Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Bones

There is nothing more absurdly incongruous—ironic perhaps—than the burning fear found in the hearts of all men: the fear of death. Ironic, I say, for it is only those who have known death’s euphoric touch who find their eyes opened to the truer horror of waking life. And woe betide those who would cling to life by arcane and unnatural means, for they may find themselves by choice in the place where I am now forced to dwell—an existence betwixt and between, neither dead nor living, tantalisingly close to the former yet privy to the singular repugnance of the latter.

For untold aeons, my world was an exquisite void, surrounded by the dark, limestone grottoes beneath those English hills known as the Mendips. Only vague recollections of my life before the void had intruded upon my bliss—fragments of a naïvely halcyon time when I served a Phrygian priest who shepherded his flock in the worship of Cybele. Long after my death, the spot underwent many changes, first under the Romans, then with the coming of the Saxons and the Christian missionaries. In time, the black-robed Benedictines founded Exham Priory on the cliffs above my resting place, only to see it fall into disrepair and eventual ignominy under the wardship of the infamous Delapore family.

Throughout all these changes, I slumbered in peace, my only companions the gentle rats whose lean, furry bodies and sharp claws and teeth kept my sockets and hollows clean with their constant motion—their crawling in and out, over and through me, a caress more tender than a mother’s own.

Other souls slept beside me, thousands of men and women, those who had been sacrificed over the ages. There were even some score or more of those heavy-browed, subterranean folk men in their ignorance later named Piltdown. They were ever there, I suppose, though I never knew it until life once again intruded upon my insensate structure . . .

I stirred fitfully for the first time in my long sleep during the summer of 1923, when that hapless descendant of the Delapores thought to restore the ruined abbey to a place of habitation but delved too deep into the foetid grottoes. I have since learned he was taken away to an asylum, after which the abbey was razed by the Crown, blown up in such a way that it collapsed into the deep caverns.

Better I had been buried deep in that shifting of earth, lost and forgotten like Piltdown Man, resigned once again to such deep abeyance that living men thought me only a hoax, something not only gone but that had never been. Instead, cruel fate exposed my remains through a crack opened up by the explosions, laying my bones bare to the sun’s harsh, unforgiving glare. I lay thus for decades.

And then? Then He came, and that was my undoing.

I was captured, decanted into some hellish device, my essence transmitted via billions of screaming points of light and energy across an ocean and into a machine that was to be my new home. The necromancer responsible for my trans-dimensional capture was a being whose magic drew upon non-Euclidean geometry so as to integrate itself in unholy union with the technologies of the modern world. I found myself imprisoned in a box of circuits and wires, made a thrall like unto the zombies of darkest Haiti, of whose existence I have now learned in the constant information stream invading my thoughts. I am become nothing so much as a macabre marionette forced to dance whenever my master’s whim tickles my strings.

And like some inverse Messiah who comes to the Temple not to cast out the money changers, but to goad them to even greater heights of debauched commerce, my master’s whims are ever onefold: sell, sell, more, more . . . Whereas once I knew the boundless infinity of oblivion, now my whole world is but the square window through which I view my captor’s frigid lair—the sagging shelves heavy with eldritch tomes; the cold, antiseptic light of incandescent bulbs sprouting like bioluminescent fungus from twisted stands and dripping from holes in the ceiling. It is an effulgence made all the more daemoniac when it shines off the pale and glistening pate of my sadistic warden, my tormentor, my hideous new god.

What do I call you? I dared to wonder once, as I felt myself slipping into madness.

You? His answer echoed in my skull. You do not call me anything, for you have no tongue. But to those who speak with the warm breath of life, my name is as widely known as it is anathema. It is power all-consuming. I am he that was once apprenticed to the great thaumaturge Gor d’Unvangel Durh, whom I have since slain and consumed, merging his essence with my own unstoppable might. I thrive upon the words of a thousand frenzied scribes, anthologising their belles-lettres, metamorphosing paper and ink alchemically into gold and diamond, jade and corundum, but also into fear. For base fear is the lucre with which I feed the squamous minions of the Great Old Ones, those loyal gardeners who tend the cyclopean heights and impossible angles of sunken R’lyeh wherein the Dread Lord lies dreaming.

Have you guessed my name yet? came His mocking thought.

And I had. It was a name not uttered in this world for untold ages, but one which a glimmer of memory from my earliest days brought to me. For in those days of my all-but-forgotten life, who had not heard, whispered on the wind, the name of that being who published the very nightmares that plagued us all when in sleep we entered the realms of Morpheus? It was against those nightmares the Phrygian priest I once served had railed when he prayed, warding us from their sway. Warding us from that antediluvian entity who crept into our moments of slumber and would have harried us all the more had the mother Cybele and great Atys not kept him in check.

J’ai J’ai A’ee. That is what He was called.

Back now, unfettered from whatever black and pestilential prison had held Him all these long years. Once again He brings terror to the gibbering masses. No longer do the forgotten gods of Phrygia ward mankind. No more are those hideous dreams relegated only to the fragile minds of dreamers and to the arcane books in which mad fools betimes recorded them. Now they are released regularly, week by week, month by month, in the form of Nightmare, a virtual tome of blasphemous horrors transmitted via light and electric charge and silicon juju, through the aether and into every human dwelling. It is a publication so unspeakably loathsome that Unaussprechlichen Kulten, De Vermis Mysteriis, and even the dreaded Necronomicon become lighthearted collections of children’s nursery rhymes by comparison.

And I am to be its champion, its huckster, its shill . . . crawling into unsuspecting homes like some cosmic spider whose world-wide web stretches everywhere . . . dancing whenever my master bids me awaken again from those much beloved slices of death that fall between the brightenings of the screen through which we interface.

Time to dance, Bones! is how He bids me rise, and that, now, is the only name I have: Bones. I am reduced to nothing more than a word for the brittle amalgam of osseous artefacts that once gave structure to my clinging flesh. Femurs with which to dance. Metacarpals and phalanges with which to beckon. Toothy jaws to spew the rhetoric of snake-oil salesmen and carnival barkers. I had another name once, forgotten even to me, lost in the tenebrous mists of time. Now I am only Bones. I have no voice, no thought, no desires but those of my master.

And here He comes now!

Ah, help me! I don’t want to live! Leave me in the Stygian blackness! I cry.

But He is insistent, unmoved by my pleas. His head appears, rising in the screen’s square like some waxing gibbous moon.

Magna Mater!

Please kill me!

Atys!

The master’s commands scrawl themselves across my sky, my world, my essence.

Sell. Sell. Sell . . .

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Bones

BonesBones had another name once, lost to the ages. In that tenebrous stretch between the building of Stonehenge and the ascendance of the Romans, he served a Phrygian priest, a worshipper of Cybele, in the hills near modern-day Cheddar, England. Buried for aeons in the limestone grottoes beneath Exham Priory, his skeleton was exhumed via some unspeakable form of computerized necromancy, and he currently works as the marketing shill for Nightmare Magazine. He misses the rats that were once his sepulchral bedfellows and longs for a return to oblivion. Every Nightmare sale equates roughly to eighteen seconds of sleep mode for the device in which Bones is imprisoned; although this holds true only for non-Euclidean spacetime, whenever you buy an issue of Nightmare, Bones experiences a much-beloved approximation of death.

Translator Christopher M. Cevasco

Christopher M. CevascoChristopher M. Cevasco writes fiction inspired by history. His short stories have appeared in Black StaticA Field Guide to Surreal Botany, and the Prime Books anthologies Shades of Blue and Gray: Ghosts of the Civil War and Zombies: Shambling through the Ages, among numerous other magazines and anthologies. From 2003 to 2009, Chris was also the editor/publisher of the award-winning Paradox: the Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction.  He is seeking representation for a recently completed historical thriller about Lady Godiva and is currently working on a novel of English resistance and rebellion in the years immediately following the Norman Conquest. Learn more at www.christophermcevasco.com.