The Labyrinth of Winter’s End: A Devoured Story

πŸ“… Published on January 2, 2022

β€œThe Labyrinth of Winter's End: A Devoured Story”

Written by Curtis M. Lawson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME β€” 24 minutes

Rating: 10.00/10. From 2 votes.
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Sister Elizabeth was well versed in the books and history of her faith. She knew that the American interpretation of Hell, the lakes of fire and fields of tortured souls, was more in line with the imaginations of Milton and Dante than with the truth of her religion. Hell, according to genuine articles of faith, was a state of being outside of God’s light.

If ever she had felt cast out from the radiance of her lord, it was now.

The little slice of Hell where she currently suffered was an establishment called the Cretan Inn. The Cretan was located west of Omaha, in the railroad town of Winter’s End. Elizabeth’s family had warned her that a mission out West would be fraught with danger. They had argued that plenty of folks in New York still needed help finding God. The wisdom of those warnings had now been proven and she wondered if her choice to head west had been motivated by ambition rather than faith. Surely, if her motivations had been pure, she would not be bound in this earthen dungeon, removed from God’s light

Elizabeth was not the only one who believed that the Lord’s reach did not stretch into this dark place. The hotel’s proprietor was currently affirming just that.

She could hear the gasping sobs of another woman, begging for divine intervention- screaming for Jesus to just let her die. In response, a calm, masculine voice spoke out in an assuring manner that sounded profane in context.

“There’s no sense in going on like that,” the man’s voice stated matter-of-factly. “God cannot breach these walls, pumpkin. I am the Cretan’s sole deity.”

The dim yellow light of the curator’s oil lamp refracted in Elizabeth’s tears, obscuring her vision. She was thankful for this. The screams of pain and sobs of terror, the pulpy, wet sounds of ruined tissue, and the breaking of bones was already too much. The young nun feared she might lose her mind if she had to visually witness the tortures that her captor was enacting upon the other woman.

Elizabeth tried to mentally remove herself from her current situation. Her body had been reviled and death was imminent, but she did not have to live her last hours in fear. The physical was nothing but a proving ground for eternity. The railroad ties that held her to the floor and the earthen walls which surrounded her were but a prison of the body. This devil-man might hold physical dominion over her, but he could not keep her soul in bondage.

With all the spiritual fortitude she could muster, Elizabeth pushed against her own fear, attempting to meditate on her faith and the fact that she would soon be with Jesus. As if reading her mind, the proprietor dropped some unseen instrument onto a metal tray, a tinny ringing in the darkness, and turned his attention to Elizabeth. The sobbing of her fellow captive had quieted enough so that she could hear the proprietor’s footsteps as he approached. Her eyes were shut tight, but the yellow light of the oil lamp was becoming more powerful, piercing through the veil of flesh and blood vessels which separated her mind from reality

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten you, Sister. I see you coming to terms with death and praying for your immortal soul. But your concerns are misplaced.” His words were perfectly enunciated and overflowing with hubris.

“That soft, meaty husk that I’ve so generously deflowered will leave this place, albeit a bit worse for wear. But your spirit, the pain and joys and passions that make up your essence, shall remain in these walls. No Heavenly Father can snatch you from my dungeon. This I promise.”

The oil lamp was close to her face now. She could feel its heat, just as she could smell the gore on the man who held it.

The devil in man’s skin was kneeling down beside where she lay staked to the floor. A sticky, wet hand stroked her face, gently like a lover’s caress. The sensation was vulgar and brought bile into the nun’s throat. A moment later, despite her best efforts to remain strong, Elizabeth was openly weeping.

“Rest, Sister. I’ll be back for you tomorrow.”

Elizabeth’s eyes shot open and momentarily stunned her captor with the anger and fear with which they burned. “No!” she screamed, as loud as she could. “You finish this now! Don’t you leave me down here!”

The innkeeper took a step back and laughed to himself. “Oh, but I do whatever I choose, Sister.”

Without another word, he walked away, taking the dim light of the lantern with him. Elizabeth screamed incomprehensible curses at the man as he opened a heavy door at the far end of the basement. He ignored her cries and crossed the threshold between one circle of Hell and another. A moment later, the door closed with a loud thud and all light vanished.

After minutes of sobbing, Elizabeth laid quiet, growing stoic in her pain and fear. Her hands and feet were in agony from the railroad spikes that pinned her to the ground in the shape of an x. Worse than the fire in her nerves were the sounds in the darkness.

The other woman, moaned as she slowly died of blood loss and trauma. Then came the squeaking sound of curious rats investigating the darkness for an easy meal. Elizabeth wondered if the rodents would eat her alive before the innkeeper made his return.

#

Jake Albert stood naked, washing up in a basin that he kept just outside the door to his dungeon. He had taken off his clothes and left them to soak in a bucket on the floor. This never got them terribly clean, but it was not as if they were his Sunday best. The water would rinse away the bulk of the gore, leaving only rust colored stains when they dried. Although Jake was generally very tidy, keeping his clerical garments looking like a butcher’s apron helped to elicit deeper fear from his victims.

Beyond the thick metal door, he could hear the muffled cries of the nun. Once upstairs, the noise would be undetectable. Like many features in the Cretan Inn, named for the mythical labyrinth, he had designed the dungeon, and the passageway leading to it himself. The soundproofing had been a bit more expensive than he had initially hoped, but it was essential.

Once he had meticulously cleaned the blood off his hands and from beneath his nails, Jake proceeded down the hallway and ascended a narrow, wooden staircase. At the top of the staircase, just outside another heavy door, was a cedar chest. Jake reached in and retrieved a clean set of clothes- black pants, with shoes, suspenders, and a bowler hat to match, along with a white button-up shirt. There was a full-length mirror mounted on the wall above the chest. Jake took his time getting dressed, making sure that everything was tucked in and straightened just so. Once satisfied with his appearance, he opened the wooden door and stepped into a hallway of the inn which held the dummy rooms he never rented.

Jake could hear someone ringing the bell at the front desk for service. He had hoped that the guest had not been unattended for too long. Even in The Middle of Nowhere, Nebraska, Jake found it important to maintain a reputation for hospitality.

He expertly rushed through the maze of hallways which were intended to confuse any stranger with their dead ends and cyclical cross sections. In just over a minute, he was in the lobby, dusting his hands off against one another in an exaggerated manner.

At the desk stood a massive man with his back turned to Jake. He was well over six feet tall, with shoulders as broad as a keg is tall. Long, raven-colored hair the texture of straw spilled across the back of the stranger’s plain white shirt. He wore denim pants and brown boots with spurs. Jake imagined this giant of a man would need a hell of a horse to carry him any great distance. His demeanor and posture, even from behind, reflected incredible confidence. Jake would have taken him for a lawman or a shootist if it weren’t for the lack of a gun belt or firearms.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome to the Cretan Inn,” Jake said in his most gregarious tone, as he made his way past the large visitor and back behind the check in desk.

“And if you are new to Winter’s End…” Jake’s words were cut short as the vision before him stole the breath from his lungs. For a moment, Jake Albert, who truly believed himself to be a divine being, was positive that he was staring at the devil.

The stranger’s face was the color of adobe, riddled with deep cracks and black scabs. His eyes were as black as his hair, and seemed to look straight through Jake, toward something beyond this world. His base features, below the disfigurements, were classically handsome. This lent an air of tragedy to the big man’s horrific appearance.

Jake caught himself staring. He closed his eyes in an attempt to regain his composure. He was prone to visions and hoped that this one would evaporate if he willed it so. When Jake opened his eyes again, the man was just as hideous, but he was now prepared.

“My apologies, sir. Your, umm… Your skin condition caught me off guard. Not leprosy, is it?”

The disfigured man before him seemed to awaken from some manner of daydream and now looked at Jake, rather than through him.

“This is a place of sacrifice?” It wasn’t just the nature of the question that disturbed Jake, but also his visitor’s voice- a sound like muffled thunder and breaking glass.

“A place of what?” Jake asked. Apprehension had crept into his voice.

The stranger stood still for a moment, as if thinking before asking again.

“This place. It is an altar of worship?”

“A church?” Jake responded in question. “No, sir. This is a traveler’s inn. There’s no church in Winter’s End.”

“An inn?” the visitor asked, once again looking through Jake. The innkeeper was becoming increasingly nervous. There was something wrong with the man in front of him-something that went deeper than a skin condition and a hoarse throat.

“Are you alright? There’s a doctor in town, if you need one.”

Jake’s voice seemed to once again awaken the stranger from his reverie. The big man reached into his purse and produced several gold coins, the size of sand dollars. He placed the coins on the counter with a heavy hand.

“This will be enough for a room?”

Jake eyed the coins in disbelief. He reached out a hand and retrieved one, studying the angular, alien writing engraved upon it. With more than a little reluctance he brought the coin to his mouth and bit down.

It was real. Jake couldn’t believe it. On his counter must have laid two hundred dollars’ worth of gold. And for what, one night’s board?

“This will be enough?” his visitor repeated.

“Umm… Yes. Yes, absolutely!”

With a quick hand, Jake swept away the money. A moment later he produced a room key and a ledger. The ledger was for the guests who Jake deemed too strong to kill, or those whose disappearance might be looked into. With those who would end up in the dungeon, he never asked for a signature.

“You will be staying upstairs. I’ll show you the way. If I could first get your John Hancock, though.”

“I do not possess a man by that name,” said the stranger, dryly.

After a brief moment of further tension, Jake snickerd. This guy’s fucking with me, he thought, and was relieved to find that the monster before him had a sense of humor.

“Your signature, if you would, sir. Or if you can’t write, an X will do.”

With a hand like a bear paw, the stranger grabbed a pen from the ink fountain in the counter. On an empty line in the ledger, he marked a single character, but it was not an X. He had inked the page with a symbol like an angular P with an extended vertical line. It looked very much like the writing on the coins.

“I’m not quite familiar with that manner of writing, sir. May I ask your name?”

“Thurs.”

Jake misheard the man, thinking he said Thirst. The name seemed fitting, given his dry, cracked skin. There was something thirsty, or maybe hungry, in those black eyes as well. Jake had the uncomfortable impression that this Mister Thirst would devour the world if he could.

#

Stress and pain had led Sister Elizabeth to sleep, but even in slumber, the grip of the Cretan Inn was too strong for her to escape. Elizabeth’s dreams had been nightmare reenactments of the innkeeper ravaging her virtue and of her failed attempt at escape. Her nightmares were non-linear, mental labyrinths where she repeatedly ran through the inn’s maze of halls. Doors opened to bricked-over passageways. Again and again, she was dragged into dark places where the evil man with the friendly smile nailed her to the ground, or sometimes to a cross, and forced his way inside of her.

Presently, dream-Elizabeth was running naked through the inn’s halls, blood and semen pouring from her defiled sex. The red and milky white fluids swirled together in a viscous dance of barbaric unity- a trail of sin for the devil-man to follow. She glanced back over her shoulder. She could not see her pursuer but she could hear him, sniffing and snorting like a wild pig tracking down a scent.

Elizabeth came to a cross-section in the hallway where she could turn left or right. First, she cast her glance to the right. At the end of the hall was a massive oak door carved with a relief of Christ dying on the cross. The relief was not a static image. The carved depiction of her Lord writhed upon the cross set in the wood. Amber sap dripped from its stigmata. It wailed out an imitation of the true Christ’s passion in the form of creaking wood.

With little thought and no control of her dreamscape avatar, the young nun turned to see what was down the other corridor. This hall also ended in a huge oak door. Like the other door, a living image moved across the wood. There was something different in the tone of the second relief. The central figure was still a cellulose savior, but it did not suffer on the edge of death. This wooden Christ stood tall but scarred, and carried a flaming sword. In this image the messiah of revelations rallied an army of angels and screamed a battle cry that sounded like a lightning bolt splitting an oak tree.

A sound like the running of some clumsy animal caught her attention. She looked back and saw the innkeeper running toward her on all fours. The blood and semen mixture she had left behind as dripping from his nose. He caught the unholy mixture on his protruding tongue.

Elizabeth raced toward the door where Christ in his warrior-king aspect marched through the microcosmic realm held in a plane of oak. Behind her, the devil-man snorted and laughed. The slapping of his hands and feet against the wooden floor echoed behind her. Up ahead, Jesus let out another thundering scream and beckoned for his wife in the Church to join him and his.

The nun was faster than her aggressor. Her hand reached the door knob. She twisted it and pushed. The door swung open effortlessly, revealing a panoramic view of the night sky with no ground in sight. Countless stars cast their glow through shifting auroras and blackest oceans of nothingness.

Cold such as Elizabeth had never felt drifted into the inn from the open door. A haze of condensation formed in the passage. Misty tendrils beckoned the nun into the nightscape. She stood momentarily dumbstruck by the beauty and awe of the cold world beyond the door.

A hand grabbed her hair from behind. The strong arms of the terrible innkeeper forced her to her knees and twisted her vision back into the labyrinthine halls of the Cretan Inn.

No Heavenly Father shall snatch you from my dungeon, sister. He spoke the words straight into her mind. His psychic voice was proper and cultured, a striking contrast to his animalistic demeanor.

Sister Elizabeth looked up at the monstrous predator and found courage despite his terrible countenance.

“You’re right. No Heavenly Father shall snatch me away. One must choose to go with The Lord.”

With that Elizabeth pumped her legs as hard as she could, wrenching herself from the devil-man’s grip, and leapt backward through the doorway into the starry abyss. The perspiration dripping from her body became cosmic snow fall. Her body began to crystallize, the sea of nothingness devouring the heat from her body. As her vision faded, the last thing Elizabeth saw was the innkeeper standing in the door way, dumbfounded, holding a fist full of Elizabeth’s silken hair.

#

Jake sat in a rocking chair set up on the porch of the inn. With a glass of bourbon in one hand, he watched the sun descend into an orange and crimson horizon set against the silhouette of a modest skyline. The weather was fine- warm with a slight breeze- and Jake was not one to take such a pleasant evening for granted.

Still, something felt off tonight. The guest, the giant man Jake knew as Thirst, was poking around the grounds of the inn. He would place his hands and face against the dirt, as if trying to listen in on whatever long-dead things might lay beneath. Jake figured it was some injun bullshit about communing with nature. He certainly has the right complexion for a savage, Jake thought. That would explain the skin disease too. These American cave-men were always catching some sickness that the white man had evolved beyond.

Whatever Thirst was up to, there was no danger of his guest stumbling upon the remains of previous visitors. Those had all been dealt with properly. Jake did not shit where he ate. Still, the way Thirst got down on his hand and knees and mumbled into the dirt, Jake couldn’t help but picture the souls of all his victims screaming out to this stranger for retribution.

Of course that was nonsense. The souls here were trapped within the plaster and lumber of the inn’s walls, not the dirt. As the god-king of the Cretan, only Jake was privy to their ethereal suffering.

He watched Thirst closely as the big man knelt in the middle of the dirt path that led away from the porch. As Thirst pressed his hand against the ground, Jake had the incredible impression that the man’s flesh was becoming one with the earth. He could not tell for sure where the massive hands ended and the dirt road began.

Jake shook his head, sure that he was hallucinating. He was prone to visions, and while he was quite sure some were of a divine nature, others were no more than vivid daydreams. When he looked again, the vision had grown more bizarre. Thirst was now looking down, face to face with the dirt, in a quite literal sense. The earth below the giant had erupted into a gruesome sculpture of some deformed child’s face.

Jake dropped his glass. The tumbler shattered into a hundred fragments, each momentarily catching the gorgeous light of the dying day before falling back upon the porch. A stream of bourbon rolled across rapids of broken glass and down the edge of the top stair.

Thirst looked up at the sound of breaking glass and the deformed, infantile face melted back into the earth. The strange guest’s black eyes were set upon Jake, though no expression was visible on his face.

“I… I think I’ve had enough drink for one night. I’ll be retiring, if you don’t mind.”

Thirst kept his gaze on the innkeeper but did not reply. Jake nodded and walked backward into the Cretan.

“You just ring the bell if you need anything at all, Mister Thirst.”

#

The Cretan’s proprietor had laid down for an early night’s sleep, just after sunset, but slumber did not come easy. He lay naked and comfortable, as he did every night, but his mind was restless. The image of his Indian guest’s mockery of a face was burned into his mind. The odd, angular sigil that Thurs had written in his ledger floated across his field vision, like dust in his eye.

After an hour or so of chasing slumber, Jake willed himself to focus on more pleasant thoughts- his captives in the basement. The older woman, the one who’d been traveling west to find work after her husband was taken by a Confederate cannon, was surely dead by now. He’d left her to bleed to death, and he reckoned it should not have taken long. He hoped her suffering had been prolonged enough to distinctly affect the nun.

Sister Elizabeth was the real prize. Just the thought of her soft flesh and softer soul excited Jake’s body. His manhood twitched as he revisited her pleading sobs in the moments before he forced himself inside her virtue. He’d likened himself to a crusader, smashing through the gates of some Israelite temple to lay claim upon what rightfully belonged to the soldiers of the divine.

He ran his hand down his own chest as he recalled how her hair had felt gripped in his fist as he dragged her down the abandoned halls of his inn. With a firm grip on his own scepter, the god-king of the Cretan relived the moments when he drove each spike through Sister Elizabeth’s limbs. He moaned in ecstasy, thinking of her shrill, agonized screams.

Just as he approached the climax which he hoped would bring sleep, a true and audible screech pulled him out of the moment. Jake sat up in his bed, looking around the room, panicked. He wondered if the sound had not escaped his fantasy and found shape in reality. Many of Jake’s visions began as daydreams before taking on physical form.

The sound echoed through the inn again. Jake focused on its tone and shifting pitch. After a moment’s reflection, he decided that it was too low to be a screaming nun, and not static enough in pitch to be a moaning. It sounded like the creaking of wood, but far louder and more extended than the building settling. With the intensity of thunder, the horrid creaking began again, and this time it would not cease. When the terrible noise refused to stop after a few seconds, Jake covered his ears and backed himself into the furthest corner of his bedroom. The sound pierced his very being. He could feel its horrid vibrations in his bones and in his soul.

Jake Albert was afraid. It was a feeling he had not felt since childhood.

Crashes and shattering glass joined the cacophony. The sounds grew louder, as if they came from some banshee racing toward Jake’s bed chamber. The individual pieces of the door frame began to twist like wet rags being rung out by invisible hands. Spider web cracks erupted across the surrounding plaster. The hinges separated on sheared pins just as the door exploded into a rain of splinters.

Jake closed his eyes, as much to protect his vision from the flying debris as to banish his grim hallucination. Once the creaking had stopped and he no longer felt himself being pelted with wooden hail, the innkeeper opened his eyes.

Things had not returned to normal. They had gotten much worse.

Jake saw a ruinous, nightmare version of his Cretan through the twisted portal of broken pine that had been his door frame. The floors were now warped into static waves, interrupted by the occasional jagged plank jutting upward. Walls bowed, arcing up through the missing ceiling and into the now floorless rooms above, creating a cathedral effect. Plaster had been shaken from the walls and lathe shown beneath like exposed ribs.

Carefully, Jake made his way into the lobby of the inn and surveyed the damage. He could now take in a more complete portrait of the damage. Furniture from the rooms above had crashed into the lobby, along with clouds of pulverized plaster. Wooden beams from the ceiling had crashed in front of the front door, barring any egress. The odd, deliberate twist and bends in the building’s frame spoke of something darker and far more eldritch than a mere earthquake. Still, his rational mind argued that this had been a natural event which his occasionally unreliable perception had transformed in to something more horrific.

Jake almost had himself convinced that he was hallucinating at least some of what he saw. That’s when Sister Elizabeth’s voice echoed from every direction.

“You cannot breach these walls…pumpkin.”

Her voice was toxic with hatred.

Jake whipped his head back and forth while spinning around, trying to pinpoint the voice’s source. In his panic, he caught his foot in a concave divot of the wooden floor. He fell to his knees and his ankle twisted in a way that ankles are not meant to twist. He let out a sharp cry of pain. Sister Elizabeth’s incorporeal laughter flowed around him in response.

Jake took a deep breath and looked down at the floor as he worked to banish the pain of his twisted ankle. The wood grain was moving, forming into the faces of deformed infants. One was missing an eye. Another suffered from a cleft palate. A third had the distinctive look of a mongoloid. Each wailed in wide-mouthed silence.

Jake looked at the faces of the children – not with horror, but with confusion. He had firmly believed that the souls of his victims would be trapped within his castle, but these invalids were strangers. He had never enacted his will upon them. He had never even seen them before.

The scraping sound of iron against plaster called Jake’s attention away from the ghosts of the wood grain. This time the sound had a clear source. It was coming from the maze of hallways which led to his dungeon.

“You think you hold any power here?!” Jake screamed, as he pushed himself back to his feet.

His ankle hurt, and it was hard to stand. The pain made him feel weak. The weakness made him angry.

“I’ll nail you back into the dirt, whore!”

His eyes were fixed down the hallway where the scraping was coming from. The sound was becoming louder, rougher. Jake shuffled unsteadily across the uneven floor, favoring his uninjured leg. Whatever had broken and corrupted his home, he blamed it on this bitch of God. Nothing mattered more to him at that moment than making her pay.

Jake’s angry resolve melted into impotent fear. The young woman was dressed in her monochrome vestments, complete with habit, though she looked anything but holy. Her feet were trailing blood from holes the size of quarters, where she had torn out the railroad spikes that had staked her to the ground. She had not bothered to remove the spikes from her hands. She dragged them across the walls, her arms outspread in imitation of her lord. Her mouth was tightly closed in thin-lipped rage. The pink of her natural complexion was masked beneath dried blood and yellow-blue bruises.

Still, it barely gave Jake pause. Sister Elizabeth, despite her stigmata and ugly determination, was not the first monster to try and unnerve him.

“What did you do to my home, you useless quim?”

You did this, devil-man,” spoke the woman who was the image of hell. “You challenged God, then invited him into your house.”

The Sister’s words made no sense to Jake. They were the ravings of a madwoman. Yes, he’d challenged her Jew god countless times. He’d spit in the face of his creation and tortured his children. But he had never once invited God into his house or even into his heart.

With no further hesitation, Jake limped toward the approaching nun. Each had their eyes set upon the other. Each had the other’s suffering in mind. With nearly a hundred pounds to his advantage, Jake felt confident that he could put Sister Elizabeth down, regardless of his ankle and despite whatever curse the bitch had used to corrupt his domain.

As they approached one another, Elizabeth brought the middle finger of her left hand to her mouth and bit a chunk of flesh from her finger tip. She unceremoniously spit the finger meat to the floor and then chomped down on the matching digit of the opposite hand.

Jake paused, unsure what was happening. He understood sadism quite well, but self-mutilation was alien to him. The sight of it troubled him. He felt sick and his fear was magnified.

The nun put the raw meat of her middle fingers down to the spikes in her hands. She traced the head of each spike, painting their heads with her own blood. At the same time, she invoked words in a strange tongue. Jake doubted that the ugly, discordant syllables had any human origin.

A sharp, searing pain shot through the center of Jake’s palms, the again, even sharper, in his feet. The unexpected agony was so sudden and intense that it sent the innkeeper to the floor. Uncontrolled tears flooded from his eyes. Jake unclenched his fists and in his obscured vision could see that the nun’s stigmata were now mirrored in his own flesh.

#

Elizabeth ached in those nether-regions where the devil-man had violated her. Her muscles were knots of pain from stress and abuse. The wounds in her feet, where she had torn free from the iron staking her to the ground, were nearly overwhelming. The holes in her hands and the missing tips of her fingers burned like acid.

For all of this, Elizabeth felt blessed. Now, at one with Christ’s passion, she truly felt God’s light upon her for the first time. Her suffering had led her through the gates of heaven. She had learned the language of angels and looked upon the face of the infinite. In return for all these blessings, God demanded such a meager sacrifice. One single life. The devil-man’s life.

A day before, she would have been ashamed to admit that any act of malice might please her. But her understanding of God’s will had not been so deep yesterday. Today, she could fully appreciate the wrath which had brought down Sodom and drowned the world. Today, she would take pleasure in cutting down her would-be killer upon the altar of her Lord.

Elizabeth smiled as the innkeeper shambled across the uneven floor on his wounded feet and his twisted ankle. She did not run after him. She needn’t. He would run through this maze, thinking it still the hell he created, only to find that God had changed every twist and corridor. The devil-man would be lost and confused, just as she had been hours earlier, running from him. And then he would stumble upon the altar, where she would bring some sense of worth to his otherwise wasted existence.

#

Nothing made sense. Jake had built the Cretan himself. He knew every corridor and secret passage. Nothing was as it should be and no mere earthquake could explain the changes. Dead ends with secret doorways had turned into circular hallways. Doorways to rooms that had been there were now met with blockades of earthen clay. Plain, neat, staircases which had led to the second floor were gone, replaced by spiraling, broken steps of madness which merged into the walls themselves.

Amidst all this insanity, magnifying his pain and fear, were the soft sounds of Sister Elizabeth’s bare footfalls. She was quiet and relentless, like a Komodo Dragon stalking wounded prey until it fell from infection.

Jake shambled down a long hallway toward a tee-shaped cross section. Behind him he could hear the padding of the nun’s bare feet. His uneven breath vibrated across the space of the hall and into his ears. She would soon outpace him, but Jake dared not look back to see how great a lead he held.

Reaching the cross section at the end of the hall, Jake looked right. The hall terminated in a dead end, covered in fallen joists that made the shape of a leaning cross.

He switched his gaze to the left and was met with an open doorway which led to a deep darkness. Jake smiled and laughed. Beyond that door, there was still some place in the Cretan where this bitch and her bitch-god might stand powerless before him. If he could reach the end of his hall and descend into his holy of holies there would be a chance to salvage all of this.

Jake ran as best he could, stumbling into walls along the way toward the darkened passageway. A mad laughter overtook him, casting out his pain and fear. A cold, soothing wind blew from the blackness ahead. It promised resolution.

“There is no escaping God’s will, Devil-man,” called out a calm, feminine voice behind him.

Having reached the door, Jake leaned against its wooden frame and turned his eyes back to his pursuer.

“I am God here, Sister.”

With that, Jake Albert allowed himself to fall backward, through the darkened passageway. His vision ceased as the blackness overwhelmed him. He tumbled downward, wooden steps bludgeoning his head, back, and legs. Seconds later, he was met with the cold earth of the hallway to his dungeon. Despite the pain, Jake laughed. He was overwhelmed with relief

Jake was not what one might consider a warrior, but he was sturdy. He fought against the trauma and forced himself to his knees. Like a wild animal, he rushed forward on all fours toward the steel door that would lead to salvation.

Behind him, Jake could still hear the nun’s foot falls. The sound brought him excitement. The dumb bitch would follow him right back into his lair. Once through that door he would show her the meaning of divinity.

The darkness in the tunnel was absolute, and Jake smashed into the door before he’d expected. He snickered to himself and reached for the handle. The door pushed inward and Jake fell across the threshold.

The ground beneath him was cool and soothing. He could feel, or at least he could imagine that he felt, energy flowing between himself and the earthen floor.

Jake gathered his strength and rose to a crouched position. He was a wolf, ready to pounce.

“Come on, you worthless bitch,” he barked into the darkness.

Jake stood ready, quite sure that his grim sanctum would make the nun powerless while granting him preternatural attributes. Wide-eyed, he waited for his vision to focus into superhuman clarity. He willed the pain in his hands and feet to cease, envisioning the skin around his stigmata knitting itself back together. He sniffed at the air, searching for the scent of her madness.

All this was cut short as an unseen object, something long and sharp, penetrated Jake Albert’s torso. The instrument slid cleanly between two ribs on his left side, puncturing his lung. Jake never saw it coming.

The Cretan’s proprietor gasped wildly for breath, but his lungs found only blood. He never felt the ground after losing his feet. In fact, Jake Albert swore that there was no ground beneath where he lay dying. The cool earth was gone, and his body seemed to float on a plane of blackness smeared with stars. The light from the glowing nebulae below him illuminated Sister Elizabeth, who stood above him like a ghost against the dungeon walls. Her left hand was still pierced with a railroad spike. Her right showed a gaping hole spitting plumes of blood. Jake guessed with some certainty that the missing spike was the thing currently lodged in his torso.

The twisted, broken face of the Indian whom he knew as Thirst materialized behind the weeping, smirking nun. Jake had been right in his unease. He looked into the cold, black eyes of the hideous face. He now recognized the terrible thing held within them that had so spooked him earlier in this endless day. It was true divinity, that aspect of being which Jake had chased all his life. It sparked within the black pits of Thurs’ eyes.

Who are you?

Jake tried to speak the words aloud, but only gurgling and foaming blood escaped his mouth. Nonetheless, Thurs heard his question.

I am that which was before, and that which shall be hereafter, Thurs spoke without speaking. I am Tiamat, Kronos, and YWHY. I am Thurs.

“I willingly give this life upon the altar of God,” Elizabeth recited the words, unaware of the conversation between a Jake and Thurs. “May this mortal blood act as a key to the gates of Heaven.”

Why come to her aid? What is divine in the way of the lamb? Are we not kindred spirits? Are we not lions?

You reach past your station, Jake Albert. You are an apostate and a ridiculous beast. The priestess understands her place in this universe and is content in such.

Without further argument, all that Jake Albert had been was burned away. The destruction of his soul expelled enough energy to tear a hole between Winter’s End and that place beyond the stars which Sister Elizabeth called Heaven.

#

Freddy Pratchett, like many others in Winter’s End, had been wary of Jake Albert and his Cretan Inn. He could think of no good reason why a rich man would settle in a track town, let alone spend enough money to build a public house the size and caliber of the Cretan. Freddie figured that the overly gregarious Mr. Albert had come out west to run from something. Maybe that something was as simple as a broken heart, though Freddie reckoned it had more to do with law or money. It usually did

On top of the strangeness of the Cretan itself, the inn had been built on cursed land. At least that’s what the natives claimed. Legends said that some ancient tribe had sacrificed unwanted children there in the days before the Cheyenne roamed the Nebraska plains.

Most of the town had come out of their homes at the sound of the earthquake. Freddy was not surprised to see that it had torn through the Cretan and nothing else in Winter’s End. He was a God-fearing man and was quite sure that the breaking, heaving earth which shattered and reshaped the inn was some manner of divine retribution for the sins of its creator.

What did strike Freddy as unbelievable was the churning sea of black that replaced the ground around the inn shortly after the quake. Freddy, along with most of Winter’s End watched as Jake Albert’s torture palace was sucked into a dark, viscous pit that reflected the starry sky above. As the broken inn was pulled downward, plumes of white steam rose up around it. It looked to Freddy like the hot breath of a monster bellowing forth from a cave on a winter’s day.

When the Cretan had completely vanished below the black, a new structure began to rise. The first detail to emerge from the pit was a simple wooden cross. Moments later the adobe facade of a western-style mission became visible above the pit. Freddy watched in awe until the church was fully realized and the churning darkness below it reverted to mundane earth.

Freddy wanted to believe the whole thing was a miracle, but the church was somehow profane in its details. Instinctively, he knew that it had no place within this realm of creation. Its dimensions were wrong and somehow disproportionate with one another. The corners met at impossible angles. To look upon the doors left one nauseated; they seemed simultaneously convex and concave.

The godless and the sinners alike ran for their lives. They took to their horses and carts and coaches and never looked back. The devout, however – men like Freddy Pratchett – were held in place by the spiritual gravity of the church. The initial revulsion at its impossible nature evaporated from Freddy’s mind the longer he gazed upon its unholy spires and vaults. Fear quickly gave way to fascination, and then to religious epiphany.

Freddy’s mind, and the minds of all the faithful, shattered. The mental stress of looking upon the temple of madness proved too trying for the mortal psyche. Insane and enraptured, Freddy stood all night watching the shifting geometry of the church.

Shortly before dawn, a nun stepped out through the dizzying doors. Behind her stood a tall, broad-shouldered manifestation of Christ. The messiah’s skin was broken from the lashes of Roman whips. His eyes were black with heaven’s wrath.

The nun opened her mouth and spoke alien words which communicated only with the soul. The devout drew closer and listened.

From Jake Albert’s temple of apostasy, the good sister preached the lost gospels of the devouring gods to Freddy Pratchett and the whole of Winter’s End.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 2 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by Curtis M. Lawson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

πŸ”” More stories from author: Curtis M. Lawson


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