• This story was first published in Revista Echinox on 05 February 2021.

Hell has long been my dwelling. My soul was born hovering above the fine line that separates dreams from reality—if the latter truly exists. It is rather tragic that our waking state has been regarded as the single most in which the real is experienced, while all we see in our slumber is derided as “unreal.”

Charlatans claim that they can discern the true meaning of dreams, and the learned say that dreams are merely a reflection of the anarchy within. But the tormenting question is, what do words such as “real” and “unreal” truly mean? Are our fantasies, which decisively define us, less “real” than the “external” reality we subjectively perceive? Sadly, only chaos of perspectives ensues from such inquiries. No one can give a satisfactory answer, especially in a world filled with tribalistic, unthinking, nihilistic apes whose lives largely consist of assuming social roles, playing games, and fervently embracing different dogmas to pass time and create the illusions of selfhood, society, morality, and civilization.

Amid all the confusion, however, one thing remains clear: When we speak of things that fall beyond the physical world and sensory experience, we speak of the imaginary realm that can seem most real to us, even more so than the “objective” physical reality. Therefore, man can be best defined as neither a moral nor a social animal. He is, above all, is an imaginative being, one that can fantasize about his origins to forge a narrative about his identity, history, and destiny.

I was born on a fall night in late 1367 in an isolated Transylvanian village to wealthy parents who belonged to the nobility. Days after my birth and as the power paradigm shifted in favor of a new class of noblemen, my parents were publicly executed for witchcraft—or so I was told. I was then taken in by Erzsébet, a kind, childless widow who owned the only distillery in the village and supplied the folk with their favorite drink: Esență, a warm, bitter, low-alcohol beverage that looked like shiny blue goo. Everyone in that bleak community loved it and eagerly consumed it with every meal. The priest used it instead of wine in the communion, claiming that it was the true blood of our savior.

“This cures all ailments, my little one. It comforts the soul,” Erzsébet once told me as she offered me a sip.

With the innocent curiosity of a ten-year-old, I approached her extended hand and brought the cup to my nose. “Ew, it smells awful.” I moved away.

Her body shook when she laughed. “No one has ever complained about it in the village. They’ve been drinking it for years now, dear. That’s why they’re of sound minds and bodies. When you get older, you’ll also have to drink it.”

I stared at her, came closer, and grabbed her hand. “Okay, I’ll try a sip for you, Auntie.” Again, the pungent smell made it impossible. “Ew, I can’t drink it. It stinks really bad!”

She got on her knees and looked me in the eye. “Honey, this is the village’s medicine. Sooner or later, you will have to drink it, too. No one can live here without it. No one.” She held back for a moment. “Laszlo drinks it daily to be healthy, and he commands the whole village. He’s thirty-five, but he looks as if he’s twenty. He wouldn’t have been able to run this godforsaken place without Esență.” Her tone became more serious. “Because I love you as if you’re my own flesh and blood, I want you to begin consuming it one day. I want you to do that of your own free will, though.” Her green eyes pierced through me.

“But Esență disgusts me. What is it anyway?”

“Don’t worry about that now, sweetheart.” Her tone softened. “Once you’re of age, I’ll take you with me to the distillery, and you shall know everything. Very few people have known the secret of Esență. It is a privilege sometimes to see the truth with your own eyes, no matter how horrific it may be. I love you, Son. I want the best for you.”

Such kindness was not out of character for Erzsébet. Almost every soul in the village absolutely adored her and spoke highly of her. Even the stern priest, who taught me how to read and write, thought that she was sinless.

“No need for you to confess your sins, Son. Give my best regards to your aunt,” he once told me when I was about twelve years of age. “She’s an angel, a saint. May the Lord protect her, for she bears our sins. Without her, we would all be in the pit of darkness.”

People around the village sometimes spoke of a mysterious pit located somewhere in the forest. There were rumors that the pit had been a small cell dug in the ground and intended to torture thieves, bandits, and sorcerers to death. They said it was so small that a prisoner would only fit in if he assumed a fetal position, and its inadequate height permitted only a half stand. Once the lid was placed and the cell was sealed up tight, the ill-fated would suffocate slowly.

The person whose obsession with the pit was most prominent was a lowly young woman named Andrada. The village folk harshly ostracized her and called her crazy. Laszlo often assigned her to demeaning tasks, such as cleaning the latrines and the pigsties. Kids would frequently follow her around the town, shout obscenities, make fun of her brown skin, and throw stones at her.

She would ignore them for a while and then lash back, throwing mud in the air and growling. “You sons of snakes, why are you doing this to me? Isn’t it enough that your elders d-d-destroyed my family? You should all go to the pit. You should all be swallowed by the darkness!”

When that did not deter them, she would get down on her knees, hysterically shrieking and rubbing dirt all over her face. As she would tear her already tattered clothes and pull her hair, her black eyes would bulge and divulge the profoundest agony. The children would run away in terror upon seeing that gruesome display of insanity. She would then assume a fetal position and shake for hours. “You should all be in the pit,” she would incessantly stutter, shivering.

I never joined my peers in their brutal pursuits of the poor woman. Quite the opposite—whenever I could, I used to give her the leftovers I had from my meals. Though this sometimes provoked Erzsébet’s disapproval, I never ceased. The occasional smile on the gaunt face of Andrada when she ate touched my heart.

“I’m lonely,” she told me one evening when I was on my way back home. “No one visits me. Would you like to come to my shed for a bit?” Her stuttering request got to me.

When we arrived at the collapsing wooden shed on the edge of the village, Andrada hugged me tightly. “Don’t you ever become like them, I beg you.”

She was skin and bone. I could feel the protruding bones of her back and smell the sour odor of her unwashed hair. “Like who?” I asked her after pulling away.

“Like e-e-everyone else in this v-v-village.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re like me. We both belonged to the people who built this village. My father used to be the chief. But Erzsébet, Laszlo, and their people came in and slaughtered almost everyone. The rest they use for Esență. They hide them and use their blood to make that evil drink.”

“You’re lying. Why would I believe you? You’re crazy. Everyone knows that,” I blurted.

“I’m not l-lying! They’re evil and deluded! They think what they’re doing is necessary for their survival.”

My blood boiled. “You’re lying. My auntie would never do such evil!”

“Who do you think killed your parents?” “

My parents were unjustly convicted of witchcraft.”

“No, Erzsébet killed them.”

“Lying harlot. To hell with you.” My heart began pounding.

“She murdered them and kidnapped you. Erzsébet is a murderer.” Her tone suddenly became saturated with defiance.

“No, she’s not. Stop lying. She treats me like a son.”

“I’m not lying. You are too young to remember. She’s evil. She controls everyone here—b-b-but not me. I know the truth. I know that our people were just and righteous. Why did she have to kill them, the evil murderer?”

“Don’t talk like that about her. You’re lying.” I pushed the unkempt woman and ran away.

I burst into tears once I arrived home.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” Erzsébet inquired.

“Andrada said that you’re a murderer. She said that you manipulate everyone here and that you’re evil. She told me that you made people slaughter each other and that you use people to make Esență.”

“And what did you tell her?”

“I pushed her and ran away. I regret not beating her up for what she said.”

“No need to beat anyone up. She’s crazy and says the most foolish of things. Where did you see her?”

“She invited me to her shed.”

“Never do that again. She’s not from this village.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Now you know. Who knows what she could’ve done to you? What if she kidnapped you and took you away from me?”

“I know. I’m sorry,” I apologized as I reached the verge of tears.

She embraced me and said, “I forgive you, Son. Just don’t do that ever again.”

The next day, Andrada vanished into thin air, and rumor had it that she went back to her native village.

Some uneventful years passed by without my consuming a drop of Esență, and, despite the disapproving gazes of the villagers, I contentedly wore that scarlet letter, especially because Erzsébet never made me feel bad about it.

“Don’t worry about what they think. They must be jealous of you because you know how to read and write and because you have quill pens and parchments. Don’t pay attention to them. I know for sure that you’ll eventually drink Esență and come to love it. You shall know the truth and be strong enough to take over the distillery once I die,” she would reiterate.

In 1382, shortly after I turned fifteen, she approached me in the early morning hours and said, “Son, it is time—”

“Time for what?”

“Time for you to see how we make Esență. You’re old enough now. I’m not going to last forever. One day, you must take over, give the village what it needs, and bear the sins of its people. It’s the only way to survive.”

We got on the horse-drawn carriage and left the village, making our way through the dense forest. The fallen leaves crackled under the squeaky wheels as we slaughtered the ever-present silence of that solemn morning.

“We’re almost there,” she said once the horizon began unveiling a massive, decaying, traditional Transylvanian house. With a damaged, begrimed outer layer—which once must have been shiny and white—and a hay roof on the brink of collapse, the house seemed like a perfect death trap. Weird blue vapor enwrapped it, making it look as though it belonged to the most ghoulish of nightmares.

Our carriage stopped by the entrance, and we were greeted by Laszlo and two unwashed, unkempt men. They did not even look at me as they helped Erzsébet get off.

Laszlo was now in his early forties but still looked extremely young and vigorous. His broad shoulders, along with an imposing figure and a set of eyes perpetually blazing with aggression, made him worthy of respect. He had the village in his grip, and, apart from Erzsébet, no one could order him around. “Are you sure you want to do this? Do you trust him?” he asked her now under his breath.

“I trust him. He might not have come out of my womb, but he’s still my son,” she replied in full voice.

He ran his fingers through his thick, blond beard, shook his head, and then addressed me. “You should know that very few people have seen what you’re about to see. If Erzsébet trusts you, then I shall too. Don’t disappoint us. Much good comes out of evil. And the survival of our village and its people depends on the distillery. Do you understand?”

I nodded.

He gestured to the two men to open the wooden door, and we all entered.

The hallway was littered with barrels, boiling pots, and buckets tainted with blood.

“Don’t worry. Stay strong,” Erzsébet firmly told me, for she seemed to know that the sight absolutely terrified me. “You will understand; you will,” she added.

They guided me to the fetid kitchen where soot covered the walls and various blood-stained cutleries lay scattered all over the floor, along with pieces of flesh and bones. She pointed at a colossal, empty cauldron in the corner, which Laszlo and his men immediately removed, uncovering a wooden trapdoor.

Once they opened it, Erzsébet ordered us to get in, and we all obliged.

We descended into a spacious, dark basement. What I saw horrified me: About ten emaciated, old women were chained to the walls, drifting in and out of consciousness. Two headless corpses were hung over a giant pot filled with blood and blue roses. Every other second, a drop of blood would fall into the pot, creating a blue vapor.

“Help me,” one of the women asked me with eyes full of terror. “G-G-Get me out of here.”

To my horror, it was Andrada now more withered than ever. Her hair had turned white, making her look old way beyond her years. Her craggy face bore an expression of unending despair.

“Shut up, witch!” Laszlo shouted and kicked her in the face before I had the chance to react.

Shocked and petrified, I turned to Erzsébet. “What’s going on? What’s Andrada doing here? What’s this place?”

She bobbed her head.

An overwhelming urge to escape came over me, but the two men restrained me and forced me against the wall.

Erzsébet drew near me. “Son, don’t make this any harder.” She wiped my cheeks. Only then did I realize that I had been crying.

Bitter dread debilitated me. I looked at the corpses again and couldn’t help but vomit.

“I told you he won’t understand.” Laszlo spat his words at her in anger. “His kind is weak.”

“No, he will. It’s hard in the beginning. It was hard for us as well,” Erzsébet told him.

“Auntie, we’re not cannibals, are we?” Disgust snaked through my body.

“No, no, Son, we’re not. We just need to survive.”

“Survive! Survive what?”

She told the men to let go of me.

Confusion invaded every shred of my being as she began caressing my face and stroking my hair like she often did when I was a child. “Son, did I ever hurt you? Did I ever mistreat you?”

“No.”

“You need to trust me then. The village needs Esență. Its people need to consume the essence of life from other people, from those who’re not related to us. Otherwise, they’d become paranoid and delusional. They’d turn against each other; they’d slaughter one another. Esență makes them see reality in a uniform way. It makes their souls align. Nothing is more horrifying than the reign of chaos, especially when—”

“When what? We’re cannibalizing other people! What’s more chaotic than this?”

She drew a deep breath in. “We have to make Esență. There’s no other way, Son.”

“There is,” I shouted. “We don’t have to kill people. I never had that godforsaken drink before, and I’m fine. We don’t have to be canni—”

“Stop saying that.” My ears buzzed when she slapped me. “Stop saying that.” Tears suddenly started pooling in her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She hugged me and cried. “We need this or we’ll all die. After what you’ve seen now, you must also drink Esență. You must partake in our secret or you’ll go crazy.”

I pulled away. “I never had it before, and I’m fine. I shall never have it. Ever!”

“Now you must. You were fine before because you’re different.”

“What do you mean I am different?”

“Like the chained women, you’re one of the few who remained from those who inhabited the village before us. The rest—”

“The rest what? You killed them, right?”

“It was either us or them. We couldn’t survive without their essence.” She came closer and tried to hug me again.

My muscles tensed as I quivered in indignation. I pushed her away, taking a couple of steps back. “I can’t believe it. Did you kill my parents? Did you accuse them of witchcraft?”

“No, no. They were gone already when I found you. I saved you.”

“I wish you hadn’t. You should’ve let me die.” I buried my head in my palms.

She pulled my hands away and held them in hers. “Look at me, just look at me.”

I looked away.

She seized my head and forced it towards her. “Don’t do that, Son. I love you.”

“Well, I don’t. I don’t love you or myself anymore.” I freed myself and retreated.

“But, Son—”

“Just shut up. I can’t believe anything you say now. Andrada wasn’t crazy; she was right all along.” I ran back to the kitchen. As I exited through the trapdoor, I fell and banged my head against the cauldron.

Erzsébet gave me her hand seconds later. “Here, get up.”

I declined her offer, reclined on the floor, and glowered at her as though she were my worst enemy dressed up as the one I once loved the most.

“I told the men to give us a minute alone. You need to be more composed in front of other people, Son. Here, come on.” She offered her hand again.

I ignored her. “So, you have no qualms about killing my kind, right?”

Her eyes had a frustrated look. “You need to understand, Son.” She sat on the floor next to me and went on, “Life’s too hard and evil. Sometimes, we must do the worst to survive. There’s no end in life higher than survival.”

“You’re insane; you’re all insane. This Esență is fueling your delusions!”

“Son, you need to understand that—"

“Stop telling me that I need to understand. I already understand, you monster. You and your mad folks torture and kill innocent people to make black magic potions. And for my whole life, I thought you were a saint. I believed everything you told me. I trusted you. I loved you,” I began ranting.

The more I spoke, the angrier I got. Fury! Fury poured out of the darkest corners of my soul. I looked around; a discarded knife shimmered next to me. I grabbed it, pulled Erzsébet near me, and stabbed her twice in the chest.

Her scream of agony filled the air. “What have you done? I raised you!”

“Die! Die! You’re the biggest lie in my life. Everything you taught me was a lie. Everything about you turned out to be an illusion. I hate you. I hate myself. I hate everyone. Die, you harlot. Die!”

The three men rushed in and pulled me away. Laszlo hurried towards the dying woman whom he still regarded as a saint.

“Don’t kill my son. Don’t hurt him,” she pleaded with him as he held her.

“Stop saying he’s your son. He stabbed you. He must pay,” he wept.

“No, it’s not his fault. It’s mine. I never forced him to drink Esență. I should have. I would’ve saved him and myself,” she said and exhaled her last breath.

He turned towards me. “You maggot. I’ll crush you.” He began beating me up.

“To hell with you all,” I shouted and held my forearms together in front of my face.

The two men pulled Laszlo away, calmed him down, and took me and the body of my victim back to the carriage. Laszlo emerged out of the house with a thick rope, which he used to tie my hands.

“Let go of me!”

“Shut up!” He delivered a savage blow to my face, completely knocking me out.

The pouring rain woke me up. The first thing I saw was the protruding, dead eyes of Erzsébet. I contained terror and peeked around. The soil of the forest was now so muddy that the carriage could barely move. The horse was exhausted, and Lazlo struggled to force it to go on. It was evident from the daunting quiet that my horrific deed still had the men in its tight grip.

Once the rain stopped, one of them noticed me. “He’s up.” 

Laszlo, now seeming more composed, stopped the carriage and got off. “We should have some rest until the soil dries a bit. The horse needs to rest also. Take the maggot’s shirt and cover Erzsébet’s face. Then tie him to a tree,” he ordered his men.

One of them began following through while Laszlo and the other man leered at me. But before he tied my hands, I begged him to let me relieve myself. He looked at Laszlo, who disinterestedly gestured agreement.

“Don’t try anything funny,” the man said as he guided me a bit farther.

“Well, I’m up against three big men. What chances do I have? Trust me, I won’t do anything.”

“You’re an idiot. You don’t know what’s waiting for you,” he told me right after I was done.

“What’s waiting for me?”

“You idiot, you’ll end up in the pit of darkness. It’s the worst torture imaginable,” he mocked. “C’mon, I’ll take you back. You need to be tied up like the animal you are.” He pushed me to walk before him.

“You mean they’ll bury me alive?”

“Idiot! They won’t bury you alive. They will send you into the eternal darkness.”

I stopped.

“Move.” He shoved me.

“Wait, I can’t breathe. There’s something in my windpipe.” I began coughing.

“What’s wrong with you now? Move!”

“Wait, wait, I can’t breathe.”

I pretended that I was on the verge of collapsing, and once he faced me, I kicked him between the legs. As he fell, I made good my escape. I ran for hours on end until I fell unconscious in one of the seemingly most uncharted parts of the forest. The rain woke me up again, gently washing my naked chest. This time it was so merciful, for I longed for a drop of water. Thirst and hunger had battered my very existence, and with each passing, moment my odds of survival grew slimmer. “I’m not going back. I’m not giving them the satisfaction of killing me,” I often repeated when desperation snuck the idea of surrendering into my head. 

I dwelt in the heart of the woods for three days, drinking from the water puddles the rain had left behind. My sanity gradually began eroding, and starvation, cold, fatigue, and fear all conspired against me and fueled my hallucinations. I saw Erzsébet’s corpse dancing under the moonlight and devouring the bodies of old women. I saw a man who looked like me lynched by angry villagers. And I dreamed of angels and demons together swaying on my chest. Trees breathed heavily when I passed by them as though they were in the throes of death. My life flashed before me, and the memories of Erzsébet’s kindness were now daggers piercing my soul. I experienced fear in its true form, one that no one had ever witnessed before, one that words fail to describe. All that man had feared since the beginning of existence festered in my core. My eyes became open to a world beyond ours, to the realm where primordial terror reigned unchallenged.

By the third sunrise, I knew I could no longer bear it. “If I’m doomed to die, I’d better die as a hero. Maybe then I won’t die alone and forgotten. If Erzsébet, the killer, died as a saint in the eyes of her own people, maybe then I can die as a hero in the eyes of the remainder of mine.”

It took me days to find my way back to the distillery. It seemed exactly the way I last saw it, unguarded and saturated with rot and desolation. I descended into the accursed basement; it was pitch black. I could only hear the faint breathing of the women chained to its walls.

“I’m here to save you. You’ll be free,” I said. 

A torch suddenly lit up, exposing the unforgiving faces of Laszlo, the two men, and, this time, the village’s priest. They came near me, brandishing their daggers.

“We waited for you for days. It took you longer than we expected. We even had to ration our food. But it was worth the trouble. We have you now. We knew you’d come back to be a hero. But you’re saving no one,” Laszlo said. “You, the maggot of those who roamed the land before us, have been condemned to the pit of darkness. You shall rot there. You shall pay for killing our saint.”

I spat in his face. “I’m afraid of no darkness. I saw in the forest what no man can survive to tell about. I’m afraid of no darkness, I tell you.” I lunged at him, but he was able to easily subdue me, escaping unharmed.

They blindfolded me, tied my hands, and led me towards the pit of darkness. We walked for hours. Every time I stopped to catch my breath, they would shove me, saying something like, “Move, you pig. Move, you maggot.”

“Here, see, that is your destiny—darkness, total darkness,” the priest told me as soon as he removed my blindfold. He looked at the other men and said, “For his crimes, the maggot shall perish in the pit of darkness. We shall commit him and his sins to the deep, so no other soul may hear of him, so he’ll roam eternity blind and unable to find his way.”

I heard a squishing sound when he drove his dagger into my side. I fell to my knees. Before me was a round sewer grate made of wood. I knew this was the cover of the pit of darkness. “To hell with you all. I shall be remembered as a hero who died to rescue his people,” I yelled.

“No one shall remember even your accursed name. We’ll tell everyone who knew you that you killed Erzsébet for her money. Esență, just like she wanted, will still be made. Erzsébet’s people shall live, and she shall bear their sins even from beyond the grave,” the priest told me, then ordered the men to remove the heavy lid.

“Damn you all,” my final words as I gracefully accepted my fate.

With my hands tied, I assumed a fetal position to fit in, and once they put the lid back, darkness filled up the tight space. I could see no more; I could hear no more. Even the unnerving voices of those who had just condemned me were now nothing but undesirable memories. My heart raced; fear gripped my being; and I drifted out of consciousness.

The next thing I knew was waking up in a forest with crooked trees. “Where am I? What happened?” I screamed, but only my own echo answered. I looked around and saw the rope they used to tie my hands thrown next to me. Its sight terrified me, so I ran until I found my way out of the forest, only to witness a more petrifying scene. I heard loud noises and saw horseless carriages and wagons made of steel speeding through gray roads flanked by giant structures with numerous windows.

People wore colorful, unsoiled garments unlike any I had seen before and stared constantly at small talking boxes they held in their hands. Little people and images often appeared on these magical things. Everyone looked clean, had white teeth, and spoke in a strange dialect I surprisingly could fully understand.

“For how long was I asleep?” I asked myself. “Where am I? Is this the land of eternity?”

I roamed around for hours, tolerating the unkind looks of the strangers among whom I had just found myself. An elderly woman smiled at me and gave me a small, colorful piece of cloth.

“Erzsébet?” I asked her.

“Excuse me?”

“Do you know where the village of Erzsébet is?”

Sadness emerged in her eyes. She gave me another colorful piece of cloth and muttered something about intemperance.

I nodded at her.

“Do you understand me?” asked the woman.

“Yes, I do.”

“You’re slurring your words. Are you high?”

“I don’t understand. What do you mean ‘high’?”

She shook her head in disappointment. “Doamne ajută (God help you).” She left.

I walked aimlessly until I was worn out, so I sought shelter under a tree and closed my eyes.

A man dressed in blue shook me awake and mumbled something. He was broad-shouldered and had an imposing figure—just like Laszlo. He wore a thick vest that not even the sharpest of daggers could penetrate. And on his sleeve, letters were embroidered that spelled “Poliţia Locală Cluj-Napoca.”

Terror crossed my being.

He pulled a small box out of his pocket and spoke into it. Minutes later, a steel horseless carriage arrived, and a man and a woman wrapped in white garments emerged from it. They put small ropes and things made of metal on me before assaulting my eyes and face with a small rod that emitted yellow light. The woman addressed the two men, grabbed me kindly by the arm, and accompanied me to the wagon. There, she pierced the skin of my forearm with something like a long sewing needle, withdrew blood, and filled a small bottle. 

“You must take these immediately.” She gave me a handful of small black grains and a thin white glass of clean water.

I complied. Suddenly, my eyelids became heavy, and I was forced down under.

I came to on a steel bed with a comfortable, thick mattress situated in the middle of a small, warm, clean room. Everything was so white, the walls, the bedding, the curtains, and the robe they must have had dressed me in after I passed out.

More people wrapped in white would frequently come in, smile at me, and give me more small grains to swallow with water. They would regularly inquire about my moods and health and stab me with needles to obtain more blood and store it in small tubes. Soup, rice, fruits, and pieces of meat were brought to me twice a day by a kind-spirited old woman.

 After three days, a young woman dressed in green gave me some warm clothes. They were clean, colorful, and full of buttons and seams—just like the ones worn in that strange town.

“Please wear these. The doctor would like to see you.” She turned her back at me.

I got dressed, and she took me to another room.

“Welcome, welcome, Gregory,” a well-kempt man in his thirties told me. His carefully trimmed beard, clean face, and coiffed light brown hair all made him look like royalty. “Please take a seat.” He pointed at a chair situated opposite a big, wooden table on which rested a big square box with ropes coming out of it and going into a hole in the wall.

Once I sat, he went behind the table, rested on a throne-like chair, and continued, “It’s been three days now. I can’t keep you longer than this because you’re uninsured. Three days is the maximum. Was it up to me, I would keep you here until you’re clean.”

“What do you mean? I’m already clean. I never committed any evil.”

“Gregory—"

“My name is Gergely.”

“No, it’s Gregory. I know you’re not schizophrenic, delusional, or mentally ill. You’ve got an addiction to hypnotics. Every month or so, they bring you here because you overdose on your sleeping pills and tell us the most fantastic stories about medieval Romania, demons, darkness, black magic, etc. Sometimes, addicts, like you, come up with the most bizarre explanations to justify their behavior, Gregory.”

“I told you my name is Gergely,” I rebuked him and then told him my entire story.

“Well, that’s fascinating. You should write that. You should use your fantasies and hypnotics-fueled deliriums to create stories, not to continue avoiding addiction therapy. You should find a way to get into rehab. You’re still young, and there’re so many ways to get off them. You’re playing Russian roulette with your life.”

“My story is not an illusion. Everything I told you is real.”

He let out a harsh breath. “I wish you were insured. I could then keep you longer and force you into treatment. But because the state covers a maximum of three days if there’re no criminal issues resulting from your drug abuse, I have to let you go.” He twisted his mouth, then stroked his chin. “I can jog your memory if you don’t remember what happened the first time the ambulance brought you here?”

“I was never here before. I’ve never known this accursed town in my life.”

“We called the police to identify you. They went to your last known address to retrieve your ID. Your name’s Gregory. You’re a twenty-five-year-old Romanian citizen born and raised in Cluj-Napoca, and you’re addicted to hypnotics. You’ve never been employed since you graduated from the School of Pharmacology. My guess is that you got addicted during your time there.”

“Lies! Everything you’re telling me is a lie. You’re just like Erzsébet! You must—”

He threw a dismissive hand wave at me and continued, “I’ve evaluated you several times. The other doctors did so as well. Again, you’re not mentally ill. You’re not schizophrenic. You’re just inventing stories and acting up to escape reality and avoid dealing with your addiction. You know you’re lying, and I surely know that. You need treatment. There’re so many charities here in the city; some of them pay for the entire treatment if you show the will and commitment to getting clean—”

“I told you I’m clean!” I shouted.

“Okay.” He cocked his head to the side. “Here you go.” He gave me some snow-white, thin parchments and a tube filled with ink. “You usually ask for a pen and some papers before we release you.” He handed me a small white parchment bearing fancy inscriptions. “That’s your release note. You’re free to go.”

My eyes were fixed on him.

“You’re free to go,” he repeated and pointed at the door.

I escaped that damned building through a magical glass gate that opened and closed on its own. After multiple failed attempts, I finally made it back to the forest with the crooked trees. I sat down under one and penned down this manuscript. I tore the sleeves of my new garment, wrapped the white parchments, dug a shallow pit, and buried them.

To whoever uncovers this, I leave the burden of telling my story, the tale of a man who was forgotten in a pit of darkness, a perpetual outsider who belonged neither to the realm of dreams nor to the hostile territories of reality.

Now, I must look for the rope I left behind and put it to good use.