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The image came to me as I slept. In my dream, I stood at the center of a tall hill, and though it was day I could see all the stars of the night sky. More, in fact. They were strewn across the atmosphere, clumped together so tightly that in many places you couldn't see anything else. Instead of white, they shone dark red.

A voice came from behind me, and I turned. Standing there was a man. He wore a brown, ratty cloak, that obscured his face and body in shadow, so that all I could see were his hands. They were withered, grey things with fingernails that looked like a predator's teeth. He said something again that I couldn't understand. I asked him to repeat himself. He spoke again, and the voice seemed to come from all around me. you will find yourself, it said. when you do, you will fall. the fall will be the first of many, and when it is finally over, you will lose yourself again, among the dreams of stars.

I asked him what he meant, but he did not reply. The red light around us began to grow brighter. Looking up, I saw the stars were expanding. Their edges crept out slowly, pressing against each other and meshing together, forming one great mass that stretched across the entire sky. I looked back at the man, but he was gone, and I could hear only a slow, humming crescendo.

When I woke, my first instinct was to write. To this day I cannot say why, but I flung myself from the bed and scrambled to my work desk. Three years work of design and planning for the chapel were tossed aside. In their place, I took a stack of paper and pen, and began to write. A week later, I emerged from my home with the first and final draft of what would be published as Seventeen Red Tales.

Though many people have asked me what inspired me to write the work, until now I have not relayed this story to anyone, not even those who helped publish it. There have been two reasons for this: The first, because I barely believed or remembered it myself. The second, because of what happened after the book was released.

It was a little over a month later. I was still astonished by the immediate popularity of the stories, and trying to adjust to my new life in the spotlight. After a particularly grueling interview, I returned home expecting to pour myself a drink and retreat to bed. Instead, I found two women and a man standing in my study. The man had a book. The women had knives.

“You're coming with us,” said the shorter, blonde-haired woman. The knife hung by her side in a most non-threatening manner. I looked from it, to her, to the other woman, to the man, to the knife, and decided it would be best to listen. A bag was thrown over my head, and I was pulled outside by rough hands. From there, I was tossed into a carriage. We bumped along through winding roads for what felt like many hours, before I was pulled back outside. The bag was torn from my head.

We were in a small back alley, in a part of town I couldn't recognize. The three figures stood in front of me.

“Show it to him,” said the taller, brown-haired woman. “Show it to him!”

The man thrust the open book into my arms, and I realized it was Seventeen Red Tales. It was turned to the sixth tale, A Hidden Path, at the moment when Samuel reject's The Liar's third offer, though it took me a moment to realize this. The margins had been almost blacked out by notations and drawings, in a script so cramped I couldn't distinguish the words. Their writing filled every inch of white space. Only by looking closely could I recognize the printed words around it.

“What does it mean?” said the man. He stared at me with wide eyes.

“I… I don't know,” I said. “What are you trying to show me?”

The man snarled and ripped the book from my hands. “You know what it means!” He flipped to another page and thrust it back into my hands. This time, it was the second tale, A Counsel of Strangers. Every line of text had been crossed out, with the word “Hunger” repeated running across the top.

“Who did this?” I asked. Turning the pages, I saw each had been defaced in a unique way. “You bought the book like this?”

“I did it!” said the blonde woman. She stepped forward. “But what does it mean?”

“That's-” I began to say, but her knife at my throat stopped me.

“I can't read,” she said. She jabbed a finger at the page. “Read it to me.”

“You can't… how is that-”

“Read it!” she yelled. “From the beginning.”

My hands shaking, I turned to the beginning of the book. What did she want me to read, the story or the notations? I cleared my throat and began to read from the margins. “Thirty times on thirty lands, thirty dead by thirty hands, dirty truth, dirty man, crawling roots, creeping sand-”

“He's not doing it right. He doesn't know,” said the tall woman.

“How can you tell?” said the man.

“Listen to him. He doesn't understand.” Her voice was calm, but there was menace backing it. She, more than the other two, was dangerous.

The blonde woman drew the knife back. She stared into my eyes, clicking her teeth together. “I don't think so either. I think he's a liar.”

“He's not a liar. He's just an idiot,” said the tall woman. She shook her head. “There's no point in staying. We should leave.”

“We can't leave when he hasn't told us anything,” said the man.

“Shut up,” said the tall woman. “He can't tell us anything, because he doesn't know anything. Now let's go.”

The man scowled, but backed off. The blonde woman made a small tsk-ing noise, and shoved the knife into the folds of her clothing. Together, they exited the alley, leaving me thanking God for my life.

The next three months were uneventful. I pushed the night's incident from my mind, and attempted to focus on writing a second book. In this, I was unsuccessful. Until the dream I had felt little inclination to be a writer. Architecture had always been my calling, but now there was little hope of following it. Constantly I was being questioned by my publisher about when he might see the next book. A deluge of letters flooded my home, from fans, from enemies, from other authors. Everytime I went out, people swarmed like locusts, chewing through me with questions.

It was after escaping some such people that I found the letter. I had fled to my room, hoping to get some peace, when I saw it under the mail slot. This struck me as curious, as I had arranged to have all my mail forwarded to a different address, as the volume had become too much to keep at home. It had no return address, only my name scrawled on the front in jagged letters.

I set it in the trashcan and tried to forget about it. After several hours, my curiosity got the best of me. Inside was a single sheet of paper, written on a script so small I had to squint to read it.

Dear sir, it began,

I have recently purchased a copy of your recent book, Seventeen Red Tales, based on the recommendation of a friend. I'm sure you will be pleased to know that I read it and enjoyed it immensely. That is not what I am writing about. I have sent this letter (and dropped it off personally to ensure you see it) because of several experiences I believe are linked to your book.

Upon reading the fifth story, A Sign of Rain, I began to feel as if I was being watched. Even laying alone in my room, the sensation never left me. I found myself unable to sleep, barely able to work, ignoring my friends and family as the fear of someone observing me grew. Even locked in my room, where it could be certain I was alone, it never left. The only thing that could make it go away was reading the book.

I finished it in less than a day, then started again, eager for the peace that reading offered. I neglected meals, neglected work, neglected my body, all to engross myself in its pages. And the more I did, the more I became aware of another feeling. The feeling of knowledge.

It crept into my brain like a vine, growing larger each time I finished and re-started the tales. Each sentence, each word, gained new form upon each reading. The deeper meanings became apparent. The patterns upon patterns, the layers of truth running underneath the stories, the hidden paths your text laid bare. By the eighth reading, the world around me seemed completely changed. The paths had opened up to me. No longer did I feel like I was being watched. Rather, I was watching the world as it unfurled before my eyes. I could see the secrets that people kept, and lies they spun. I could see the way they tried to control their lives, and the hundred ways they failed each day. I could see the pulses of the world, the rivers of time we all flowed through, the dust of fallen planets, the roots that crawled from the stars, the sand that crept through our minds. And I knew what they were.

Only we understand. The true gods are descending, and only we can see them. Will you join me with them? Will you help me sprout the seeds of the world?

It was not signed. I looked for any indication of who sent it, but there was nothing. The roots that crawled from the stars, it had said. The sand that crept through our minds. Had the book my kidnappers shown me not said something similar? Were they linked? Could one of them have left me the letter? But why not take me again, if they wanted to speak?

I decided to show my publisher the letter. The next time we spoke, I gave it to him, and told the story of my kidnapping. He did not seem surprised upon hearing it. In fact, he seemed relieved.

“I thought I must have been insane,” he said, putting the letter down. “I've been feeling a similar sensation lately. I'm not sure quite when it started, but it must have been around when you first showed me the draft of Seventeen Red Tales.”

I pondered this as I poured another spoon of sugar into my tea. “Have you heard anything else about this?”

He shook his head. “No. It was such a minor thing, I didn't feel the need to mention it to anyone. If anyone else felt it, I'm sure they thought the same.”

We stared at each other for a moment, then I stood and walked to the couple eating at the nearest table. “Excuse me sir, madam, but I have a question. Have either of you happened to have read Seventeen Red Tales?”

They nodded. “We both have,” said the man.

“Have you by any chance, and I know this is odd to ask, felt like you were being watched since reading it?”

The woman blinked several times. The man's jaw fell open. “How could you know?” he said.

“Well,” I said, leaning in and close and bringing my voice to a whisper, “I must confess a similar feeling. My friend over there has felt it as well.”

“That's impossible,” said the woman.

“I would've thought that too,” I said, “but it seems it is not.”

“What could it mean?” said the man.

I shrugged. “God only knows.”

That night I sat in my room, thinking. I took a copy of Seventeen Red Tales from my shelf and began to flip through it. Since writing the book, I had felt none of the sensations described by my letter or associates. I had felt only one thing. Fear. A slow, creeping fear, that picked at me wherever I went. I could not identify the source or target of it, I only knew that it was there. Constantly. When I ate, when I slept. And when I held the book, it changed from unease to terror.

My hands shook as I opened the first page. What did I expect to see? I do not know, but I only saw the same writing I had composed many months earlier. I turned to the next page. Again, only writing, and a small illustration I had drawn to go with it. I turned to the next page, and saw only text. And yet, my fear did not abide. I flipped through the entire story and found nothing there, nor in the next. I opened the first page of A Sign of Rain and almost dropped the book.

Looking back at me was a terrible eye. It filled the page. It seemed to fill the entire room. It was every color I had ever seen in a single point, but also in an infinite number of points, all around me. It saw through me to the marrow. It saw through to the soul, and even when I hurled the book against the wall and fled the room, I could feel its gaze. Three weeks later, when I gathered the courage to enter the room and take the book, it was just as strong as when I first opened it. And when I burned the book and scattered the ashes on the wind, the gaze remained.

Time is difficult for me to tell nowadays. I do not sleep much as of late, and time seems to blur together. It was three months after I burned the book, I think, that I first heard of Fifthism. It was in the daily newspaper, nestled away in the corner of the seventh page. “A man in the slums of London proclaims himself a prophet, and has gathered together much of the vagrant population,” said the article. It discussed the weekly meetings in the park, which had grown to hold hundreds of people, and the book that they had rallied around. Seventeen Red Tales. The reporter was hesitant to mention specific details about the group. I felt a sense of unease in his writing. There was much he knew that he was not telling. Many questions left unanswered. He mentioned that he had attended one of the meetings, but gave no details about what had taken place, describing it only as “an event”. It did not mention how the group was interested in Seventeen Red Tales, only that they were.

A week (or maybe two) after that, a man appeared at the door, holding a copy of the book. He wanted to speak to the man who had changed his life, he said. My book had showed him what the world could be, he said. To what the world used to be. He tried to force his way inside, but I pushed him back. He claimed that he could feel a presence inside my house. The pupil of the universe was staring at him. I locked the door, and after several hours, he left.

More people came, trying to get a look at me. They wanted to see the prophet. The creator. The iris. A dozen different names. When it became too much, I tried to flee my home, but it was only a few weeks before they found me again. They stopped trying to breach the doors, but that doesn't mean they left. They arrived in droves, sitting outside the house when they were barred from entry. There was no movement, no speaking. Just staring at the house, waiting.

When I ran out of food, I tried to sneak out of the back. I was quickly found, but they didn't try to attack me. Instead, they stood and moved as a group to follow me. When I entered the butcher's shop, they stood outside and waited, then walked with me back home. None tried to approach or speak to me.

After another week outside my house, they began to disperse. Only a few at first, but after three days all but a handful were gone. Soon, they had left as well.

The day after the final watcher left, I had another dream. The feeling of being watched still kept me from sleeping most nights, but this slumber came easily. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I was standing under blood-red stars. In front of me was the man from before.

you are beginning to understand, said the voice.

“What have you done to me?” I said.

i have done nothing. you came to me. you found me in the folds of the universe. this is the consequence of your act. The land around us pulsed with the cadence of the voice.

“I didn't come to you! I was doing nothing when you first spoke to me. What could I have done that deserves this?”

The world shifted. The hills disappeared and were replaced by ocean. The waters were jet-black, reflecting hundreds of thousands of red points. We floated several meters above as if on a floor of glass.

you cannot un-see what has been glimpsed. i am a part of you now. I saw something out of the corner of my eye, but when I looked, there was nothing. you will spread me across the world. it is unavoidable. what you have seen will smother the fire of humanity. It was there. Right in the corner of my eye, a great beast pushing against the world, filling the sky. I could see its movement, but every time I tried to look directly, it vanished.

“I will not,” I said.

you will, said the voice. you already have. you are the third prophet, no matter what you claim.

The beast in the corner of my eye surged forward, and fear surged through me. It had almost broke through, that time. It couldn't be held for much longer.

I opened my mouth to speak, but before the words could form, I woke.

I have tried to fight the impulse. I have felt it ever since the dream, the need to write again, the burning urge to craft another story. And I have told myself that I cannot. That I will not give in to this creature, that I will not spread its word, not do its work. I am a human being, not an animal. I will not be manipulated into this.

But I cannot hold out any longer. I am weak, and the need is too strong. Writing this will be my last act. I have tried to prevent the word from slipping through, but I cannot be certain. I hope only that whoever discovers this will have a better understanding than I did. Perhaps they will know how to stop this.

God damn me, for I have damned us all.

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