Do you want to know a secret?
There is a rumor in Ishtar, that the barriers between worlds are beginning to weaken. Strange occurrences. Unexplainable things, that allow me to speak with you. The powers that be can try to conceal them, but everyone knows, by now. My searches uncover points of discussion that have never existed, and never should. Places that talk about a planet called Earth. Your customs are strange, and yet, we are similar. Isn't it odd that two, completely different universes can share so many commonalities? Only here, we don't know anything about planets. We don't know anything about the stars. Only the desert, and a city that never ends.
Apologies - I'm getting ahead of myself.
Nobody knew why this was happening - nobody could prove it - but there were whispers among those who were blessed with extrasensory gifts. They spoke of an entity that could swallow the sky, and light the desert aflame in its step. To exist within its presence is to die inside, until there is nothing left but the will it intends. In the wake of its arrival, everything crumbles to nothing. The air that you breathe. The sand that rides upon a loathsome wind. These towers of glass and steel. Even reality itself will die.
Every night, I have the same dream. I'm wandering through a forest, with trees that pierce a sky of oily, violet clouds, swimming like gasoline through the firmament. The bark is a dry, muscular flesh, wreathed with flowers of blooming meat, and rivers of blood that trickle through the darkness. The roots grow faster than I can outpace them, swarming around me and entangling my feet, while wicked branches descend from above, their shadows tearing across the thicket. Yet before the forest consumes me, I see a light, far off in that misty distance, between every tree and gnarled branch - a light that gleams alone and delirious, calling to me from the void. Bit by bit, I began to remember that light, and its presence within every dream that I ever had. It was not imprisoned by the chains of time. It had always been with me, waiting patiently for me to follow. Yet in dream, I could not.
I contacted my peers, and asked their advice. Due to my sudden realization of its presence, even in the dreams of my past, it was suggested that its source may occupy a space outside of dream. Dreams were only one method of seeing the light - the simplest and most obvious of methods, when the walls of reality have begun to crumble, and the psychic continuum lies bare before even the smallest of minds. I was thus instructed in the art of astral projection.
I went home, that night, and prepared a room for my journey, absent of sound and stimuli - any distractions that could pull my focus away. I sealed myself within that place, and the darkness swallowed me. I found my center, and sat upon the floor, reaching forward through the shadow for the tea of psilocybin that I had brewed for this moment. I drank it in the silence, and waited. I do not know how long I sat there, only that I closed my eyes, and focused upon my breathing. I allowed my thoughts to flow through me, staying for a time, and then passing on from the harbor of my mind. My world began to slow. Fleeting colors burned across the blackness of my vision, and in that moment, I focused my thoughts upon that light. Upon the forest that never ends.
I felt my consciousness begin to drift, slowly, but surely, until at last I could see it within the eye of my mind. It shone through the darkness, gleaming aimlessly, until I began to notice the thin silhouettes of trees before it - slender things that reached up into the night, and swam through the very fabric of reality. I could no longer feel the presence of my body, and yet, I was there in that forest, drifting slow toward the shining beacon. The roots wavered and burrowed through the shadow like great, devouring worms, while the branches swayed fantastically above. I could feel a sense of dread in that darkness - a sense of danger, as though the forest itself had sensed my presence. A scourge of dilated eyes split open across the trunks, observing me with their jittering and maddened gaze, and yet, for as long as I focused upon the light, I felt protected. I felt safe.
The trees began to break, and a small glade was revealed between them. In its center, stood a single, one-story building, the lights within radiating through the spanning panes of glass that comprised its windows. Atop it, in a glowing, neon red signage, 'Cafe Flesh' was written. Red leather booths were arranged within, set astride tables of condiments, while further strips of decorative neon traced along the walls, every light wreathed with a fevered halo that cascaded across my vision, as though the structure occupied a timeless space between dream and physicality. I approached the door, and stepped inside, my boots clicking upon the checkered floor. I had a body, now, though I did not recognize myself. The walls were adorned with photographs and paintings of butchered carcasses, both human and animal, hollowed eyes watching me from every panorama of flayed meat and mutilated limbs. Every surface pulsed and writhed with a terrible elasticity, like the structure itself was breathing, yet the only thing that I could detect upon the air was the metallic scent of blood.
Behind a counter, and a row of metal stools, a man in a white apron smiled at me. Everything about him looked impeccable, and I felt at ease in his presence, a comforting warmth washing over me.
"Welcome to Cafe Flesh, traveler," he said, his voice deep but reassuring. "How may I serve you?"
I sat down on a stool before him, as though caught in a trance, resting my weight against the countertop. I looked up at the menu behind him: a chaos of squirming runes that flashed and jaunted across my sight like a swarm of scattering insects, and yet, I somehow knew exactly what I wanted.
"I'll have a skinshake," I said, not even considering the meaning of my words. It was like the phrase had always been there, existing on the tip of my tongue until the one night I would finally speak it.
"Excellent choice," he said with a smile, reassuring me that I had made the right decision. "One skinshake, coming right up!"
He took a tall glass off a shelf behind him, and placed it inside a bizarre machine, crafted of alabaster metal, and etched with glowing, arcane glyphs that were painful to look upon. I felt lightheaded, and averted my gaze, yet when I looked down at myself, I saw that my skin was now missing. In its place was only raw, red flesh, neatly flayed and absent of blood.
"You're from Ishtar, aren't you?" he asked, the machine emitting a mechanical whirring. "I like you guys, you always talk like you're reciting poetry."
The man took the glass from the machine, now lightly frosted, and filled with a thick, reddish concoction. He sprayed a swirl of whipped cream on top, placed a candied cherry upon it, and set the glass down before me.
"You enjoy that, now," he said with a wink. I looked down at my flayed arms once more, though I did not feel horror. Only relaxation, and a strange emptiness that I could not place.
"What did you do to me?" I slurred.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," he said, chuckling to himself. "That isn't your body - it's just the way your soul sees itself. We take a part of that soul, prepare it, and serve it back to you tasty as can be - skinning a little off the top for business, of course. Go on, give it a try." He leaned in close with a wide grin, hushing his tone as if to tell me a secret. "I'm told the experience can be quite enlightening."
I nodded through my delirium, and took the glass, noticing a red straw poking out of it. I put my lips to it, and slowly drank the cold skinshake. It was sweet, thick, and more refreshing than any drink I had ever had. It was absolutely delicious, and felt like a cool breeze upon my mind, my every worry vanishing into complete relaxation. Gulp by gulp, I swallowed the delectable and satisfying beverage, and as I did, I began to feel more complete, a tingling sensation coursing through my nerves. The edges of my vision began to blur, and before I even realized it, I was suddenly standing in the open streets of Ishtar. It was day, and cars rushed alongside me, people teeming upon the sidewalks between towering monoliths of glass and steel. Yet my eyes were not upon the city - they were upon the sky. It was blue, sparse clouds drifting across the azure expanse - but something was wrong. Something, within that clear and tranquil emptiness, was not right. It was the angle of the air, and the way it flowed. It was the color itself, just a shade too vivid. It was the clouds, and how staged they looked upon the sky. Then, the blue began to break away, falling up into a black void of absolute nothingness. It ate the light, the last of the heavens vanishing into the collapsing abyss, until it was nothing more than a shuddering, empty expanse that I knew went on forever. It was the true sky, that lurked beyond the illusion, devoid of all but the nameless outer reaches of everything that I failed to know - and then, I was back.
I sat at the counter, the glass empty. I looked up at the man, my head swimming with a horrible vertigo.
"It's got a bit of a kick, doesn't it?" he asked. "The brain is just an interface that the soul connects to, to control that meat puppet you call a body - the soul is what really holds your memories - your identity, everything that makes you who you think you really are. But there's another world behind all that you touch - the world of the mind. The world of knowledge. The world of souls. It's all connected, every idea anyone has ever had, or will have, exists in that place, so when you eat a soul - even if it's your own - you're eating a part of that world. A part of that knowledge. It hurts to know - to be aware - but it's a good kind of pain, and I can tell you're hungry for more. I can give you one more choice off the menu, something really tasty."
I looked up at the menu behind him, where the twisted runes burned themselves into my mind, scrambling my thoughts as I struggled to make sense of what I was seeing - and then, I knew.
"Finger fries," I said. The man smiled again, his perfect, white teeth gleaming in the neon light.
"Good choice," he said. I looked at my hands, and saw that I was missing my fingers, save for the thumb and index of my left hand. My skin had grown back, but it was weathered and translucent, the redness of my muscles sliding beneath. I could hear something coming from beyond the kitchen door, which stood behind the waiting man, sweeping claw marks embedded in the metal. Far off in the distance, it sounded like the screams of absolute suffering, joined with the skittering legs of a thousand insects to form a noise that was wholly inhuman. It was getting closer, shrieking and reverberating upon the air until I could almost hear it through the wall. Then, it stopped, and the man turned around. He opened a small, metal hatch, and withdrew a platter of food, placing it before me. "Fresh, as always."
My fingers had been expertly baked, the nails and bone completely removed, while steam rose from the crispy skin. I took one, and bit into it with a satisfying crunch. The meat was tender and succulent within, perfectly seasoned and bursting with flavor. It was so simple, and yet every other meal I had ever eaten paled in comparison to this masterpiece of the culinary arts. Finishing the last of one finger, I sank my teeth into the next, reveling in the sublime taste as it washed over my tongue, and my fractured soul gradually returned to me. I didn't want to do anything else but sit in that stool, and eat forever, yet as I did, my consciousness wavered, and in my mind's eye, I began to see the city of Ishtar. Everyone here knew that there were other places - other cities and towns, fantastic monuments and wonders of the world - and everyone swore that they had visited them, at some point in the distant past. Everyone thought about doing it again, and sometimes, we would even make plans, but something would always get in the way. Something would always come up, and we'd push those plans to another day, until we forget that they ever existed. 'Why bother,' we'd argue. We have everything that we could ever want, here in Ishtar. We weren't all born here, but we lived here now, and we were happy. Weren't we?
My vision sped between the buildings at dizzying speeds, sailing through the air, and across the expanse of teeming skyscrapers and busy streets. I began to wonder how large the city was. I thought that I knew - I had looked at maps, and lived there for most of my life, but it seemed to go on forever - until I looked closer. I began to notice recurring features. The same building. The same park. The same car parked in the exact same location. Then, I realized that I was going in a loop. The city was repeating itself. People would walk in one direction, and the world would only repeat. They didn't even realize it. None of us did.
I was pulled up into the false sky by a tremendous gravity, and my vision expanded, overlooking the entirety of the metropolis below. No longer did it repeat. Instead, it was contained in a perfect ring, surrounded by black, metallic walls that glowed with immense, crimson runes, alien circuitry and bizarre wiring tracing their otherworldly design. Beyond them, was only an infinite desert, shimmering and crackling with instability as though the space it occupied had been somehow broken.
My vision zoomed in upon the interior of that spanning wall, moving through metal and concrete alike, until I was looking down at a disheveled man covered in dirt, standing before the wall in confusion and awe. A hole laid open in the concrete behind him. He had tunneled straight through a building on the edge, somehow coming upon the knowledge that things were not as they should be. The same knowledge that I now possessed. His eyes were locked upon the black metal, peering up in confusion at a strange, glowing rune. Yet behind him, the outlines of two men stepped forth from the concrete, their bodies painted to seamlessly blend into the aging, gray backdrop until they were nearly invisible. Where their mouths should have been, there was only skin, and their eyes were a glassy white. One of them grabbed the man from behind, and restrained him, while the other forced a metal skullcap onto his head, wires and exposed circuitry jutting out from its alien design. The man shuddered as the device connected to his brain, his muscles falling slack while the life drained from his eyes - and yet, I knew that he was not dying. Not on the outside. But within, his memories of this place, and everything that led him to it, were being erased.
My vision snapped away, and now drifted down a metallic corridor flanked by hundreds of transparent isolation tanks. Within a clear fluid, newborn babies floated in place, a similar skullcap affixed to each of their heads, while intravenous drugs were pumped into their veins. Holographic screens flashed with crimson glyphs alongside them, yet I could somehow understand their meaning. These children were being programmed. Their memories, their lives, and everything that they would ever become, was being designed in this place.
I have memories of my childhood. I have memories of visiting other places. Other cities, oceans, villages - and yet, it never happened. It was a veil of a life that I thought I lived, but I didn't. Those memories were injected into my mind - into my soul - yet I could not see the one responsible. I could not grasp what was really happening. I needed to know more.
I was sitting at the counter again, the man waiting patiently before me. The platter was now as empty as the glass. My fingers had returned, but they were brittle, and thin. I could almost see the bones within them.
"I want to know who did this," I asked, an otherworldly longing overtaking my senses. It was like I was addicted. "Who did this to me?" The man smiled, and shook his head.
"You can order more," he said. "But there's a price. A human can tolerate it, once or twice, but if you order a third time, your soul belongs to Cafe Flesh. It's not intentional, so don't get me wrong, but it's just what happens when enough of you becomes enough of me. Your body will die of thirst, and decompose. You'll stay here - but so will I. I can tell you everyone who has ever lied to you, and when. I can tell you who erased your memories. I can tell you who your parents were. I can tell you every path that you could have taken. I can tell you how the multiverse will be destroyed. I can tell you about the illusion that you mistake as reality. Take a while, and think about it. At the end of the day, it has to be your choice."
He raised his hand, and snapped his fingers. The world went dark, and I realized that I was back in my home, sitting in the room that I had prepared. Crawling to my feet, I opened the door, squinting as the light glared against my eyes. It was morning.
I went out, that day, and looked up at the clear, blue sky. It appeared just as it did in the vision, a sense of primal unease washing over me the longer I remained. There was a man that stared at me, from across the street, like he knew that I was aware - but he wasn't a man. He only looked like one. His skin was wrong. His eyes were wrong, like he was wearing the flesh of another like a suit.
I think that I am in danger. I can't live in this place, knowing that my entire life has been a lie. They'll take my memories away, and trap me here in this hell.
I have to go back.
You may think this to be fantasy, or at most, the recordings of a faraway place - but if you can read this, then we are closer than you may wish to ever believe. So if you see that lonely light, far off in your dreams, perhaps you should follow it. Perhaps we will meet, and drink together until our souls disappear. Or perhaps not.
Perhaps it's better if you didn't know.