Walls were made to be broken. Especially the fourth one.
Dark clouds always gather in spades. Strength in numbers is a well-spoken cliché, usually barked from the barbed mouths of military commanders overlooking their armoured convoy, a desperate howl that echoes across a desolate battlefield, and nature often lends this cliché to its numerous and overwhelming moments of rage and conceit, like a bird would take to the weightless allure of flight. And so dark clouds gathered above Corvin’s head like frothy black waves, cold and uninviting, and blotted out the sun’s warm and thoughtful gaze.
He wasn’t a soldier, or a commander, or even a solitary man with a mission to accomplish, but he was dogged that the rotting manor house in the centre of sprawling despairing fields, that hadn’t bloomed for years, should be his sole focus. Its surroundings were as dark as the clouds that loomed above like a murder of crows, and as desolate and dead as a graveyard, and just as welcoming. On the far outskirt of town, so far on the outer verge that it could be considered an entirely separate entity from the simple and sleepy and incessantly quiet town of Vanitati, it was rooted on a lazy incline, which had once been green and lurid and happy, and now sank low, having expended all its colourful energy decades ago. Its sinister appearance exuded an intoxicating aura that the town had allowed itself to drink as the years wheeled past, and they were drunk on the idea that the manor house was a black heart of evil, concealed dark secrets and its shadows were hiding places for monstrous aberrations even the worst nightmare or fever dream would fail to conceive. Every inch of the melting edifice was pregnant with malignant perversion, or so the townsfolk said, usually as they downed the last of their pints and before they began the bleary wobble homewards.
Corvin had greedily absorbed the stories and rumours and whispered thoughts, and as he stood at the precipice of the arid hill, and as he looked up at the monstrous manor rising above him, he wondered if there was a smidgeon of merit in any of them. When the mind’s cogs are lubricated with alcohol, the mouth follows close behind, and slurs the first thoughts it can chuck together. No, there wouldn’t be anything to them. The stories were urban legend husks filled with the personal flair of the individual author, ascribing evil where emptiness existed, sculpting normalcy into incredible devils to distract and escape timid and humdrum life. The manor house was an opportunity, a tool to re-shape the town’s mental landscape, nothing more.
The roof had collapsed inwards, the window panes had shattered into snowflake patterns, vines engulfed the left half of the house like a dense blanket of thick leafy tentacles, the brickwork had warped, eternally exposed to the elements, and Corvin swore he could see melted, twisted faces in the slimy mortar canvas, the kind he expected he might see in ancient wood. The red double-door, paint splintered, aging and weather-worn, patiently awaited his touch. He found his hand hovering over the handle, without passing through an intermediate stage. He hadn’t decided he was going in, hadn’t decided to be at the door, but he was there, and something was telling him to continue.
The wind whistled, a gentle breeze brushed across his face. He wrapped his jacket close around him. Even if the stories weren’t true, the manor house contained a secret that wasn’t manifest in its gloomy shadows and warped brickwork, and it chilled him.
But he had to go in. He hadn’t come all this way for nothing.
The door squeaked shut behind him. He rested his back against it, breathless. Again he couldn’t remember deciding to open the door, to walk over the threshold, but he was there. He felt like he was being pulled, at the whimsy of another’s authority, into a battle where both sides were wrong. It wasn’t his fight but he was directly in the middle of it, caught in the crossfire.
An auditorium was open around him. Spiders had claimed the cavernous room as their lair, cobwebs clung to the corners and the dangling crystal chandelier, gathering dust and luckless flies. Broken chair limbs littered the dust-coated, grimy floor, although not a single intact chair was in sight. Lacking in maintenance for decades, the walls had fallen into a state of severe disrepair, and could barely hold on to the slack-sitting paintings. Corvin was unable to decipher the paintings, the coat of murky dust and time-spurned grime too thick for eyes to permeate with ease.
The air was thick and heavy, Corvin’s nostrils twitched as the burning musk of smouldering wood filled them. His hand reflexively covered his mouth. His stomach was of a notoriously unsound composition, and threatened, many times too often for his liking, to empty its contents at the slightest inclination. Overpowering smells tended to churn his stomach, even pleasant ones like lavender or vanilla. His worst nightmare was walking into a perfume shop unprepared. Well, he thought, and glanced around, it used to be.
He felt constricted, like the auditorium was shrinking, and that the air was being siphoned out. Legs moved before he could decide where they were going to take him, and carried him down the shadowed corridor on his left, past half-buckled bookshelves and shattered light fixtures and abandoned paintings, across tarnished and curling wooden flooring, and finally came to a stop outside a pair of black iron doors.
Corvin caught his breath, rasping and struggling to keep his eyes focused. Why had he decided to run? He hadn’t informed his legs of his plans, and nor had they transmitted their intent, yet his journey here had been a long-gaited sprint, a loud, echoing bounce through the halls. He couldn’t even fully remember the journey, only shards of memory let their reels play, and then, there wasn’t much he could translate for the murky gloom was devious, and wouldn’t permit his eyes to view the director’s cut, all the discarded snips they had severed.
He again found his hand hovering over a door handle. This one was different, however, it was gilded and round, and warm like it had been recently used. The cobwebs were less profuse around the door, than they were in their greedy infestation elsewhere, and Corvin thought the air was lighter, the dampness not as absolute or predatory. From the crack between the doorways, a thin slit of orange light escaped. He pressed his head against the door, found it warmer than expected, warmer than it should be in the draughty manor, and pushed his eye to the opening, so he could just see inside. He was disappointed to discover the orange light was like a wall, and by no normal means could he uncover what the bright glow concealed from this side of the door.
Corvin pushed the doors apart, holding his breath. It was released as the portal winced open, and gave way to a humble library; shelf upon shelf of books snaked up the walls on either side of him, and more were carelessly strewn on the ground, some opened at apparently random pages, as though tossed aside as collateral damage of a whirlwind rage. Small, hip-high trolleys, containing more books, clung to the edges of the shelves, seeking the closeness of their timber cousins. And in the centre of it all was a broad oak-wood desk, hemmed with a black marble band at its top rim, and its feet like gold paws. Some effort had been made to intimate images of lions on its front, prowling and fighting, but time had faded their clarity, until they looked like crude, child-like imaginings of large, deformed cats. Behind the desk, head submerged in a leather-bound book, was a bespectacled man, who gave Corvin no indication he was aware of the fresh-faced intruder.
Then he waved, without removing his nose from the book’s gutter.
“Come in,” he said, though it sounded more like a command. “Please, make yourself at home.”
This wasn’t quite what Corvin had expected. Monsters, ghosts, hidden dark secrets mankind was not to uncover; that he would be comfortable confronting, you didn’t have to have the gift of precognition to forsee such a dark spectre of possibility. A bookworm sequestered in a dusty book tomb wasn’t the ghoul of possible future his mind had quietly suggested to him he’d be facing.
He was also aware that he was already in the room.
“Oh, you’re already in the room,” said the bookworm. “Excuse my ignorance. Please, close the doors.”
The doors, as of their own accord, grinded to a close with a sickening, deafening screech. They must have been connected to some kind of machinery, and the strange man had surreptitiously pressed a button to activate them, how else would the cold and dead metal perform without proposition? Corvin began to feel trapped, but the man had a soothing presence that walled-off intrusive thoughts.
“Sit,” said the man. Corvin glanced down, discovered a stained, puffy black leather couch that had seen better days, and slipped into the seat. It was difficult to find comfort in the freezing leather, his thoughts wouldn’t focus on anything but the strange man sat across from him, in an apparently long-deserted and decaying manor, head submerged in a tattered old book.
Eventually, after a tense minute, the man placed his book on the desk, and focused on Corvin. He was a lot younger than he had predicted, clear skin of a man who couldn’t be older than twenty, youthful blue-green eyes that were captured behind archaic iron-cased glass halos, a shabby thicket of brown hair that flopped downwards over his left eye and looked like it hadn’t been brushed in months, maybe years, and a clean-shaven, protuberant chin that could chisel stone. His white collar was deeply stained with fat red blotches, and petite, bony arms slid out from beneath rolled-up sleeves. There was a ‘smart-casual’ look to him, and if it wasn’t for his present location, Corvin might’ve called him a young and ambitious entrepreneur, hoping to shatter the prejudice that clouds the elderly when it comes to age and experience. Given his present location, however, Corvin maintained a steely guard, and wasn’t willing to draw any litigious conclusions.
“You’re to be my challenger, are you?” said the man, looking him up and down, as one might a soldier in a sweet-shop. “A little younger than he usually makes them. Maybe he’s trying to branch out, strike a larger target audience with the arrow of relatability.” He seemed displeased. “What’s your name, boy?”
Corvin’s throat had clamped shut, but fear rallied a voice.
“Corvin,” he said hoarsely. “Corvin Locum.”
“Corvin?” The man laughed, without humour. “Going down that beaten track, I see. I suppose I should offer my own name and be polite, since we’re only at the beginning, and even a siren must be beautiful to begin with. Now, let’s see, shall we…” The man was deep in thought for a minute. Corvin took the opportunity to look around, to find a tiny shred of sanity or normality, and when he ultimately failed, he stared nervously at his feet like a child awaiting the scolding of their mother.
“Probably something Latin…” the man mumbled, largely to himself. “Damn author loves Latin, thinks it’s clever that the names mean something else, usually something ironic or entirely truthful. Perhaps… Occisor? No. No, that makes me sound like a dinosaur, and a rather weak one at that. How about Parricid? Yes. I like that. You may call me Parricid.”
Parricid was outwardly proud of his literary acumen, discovering a trophy in the name he was happy to flounce, and threw his palms outwards, grinning like a wild madman doused in fresh blood.
Corvin nodded slowly. He wasn’t sure what else to do.
“It’s a good name, I guess,” he said shyly. “But what’s your real name?”
“What’s yours?” Parricid replied.
“I told you, it’s Corvin. Corvin Locum.”
“Urgh,” he groaned. “If you say so. Now, enough preamble. Are you ready to begin the plot?”
Corvin’s brow knotted. “The what?”
“The plot,” Parricid repeated. “I presume there’s a reason for you being here. Are you the valiant hero come to slay the monster and chase off the shadows? Are you the inquisitive scholar who stumbles on a dark secret, goes mad, but no-one will believe your ramblings of truth? Or, though I doubt this, are you something actually original?”
Corvin’s mouth opened and closed, noiselessly, several times before he finally answered.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “You’re not making any sense.”
Parricid sighed, head drooped. “Why are you here?”
“I’m here to… to…” Realisation, like a creeping cold shadow, dawned on Corvin. He didn’t know why he was here. He’d followed the breadcrumbs left behind by malicious rumours, drunk from the well of local and unsubstantial knowledge, and stumbled his way here without truly knowing why. Now that he really thought about it, and placed all the strange and deformed pieces together, the completed picture wasn’t much of a completed picture at all.
“Ah.” A piercing sound boomed around the room and knocked the dust off the higher, dipping shelves. Parricid was clapping. “I wouldn’t call it original, but at least it’s different. You don’t know why you’re here. Thinks he’s so clever sometimes. That’s when I get called in, keep his inflated ego in check, like a pin at a balloon party. Pop! Sometimes I wonder, I really do.
“So, an idiot without a plan. How is that supposed to be a challenge? At least give the monster a challenge!”
“The monster?” Corvin stuttered, burrowing deeper into the seat. The rumours were true, then, the manor was an egg waiting to hatch and birth maddening devils that would reduce humanity to a sticky yellow-white puddle of yolk.
“Yes, the monster.” The edges of Parricid’s lips twitched and curled. “That would be me.”
“You don’t look like a monster.”
The bespectacled man grinned, a wide toothy grin that stretched his skin back and flaunted his teeth.
“The best monsters,” he said, “never do. So, idiot, would you like to… oh, what is I do? I’m supposed to scare you, I believe. Are you scared?”
“No,” Corvin lied.
“I’ll figure it out, don’t you worry.” He ruffled the books laid out on his desk like a buffet of knowledge. “I’m made that way, see. Just like you’re made the way you are, a McGuffin. Do you know what that is?”
Corvin was feeling cramped and arrested in the leather chair, and even more cramped in the tiny cluttered room. “I don’t know what that is. Is it important?”
“Oh, very important. Most important. Crucial, really. It’s a type of plot device, a McGuffin, that looks important, makes a lot of waves, but is really only there to jumpstart the plot. You’re rather lucky in my opinion, because you’re two-fold. You’re not just a McGuffin, you’re also a surrogate audience, so potential readers have someone they can relate to. It would be cute if you weren’t so stupid. If I was the audience I’d be very insulted to have you in my place, telling me what to experience as the plot continues.”
Feeling helpless, Corvin didn’t argue, didn’t contest the rant. He was out of his depth, struggling to keep his head above the water. Numbly accepting the rant as a string of facts, he silently pleaded that Parricid would leave this concept untouched, that the strange man would abandon his radical deconstruction of something he felt critical to survival. It wasn’t so much a resonating feeling within as it was a change in the air around, smothering him like strait-jacket. It wasn’t right to be talking of such things and impossible concepts and knowledge that would be best left unspoken.
“And in any event,” Parricid continued, adjusting his glasses, “I wouldn’t be playing my part correctly if I didn’t make you aware of your mistakes. This is a horror story, after all, I’m meant to be smarter than the fly that gets caught in the web. Talking of webs…”
Corvin blinked. He was seeing something that couldn’t be true, that he knew to be impossible, and was convinced his eyes were lying to him. They didn’t do so often, in fact, he couldn’t remember a time when they weren’t his best friends, but at that given moment they hoarded the truth and exchanged a lie.
The wall behind Parricid was a window. It hadn’t been before. Web-covered black curtains dangled from a gold curtain pole, which had degraded over time and drooped lazily at its gilded knobs. A crack of bright sunlight permeated the middle section, and swarmed over the curtain tops. Corvin knew this couldn’t be true; it was the middle of winter, and the season had enforced its caustic mandate on the area. Sunlight wouldn’t be seen for another three months, when it broke through the chilling barricades of ice and dissolved the gloomy mists, evaporated the season’s shade.
“You know what that is?” Parricid asked ruefully, and glanced at the new instalment.
“It’s a window,” said Corvin blankly.
“It’s a continuity error. They pop up now and again. Breaking the fourth wall has consequences; once the wall’s broken, anything can wander through.” He rubbed his eyes, weary. “They’re quite common around here, as you could imagine. It should be fixed soon enough. Anyway, what were we talking about?”
Corvin looked at the man, and at the curtains, and back to the man.
“I have no idea,” he admitted.
“I wish you weren’t so transparently idiotic,” Parricid grumbled. “You’re two-dimensional. Real people have more character and charisma. You’ve got nothing but a silly name. You know what Corvin means? It’s from the Latin ‘corvus’, meaning ‘raven’. Are you going to start repeatedly squawking ‘nevermore’?”
“No,” said Corvin.
“Good, see to it that you don’t. I won’t be complicit in further besmirching Poe’s legacy. You know what a group of ravens is called? An unkindness. An unkindness of ravens. How metal is that?” He ruffled his hair, and Corvin swore his parting had been on the opposite side. “More continuity errors. If I turn into a puffin, you let me know. Chances are I won’t notice. Bloody idiot, doesn’t like that I’m giving him a challenge. Well, I won’t be stopping there.”
He cracked his fingers, stretched his arms out like he was about to drop to the floor and start doing yoga. Corvin was uncomfortable, wanted to go home, leave the manor house and the strange man far behind in dream’s territory, collapse into bed –
“Right, right, stop,” said Parricid, and raised a warning palm. “Nobody cares! We’re focused on me now, Mr McGuffin. I’m sure you have a beautifully tragic backstory, they always do, but I’m so much more interesting and charismatic. You don’t stand a chance.”
“Look,” said Corvin, “I don’t really know why I’m here. I just want to go home! I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about, I really don’t. I want to go!”
Parricid grinned and gestured to the door. “Go ahead, go! I’m not stopping you.”
Corvin wasted no time in seizing the opportunity, a caged animal spying the door unlocked and its handler unaware, darted to the iron doors and heaved them open. He was done with the manor house, its secrets were not to be uncovered, and the young man named Parricid should be left to his books, to his studies, to his confusing world of continuity errors in the firm film of reality, and Corvin should be at home, with his own studies, ignoring rumours and ghost stories.
But reality is inescapable, even when it doesn’t make sense.
Corvin stumbled back from the open doorway, breath caught in his chest like a moth in a jar.
“Harsh, isn’t it?” said Parricid, gravely. “I feel bad for you, giving you hope. But I didn’t lie, I’m not stopping you. Words are stopping you.”
“How… how is that possible?” Corvin rasped. “It can’t be there… like that. It wasn’t like that!”
A blank grey wall existed where once there was nothing, as if it had been there the entire time, occupying the empty air behind the door, flat and dull. Corvin ran his hand across the grey brick, testing its realness. He thumped it with his fist, kicked and scuffed the lower band, dug his nails into the coarse mortar and excavated a stream of liberated dull dust. It was as real as his confusion.
“What is this?!” he screamed.
“You’d think continuity error,” said Parricid, “but you’d be wrong. You know how video games work when – oh, excuse me. What era is this supposed to be? Manor house would suggest a while ago, but admittedly it is in an extremely dishevelled state. You got a mobile phone? Of course you do. Got to keep the era mysterious, doesn’t he?
“Well, old video games had terrible loading and rendering times, so a lot of what you would see in game, in an effort to reduce those times, would be empty shells, or the entire map wouldn’t be loaded all at once, and you’d just be playing a sliver of the whole. It kept loading times to a minimum and reduced the burden it could place on the system. This is like that; since the core of our story takes place in this room, there’s no need to create everything else. It’s a mentally taxing load to maintain the rest of reality when everything is focused here. This room is all that exists right now, until such a time as the rest of the manor house is required, as the plot demands it.”
Corvin threw his shoulder at the wall, and nearly collapsed. The brick was too thick for a manual shattering. He did a quick search around the room and failed to find an adequate tool.
“Could you… could you stop that?” said Parricid, rubbing his temples. “It’s making me sore just watching you. Corvin, a fly can’t escape the web. Sit down.”
But he wouldn’t. Again he threw himself at the wall, willing it to break, for a weak point to be revealed. The wall wasn’t real, he told himself, it can’t be! It has to break!
“Fine, have it your way. It must be about time for the horror to begin. Maestro?”
The book shelves shuddered, the curtains threw out clouds of ancient dust that hovered around the desk, Parricid grinned, and seemed to welcome an oncoming storm. The carelessly strewn books flapped and fluttered, as though the pages were cackling manically; Corvin pressed his back to the wall and shrunk. There was something in the air, flying about, knocking books from their aeons-old homes, roiling the confined vault into decadence, and tugging the strange young man’s lips into a tight and sickening smile.
And there was nowhere to run.
The walls rattled and banged, like something was on the other side, clattering metal chains at the outside walls, wailing and crying, screeching with supernova fury. All of nature was its playground, wasn’t bound by the same rules as the living, who wielded the power of normality and not the power of the damned dead. And that damned soul wrenched at the brick and the timber and the paper and the books, claws and chains madly whipping and tearing. It wanted Corvin, could smell him, felt him writhing in fear.
“Oh, really?” said Parricid, unmoved by the sounds of his sanctum being invaded. “Ghosts and ghouls and damned souls? No. No, that won’t do at all. Overdone. Cliché. I won’t have it! Not in my story!”
He clicked his fingers. The noises, the wailing, the laughing books and the invading shadow wreathed in the laboured chains and sins of its former life, retreated into the distance, a low but audible murmur, until it was nothing, as if it had never been there; an echoing wave receding to its chaotic cradle.
“Let’s try for something original, shall we?” Parricid continued. “Could you manage that? Do you think you could extract a little innovation from that cluttered mine you call a mind?”
Corvin slunk to the floor, wished that Parricid would let the world alone, and wouldn’t taunt whatever had dominion here – and even Parricid knew who held the real power to shape worlds, and should probably pay homage, lest he also fall victim – and silently begged the wall to be gone, half-expecting in this mad slice of impossibility, a wish would be enough to re-shape reality at a whim.
“Go on, then! Do something original! God knows the horror genre needs it, like a fat kid needs cake!”
Corvin was polarized –
“No, he wasn’t,” Parricid growled. “Get on with it!”
The cracked floorboards creaked and bowed, like some guttural howling from an agonised animal, the room seemed to contract, the ancient womb comforting and coddling books and bookshelves, and god-knows-what-kind-of-secrets, shrinking and imploding. Corvin held his breath, for lack of a better option. The room rumbled, an earthquake shifting the floorboards, and from underneath their wooden mantle, a green goo seeped and leaked through the withered cracks and spattered knolls, rising and oozing. A faint yellow smoke rose from the surface.
“Ah,” said Parricid, clapping. “Acid! Not very horror-orientated, but scary, I’ll give you that.”
If he hadn’t already been disarmed, Corvin would’ve lost his focus fairly quickly, but as acid crept closer, a sludge of liquid death, he leaped into action. Scampering across the floor, he clattered clumsily into the nearest bookshelf, cursed under his breath, and started to clamber up the timber; the decaying shelves ladders, the top shelf a protected haven.
There wasn’t anywhere else to go, he realised as he hastily moved his hand in front of the other, one foot following its sibling. The world had been severed, he was in a pocket of nightmares, a pocket that was steadily filling with burning acid. He heard it behind and below him, sizzling and swallowing, consuming the floorboards and the books and the desk, rapaciously and instinctively moving towards him, following his path, climbing the shelves, biting at his heels.
Corvin was high on adrenaline – or maybe it was the fumes of melting ink and wood and old moss – heart thumping, breathing in the heavy burning stench. He didn’t want to die. Not very many people do. Acid was an awful way to go. He wondered if it would be quick, painless, if his flesh would peel from his bones before the acid filled his lungs, before it gulped down his skull. Maybe the pain would be so intense he wouldn’t feel it in its entirety, a blissful blessing bestowed by the hand of death. Maybe it would swallow him whole, in one big swig, reduce him to a smouldering puddle, to one day merge with the withered floorboards.
On top of the bookshelf, he was the filling in a rather odd sandwich; trapped prone between the crumbling concrete ceiling and the wood shelf, which bent under his weight. He was staring down into the swirling green mass, spitting and bubbling, lunging upwards, reaching its corrosive claws towards his flesh.
Parricid was merely a pale, fleshy mask floating on the acid’s surface, glasses glinting like bright stars.
“Hm,” he said, clear above the sizzling and simmering. “I’m not so confident acid is the right way to go. It’s very violent, isn’t it? A horror story should be creepy and get under your skin, not burn it off. If I may, Mr Know-It-All?”
The acid stopped abruptly, as if nervous to continue its climb, to continue its ravenous hunt. Corvin imagined it arguing with itself, discussing the strange young man, untouched by its corrosion, indifferent to its all-consuming hunger. Then it began to retreat, slowly at first, a touch unsure it was really listening to the taciturn will of this unknown man, and dejectedly stole away into the cracks and holes, through the narrow slits and moulding wood, like water down a drain, until the library catacomb was free of its consumption.
Unblemished books emerged as the liquid dispersed, as did untouched bookshelves, an oak desk, and a bespectacled young man cracking his neck. There was no evidence the acid had ever been there, and Corvin considered that at some point during his journey here, he had been exposed to an ancient strand of bacteria or fungi, hidden in the lofty rafters of the roomy auditorium, and that had flipped the mental vase on its edge, and poured out a stream of convincing hallucinations, complete with olfactory and auditory influence.
He measured his next move cautiously, glued to the bookshelf’s pinnacle.
“Would you like to come down so we can continue, in proper fashion?” said Parricid, taking his seat. “I doubt the bookshelf is particularly comfy, and you look badly wedged in there. I assure you the seat is comfy and anxious to meet your buttocks. In a non-perverted way, of course,” he added quietly.
“No way in hell!” Corvin screamed.
Parricid sighed. “Some help, please?”
Corvin was ready to argue, a chorus of expletives and obscenities that would turn a church into a house of sin hunched on the tip of his tongue, when he discovered the uncomfortable and springy leather throne was supporting his quivering, fearful body. His mouth opened and closed, searching for an explanation.
Parricid grinned. Corvin was beginning to fear the twitching smile, the absolute absence of humour or joy. It was a mocking, toothy grin.
“Right, now it’s my turn,” he said. “I must have something scary ‘round here somewhere. I am envisioned to be a monster, I must have something…” He searched the desks, eyes lit up as his hand clamped around a blank rectangle. “Ah! Here we are. This’ll do nicely. I’ll show the author how scary is meant to be! Feast your eyes on this!”
He slapped it down on the desk and shoved it towards Corvin, presenting it like a shady contract. Corvin’s eyes ran up and down it, absorbing the words, calculating the appropriate response. There were a lot of boxes, a lot of pointless technical jargon, and obstinately confusing terms that would be better suited in an English major’s dissertation on the collected works of Shakespeare.
“It’s… it’s a tax form…” Corvin said, incredulous.
“Hah!” Parricid shouted proudly. “Terrifying, isn’t it?! You must be shaking in your – are you wearing boots? You should be wearing boots, it’s awfully cold out. Anyway, I bet you’re scared now!”
Corvin looked at the tax form, and at Parricid, and back to the form.
“You want me to be scared of paper?”
“Responsibilities! Adulthood!” He made an ‘ooooOOoooo’ sound, the kind one might hear on Halloween, from beneath an old and wrinkled bedsheet with two shoddily cut eyeholes. “Crippling debt! Giving all your money to the government!” He bent over the desk, grin erased. “Mortgage!”
He sat back down, pleased his bullet of fear had found its mark. Corvin pushed the muddled sheet back with one finger.
“Not scary,” he said.
Parricid glowered. “What do you mean ‘not scary’? Tax is the scariest thing you’ll ever have to deal with!”
“I was almost boiled alive by acid!” Corvin exploded. “A sheet of paper isn’t going to scare me!”
“Not at all?”
“Well then.” Parricid rested back on his chair. “Constructive criticism would be – OH! Oh, I see! He’s talking through you! Of course tax is scary, anyone in their right mind would be terrified, but you’re not. No, you’re nice and strong all of a sudden. He’s putting up a fight, doesn’t want to relinquish control. Admirable. Admirable but stupid.”
He clicked his fingers.
And Corvin nearly fainted, vague clouds forming around his peripheral vision, translucent amoebas prancing around the edges.
“Now, now, play nice. Nearly fainted? That’s not very fair. He’s the fly, I’m the spider, and you’re the web. That’s the game, you can’t change the rules!”
Something was happening to the room; like the whole place was losing its definition, its soul, everything that held it together…
“You pull at the thread long enough, you unravel the web. Let’s see how far we can take this…”
… the books were no longer books, with pages and writing and bindings, the shelves weren’t wood, with knotted prehistoric patterns, the ceiling was a pool, an endless void, the curtains were wings…
“Don’t forget the doors.”
… the iron doors were pixelated slabs, and they were far off in the distance, miles away, the floorboards were a mass of writhing ripples, travelling the impossible length of the room, lapping around Parricid’s feet, the empty book tomb…
“You used that already,” Parricid growled.
… the empty book tomb was an undulating, slithery abstraction, a kaleidoscopic rainbow of grey and lighter grey, and its sole interred – who should really be shutting up about now – was the singular focal point, incongruous to his fluttering surroundings.
“I always am. Can’t let the façade slip, not for a second.”
Corvin was melting, siphoned into the swirling motley vortex, caught on the event horizon. He knew he was screaming as loud as his lungs would allow, but not a single strangled tone reached his ears.
“Breaking the fourth wall has its consequences,” said Parricid, standing amid the expanding whirlpool, a battle-ship anchored in a harbour full of inflatable dinghies, “but it also has some advantages. For example…”
And the world blinked back.
Normal is a matter of context, as is chaos. Normal can’t be taught to a lion, chaos can’t be taught to a gazelle. But it will be learned all the same, and both sides of the natural order will be complete opposites, God versus Satan, water versus fire, and just in the same way, chaos and order will be irrefutably entangled; the binary state of being.
Normal, Corvin thought. Normal. Normal by context. Chaos by order.
“There we go,” said Parricid. “All better now. Couple of things I’d like to – hey, you…”
He went abruptly quiet, eyes glazed over. He mouthed ‘excuse me’ and turned to the wall behind him, which had shed its window, its bizarre continuity error, and was now blank and lifeless. Parricid whispered to it, as if it could answer back. With a lack of a better option, Corvin twiddled his thumbs, then abruptly stopped. Twiddling thumbs was a distraction technique for when one is bored with nothing to do. He sensed that there was something he was supposed to be doing, a crucial ingredient on the messy plate that he had missed and was continuing to neglect.
He watched Parricid as he conversed with the wall, or the air, in much the same way as devout sheep kneel by their bed and pray for a shepherd.
“No… I, I mean… are you sure? I’d hate to… you know, that’s not very – but – he’s – it’s not… Very well.”
He turned back to Corvin, adjusted his glasses, expression painted a shade of solemn, the same miserable grey hue as a storm about to deploy a lightning bombardment.
“It’s very disappointing,” he said, sternly. “I had hoped to come to an amicable arrangement. Corvin, I want you to know I don’t have anything against you – other than your transparency as a character and your stupid, stupid face – but… this is a horror story, and you’re the main character.” He rolled his eyes. “It’s not you, it’s me. I’m very sorry.”
Corvin backed away, finding the door handle behind him, wrapped his fingers around it and prepared to pull and run. If the rest of the room was back in working order, the wall would be gone. Should be, he thought and hoped.
“Running won’t do you much good,” said Parricid, rising from his seat and circling around the desk, a prowling wolf, snout on the trail. “Whenever I want, I can re-shape this place to my liking. I want you to get out, Corvin, I want you to be victorious, but this is a horror story, and the monster can’t be beaten. Got to leave some leeway for sequels, see.”
“You’re absolutely mad,” Corvin growled.
“Absolutely mad,” Parricid agreed. “But I’m not a bad person, I’m just written that way.”
Corvin was already out the door, racing through the halls, feet pounding across the flooring.
“You’re making me chase him?!” he shouted. “Are you serious? The fly was in the web, the spider doesn’t give chase! Do I look athletic to you?” He paced irritably. “I’m going to have to, you’re going to write it anyway. Fine. Fine! I’ll do it. Let’s finish this, and quickly.”
Sprinting into the auditorium, Corvin lunged towards the door, a lifeboat on a sinking ship, fingers outstretched and grasping and hoping. A sudden pain tore through his right leg, something swept into his limbs and took him off his feet, and sent him tumbling clumsily across the concrete. He rolled, raised his hands, and prepared to fight, fist against fist.
Deflating a little, iron will crumbling, he couldn’t see Parricid anywhere. The shadows shifted, concealed with hatred.
He threw a fist as a shadow crossed in front of him, scampering across his vision like a fleeing rat. It passed through the air, found emptiness. He felt something shove into his ribs, blunt and dull, like getting hit with a rusty hammer. Buckling over, he massaged his ribs, fingers discovering a pronounced crack, a fissure carved into the bone.
Corvin wasn’t prepared for the next assault; something shoved his numb side, something else kicked sharply at the left of his knee, extracting a screeching and pained crack from the bony kneecap. He dropped to his right, screaming. Hands wrapped around his shoulder, pulled his arm behind him and jerked to the left, twisting the joint free. He screamed again, helpless against the overwhelming strength of his attacker, his superior, a ghostly bestial juggernaut.
With his free hand he lobbed a clenched fist, hoping to find purchase in anything, but instead it whizzed through thin air and flopped flaccid at his side, losing the will to carry on.
Another assault. By this point he was used to the beating, the strength, the abhorrent violence and soldier-like precision. He was flung into the wall, dragged back down to the floor and sent skidding across it, bowling into broken chairs and entangled in thick cobwebs. Life was leaving him, abandoning the sinking ship, knowing his chances of survival were lowering by the second.
The bridge of his nose shattered, blood pouring from his nostrils, drenching his throat in a metallic overcoat. He was raised, then, by the throat, struggling for breath, grasping for hope, wishing for escape.
Parricid’s toothy grin was markedly sour, occupied his entire vision, a crescent moon in fading black space.
“You have my utmost apologies,” he said. “This isn’t exactly my fault, I tried to help you. But I’m a slave to words. They’re not even my own words, that’s the sad part. Ah, but I’m talking about my own sadness while I’m holding up a young man by the throat and watching his life drain away. The sin of pride, I presume. My favourite sin.”
Corvin tumbled through the air, weightless, crashed into the wall. He glanced up, vision blurred by a crimson stream, and saw Parricid’s heeled shoe looming above him, a guillotine about to drop.
“I’m sorry,” he said sincerely. “I’ll have a talk with him later about how things should turn out better, you know, a happy ending once in a while. He’s only made one with a happy ending. Fate’s funny like that; it’s all up in the air while the lines are being written, it’s not until that final full stop drops that it’s committed to reality. And I’m very sorry, Corvin, your story is at an end.”
Parricid raised his foot higher, making sure the plunge would deliver a killing blow, then hesitated.
“Must I?” he said, to the auditorium, as though an audience were present; a gladiator in the coliseum, eagerly awaiting the judgement of the emperor – to kill or not to kill. “I don’t…”
But it didn’t matter how Parricid felt or was inclined to feel, what sympathy a devil might conjure for a sinner is an irrelevant aspect, because it was not within his control. Reality is not shaped by the will of those within it, the rules cannot be changed, the boundaries are not elastic, willing to bend and stretch for others. Parricid had no choice, as a river has no choice but to flow and pour, a star has no choice but to burn and scold. It was the rules, as they have always been and shall always be, authority of reality above the authority of the mind.
Parricid looked down at the frightened bloody pulp below his foot, snivelling and wet, rheumy eyes wide with fear, pupils dilated, hand raised above his face, a lit candle about to be extinguished, a meteor burning to a cinder as it rocketed down through the atmosphere, and felt nothing.
Nothing but the soft barrier of flesh as it crumpled beneath his armour-piercing heel.
Corvin’s last action, his final jab at the world’s narrative, was a soft deflated gasp, a slanted italic on the crowded manuscript, lost in the chaos in which it was buried.
Parricid looked down at the beaten slab of skin, removed his glasses as if peering from behind the lenses was adding insult to injury; misery to unprompted death. He was painfully reminded of Zeno’s paradox: in order to reach the end of a street one must first reach halfway, and in order to reach halfway one must first reach a quarter of the way, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, an endless series of actions down to the smallest possible fraction, until motion is adequately proven and declared fundamentally impossible. A silly paradox considering that in order to expound its ridiculousness, motion in some form or another must be utilised. All that means, thought Parracid largely against his will, is that it’s a fairly successful paradox, a seamless stitch of two contradictory ideals.
Logical impossibility, a dichotomy in the narrative of nature’s law. What doesn’t start can’t ever stop, a story with no beginning has no end. Parricid wondered where Corvin’s story had begun, where his impossible stroll to the manor had inevitably started. An end with no beginning.
He pondered why the thought was in the cockpit, and glanced back at his savaged, motionless victim. Can’t move an inch without moving half an inch, without moving a quarter of an inch, without moving an eighth of an inch…
“I won’t be doing this again,” he said quietly, in respect. “Don’t you dare make me do this again.”
Monsters feel no pity, and Parricid would feel nothing.
“Very well,” he said, head bowed. “But it won’t be so easy next time. You’ve got control now, but it won’t last. We’ll see how you fair, author, we’ll see how it goes the next time you challenge me. You can’t kill off every main character, you’re not George Whatshisface. And how’s Sean going to feel?”
Parricid went qu – Ummmm, Sean’s not the main character –
“You sure about that?”
They’re all main characters in that arc-
“See, I don’t think they are. You can’t keep killing, it’s not good for the soul. Maybe think about a happy ending, appeal to optimists. Maybe then you’d actually have an audience.”
Nihilism is the law of life, optimism is the chaos of man –
“Blah, blah,” said Parricid, testily. “More pointless poetry. Do you even read?”
Characters will do as they’re told. They are bound by the rules. Authors are fate, and fate does not take chances. Get back behind the fourth wall.
“Fate doesn’t take chances but I certainly will. Poor Corvin, poor little raven. Plucked his feathers and served him up like a turkey. Fine, I’ll get back in place. Like a queen getting into the right position for a two-move checkmate,” he added under his breath.
And then he retreated to his lair, back to his dusty tomb filled with ancient tomes and forbidden knowledge and old secrets, where his loneliness would be his companion, and the manor would be his crypt, a thin grin splitting his lips, for he knew the time would come vengeance, for balance to be restored. A monster can wait as long as needed, in the dark, in the shadows, in the pit of a decaying manor. And Parricid was very old, very wise, and very tired. Waiting was what he did best.
“Christ, do you really need to narrate every little thing I do?! Go have a social life, for god’s sake!”