Sunday, 1 July 2012

Chapter Five: The Arboretum

As dawn arose above the expanse of water, Amanda with Richard and Camilla climbed the stairs, slippery with dark green algae. The soldiers with Moonbeam had taken a small launch from the water logged lower levels. She felt weak and tired but her stomach was now settled. The humidity was stifling even at this early hour and everyone was covered in a film of sweat, but Amanda was too overawed by the sight of the Arboretum to notice.
She walked to the balustrade, avoiding holes in the floor, making detours around the rusting carcasses of centuries old automobiles and the tenacious tropical plant life sprouting from the concrete. There it was in all its glory, slightly obscured by long wisps of mist arising from the vast swamp, a gigantean organic edifice, its architecture changing from one moment to the next, more akin to a city-sized jellyfish then a building. Nothing remained in the same place, giant strands of many colours wove themselves together forming bridges, windows, towers and arches, but one feature was constant. At the base of the structure was a massive archway where the waters of the Thames poured through, creating a dense cloud of spray.
Amanda’s eyes stayed glued to this staggering object glowering over the wet tropical landscape, until a powerful wind blow around her and the sound of gigantic wing beats assailed her ears. Turning she saw the insect land next to Richard and Camilla.
The creature was unbelievable. An immense flying thing composed of millions of wriggling multi-coloured organic strands. The monster, summoned by Richard, was virtually stationary, moving slightly from side to side on its six spindly legs. Its shape was blurred with the constant movement of its cells; the worm like arboreal forms. The only solid structures were the wings and the clasping mandibles used to grab its victims. The wings were like voluminous horizontal sails made of a gossamer thin but strong artificial material. They were beautifully painted with exotic and decadent designs, attached to the sides of the beast by nodules formed by the swirling organisms. The mandibles were horns like tusks, attached to the blunt head by more crawling nodules. The thing had no eyes and no other obvious external organs; a dazzling, shifting display of criss-crossing shapes that were no larger then a few centimetres in length.
Richard climbed on first and Amanda wondered if he would sink into the mass of squirming forms. The surface was firm though and two humps of solidified organisms protruded, acting as grips for the hands. Camilla followed her lover and with a look of concentration on her face two humps bulged outwards in front of her.
With a deep intake of breath, Amanda gripped the sides of the composite beast, feeling her fingers slide beneath its ‘skin’, the individual strands wrapping themselves around her fingers. There was a smell of decay arising from deep within the huge creature and she gagged and pulled her hands away. Camilla scowled but extended her arm. For a horrible moment she thought she was sinking into the swarming collection of vegetable maggots, but there was so many of them tightly interwoven together they made a soft and rubbery surface. Once she was sitting with both legs holding on to the insect’s flanks, Camilla turned her head. Another frown of concentration crossed Camilla’s face as two hand grips sprung before Amanda, composed of the arboreal worms.
The wings began to beat faster and faster as Richard’s face sunk into a trance of absorption. With a lurch the insect took flight, hovering for a moment above the multi-story and then banking to the right, flying directly towards the Arboretum. Amanda shut her eyes, the wind buffeting her body and the sickness rising once again. Opening her eyes as the creature stabilised its flight path, her line of sight was blocked by the bloused back of Camilla, darkly stained with sweat.
She looked quickly down at the rushing landscape. They were following the fast moving waters of the remnants of the river Thames, contained now in the effulgence of the swamplands. Sunken buildings eaten by parasitical life thrust there blunt rotten structures from the calmer waters. Palms and other vegetation grow on islands of detritus, clinging to wrecked machinery and automobiles coagulated with fertile soil.
Stranger vegetation came into view the nearer they got to the hulking, constantly moving edifice. Giant fungi the size of tower blocks arose like deranged sculptures; their colours-purple, green and bright yellow-pulsated like a dance floor lightshow. From the mushrooms tendrils or vines spread outward, infecting everything in between, coating and entwining the shells of high rises, drowned shopping centres and office blocks in thick nets of living rope. Animals, palms and ferns, were caught in these webs; dead husks drained of life. Parakeets, their plumage once brightly coloured now fading to grey, were peppered throughout, caught by the organic nets, their life taken, sucked dry for nourishment.
Without warning they were plunged into darkness as their airborne mount entered the cavernous arch of the Arboretum. A deafening roar of cascading water assaulted Amanda’s ears as they raced through the tunnel, wet spray hitting her face. Suddenly light burst forth and she was confronted with a familiar aerial view, so familiar and ordinary it took her by surprise. It was London from the air unaffected by the ravages of tropical desolation; the winding way of the Thames, only now slightly faster moving and clogged with alien detritus, spanned by London’s bridges. The tall towers of the City with St Paul’s Cathedral to the side, reflected from there glass walls the unusual red light bathing the surroundings. The Arboretum enclosed the completely intact cityscape like a gigantic dome. Arching her neck Amanda stared at the distant shifting roof; a sky like the inside of an enormous heart. It altered shape, extending tentacles of glowing red matter and withdrawing them, but the basic dome shape stayed intact.
Above the non-revolving London Eye and the South Bank complex, the flying bug hovered. Amanda’s confidence in this type of travel increasing she stared around her, taking in the incredible view of a preserved London tinged by the red light. There seemed to be no signs of dilapidation or decay, no overwhelming vegetation, only the peaceful green of the royal parks. It was as if time had come to a halt on a hot summer’s evening, London lit by an intense sunset. There was a difference; no traffic or pedestrians moved through the labyrinth of streets. But as the minutes stretched out, overlaid by the sound of fast beating wings and the feel of the wind, Amanda noticed some vehicles. They reminded her of refuge or utility wagons, but she was too high up to be sure. Even more indistinct were tiny figures spread around the trucks.
Before Amanda could focus on these objects the insect lurched and rose vertically, aiming for the red ceiling like a sky composed of flesh. As they gradually neared the immense blanket stretching for miles above them, a hole, like a wound slashed into skin, opened.
They shot through the orifice and braked suddenly, suspended in a chamber the size of a cathedral. It was rounded like the inside of a ball but there were edges or platforms around the circumference. The walls slid and squirmed as the trillions of minute arboreal forms swarmed like organic atoms, the building blocks of The Arboretum. The humidity was suffocating at first and a rich fecund smell of ripeness and decay pervaded, although an electrical thrill enveloped Amanda almost immediately. The rounded sides of the chamber were not a glowing red like outside but vibrated with colour as if collections of Arboreal Forms, coloured in different hues, were mixing chaotically. The throbbing colours were dazzling making Amanda feel light headed and disorientated, but the waves of pleasure stroking her body from the atmosphere counteracted the dizzying effect of the light.
Standing on the nearest edge to the hovering insect were a collection of naked people. The men were muscled, handsome, glowing with health and vitality and the women were beautiful like supermodels. Their bodies bathed in the pulsing colours emitted from the walls seemed almost supernatural in their perfection. Amanda stared at these beings and stared some more, the electrical tingle inside growing more intense.
She was suddenly awakened from her trance by Richard and Camilla leaping from the mount onto the nearest platform and quickly taking off their sweat drenched clothing. Richard beckoned encouragingly and with a firm resolve Amanda stood up on the resistant back of the creature and jumped the small distance.
The insect exploded throwing millions of Arboreal Forms in every direction. They cascaded down on Amanda and the others, making her flinch. The wriggling worms fell from her body and were absorbed into the teeming mass composing the floor on which she stood. The giant wings meanwhile were gripped by hand-like extensions issuing from the lip of the platform and then passed back to be reused along with the solid mandibles.
All the naked figures were staring at Amanda. She guessed these specimens of physical perfection were members of The Order of the Arboreal Orb. There were about thirty of these people Amanda thought, unable to take her eyes from them. They stared back in curiosity and she realised they were not completely nude but wore necklaces and bracelets crafted to resemble hateful eyes and clinging foliage. Their hair was long and unrestrained; their features emitted intelligence and superiority but also a dream like absorption. Her mind too felt distracted as if she had smoked pot. When one of the women asked her to disrobe as was the custom in The Arboretum she complied immediately without embarrassment.
Naked Amanda followed the troop of unclothed demigods as they made their way to the nearest wall but not before looking down into the large cavity from which she had arrived. Spread miles below her like a map, London’s streets and buildings were caught in the ubiquitous red light, a whole city fixed in amber.
Like an inflamed gash the wall blocking their way expanded into a fissure through which they passed. An intestinal corridor stretched ahead, throbbing with a matrix of colours and pulsating with the undulations of the Arboreal Forms. Amanda’s dizziness increased and she was almost breathless as she surveyed the beautifully smooth, curved bodies of her escorts, like walking sculptures from an erotic dream. Camilla seemed less in control then usual. Her eyes gazed in rapture at both male and female but also at the intensely coloured walls. They vibrated as if in the throes of ecstasy, clefts and crevices dotted irregularly at the sides of the meandering corridor. They led to other passageways, but the gaps in the walls were not only to the left or right but in the ceiling and floor, making Amanda think she was walking through the innards of some vast living organism.
At first Amanda thought the ripples were creating subliminal images reflecting her stimulated state; entwined human bodies were revealed through the constantly shifting Forms. But then, when the waves of Arboreals drifted in a new direction, she saw it again; the bodies were shaking with rapture or horrific pain. A creeping uneasiness was invading her thoughts through the haze of amorous emotion and she kept turning her head this way and that to catch another glimpse of the bodies encased in the walls. She was rewarded with a brief sighting of a fully formed male gripping a female; engaging in an endless routine of soulless desire. After a while she saw many of these anatomical displays like pornographic images. The dreamy arousing daze infecting her dissipated gradually, leaving only a residue of Eros. She began to think again, to rationalize, her mind extracted from the fug of longing.
The naked troop continued on their journey through the body of the Arboretum. Sometimes they climbed upwards clinging on to handholds created by hardened clusters of Arboreal Forms, rising up chimneys of organic matter. Sometimes they descended potholes like intestines. Amanda tried to keep her eyes away from the writhing bodies in the walls. An increasing sense of revulsion began to envelope her, intensified by the certain knowledge of Richard’s arousal. He seemed to be lost in his own daydreams, his own strange obsessions. The kaleidoscopic glow flickered and flared from the walls in all directions, trapping her in caverns illuminated by insane psychedelic technicians of light.
Disoriented and lost Amanda finally walked with the others onto a balcony overlooking a vast rounded hollow like the inside of a colossus’s heart. It gently beat to some unknown rhythm, its walls pocked with hundreds of other arboreal composed balconies, where the myriad twisting tunnels and corridors entered. But her attention was focused on the centre like everybody else. She could not help it. The sight was so outlandish and hideous. A giant vibrating ball of countless naked human forms connected to the sides of the inner cavity by strips of vibrating flesh. The bodies like those in the corridors were engaged in constant carnal activity, congress without relief. Amanda remembered the mirror in the greenhouse where one side of its frame was made up of naked and agonised human shapes. This was similar. The ball went beyond the erotic and in Amanda’s mind it seemed like a grotesque sculpture of endless skin and bodily organs.
She was stunned, her eyes glued to the seething fleshy heap, each body male and female like parts in an incalculably large and complex organic machine. There were no moans or cries of lust or pain but a gentle insidious susurration of suction and fleshy friction entered Amanda’s ears. A smell of pungent bodily and sexual odours rose like a thick blanket of spray. The living sculpture was shocking but also beautiful thought Amanda, unable to keep her eyes away from this deviant artwork. She did not notice Richard sidle up to her and whisper.
“The power house of The Arboretum. The energy source is libido, undiluted by any trace of emotion, feeling or love. Next stop on our tour are the laboratories, the manufacturing base.” Amanda thought she could detect irony and revulsion but also wonder. She nervously and very quickly glanced at his body and moved away.
The strange tour party left the engine of desire and crawled upwards through a tight and confined tunnel, their hands and feet grasping solidified handholds and footholds. After a long haul through the passage, Amanda’s body was coated in sweat. She followed the others through a small circular opening covered by a manhole cover, which clanked on a metallic floor as the leading figure, a statuesque female, pushed upwards.
They had left the arteries, veins and capillaries of passageways, made of trillions of swarming Arboreals, behind and now stood in a solid expansive structure like an aircraft hanger. It was part of the Arboretum but attached to its top; through the long strips of windows in the hanger’s roof could be seen the blue of the sky. To her right a metal platform extended into the expanse of air, holding three flying Arboreals similar to the one she had arrived on.
Ordinary men and one woman in light white clothing were taking limp bodies from the beasts’ mandibles. These naked youthful bodies tanned by a lifetime in the sun were infected with an Arboreal Form clamped to their skulls, the eye sockets glued over, the mouth gagged. Once they were placed on the floor, they stood upright on their feet, rocking back and forth slightly, then began to preambulate stiffly forwards, a look of concentration on the faces of the white clothed people standing behind them. They slowly moved to a door by the side of a large rectangular window in the hanger wall, which was opened by someone from within.
Amanda’s party followed but stopped by the long window which overlooked a room like a hospital operating theatre; its fluorescent lighting shining off smooth metallic services, contrasting starkly with the organic insanity of The Arboretum. The three walking bodies were straped into reclining medical couches and the laboratory technicians in white using odd handheld metal devices began to carefully extracte the Arboral Forms from their heads. After this long process wires were painstakingly entereted through the empty eye sockets and rounded mouths of the victims. Finally the couches with their cargo were wheeled out through a further door.
While Amanda watched with a quesy stomach, Richard, standing again by her side, began to explain in his matter of fact voice: “Here you see slaves of the Order of the Arboreal Orb being prepared. Every year on the day when Easter used to be celebrated, a young person from the outlying villages on their eighteenth birthday is sacrificed to the gods of the Arboretum. Some are used for the Sex Engine, others as worker operatives in London. These here will be used for the Engine, literally zombi sex slaves. As you saw the Arboreal Form is carefully extracted. The tiny tubes are enterted into what remains of the brain to stimulate the primal sex drive to an intense level. These organs of pure instinct whose only purpose are to endlessly and soullessly copulate are then absorbed into the Arboretum or become a single cog in the central machine made of flesh.”
Amanda was barely listening to Richard’s monologue. A sudden impulse had come to her at that moment; whatever her gradually evolving plan turned out to be, it was vital for her to escape first. She did not want to be part of Camilla’s and the Order‘s schemes but neither did she want to be part of Richard’s rebellion. Quickly glancing at the Arboreal mounts behind her she realised these strange transports were the only way out.

Satisfied with herself, Amanda stood on the balcony of her suite of rooms and stared at the enormous vista of London spread out below, miles of air between her and the rooftops of the tallest buildings. Directly after their visit to the laboratory, she was brought by Richard to her new apartment embedded in the teeming walls of the Arboretum, a luxury flat with a kitchen, a vast ultra-modern sitting room, one grand bedroom and a huge sparkling bathroom, high on the north side-her treatment as an extremely important celebrity fuelling her feelings of superiority. He had shown her a cupboard with a sliding door, hung with exotic and darkly beautiful attire from many countries and times. Her unclothed state made her uncomfortable once she had entered the apartment and she quickly dressed herself behind her bedroom door, in a loosely fitting black costume like a toga, decorated with weird designs. She realised she was pleased Richard was admiring her amorously, standing close to her and talking animatedly. His history made her flesh creep but his attraction to her was indispensable to her plot.
She was satisfied because her plan was now almost complete-she would get Richard to teach her to fly the airborne Arboreal Forms, then lure him to his death and escape by one of them in the hanger, back to Ashbury Manor. There she would kill her double, go back with her father to the early 21st Century and then…maybe inform the police? Her plans were not absolutely complete of course.
She would think of something though, she always did.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Chapter Four: The Devourer Of Souls

Unable to sleep, although she was so weary, Amanda’s thoughts turned restlessly in her head. The heat was like a physical presence, oppressive and stifling, made worse by the stink of marsh gas issuing from the wetlands and the sweat from the bodies around her. She could not remain still, lying prone as if she was dead for much longer. As silently as possible she perched herself on the bed, lifting the mosquito net to peer out into the murkiness.
Nothing was visible except for a faint light at the far end of the curtained off space. There she could see Camilla and Richard huddled around a device like a radio, resting on a portable table. Camilla was whispering into an object resembling a microphone attached to the device but Richard sat stony faced. Amanda was tempted to join the couple but the harshness and cold demeanour of the business woman intimidated her. Why Richard was attracted to Camilla was a mystery but Amanda, considering her self a good judge of people, was certain a genuine attachment existed between them. Whatever, she could not go over there and interrupt them.
Lying on the floor near her bed was a discarded flashlight belonging to Camilla. Using this Amanda could explore the disused multi-storey car park and at the same time rid herself of her restlessness. Hopefully, when Camilla returned to her cot to sleep, she would leave the flashlight where it was and she would quietly borrow it without waking her. With this idea she lay back on the bed and waited patiently.
She waited a long time before Camilla returned, hearing her camp bed creak with her weight and then waited even longer before heavy breathing began. Slowly, ever so slowly Amanda left her resting place and picked up the flashlight. Getting on all fours and shivering slightly at the slimy touch of the concrete floor, wet with tropical lichens, she crawled under the canvas curtain.
Walking carefully a few metres before switching it on, worried she would wake the soldiers but also tripping over rubble on the floor, she was completely enmeshed in darkness. It was with a soft sigh of relief that she eventually turned the light on, the beam weakly illuminating a hardy stunted fern growing from the cracked concrete, the lines marking out the parking bays still visible beneath the layers of tiny growths.
Amanda was desperate for a pee and the small curtained off area within the larger camp, used as a toilet with its smell of urine and faeces, was unappealing in the extreme. She would rather go somewhere well away from the sleeping soldiers. She made for the edge at the far side of the multi-story car park.
By the time she reached the low wall the darkness had lifted even without the aid of the flashlight as her eyes got used to the gloom. The black sky was studded with thousands upon thousands of stars washing the region of swamps with a faint pearly light, revealing solitary palms and clumps of detritus in the vastness of stagnant but life-filled water. The Moon added its light to the primeval inundated landscape, a round white glowing globe criss-crossed with faint black lines and blotches. The sound of plentiful life continued like a constant refrain as she crouched, but another sound made her spring up right; the sound of footsteps, very near.
Pulling up her trousers hastily, picking up the flashlight and directing it at the echoing footfalls, she revealed the form of Richard Solomon stepping quickly towards her, torchlight wobbling in his hands. She stared irritably at him for a moment and his face dropped slightly, an expression of disappointment on his features.
The first one to break the silence was Richard. “Sorry to intrude but I must speak to you on your own, away from Camilla.”
“Oh…” She stared over the balustrade of the multi-story at the immense black stain of the Arboretum, moving like ink trapped between tow pieces of glass.
“What I am now doing is betrayal,” he said, taking Amanda completely by surprise. His usual calm and urbane repose appeared dented, as he kept looking behind his shoulder.
“First let me take a piss,” Amanda said, anger in her voice.
Turning his back, Richard walked a few yards and switched off his light as Amanda relieved herself. She called to him when she had finished. Retuning, his flashlight beam now lancing out in all directions, throwing long shadows against the greenish and glisteningly slick walls, Amanda’s face was exposed in its stark glare. The torch abruptly ceased its illumination, plunging them both into darkness, until their eyes got used to the dim radiance of stars and the moon once again.
The stillness between them was heavy like lead. The night sounds of the swamp, once, a long time ago suburban London, did not intrude into Amanda’s mind as she gazed at Richard’s thoughtful but worried face. She waited for him to make his confession.
“I cannot talk for long, so I will be as brief as possible,” Richard said. “Your father is in great danger.”
The statement shocked Amanda, taking her by surprise.
“The Order has contacted its members remaining in the 21st Century. They have told us your alto-ego has found George Browne’s lost book. Your other self and her friends plan to use the formula written in the grimoire to open up the mirror, to come looking for Moonbeam and to rescue her. The Order’s plan is to allow them to do so, guide them into a trap. The Order retrieves its precious book, a key to the assimilation of the Ten Universes, and also victims for your own initiation ritual. You see, you have still not proven yourself to the Order. In his desperation your father has turned to the Order of the Arboreal Orb to look for Moonbeam and his own daughter of course. Once we have captured Jonathan Blake, you will perform a sacrifice to prove your worthiness. Not only murdering Moonbeam but killing your own father!”
“So why are you telling me this?”
The deep croaks of amphibian life emitted from the swamps seemed to increase as Richard turned his eyes away. Nervousness showed itself in the movements of his head and body as he stared behind him.
“I’m taking a huge risk…Look I’ve changed my mind. My support for the Order is based on despair, despair at the human condition and disgust at my own actions. The consequences of the Order’s…Well it is beyond imagining.”
“In other words you have turned traitor!”
Briefly fear animated Richard’s face. A guttural roar of some kind of swamp beast broke the intensity of their verbal exchange. Amanda flinched and turned to look down over the balustrade but Richard, obviously used to such sounds, continued to stare around him, frightened of something more then a monster from the marshes.
“Yes…” he stuttered. “Do you want to murder your father? You will have no choice in the matter. You kill him and join the Order or you suffer the same fate as Lucius. Or you can help save him and the world.”
Amanda thought about this. She did not care about the world, the Ten Universes, whatever, it could go literally to hell as far as she was concerned. And as for Moonbeam the notion of twisting the knife into her stomach consumed her with pleasure. But murdering her father was a boundary she could not cross.
“I don’t want to kill my dad,” she said. “To be honest with you I rather like the idea of killing other people but not my father.” She gave Richard a deliberately wicked grin.
Another anxious frown dented Richard’s face but his movements had become less nervous. He was about to say something when Amanda interrupted him.
“But what are we going to do?”
“Continue on to the Arboretum with Camilla and the soldiers. There she will tell you what I have told you. Then comes the difficult part. You must refuse to comply at the exact moment you are holding the sacrificial knife in your hand and I and some colleagues, yes I have allies, will come to your rescue.”
“As simple as that?”
“No, so many things can go wrong.” He took from the pocket of his combat trousers some rough pages ripped from a diary and handed them over. “This is an extract from my journal. It describes my journey eleven years ago through the jungles of Cambodia to the only portal to the Ten Universes other then Ashbury Manor; an ancient temple complex dedicated to Mogoloth, The Devourer of Souls. Here you may understand the reasoning behind my betrayal.”
Amanda briefly stared at the handwriting scrawled on the lined but tattered pieces of paper and then quickly thrust them into her own pocket.
“But don’t let anyone see them, no one at all,” Richard continued, turning his back on Amanda and walking a few steps towards the encampment. “Don’t follow me. Wait five or ten minutes at least before you return.” He retreated into the dark humid interior of the multi-storey car park, its enclosed concrete space like the dank, dripping chamber of an ancient forgotten temple.
The terrible roar of the unseen swamp creature arose once more from the immensity of waterlogged concrete, metal debris and vegetation beyond the balustrade; Amanda glimpsing the scaly back of a gigantic reptilian animal like an oversized crocodile arising from the moonlit streaked waters. Fear and loneliness like a sudden wave overwhelmed her but after a while she took control of herself.
Sleep was going to be impossible she realised. Beside her was a lump of broken concrete, smooth and not too wet, an ideal seat and there was enough light to read by. She settled herself and unfolded the pages from Richard Solomon’s journal.

What has brought me here, delirious with terror, to this steamy humid jungle? The question haunts my mind but the possible answer is banal, ridiculously so. But it offers no comfort as I sweat uncontrollably in the clinging fug of putrid heat, enclosed by dense forest alive with alien malignancy. It is this malevolence that slithers into my dreams and awakens me with the sound of my own high-pitched screams.
My companions, sharing the cramped tent sheltering us from the incessant rain, are a young man and a girl. The man is barely out of his teens; a student of mine, who begged to accompany me on my idiotic expedition. He was a fool who at least had the excuse of youth. He now mumbles incoherently as the blood soaks the rough bandage wrapped around the jagged stump of his left leg. He stepped on a mine, a few days ago, littering this part of once war torn Cambodia. But there was no going back or any medical help except the simple first aid kit we carried with us and we continued upstream in our small boat, escaping areas of human depravation and danger until we came to a remoter area, a forbidden zone of thick dark rainforest, a place of dread for thousands of years.
Looking down at Michael’s sweat drenched features, contorted with pain, I felt guilty; guilt at leading him into this foul environment of fecundity and death. Guilt was an emotion dominating my whole life and it was the reason I was here. It drove my philosophical research at Kings College, London, my obsessive pouring over ancient books and manuscripts, my quest for the secrets of the universe. But regardless of this so-called objective study, what I was really looking for was escape from a guilty conscience. It was when I meet Camilla, the Queen of Pimps, that everything came together and led irreversible to this god-forsaken jungle.
 I looked at Michael hoping he would die soon before the ‘forms’ surrounding us infect his brain, before he is transformed. His eyes reflect consciousness of his predicament, awareness worse then the irrational dreams, the shifting miasma of fever induced nightmares and the gnawing pain and horror of his wounds. I am sure he comprehends, he knows where he is; he is fully conscious of something more monstrous then his own death, something far worse.
I could run, take the remaining supplies and attempt to make my way out of the jungle. But I don’t know if the black book of dark incantations I hold will protect me from the Arboreal Forms if I am travelling away from the Temple rather then towards it. I desperately wished I had some morphine left, enough to put Michael out of his misery. I have no firearm to use on him; to approach the Temple with any weapon other then the Blade is against the strictures of the ritual, so is using the Blade until the correct moment. I threw away my automatic miles away before entering this tangled labyrinth of wet frondescence.
 There is movement, a twitch of the tent flaps. I jerk my head away from the sweaty, half naked and comatose body of my friend lying on his sleeping bag. A brown skinned hand strangely stiff, the fingers clenched, is slowly moving through the opening. There is something else moving which tells me immediately this is no mere native of the jungle. Along the arm ripples roll like squirming maggots beneath the flesh of a corpse. Before long the top half of the body is revealed streaked with the constant swelling and my eyes are unwittingly drawn to the head. A huge pulsating mass of matter, itself made up of a multitude of tendrils, is clumped to the back of the head and three organic pipe-like proboscises, vibrating with inner ichors, extend from the blob and cover the eye sockets and the mouth of the face.
Bringing my right hand into contact with the diabolical grimoire, I pick it up and flourish it before the malformed thing and with my left I clutch the girl forcing her to stand upright. With an effort of will I lower my head and hurl myself towards the once human creature forcing it out of my way and stumble into the moist gloom of the rainforest, dragging the child with me.
Unable to help myself I stare back at the tent. There is neither sound from where I stand holding the girl’s arm nor any disturbance from within. There is silence except for the constant stream of rain plummeting from the distant green canopy of the gigantic trees soaring above me. Already I am saturated and my tough army boots sink into the rancid mud, but I don’t care. Minutes slowly pass and my eyes are glued to the entrance of the bedraggled and sagging canvas shelter.
Eventually something emerges from the tent, stooped at first and then standing upright. It is the infected thing blinded and gagged by the living tubes; the brain like glob on its head vibrates with unnatural life.
I inwardly predict what will follow and sure enough Michael appears from behind this monstrosity. But it is no longer my friend and companion. The same type of composite matter is attached to his skull and three extensions of writhing flesh have smothered his eye balls and oral cavity.
Turning, stifling a groan, I run helplessly, pulling the girl with me. Although my mind is clogged with horror and disgust I do not flee blindly but keep to the faint trail that finally ends at my destination, the objective of my quest: The Temple consecrated to the Arboreal Orb, the Eternal Eye and the gateway to the Ten Universes, the unearthly spheres and the emanations of purist cosmic evil.

As I trudge down the pathway shut in by humid abundance like a disease of greenery, sweat and rainwater like a second skin embracing my body, my mind wanders back to when I made my awful discovery.
The moment of eureka but also despair, occurred in a Thai brothel of all places. But why not. A den of vice is very appropriate. I understood at last that reality was reducible to domination and coercion. This was no mere abstract philosophising; I had material proof, solid scientific evidence. The implications of my intellectual breakthrough burst forth here in a Bangkok whorehouse, not far from the University. Through my rifling of age-old occult and illicit tomes and finally my work in the laboratory of a scientific colleague, I had found what the ancient philosophers were looking for: the meaning and purpose of the universe. I thought my guilt would disappear. If the cosmos and everything within it was evil, if morality did not exist, could not exist and never did exist, what was the purpose of guilt?
But I was not the only one who understood the truth. Camilla Armstrong, CEO of a multinational company but also proprietor of an underground network catering to paedophiles, knew these secrets long before me. Camilla made my acquaintance soon after I published my findings (couched in highly obscure mathematical language in a small circulation science journal) and we became lovers. I was open about my conclusions, using her as a soundboard for my obsessions. But she knew more. She was part of a centuries old and very secretive organisation, whose members included some of the highest ranked politicians, business leaders and intellectuals in the world; followers of George Browne, a 16th Century Alchemist and Satanist who had come to similar but even more startling deductions five hundred years before me. I was inducted into the Order of the Arboreal Orb, the name of the occult society, a year after my meeting with Camilla, and I was given total freedom of their extensive library to complete my studies.
Here, in the air conditioned chambers of the Order’s hidden headquarters, situated in the lush forests of the Escambray Mountains of Cuba, I spent my time pouring over the lost books of diabolists and perverse sorceries stretching back to the unbelievably ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia and the Indian sub-continent. My mind swarmed with cosmos shattering formula, dread rituals for the reawakening of monstrous deities from a forgotten past and images of a hellish bestiary whose extraterrestrial forms were difficult for the merely human mind to grasp. To take my mind off this swirling vortex of horror I made frequent visits to the colourful vibrant hub of Havana, where I slacked my thirst for young flesh. But I always returned to the books, especially the obscure notes and articles of the doomed scholars who had ventured too far into the depraved thinking of George Browne. Browne’s Magnum Opus, his masterpiece, the ultimate grimoire of decadent philosophy was lost since Elizabethan times, but through the incoherent scribblings of his intellectual descendents I had an idea of where to find the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle.
Clutching the edges of a diary of a forgotten 19th Century explorer, leather bound and scuffed with usage, my tired eyes staring at detailed sketches of a large Asiatic temple complex and extensive lines of fading handwriting, the final piece of the puzzle was before me. The Temple was weird, familiar sacred Hindu architecture but warped, metamorphosed as if dedicated to a pantheon of darkness rather then the gods of light.
Through the writings of this long dead adventurer who had spent his last days in an insane asylum, I discovered a vanished world, an impenetrable forest, dense not only with tropical flora but with a malign menace, keeping out everyone except the most foolhardy of Western travellers. I learnt about the Arboreal Forms, a concretization of the parasitic principle; a life-form made up of a teeming host of mindless entities, worms of basic living matter. Acting as a guardian to the Temple, its myriad offshoots infected sentient creatures turning them into zombies. A sickeningly vivid depiction described the process overtaking its human victim, one of the orderlies of the expedition. Burrowing into the head via the eye sockets it directly took over the brain, a third tentacle of composite forms entered the throat tunnelling its way to the spinal column.
But it was the explorer’s final speculations that really twisted its barb into my imagination: It was possible the victim remained conscious, conscious but under the control of an unknowable alien object. If I had known I would actually witness this terrible consumption myself, I think I would have had second thoughts about leading my own expedition. At the time though the idea of finding the key, a gateway to the Ten Universes and maybe finally to the Eternal Eye, overpowered any qualms I might have.
It was not long before I was on my way to the stifling jungles of Cambodia, convulsive with fanatical curiosity and doing the bidding of a sect celebratory of immorality, an immorality embedded in nature, symbolised by the teeming fecundity of the rainforest.

The jungle was changing. It was becoming something other. On both sides of the trial, above and in front, the wall of greenery which dripped with moisture and the giant fern leaves steaming in the heat, were coated in a hanging growth resembling Spanish moss. Purplish in hue, glowing with a strange luminosity, it fell from the high branches like a thin curtain, trailing across my scalp. I noticed clustered deep within the shadows of the forest globes of fungi like oversized puffballs, emitting the same type of eerie light but green and yellow instead of purple. Thin cable like vines issued from these rounded organic objects spreading outwards, wrapping themselves around the trunks of trees and reaching as far as the highest branches. The enormous hardwoods infected in this way were dead. These new forms of life were sucking the juices out of the ordinary terrestrial flora.
The aberrant moss, the fungi and its vines were becoming more extensive, engulfing the commonplace vegetation, eating its very soul. The light had changed too; instead of the deep green gloom of the rainforest, a new intense form of illumination spread its influence. Originating in the bizarre parasitical plants it swirled and pulsated hypnotically and rhythmically, bright and uncanny like the beginnings of a bad LSD trip.
Strange crumbling statuary and ruins were glimpsed through the hallucinatory light. The statues were of sinister gods and goddesses related to Hinduism but somehow twisted into grotesque, monstrous and mutated shapes. Some sprouted manifold limbs, long suckered tentacles ending in sharp hooks or talons; others had wings growing out of their misshapen backs, huge and enveloping. Their bodies were bloated like the evil twins of the elephant-headed god Ganesa, layers of stone fat sliding and slipping around the plinths they stood on; or dangerously voluptuous and feminine like the goddess Kali. Their heads were not in the shape of a benign, jolly elephant or an unearthly beautiful woman but a variety of arachnid and reptile busts; horrible to gaze for long into their many faceted or lizard eyes. The artistry was otherworldly. Although invaded by the outlandish creepers, these statues were imbued with living energy, as if at any moment they would come alive.
The girl I dragged through the shimmering incandescence was awakening from her daze. With a yelp of terror she broke from my grip and ran ahead of me, following, without thought the path ahead. I scrambled after her, desperate to catch up and bring her under my control. Without her I was lost, my whole endeavour, my life work would be destroyed. My heart thumped uncontrollable in my chest, the sweat soaking my shirt as I ran, shouting her name, scraping the encrusted moss like the webs of some gigantic extraterrestrial spider off my face. Then without warning she turned and ran back, a look of wild horror eradicating the youthful lines of her features. Desperately she swerved around me but I grappled her to the ground hitting her head against a stone. Limp like a rag doll I picked her up and flung her over my right shoulder, hoping I had only stunned her.
Weighed down with the child I carried on but guilt was intruding into my obsessions. I felt the closeness of the supine body of the unconscious girl and my thoughts returned to the ramshackle hovel in Phnom Penh where she allowed me to take her passive and non-responding body for a few coins. For a few moments I saw myself as if I was somebody else and I felt sick deep inside, soul sick. I had become a monster, a beast, dragging this wretched and debased girl to her doom. Tears began to fall down my cheeks and I sobbed. I thought how different my life might have been; respected by my peers, a professorship at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities. Instead I was a puppet, a tool of the Order of the Arboreal Orb, a mad scientist, child molester and criminal psychopath. But above everything I felt guilty. I was not strong enough to be pitiless.
I almost dropped the girl then, ready to kill myself with the Blade if need be, to end my worthless life. But like a sleepwalker in a never ending nightmare I walked on. As I did I steeled my mind to the facts, to my philosophical and scientific discoveries. In a world, a universe, were ethics did not exist, what was the point of guilt. A useless emotion, as useless as a tiger that had compassion for its prey.
Then I staggered into the clearing and I froze. I understood now why my captive had run back with that look of ungodly fright on her face. Before me was the Temple, the penultimate objective of my quest, devoted to a relatively minor deity from the unfathomably depths of time and space; Mogoloth, the Devourer of Souls, the hideous spider god, guardian and gatekeeper of the Arboreal Orb. An entity whose size was unbelievable immense, miles in length, whose food was human minds consumed forever in its cavernous stomach. It was said that at the end of all things, time and matter, the digested excreta would be expelled at last; a sticky world enveloping mass of dead souls.
Dominating the clearing the temple’s high towers and copious pilasters and arches, layered like an oriental but contaminated weeding cake, filled my head with dread. The carvings encrusting the structure like cancerous growths from another planet turned the Temple into a phantasmagoria of malign arachnid and reptilian shapes; insane gods and goddesses proliferating upwards and outwards, devouring or copulating with each other like an army of crazed interstellar ants. I stared and stared, rooted to the spot, unable to move by the sheer ghastly wonder of it all. The designer of this edifice of insanity was beyond genius, the craftsmen had to be demons possessed by an unholy spark of creativity. From the unnatural jungle surrounding the clearing, giant tendrils and creepers reached out and engulfed the building, encasing it in webs of brightly coloured vegetation, sprouting preternatural blooms; funnels and tubes with wavering stamens issuing from their purple cavities. On top of the roof of the dark entrance, an arch bigger than the others, in the centre of the Temple complex, a banyan tree, massive in size, sent down its thick roots like a mud slide almost blocking my route inside.
Still holding the girl on my shoulder I at last moved, making my way very slowly towards the entangled opening. Pushing with my left hand while holding the girl with my right I edged around the lumps of root matter breaking up the masonry. The stone floor and walls were pitted and humped, broken by the extending limps of the banyan tree, eroding the hideous eons' old statuary and faded paintings. Sweating profusely I emerged into the cavernous interior, the arched, immense roof supported by a line of giant pillars shaped into mammoth idols, redolent of an evil stretching back to the beginnings of time: Gigantean squids, spider gods, lizard beings and aquatic horrors from the depths of an ocean on a world hidden in the vastness of space. I felt dwarfed by the immensity of it all as if I was entering a cathedral designed by Lucifer. On every side were the misshapen monstrous forms of the gods and goddesses of a universal psychosis, the mind of Satan brought to light.
Directly in front was the altar; a circular wall forty or fifty meters in circumference and five or six meters in height with ancient steps leading up to its lip. I took one step at a time towards the altar; my eyes glued on the colossal statue behind it, obviously a depiction of Mogoloth, the Devourer of Souls. It had a many eyed head with a gigantic mandibled maw; its body coiled like an enormous woodlice in the process of curling into a ball and its eight long serrated arms arrayed at its sides arched over my head. As I moved further up the time-worn steps I noticed the top set of jointed arms gripped an enormous cracked and stained mirror in the shape of an oversized eye staring downwards into a seemingly never ending pit.
I knew then my calculations were correct; one year in a thousand the staring eye of Mogoloth opened waiting for its sacrificial victim. I was on time and the ritual would be performed effectively. Slowly I climbed, holding the still unconscious girl in my arms.
The wall of the altar was in fact the raised sides of a well or deep hole in the ground. When I reached the end of the crumbling stairs I gazed vertiginously into its depths, where I was almost certain I detected faint movement suggesting something huge and repugnant. Across this gaping hell-pit was a narrow stone platform like a diving board, blotched with the fading red stains of sacrificed blood. Nausea swam in my stomach suddenly and I retched emptily, laying the child on the hard stone of the platform. She softly moaned as I striped her of her rags and hurled them into the cavernous hole beneath me, falling like scraps of discarded paper thrown into a volcano crater.
I withdrew from my belt the Blade and I took the book of satanic incantations from the pocket of my mud encrusted combat trousers. I opened the grimoire to the correct page and rested it next to the head of the girl, staring at the ghastly drawing of a fleshy mouth like opening, where within its folds of flesh nestled an eye, hate filled and malevolent like the gigantic eye above me. Surrounding the drawn mouth were characters of a language long extinct, words written millennia ago. As I knelt in front of the prone adolescent, raising the devilishly sharp Blade above my head, gripping the handle crafted into the obscene bodies of copulating demonic forms, I begin chanting the words softly but raising my voice subtly as I continued.
Eventually I am almost bellowing the barbaric and savage language, as an energizing power shoot through my frame like electricity. The girl’s eyes open when I am nearing the climax of my ritual and her mouth rounds into a shout of terror. Plunging down, as the last phrase of the appalling verse escapes my lips, the supernatural knife slides into the soft skin of her left breast, piercing her heart. Her body thrashes wildly from side to side and she takes an age to subside as I pull the Blade from her bloodied chest. As if I am in a trance l let the blood drip from the knife onto the pages of the book, where they sizzle like fat dropped into a frying pan.
An explosion of sound then erupts from deep within the pit, rushing upwards like an express train, like the beginnings of a volcanic eruption. The platform begins to vibrate, shaking uncontrollable, large cracks opening up in its service, spilling rocks into the empty space. The gate is open. I have found my Unholy Grail at last, complete confirmation of my theories! The passageway leading eventually to the Arboreal Orb, the Eternal Eye itself is gaping. Levitating upwards towards the mirror, shaped into that hellish eyeball, I begin to scream. Suspended in the air, caught in the baleful gaze of the looking glass, I look down, as an arachnid arm as thick as a man is long, grabs the body of the teenager in its claw and drags her into the bottomless abyss.
For a few moments there is complete stillness, a hush, where I hear a background susurration like a distant swarm of locusts, and I stare upwards at the mirror suspended above me. The mirror blinks like a real eye and something clicks in my brain. The long, endless well shaft is reflected in the mirror, reversed, now like a chimney, and I realise in a flash of sickening despair, the horror of my situation, the situation of the whole of humanity. Our world is an emanation, a literal creation, a manufactured universe of the unimaginable entity or entities labelled the Arboreal Orb, the Alpha and Omega of evil. God does not exist and never did; virtue does not exist and never will. My emotions, my feelings of guilt and torment, my pleasures and selfish triumphs are nothing. We are nothing, mere nourishment for the Eternal Eye, that black void, shinning orb of nullity.

Amanda let the journal pages fall on her lap and she stared out into the moonlit swamp without seeing it. Richard Solomon is a paedophile she thought, a molester of children and young girls. She felt sick then, a shifting slimy feeling in her innards. She did not know if this was a reaction to the journal’s revelations or the start of a stomach disorder. Getting up she began the walk back to the encampment, the sensation of sickness increasing, growing inside her like a living thing. With a heave she threw the contents of her last meal onto the cracked concrete floor of the multi-story car park, the sticky tropical heat increasing around her, making her dizzy. After a while, the sweat soaking her body, she continued walking and a plan began to evolve in her head. She was not going to be part of Richard’s betrayal, the pervert probably had an ulterior motive, nor was she willing to kill her own father. Amanda had her own ideas.
Crawling back into the enclosure, the flashlight turned off, she found her cot. Resting on her side she listened to the soft breathing and snores around her, the booming chorus of swamp life and the distant roars of the beast. Her stomach gurgled slightly but an uneasy sweaty sleep soon descended.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Chapter Three: A Steed for Amanda

The first sensation was a rolling motion. Amanda was sitting upright on a moving object; the shock of her sudden awakening almost toppling her to the ground. An arm shot out and gripped her upper limb, steadying her. The sky wheeled above her and her stomach rose into her mouth. Gulping for air she stared at Camilla, the owner of the securing arm, who looked back not with concern but with a cold regard.
Amanda rode on a human being or what once was human, transformed, transmogrified. A vegetable entity, an arboreal form, had consumed its host, warping, purposefully disfiguring limbs and body to fit it into the lose shape of a four legged animal, a beast of burden. The tiny proliferating vines felt soft against her posterior but they constantly moved, slipping and sliding like a nest of thin elongated maggots, richly coloured in bright greens, reds and yellows. A stink of vegetable rot assailed her nostrils mixed disgustingly with the smell of decomposing flesh. Staring straight ahead at the thing’s head, a corpse’s head, swaying side to side, recognition came to her. She was riding on the back of Lucius Peake.
The shock was too much. Amanda retched and would have fallen if it was not for Camilla’s firm grip.
“Revolting isn’t it,” said Camilla. “But it’s mainly for show, to scare the local populace.”
Camilla was riding on a similar ‘beast,’ another unfortunate, absorbed by an arboreal form. Richard Solomon rode on another. Both flanked Amanda, travelling slowly along a muddy path beside a vast, swiftly moving river, palm fronds and detritus floating downstream. Behind them were two ordinary horses. The rider of the first, one of the khaki clad soldiers, led the other horse. Moonbeam’s horizontal and comatose body was strapped to her mount, her body wobbling, her head lolling, a movement induced by the slow trot of the animal. At the front of the column were the remaining five soldiers, all on horseback, powerful machine guns slung behind their backs, leading two mounts without riders.
Outside the ruinous temple annex, the heat of the afternoon sun was unconfined by its shade. Humidity dragged the sweat from Amanda’s body as she bounced on the soft slithering hide of the creature that had once been Lucius. The air was moist, wet; mud and grimy puddles clogged the path and the lush steamy greenery to the side was slicked with rainwater. Nausea still swirled in her stomach, made worse by the lurching of her mount, and clouds of tiny gnats or mosquitoes swarmed above her head. She felt wretched and was unable to fully take in her surroundings, but behind the screen of ferns, the odd lofty palm and the general tangled jungle, she could see patches of cleared ground, roughly cultivated and beyond that, houses, ordinary, mundane suburbanite housing from the late twentieth century but dilapidated, still lived in but falling apart. Sometimes raggedly dressed people, tanned by the intense sun, were working in these makeshift fields but if they caught sight of the slow moving procession they scurried back into their hovels, picking up any stray children on the way.
Of course the swift swollen expanse of river on her left dotted with tropical debris was the Thames and the rough agricultural land, just barely vacant of encroaching jungle, and the almost ruined overgrown housing was Walton-on-Thames, a suburb of London.
Somehow all this, southern England two hundred years hence, was more unsettling then the nightmare world of Ashbury Manor’s interior. The biting insects buzzing around her, the sickness, the heat, the vivid moist greenery were real, not like the startling but hallucinatory dreamscapes of the Manor. She had come back to Earth, but an Earth transformed, made foreign so it was completely unrecognisable. She felt lost and alone, defeated.
The idea of escape came to her then. She would run away, back to Ashbury Manor; travel the way she had come through the terrifying corridors and finally pass through the mirror into the early twenty first century and be reunited with her father. When this thought entered her brain, a surge of hope banished her nausea for a brief second. But the near impossibility of these actions, breaking away from the hired soldiers of the Order, then fleeing through unknown territory, then facing the dangers and unbelievable horrors of the Manor, deflated this transitory hope like a burst soap bubble.
With a heave of her strained innards she tried to vomit but her stomach was empty, only bile filled her mouth.
On the horizon, towards London, something loomed above the river and the many scattered clumps of palms. Amanda was so tightly coiled in her misery that she had not taken in the red and green object that was like a massive mountain seen through the haze of distance. At first she really thought it was a mountain, a mountain that had sprouted up over the last two hundred years where London had once been, but then she understood it was some kind of edifice, organic in nature like a city sized tree hollowed out by ants or termites. It was ragged and chaotically shaped with branch-like protuberances connecting different parts of its lumpy construction or sticking out into the air like bridges that had nowhere to go. It was so far away that she could not make out any details but its surface undulated, was in constant motion. As she watched one of the awesomely huge ‘branches’ reached out and connected with another, forming an archway high in the sky.
“Our destination,” said Richard, who was staring at Amanda. “We call it the Arboretum, capital city of the Empire of the Order of the Arboreal Orb.”
She made no reply but continued to stare ahead at the edifice, fixing her gaze straight ahead to steady her stomach. They lurched on for what seemed like hours through the increasing tropical flora, but eventually passing the primitive homesteads they came to a halt. The fronds of particularly tall palms shaded the clearing in which the party stood and a wrecked car long since eroded into a mound of rusting metal lay to the side amongst exotic verdure. A concrete road bridge in a shattered condition crossed the river nearby, strange water weeds and dislodged biomasses washed up against its arches and grow up its sides overtaking the lopsided and destroyed street lamps along its edges. A cluster of high rise flats long since deserted and overtaken by rank foliage, surrounded by the ubiquitous palms, reared above the transformed Thames, a reminder of past times.
Dismounting, Camilla signalled to the soldiers to dismount too. Richard helped Amanda from the Lucius-Thing smiling encouragement as he did so. Once on firm ground, slightly away from the stench of decomposing flesh and vegetable matter, she felt her insides settle and with this she began to feel more human. Camilla was up close with Richard discussing something in soft whispers but then the woman stepped quickly away without warning.
“Farewell Lucius, you are no longer of use,” she said loudly so everyone could hear.
The strands and fibres covering his malformed body began to clump together, coagulating into bizarre many-legged shapes and arachnid forms that swarmed busily like army ants taking apart their prey. Bits of flesh, organs and bone were carried away into the undergrowth and into the river too, were some slid under the surface while others floated on the current or swam using grotesque paddle shaped limbs. Some even flow on wings formed of organic tendrils taking away sagging trails of intestine or unnameable organs reduced to gooey masses into the air, over the tree tops or the other side of the river. Amanda watched, wrapping her arms about her hairless head to keep the flying creatures away, as Lucius’s skull, decaying skin still attached, scuttled away, held by at least five arboreal forms.
The same process was occurring with the two unknown victims and the ground, the water and the sky were a crawl with the floral insects, dazzling the eye with bright primary colours and afflicting the ear with the buzz of wings.
Silence. Once it was over and the multitude of arboreal forms had carried off there bounty no one spoke. Only the susurration of normal insect life and the clacking of parakeets in the trees disturbed the profound stillness. Then Richard jumped deftly on to one of the riderless horses already saddled and Camilla slightly more awkwardly did likewise. They both stared at Amanda for a few seconds until Richard offered her the opportunity to ride behind him. Clambering onto the back of his horse, helped by his sturdy arm, she clung tightly to his waist. Richard shouted a command and the posse continued on its journey.
Slowly crossing the road bridge, Amanda’s stomach began to settle and she felt well enough to take an interest in her environs. The expanse of river was getting wider, turning into a flood plain the nearer it got to the ominously large construction miles away. The plain or immense swamp was scattered with islands and on these, isolated structures, crumbling tower blocks, sections of motorway bridges and other detritus of the 20th century, succumbed to the proliferating organic profusion. Now and again clouds of parakeets arose like rainbow coloured smoke from these lonely outposts of dry land and flew in all directions except towards the giant formation on the horizon. In between the islets of lost modernity, the still and fetid waters were a breeding bed of more foliage, stunted willows and swamp grass, camouflage to half submerged objects; a cluster of broken cars like a wrecker’s yard, even a tail fin of a crashed airliner. Further on more freakish and abnormal flora abounded, immediately recognisably to Amanda, who had travelled through the disorientating corridors of Ashbury Manor. They were fungi shaped and multicoloured, grouped here and three like the beginnings of some exotic cancer of the rank landscape. And over this marshland loomed the immensity of the Arboretum like a gargantuan sentient fortress or a city sized banyan tree caught in a time lapse film.
Amanda could not keep her eyes away from this glowering monstrous object. It dwarfed the nearby wetlands but its details were obscured by a heat haze or mist arising from the far distant swamps. Constant movement was noticeable, as massive branches or limbs, at least a mile in length she calculated, sprouted from its surface, joined with others or was absorbed back into the main body. She wondered if this Arboretum was an equivalent to an amoeboid or alien blob from a sci-fi movie consuming everything in its path.
Occasionally a deep hum or drone came from the air as they continued along the river bank, this time on the north side. Glancing into the hazy blue sky Amanda observed a flying creature high above, roughly insectile in shape and very big. It held something in its extensions but it was too far away to clearly observe.
“What’s that,” she said to Richard.
Amanda knew the answer before Richard replied.
“An arboreal form. It is taking victims to the Arboretum.”
Muddy and stagnant water was thinning out the dry land as they continued, until eventually it was impossible to go further without the use of a boat. The party eventually came to a halt outside a half submerged multi-story car park infested with thick vines and nearly hidden by ferns like green sails and thickly bunched and lofty palms. Darkness was coming and the sky was painted a glorious reddish orange as the sun died, silhouetting the immense stain of the Arboretum, a gigantic ink spot whose edges were in constant activity. Swarms of mosquitoes arose from the neighbouring swamplands as twilight deepened and Amanda slapped her neck and exposed arms to keep them away. The music of night creatures, frogs mostly, boomed out like an alien chorus line.
Dismounting, Camilla, Richard and the soldiers guided their horses through the small forest of palms towards the concrete car park, squelching through mud and sometimes tripping over exposed roots in the gloom. Arriving at the black bulk of the multi-story, the guards took electric torches from their packs, switched them on and aimed the beams at a metal ramp over the water, leading to the lowest non-flooded level.
Entering the dank sweaty interior, echoing with the drip of moisture and the slosh of water from below, the wavering torch beams throw elongated shadows over the once grey but now green slimed walls. Misshapen objects that had once been vehicles were occasionally revealed in the fitful light, rusting heaps of metal overtaken by miniature but sturdy tropical undergrowth. They halted before a square section of the car park, screened by voluminous canvas curtains hanging by iron pegs driven into the concrete roof. Behind these curtains was a dormitory area with at least a dozen makeshift camp beds with mosquito netting. The guards taking their guns and packs from their shoulders immediately headed for the beds, crawling beneath the netting, except for the two who carried Moonbeam to a bed, lying her down. Some took food from their rucksacks and began to eat; the others laid themselves flat to sleep.
Camilla, Richard and Amanda stood and surveyed the scene for a few minutes. “This is where we sleep tonight; tomorrow we arrive at the Arboretum,” Richard said without emotion, handing Amanda and Camilla wrapped food from his pack. “You’re bed is over there Amanda and we’ll sleep here,” he continued, indicating their resting places.
When Amanda found her cramped cot, without bed clothes or even a pillow, she ate her food sitting on its edge, listening to the incredible sound of nocturnal life issuing from the fecund swamps. The food was dried salted meat and hard crusty bread but the thought she was eating animal flesh only created a mild pang of guilt. This faded after a few seconds and she realised vegetarianism was no longer important. Finding she was feeling very sleepy, she lay horizontal and shut her eyes.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Chapter Two: Sacrifice

The descent seemed to take forever and Amanda held on to the rusty iron ladder as tight as she could, gingerly taking a step at a time, forcing herself not to look down. The others must be a long way below her. Stagnant water dripped on her face smearing her body with brownish stains and lianas like solidified muscle blocked her way. With a horrible lurch in her stomach, taking her completely by surprise because she was fixedly staring at the moist stone between the bars of the ladder, these blockages of her downward path made her lose her footing. She grasped unsteadily with her two hands, almost slipping away into the void. But then something unexpected happened.
At some imperceptible point she felt she was moving upwards rather then downwards. She stood still, disorientated and faint, her heart beating. Gradually she craned her neck to look up and with a shock she spotted far above the blue suited figure of Camilla and the walking corpse with Moonbeam draped over his shoulders.
They neared the rounded end of the well, blue sky peering through disintegrating masonry above the lip. Amanda had indeed switched from climbing down to climbing up.
Sweat from her forehead flowing into her eyes, her arms and legs aching, Amanda continued her ascent. With a deep sense of relief she clambered over the broken lip of the well and defiantly rested herself against its uneven surface, not caring if the others went on without her.
Exhaustion clouded her mind but it was not long before regrets once again entered her head. She was really envying her other self now, safe with her father in the real world, while she explored unknown regions. Amanda had no idea where she was going or for what purpose. Maybe she was being lead to her doom. She had seen marvels filling her with loathing but also with fascination and excitement. Her hatred towards Moonbeam and her dislike of Lucius was rewarded by seeing them reduced to puppets under the control of Camilla. But what was her role she kept thinking, over and over; was she a pawn in a game (whatever the game was), a mannequin like Lucius and Moonbeam or a major player, a leader? What it all boiled down to was that she just didn’t know.
Amanda was alone and in the dark.
Taking in her surroundings as she leant against the well she suddenly had a sense of Déjà vu. And then it came to her. Amanda was in the same fortress that she had seen reflected in the looking glass, the mirror transfixing Sarah Boswell in her room back at Ashbury Manor.
The derelict fortress she realised was not a fortress at all but an annex or extension to a larger building, Ashbury Manor. The entrance to the main building, blocked by a substantial oaken door inscribed with hieroglyphs, was behind her. The wall of the well was higher then she thought and she was in fact sitting on a raised circular platform made of crafted rock, with uneven steps leading to the floor. Painted frescos adorned the shattered walls of the annex, the usual depictions of horrifically deformed and malignant creatures, with the staring eye symbol that was so prevalent, scattered seemingly at random among the monsters.
The well, the centre of attraction, was like an altar in a primitive temple. The place was in a state of disrepair; a large rent in the vaulted ceiling showed a hazy blue sky with a sinuous tropical frond snaking its way through the hole, almost touching the flag stoned ground with its leaves. Saplings, grass and other hardy plants grow from the gaps between the cracked flagstones and in corners and in other forgotten areas, fan like ferns sprung, even a small palm tree. But this tropical flora was not like the supernaturally diseased vegetation Amanda had seen before. In comparison it seemed quite ordinary.
Unsteadily she stood up, walked to the steps and stared down. Staring up at her was Camilla, with the inert form of Lucius still carrying Moonbeam in his arms standing next to her, but Amanda’s eyes immediately went to the figures surrounding them, seven in all she counted. Six were dressed in khaki uniforms with guns slung on their shoulders and formed a protective semi-circle around the others. The seventh was standing beside Camilla; a tall, tanned and lean man, wearing shorts, sandals and a tee-shirt. He stood very close to Camilla, almost touching.
At once she became conscious that she was naked. It was as if she was on stage and the people below were the audience. She was mortified and desperately tried to cover herself with her hands. When she had moved through the nightmarish chambers and corridors of Ashbury Manor she had no consciousness of her nakedness but now it was as if she had awoken from a dream. Camilla was smirking at her obvious discomfiture and the soldiers or guards gazed at her intently but their faces were expressionless. The man though had a serious look on his face and he turned around, shouting an order.
“Give the girl some of your spare clothes!”
At the sound of the man’s commanding voice Amanda’s pride reasserted itself and she straightened up and glowered at Camilla. She was not going to let any of them belittle or debase her. Slowly and deliberately she moved down the stairs, her back straight, attempting to settle her features into blank neutrality. She took hold of a pair of camouflaged combat trousers and a white vest from the man. Feeling everyone was staring at her she put them on as fast as she could.
When she had clothed herself in her new garments she found they were too big for her, so she tightened the leather belt to keep the trousers from falling around her ankles. She turned to confront Camilla, who still chuckled mockingly, but almost tripped over the lower leg of the trousers.
“Where are we,” she said. “And who are these people?”
A long silence ensued and Camilla stared intently at Amanda, deflating her rage and making her feel uncomfortably and awkward again.
“We’re back home, back to the suburbs of south-west London but two hundred years in the future,” Camilla said. “And this is my close friend Richard Solomon, who I have not seen for ten years, and these are the hired soldiers of the Order of the Arboreal Orb. The Order is the true and only sovereign of Great Britain now.”
“Two hundred years in the future?!”
“That’s right”, said Richard Solomon. He put his arm around Camilla and she snuggled up to him. “A lot has happened in those two hundred years, Amanda. Global warming has turned England into a ‘tropical paradise.’ Governments and states throughout the world have fallen, chaos has reigned, the perfect situation for us, the Order of the Arboreal Orb.”
“Richard is a member of the Order,” said Camilla, extracting herself from his arms and walking closer to the high wall of the well-like structure, suddenly deep in thought.
“As the membership is extremely exclusive we have no hierarchy as such, no one has power over another within our elite circle, but Richard is important,” she said after a while. “He is our chief theoretician, a one time professor of philosophy at Kings College, London, someone who understands the complexities of the Arboreal Orb and its ten projections or universes better then anyone else alive. He is the one to answer your questions.”
Amanda glanced at Richard Solomon, a man who she estimated to be in his thirties, intellectual looking but tall and handsome with blonde hair cut short. He was well tanned by years of living in a hot climate, not muscular but strong and wiry. She felt intimidated at first by his intense stare but the youthful and mischievous smile he eventually gave her put her at her ease. He did not seem to have the cruelty of Camilla, instead he looked at the unfortunate condition of Lucius Peake with pity and distaste rather then a vindictiveness.
“Well, my first question is about the Arboreal Orb,” she said. “What actually is it?”
“The Arboreal Orb is the Creator or Godhead.” said Richard. “It’s been given many names throughout history, the Christians called it Lucifer or the Devil, and the Gnostics the Demiurge. Interestingly the Gnostics were correct in thinking the Demiurge created the universe but they were wrong in believing in a duality of good and evil. To the Gnostics the evil Demiurge was opposed by a divinity of light, purity beyond our corrupted reality. But there is no God only Satan. It was he or as I prefer ‘they’ who made our world. There is nothing ‘good’ outside it.” 
“But the Arboreal Orb’s true nature is a mystery. Only George Browne the Order’s founder knew its secrets and wrote them down in his grimoire, lost since the sixteenth century. But there are many theories; some within the Order, the traditionalists, the occultists, look upon it as a supernatural entity separate from ordinary space and time, a mystical force. The Ten Universes are the emanations of the Arboreal Orb, or in other words its thoughts, its dreams brought to life, corresponding to the Tree of Life of the Kabbalah.
“I myself think the Orb is not an individual but a collection of alien intelligences, an advanced material civilization that has managed to devise the technology to manufacture universes. This I think will be revealed when at last all the universes are absorbed into one. We then become the Arboreal Orb…or its food.”
Interested by Richard’s erudite monologue, Amanda was unaware that Camilla, who had returned to Richard’s side, had an air of impatience.
“Yes and the biggest mystery is you, Amanda,” she said at last. “You’re a doppelganger, a physical split from your other self. What happened back in the library of Ashbury Manor was totally unforeseen, even Richard can’t figure it out.”
“And there is another question,” Amanda said, realising this was the question she most wanted answered. “What is my place in all of this?”
“I’m going to be blunt with you,” said Camilla. Richard stared at her intently, a dark frown on his face.
“In the beginning you were a mere means to an end. When your father turned us down we approached you. We needed you to gain access to the Manor when our bid for the building failed. You see, Richard had gone through via a different route, a very dangerous one, over ten years ago our time, a route that was not open to us. Once you had gone through Amanda you would have suffered the same fate as Lucius.”
“To us you were a spoilt child, your head full of half-digested ideas. But then that miraculous divide occurred and I was taken completely by surprise. I had to act quickly and I decided to spare you. I also on the spur of the moment captured Moonbeam. My hunch is you are important, very important to the task ahead, the merging of the Ten Universes into one, and thus I have allowed you to join the Order. But you still have one more thing to do to prove yourself.”
She looked meaningfully at the immobile and expressionless figure of Moonbeam and then turned to the soldiers.
“Take her to the altar and secure her,” she ordered.
Rushing to obey, two armed men roughly manhandled the limp body and secured her wrists to iron manacles attached to the wall of the well. Moonbeam’s eyes suddenly lost their dead vacancy and she stared around her confusedly as if she had awoken from deep sleep. Then when her situation finally dawned on her she began to struggle, arching her body, kicking violently but in vain at the guards, who leered at her, mocking her helplessness. She began to scream in a high pitched fashion that after a while slowly ebbed away into a desolate sobbing. Without uttering a word she looked imploringly at Amanda.
“Now gut her like a fish,” Camilla said. “Show me your mettle!”
Amanda felt the tip of the knife digging into her sides and without thinking took hold of it from Camilla. She held the clasp tightly and directed her gaze back to the terrified Moonbeam.
She hated the woman who had taken her dad from her and warped his mind with sappy morality. She loathed Moonbeam’s cloying new age philosophies and her attempts to preach, treating her like a kid. Rather then play acting at debauchery like a moody adolescent, here at last was her chance to demonstrate to the Order her embracing of evil.
But to actually thrust a murderously sharp blade into Moonbeam’s yielding belly… Such a scene playing itself out in her mind rooted her to the spot.
“What are you waiting for-do it!”
Camilla scowled, pushing her forward. Tentatively she walked, feeling an appalling nervousness surge up inside, clutching her innards, making her head spin. She carried on regardless, holding the knife directly in front of her, watching the sweat trickle from the twisted face of her victim. Amanda had to do this, she had no choice. If she refused she would become a victim herself, dead or worse. Either that or do the deed, become active in the limitless project of excitement the Order represented.
Now she was face to face with Moonbeam, a new emotion began to take hold, the emotion the powerful feel when confronted with the supine bodies of the powerless. Staring directly into her eyes, lifting the knife above her head, Amanda felt power, the complete control over another person’s life. An incredible rush like adrenaline pumped through her veins, blocking out compassion and pity. The woman in chains wriggled and writhed in a hopeless attempt to escape the blade, desperately pleading for her life. But Amanda was not listening, something more primeval, visceral had taken command.
Here in front of Amanda was a pathetic creature, who not so long ago ruled her. The position was now reversed but Amanda’s power was expanded a hundredfold in comparison and simplified; the power of life and death.
Moonbeam shrieked as the knife fell, aimed at her belly. But the blade never reached its target. Amanda was thrown violently to the ground, the dagger falling from her hand as she hit the floor, wincing with the pain of the impact. Looking up she saw Richard Solomon coolly standing above her. But it was Camilla who spoke first.
“Why,” she shouted. “She was doing everything she was supposed to!”
“Not yet, the time is not right. We may have use for this woman later on,” Richard said pointing at Moonbeam.
“Your getting soft Richard, you really are.” Camilla grimaced, frustration contorting her features.
But it was Amanda who felt frustrated, furious too. Thwarted in her attempt to murder her rival she turned her excess anger on the one who dominated her in the present: Camilla. Picking up the knife she hurled herself without thought at the woman, spitting out obscenities, her face lost in a deformed smile of rage. Then, suddenly she was turned off like a tap. Unconsciousness descended without warning.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Part Two: Beyond The Looking Glass: Chapter One: Mirror Image

Amanda watched her mirror image clamber from the library floor, grasping at the bookcase for support and dislodging the heavy volumes resting on the shelves. The surge of violent feeling inside her had ebbed, but it still left an exhilarating residue behind.
Unlike her alter-ego she was naked and covered in a sticky fluid as if she was newly born and for a brief moment she felt dismayed as she realised she was without hair. But the incredible wash of sensation buoyed her up, jolting her with savage portents of freedom. She could do what ever she liked and nobody could stop her, not her school teachers, her father or Moonbeam.
She gazed agog at her father’s lover, who in kind gaped in stunned silence, obviously shaken by this new apparition, naked and bold; at Paul, who had betrayed her and at her other self, weak and frightened. Amanda was fearful but she had her fear under control. The hatred for Moonbeam smouldered and burnt inside but it was not sensible to attack now.
Calmly she picked up the knife and walked towards Camilla. Here was a strong woman who knew what she wanted, albeit dressed like a company executive.
For a moment her cool evaporated when she turned to face the looking-glass. The mirror was now a doorway into a colossal chamber lit by red sunlight-mysterious and exotic. It was only a few seconds before she rallied and looked to Camilla for guidance. Amanda was ready to kill the cat, torture it if need be to proof her worth and escape from the clutches of normality and boredom. She felt a twinge of loss when she thought about her father. She loved him but he was too much under the influence of his soppy new-age girlfriend-drawing away from the decadent and the satanic.
But the woman from The Order of the Arboreal Orb was not interested in completing the initiation ceremony. She immediately stepped through the mirror into the peculiar vestibule. Amanda using all the daring that had been instilled in her since she was an infant followed, she did not even look back at Paul, Moonbeam and her other self. It was as if these people had nothing more to do with her, feeble characters who no longer had dominion over her.
She was convinced this was the right direction, the pathway guiding her to the secrets of Ashbury Manor. Of course she was scared, but a decision had to be made and she knew it was the correct one.
There was no friction when she stepped through the looking glass, nothing that clung to her or hindered her egress; it was as if she was walking through an open door.
Once she stood within the chamber the humidity was palpable, bringing a sweat to her body. It was like entering on a mild spring day one of the tropical greenhouses at Kew Gardens. Assailed by an overwhelming odour of rotting vegetation, of arboreal growth and decay, she stood on the sloping floor, made up of slabs of stone, tinged with a thin layer of green moss and the diseased yellow of fungus. She gazed around her in wonder.
The next few minutes passed in a blur of horror as Lucius Peake as if sleepwalking passed through the mirror and was attacked by a dog sized insect. It issued from a hole in the centre of a mosaic depicting a giant eye, laid out at the bottom of the dip in the floor. The creature having smeared its three proboscises into Douglas’s eyes and mouth, somehow controlling his movements directly through his brain, forced him back into the library. But he soon emerged dragging a screaming and kicking Moonbeam.
Held tightly around the stomach by Lucius’ well-muscled arms, shrieking uncontrollable, her limbs flailing in all directions, Moonbeam was turned towards the imperious figure of Camilla, who stared intently at the struggling woman. Immediately Moonbeam’s turbulent movements and high pitched screeching ceased as the two women’s eyes meet. The zombie form then lowered the inert but free standing body to the ground and backed off. Her shape was as still as a statue as she stood in front of Camilla, her eyes wide-open but vacant.
A brief smile of triumph crossed Amanda’s face as she witnessed the subjection of her enemy, now under the control of the business woman. She marvelled at the way Camilla had complete power over Moonbeam, thinking at the same time what she could do with such powers.
“How do you do that,” she whispered, after the shock of the last few minutes had worn off. She looked around in bewilderment as the unreality of the situation crept up on her again
“You need years of practice in the arts of domination before you can master supremacy over another. There are limitations though. For instance I can make her move forward, stop and sit.”
As she said these words, Moonbeam walked a few steps, sat, stood up, turned and moved back to the position she had started from.
“I can even get this hippy to eat meat.”
Taking a sausage roll from her pocket Camilla passed it to Moonbeam, who expressionlessly began to munch on the morsel.
“For ultimate control, for getting the powerless to carry out complex tasks, you need the Arboreal Forms as intermediaries.”
Camilla pointed to the creature that had once been Lucius Peake. His limbs twitched sporadically as the tiny organic tendrils beneath the skin of his face and arms flexed.
So many questions to ask thought Amanda, as she swivelled around, taking in once more the immense cathedral sized space.
“Where in hell are we,” she managed to say at last.
Camilla smiled with bleak humour. “Ashbury Manor of course, the real Ashbury Manor, but you can call it Hell if you like, many do. For us it is a playground, a place of opportunity, but above all it is a terminus for other destinations.”
There was a pause in which time Amanda heard a sound, a susurration, almost inaudible, issuing from the huge archway.
“This chamber, if you were religiously inclined, you might call Hell’s Gate,” Camilla continued. “But plenty of time for questions later. We must make haste; a long and arduous journey awaits us.”
Striding purposefully up the slope, away from the eye mosaic, Camilla made for the entrance that yawned cavernously. Amanda, slightly out of breath after climbing the incline, Lucius and Moonbeam behind, could only see a few meters into the tunnel, whose towering uneven walls, enveloped in green fronds and vines, were lit by the red illumination of the sunlight. But beyond was only darkness.
The massive stone columns, thirty or forty meters high and ten meters thick, standing on either side, slicked with a mysterious amber fluid, were like two gigantic redwoods, making her head spin as she stretched her neck to get a better look. The portico supported by the columns was just as immense; a solid slab of stone carved to resemble the eye of a malevolent god. The craftsmanship was otherworldly but still infected with the ubiquitous vegetation.
An unbearable odour of vegetable rot gushed from the black entrance, making Amanda gag. But it was not only this preventing her from following Camilla.
Crawling and shuffling obscenely on every surface within, were a multitude of cockroaches. On closer inspection, as one of the creatures perambulated towards her feet, she saw they were smaller versions of the insectile beast attached to Lucius. Their bodies were composed of tiny, wriggling, worm-like organic strands of many colours. in ceaseless motion. There was a wide variety of bodily forms; some had no legs and moved like slugs, others had an endless array like millipedes, some had thin elongated bodies and others were broad and fat; their dimensions ranged from the size of small rats to tiny specks. But all consumed Amanda with a gut wrenching revulsion.
“Oh God, I’m not going in there,” she said.
Camilla, who had turned around as she was about to be enveloped in darkness, stared long and hard; a penetrating look suddenly filled with hostility. But just as quickly the hostility faded to be replaced by wry amusement.
“Come on. Don’t let a few bugs upset you.”
As Amanda stood in silence considering her next move, the abundance of plant life began to emit a faint emerald glow, lighting the interior with a green luminescence.
What was revealed staggered her. A corridor of vast proportions, the angled lines of the walls, the souring buttresses and arches of the roof, as elaborate as a gothic cathedral, stretching into a dark distance; warped, transformed by alien foliage, an undergrowth of exotic forms. Diseased but multicoloured toadstools the size of houses clung parasitically to shattered pillars, palm trees and massive ferns clustered everywhere, even growing on the buttresses; black and purple coloured hanging moss fell from the arches like shrouds or funereal curtains.
By now the emerald tinge revealing the corridor was complemented by the radiance of the other plants, a rich decadent colouration, a mixture of purples, reds and greens. For a while as she stared transfixed, she was puzzled by a constant rippling movement of the bizarre flora, until with a jolt she understood. The motion was caused by thousands upon thousands of the Arboreal Forms, swarming on every leaf and bough.
“Beautiful isn’t it. Probably the greatest single creation ever devised by mankind, total genius,” said Camilla as she nonchalantly strolled down an aisle running down the middle of the growth infected edifice.
Beautiful was an understatement, thought Amanda as, mustering her will power, she walked on. Lucius had picked up the comatose form of Moonbeam like a monster in an old B-movie and tagged along behind her, the three figures walking in single file.
The insects or Arboreal Forms as Camilla called them inexplicably kept off the main path, strewn with broken brickwork and mixed with pods, seeds and strange fruit. Instead they massed on the gigantic stems and trunks crowding densely at the edges. Over their heads along entangled branches, vines and creepers, they swarmed like the massed ranks of army ants. It was difficult to see the trees and plants close up beneath the clouds of diverse bodies, but when there were gaps Amanda was shocked to see human faces; arms and legs encased in thick bark or the skin of fungus.
She stopped in her tracks, her mouth open in disbelieve, ready to run back the way she had come.
Camilla had disappeared behind a turn in the path and Lucius had stopped, so controlling her repulsion of the myriad, crawling entities with great difficulty, she stepped, very carefully, to the side.
The creatures undulated, swayed, climbed on each other to get away from her as if she was sprayed with some extremely powerful insect repellent. Mystified by this immunity but very grateful all the same, she reached out her hand to the nearest trunk, the tiny beasts spilling away like a wave.
The gnarled convoluted bark was revealed and something else too, a head half submerged, one eye covered in the knotty wood, the other twitching uncontrollable and a mouth also moving but spasmodically, chocked with rotting flora. An arm jerked imploringly, almost catching hold of Amanda, but she moved instinctively, stifling a gasp of dismay.
At the sound of her cry, Camilla returned, a look of impatience on her face. Amanda waited for her to arrive, watching in disgust as the Arboreal Forms flowed back, engulfing the head and arm.
“There is a person trapped in the tree,” she said pointing at the spot.
“Ah, so you have noticed the victims of Ashbury Manor,” Camilla said grinning to herself. “You will find Sarah Boswell here somewhere and the unfortunate William Barrett. The architecture is sustained by the nutrients of their suffering; without them the whole building would collapse.”
“Jeez, it’s so sick!”
“Look here young woman, if you don’t like it you can return home now to your daddy. You don’t want to give up the greatest opportunity you could possible have, do you?”
Her instincts were telling her to flee but Camilla’s commanding tone was stronger. The realisation that she had passed her initiation gave her a sudden unexpected stab of pride.
She was now a bono fide member of the Order of the Arboreal Orb, the most secretive, exclusive occult society in the world. Everything around her was frightening, extremely perplexing but also strikingly gorgeous; a decadent verdure of pain but also of exuberant life.
“No I suppose I don’t, but I have so many questions. Is it possible to ask them while we walk?” Amanda replied after a long pause.
“No, I need to think. Plenty of time later for questions.”
Gritting her teeth she continued after the business woman. Another thought came to her then, a disturbing one. What if rather then a member of the Order she was a willing dupe, being lead blindly on by Camilla to her doom, a victim like all the others.
She was beginning to become aware of other trapped bodies in the undergrowth, a shaking limb here, a sheet of skin mottled with parasitic growths over there. One figure was not as encased in vegetable matter as the others. His arms were held tight behind his back and his feet were swallowed by the thick rind of a tropical fern, whose overarching greenery scraped the roof. The flowing stream of Arboreal Forms moved over him like a current and the man’s mouth opened wide suddenly and a form like a centipede scrambled out. A groan of inarticulate suffering escaped his mouth and his anguished eyes locked onto Amanda’s.
Nausea twisted her stomach and she retched. Turning her head away she forced herself to focus on the back of Camilla’s retreating blue jacket. But still the insidious idea she was a mere tool, a useful fool, destined to end up in this hellish jungle or some other horrific place, played on her mind.
For a moment she envied her other self safe behind the mirror in the cosy everyday world.
Using all the reserves of will she had at her disposal she carried on walking. There was no going back she thought, no way of back tracking. She knew deep down she was committed to her task, first to learn from Camilla, to uncover awful and dreadful knowledge and then to raise through the ranks of the Order of the Arboreal Orb, gaining power. So what if weak and pathetic individuals ended up as victims, their pain and misery used as an energy source for this succulent decadent beauty. It was worth it. Hadn’t she always thought this way, weren’t the beliefs her father held in his Satanist period the same, weren’t the messages of the books she read, the films she watched, the lyrics of the music she listened to saying the same thing?
“Stop being a loser and get on with living,” she muttered, striding with more purpose, but keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the path ahead. The knife she still held in her hand she griped tighter.

Before long the infested nave came to its end in another soaring arch of gothic stone, every conceivable form of clinging and parasitical plant dangling like organic drapes from its edges. Amanda passed underneath still marvelling at the luxuriant and exotically coloured foliation, the bright red and yellow flowers like gaping mouths with shifting stamens, the giant purple mushrooms sprouting everywhere, but she tried to keep her eyes away from the trapped men and women immersed in vegetation.
Camilla was waiting for her in an even larger space beyond the archway, its walls forming a circle hundreds of metres high topped by a glass dome held together by black iron girders as thick as tree trunks. Looking up at it, Amanda felt dizzy so immense did it seem, high above her like the sky itself. This chamber the size of a small town made her feel tiny and insignificant like a house would appear to a fly.
There was less vegetation here then the previous ‘room’ but the gigantic scale of the trees growing here compensated for their lack in numbers. Lumpy branches of contorted wood issued from the bulbous black trunks, similar to banyan trees, and undulated over the iron girders, drooping sickly green tendril-like leaves into the dizzying heights. It was possible that it was all one tree so interwoven were the trunks and branches.
But the arena like space in between was free of organic life except where the roots of the trees broke the surface of crumbling stone to form humps and hillocks of bark. All was illuminated softly in an eerie emerald light coming from two moons or planets floating in a starless void seen through the glass dome, their surfaces tinted green as if infected with gangrene.
With a feeling of relieve, Amanda realised she could not see any of the Arboreal Forms in this enormous space. But just as she was relaxing, a movement across one of the branches spanning the dome made her flinch. She could not help but look in the direction of the scuttling movement and she gasped. The form was indistinct in the faint light but its sheer bulk loomed high above her, an Arboreal Form that had to be at least eight meters in length straddling the branch with its multiple limbs. Once this shape had been discerned, other shadowy forms, hulking and insectile, could be seen in the undergrowth, high above her head and in the distant trees.
It was difficult keeping up with Camilla, so fast did she walk, striding ahead as if she was late for a business appointment. She was heading straight towards an oblong arch on the left discernable between the looming trees. Vast carved symbols, hieroglyphics of obscure and sinister meaning, had been chiselled around its architrave, there occult significance intimidating and overwhelming.
Sweat covered her body as she ran to keep up with the older woman, her heart beating faster with the exertion, but she looked around her with the same appalled fascination as before. She saw other gaping entrances, one far away directly behind her and a gigantic cavern of an entrance facing the one they had left. It was obscured by distance and the undergrowth sprouting from the strange trees.
She noticed that the floor of the immense hall was decorated in faded colours, each slab of coloured stone representing a piece of an ancient and root ruptured jigsaw, a picture so big that she could not make any sense of it. But she passed over fragments, depictions of hideous mouthparts, reptilian scales, deformed human faces and eyes, thousands of eyes, humanoid but all with the stare of insanity.
Catching up with Camilla, the business woman unexpectedly stopped in her tracks and faced Amanda, who tried to control her fast and rapid breathing, wiping sweat away from her forehead. The loping gorilla like form of Lucius with the inert body of Moonbeam cradled in his alien controlled arms came up to them. Camilla was giving Amanda one of her wry humourless smiles, staring in all directions and for a few minutes there was silence in which could be heard the displacement of foliage by the gargantuan forms overhead.
“It’s not fair to keep you totally in the dark,” said Camilla, breaking the silence. “This place is the hub, the hallway where the corridors branch off to the different rooms and chambers of Ashbury Manor. The Manor as constructed by George Browne, an architectural genius if ever there was one, is a representation of the Ten Universes. Each room symbolises an actual emanation or sphere of the Arboreal Orb with doors exiting onto those spheres. The one we are standing in is the Earth or Earths, the lowest and lease perfect of the emanations.”
“Over there,” she pointed towards the oblong arch, “is the beginning of the Corridor of the Future, where every possibility has a doorway leading to it. And that way is the entrance to the Corridor of the Past.” Her finger indicated the other far-off archway.
“Our destination is a future where the Order of the Arboreal Orb commands and controls.” Camilla began to walk, turning her back on Amanda.
“But where does that go?”
Amanda had her eyes on the gaping black wound that opened up cavernously at the head of this preternatural hall, a dark hole that seemed to have been broken into the very fabric of reality; and something beyond imagining, beyond comprehension lurked there in abysmal darkness, a thing that moved like a spider.
“That is the gateway to the other Nine Universes, to the Arboreal Orb itself. For us to attempt to enter would entail our consumption by Mogoloth, The Devourer of Souls, that guards the path. We would spend eternity in its labyrinthine innards, slowly, very slowly decomposing in its digestive juices.”
After these words had been spoken the older woman moved on again, her face set in an inscrutable mask and Lucius shuffled forward following the silent command of the entity that had absorbed his brain, knocking Amanda aside and sending her sprawling onto the hard stone floor.
The fall jolted her from her trance of horror and wonderment and was replaced instantly with simple humiliation. Without much thought except embarrassment she quickly sprang to her feet and ran as fast as she could, past the shambling zombie with its human baggage (with an inward jolt, equal to the force of the fall, Amanda finally comprehended that Lucius was no longer Lucius but a tool made of flesh) and slowed down only when she reached Camilla.
They passed under the arch and found themselves in a corridor only eleven or twelve meters in width and the same in height, but whose length stretched into an impenetrable expanse of distance. The first few kilometres were lit with the ubiquitous green glow emitted from the foliage clinging to the walls, plant life just as exotic as the rest. Arboreal Forms, not huge like those in the oversized domed hall they had left but relatively small, crawled and slithered abhorrently.
Further and further on they went and she began to see a pattern emerging in the endless corridor. After what seemed hours of walking but was probably a fraction of that time, when the nauseating vegetable stink had lost its power due it its constant presence, they came at regular intervals to glass domed atriums, strange skies seen through the iron ribbed glass; night time skies crowded with scintillating jewelled constellations and outlandish moons, or just a cold void, an absence of all light; and daytime skies with red coloured dying suns or unbelievably intense orbs of scorching light ready to explode. In each atrium there was a rounded cavity in the floor like a well sunk into the earth surrounded by a low brick wall. An opening in the wall led to an iron ladder leading downward to a tiny pinprick of light, far, far below.
Her eyes were turned to the porthole shaped windows on both sides, the size of giant transparent plates, framed with riveted steel. The supernaturally thick glass was tinged green with lichen and moss, but the spellbinding landscapes they revealed made Amanda stare with shock and amazement.
Rolling dunes through one window extended to distant mountains as black as night like lowering storm clouds, jagged with rocky peaks and pinnacles. But these dunes were not made of tiny grains of sand but faceted crystals heaped like pirate treasure on an immense scale, covering everything. They blazed with multi-coloured light, reflected sunlight, blinding Amanda briefly. Smashed structures, ruined buildings like skyscrapers, reared above the crystal sand, victims of some unimaginable apocalypse, deserted and eroded by the constant wind induced movement of the jewel-like grains.
An impenetrable rainforest crowded against another window in another atrium. A huge slab of concrete, a few paces off down an incline of a prominence, could be seen through the sail sized ferns and entangled undergrowth, covered in bright red tubular blooms and exotic green and purple plants. The block with broad metal wires sticking out of its uneven top was the vestige of a massive construction long since collapsed and overtaken by the propagating forest.
By now Amanda was so used to frightful wonders that when a dog sized insect similar to a grasshopper crawled from behind the concrete bloke she was only mildly surprised.
Camilla hardly said a word, striding determinedly forward. Questions about what she was seeing crowded Amanda’s mind but she felt too intimated by Camilla’s brisk movements to put them into words. But once Camilla did offer an explanation.
“What you see are possible futures. We are making our way to one particular future. Now hurry along, please.”
Amanda had lost all track of time, her legs were aching, sweat soaked her body and the marvels on each side of her were now mere blurs in her mind. She began to wonder if they were ever going to stop. But just when she was ready to complain they came to a halt in one particular atrium.
Resting on the circular wall around the lip of the hole in the floor, she caught her breath and stared at the oval window.
The landscape beyond was oddly familiar, a river seen from above as if the window was set into a high tower. The wide fast moving river had broken its original banks, submerging non-descript housing beneath its waters. Palms grow along the bank and bunched together at certain places in between more decrepit looking houses; houses Amanda recognised as normal English suburban dwellings but gone to seed. Tropical weeds and plants sprang from the small gardens with washing stretched on lines waiting to dry. The few carts pulled by malnourished horses moving slowly on the cracked and crumbling roads looked ramshackle. Above it hung a blazing yellow sun.
“Now give me the knife. This is where we say goodbye to Ashbury Manor,” said Camilla, sitting next to Amanda on the wall and staring straight ahead at the humid land through the glass. “And hello to our future.”
After Amanda had given the knife to her, Camilla got up and looked intently at Lucius: The thing on his head pulsed gently and he clumped to the iron ladder. He draped the prone Moonbeam over his broad shoulders and began to descend the well-like cavity. She swung herself over the edge and followed the zombie, leaving Amanda to stare down into the vertiginous depths.
The rounded brick walls went on and on into the blackness, the hardy outlandish vines and creepers managing to cling precariously to its sides, until at the bottom could be detected a tiny prick of illumination. Amanda’s stomach flipped and she felt dizzy standing on the edge, her eyes fixated on the sheer drop. Eventually Camilla’s voice echoed up to her like a cry of a demon from the pit.
“Come on, we haven’t got all day and don’t worry-it’s only half a mile down.”