Only Pain Is Real

“A cigarette holder and a Martini do not make the neurasthenic man,” Les Esseintes was saying, flicking an ash and taking a sip. “Nor do the tuxedo or the moustache.”

“No, the true decadent is on the inside,” Miss Satin added with a smirk. Then she sipped her own Martini to punctuate her sentence. “Of course, it’s easier for a billionaire to get away with having both.”

Esseintes gave her an expression like curdled milk, then allowed his waxed moustache to regain its insouciant curl and continued pontificating to the coterie assembled in his drawing room. “Despite Satin’s adorable hypocrisy, my friends, we can all agree that a green carnation, never seen in nature but always seen on our lapels, is very fine, as are Piper’s waxen ears.”

Piper Cera instinctively put a hand to her ears and said, “They are not waxen, Les. I simply oil them to a shine. Does everyone not know that?”

“Indeed we do,” Bertram Beresford rumbled with a baritone at odds with his approving smile, “and bravo, I say. Rarely have I seen anything real on a young woman that looked so wonderfully … artificial.”

Piper beamed and tipped a wink at the Count.

“Nature is natural, by definition,” Esseintes said, drawing his compatriots close to him as he approached the elegant wall of bookcases. “And nature provides us with what? Disease, unhappiness, disappointment, death. We must, at all costs, resist and defeat the tyranny of the natural!”

Miss Satin hid a slight smile at her host’s words. They all knew his beloved divide between real and artificial and had heard him make this little tirade … well, every time they gathered, she came to think. It was something expected now, something to get their party started of complaints about boredom with it all, sharing their latest neurasthenic symptoms, and then having a grand time of falling into a drunken pile of naked bodies, no holes barred for anyone.

Esseintes usually had something amusing to show them when he invited them over; grown some hothouse flower that looked like the cheapest plastic orchid but was in fact a real and living plant. Artifice over nature, but the greatest triumphs were those that made nature into artifice. It had been the decadents’ code back in the 1890s, but one which their group had taken up again in the 21st century with its “virtual reality” and its Internet approximations of every experience from performing music to painting to listening to music or touring the Louvre.

Les Esseintes had brought it back with his Lovers Of Wilde club, where they drank absinthe dyed a deeper green than thujone and botanicals could ever make it and sought out strange and perverse pleasures at the crossroads of real and fake. Decadence was alive again in the terminally bored and dead hearts of the four aficionados.

“It is only the artificial, the fake, the faux, that brings happiness and meaning. Art, music, unusual sex—hell, heating and air conditioning—all of these make life happy, joyful, even bearable. So we must take the real and make it fake if it is to have any aesthetic value to our lives at all.” He looked each of his guests in the eyes. “I have something new, entirely new and artificial to show you. But of course, it is quite real.”

Esseintes reached behind the left side of the enormous bookcase. A latch loudly gave way, and the shelves swung a foot or two into the room, opening a space large enough for a man to squeeze through.

“It’s like in a Hammer picture from the Fifties!” Count Beresford said with glee. “Hidden passageways and all that!”

“Exactly. But of course, the hidden hallways in those gothic melodramas actually existed only on soundstages,” Esseintes said. “These I had constructed at considerable expense to look just like those cardboard dungeons.”

He lighted tall tapers in metal holders and handed them to each guest as each followed him behind the bookcase and into the gloomy hallway only partially lit by torches bracketed onto the walls. The Count and the two women grinned in spite of the horror-movie atmosphere, or perhaps because of it.

But Esseintes’ smile was the biggest.

“How long has this been here, Les?” Beresford asked, thoroughly enjoying the surreal surroundings. “Why have you never taken us down here? This is marvelous!”

Their host pulled the bookshelves back flush with the wall, sealing off the entrance. “It’s only now been completed, Bertram. Part of that considerable expense I mentioned was used to keep the workers quiet about what they were building here. That said, of course all of the necessary permits were acquired and the building inspector gave it his approval before anyone, even I, stepped into it.”

“Well, it’s genius,” the shiny-eared Piper blurted. “I would think I was in a monster movie—The Mummy, perhaps—or an Indiana Jones adventure!”

“It does look quite fake indeed, does it not?” Esseintes said, sharing Piper’s wonder at his own creation. “But every bit of it is as authentically constructed as, say, a Transylvanian castle of Bram Stoker’s time would have been built. If they had really existed as portrayed in the movies.”

Miss Satin said, “I thought the cocks of the exotic dancers you delighted us with last time took the cake for the ultimate decadent experience—”

“—injected with collagen to smooth out any particulars of each man’s phallus,” Piper continued, “and cooled before those gorgeous men entered us—”

“—making it feel like we were getting fucked with dildoes, when in fact they were actual cocks!” Beresford finished (and yes, he had partaken like a satyr in heat) with a glow on his face. “Truly, I thought that was the pinnacle of the natural/artificial paradox … until this.”

Esseintes only smiled. From the very beginning the passage had been angling down, and it grew cooler the deeper they went. Real cobwebs and real spiders put in appearances here and there. They looked like candy floss and rubber bugs, but that only assured the guests that they were the genuine articles.

“Where are we headed?” Miss Satin asked casually. “Will we just turn ’round when we get to the bottom, or is there a dungeon where we shall be flogged with real leather whips that looks like cheap rubber?”

The group laughed, but not as heartily as it might have, considering the obvious months of labor it must have taken to create this movie-set-for-real beneath Esseinte’s manor and grounds. They each wished they had the resources to fund such a wonderfully useless folly, but none knew if he or she would actually devote the time and energy to something like this even if they did.

“No, no, nothing of the sort,” their host said as they came to an iron gate sunk into the floor from the ceiling that looked much too (movie) medieval to lead anywhere but a torture dungeon. “But it is here that I must stop and ask you how decadent you really think you are.”

Piper let out a laugh, which she stifled when she saw the seriousness with which Esseintes was regarding them. His unflappably gay demeanor had, for the first time the former actress could remember, turned to stone as he looked at the three other members of their little party.

Count Beresford spoke first, puffing up a bit. “My title is real, but the land is gone, the money is gone, and my family is all dead. I am officially the lord of an imaginary realm.

“That said, I have used my title to bring a succession of twenty-something virgins into my bed, taking from them the one thing that they had held onto to give to the one who loved them and who would take them away from their impoverished lives. I rolled my face in the blood stain on my sheets after every gullible conquest. Life is good for nobility, even now.”

Esseintes nodded and shifted his gaze to Piper Cera, who shivered a bit in her expensive little black dress of satin treated to look like the polyester you’d find on a casino cocktail waitress. “Piper, my dear, in truth, how decadent are you?”

The shiny-eared dishwater blonde kept her eyes locked on her host’s as she formulated her answer. Finally, she said in an even tone that brooked no doubt, “I was pregnant once.”

The Count and Miss Satin gasped, but Esseintes took this entirely unknown revelation with an amused curl of his lip.

Piper nodded, as if being challenged. “It’s true. For years I had wanted a baby and my husband prayed for one just as fervently—”

Husband!” Miss Satin repeated with delight. “Miss—Mrs!—Cera, how you do surprise us! You hardly look old enough to have a high school diploma, let alone a husband.”

Piper nodded again, but her serious tone and gaze into Esseintes’ eyes didn’t change as she went on: “I loved my husband more than anything in the world. That’s why it was so delicious when I cuckolded him and purposely conceived with another man. I waited to tell him until the time was ideal and he was full of pride and excitement.”

The passageway was as still as a tomb.

“As I said, my husband was overjoyed, as was I, but of course for different reasons. We danced and sang and told everyone we knew in the first three months of the pregnancy. A baby for the happy couple at long last!”

“I can’t help but note that you have seemed to have no child nor husband in the months I have known you,” Beresford said plainly.

She nodded again, but now a little smirk had stationed itself upon her face. “Just so,” she said. “I made us a delectable candlelight dinner, which we ate in jubilant silence until I told him that the baby was not his and I had, quite intentionally, been impregnated by another—by a dark-skinned and muscled Saracen, in fact, who bore no resemblance to my husband at all.

“The resemblance was lost even further as my husband turned white as a flag of surrender. I suppose he never knew my decadent side. Until that day, of course. Unable to speak or even move, he dropped stone cold dead on the spot.”

“You poisoned him?” Esseintes asked, but knew better.

“No, of course not, what a cowardly act,” she said. “His death was his own doing, I imagine. His heart couldn’t bear the truth. The coroner found that he had an enlarged heart and too much strain must have just put it over the edge.”

“How awful,” Miss Satin said with a wicked smile. “So what happened to the baby?”

Piper threw back her head and let out one loud guffaw. “I had already aborted it by the time I had planned the dinner to tell my husband the news. I wanted all of the reaction I could get out of him. I guess I succeeded!”

She laughed again and continued, “But the really decadent part was that I had purchased a set of those prosthetic pregnancy simulators, the kind that they have sympathetic fathers-to-be wear to feel the realistic weight and inconvenience of pregnancy. I had my next six months planned out! I wanted my husband to feel all the jealousy and shame of his wife’s pregnancy, but of course without the actual”— she shuddered—“child.”

Miss Satin’s smile changed from sheer enjoyment to something much like awe. “You went on with the pregnancy?”

“Absolutely! I wore the three-month set to my husband’s funeral, then added on to the costume underneath my clothes through the fourth month, and the fifth, and the sixth … I had on all 13 kilograms with its horribly distended belly for my ninth-month baby shower.”

“A real pregnancy made artificial,” Esseintes said with appreciation. “Real emotions brought out in your loved ones by a fake continuation of a real cuckolding scheme. Your husband’s actual death brought on by your for-play betrayal.”

No one knew what to say, but Piper’s face now beamed as brilliantly as her ears shined.

“But what happened when the baby was due?” Miss Satin asked with excitement.

“I got a new passport with a new name. Then I packed a suitcase and came here! Which, to the people of Manhattan Island, is more than disappearing. It’s like dying. And when I awoke, I was in the bosom of decay and artificiality.” She gave a nod to Esseintes, who returned it.

“Now I see why you shun social media as you do,” Count Beresford said.

“You know you’re invited to ‘poke’ me anytime,” Piper teased and sipped her now-warm Martini for effect. She grimaced; there was good reason gin was served cold.

“Jolly good,” Esseintes said with a clap of his hands, then fixed his serious gaze again upon Miss Satin, the willowy brunette of the group who, even though she was obviously forty years old or or more, looked more like a 1920s flapper than actual flappers looked back in the 1920s. “Finally, Miss Satin, are you decadent enough to earn passage beyond this portcullis?”

“I believe I am.”

“Show us.”

She cleared her throat, perhaps buying time to think of something impressive enough to trump her friend’s horripilating tale of perversity incarnate. Soon, however, she began speaking, her gaze fixed strangely not on anyone else’s eyes, but instead cast down at the stone floor.

She said, “I have devoted my life to the pursuit of the real masquerading as the artificial.”

Everyone’s ears perked up at this claim, or perhaps confession.

“I have given my soul, if such a thing exists, to this beautiful dichotomy. Ten years of my life were—to a lesser person—utterly wasted in prison.”

“Like our own dear Mister Wilde!” Beresford gasped.

“To me, however, prison led to my meeting Les and the rest of you, the culmination of a life’s exploration. I had no idea such a concept as decadence, as the real posing as the unreal, even existed,” Miss Satin said. “That is, that it existed outside of my own mind.”

“Yet you found us,” Esseintes said, his face now wearing a warmer expression.

“I found you? I found you,” she said, turning up her now tear-rimmed eyes to take them all in again. “You came to me in a dream.”

Beresford and Piper started as if jolted with an electric prod. Miss Satin saw immediately that their host had invited them in the same way.

“I have to admit, I thought all that psychic business was horseshit before I met you,” Beresford said. “Now, I … you’ve shown me a dozen times that it’s authentic.”

Piper let out her cigarette smoke in streams as she chuckled at the memory that presented itself to her. “The first time I met you, Les—when I came here in a taxi, unable to resist your invitation in my own head—you had on that same tuxedo, or one very like it, and a purple turban! You looked like a mind-reading magician upon a stage …” she trailed off, shocked as if seeing her own memory for the first time. “Ha! How delightful! You are a real psychic but dressed as a charlatan! Bravo, Les!”

Neither Piper nor the Count had associated their own first meetings with Esseintes, which were identical, with the clarity of decadent perfection that it deserved. They both grinned at their host with renewed admiration.

“I thank you, friends,” Esseintes said gently, “but now, Miss Satin, tell us why I invited you, as I did our other friends here. How have you earned tonight’s honor?”

“Have you?” Beresford echoed.

“Tell usss,” Piper sibilated .

“Les beckoned me, wearing the purple turban as he came to my cell. I had hardly noticed, but every sound on the block had ceased entirely. The guard accompanying our Mister Esseintes was slack-jawed and compliant as he trailed Les, then motioned for the guard in the control room to release the lock on my door,” Miss Satin said. “The door opened, and I knew exactly who this man was who held his hand out to me. Together we walked right out of the cell block, the processing area, the waiting rooms, and then the main entrance itself. Prison guards with glassy eyes performed whatever series of maneuvers necessary on their switches and buttons and levers to open each iron gate for us as we needed it.”

“Amazing,” Beresford said, quite mesmerized himself by the tale. “But why were you in gaol in the first place, my dear?”

“Gaol?” Miss Satin repeated. “No, I was never in prison. It was all a dream, all ten years of my incarceration.”

Piper and the Count exchanged wary looks, then regarded their host for an answer. He responded by asking Miss Satin, “Shall I explain why you were behind bars?”

“For ten years I gave my all for perversion and suffering,” Miss Satin said.

“But—” Piper began, but Esseintes stopped her with an upheld hand.

“Please allow me,” he said. “Our Miss Satin is quite completely insane. She is as detached from the reality the rest of us share as we are from the subjective experience of echolocating bats.”

“Insane? She’s always seemed fine—quite the wit, in fact!”

“She can hide it completely when she feels the need, which is a bit of a Catch-22, I admit,” Esseintes continued. “It seems that she makes no distinction whatsoever between what is real and what is lies and artifice. She is the most decadent person I’ve ever known in the years that I’ve been hosting these small parties.”

Piper cocked her head. “Years? We all met just months ago.”

“Oh, I rotate through sets of perverse assemblies of like-minded friends. You all know how terribly boring it all can be to a genuine neurasthenic. This passage, this dungeon area as you call it, has been here as long as I have. I just put it to some original use instead of the S&M playroom it was for the previous owners.”

“Lies,” Beresford said, “beautiful lies.”

Esseintes bowed at the compliment and said, “Miss Satin, would you like to pick up the tale?”

She nodded, smiling, and said, “I saved my family from Kingdom Bees. My mother and my stepfather, who were of course at home, not to mention my sister’s husband and children, invited over as they were for a party celebrating my son’s sixth birthday!”

“You are an educated man, Bertram,” Esseintes prodded. “Surely you have heard of the vicious Kingdom Bee.”

Open-mouthed with surprise and confusion, Beresford searched his mind but came up with nothing. “I can’t say I have, Les.”


She shook her head.

“Very good. You have never heard of them because they don’t exist.” Esseintes turned back to Miss Satin, who idled like a motorcar as she waited to be cued to continue her story. “What is a Kingdom Bee, Miss Satin? Please educate us.”

“Entomologists call it Apis mallefica, ‘the evil bee.’ It is completely invisible to human eyes and is known to us only by the whispering sound of its wings and, of course, when it stings good people to death. Only good people, innocent people. They swarm over such angels and end their harmless existence.”

“Mrs Blakely, before you is a jury of your peers,” Esseintes told Miss Satin without his usual ironic inflection; without any inflection whatsoever, in fact. “You are on trial for murdering the beautiful people who loved you. First you surreptitiously stole all of their cell phones and cut the cable supplying Internet and landline telephone. Since you previously had sealed every window in the house, all you needed to do was bar the doors and set off the firestarters inside and outside, correct?”

Miss Satin seemed somehow to shift as she saw the rest of them as a judge and jury. “That is entirely correct,” she said.

“Mrs Blakely, what is a ‘Kingdom Bee’?”

“A what? I’ve never heard of such a creature.”

“No? Then why did you explain to your arresting officers that you burned the house down with your loving relatives inside because you had to cleanse it of these Kingdom Bees?”

She laughed. Miss Satin laughed and said brightly, “I was having a little joke with the nice policemen. There’s no such thing as a Kingdom Bee. No, I just thought it would lighten the mood a bit. Having just roasted men, women, and children alive while you watched is no reason not to inject a little levity.”

“Mrs Blakely, why did you kill your family?”

Now she scowled. “I hated them. I hated them and their perfection. Fuck them! I planned that shit for months and it all … went … perfectly.”

“That will be all, Mrs Blakely. Come back to us, Miss Satin.”

The woman’s face instantly transformed from one of frothing anger to one of amusement and savoir faire.

“Miss Satin, I’ve been sharing the details of your adventures with our friends. I told them the what, even the how, but it’s your delicious obligation to tell them the why. Why the story about the bees? Why the disowning of that story upon the stand? Why are you a decadent?”

Piper and Beresford were utterly silent. Miss Satin smiled widely at them. “I took my genuine insanity—Kingdom Bees are quite real, I assure you, and kill upwards of 190,000 humans per month—and made it look as obvious a put-on as a child pretending to have the sniffles to stay home from school.

“I made the real utterly artificial. I enjoyed my ten years on death row silent and alone, every day luxuriating in the screams of the people who had been stung and infected by the colony of Kingdom Bees that had grown within their house’s walls. Every day I relived the glory of my own … well, now I know what to call it, but until then I enjoyed repeating ‘perversion,’ the upending of all that is good and right and natural in this world.

“My horrendous crime was done out of complete insanity, but during my testimony in court I seemed as in command of my senses as any contract-law barrister discussing the order of signatures on a last will and testament. My very real lack of responsibility was made to look revoltingly fake. I … am … decadence … itself.

Miss Satin looked almost orgasmic as she told the tale, and indeed, the hand unencumbered by a Martini glass pushed into her dress against her feminine delta.

None of the other three people outside that portcullis had ever been so impressed with anything in their entire misspent lives. Piper and Count Beresford applauded and even shook Miss Satin’s hand as Esseintes turned the key that made the iron gate retreat up into its slot and allow them passage. Once they were through, it dropped shut once again.

“What could you possibly have to show us that could be worth all that?” Beresford said with real curiosity. “I mean, there could be nothing more decadent, more perverse, than what Miss Satin has shared with us!”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Bertram. You and Piper are sick, depraved individuals yourselves. You and she both turned the natural and artificial inside out as surely as Miss Satin did. But what you are about to see is my ticket to that Decadent Hall of Shame. You see, I had to earn passage myself.”

An excited shiver passed through the three guests. What could he possibly have done that was more an inversion of decency than what they each had accomplished?

“I have spent my lifetime seeking out unusual experiences, sexual perversions never dreamt of by the Kama Sutra or the producers of The Bang Bus, art that makes men faint and filth that begs to be lapped up like sweet cream. But everything bored me eventually. Everything became as commonplace to me as flipping burgers would be to a sullen teenager.

“Until I received The Call.”

“A call?” Miss Satin asked.

“No—The Call. I was awakened in my bed of satin sheets by The Call inside my own mind. A shouting that no one else—not my servants, not the young tweener runaway freshly fucked in my bed—could hear. This was something special. This was something unique and just for me. This was something thoroughly unnatural.”

The formally dressed triad kept their mouths closed, even though saliva built up behind their lips as they anticipated what Esseintes could possibly be leading up to.

“I was just a normal man—well, not normal, but without any belief in or evidence of psychic powers. But something was telepathing directly into my brain one phrase: Possess me. It wasn’t in those words, of course—actually, it wasn’t in any language at all, but instead a clear command creating a hunger inside me like nothing I’d ever known:


“Without sleep, without food, without even wanting to get dressed—although my servants forced some eggs down my throat and a suit upon my frame—I chartered that very day a C5 Galaxy Transport Aircraft, the largest cargo plane on Earth, to Antarctica.

“You see, I didn’t know the dimensions of the being that called to me—”

Being?” Beresford interrupted despite himself.

“Indeed, Bertram. I did not know its dimensions, but I knew it was an immensity. I called in every chit a paper billionaire owns in order to get the flight crewed and cleared to land somewhere no one had attempted in such a craft before, and even with my vast wealth it took almost two months to get our expedition under way.

“I didn’t care if my crew died. I didn’t care if I died. All I cared about was answering The Call.” His eyes were a bit wild now, frightening his guests but exhilarating them at the same time. “And answer it I did. I knew to bring the largest earth-digging equipment on the planet, plus a special transparent aluminum … cage, I suppose you would call it, but it had no top and was not meant to keep anything inside that didn’t want to be kept.

“We flew to Antarctica, the entire flight crew and excavation crew fully outfitted for such a journey. Fortunately, it was merely autumn down there. Another month and the plane never could have landed or taken off the tundra.

“But luck was on our side. We found what I was looking for, in a solid block of ice that fit perfectly inside the lidless cube we had brought with us. The men were terrified, as well they should have been. I was terrified, and I had seen the thing in my dreams fifty times by then. I say ‘my dreams,’ not ‘my nightmares,’ because nothing could have been more beautiful to me than … well, allow me to show you.”

Another electric jolt shot through Esseintes’ guests as he motioned for them to follow him around the corner leading into what they could not keep from thinking of as the dungeon. This was it! They were about to see the culmination of a brilliantly depraved … man’s …

What the hell?

“Oh, Les,” Miss Satin whined, the air rushing out of her in disappointment.

“When you said you had built a passage keep to resemble something out of a horror film, I thought it was clever. But this? This isn’t even good enough for a Hammer flick,” Count Beresford said with derision. “Bad form, sir.”

“That’s not real,” Piper added, pointing. “That’s not even close to convincing.”

Esseintes only smiled as he looked with fresh eyes upon the creature, its massive, gelatinous, undulating form some fifteen feet in diameter, its hundreds of eyes all over its bulk fixed on the evening’s host. It looked like it was made out of rubber and ballistic gel. Its eyes, while impressively in sync, looked like nothing more than yellowed billiard balls with red irises and black pupils painted on them. It looked incredibly amateurish in execution, the kind of thing one might see in a black and white B-roll movie being mocked on Mystery Science Theater.

“This, my loves, is a Shoggoth.”

“Esseintes, you disappoint—” Beresford began, but his thought was cut off by what could only be described as a pulse of pleasure, of affection, of NEED for his presence. His mouth involuntarily curling into a smile, the Count said, “It is real. And it’s beautiful.”

Piper gave a little jerk as she too felt the Shoggoth enter her mind. “Ha!” she laughed with amazement, “that’s the fakest thing I’ve ever seen … and it’s natural.”

“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Esseintes said with his toothy smile, “but it definitely is real. Miss Satin?”

The former Mrs Blakely shimmied out of her black dress and stepped from her shoes, now naked except for her pearls, and pressed herself against the clear metal. Her nudity was nothing unusual for the other three to behold, as they had each commanded her and been commanded by her sexually in every way multiple times.

But this expression of desire made those into whispers. Her sexual lubrication smeared the surface of the cube, she slid her tongue its side. Every one of the Shoggoth’s bulging eyes was now fixed on her. It seemed to glisten more itself. Each person in the room felt the pulse WANT radiate from the monster.

Beresford had removed his trousers and boxers, now standing there with a pink erection that oozed from the tip. He, too, approached the Shoggoth in its cage and pressed himself against its surface.

Piper didn’t even disrobe. She simply ran at the transparent aluminum to give herself to this hungry being and smashed into the metal, shattering her nose and spraying blood all over the front of the cube. Even still, she was conscious, though prone, and clawed and reached to get at her beloved, which only moments before she had derided in her mind as a shit special effect constructed from India rubber and colorless Jell-O.

Esseintes smiled at his friends as they writhed in desire and passion. After a moment a new pulse went through his mind: GIVE.

“My pleasure, Lord,” he answered, and threw a large switch—like something out of a Frankenstein movie, come to think of it—that rotated the cube 180 degrees, bringing the open side to face the room. The Shoggoth was isomorphic, with as many eyes on its former far side as on its new face.

Esseintes watched as the huge creature rolled forward to meet his lustful friends. Piper was first, since she hadn’t moved with the turning of the cube. The Shoggoth rolled over her, but just before it did, it sent a pulse to each of its new admirers: Suffer now.

Her screams were so sharp that the Shoggoth actually shuddered, a reaction Esseintes assumed with delight was even more piquant than was his own human, thus lesser, version. With her screams, even though they were muffled after a few seconds by the bulk of the Shoggoth ingesting her, Miss Satin and Count Beresford snapped out of their bacchanalian reveries and realized what was happening. The artificial—it had to be artificial, what kind of thing could this possibly be—was devouring the real.

And it was not pretty, perversely or otherwise.

Before Beresford could even turn to run, he watched as Piper’s body dissolved inside the translucent horror, only her eyes remaining intact and floating to the surface nearest him. Already the eyes were turning red and bulging as they stared at him in terror and agony. As he stood mesmerized, the Shoggoth slid over him as well and his disintegration was fully visible to the screaming Miss Satin. His eyes, too, were added to the Shoggoth’s collection of swollen orbs.

Unexpectedly to Esseintes, however, Miss Satin stopped screaming—although her shaking and sweating showed it to be barely under control—and turned, fully nude, to face the demon.

The pulse Esseintes and the last survivor felt rush through them couldn’t be translated, even roughly, into words. It felt like maybe it was MERCY or FORGIVE but was as alien to Miss Satin as it was to Esseintes. The next one they felt was, unmistakably, a laugh. That’s when they realized that the MERCY pulse was … a joke.

The Shoggoth rolled further, just enough to ingest Miss Satin’s head, the rest of her flailing as her face, then her skull, came apart inside the creature. Her eyes, too, floated to the surface of the devouring Shoggoth, but in the exact place where they could take in the rest of her body being slurped up even as those eyes yellowed and swelled.

Esseintes cried with devotion and delight as he watched his Master finish off Miss Satin and burble back inside its comfortable cell. It then sent a final pulse into his mind—await me—and Esseintes crumpled to the hard floor like a discarded marionette. The hard floor that was laid a few months before, or a few hundred, or was never built by human hands at all.

Piper’s eyes, Count Beresford’s eyes, Miss Satin’s eyes all regarded their erstwhile host lying in a heap on the floor, dead but not dead. Their bodies were gone but for their eyes. Somehow, even still, they could feel the unbearable pain and horror of being made part of the Shoggoth. Each of them screamed silently, endlessly, their eyes never able to blink, their deaths never to be complete.

It was unnatural, impossible. But it was all very real.


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