Dreams of the Dead Sea
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It is said that in ancient epochs, when the world was closer to the stars, that in dreams one could glimpse foretellings of things yet to come. Such beliefs are not encouraged in these days, as the Temple considers any claim of prophecy to be a form of blasphemy. I now know that on this, the priests are incorrect, that the dreaming world can reveal things yet to come. Had I known it when I was younger, I might have been better prepared for the revelations that I have unearthed; but perhaps it is better now, that what was foretold has come to pass, that I can relate to you that which it has now come time for the world to know. It is likely that merely holding this text in your hands has marked you a heretic in the eyes of the Temple, but I implore you to hear my tale; and you will learn how the promise of St. Azarius has been fulfilled, and how it was foretold in my dreams of the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea lies in the far east, amidst the barren expanses of the Plateau of Leng, far from the coruscant spires of Panopolis and the verdant fields of Arcadia. Its shores rest a thousand feet or so below the rim of a great pit the likes of which can be found nowhere else in the world, which extends at least three hundred miles in diameter. The depths of the pit are lost to history, as are its origin. Some speculate that it was once some primaeval ocean, or the crater left by a meteor of unprecedented size. The great Dr. Elutherius, of the Imperial Collegium, attempted to excavate the southwestern bank in my grandfather's day; he made it half-a-mile deep before his crew abandoned him, driven seemingly to madness when they discovered a rock face smooth as glass and beyond the artifice of nature. All know of the Dead Sea, and all will find their way to it in due time, but few who do so are in any state to tell tales of the place. No man sails the Dead Sea, nor does any fish plumb its depths, for it is not water that laps upon the shores of that sea, but flesh and bone. All who live must die, and it is the law of the church and the state that all who die are laid to rest in the charnel-house of the world, the Dead Sea.

The beginnings of the Dead Sea are lost to history. It was already in use in the first century after the Triumph of the Church and the proclamation of the Blessed Empire. Archaeologists have found remnants of lesser such accumulations around the world, which must have at some point been abandoned when the Temple ordered all the dead to be discarded in one place. It is said that ten thousand years ago or more, before St. Azarius promised eternal life in the hereafter to all who believed in Him, that the bodies of the dead were revered; they were cleaned and dressed, displayed for public viewing, and buried in the earth in the lands in which they lived. Such practices are now considered blasphemy, as the Great Scriptures proclaim;

"Do not lavish honours upon the bodies of the dead, for the body is but a carriage for the soul. The body rots and turns to dust, but the soul, which Our Lord knows and treasures, takes its leave for life eternal. Therefore, do not let the dead lie among the living as the heathens do, for they have had their reward in full; but take them away from your lands instead and cast them into the deepest hole, and let them be forgotten."

And so it has always been done; in every corner of the world, the dead are loaded onto lorries and trains and air-coaches, by the hundreds of thousands each day, and hauled hundreds or thousands of miles to the Dead Sea, to be dumped onto its surface. New bodies are unceremoniously piled atop the old, to be submerged in turn by the next crop of decedents, to sink and sink until they crumble away and rejoin the earth. A terrible miasma engulfs the land, and it is said that at night, the sea glows with corpse-lanterns fueled by the gaseous emissions of the decomposing millions. Few of the living set foot on its shores, save the high priests of the Temple, the carrion-haulers, and, it is said, those who illicitly dig to the lower layers of the sea and harvest the rich corpse-soil, to be sold as fertilizer. (This libel is a favorite of farmers to levy against their rivals; for who would buy their crops, knowing they were grown from the dead?) The last class of the living who glimpse the Dead Sea's shores are not spoken of in polite company. On the northern shore of the sea, where the drop from the edge of the pit to the sea's surface is much sharper than the gentle descent of the southwest, there stands the Long Walk; a causeway extending several miles from the edge, along which those convicted of the most abominable crimes against the church and the state are condemned to walk before casting themselves into the depths.

I have dreamt of the Dead Sea since I was a child. The dream does not come often, but it is always the same; I awake to find myself lying atop the surface of the sea, and as I surveil the horizon I can espy no hint of the shore; there is nothing on any side but the dead, baking and rotting below the blood-orange sun. I can find no steady footing, for with every step I sink knee-deep into flesh. I call for help, but there are no living ears to hear me. Thousands of feet above, the air-coaches glide silently overhead, barely slowing to discharge their rain of carrion unto the gory mass. I find myself sinking into the ichorous loam, fearing that soon I shall no longer be an unwelcome guest among the dead, when I awake.

Oft have I shared my dreams with the Temple priests during the Rites of Expurgation. I dared never speak my silent fear that I was being given visions of what was yet to come, for to be known to even be harbouring the thought might label me suspect. The priests nonetheless assured me that I need not fear any such fate befalling me; no man is marked for disposal until the hospitallers have declared that he is truly and irreversibly dead and his soul has left his body. They often suggested that the dreams evinced a defect in my faith; that perhaps I doubted the truth that my soul will depart when my body expires, and that I will be left to pass away into nothing along with my body. It was also suggested that, though St. Azarius would never deem to speak His Word to a living soul if the prophetic signs were not present, that perhaps He was testing my faith in a way; by showing me a vision of what my eternal self might suffer if my temporal self failed in its devotions, He might encourage me to more fervently follow the right path.

These words provided me little comfort during my adolescence, but as I came of age, I began to find more comfort in the admonitions of the priesthood. I committed myself to the study of the Great Scriptures and sought to live in word and deed as St. Azarius had commanded. In time the dreams grew less frequent, and had stopped altogether by the time I came of my thirtieth year. I had been successful to a fault in my career, and took full advantage of the rare opportunity to enjoy a night of leisure, making my way through the finest public houses and dance-halls of my native Austhaven. I danced and ate and drank and sang and caroused into the small hours of the morning, and then…

I awoke with a pain in my head, my body sore, my mouth dry, my stomach in tumult, an ache in my bladder, and a strong desire to return to a slumber I could not remember laying down for. I was no stranger to the ploughman's curse that is the hang-over, but seldom has it occurred in my life that I drank to such excess that I could not remember the end of the night. No sound perturbed my ears that morning, so I judged that I had either found my lodgings, or had taken unconscious in a poorly-trafficked alley. In either event, it seemed, there was no urgent need to me to arise, so I rolled over on my side and sought to settle in - when I felt a sharp object jab me in my side, and a stench like nothing I have ever known assailed my nostrils.

My eyes darted open and the flash of the naked sun, blazing brilliant in the clear orange noonday sky, blinded me. I reached to my left for a hold to raise myself up, and my fingers sank into something warm and soft. Squinting, I turned my gaze from the sun to my hand, and an unholy horror consumed me when I espied what I had laid my hand upon - a human skull, sun-bleached, bits of discoloured flesh clinging limply to its surface. I drew my gloved hand back in horror and took with it a dram of brownish ichor that had once been its owner's eyes.

I wretched, ejecting nothing but my own stomach juices, as a dread realization overcame me. Below me was a pile of discarded rags that had once been loosely wrapped around the dead. To my left, to my right, in every direction, was nothing but gore - broken limbs bending in every direction, bone shards jutting from distended flesh, thick and opaque puddles of congealing blood, undulating pools of worms and maggots feeding on the bounty before them, and surrounding everything, the undeniable miasma of death. This was far more vivid than the dreams had ever been, and in that instant I was forced to recognize that my dreams had been prophetic after all - for here I was, a living breathing man, lying discarded upon the surface of the Dead Sea.

How was this possible, I wondered? Austhaven is many thousands of miles from Leng; could I have drank so heavily, so excessively, that I was mistaken for dead and loaded upon one of the trans-continental air-coaches? I still wore the heavy coat, gloves, and boots I had decorated myself with the prior evening, though definitely less fashionable now coated with gore as they were. Perhaps, in my cups, I committed some intolerable act and had been convicted by the state - or worse yet, found soulless by the church - and compelled to walk the Long Walk?

Somehow, I found the wherewithal to rise to my hands and knees, finding some footing upon the bones of the dead, and it seemed that Providence, in the most meagre of ways, had shone upon me. Though noon had passed and the sun was already bearing towards its rest in the southern sky, I was able to glimpse, in the west, a shallow cliff face. I had not taken the Long Walk, nor had I been disposed of in the heart of the sea where I would have had no hope for survival. It would be a struggle - but it would not be impossible for me to reach the shore of the Dead Sea, climb to the edge of the pit, and survive this ghastly ordeal.

The journey was slow in the going. Every step I took, every foothold I spotted amidst the rough uneven mass of carrion, could potentially give way and leave me to sink and drown amidst the dead. I tested each step with the utmost of care, often falling to all fours to better spread my weight among the clusters of bone and lumps of skin that could hold it. The heat was unbearable; though Leng is known for being a frigid climate, the chemical processes occurring within the depths of the sea kept it considerably warmer than its environs. My thirst overpowered me; and though all my senses rebelled against the notion, I forced myself to lower my lips into a pool of blood and drink a few sips. It tasted of death and sin, and I evacuated most of it sheer minutes later; it was evident that the sea would provide me no nourishment, and I was doomed to die if I could not reach the shore. Though I could easily have walked three miles in an hour on open land, I found myself making less than half a mile each hour, as the sun drew closer to the southern horizon and the bright orange of day grew a darker blue and purple. It was apparent that I would not make the shore by dusk, and I had no confidence in the moon, that mother of liars, to not guide me around in a circle until I dropped from exhaustion, so there was nothing to be done but to spend the night at sea. I pulled several of the larger, more intact cadavers together and atop one another to form a raft of sorts, and I lay flat on my back upon it, gazing up at a starless sky, as purple gave way to black.

I slept little that night, fearing that, should I let my eyes close fast again, that they might never re-open. As the moon rose contemptuously over the horizon, the fabled corpse-fires of the sea began to alight, bathing the feculent stew in an eerie gleam. I remembered hearing a rumor supposedly passed down from the soil-harvesters who plied the sea under cover of darkness, that the lights were the souls of the dead, trying to escape and burning up instead. I remembered the doubts of my youth - that my soul would perish in the Dead Sea with my body - as I stared at the gyring blazes that seemed to confirm my fears. I did the only thing I could think of to do in such a dark and seemingly hopeless hour - I prayed.

And in that dark hour, my prayer was answered. I heard a voice, both quiet and bold, humble and resplendent, seeming to whisper and shout at once from some cavernous void in the back of my mind. Fear not, it said to me in a language I could not recognize. I have promised you life eternal; endure now, and it shall be granted. It was in that instant that any trace of agnosticism I had ever experienced was put paid to; for here, at the edge of the world, in the land of the dead, in the darkest hour of my existence, I knew, without any doubt, that St. Azarius Himself had heard my prayers and had spoken to me.

In time, the first rays of the morning sun began to shine from the north. As soon as I could fix my eyes on the shore, a scant five or so miles ahead, I resolved that I would reach it by sunset. It was unlikely that I could survive another night on the sea without food or water, and St. Azarius Himself had commanded me to carry on - what choice did I have? Hours passed as I picked my way across the wastes. As I drew nearer the shore, the going became easier - here were the ripest of bodies, those delivered by train from the lands closest to Leng, and there lay less distance between them and the bottom of the pit than did those further asea. I was nearly a mile from the shore when I spied an unusually old body amidst the mass of the newly dead - its skin was dry and practically mummified, leather wrapped over bone. It jutted skyward between two corpses that had lain there a week or so, its eyeless sockets fixed on the heavens, one sinewy claw seeming to grip for dear life to the bosom of one of the newer bodies. A shudder befell me as I considered this remnant that had once been a man - his posture, his stance, the look on his dried face, told me that he had died after arriving in the Dead Sea. Logic dictates that I could not have been the only person in the history of the Empire to have befallen such a fate, but here, it seemed, was the proof.

I reached the shore an hour or so before sunset, and began to crawl and climb my way up the slope to the edge of the pit. I was halfway up when one of the carrion-haulers slouched up to the edge and discharged several hundred cadavers over the edge in my direction. I clung fast to the rocks and prayed, and again I heard St. Azarius urge me to persevere. Though they rolled over me, falling apart on the rocks, wooden caskets and linen wraps disintegrating on the way downward, limbs tearing asunder and buffeting me as they made their way downhill, I managed to avoid losing my grip and rejoining them below. Dusk had fallen by now, but I no longer had need of the light to guide me, for I knew which way up was. It must have been midnight before the slope gave way to level sand, the green glow of the Dead Sea lay behind me, and I knew that I had escaped with my life.

What now, then, I wondered? Though I was free of the pit, there was no succour to be had at its edge; it was a good hundred miles to the nearest town, and even the carrion-haulers dared not overnight here. I glanced around in the darkness, hoping that the corpse-lights would illuminate some sign of salvation, and as I looked westward where the lying moon rose above the plateau, I glimpsed the unlikely silhouette of my rescue; a relief station, from which no light now shone, but which the carrion-haulers surely had need of before making their return trip back to the depots where their next load of unfortunates was to be received.

I recall not whether I admitted myself to the men's chamber or to the women's; it hardly seemed like the most significant of details at the time. All I cared for was that there was a sink within, connected to a reservoir no doubt resupplied with waters from far outside this accused land. Water! Few sing hymns in its praise but those who have been made to do without. I suckled greedily at the tap like a baby hungry for its mother's milk. Having had my fill, I splashed my face, washing away the gore and sludge that had accumulated during my trek across the Dead Sea. I breathed a sigh of relief that my ordeal had come to an end. In the morning, more carrion-haulers would come. I could flag one down and tell him my story, and by day's end I would be back in my flat in Austhaven, and all of this would be nothing more than a thrilling tale of adventure with which to regale my grandchildren. Clearly I had begun to go mad in that grim viridian night among the corpse-fires and imagined the voice of St. Azarius; now that I was safe, I would need to seek Expurgation for those thoughts, but having done that I would never have to speak or think of that blasphemy again. Sighing, I rose from the sink and met my own gaze in the mirror - and as instantly as the earlier relief had swept me, a new revelation came.

It is said that in ancient epochs, when the world was closer to the stars, St. Azarius struck a bargain with the gods, that man might not die, but live eternal if they followed His teachings. The Temple has always taught that this life is to come in the hereafter; when we die, our souls depart our bodies, and if we are worthy, then St. Azarius will welcome us into the new world of His making.

I know not what negotiations He brokered with the Outer Things, nor what black magicks he authored in those distant ages, but I know now that the immortality He acquired for mankind was not the same immortality that the priests of the Temple had expected Him to deliver. Their vengeance when they realized the truth must have been immense. Perhaps He was the first one doomed to take the Long Walk into the heart of the pit. Perhaps the Dead Sea was built upon Him, that the Temple could hide His disgrace from the world without abolishing the reputation of His Holy Name upon which their power was wrought. I knew now that when I had heard St. Azarius speak to me that night in the Dead Sea, He spoke to me not from some metaphysical world-to-come, but that He was below me in the depths.

When I first beheld myself in the mirror, I vomited. What I expelled was not the fresh water I had just consumed, but something far more foul; black and brown, malodorous and syrupy, speckled with bits of graying flesh. In an instant, I recalled the details of my birthday celebration that had previously been denied to me; how I was unceremoniously tossed into the street after last call at the Eel & Castle. How I staggered drunkenly along the cobbles en route to my flat, hollering impolite suggestions at the ladies on the kerb. How I lost my footing on the mist-slicked staircase that lead downward to Earl's Street. How I tumbled twice and bashed my head against an old stone on my way down. How the maidens had screamed for help. How the hospitallers struggled to carry me onto a horse-drawn carriage as my life-blood ran down onto the stone.

Be not afraid, the voice spoke again in my head as I peeled the glove off my left hand, taking half of the soggy purple skin with it as I peeled it loose. I promised life eternal to all those who believe. In you the world shall see the fulfillment of my vow. The prophecy has been fulfilled, Dear Reader. The new age is upon us. The time has come to cast aside the false declarations of the Temple, which has denied us the truth of St. Azarius' promise and condemned us all to refuse our true immortality in favor of a false utopia.

All of this I realized as the glove slipped free from my hand and I raised it to the face I saw in the mirror, felt with my own hand the point where my skull had caved in on the cobblestone, where shards of rock and bone had forced their way into my exposed brain, and traced my bony, skeletal finger along the contours of my pure, bare, white and skinless face.

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