From outside I can see fires burning in the house. The windows are lit up with thrashing flames, and plumes of smoke billow forth from holes in the dilapidated roof.
I rinse my hands in a muddy puddle in the yard, there where the others are gathering. They are strangers to me, as I am to them, for our faces are hidden away beneath the mask of the stillborn: pale, mouthless and glassy eyed.
We finish washing ourselves, and then we enter single file into the house.
Soft rain gently falls in through the porous ceiling; sliding across the exposed and bloated wood and seeping down the walls. Tiny fires have been placed anywhere the floor isn’t too damp, and we hover over these, breathing in the smoke until it makes us nauseous and dizzy. The faces of those gathered around me are blurred in the heat. Beads of sweat fall away and sizzle on the flames.
The Queen looms in the next room, thrashing in her shackles, visible only between flashes of lightning. She is restrained not to prevent her from devouring us, but so that she won’t consume her young.
The storm reveals only hints of her massive bulk, and just the briefest of glimpses into her cavernous mouth filled with row upon row of serrated teeth. Her hair is matted to her grey scalp and her arms bear the scars of her captivity, the bruises and cuts where chains have bitten into the flesh. The Queen’s attendant, masked like the rest of us and clad in ceremonial red, steps into the room and shuts the door behind her. The milking is now done, and in her hand she holds but a single wooden cup.
Only one cup, and so many of us have come.
But of all of us, the attendant approaches me, and places the cup in my hand. The others remove their masks, and, no doubt jealous, leave the house.
Inside the cup, milked from the Queen’s flaccid breasts and caught dripping from the corners of her mouth, is a clear liquid. But as I look closely I can see the small ones floating inside the cup, their centipede legs twitching and their mandibles flexing as they devour each other. I ingest the contents of the cup quickly. It’s worse than sea water. Almost as though I’ve ingested a mouthful of raw table salt.
The attendant leads me deeper into the house, down into a cellar, and through another door into a staircase which spirals down deep into the earth. Sparks from her torch crackle as they strike the bricks at our feet. The walls here are covered in the scratches and scrawls of madmen who died in these chambers, all of them trying to make sense of the horrors they witnessed within. Trying to imbue it with some sense of purpose.
As we descend the steps I can feel the small ones roiling in my stomach, still consuming each other, along with whatever life and tissue that might reside within my own gut. I feel something forcing its way up my esophagus, and I lift my mask just as a thick stream of blood erupts from my mouth.
The attendant, recognizing my weakness, takes me by the arm to lead me the rest of the way. I can’t see anything of her face through her mask except for her eyes, but I can see the disappointment registered there. She’s wondering if she’s chosen correctly.
I walk on, half delirious from the pain in my stomach. I can feel the small ones growing larger, like writhing snakes constricting around my innards.
Ahead there’s a torch, ensconced over a table. The torch’s light is meager, insufficient to light the bounds of the expansive chamber we now find ourselves in. But I can hear the rush of water echoing off of the stones, and leathery wings stretching to take flight.
The attendant straps me down to the table. She removes her mask, but the face beneath isn’t much different from the mask that covered it. Her eyes are dark like rain slick stone, and her skin is pink and raw like a worm. She retrieves a knife and begins cutting through my robes.
She stops once my clothing is removed, and I see her slender fingers trace the alien symbols carved upon the table. She speaks, then, trying to form human words with a mouth designed to burrow through the dirt. The sound of her voice is like someone forcing air through a wet towel. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” she asks, “if all of those stories and rituals and ancient texts were true? If there really were some violent, malignant intelligence behind all of this?”
Her blade splits the skin of my abdomen. “If it wasn’t just us, all alone, doing these horrible things to each other?”
The small ones are already eating through my muscle tissue. The attendant pulls several handfuls of bloody gristle out of my abdomen and dangles the mess in the air in front of me. It looks almost like the discarded seeds from the inside of a pumpkin. Hanging from my innards are dozens of the small ones, waving their unformed limbs in the air.
She casts them into the water, and they take off as though they instinctively know where to go, and how best to get there.
Oddly, I feel no pain as she cuts me open. I say as much to the attendant. “A numbing effect from the Queen’s milk.” She explains. “It takes awhile to kick in, but once it does…”
I am unstrapped from the table and dragged down to the water where even now the small ones are growing larger. The attendant spits into my wounds, and her saliva stops the bleeding. “Try to stay alive as long as you can.” She says. “The young will return to feed on your corpse, and the fresher the meat the better it is for them.”
She turns to leave, but pauses, and casts a final look back at the small ones as they splash about in the water. “Oh,” she says wistfully, “the things we do to mindlessly perpetuate the existence of our own species.”
I can’t move. Another side effect of the Queen’s milk, I suppose. But my eyes adjust to the dark, after a time. And I can see the small ones, out in the black of the cave. Shedding their skin, molting, becoming massive in size. Their hands become twisted obelisks, and great wings sprout from their misshapen spines. Malformed and hulking, feeding off of each other for no reason other than instinctual compulsion.
Their awareness grows. I hear them howling curses at the gods for being birthed onto the blasted shores of existence in such hideous forms.
Perhaps, just perhaps, they will ask me “why?” before they begin to feed.
Perhaps I’ll think of a compelling answer before they get hungry.