Before the Tattered King
It's dark here.
That's your initial thought as your eyes first open, seeing nothing. Nothing but inky blackness greets them, an oppressive darkness.
It's really dark here. Dark, and moist…
The feeling of that wet warmth makes you squirm. A humid, fetid, and musty breeze ruffles stickily through your hair, caressing your skin slimily. You shudder under it, and wish like hell for a shower to remove its filth as another thought crosses your confused mind.
Where… where am I?
You peer blindly around the endless black, which extends in all directions for what seems like miles. Every so often, a scrappy shadow of a ruined building or object jumps out at you – a tatter of cloth fluttering nervously in the wind, or a pile of rocky rubble – but just as quickly, it vanishes back into the blackness, never to be seen again twice. You strain you ears for a sound, but the only noise that greets them is the soft sound of water lapping on hidden shores, undercut only by the vague buffet of the noisome breeze blowing.
You don't even remember how you got here, let alone why or how you came. The last thing you recall is going on a walk on a foggy afternoon… and then nothing. Were you attacked? Are you lost? You must be, because you've never seen this location before in your life.
You feel your gut twist in unexplained illness, as if anticipating some doom, and glance nervously at the dark in case something awful lurks, just out of sight. Just how damn far did you walk?
Where in the hell is this place?
As if in response, a flame suddenly bursts to life on either side of you, providing a pitiful amount of light to the gloom. You jump as you're startled by their arrival, then look up to see two more flames illuminate before your eyes, roughly equidistant from each other. Another two flames spark beyond those, then two more as you realize the flames are forming a path into the dark distance. To what, you are not sure, but each set that lights both grows your curiosity and your tension, as if afraid of what they will unveil. Something is wrong, incredibly wrong – and whatever is causing that wrongness, you know, lies waiting at the path's end.
Even so, your curiosity begins to outweigh your nervousness, and you step forward as the flames continue lighting. You take another step, then another, a sick sense of morbid wonder tugging at the fringes of your confused and nervous mind as you walk. The walk seems to take hours, perhaps even ages, and with each flame that lights the way further, your gut begins to sink more and more, as if internally squirming in a need to turn back.
You ignore it, and keep walking.
The final flames light themselves falteringly, shuddering as they struggle to light before finally sparking, and that's when you see it. Him, that is – the figure in tattered yellow robes, settled in a throne of crumbling stone and rusting iron, hooded head down in silent, brooding thought. He is immensely tall, taller by far than anyone you have ever met, and that height alone is imposing, as if the gothic shadows cast upon him weren't enough already. The figure does not stir, but the flames do, shivering and flickering nervously at his dark presence, as if they were afraid to disturb him…
Your footsteps cease as the sinking feeling in your stomach becomes a full nervous fluttering. Your palms sweat and your heartrate picks up with your breathing, but you know not why. All you do know is that something about the seated figure frightens you so, so very much, so much so you don't dare say a word… If only you could comprehend why.
As the last echo of your previous footsteps dies, the mighty figure stirs, his ruined robes rustling in a way that sets your teeth on edge. His robed head lifts up, and you feel his eyes upon you, critical and commanding behind the cracked and peeling mask you now see that he is also wearing. Your breathing grows shallow as you watch several small tendrils, writhing little cephalopodic limbs, unfurl beardlike from beneath the mask's blank off-whiteness. You feel the need to backpedal and run, but something – perhaps the shock? – roots you to the spot. Something in his dark stare, or perhaps the realization you have just had.
That thing is not a human being…
A voice, commanding and disturbingly calm, cuts the silence and lapping waves with the buffets of foul wind over them. It echoes from seemingly everywhere, as powerful as it is dark. It makes you tremble, that voice… His voice…
"And who be this that has come forth before me? Speak, traveler, lest ye be cast to the winds and forgotten!"
Your mouth is dry as you swallow hard, struggling to get the words out before you choke to death on them.
"I-I'm… sorry," you murmur shakily. "I-I… I woke up here, I d-don't know where I am, I…"
"Ye be alone?" His shrouded head inclines, the tentacles moving wetly over each other as he does so. "Allow me welcome ye, then, to my kingdom… What brings ye to the lost remnants of Carcosa, traveler? Have ye perhaps traveled too far?"
There is a vague amusement in his voice, a strange tone of mockery towards your plight – and you don't like one bit of it. And furthermore… why are you here, anyway? You wrack your mind, trying to recall the details of what happened – you were on a walk, that much you know, but after that… after that, nothing… it's all a blur, lost in a mental fog from which you can't extract it again.
"I-I… don't know," you admit, as much in horror as sheepishness as you stare at the ground – anything to escape his gaze! "I… I really don't know…"
"Ye waste my hours, then, traveler?" There is a grim tone of forewarning in the King's voice, his tentacles squirming in what seems like distaste or annoyance…
"N-no, sir!" You stammer, afraid – the last thing you want is this… creature, this ruler, upset with you… "I-I didn't mean to waste your time… I just want to go home, it's… it's all I want…"
"Lost then, are ye? Very good. Yes, most grand indeed…"
He chuckles, and the sound throws chills down your spine, electrifying every nerve ending in your body and setting all the hairs on your arms on end. It just hit you exactly what else is wrong with this bizarre ruler, what else is making your heart race with dread aside from the obvious…
Mad… He… this thing is utterly, completely, inhumanly insane…
"By a mortal's standards, perhaps," he responds, amused, and your mind recoils in shock at the realization that he can hear your thoughts. You almost whisper the words you speak next, afraid of the truth in them…
"You're… this… this isn't a…"
"A dream?" the King asks, his amusement mounting. "Nay, traveler, by no means… as ye may have noticed I am quite extant, and quite… beyond ye. I am something more powerful than ye could ever hope to become... I, traveler, am a god."
He allows you just a few seconds' time to process this, basking merrily in the glow of your disbelieving dread, before speaking once more.
"Tell me, mortal traveler…" he leans in conspiratorially, as if whispering a private joke to you. "Have ye yet been down to the lake, and seen the rising of the twin suns?"
"N-no," you squeak, squirming. What lake? What twin suns? You haven't seen a speck of light in this place except the flames around both him and you, and the only thing resembling a lake that you've seen or heard lately is the constant sound of lapping water, seemingly echoing from all sides and drowned out by your rapid heartbeat…
"No?" the King echoes, still with that vague tone of amusement. You feel he speaks to you as if to a child – no, less than a child…
"I-I told you… I told you already, I just woke up here…"
"Insolence!" he thunders, and his massive palm slams onto the armrest of the throne, the fingers writhing like so many dying worms as a shaking of dust tumbles from the crumbling stone. You jump with the percussive echo, trembling in fear of the King's wrath. "How darest thou speak out of turn?! Do ye mock my authority, traveler?"
"I-I'm sorry, oh God I'm sorry!" you beg, curling into yourself as if it might save you from what he might do next. "I swear! I-I won't do it again, I promise, just please, please don't hurt me…"
His hidden gaze looks you over dispassionately as though you were an irritating insect, even as the anger begins to drain from it. In its place wells more amusement, as if pleased with your cowering. What seems like hours pass before the King speaks once again, his tone cool and calm once more.
"Very well, then," he responds darkly, his vision never once leaving your shaking frame. "Yours is an acceptable apology. But if it is truly meant, ye shall approach and meet my gaze without fear, so that mine eyes may truthfully see that your soul hides nothing…"
There is a soft rustling of fabric and a thick, wet slickness as the King stands, proceeding from his throne towards you. You look up in alarm as you hear this to see him sliding sickeningly forward on many larger tentacles, protruding from beneath his robe to serve as a means of locomotion. Finally, he comes to a rest just beyond the first set of flames closest to him, and extends a tentacle-fingered, cloth-covered hand.
"Come to me. I shall be the judge of your veracity, traveler. If ye speak the truth, ye have nothing to fear from me…"
Every fiber of your being screams no to his offer. Your soul screams no, shuddering in your chest with your heart. Your mind screams no, begging you to run as far and fast as possible… And yet, to your absolute horror, your feet disobey, taking one step closer to the King, then another…
"Good child… closer, yes, closer yet… I cannot yet smell ye…"
You whimper in fear as you approach still further, now within ten feet, now nine… You vainly beg your feet to run, but they do not yield, as if beholden to what the King wants. Your fear slowly grows to panic, threatening to consume you whole as your heart hammers in your chest and your mind reels with fear… Seven feet away, now six, until you are within five feet of his massive, imposing frame, far taller than any human being, your own body trembling as though you stood before a very angry bear and your eyes cast to the ground as if standing before an angry parent…
"Look at me, traveler," he hisses, and your eyes snap up to meet his gaze. "Good. Very good. Ye obey orders from superiors well, I see…"
You yelp as you feel a tentacle creep up your spine, ruffling your hair almost mockingly. Your fear… you know he can sense your fear of him. You know he is going to hurt you… you can feel it in his hidden eyes – assuming, you realize with sudden horror, he even has eyes…
"Such fear, such fear of me in your eyes," he murmurs, the tentacle brushing against your face in a fake gesture of sympathy. "I do believe that indicates your shameless guilt."
You are near the verge of tears from dread, watching as he lifts a hand, seven writhing tentacles serving as the fingers. You remain silent and horrified, almost frozen as he slowly reaches for your face and the broad palm covers your vision.
"Ye shall be shown the errors of your insolent ways," he says darkly. "For I see in your eyes a lying infidel, and infidels are not tolerated in my kingdom. Now kneel, foolish one, or I shall make ye kneel."
"G-god no, please," you whimper, snapping out of your frightened stupor and trying vainly to pull his hand from your face. As if in response, the tentacle fingers tighten their grip on you, wrapping around on themselves multiple times. "Please, please don't hurt me, King… please…"
"The time for such acts of mercy is long since passed," he responds gravely, "Especially for one such as ye. I will show ye none, and ye shall expect none..."
You cry out in pain as the tentacles constrict further, your entire field of vision now blocked by his massive hand.
"Now, infidel," he murmurs, his voice hard and uncaring of your pleading whimpers, "You will do as I command. Kneel."
The blackness that covers your eyes gives way, just barely, broken by a single ember of dim yellowish light. You are confused and breathless momentarily as it slowly brightens like a sun peeking above the horizon, growing in size and intensity. Then, slowly, it begins to stretch, spiraling out trefoil-like, forming three thin cracks of light from its center… cracks of bright, pure yellow light that… that… Oh God… Oh, God, no… That… that Sign… that writhing, awful, burning, horrid yellow Sign…
A flood of terror washes over you, consuming all thought, drowning you in a panic and awestruck dread to rival any wave. It speaks of a truth, that Sign, a horrible and inescapable, dark truth that no amount of amnesia could erase from your mind… Your face pales, your body feels alight with pain, your eyes and mind sear with agony as the symbol burns into them…
And you scream.
"Oh God, no! Stop! Stop it, please, it burns, take it away! Please, I beg of you, please!"
But his grasp does not yield, and the Sign glows ever brighter, ever more painfully, and your mind wails in torment from its corrosive decay…
"I will not," the King replies, ignoring your constant cries for mercy. "I will not take it away. Ye shall gaze upon them, the suns of Carcosa, my crest… and despair. Let it sear into every memory so that it haunts your every waking moment and never leaves your eyes! This is your punishment, infidel – ye shall see naught else for all your days. May it always remind ye of your foolishness… and of my power…"
You thrash and scream until your throat grows raw. Every memory you have is burning, every thought you have is tainted now, stained yellow, burnt yellow. You can't think. You can't think… Your mind is dying, you can feel it dying, hear its shrieks of anguish… until finally, all you can manage is a mere whimper, an admission of defeat… and you kneel. You kneel before the King, half-collapsing in a feeble attempt to appease your ruler, your master. The Sign is pleased with your actions. You can tell. You can tell because it glows brighter, joyously, almost triumphantly…
It seems like an eternity before he finally releases you, and as he does so you curl into yourself, trembling with dread and awe. You've seen… you've seen… What have you seen?
"Do ye understand now, fool traveler?" he chides, looming deathlike over you. You can feel the slimy brush of his tentacles against your skin, and hear the soft rustling of fabric… You have no other response but to shakily nod, scarcely able to see past the deep and utter fear that clouds your vision… yellow… everything is yellow… anything, you'd give anything in the world to forget what you saw…
"Good. Very good. Excellent..."
The slick wetness of his tentacles fade away slowly as he leaves, but you barely hear it. One by one, the flames begin to die to blackness as he leaves you curled in horror on the floor, but you don't see.
The last of the flames begin to die, and the very final thing you see, just before the darkness consumes you and them both, is the Sign, the Yellow Sign, burned forever into your eyes, flickering away slowly with the very last remnants of the final flame.