Prompt: You find the person writing your story.
To this day I can’t say with certainty what compelled me down that dingy and creaky staircase, led by a gnarled islander of indiscernible age. The air was damp and cool, and the cracked brick walls were soft with algae. There was a sick smell to the air, punctured here and there by a sharp, sweet, and smoky odor that I couldn’t identify. The rotting staircase groaned under our footsteps, yet despite the painful pounding of my heart, I felt an unwavering conviction to continue.
We reached the bottom, and I felt palpable relief as I stepped off the buckling wood onto well trodded earth. I turned to look back up the staircase but could only make out the outline of the steps and hand rails. The remainder faded into darkness. We were surrounded by inky blackness, and although my guide held a candle, it did little to stave off the dark.
The cellar seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions. We turned seemingly at random down hallways and through cracked doorframes, passing by countless more side rooms. Every now and then a lone candle created a bastion of light, and we stepped cautiously through these spheres of illumination. I was determined not to fall behind terrible intervening emptiness out of fear of losing myself.
After traversing the winding maze of candlelight, we approached a small opening that expanded into a dome-like stone cavern. It appeared as though the wall had been built hastily around the cavern, but was subsequently demolished. My guide stopped and turned to face me, the stones and bones in his dreadlocks rattling against themselves.
“Our journey ends here,” he bellowed through mangled teeth. “But your journey is just beginning.”
I turned to thank him, and that was when I noticed the distinct lack of irises in his eyes. The shock didn’t hit me until I had already crossed the threshold and was standing in the cave, at which point the disturbing facts of my situation consumed me entirely. In front of me was an earthen room nearly 15 feet wide and 8 feet tall. The walls were coated in esoteric symbols and drawings drawn in what appeared to be dark mud, clay, or perhaps even blood. Parts of the wall were covered by tapestries, which displayed in vivid colors swirling lines that resembled eyes, animals, and human skulls. Countless candles and incense burners stood in a circle around the room, housed in ancient metal holders that resembled dragons, gryphons, and other mythological beings of power. In the center of the room sat a single pillow with a hookah in front of it, the single hose planted tantalizingly on its seat.
It’s at this point that I relegate the experience to dream and fantasy rather than truth, for when I glanced back at my companion I noticed with a dull horror that the door had vanished. Somehow, I had been sealed in the room. I don’t know why I treated it as little more than a passing observation, but I was nonetheless drawn to the heart of the chamber and the unknown possibilities it concealed.
I sat cross-legged on the cushion and took a haughty drag of the hookah. My lungs filled with an intoxicating chemical both sweet and sharp, with a bitter aftertaste that left my head reeling. I exhaled and billowed smoke that seemed to cling to the outlines of the drawings and tapestries and left me feeling both dizzy and exalted.
I cannot say how much time passed in that room, my head throbbing with auditory and visual hallucinations from worlds both known and dreamed. Despite the seclusion, I felt observed by some unknown force watching from beyond of the walls of the cavern. The tapestries stared at me mockingly, and for a while I shunned them. It was only when I focused on the roof of that cavern that I noticed new forms taking shape, forms that would haunt my reality for as long as I continued to exist.
It was a subtle shift in the nature of the dome that first drew my attention. As I stared at that smooth, blank ceiling, I started seeing tendrils of smoke seeping upward out of the corner of my vision and congeal in geometric patterns. The smoke swirled, pooled, and curled around itself, shrouding the roof in a muddled gray cloud. Small dots leapt out of the haze and grew into symbols, then letters, and eventually words. The words began to form phrases, sentences, and entire paragraphs – many of which I recognized from my own writings – and I watched with a sort of horrified fascination as a condensed history of my life’s work congealed in the growing cloud. I focused on a particularly dense string of sentences and realized that the words were reflecting not only what I had created, but what I had personally experienced. The words in the cloud described the beginning of my life, my childhood, my adolescence, my early adulthood. They described my dissatisfaction with my everyday life, the thoughts and actions that led me to this room, and the thoughts and actions that were currently defining my experience. I was reading about the life I was living at this very moment.
I anxiously glanced around at the cavern walls and almost shouted. Where there had once been form, shape, and color, there were now only streams of symbols and characters moving and leaping through an empty white void of timeless space. What was once a brass candlestick holder was now a sentence describing the holder, shaped and sculpted as to impersonate the holder’s physical form. I was seeing the world through an abstraction of literature and symbolism, exactly as I thought it and exactly as it was occurring. I collapsed onto my back with my head on the pillow and stared deep into that-
“mystical swirling congealment of smoke on the ceiling,” came a firm voice from within my mind. “My head reeled as I surged to my feet and glanced around for the source of the voice. There was no longer a cave, no real world to speak of. Where was it coming from? The voice dictated all of my thoughts and actions before I realized I was experience them. ‘You wish to know what I am,’ it said. ‘Or rather, who I am.’
"To understand that, you must first know who you are. Or rather, what you are.
"What I am? I thought. A sentence describing a staircase appeared in the air before me, first forming a single step, and then another step, and then another step. My stomach churned and I held my eyes shut while I pushed myself onto my feet. I took a step onto the shifting, whirling staircase, and glanced back just as the sentence describing the pillow vanished into the air like a wispy trace of incense.
"As I ascended, I saw vague images of myself on either side of me, as though I were walking through a gallery of paintings coated by a film of text. I saw faint outlines of myself at various points of my life, from some of my most memorable moments to the most mundane. Here I was celebrating a birthday, here I was publishing my first story, here I was drinking a cup of tea. It was as though I were reliving my life moment by moment, each vivid memory formed out of a foundation of words and text. I was visualizing memories through descriptions of sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and sensations. The world was a book, and I was merely a character wandering among the pages.
“At last, he understood. For much of his life he felt that there had been some force guiding his actions, dictating his behaviors and experiences. After all, it justified his understanding of fate and destiny: ideas that are shared among even the most distant and unconnected human societies and cultures. There had to have been some sort of being or force behind the utterly incomprehensible workings of the world, and this must have been it. What made him more curious, however, was what kind of reality this ‘creator’ must have lived in. Was the creator’s reality similar to his own, or something unimaginably profounder? Why would an all powerful being relegate itself to controlling the life of a creature as insignificant and inconsequential as him? If reality was nothing more than words conjured in the mind of a greater being, what was the point of creating a world whose participants suffered so profoundly? Why create a world whose inhabitants would live, suffer, and die in the name of falsehoods? Was this creator ignorant of their struggles, or merely cruel?”
I reflected on these thoughts for countless eons, and when an eternity had passed I found myself back in the hollow earthen dome. The world had regained its normal form, only now the hole in the brick wall was open. My guide was nowhere to be found, but to my shock I found that I didn’t need him: the staircase, now lit by numerous candles, was directly in front of me.
To this day, I’m still haunted by traces of that forbidden truth. Every now and then as I’m sitting at my kitchen table or driving to work, I’ll see a faint glimmer of text stream across a light post, wrap around my steering wheel, or waft through the steam from my coffee. The mirages vanish as quickly as they appear, but they always leave behind a stain of doubt and existential dread that I don’t think I can ever truly suppress. There are times when I long to hear the voice of the creator once again, but perhaps, for the sake of my own sanity, it’s best that I don’t.