The Thing in the Depths, by Pete Rawlik

(Download the audio version of this story here, or click the play button below. Read by Morgan Scorpion. Story illustration by Robert Elrod.)

For Wilum H. Pugmire

The Thing in the Depths — art by Robert Elrod — click to enlarge

Once, I had found my dreams horrid, terrifying even, but over the years I had become accustomed to the strange visions that filled my nights.  Vast aquatic landscapes of bizarre coralline architectures swarming with thousands of ichthyic figures no longer disturbed me.  That in dreams my reflection was more reminiscent of a fish or frog than a man, no longer woke me in a cold sweat.  Indeed, such sights had grown comforting, even soothing.  So, when in slumber I once more found myself floating silent and effortlessly through the dark waters past Devil Reef, I let the dream carry me where it would.

Down I went, past schools of baitfish and predatory blues and even more predatory sharks.  The reef itself, its crabs and echinoderms, mollusks and corals were lost as I sank deeper and deeper into the murky green.  A hundred feet down and the light vanished but still I was aware of my surroundings. As I plummeted past a fleet of infant giant squid the first dim lights of the upper terraces of Y’ha-nthlei appeared.  Men have created images of Atlantis, Lemuria and other fanciful aquatic cities, as if they were mere counterparts to those of men.  What foolishness.  There are no streets in the sub-aquatic metropoli, what need are roads to creatures who would sooner swim than walk?  Y’ha-nthlei is built in vast terraces that jut out from sea canyon walls like titanic fungoid growths.  Channels and tunnels honeycomb the metropolis, moving both water and inhabitants in a constant fluid stream.  Shoals of Deep Ones banked effortlessly in the current, their scales and eyes glittered back the pale light of the ubiquitous lamp worms that infested the city.

The current suddenly quickened, and inexorably I was drawn down past the lowest tier into the cavern below.  Down I floated, toward the faint glow that leaks from the lower tiers.  This was the old city, fashioned before the first men stood upright.  Age had taken its toll and the network of tunnels and channels had clogged with the organic snow that fell from above. Vast colonies of necrophagic barnacles rhythmically extended feathery tentacles to harvest great quantities of the slowly falling debris before being curled back into their calciferous pentagonal shells.  Choked with debris and colonized by the strange invertebrate forces of abyssal decay, the old city still sheltered a few lingering inhabitants. Ancient anthropomorphic things waded through the detrital snows with remoras and other parasites writhing hideously in their wakes while blind crabs, monstrous with thorny points and thick spiny hairs scuttled for shelter.  No hybrids here, not in the deep city.  Once the pinnacle of the food chain, they had long since ceased being predatory, their once sharp and gored stained teeth had elongated into brittle hair like sieves that transformed each breath, into an unconscious act of feeding.

Then, as quickly as the old city had come into view it was gone, and I plunged deeper than any dream had previously taken me. In dreamtime I become less blind and I perceived below me the tiniest pinprick of illumination. I knew instantly that it was towards this speck of phosphorescence that I was being carried. Slowly the light source resolved into a luminescent and monstrous titan, larger than any of the elder deep ones who dwelt above in the old city, though it shared their general shape and characteristics.  The pale light of the ancient corpus attracted a variety of biota that I could not classify.  Whether they were fish, crustacean, or mollusk, the ancient fed upon them quite passively, for it had little choice.  The thing’s upper limbs were pinned behind it, bound in a strange mass of pulpy tentacles that congealed along the creature’ spine and enveloped everything below the massive abdomen.

So intent was I on studying the poor imprisoned creature that I failed to comprehend that the thing had noticed me as well.  When it spoke I shuddered, for the language was too ancient, the voice too loud, the pressure too great, but I knew that it was revealing to me a secret, something horrid and forbidden.  When it finished, it drifted away, but the movement was incidental, for it was the thing to which the titan was bound, the vast mass of tendrils that pulsed and provided motivation.  As it left I began to see the entirety of the horror, the ancient one, bound so tightly to that tentacled thing.  It was then, as the prisoner and his prison drifted away, that I saw the details of the things that swarmed and trailed about them.  There was a moment of clarity, of reasoned logic that turned from initial denial inevitably into terror.

I awoke screaming, my heart pounding.  My breath was ragged and my throat hoarse from screaming.  As panic subsided my mind slowly rationalized the images I had seen.  Such things should not be, I proclaimed silently, cannot be, and no god of earth or sea should be subjected to such horrors.  And if it must be, then let it be in the far off abyssal depths where sanity cannot dwell.  Let it be there, where pitifully ancient things lay imprisoned, forced against their will to spawn with horrid masses of protoplasmic tentacles birthing forth shoals of mephitic spawn that swarm in great clouds.  Billions of larval deep ones, newly born from a horridly forced union, drawn like thousands of other species instinctively to the light.   Yet in that place where there is no sun or moon or star, the only light that issues forth is from that ancient one, a dark and forgotten Chronos forced to feed on his own monstrous spawn.

Such things should not be, not on earth; not in the abyssal depths of the sea; nor even in the dreams of things that once were men.

Pete Rawlik‘s fiction is available in Dead But Dreaming 2, Horror For the Holidays, Urban Cthulhu:Nightmare Cities, Future Lovecraft, Tales of the Shadowmen, Innsmouth Magazine, and the upcoming anthologies Eldritch Chrome, Worlds of Cthulhu and Over the Mountains of Madness. His non-fiction has appeared inThe Neil Gaiman Reader, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and the Journal of Aquatic Botany. In addition to his writing, Mr. Rawlik spends an inordinate amount of time incarcerated in a private institution for the criminally insane in South Florida. His wife and lawyers hope that soon, given therapy and a proper regiment of pharmaceuticals, he will someday be able to stand trial for his crimes.

Story illustration by Robert Elrod.

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