The sun had nearly fallen beneath the horizon. Night was approaching, and for some time the group had been gathered in the living room. At the foot of the stairs, Carlton was busy filling magazines for the rifles and pistols. Roderigo sat in the farthest chair, Yvonne cradled anxiously in his lap. Fiona sat on the couch, her body primed with nervous tension, and Pepper beside her and far less stressed. Steven had spread himself lazily across the floor, resting his shoulders back against the wall and appearing bored. Carter, meanwhile, was slumped back in his recliner, wearing a severe and frustrated expression.

     Their attentions were fixed on Jacob Niles, who sat in the corner on a kitchen stool, restlessly cradling the book in his lap. It was a hideous thing. Fiona noted its rigid, cracked cover–wood, it seemed, bounded in vile brown leather that bore a strange and raised honeycomb pattern. Its spine had been entwined with waxed copper wire, which secure not only the pages but dozens of small parabolic bones–bones that seemed to function like the rings of a binder. Most strikenly, the a distorted pentacle had been branded into the center of the cover–a lopsided star that spread beyond its circle, with each point tipped with a small symbol, and in its center, a tiny eye topped three uneven lines.

     “The Tome Kataklysma,” said Carter, repeating what Jacob had just called that book.

     “Yes.” He began tapping his fingers on the volume’s cover. “A codex, of sorts. Its contents concern the history and nature of the Gods.”

     “So you’ve said.” Carter leaned forward and rested his chin on his knuckles. “And why do you have it? Why does a Vatican official have a book that it would consider heresy?”

     “It’s a long story,” Jacob said.

     “Tell us. I doubt any of us will sleep tonight anyway.

     With a sigh, Jacob began. “Most of what I’ve managed to figure out comes from notes written on the margins of the text. References to the reign of Valentinian and wars with the Visigoths place the discovery of the book in the first half of the fifth century. It was apparently found in the ruins of an abandoned temple inside a cave in the Western Empire. The temple apparently been uncovered shortly after the Sack of Rome. The Romans didn’t seem to know what deity or religion the temple belonged to, but apparently they left it alone for some time. At some point, an attempt was made to reform it into a Christian tomb, but the attempts kept facing setbacks. The codex was found during the last attempt–a worker had been removing pagan art from the stonework when he broke through the wall and a hidden vault. The book was already extremely old, but it was also completely intact, something its discoverer found particularly unsettling. He took it to the bishop overseeing the restoration, who initially thought it might have been a collection of pagan folklore.”

     “Go on,” Carter said.

     “The margins of the first hundred pages or so contain the priest’s notes on the tome itself. He seemed concerned that the pages were made from vellum, despite being too old for anything but wax or papyrus. He also describes his frustration with the text itself, referring to it as vague, butchered and incomprehensible. After those pages, the notes begin to shift into comments about the contents–references to earlier passages, descriptions of disturbing imagery here and there, and a few notes about a prophecy that he doesn’t bother to name. After a few pages of that, his notes become paranoid and rambling, with constant references to recurring nightmares, feelings of inexplicable dread and mentions of being watched or followed by something or someone he couldn’t see. Eventually he refers to the book itself as a demonic entity that needed to be destroyed.”

     Fiona glanced over at Pepper. She remembered that earlier, before everyone had taken their seats, Pepper had described, in detail, her own similar experience with the Somnia Arcana. That had left Fiona more than a little unnerved–and Pepper’s reaction to Jacob’s story unnerved her even more. Pepper, a girl who never showed any sign of fear, was afraid. Afraid, Fiona thought, and guilty.

     That was not the Pepper she knew.

     “So what happened?” Yvonne asked. “I mean, I find it hard to believe the Catholic Church would just keep a book like this lying around.”

     “They didn’t exactly,” Jacob said. “I doubt anyone actually knew about it. I mean, there were a few early on who did, but they kept it to themselves. There were several attempts to destroy it, though, but they all failed. One attempt to burn it led to a fire that destroyed an entire parish, and another attempt led to the priest locking himself in his room for days. When they found him, he’d slit his throat after cutting out his own eyes and tongue. Eventually the book was lost, and since there were no records of it, no one was aware of its existence until a few years ago.”

     “When you found it,” Carter said.

     “Actually, my predecessor did,” Jacob said. “It was hidden behind a stone block in the Vatican Library, along with several crucifixes and a vial of holy water. He read it, but he suffered the same nightmares and paranoia that the bishop reported. Unlike him, however, my predecessor was determined to read it through. He ended up hanging himself just a few weeks after discovering it. I came across it and his notes while cleaning out his room, and decided to investigate.”

     “So the Church doesn’t know it exists,” Carter said.

     “They don’t.”

     “Then how did your predecessor find out about this?”

     “That I don’t know,” Jacob said, “His notes contain a lot of the book’s history, but they don’t say where he got it. He seemed to be determined to make sure his sources could not be identified.”

     Carter’s skepticism was beginning to fade. While it was possible that the notes were simply delusions of madmen, he was not about to dismiss them. Crazier things have happened today, he thought.

     “Should I continue?” Jacob asked.

     Carter shifted in his seat. “Please do.” He didn’t really want to hear more, but he felt that an explanation–any explanation–was long overdue.

     “Some of his later notes mention that the tome has some kind of will. It inspires people, gets them to do things that they normally wouldn’t do. He mentioned that the book was only known for a little over a year, but that it was stolen six times in that time period. A few times they found the thief had killed himself–usually in a painful or horrific way. A few times it seemed to have been abandoned, often in some rather strange places. And as I mentioned before, they attempted to burn the tome several times, but couldn’t. It wouldn’t burn. And again, several of these attempts ended in tragedy.”

     “Sounds like the goddamn Necronomicon,” Steven said.

     “So what kind of book is it?” Pepper asked. “A chronicle, a bestiary, some sort of religious text, or more of a grimoire?”

     “It’s hard to say what it is,” Jacob said, “The book is bizarre. It’s a meandering rant for the most part, with no real chapters or organization at all. The exact subject changes constantly, like it’s written as a stream of consciousness. And that’s really the normal part. From what I can tell the book is over two thousand years old; the language it’s written in shares a number of similarities with both Hellenistic and Koine Greek as well as Early Latin, but its grammar structure is very simple and its lexicon seems to be a strange hodgepodge of all three of those languages.”

     “Scaelin,” Fiona muttered, remembering the note on the translation.

     “That’s correct,” Jacob said. “The language is difficult to understand. It’s a creole, but while it seems to be a very developed one, every word seems to have dozens of possible meanings, many of which don’t have equivalents in Latin and Greek. This is made even more frustrating by the fact that the language only uses the nominative and genitive forms of its nouns, relies exclusively on feminine and neuter forms, excludes the opative, ignores perfect tenses and doesn’t use augments. It’s completely incapable of speaking in the past tense.” He took a deep breath. “I’m pretty sure that the language was concurrent with classical Latin at some point, and it probably evolved from an early version of it. But due to the way it works, it’s both maddeningly ambiguous and incredibly precise at the same time, to the point that it’s almost a code rather than an actual language.”

     “That’s fascinating,” Steven said. “But I’m more concerned with what the book says about Dheania. The book that Pepper tried to read implies that we’re in for some serious shit.”

     Jacob went quiet. His demeanor shifted, becoming more reserved. He set the book on the floor and stood. For a moment, he paced–he seemed lost in thought, and almost conflicted. “There’s a lot about Dheania in there, and none of it is pleasant. For starters, you can probably call her insane. You see, the gods don’t usually work directly through our world. But Dheania does, and it’s….” He paused for a moment, and returned to his seat.

     “The thing is, the gods aren’t gods like you and I would see them. They created us, of course, but they don’t care about us. They don’t ask for worship, they don’t perform miracles, and the roles they serve aren’t exactly roles you’d call common. There’s elemental gods, but they don’t really govern the elements; there is, I guess you could call is, a pantheon of life and death, but they don’t actually govern life or death. But despite this, they aren’t content to let us live and die. Rather, they have created… beings, creatures that aren’t really alive or dead, that intercede on their behalf. And while tend to stay outside our world, sometimes they do enter it. The Tome Kataklysma calls them The Watchers Beyond the Veil, but it also calls them the Occae Caelestium–the Gods’ Harrows’. They are hunters and manipulators; brutal and savage beasts, often without any will or sense of reason–and all they do, all of the death that they bring is for the benefit of their masters.”

     “In other words,” Carlton said, “they exist to further the divine plan at our expense.”

     “That’s… partly right. It’s definitely at our expense, but there isn’t a divine plan. We have a more… mundane purpose.”

     “And what’s that?” Carlton asked.

     Jacob removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “We’re… their cattle,” he said. “Their prey. They need our souls–our life energy–to grow and mature. And it’s not just us–everything that lives our dies in our world exists for this reason. So when a living soul dies, it is sent to the wasteland, where it is claimed by a god and consumed.”

     He opened his eyes. “The Tome Kataklysma doesn’t go into detail about what happens after that, but it does say a few things about it. Consider the typical Christian Hell–the biblical Lake of Fire that the damned are sent to in the end of days for failing to repent for their sins. Imagine how it must painful that fire must be, burning not just our bodies but our souls as we suffer eternally and without any hope. Now imagine that the worst pain in your life is nothing compared to that agony. What you have there is already beyond the human concept of suffering–you can’t exactly wrap your mind around an eternity of torment for a lifetime of sin. Now imagine there is no sin. Imagine that everyone is equal in death–the bacteria that infects a wound, the wolf that slaughters the lamb, the murderer, the petty thief, the saint, and even the infant–that the only sorting value they have is which god claims them when they die. Now consider that the Christian concept of hell is still a human concept, and that because of that it is still very much limited, even if we cannot fathom the extent of that limit. Now imagine that the reality of what lies death lies far beyond that. The Tome Kataklysma implies that such a fate awaits all of us in death. Our concept of hell is still limited by our minds. Our fates are not.”

     The room fell silent again. Jacob placed his glasses back on his nose, but kept his eyes fixed on the floor. “From what the Tome Kataklysma does say, that is also the best possible fate–the soul, it seems, can only know so much suffering until it begins to break down. And it’s also, apparently, the least efficient use for us. They have other, far more efficient ways to utilize the souls they consume.”

     “Like what?” Pepper asked.

     “If they consume a living soul,” Jacob replied, “That limit is gone. And since that soul was consumed alive, that soul remains alive in every sense of the word, with its body still functioning, and its mind, its thoughts, all of it intact. And because of that, that soul can be made to withstand that torment for as long as the god exists. And they will never not exist.

     “There is no way to escape this. It will happen to every living being–every animal, every plant, everything that dies. After all, they are the light that awaits us, in the end.” He paused, and removed a prescription bottle from his pocket. “Tomorrow…” he said, “tomorrow I say goodbye to my sister and my cousin. Two people we all loved, who right now are suffering a fate worse than Hell itself.”

     Fiona found herself staring out at the growing darkness. She finally had her answers, but those answers brought her no comfort. It shouldn’t be like this, she thought. We’re alive. We exist. We have rights. We matter. Don’t we? She didn’t want to believe it. She didn’t want to accept that that was the reason she was alive.

     She realized at that moment what that prophecy foretold. The world was not coming to an end. There would be death–probably a lot of it–but life would go on. And why wouldn’t it? After all, the Earth was nearly nearly five billion years old. The first prokaryotic cells appeared only around four billion years ago, and the first multicellular species only a little more than one billion. It made no sense for the gods to waste all that and wipe the slate clean.

     But it made sense to harvest it.

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