Someone has a dream, not for the first time, that takes them into the cold reccesses of the Void, otherwise known as Humanity's Canvas, where they encounter a creature that wakes them up further to a truth present in both worlds.
Another tale ended, its crisp pages fluttering like moth's wings. My pale hand reached out and extinguished the bedroom light with a dull click. The room plunged into soothing darkness.
As always, sleep came in a welcoming creep. The Void waited, a pitiless vacuum devoid of stars, galaxies, life. And yet it was teeming with entities that existed as a mockery—or a warped memory—of it all.
I could sense how cold it was, how cold they all were, and hungry. I traveled and projected there as my body lay immobilized in bed under the care of a dormant brain. A brain that paralyzed limbs at night so they wouldn't lash at imaginary horrors. A brain filled with vibrant life, manipulating a flesh marionette with ease until it could move no more.
Only consciousness can withstand the hostility of the Void, and sometimes it too is absorbed. There aren't many laws here, and sanity is not one of them. The Void is a mirror that shows us what we desperately don't want to see: the reflections of the nightmares we create for ourselves becoming flesh. It knows our souls, and its countless denizens search for us always, occasionally drawing the strength to pull us close during our darkest hours, deepest dreams.
Somehow, minds materialize as something that can feel and be felt, and thus I experienced it in vivid detail. A dream, but so much more than that.
Drifting aimlessly above a familiar vast, featureless plain, I felt an astral body begin to form, trying to become something as close to my physical self as possible. Sparsely-packed, low frequency particles were assembled, cycled together until they functioned meaningfully.
I suddenly felt a true chill on something that passed for my skin as well as somewhere profoundly deeper. I breathed in deep through phantom lungs, detecting a fetid stench that did not even exist. Even in the absence of light, it was easy to see everything as it went on and on, so dead and dark and desolate.
There was no wind, only expectant silence akin to that which occurs in the wake of death, when all the birds stop singing as a predator's jaws snap shut and send life surging out of one vessel and into the next, stunning whoever watches into the quiet that comes with billions of years of grim experience.
With almost detached certainty, I knew that plenty of them, ravenous as they were, would savor me in a similar way, but since there was no meat to chew, no cells to interact, no bacteria or protein to break down and turn into fuel, the only thing they could consume was my mind, and the energy it put off.
This was infinitely worse than its earthly counterpart because once they had me, they would never let me go. They are many things, and relentless is one of them. Some are like lost children, trying to locate their creators as countless slumbering humans pass in and out of the dreamscape, by chance or pain or need. They have senses so strange and sharp that even the smallest point of light passing through would draw them, from few to crowds to legions. Others are like demons, vicious and insane. The only thing that would satisfy is trapping the light, eating it slowly, keeping the body in bed and the mind in the Void.
Something leaped out of the murk, out of seemingly nothing at all. It startled me and I found myself standing in the cold grainy soil. Not far away, a loping gray creature galloped and contorted, its crooked claws soundless as they hit the ground.
Its eyeless face seemed to survey the landscape ahead with frenetic urgency, as though somehow it could see. Everything seemed to move in slow motion as the beautiful abomination sprinted and paused repeatedly, its alien appendages quivering. It ran farther away, toward the tarry black seashore off in the distance, then came frighteningly close again quicker than it seemed possible. It seemed to be on a diligent search.
The more I watched it, the distance between us seemed to grow and shrink at the same time. Perception was unreliable here. Perhaps the Void was only an illusion fabricated and seen differently depending on the mind experiencing it.
I had no idea how many legs the creature had, but there were too many to count. Some short and stubby, others gaunt and spindly, others spiraling bizarrely outward, bristling with talons, teeth, twisted bone. It brought to mind gargoyles perched on cathedrals, but only subtly. It was terrifying. Yet I was fascinated, enraptured by the way its slack gray flesh rippled across the loping form. Its head hung low and limp, as though the neck had been broken. I could sense its frantic hunger. I could also sense its torment, but only faintly, as though a barrier stood between us.
If it saw me, then what? Would it detect the energy that only a human emanates in the grip of fear and awe? Would those flailing parodies of biology be able to pierce my phantom skin?
Regardless of whether it could, this world allowed no death. Because none of them were even alive. The line was not only blurred but flowing together with countless other insanities because everything was energy with small bits of matter in between. Coming to an end meant merely a cessation of one kind of existence and the beginning of another. Like a solid being converted to a gas. Energy was recycled again and again, eaten and regurgitated, ignited and set free only to be caught again.
Chaos. Even as I felt the denizens of this demented world pick up on me from far “away” and come hurrying to investigate, I could not look away from the gray creature. Its limbs jerked in all directions, seeking and squirming. It sat up and raised what passed for a head like a dog about to bay at the sky, but there was no sky. Only that Void that went on and on for eternity.
After standing still for an unknown amount of time, it thrashed its entire body violently, as though disturbed from rest. What could such a thing be thinking about, in this endless night?
Suddenly it was screaming. A pathetic despondent wail. No, its soul was screaming, and like the treading feet, ever so silently. A wave of crippling despair lanced through my phantom heart. Almost a tangible thing, it hit me like a storm of hail. I collapsed, overtaken with the weight of its psychic attack. I felt pain in places bodies could never perceive. I saw visions of disasters I had never seen before, the wincing faces of heroes and fiends and victims I've never met. Animals hurled themselves against the bars of their cages in desperate attempts for freedom, and people did the same in more ways than one.
The gray creature and its heartbreaking visions were beautiful in a tragic way, but one thing stood out like a lantern in the dark: by its need to seek out anything, responsible or not, that could diminish its misery, the gray creature had trapped itself here. What it had been searching for was something it could share the agony with, something to hear its soul scream. It was vengeful and in its nonexistent eyes, all other entities were the source of its anguish, mocking figures to be punished in a repeating cycle that all Void creatures sunk to.
All of them, in different forms, infinitely alien but sharing one common bond shockingly similar to our own. Abruptly, the puppeteer brain released its hold, and I woke breathless, the images of the dream playing like a constant video loop behind my eyes until I fumbled for the light switch and remembered to breathe.
Even in waking life, the despair of that gray creature resonates during any occasion of chaos, violence, loneliness, loss. Or even in the wake of one's own weakness. In such places as the Void, they are flowers watered with acid tears, fed with the ashes of phoenixes who forgot they could rise. They are dying stars, never to be fully blotted out but longing for the light of hope to pierce the membrane of their madness. They are victims of themselves, lurking as unfinished works in Humanity's Canvas. The Soul Screamers.