It was a standard call. Somebody smells something terrible - something they can't exactly describe, but they'll always say it's worse than anything. Usually, it's a dead animal. One time, it was a hoarder that didn't have the word 'hygiene' in his vocabulary. Sometimes, it's a dead body. We could smell it as soon as we reached the hall, outside the apartment. We knocked - no answer. So, overwatch counted us down, and we breached the door. The first thing we saw was the blood, dried and sticky, flies buzzing through the air. It was all over the walls, and the floor, spattered like somebody had sliced open all their arteries and figured it was a great time to dance. In there, it smelled worse than a dead body. It was like a mixture of decay, piss, shit, and vomit that made you want to retch on the spot.
We found what was left of him in the main living area. It was like an intact skeleton, dripping with rotting flesh and blood, its jaws open in a permanent scream. He looked like he had been eaten alive, but there was no trauma to the bones, as though all the meat had been stripped away. He was laying there, in a pool of everything that we were smelling, paint brushes scattered all over - a palette, bottles of chemicals - and right in front of him, there was ... something.
The technical term would be a painting, in the sense that it was 'painted' on a canvas, but I don't think anybody would actually describe it as one. Nobody knew exactly what it was. It was like looking at one of those optical illusions that depict impossible architecture. Something that messes with your eyes.
The skeleton in the middle of the room was an art student that was being mentored by a local painter, who has since gone missing. A later examination determined that most of the kid's initial injuries must have been self-inflicted, and he used the product of those injuries, among other things, to create the painting. As for what happened afterward, nobody had any idea. There was no animal in existence that could've done that, and there was no trace of corrosive materials of any kind. The meat had been physically and forcibly removed from his body, from over a hundred different directions at once, and his brain was missing from his skull, despite zero fractures of any sort to the bone - his skeleton was so pristine you could've hung it in a museum. This occurred over the course of several days, and to tell you this kid suffered would be putting it lightly.
Still, I couldn't shake that painting from my mind. When the case went dead, nobody wanted it in evidence anymore, or even in the building. It wasn't the smell - bad as it was. It was the feeling it gave you. It felt like it was watching you, even when you weren't in the room. Even when you had several floors between you and the painting, you could still tell that it was in the building. It wasn't long before it was railroaded for incineration, based on sanitary concerns, but everyone knew the real reason. Only, that never actually happened. The people who were ordered to do it refused to carry out their job. They didn't know why they were scared of it. They couldn't articulate it. I even watched one of them get close to the thing, and as soon as he was about to touch it, he froze. I could see him shaking from across the room, twitching like something was wrong with him. The others pulled him back. He had pissed himself, had all the symptoms of a stroke, and his eyes were wider than anything.
I didn't know the guy, but my partner did, and he said he had nightmares for days after that. Got real paranoid. Wouldn't shut up about the case, and apparently kept saying that everyone was wrong - that the victim wasn't eaten - but destroyed. I didn't know, at the time, what difference that made. It just sounded like semantics.
Anyway, I wasn't as afraid of this thing as everyone else was. It still bothered me, sure, but it also fascinated me. It sounds awful when I write it down, but I didn't become a cop because I was interested in helping people, or because I gave a shit about the law - I became one because I was intrigued by the darker aspects of humanity - and the world at large. I wanted to know how bad things could really get, and I wanted to know why.
Actually, it's kind of freeing, writing it out. I never told anybody that before.
I offered to take the painting.
Nobody understood why, especially given what it was made out of, but I lived alone, and I didn't have guests. The only person to be bothered by it was me - and I wasn't. At least, not at first. I didn't feel fear, per se, when I touched the frame. I felt power - like I was holding onto a live wire. I could taste the electricity in my mouth. It sounds strange, but I remember having the distinct feeling that I was being allowed to touch it. That I was being tolerated.
People looked at me like I was insane, carrying that thing outside. Something that made people so afraid that they cried. Something that haunted peoples' dreams - and I was holding it in my hands, like I was moving furniture.
I took it home, and propped it up against my living room wall. I still can't fully explain why I did this, but something about it just drew me in. I could sit there for hours, just looking at it, and never once lose interest. When I was out, I would think about it, like it had burned itself into my mind's eye, and whenever I slept, I would dream about it. These were never nightmares - just dreams inside dreams that mimicked my waking life, to the point that I could barely distinguish when, exactly, I was asleep. In them, I would only sit, and stare into that painting. It would swirl and shift, like every part of it was alive. It was no longer a flat surface, but a space unto itself that I swore went on forever; a fragile canvas that held within it an infinite sky of swirling incomprehensibility that bore no semblance to anything our scientists could term as matter. There was no form or void, only a living unreality that defied everything I had ever learned about the world.
My days blurred together until I could no longer tell them apart, and I stopped keeping track of time. My phone would ring - probably my work calling me in - but then, it would get quieter and quieter, like something was drowning out the sound, until the only thing I could hear was my own heartbeat, and the warm breath that rushed through my lungs.
Nothing about this bothered me, at the time. It felt natural, but incomparably significant, like I was being allowed to witness the greatest discovery of our era. Like I was being permitted to exist in its presence. I didn't even care when my ears started to ring, and blood dripped from my nose and eyes. When my pupils began to dilate, and my ribs poked through my pale skin. The pain from the headaches was just a whisper, when I could sit and stare at such a marvelous creation.
But soon, that wonder started to fade, and I began to notice that something was wrong. The painting didn't swirl and writhe like it once did - it only trembled in place, as though its every attention was focused upon me. I could feel its aura thrum against my mind, and across my vision, a flood of images flashed like a wailing, psychic feedback. Depictions of withered corpses, drying beneath the desert sun. Starving children begging in the streets, only to be ignored, and die alone and abandoned. Teeth, piercing the fur of an animal. The crunch of bone. The tearing of meat. Those same teeth, smiling and dripping with blood and flesh. Sated, and satisfied.
It was hungry.
I left my apartment, for the first time in a long while.
People stared at me, and my ragged, soiled clothes. The way they hung from my emaciated skeleton. I could hear them retch, when they smelled me, and cross the street if I drew too close. But the animals didn't. They couldn't have cared less.
I lured a squirrel by feeding it, and killed it with my bare hands.
I took its body back to my apartment, and placed it before the painting. I could feel its hunger radiate through the air, taking me over, and I almost wanted to grab the body for myself, but I knew that I couldn't. I needed to feed it.
I left the room, and gnawed on my arms to push back the thirst, tearing the flesh away from my muscle and swallowing it whole, savoring the taste while I drank every drop of my own blood, and licked it off the filthy tiles.
And then, the hunger slowed, and I knew it was safe to enter the living room again.
In front of the painting, the mutilated body of the squirrel laid twisted upon the floor, like it had been mangled and crushed. Strangely, it hadn't actually been consumed. Only destroyed. But still, I could feel a lingering disappointment - a dissatisfaction with what I had done. It was not sufficient.
Another rush of images flashed through my mind, of animals running upon plains of grass. Hunting, killing, playing, eating - and I knew then what it really wanted. It needed something that was alive. Something that would struggle.
I left the apartment again, and knew exactly what I had to do. There was always a problem with stray dogs, in my area. They went around in packs, and terrorized people if they didn't scavenge enough food during the day.
I found an alleyway that they frequented, and saw a lone straggler, laying apart from the others. A mangy thing, with matted, filthy fur, and sad eyes that looked up at me as I approached. I knelt down, and fed it, careful to not alert the other dogs in the distance to the fact that I had food. I slowly petted its tangled fur while it ate, and when it was done, it eased closer to me, licking my hands with gratitude. I led it away from the pack, and it happily followed, wagging its tail with a rare excitement, like I was the first person that had ever shown it kindness.
I brought it back to my apartment, and it paused at the door, a hesitation fluttering in its eyes. It whined, like something in the air was tripping its primal instincts. Like something was telling it to run away. But I only fed it again, and its fear began to lessen, until I could finally lead it inside, and shut the door behind it. I encouraged it to follow me into the living room, and when it did, its eyes immediately locked upon the painting, and it froze where it stood. It yelped, and an invisible force dragged it across the floor to the center of the room, pinning it to the ground while it trembled with strain. I could feel the hunger again, so I left, locking myself in the bathroom while I gnawed at my fingers, and listened to the shrieking cries of the dog. I didn't know that it could even make that sound, but it was almost like it was screaming, yowling in absolute pain above the subtle pops of fracturing bone.
It terrified me, but some part of me was drawn in like a trance - a consuming gravity that I couldn't pull myself away from, even when I knew that it would scar me forever. I unlocked the door, and stepped out into the hall, the screaming growing louder by the second as it scraped against my mind like a knife.
I looked into the living room, and stopped dead in my tracks, my eyes locked upon the twitching form of the dog as it levitated in the air, as though suspended by an incorporeal force. Blood dripped from its fur, and its limbs twisted and cracked in ways that should never have been possible. Its eyes were filled with terror and pain, and from its bleeding, quivering mouth, it loosed only that single, whining, animalistic tone that conveyed the sensation of indescribable suffering. Blood gushed from between its teeth as the bones within its body snapped and contorted, lacerating its internal organs, until finally, it began to stretch, like a thousand unseen claws were digging into it from every direction at once, the painting looming menacingly in the background.
Then, with the sickening tear of rending meat, the dog was slowly pulled apart, its screams ceasing to the splattering of its organs spilling out onto the floor. The painting relinquished control, and the remains of the dog dropped from the air. Every muscle in my body shook, my heartbeat hammering in my ears. Some part of me still realized the danger of my situation - of what I had unwittingly brought into my home. But on another level, I knew that it was never my choice to begin with. My mind was no longer my own, and the fact that I was still allowed any semblance of control, was a grace that it afforded me in exchange for my service. In exchange for my will.
I moved forward, shaking in my step as the flesh and cartilage crunched beneath my feet. The painting watched me from the shadows, its vile design swirling and imploding like a whirlpool of everlasting night. Its influence rushed against me, like an invisible hand seized my body, and forced me to my knees. A searing heat coursed through my bones and down into the roots of my teeth, clouding my mind with a fevered and painful delirium that could only be cured by the appeasement of this savage entity. A chaos of images was drilled into my vision: faces, people, moving and talking and smiling and crying, like an intrusive panorama of the human condition, yet above all else, I could feel the intention that was willed upon it. The intention of the painting. As it looked upon these people, it saw only meat and servitude. Lesser beings to be used as tools, or flesh to destroy and humiliate. There was no goodness in its thoughts, and nor was there evil. Only the cruel and uncaring gaze of a hungering predator, staring back at me from that whirling void of paint and tears.
It wanted more, and I couldn't say no. There was no me anymore - no I. Only the purpose that I could serve. The only meaning my life had ever had, all those actions and decisions leading up to this one moment in time, when I would be afforded the opportunity - the privilege - to serve that which is greater.
I called my partner. My friend. All those memories and times we spent together blurring away into nothing in my mind. It didn't matter anymore. Nothing did, compared to this.
He knocked on my door, and I let him in. He was hesitant, when he saw the way I looked, and the way I bled, but that hesitation quickly turned to concern. He cared about me.
I shut the door behind him, and led him down the hall, ignoring his questions, and I could tell that he was trying not to retch from the smell, but as soon as he saw the painting, he stopped.
He stood there, staring at it like he wasn't sure what he was looking at. I backed away, and he started to twitch, his breath stuttering upon the air, until at last, the painting took him. His muscles seized, and he fell to his knees, choking and sputtering as the great and terrible force dominated his mind and burned his sanity to dust. He trembled with an inconceivable pain, his skin splitting as his pores widened like honeycombs, and gushed with blood and visceral fat, tendrils of red filling the vacant whites of his eyes, until all the air in the room lensed around him in a rush of unshakable gravity. He exploded with a deafening boom, his hot gore smacking against my face and splattering the walls of my apartment.
I stumbled back, but before I could even think, the painting seized control of me again, its power stronger than ever. I buckled, collapsing to the floor as every nerve in my body flared with agony, and my skin rippled like water, a horrible bruising tracing beneath it. Paralyzed and shaking with fear and awe, I heard its voice, for the very first time, like an oncoming wave of pure dread that demanded the attentions of every mortal thing that ever was and would be. Roaring through the depths of my mind, and overloading my senses with horror and pain, it spoke only a single word: