Canto I: Delusion (Part 3)

This installment of Preludes of the Return, of the Crimes of Heaven and Hell, by Carl R. Moore, is intended for mature audiences only. Reader discretion is advised.

“Do you understand now, Mr. Brantley?”

It was Frakes speaking, but the voice he knew now to be Grunbeck’s. The figure stepped forward and drew the taser from his belt.

“What exactly do you plan to do with that?” asked Brantley.

Grunbeck aimed the taser as Frakes spoke: “We are making our last offer,” he said. “Take your recording and depart. You will be a messenger among your kind, that the return is imminent, the return is upon thee. Carry out this function and thou shalt be rewarded with a great many balms. During the tribulation, thy suffering shall be eased. Do not refuse, for you have already witnessed the alternative to redemption.”

“What I have witnessed,” said Brantley, standing and facing Grunbeck, “is an employee making some very poor choices. The restraints were bad enough. This piece of theater, this playing along and putting this thing on your head, has earned a direct call to Doctor Johnston, who in turn will call security. You’re lucky we don’t call the police!”

As he spoke, Brantley’s phone was already contacting Johnston’s direct line.

“Mr. Brantley, please,” said Frakes, this time in his own tear-laden voice. “Please don’t do it. Iron rain, Mr. Brantley, iron rain!”

Grunbeck stepped forward again, hands taking hold of the veil. Its material scintillated, as if made of silk stitched with platinum. He lifted it back, revealing a face that had gone pale blue and stretched. His lips looked thin and cold, and his eyes clogged with odd shapes, prisms sketched with a sludge of cruel gears.

“Listen to him, Mr. Brantley. End your call. It is your final chance to do so.”

Grunbeck loomed over him, the taser aimed at his chest.

“I will not be intimidated,” said Brantley.

A voice sounded in his phone’s speaker: “This is Doctor Johnston.”

“Yes, Doctor Johnston,” said Brantley.

Grunbeck fired the taser. Brantley’s body exploded with pain as he collapsed.

“Hello?” said the voice on the phone. “Who is this? Is something wrong?”

“Yes, Doctor… it’s Grunbeck. We have an emergency on the special ward. It’s your student.”

“Oren? Something’s happened to Oren?”

“I’m afraid something’s come over him,” he said. “He’s suffering an attack of some sort.”

Brantley felt Grunbeck roll him over with his boot. His body was all pins and needles, and it took all he had to move his legs.

“I have the situation under control,” said Grunbeck, “but if you could come down here, I’d appreciate it.”

“As soon as I can,” said Johnston, and hung up.

Brantley managed to crawl up onto the chair he’d sat in while he interviewed Frakes. He reached for his computer, but knocked it on the floor.

Grunbeck stepped forward, crushing it with his boot. As he stood over Brantley, he drew the sword from the scabbard that hung across his back. “You chose this,” he said. “For it is written, those who comply not with His bidding shall be cast down, forever.”

Brantley mustered all the strength he could and leapt upward. He launched himself past Grunbeck and made a dash for the door. At first he thought pain was still from the taser, the tearing and burning below his calf. Then he collapsed and saw his severed foot behind him on the floor. Grunbeck stood above it, sword dripping with blood.

Brantley half limped, half crawled into the hallway. He followed brightly lit, immaculate tiles leading to an empty nurse’s station. “Help! Help me,” he rasped.

Grunbeck’s footsteps thudded behind him. He looked over his shoulder and saw a trail of blood pulsing with his heartbeat. The edges of his vision were beginning to blur, but he could see the gruesome nurse standing over him with his reddened blade. He leaned down, leering, his white jacket open, revealing a flak vest imprinted with a white cross. The cross had an eye in its center, and in his dizziness and ailing sight, the eye danced and blinked above him.

“Thou wast once saved,” said Grunbeck. “Commanded to be Our messenger, a harbinger of His return, thou hast instead chosen poorly. He had redeemed thee from sin, and instead, thou hast damned thyself.”

Brantley felt a boot slam into his stomach, cracking his ribs. Grunbeck pushed a door open behind him and delivered a second kick, sending him sprawling down a dingy hallway. Brown stains caked the walls. He breathed the stench of sickened breath and heard the sound of moaning.

When he opened his mouth to plead, instead he only screamed. The sword whirled, its hilt cradled in Grunbeck’s right hand. Brantley felt its sting as his remaining foot separated from his calf. It cut off one of his hands next, then another. He began flailing like an infant in a soup of blood. A coldness descended, then darkness.

* * * * *

Elena Epsen toggled the address to the University’s website, searched for her name, and found her essay on Stockholm Syndrome. It had won the Side-Minder grant in excellence in academic refutation. The department chair’s comment appeared beneath her “E.E.” signature with a simple “Brava!” She smirked—it had been written after the ski weekend where they’d spent most of their time in the hotel room, which spoke well to sincerity. Old Doctor Bentham wasn’t bad in bed, and more importantly generally agreed with her distrust of anything related to 1990’s post-Freudian theory. Literally laughable, they’d proven, giggling over cognac by a roaring fire. “Can you believe Brantley’s comment on transference?” she’d said.

“Lacan is for English majors,” Bentham said, shaking his head and sipping.

So when they’d returned and heard the news about Brantley’s breakdown, it was like arriving at the final act of a tragedy. And yet even in tragedy, there was opportunity.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Bentham had asked her. “I hear he was a perv into the bargain.”

She brushed back Bentham’s gray hair and kissed him, hand on his slacks while she was at it. “Aren’t we all?” she teased. “Besides, it doesn’t get more meta than interviewing the interviewer. What he thought was going to save his rep in the program didn’t only turn into his downfall, but another feather in my cap.”

She left before Bentham could answer. Probably crossing his mind that the twenty-four year old PhD candidate might be moving faster than even he wanted. But it didn’t matter. There was too much mutual gain in her success, and ego was ageless.

Elena took the folder from her knapsack and removed Johnston’s attachment to the police report. …at which point the subject severed his left foot in protest of the interviewee being in restraints. When the nurse attempted to intervene, he severed his right foot. By the time the psychotic episode had run its course, he had severed both feet and both hands. In the turmoil, the blade was lost and never recovered.

If fear was the simple root of Stockholm Syndrome, it had to be self-pity at the root of over-identifying with victims. The Twentieth Century had it backwards—the subconscious was simple—it was behavior that was complicated. Behavior resulted from a complex interplay of limited choices and existing skills. But Brantley’s motives were no multi-layered lotus. He felt bad for psychotics because he was one. He was too old to be ABD, broke, and bleak in prospects.

Elena left the coffee shop and hopped in her car. She didn’t share Brantley’s affliction. Instead, her self respect and self confidence were an antidote she wished to promote in her career. In putting the nail in the coffin of theories like Brantley’s, she’d be doing the history of the human mind a great favor.

By the time she arrived at the Melkor Institute, the clouds had cleared, revealing a pale, cold spring sun. She shivered inadvertently as she approached the building. Unwelcome thoughts began to appear—Bentham’s comment when she’d read him the police report—“How in the hell does a man sever both of his hands?”

A good question, admittedly. Johnston hadn’t expanded on that point, but there had to be an explanation. The police report was legit, so that had to have been taken into account in their investigation.

Melkor loomed before her, corrugated marble walls like great gray curtains. The small black door at the end of the walkway looked downright microscopic. She fought against the feeling she was some English waif in pigtails walking into a giant’s castle. Before she opened the door, she patted the pocket of her messenger bag. The fabric hatch made for a tablet instead contained a five inch Sig Sauer handgun.

* * * * *

“Mr. Grunbeck will take you from here,” said the guard when the elevator doors opened.

The tall, muscular nurse guided her down the hall. He wore a white jacket and black leather boots. His forearms were thick as sledgehammers and his smile reminded her of a military movie marine.

“Mr. Brantley is waiting for you,” he said as he opened the door.

She nodded and entered a cold, shadowy room barely lit by one high window. The part of her that had gloated over Brantley’s demise crashed completely when she saw him. He sat on the edge of a wheeled gurney, the nubs of his limbs wrapped in white bandages. His hair looked gray and greasy, his face purplish white.

“Oren,” she managed. “I’m… I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be,” he said. “At least they don’t have me in restraints.”

He waggled his handless limbs as he spoke, let them collapsed on his footless legs.

“I appreciate you being willing to talk to me,” she said.

“I believe you,” he said. “I will tell you of the veiled man, where he takes me. You will be my scribe. When we are finished, you will bring our message to the people.”

“The veiled man? I don’t understand. I remember Johnston’s notes on Frakes, wasn’t that something Frakes said?”

“Frakes is in his room,” said Brantley. “He is dreaming.”

Elena watched his face wince with pain with his last words. She wanted to reach out and take his hand. She cringed, remembering he had none.

“Are you good with that pistol?” Brantley asked.

“What? What do you mean?”

“He can reveal things,” he said. “He knows you are ambitious. He knows you are different than I was. Pride is the cloak of fear, in his case. You might have a chance at fighting your way out. Probably not. Your best course is obedience, to Him.”

At the word obedience, Elena’s sympathy withered. “You know me better than that.”

“I do,” said Brantley. “And I see now that you were right. I should never have envied you as a better student, for having better potential for future success.”

Elena tensed. His mania should have sounded like Hamlet; instead it was like Cassandra. Some small part of her was still pleasantly surprised, but it was overshadowed by a dread.

“I know,” said Brantley, tears forming in his dark-socketed eyes. “My coming around is little consolation, for neither of us will succeed, for that world is vanishing now. He returns soon, a great glory, the Lord Jarwhal. Let us praise Him now, and invite him into the bosom of the Earth. Art thou prepared to inscribe these dreams of which I shall tell you? The dagger of His servant waits outside the door. The dagger of His servant is at thy neck, scribe. Do not resist Him, rather, listen well, for I shall tell you of my dreams. Listen well, and I shall tell you of the iron rain.”

Book Release Update

I wanted to write an update on the release of Slash of Crimson and Other Stories chiefly to announce that the book will be released in late summer. This is due to the publisher and myself simply having a better idea of how long interim tasks are going to take to complete. I am working closely with Charon Coin Press on the final edits, and am quite happy with how everything is going. For those who have read the original novella, I’d like to emphasize how much more this collection will offer. Slash of Crimson itself has been expanded to include the history and points of view of several characters besides Drew Aldrin. The new material extends the book by nearly a third. What’s more, there will be a second novelette totalling 30K+ words, along with another 20K words in short stories. The shorts are some of the most intense Crimes and Heaven and Hell material written to date. All of this will flesh out details that will serve to offer intriguing foreshadowing for the full length novels to follow (yes, there will be news of those as well following the S.O.C. release; it has been a long time coming, but arrive it shall).

So stay tuned for more news on the Crimes and Heaven and Hell series. In the meantime enjoy the new material being posted here on the website, including the stories embodied in the Cantos (Part III of Canto I will be posted next Friday), as well as more book reviews, interviews, and more.

Heave oars for the starlit abyss—




Canto I: Part I

Canto I: Part II

Charon Coin Press


Preludes of the Return, Canto I: Delusion (Part 2)

Canto I: Delusion (Part 2)

This installment of Preludes of the Return, of the Crimes of Heaven and Hell, by Carl R. Moore, is intended for mature audiences only. Reader discretion is advised.

“You need to stop referring to me as a priest.”

“But Father, we call upon you in these wretched times.”

“Stop, if you wish this interview to proceed.”

“But Father, you are forgiven. Your transgressions with the whore do not disqualify you for your office, nor your degree.”

Brantley leapt to his feet, upsetting the desk, sending his computer clattering across the floor. Frakes was laughing and drooling in front of him, alternately hiccupping and yanking at his restraints. “What’s the matter? You want to hit me? Go ahead… or unstrap me first, if you’re man enough.”

Brantley turned, wiped the sweat from his forehead and picked up his computer. “No… no I think we’re done for today,” he said. “But we’ll talk again, I hope.” He’d had a momentary lapse, he thought. He had to remember he couldn’t let this kind of talk get to him. It was just the sort of thing that could raise questions about his doctoral candidacy, let alone his license. Protocols were of the utmost importance.

He kept this in mind as he left the room and approached the drill-sergeant of a nurse. If he had addressed it before, he might not have gotten the interview. An immediate reaction might have come off as pandering and untrusting of the institute’s professionalism. Yet to ignore it completely was even riskier.

“Excuse me, do you have a moment? I had a question.”

“Of course,” said the nurse.

“I couldn’t help but notice the use of the restraint chair. To my knowledge it’s against regulations, is it not?”

“We deem it necessary in rarified circumstances.”

Brantley paused. Grunbeck locked his hands behind his back, displaying the device on his belt. Was it really a radio? If he didn’t know better, he’d call it a taser.

“Do you mean Doctor Johnston deems it necessary?”

“Not exactly,” said the nurse. Brantley could see his ample biceps flex as he spoke.

“Then who?”

“The Institute defers to my judgment in these matters. If that’s all for today, Mardens will escort you out.” Grunbeck motioned to the gaunt guard who’d escorted him in, who was already waiting at the end of the hall, beside the open elevator.

* * * * *

When he reached his apartment he brewed a pot of coffee and headed for his study. He was about to sip from his mug when his phone chimed a message. Missed call from Lana. She hadn’t bothered him in two months and here she was hitting him up, two messages he saw, asking if he wanted a date.

There were plenty in his profession who’d logged far worse offenses. Often in the form of an affair with a student—he knew several candidates in his program who’d had flings with mentors and done little to hide it. So what if he’d given in and paid for sex a few times in his life? He’d broken up with Bree just after entering the program. Spent a year celibate, had one brief fling during a summer that ended badly. The life of the PhD candidate had loads of hidden challenges, solitude not the least among them.

He stood, crossed the room, and fingered the curtain to the side. With the setting sun, the March downpour had turned to snow. The streetlights glowed among the falling crystals and the dark branches of still leafless trees. He saw her standing beside an oak’s thick trunk, body pale and twisted. Her eyes drew black circles into her cheeks, conflation of fatigue and bruises. When she smiled, her fake teeth matched the snow, dentures because meth had burned the rest.

She twisted to the side, offering a musculature made of ashes. She looked back over her shoulder, the way she did when they screwed. She cracked a grin that mixed “Come and get it,” with “Hurry up and finish,” like only one who lived from selling their body could.

“That’s the difference between us,” she’d said once as she was getting dressed. “You’re a student, I’m a pro.”

“Damn it,” he said, scrunching his eyes shut, swiping his fingers over his temples.

It was her voice, yet he knew it wasn’t her speaking. That’s what was eating at him, the madman had known about what he had done. There were things a sociopath could guess, and those which were impossible. Frakes was trying to melt into his brain, assault his rationality, and it was working. He had to refute it, had to keep his head.

When Brantley opened his eyes, Lana was gone. A twisted stump stood by the oak, a young maple ruined by lightning.

There’s nothing there, he thought. And nothing to Frakes’s words. Guesswork in a salad of ramblings. He knew the phenomenon and had to not let it be anything more.

What he did have to make more of was the state in which he’d found the patient. Frakes had no record of violent behavior. He had threatened plenty, a website inviting those who heeded his manifesto to set fire to every capital city in the United States as a wake up call to “what was coming”. But he’d never assaulted anybody. There was no excuse for a restraint chair, and Brantley was feeling foolish for not seeing it sooner—the guard, with his overbuilt physique, and the weapon. Probably as good a candidate for a patient as an employee.

Brantley resolved that he would get material evidence when he returned. Keep the recorder on when he talked to Grunbeck. That would be enough to bring to Johnston’s attention. He might even be able to turn it into a favor.

That night he typed his notes as the snow fell. A Discourse on Delusion would earn him more than his PhD, it would be a reference for the entire profession, and would make him wealthy. And sorry Lana, he thought, my professional earnings will be spent elsewhere.

He had hoped to speak with Frakes three or four times, but after reviewing his notes, decided a second time would be enough. And if he got the nurse written up and even dismissed for treating a case of hypomania like a violent criminal, the articles that followed would make a nice footnote.

His work and his coffee finished, he stayed up a while. He began to read, then eventually closed his book and watched the damp snow until it changed to sleet.

But it wasn’t Lana who appeared this time among the trees. It was Frakes, flesh scorched black by the dark drops that seemed to burn him: “Iron rain,” he rasped, before he vanished in the darkness.

* * * * *

“Hallucinations aren’t contagious, are they?”

“Excuse me?” said the barista as she handed him the espresso.

“Nothing, just a joke. I study psychology.”

“That’ll be $6.95, with the student discount,” she said.

Brantley took his drink and paid. He didn’t have time to flirt anyway, he was running late. He didn’t need to give the staff anything to complain about, particularly if he was filing a complaint himself.

When he arrived at Melkor it was pushing ten o’clock. He hurried across the lot, and when he reached the receptionist, stood heaving and splashed with slush. “I’m here.. to… see Doctor Johnston’s…”

“I know,” she said. “Mr. Mardens will escort you.”

Brantley stepped to the elevator where the guard stood beckoning. Did the bastard live there? It was pushing sixteen hours if he started five o’clock the day before.

“Pulling a double shift?” Brantley asked as the elevator carried them up.

“No, I just live here,” said the guard, smiling into his wrinkled cheeks.

When the doors opened, Grunbeck stood waiting. “I’ve prepped the patient,” he said. “I’m afraid he didn’t sleep well last night. I’ve given him a shot of epinephrine. It should help him talk.”

Brantley nodded, entered the interview room, and closed the door behind him. Frakes sat in the restraint chair by the window, as he had the day before. He still kept his head crooked, but this time his foot tapped hyperactively on the floor, calf twisting and vibrating as much as the strap would allow. A result of being shot up with the stimulant, no doubt. Brantley noted to add it to his list of grievances. He sat down, set up his computer and notebook and was about to begin with why Frakes hadn’t slept well, asking if he’d had dreams.

Instead, Frakes spoke first: “Are you going to tell everyone outside? Are you going to tell them about where he takes me?”

“Well, as you know, this interview is going to be part of my book, so I suppose the answer is yes.”

“Oh, good, that’s good,” said Frakes, nodding and shaking.

“Maybe we should talk more about that,” said Brantley. “Why you would want people outside the hospital to know about your dreams?”

“I… I don’t know,” said Frakes, his head going from crooked to shaking back and forth. “I just know he wants me to, and he’ll be pleased that way, if we’re successful.”

“And success is just telling your story? Is that all?”

“On my side, I guess, yeah. I’m just supposed to tell you everything. And you’re going to put it in your book, and then more people will know.”

“Know what exactly?”

“What their choices are. What’s going to happen to them.”

“Are you saying others will have the dreams you are having?”

“I told you, they are not dreams. I agreed to return today, in case you had any more questions, and to tell you this—that disobedience of the first commandment is the most grievous. Thou shalt put no one else before Him, not ever, no matter how else He commands thee.”

“That’s quite a statement. Say more.”

“Say more?” Frakes retorted. His voice had changed, become the deeper tone of the veiled man. “You are not one who speaks in the imperative, Mr. Brantley. You are a vassal. You hold no authority here. You must carry on as Our scribe until We otherwise order.”

Frakes’s shaking had stopped, and he met Brantley’s eyes with an unblinking gaze.

“I see,” said Brantley. “Mr. Frakes, I came here because I had permission from Doctor Johnston, and from yourself, as he deemed you were fit to give it. And yet the questions I ask are mine, and of my own accord. Still, I cannot blame you if you feel trapped. I plan on speaking to Doctor Johnston about your restraints, for example.”

“Thou shalt not,” said the voice.

Only then did Brantley notice the figure that had stepped into the room. It stood like an apparition cast by the window’s snow-shrouded light. By the open lab jacket, thick belt and boots, he knew it to be Grunbeck. And yet he had a second belt strapped diagonally across his chest from shoulder to hip. Something long and dark hung from it. And a veil draped over his head, under which Brantley could only make out the silhouette of a face.

Preludes of the Return–Canto I: Delusion (Part 1)

This installment of Preludes of the Return, of the Crimes of Heaven and Hell, by Carl R. Moore, is intended for mature audiences only. Reader discretion is advised.

Canto I: Delusion
(Part 1)

Oren Brantley exited his car, clicked the lock, and opened his umbrella. The clouds were unleashing a heavy March downpour. Between his raincoat, galoshes, and the umbrella, he was a walking shield. He entered the hospital with his suit still dry, a portrait of professionalism. He was technically a student, ABD and not yet holding a license in clinical psychology. Still, he knew appearances mattered.

“Yes, I’m Oren Brantley,” he said to the receptionist. “Doctor Johnston’s arranged for me to meet with a patient, Room 14B?”

The receptionist nodded, handed him a pre-printed badge. The guard who led him to the elevator was a burley man, premature gray in his dark curly hair. Too many night shifts at the Melkor Institute, and since it was six o’clock, this one was just starting.

“Two doors down on your left,” said the guard when the elevator opened. He didn’t bother stepping out.

“I was under the impression a staff member would be present during the interview,” said Brantley.

“Frakes’ll be in restraints,” said the guard. “And Grunbeck’ll be nearby.”

The door closed, Brantley turned and faced a man wearing a white jacket over scrubs. The jacket hung open, revealing a black, radio-like device belted to his hip. Between the crew cut and the gym physique, he looked more like a commando than a nurse. Brantley didn’t miss a step. He moved down the hall, entered the second door on the left. Grunbeck took up position outside. “I’m here if you need anything,” he said. A head taller than Brantley, his eyes stared past him as he spoke.

Inside the room, Brantley took a seat opposite the man in the restraint chair. It had been wheeled to the corner furthest from the window. The shades were drawn, what was left of the day’s dusky light leaving most of the man’s face draped in shadow.

Brantley placed his computer on the side table provided beside his folding chair. The room was otherwise empty, and he realized that when the sun had fully set, the glow from his display and the scrid of light beneath the door would be the only illumination.

“They said I didn’t have to talk to you,” said Frakes. “But they also said it might help me.” His head was crooked, jaw slack. The contour of his hair was puffy enough to look freshly washed, but he’d already sweated off his shower, and an acrid smell rose from beneath his bathrobe. “They always want me to get dressed,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter. I explain, but they don’t listen how it doesn’t matter.”

As he spoke, Brantley set his recording app to track one. “How long have you been at Melkor?” he asked.

“Seven thousand years,” said Frakes.

“According to the records it’s been a little over one year.”

“They don’t keep records,” said Frakes. “Not of anything important.”

“Indeed, well, if you don’t mind then, we’ll get started.” Brantley touched record and spoke: “Interview with Lee Frakes, March twenty-second, 2036. Mr. Frakes, in the interest of time, I’d like to go straight to discussing your dreams. Are you comfortable with that?”

“No. But I agreed to it.”

“I see. I’m sorry. Do you need a moment?”

“No,” he said, his chest hiccupping down a short burst of sobs. “No, ask what you want.”

“Let’s start with when you began having them. You were working as an engineer then? Engaged to be married?”

Frakes’s chest erupted again. His hand reached upward, forearm rising the few inches off the chair the restraint would allow. His palm wavered, as if pushing something in the air. “I don’t want to start there. It doesn’t matter. You came here for him, anyway. Isn’t that right? For him?”

“I don’t understand, who are you talking about?”

“The one who takes me there.” His hand began pointing, finger jabbing the air.

“Who takes you?”

“The veiled man.”

“And where is there?”

“It is a place beyond the sun. A place called Hell.”

“Your body actually goes there?”

“Yes, you think I am sleeping on that cot. On that bug infested cot. But I am taken away, through the darkness. Outside the hall, outside the nurse’s station, and the cafeteria, and the lot, there is a darkness I fly through. Because of the veiled man, who wants to show me what it’s like when I get dead.”

As Frakes rambled, Brantley took out a notepad and began writing: Obsession with location – repetition – phrasing almost childish.

“Don’t bother,” said Frakes. “They won’t care soon. Eventually they’ll even close the hospital. But that’s later.”

Drool flowed from Frakes’s lip, through his black stubble. He squirmed in his chair, but the restraints held him fast. Brantley looked him in his watery eyes. “Melkor has been here for decades. It has a long list of patients including you, not to mention a sound financial standing. So no, the hospital isn’t closing.”

“You… you don’t under… understand…” Frakes’s body contorted. His limbs strained against the straps. Bones cracked in his neck and knees, he screamed with a voice hoarse, then high pitched.

“I’ll call the nurse,” said Brantley, standing and moving toward the door.

“No, it is not necessary. I am here. You may begin.”

“Excuse me?”

“The Intercessor. I am here.”

Brantley looked at Frakes as he returned to his chair. His face appeared calm, and he no longer struggled. His eyes looked darker, his stare penetrating, one side of his mouth curled into the hint of a grin.

“Are you the veiled man?” asked Brantley.

“That’s what the bloodheart calls me. More accurately, I am a type of spiritual guide.”

“Like a priest?”

“Please. Doctors, professors, it’s all a priesthood. But I am no priest. I advise you, bloodheart, do not mock us. You deal here with an intelligence.”

“You said us this time.”

“There are many of us, though I alone am assigned to Frakes.”

“Assigned, who assigns you?”

“You wouldn’t understand. Not yet. Let me instead tell you about his so-called dreams. He is telling you the truth—he is not in fact dreaming, but being transported.”

“Where to?”

“51 Pegasi B, as your scientists call it. Molten iron rains from its putrid clouds. It falls on the faces of the damned, scalding them. Faces scalded by molten metal. We wish for him to feel as he deserves, as most humans deserve to feel.”

“So when you said Hell, you meant in the religious sense? A bad place people go when they die?”

“Pegasi B is one of the Hell planets. A few go there, for it is remote. You are lost, bloodheart human. You cannot imagine what it is like crawling over its surface, your body burning and burning and remaining conscious.”

“I thought you said Frakes was dead when he was there.”

“He is dead. You are all dead, and yet some of you think you will prefer it, those of you thrown in Hell.”

“Why? It doesn’t sound like something anyone could possibly want.”

“Oh but it is. You understand nothing of what is coming to you, priest. Hell is coming, and do you know what else? Something worse is coming, something you cannot wish away, though many will attempt, hence this warning.”

“Mr. Frakes, I’m not a priest. I am the one who erroneously called you a priest.”

“And I told you, as a doctor, you come much closer to that office.”

“Technically, I am not a doctor yet. Since you seem to care for accuracy, you may call me Oren, or Mr. Brantley, if you prefer.”

“I call you damned. I will see to it you are ranked among the priests, when this article is published, that it may strengthen our warning.”

Brantley paused. For a moment he wondered how he had known the article would be part of his doctoral thesis. He felt a chill, but shook it off. Given the circumstance, and the level of the man’s delusion, it wasn’t a difficult guess. Still, something didn’t sit well. The way his face changed when he had become the veiled man, his obsession with priests. It felt more like an exorcism than an interview. But not an exorcism—the reverse, like it was Frakes who was trying to get under his skin.

“Are you some kind of demon, veiled man?” asked Brantley.

“Demon?” Frakes laughed. “We are not demons. Hell is coming, and something worse. And we are not demons, no, we are something else, Father Brantley.”

To be continued