Four smooth walls of gray, unfinished concrete and four square pillars a foot and a half wide supported the open-joist ceiling. The floor was also concrete, but earth tones, the reds and browns of dried blood, covered over the gray, looking cancerous and alive under the one dim bulb swinging directly over David’s head. David and his chair occupied the center of the room. Behind David was a thick wooden door hung on well-oiled hinges. A large iron knob, an unadorned sphere, occupied the usual spot, and there was no key hole. On the other side of the door, just before the wall, was a well of old sandstone. Covering it was a large granite wheel. There was something drawn or written on the top, but David couldn’t make it out. David was lucky to be conscious at all, for on the wall behind the well on two hooks that hang from the ceiling on chains was his skin.
They started at his collar bone where it met his sternum and cut down with a knife shaped like a half-moon. David was tied down with his arms stretched to the floor along the sloping back of his chair and his ankles bound to the front two legs. The chair itself seemed rooted in the floor, and no matter David’s struggles, he could neither move himself nor the chair. They stopped cutting down at his navel, and proceeded make two cuts radiating from the terminus of the first towards his legs, and they cut down the inner part of his legs, and he screamed. They cut a circle just above his ankle, careful not to sever his Achilles tendon, and they moved back up to his collar bone. It was at this point some of them began to peel his flesh away with pliers and scalpels while others made two skin-deep incisions from the top of his sternum and the cut out to his shoulders. The wounds wrapped around his back, but stopped at either side of his spine, where they turned down and began angling in, coming to a point just above his coccyx. David was still screaming, but all terror had left him by now. The only thing left to him now was a perfect sort of pain. One of the peelers tore skin on his knee cap, and the cutting stopped for a moment while David’s torturers cursed each other in a language David wouldn’t have been able to recognize had he been mentally present in anything but the agony that consumed his entire world. The admonishment was short, and soon the peelers resumed their work while one of them sewed up the mistake with surgical thread. The cutters got back to work with their knives, carving now from the tops of his shoulders where the incision around his neck turned towards his back. They cut down to his wrists following the outside of his arm and avoiding surface veins carefully. At his wrists, they made a circle, cutting a crescent into his palm to avoid slitting his artery and killing him before the completion of the ceremony.
The spasms that wracked David’s body particularly affected his arms, and the violent flexing and relaxing of the muscles there caused the flesh to fall away. The peeler who’d torn his knee joked that if the celebrants weren’t tied so tightly, they’d practically skin themselves. The other cutter paused in his work to slap the peeler full in the face and threaten him with his knife. David was hoarse by now, and his screams were barely more than high-pitched, gravelly moans. Now the other peeler stood behind David and reached with his pliers into his back where the meat was exposed and found a particular nerve, and he seized upon it. David’s body grew limp, though his extremities twitched violently, and his voice was reduced to a gurgle. The other peeler grabbed him around his waist and lifted his buttocks from the seat so that his lap and chest formed a plane. When the more experienced cutter who’d chastised the novice peeler for his irreverence reached between David’s legs and incised his perineum near the anus in order to separate the flesh of his legs from the flesh of his groin by cutting forward to the scrotum, and then making two cuts towards the original incisions as they began on his legs, David’s mind finally snapped, and he blacked out.
The peeler who held him aloft began cursing wildly as David’s head fell forward and his blank eyes, hollow but alive, stared him in the face. The other cutter gripped him by the jowls and turned his head and swore, emphasizing his words with his knife. By the time he was finished, so was the cutter at work, and the peeler, pale in the face, eased David back into his seat.
David began to regain a modicum of consciousness just as they were stripping the last of his skin from him. He’d been untied in order to manipulate him so that the skin wouldn’t tear any further, and when they finally returned him to an abrupt rest, the momentum-driven head-lolling jump started his motor control, and he began to move childishly, like an infant, only man-sized and skinless. Now the four of them were very gentle with David, who would occasionally reach out to them with a bloody hand. They would tenderly brush his arm away, sometimes placing it softly on his lap. They urged him in an alien tongue to sleep a little and perhaps dream of the glory to come. When they had his skin off, they took it behind the well and with the two hooks pierced either back flap and hung it there, chest-side facing its previous occupant. The four then took raw-hide canteens and splashed water on their hands and feet. Their faces were covered in red-stained white cloth, though on the two cutters, black, natty beards, one streaked with gray, poked out from underneath the mask. Over their body’s, they wore undyed sack cloth, also smeared with blood. They each stood near a pillar, and then fell on their knees, praying and prostrating themselves before David, who was bemused. They exited on their hands and knees, never turning away from David.
Now the four who had prepared the celebrant entered from the room into an old building. They followed the antique corridors deftly hidden from the more commonly used quarters, leaving their blood-masks and body-smocks in a hidden antechamber, and emerged out onto the street. They melted seamlessly into the sea of people moving at different speeds, speaking rapidly and tersely to those that tarried in the way. Their destination was the hovel of an old man, one of the anointed. Once admitted, they bowed down an made obeisance to him, and told him the celebrant was prepared. Stricken with guilt, the less-than-competent peeler threw himself at the holy man’s feet and confessed to profaning the celebrant. The old man bent and lifted the novice’s chin, blessed him and bid him rise, and the novice rose. The old man concealed a knife like that of the cutters in one palm, and he grasped the head of his subordinate in his fingers. Speedily, with the grace of a former cutter, he sliced the skin over both the man’s nostrils, and he screamed. The old man cursed him and kicked him into a corner. He bade the other three attend to their stricken brother while he himself left for the flesh chamber.
He arrived and followed the secret passageway into the hidden antechamber and donned a blood-mask and body-smock, appearing almost exactly like the cutters and peelers, acolytes. Only, around his neck he draped a talisman hung on a leather thong. The talisman was beaten silver, and it bore the symbol of Tenebrion. From a cupboard he took a large brass dish with no designs worked into it and filled it with holy water from a fount. With the bowl in his hands, he made his way down the secret corridors.
Meanwhile, David began remembering. He had been traveling in throughout the Middle East with his family. His father and mother were archeologists, and David, twenty-seven now, had taken the summer off from working to join them on a number of digs as he had done as a child. He did not know now where he was, for his short-term memory had been destroyed by the trauma of live excoriation. He could have been in any number of cities, from Cairo to Teheran to Jerusalem. It didn’t seem to matter to David where he was, though. His primary concern was his serenity. Looking at himself, he knew he had no skin, and seeing the skin about his color hanging from the wall on hooks in front of him, he concluded that this was his missing dermis, yet he made no effort to move. David was profoundly unmotivated, and even a little amused. He didn’t laugh: the strength wasn’t in him for laughter, but he did smile and reach placidly with one hand towards the skin, not moving any more than that.
Eventually, David heard the door open behind him, and he lolled his head back and rolled his eyes to see who’d come in. Was it the three men who’d been here earlier? Eventually the man moved around into his field of vision and walked at a stately pace towards the sandstone well and granite wheel. He looked like the other four, but he wore some kind of necklace David could not quite make out.
“Hey,” David said, trying to be friendly, “That’s my skin.” He indicated the bloody, discorporate flesh dangling behind the well with one hand and smiled unevenly. His eyes were drooping and becoming bloodshot, but David did not want to sleep. He wanted to talk. The man stopped suddenly and hesitated before moving on to the well. There he placed the yellow bowl he carried. He spread his arms and called out in a rhotic language consisting mostly of vowels. At length, he clapped his hands together and bowed at the waist numerous times, mumbling in a much more guttural tongue than before. When he’d finished his preliminary oblations, he turned around.
“Is that soup?” David asked him. The man came forward slowly, his eyes, dark and old, were small and barely visible behind all the cloth. “Is that why you skinned me, to make soup?” The man produced a curious knife, looking to David like a solid metal protractor with one corner imbedded in a small wooden handle. The man flourished in his hands, tossing it between them and spinning it with his fingers. He came very close to David who stared hypnotically at the display of legerdemain. Almost nose to nose, the man grasped David’s temple in his hands and stared into his eyes.
“Yes,” he said in a gruff, heavily accented voice, “You soup.” He flicked one wrist and lopped off an ear. David winced. He tossed the knife to his other hand and lopped off the other ear. David whined. Picking up the ears, the man repeated “Soup,” and laughed quietly. He returned to the well and dropped the ears into the water, again spreading his arms and calling out in that alien language.
“My ears,” David moaned softly, not from pain, but from disappointment. All the pain centers of his body had died of exhaustion. The man finished his incantation and picked the bowl. He lifted it up three times as if offering it to a giant, and then drank of it himself. One ear he brandished before the altar and then placed in the folds of his robe. The other ear he threw at David. It smacked him in his bare chest, and David complained lamely of the assault. He brushed his own ear, mostly drained of blood, to the floor and made a disgusted face. The man had pulled the cloth away to drink, and his white beard and lips were ruby colored and all the cloth was wet. He grinned madly, walking out from the room.
“Ears,” he said and chuckled. “You not that fortunate.” He patted him on the meat of his shoulder and walked out of the room.
As soon as the door shut behind the man in white whose necklace had been hidden in the shadows of his robes, the granite well lid began rocking on the sandstone bricks. The motion became so violent it launched the brass bowl into a far corner.
“Whoa,” said David, coming more awake. Suddenly there was a loud pop and the lid up-ended and slid to the floor, revealing the obscured top to David. Etched into the granite was a complex linear design lacking pattern. As David looked on, a vibration shook the chamber, and a low call rose from the well, like a bear bellowing in a distant cave. The light above began to shake, offering a queer luminance to the room. The more David looked at the design, the more it seemed to change. It seemed to shift not only on the plane of the stone surface, but grow out along a third axis of space, and pulse, and also to blur along the axis of time. As the call grew into a steady roar, the image began to writhe and lash outward, coming off the stone. Completely suspended in air, the red-black semi-nebulous mass shuddered. To David’s left, behind a pillar, he could hear the bowl resonate with the vibrations of the chamber and the ever rising growl like the howl of a thousand angry demons. It moved, jittering and undulating three-dimensionally, floating up towards the light over David’s head. Once there, the whole room grew even more dark, as dark as a photographer’s darkroom lit only by a dying safety light. The roar became absolutely tremendous, like the inside of a thunderhead, a sonic abomination, and the well spewed forth like a moribund volcano tuns of water and old, grey-brown water-decayed limbs that slapped to the floor with a sickening, wet, rubber smack and bounced. Many of them came apart like rotten meat, and the stench was incredible. David’s face was a knot of revulsion and muted horror at the spectacle of so much dead flesh. The water pressure increased as the noise soared to impossible heights, filling David’s mind with a new kind of terror: the terror of eternity. His mouth and eyes were wide open as the water pushed against the roof, the limbs colliding first with it and bursting apart like cluster bombs raining fleshy shrapnel on the cold floor. He became drenched, and giblets pelted his exposed muscle and skeleton and the flesh on his face, hands, feet, and groin. Then all of a sudden everything—the noise, the water, the limbs, and the vibration stopped, and there was impeccable silence. David fell to gibbering.
The black-red nimbus that bathed the scene in human gore imbued with a low-frequency light also had the affect water has on light, causing it to appear alive on the walls and the floor, which resembled an Atlantean abattoir, only better-lit, which did not improve the spectacle. From the well emerged insectile sounds long in coming. A skeleton’s hand, black and mossy, emerged and fell upon the brim. Another, the conjugate of the first, appeared and the two lifted a demonic skull from the well. Shoulders followed the skull, and then a hollow chest cavity and the rest of the meatless anatomy rose. With a sound like the unsheathing of a dozen razor-edged swords, boney wings with flesh still clinging to the tips spread from the creature’s back, and it howled like the wind howls through a wasteland, empty and forlorn, hungry for innocence. The thing’s head was vaguely human, only the eye sockets were much too big, about three times the size of a man’s, and the nose protruded too far. The teeth, what of them were left, were pointed and long on a double-hinged mandible of a feral construction. The dome of its skull was lumpy, and in several places, the lumps terminated in actual spikes. It was entirely hollow, yet David, even as he was, dumbstruck and almost completely emotionally numb, could feel the piercing emptiness of its gaze.
It took a step forward, and for the first time, David recoiled instinctually. Had it had flesh animate upon its bones, he was sure somewhere in his head that it would be grinning. It turned around, flexing its wings as if sore from disuse, and approached David’s skin where it hung on the far wall. It pawed it appraisingly with sharpened finger bones, like five-digit talons. In a few quick motions, it was wearing the skin. David could hear the wretched noise of tissue issuing forth from the creature’s bones to bind the skin to its unholy frame. When the bonding was complete, the beast spread its wings in triumph. It clenched its fists—its talons—and spread its arms also, arching its back and it roared: the immense sound of the emptiness within a cyclone, the noise of one’s own death presciently filling one’s own ears. David began to shake violently, and this beast in his skin began to approach. An inky blackness not like smoke, but like the fluid certain marine invertebrates emit when threatened emerged from the well, billowing out and slowly filling the room. The creeping darkness raced first along all the architectural surfaces: the walls, floor, ceiling, and pillars. David felt it stirring with a deathly chill around his feet, and then it began to climb the thews and sinews of his legs. He tried to move, but could not: the frigidity of death the blackness carried coursed through his veins, replacing his blood, and he felt himself die, but remained conscious in his body, animated now not by nature whose grip upon him was tenuous at best in his final hours, but by some unearthly energy for which he was a slave, a ghastly marionette.
The blackness slowly filled the empty space of the room, and as the creature came closer, the light grew dimmer. When the light at last was extinguished entirely by the blackness, the liquid, air-born void, he could feel the creature close to him. The gaze that before had made him queasy in his soul now petrified him. Though he knew the beast was naught but his own flesh and some ungodly bone, he could nonetheless feel its icy breath on his face and the exposed portion of his chest. It smelled of a flooded crypt rife with freshly decayed bodies, but there was something else, something sinister within the very smell itself, some malevolent intelligence communicated odiferously. He felt the Hellish touch of one boney talon on his temple, and he felt it pierce his skin. The thing meant to have his face: it meant to grin.
You met her in a Turkish town
But you didn't want to bring her here
You didn't want her hangin' around
In the kingdom of fear
So you left her there
You're a whole different person
You're a whole different person
You're a whole different person when you're scared