It was at this moment, staring in awe at the work of a surely diseased mind, that I felt the world go sick. That may seem an odd turn of phrase, but I assure you, that is the only proper way to describe the way the world around me gave a sudden lurch, pitched forward, and then, for just a couple of seconds, throw everything into absolute blackness. After, I found myself in a large courtyard of a vast mansion. Green, manicured grass filled the whole of the courtyard, with white stone paths leading from various doors in the walls of the mansion. In the center, there was a Romanesque fountain spewing forth black water into a large pool of sewage. Sprinkled around the courtyard were marble tables, around which sat the same people who were in the pub, glass-eyed and still. Here, though, they were animate, and, by and large, weeping. The only man not looking morose was the man in the business suit, and I chose this man to be my source of information.
I walked over to him and introduced myself. He nodded in response and said, “For what it’s worth, my name is James. Call me Jim. There is no need for formality in this damned place, as you shall soon see. Yes, lad, coming here—well, I would call it the worst mistake of your life, but that implies that you shall have a life after this. You shan’t, I’m afraid. After this, it’s the same thing every day. What? Yes, sometimes we are allowed to go back into the pub for a bit of a reprieve from our torture here, but, you see, the pub is not much of a comfort.” He gave a great sigh. “Should never have taken my Abigail to London.”
There was a single electronic beep—the sort of which one would expect to hear from a digital watch announcing the time—and all those prisoners in the courtyard looked around them for any sign of any movement from the mansion. After five minutes, there being no sign of movement, they resumed their weeping. “How is it,” I began, “that you are the only one not weeping? Surely you are not in collusion with whatever it is that has begat this strange place.”
The man smiled—judging from the strained, uneasy look of the grin, I imagined that it was the first time in a long while that he felt the happiness (or perhaps lack of despair) that precipitated such an expression. “Oh, you see, it’s quite simple. Abigail and I—that is, my wife and I—have been here since the time this place was created. At first, I was like them, and like you will be, I should imagine, but after time, well,” he sighed again. “One simply learns to cope.” He looked up at the sky, and I matched his gaze. The sky was overcast. The clouds were low enough that I could make out the ways the grey beasts were formed in their underbellies. A wind carried them quickly by. “The good news is,” said the man, “that it hasn’t begun raining black pitch yet.”
I looked at the mansion around me. It was a gargantuan building, vaguely like a Victorian palace of some sort, but the angles were off. The entire structure of the building was off. It wasn’t something you could actually pick out or articulate. It was simply that there was something dreadfully wrong about the whole property. Like the painting in the pub, it filled one with a tremendous amount of mortal terror. Throughout my time in that eldritch world, I somehow managed to keep my calm, but, if I were going to lose it at any moment, I would imagine that I would have lost control when I first studied the mansion. I shook the thoughts from my head and asked what it was that happened in this place.
The man took out a pipe, packed the bowl, and lit it. I expected to smell the rich, strong aroma of pipe tobacco, but instead found that the man was toking ganja. I gather that I must have made some shocked face, for he let out a hoarse bark of a laugh. “What?” he asked. “Surely you didn’t think I managed to cope through sheer English pluck alone, did you? By Jove, you did. My God, man, no. The horror of this place would be enough to drive any sober man absolutely mad. My wife, for instance, had a cooler head about her than any man I ever met, but look at her now. Gibbering and weeping like an asylum inmate.”
“How did you come across hashish in this place?”
“I did not come across it. I survived and triumphed in an ordeal and, thus, am allowed certain favors. Every two weeks, it is marijuana, the rest of the time it is gin.”
“Why do you not share it? Certainly, with everyone calm, you could overcome whatever force it is that is holding you here.”
“No, it is not mine to give.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
The man leaned against a stone pillar and took another puff on his pipe. “I shared once, and found myself being devoured by three buzzards. No, it is not worth it. I may have a calm head, but that does not mean that I am a saint.”
“What is this place?”
“This is the playground of a diseased mind. We are the toys, the experiments. You, old boy, are the newest addition to the shelf, so to speak. I warn you, the initiation is a bit rough, as you first meet The Ravener.”
I cocked my head to the side.
“The lad dressed as a bell-hop in the painting. The one ripping out the butler’s spinal cord. Ah, yes, you know the one. We call him The Ravener, and he will come at you with all the hatred humanity is capable of. I expect, though it’s never been, that you might be able to escape if you were to best him in combat. Of course, that is impossible when you are facing a being who has decapitated individuals with a twist of his hands.” The man’s eyes shut for a moment, and then he shook himself awake.
I enquired about the other man—the man dressed as a hunter.
“Ah, well, no one has seen him. I have not seen him, and I have been here since 1891. I have, though, seen his dogs—great big beasts with red eyes and dripping maws. Killed two of them. That’s why I have the marijuana. But, all the same, good luck to you. They will come for you at the third signal, and then you will wait for The Ravener.” His head drooped to his chest and the man fell asleep, slowly sliding against the pillar to the ground.
I took a place on a bench at a near table. I knew that I was doomed from the start; I had never been a part of anything that could be termed combat. The closest I had come was the occasional paintball match and, while I was a dead shot in that, running around the woods was a far cry from fighting a being—for, from the instant I looked at the painting, I was not sure that this thing I was facing was a man—capable of ripping out a man’s spinal cord. I decided that my only hope was for me to rely on my intellect. In this case, I thought about what I could most use. It sounded as if this thing was a creature composed of terror and rage, and that, further, to stand up against it would be suicide. (From the center of the courtyard, there came a second electronic beep. The others in the yard ceased their wailing for a few minutes and then resumed as before.) And so, I considered, my only, and therefore best, hope was to bog the bastard down long enough to find some means of escape from this place.
I took a deep breath—and immediately wished I hadn’t, for a gust of wind took the stench of the fountain directly to me and I found myself retching. When I recovered, I reasoned that, since there was obviously a portal to this world, there had to be a portal back out. The only hint of a portal I had was the painting in the pub. In a fit of wild conjecture, I guess that, since The Hunter was staring at the viewer of the painting instead of some other subject in the scene, the painting was the entry into this world, The Hunter’s gaze being the equivalent of a siren song. (This may have been absolute bunk, and a portion of my mind told me that it certainly was, but it was the only thing I had to grip on to, and, sometimes, even the worst-reasoned ideas are the only things that give us hope.) So, my logic went, I had to find this library, and, from there, find a way to go through this world’s twin painting and back into that damned pub, and from there, out as fast as my feet would take me.
For all the man’s logic, Jim’s mind probably would not have been able to get him to where I arrived for a couple of reasons: Initially because of the shock of his new surroundings. (I imagined that I escaped this shock by finding a man lucid enough to introduce me to the realm, as it were.) Subsequently because of his dope and drink. No doubt they kept him from going mad, but certainly clouded his mind enough so that he did not think as clearly as he should have.
A third tone sounded, the others in the courtyard wailed, and I, preparing to meet the worst, stood and steeled myself. I was, immediately, rendered unconscious by some unseen force. So much for meeting my adversary with a courageous face.