. The Wide O’Wake grabbed her arm and stopped her.
“Please,” he said. “Please, help me. I haven’t slept in a hundred years.”
“Get off me,” Lid said, eyes wide in terror.
“I always see them,” the Wide O’Wake went on. “Everywhere, all day, all night. Quivering, slithering. Spitting on me, laughing at me. They’re always laughing at me.”
“Get off me!” Lid yelled, wrenching herself free from his grasp. She kept running, not looking back.
“They’re always here!” the Wide O’Wake shouted after her. “They’re on your back, they’re in your hair! Help me! Please help me! Help yourself!”
Lid ignored him. He kept yelling in the distance until she reached the docks.
Her house was one of the shack-like structures built right on the docks themselves, perched precariously on a ramshackle platform twenty feet away from the concrete and cobblestone wall that constituted the shore. At the end of the dock was Lid’s fish cart, none the worse for wear.
Lid staggered up to her cart to check it. Whoever had put it back had replaced all the ice and hadn’t stolen a single fish. Lid was suspicious, but decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth, at least not until later. She was too tired.
The fish looked like it would last for a while. Lid stumbled down the dock toward her house, leaving the cart where it was. She needed a nap.
She unlocked the front door and walked inside, taking her boots off and setting them on the mat beside the door, next to her other pair of boots. She owned no other shoes. The fashionable ones pinched her feet, and were too expensive anyway.
She looked around in her sparsely furnished front room - a bed, a chair, a dresser, a simple clock hung on the otherwise bare wood walls - and through the doorway that led to the dim kitchen and bathroom, looking through the darkness as if trying to make out some imagined figure.
Lid suddenly wheeled around and opened the back door again. She glowered at the fish cart outside, just to make sure nobody was stealing from it.
Nobody came. No thieves, human or gull, came to take samples from the cart full of free fish ripe for the taking. It made Lid nervous. Something about merely looking at the cart made her nervous, as if there was something there looking back at her.
Something behind her thudded. Lid screamed and jumped. The clock had been plucked off the wall and crashed to the floor.
Vaguely, she heard laughter.
“Ghostdamn falling clock,” Lid sighed. “I need sleep.”
She wandered back into her house and lay down on the bed, pressing her face into the thin pillow. Even it smelled like fish. The smell reminded her of her father’s boat, the early morning voyages out into the bay to catch crabs and eels, her mother’s strong hands holding her tightly against morning storms, the slippery deck boards wet with mist and lamprey slime that were probably broken into splinters on some distant penal colony beach by now, the invisible hands tearing the boat apart and dragging the man and woman aboard beneath the water, away from their home, the pairs of bound hands reaching up from the dark depths of the sea to streak their twenty knobby and aged fingers against her windows and scream for food, screaming that they were hungry, so hungry…
Lid woke with a start, seemingly after no time at all had passed, at the sound of someone banging on the door. She had fallen asleep face-down on the bed, without changing out of her work clothes.
“Wha?” she mumbled, rubbing her eyes. Her nap had only made her feel more exhausted. She looked at the clock. It was half past eleven. About one hour and forty-five minutes had gone by.
She waited for the noise to come again. It didn’t. Lid groaned. Tom was right. She did need to learn how to relax.
The banging came again. The entire house shook. Lid screamed. She hopped up and rushed over to the door, flinging it open to reveal two Monks standing on either side of Tom.
“Tom?” Lid said. “Who’re they? What’s-”
“I’m sorry,” Tom said.
The Monks burst past him and each grabbed one of Lid’s arms, dragging her back through the room.
“Get the hell off me!” Lid screamed as the two Monks pinned her down on the bed. One of them knelt down to restrain her legs, while the other positioned herself over Lid to pin both of her arms.
“Please stop struggling,” the Monk pinning her arms commanded, sad-faced. “It’ll be over quicker that way.”
“Fuck you, don’t even talk to me!” Lid shouted. “Let me go! Let me go right now!” She tried to punch and kick and tear herself free from the Monks’ grasp, but their grip was too tight.
“I’m so sorry, Lid’ya,” Tom sobbed, holding back tears. “They said they was gonna cut my eyelids off unless I told ‘em where to get you.”
“You son of a bitch!” Lid screamed. “Let go of me! What the hell do you want?”
“I’m sorry, Lidia,” said the God-Empress, gently pushing Tom aside and walking over to Lid. “It was the only way.”
“You crazy bitch,” Lid snarled. “I ain’t gonna go with you, fish-eyes, so how ‘bout you let me go and get the hell out of my house?”
The God-Empress, whose eye-dishes were back in place, leaned over Lid’s face and began stroking it with her fingertips. Lid squirmed and tried to bite them, but the God-Empress was quick, darting them away just in time over and over again.
“Please don’t talk to me that way, honey,” she whispered. “That’s very disrespectful.”
“Disrespectful? You broke into my house!”
“It’s my house too, Lidia,” the God-Empress said, black lips curled into a disapproving frown. “All things belong to the child of God.”
“I don’t belong to anybody,” Lid growled, “And you ain’t no child of God.” The Monks shot each other glances at that. The one restraining her legs squeezed tighter.
“You might not see it now, honey, but you’ll come around to it,” the God-Empress said. “You’ll come around to everything.” She grasped her sea-monster pendant tightly and began stroking it with her fingers, running them rapidly over the grooves of its ribs.
“I ain’t comin’ around to nothin’!”
The God-Empress ignored her. She grasped the sides of Lid’s head and held it in place, then gently pushed open her eyelids with her thumbs and index fingers. Lid tried to struggle, but found that she couldn’t move her head.
“The ghosts serve me so well,” the God-Empress said, “But they can’t interact with the physical. I need the Monks for that. The ghosts can only interact with the mental.”
“There ain’t no such things as ghosts!” Lid screamed. “Quit lyin’ to me! There ain’t no ghosts! Ain’t no such thing as ghosts!”
Lid felt a gentle pressure on the surfaces of her eyeballs for a few moments. Then, a feeling of penetration, as if her eyes were jellies being poked with mischievous fingers. The feeling sent an electric tingling through her body. She felt herself quaking.
“Ain’t no ghosts,” she mumbled. “Ain’t no ghosts. Ain’t no ghosts.”
Slowly, her vision began to blur. She vaguely saw Tom shuffle over to her and look down at her face with worry. She tried to look into his eyes, but couldn’t move.
“Ain’ no ghos’,” she mumbled. “Ain’ no ghos’. No ghos. No- no ghos, no ghos.”
Her vision went dark. She sighed and smiled, then went silent. The Priests let go of her limp limbs and stood up, positioning themselves next to the God-Empress.
Tom looked back and forth between the God-Empress and Lid’s inert body over and over. The God-Empress crookedly smiled. Lid’s eyes remained open. They were rapidly beginning to turn pink and irritated.
“What’d you do ta her?” he breathed.
“I made her better, dear,” the God-Empress said. “I made her love me.”
Tom took a few steps back. “So… now what?” he mumbled.
“We’ll let her sleep it off,” the God-Empress said. “She needs her rest. Poor girl. So tired all the time. All that work wasn't good for her. It was one of my least favorite things about her, you know. Now we’ll both be much happier. She’ll love me forever. She’ll never be tired again.”
Tom said nothing. He looked down at Lid’s placid face.
“And now my friends,” the God-Empress said, gesturing to her two Monks, “Will give you the gift of the truth.”
The Monks said nothing. One of them pulled out her scalpel from her coat pocket.
“What? No, no no no, no, you can’t do this!” Tom screamed, beginning to back away. “You told me ya wouldn’t! Ya promised me!”
The Monks advanced on him. The one with the blade shut the door. The other pinned Tom down, holding his eyelids shut.
“No! Let me go! Nooooo!”
The God-Empress took off her eye-dishes and looked down at Lid, ignoring Tom’s screams of pain. She resumed stroking her sea-monster pendant as she gazed lovingly at the ghosts perched over Lid’s body, their fingers dipped into her eyes and running through her face and skull like water.
“My friends,” she breathed, overcome with joy. “My darlings. Thank you so much, my darlings. I love you all so much.”
The ghosts gave her no acknowledgement. They never did.
Outside the palace of the God-Empress, the palanquin sat, empty and motionless. A quartet of servants approached it, preparing to drag it back to the palace garage. Its internal gyroscopes and fans, which pushed it forward and held it off the ground, were deactivated.
Inside the palace, the God-Empress ascended the stairs. She walked on her toes, taking each step with exaggerated grace. Behind her, the two Monks strode slowly, carrying a plush purple couch like paramedics with a stretcher. On it, Lid lay sprawled, still smiling blankly, eyes wide open and bright red.
“Just a few more stairs,” the God-Empress said, gesturing vaguely behind her to the Monks. “We’ll be there soon.”
The Monks nodded. They looked at Lid’s face as they carried the couch, then back up at one another. One of the Monks was a newer recruit, and he looked into his comrade’s eyes with concern. The other had been a Monk for years, and she simply shrugged back at him.
They reached the top of the stairs and followed the God-Empress down one of the palace’s many dimly lit hallways. The walls were uniform black stone, unbroken save for a large painting covered with a curtain, and the dust-covered double doors to the monarch’s traditional bedchamber. At the end of the hall was a single small and unassuming red door.
The God-Empress reached the door, pushed it open, and strode in. Bright light flooded the hallway behind her.
As the Monks marched through the door, the younger of the two squinted into the light. As his eyes adjusted, he looked around in horror.
The room was decorated like a child’s nursery, but appeared disused and in decay. The blue paint was peeling off of the walls, and the pattern of waves and fish it once had was barely visible. The dirty carpeted floor was littered with scattered children’s furniture - chairs, a few couches, a large disheveled bed - occupied by more comatose bodies, all women. A few were somewhat young, but most of them were very old. They might have been dead. Some of them were visibly rotting.
The other Monk’s expression remained the same. She sighed.
“Set her down over there, friends,” the God-Empress said, waving her hand at the opposite side of the room. “Please, be sure to be gentle.”
The Monks took the couch across the room and set it down against the wall. Lid continued staring up at the ceiling.
“Thank you,” the God-Empress said, smiling. “Thank you so much. Now leave me. We have business to attend to.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” said the older Monk. She marched out of the room immediately, looking straight ahead, and shut the door behind her. The younger Monk lingered before following her.
As he reached the door, he turned back to the God-Empress. She was turned away, and was beginning to remove her eye-dishes.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Your Highness?”
“Hmm?” the God-Empress replied, not turning around. “What is it, dear?”
The Monk struggled for words. “What is this?” he finally said.
The God-Empress turned to him. He flinched at her red eyes.
“I’m just having a little get-together,” she said, “With all my friends and lovers. I want all my friends to be friends. Do you know what I mean?”
The Monk nodded, then ducked out the door and closed it. The other Monk was waiting for him outside.
“Not what you expected?” she asked him.
“Not at all. Has she always been like this?”
“As long as anyone can remember. I think she’s losing it.”
“Well, how else would you explain this?”
“How else would you explain any of it? The oldsters say the empire’s really gone downhill ever since she took power. The economy’s gone downhill, the penal colonies have expanded… Did you know there were no Wide O’Wakes until she took the throne?”
“I haven’t heard this myself, but I’ve even heard people say she doesn’t even believe. That she doubts.”
“Oh. Well… so what, right? That’s her own business.”
“Can’t you see? People don’t respect the empire anymore, not even its citizens. This latest one wasn’t even scared of her. Neither was her friend. I don’t know what happened to the God-Empress, but she’s a few smelt short of a school if you ask me.”
“You can’t say that. That’s treason.”
“It’s a statement of fact. We need to do something.”
“Such as what?”
“We need to request audience with the Priest-General.”
They were silent after that. They walked back down the hall together, their boots clomping against the stone floor.
The God-Empress heard none of this. She was pouring tea from a porcelain pot into a selection of small cups arranged neatly on a table.
“I’m so glad to see you again, friends,” she said. “I missed you so much while I was gone. Did you miss me?”
She looked up from the cups and looked around the room at her friends. They were wonderful, and she loved them all, but none of them were perfect. None of them were quite right. They all reminded her of someone. She couldn’t quite place who. Maybe she would remember one day. Maybe her friends could help her.
She decided to dispel the thought from her mind. She continued pouring the tea.
“Who wants their tea first?” she asked. “Elizabeth? Hannah? You’re always so thirsty, Hannah. Why don’t we let Lidia drink first? She must be thirsty. She’s had a rough night. Then you can all get to know her. I’m sure you’ll all love her as much as I do.”
The room’s bright light shone out through a single small window. Outside the palace, it was a beacon of light against the starless black night sky. On the street beneath it, within the upturned skull of the beast the city was built on, several Wide O’Wakes shuffled up to it, transfixed, gazing with their shriveled eyes up into the light, watching the ghosts slither and dance in the corners of their eyes.