By Dr. Byron Drehoulme
There is a space between reality and imagination - a space we've all been to at least once in our lives. It is that moment that strikes us in the brief flash of lucidity that comes before we awaken from a dream. It arrives in that snap of realization when we finally make the connection that the strange noise in the corner of our perception is actually just the ringing of the morning alarm chimes, the singing of the birds, or the cry of a child.
It's that wave of relief when we remember that we are not, in fact, trouserless and in the middle of failing our school exams, or trying to escape an axe murderer while riding a unicycle on a full bladder. It's also the bitter reluctant departure from an imaginary paradise, when the palm-fanning servants are snatched away, and it's time to return to the daily grind.
But what if that moment, that cognitive glimmer that suddenly releases us from the dream, is the only thing that's imaginary?
What if right here, right now, you were suddenly convinced that everything you think you hold dear is suddenly unfamiliar to you? What if you were suddenly convinced beyond reason that this is not your world - that it is time to wake up?
This is the neuro-degenerative condition we call Wickening.
They say that when you gaze into the abyss, it gazes back into you. However, staring into the abyss' infinite depths isn't the only way to be affected by the wickening. Stories from seafarers suggest that deepsea leviathans have the power to inflict it as well, either through the toxins secreted from their skin, or sometimes with nothing more than a sustained glare.
There are also gloomspores, which can infect the skin and eventually enter the bloodstream. Fortunately, this is a thing that most people do not have to worry about. Treating the infection is a simple matter of exposing the the affected areas to bright light, something most people can manage at home with a bit of ambrille ointment.
It is true that the narcotics some alchemists have managed to concoct using gloomspores are powerfully addictive, and very profitable in the right markets. We would be wise to oppose their efforts vigorously, and the same can be said for cults such as the Lacunites, who promote the horrifically unsafe practice of consuming dire animals. Another vector of exposure may be nethersmoke, a vile substance that is offgassed during the sublimation of delericite - the fuel that was used to power ancient weapons before the Age of Gales.
Ultimately, we don't know exactly what common thread ties these elements together. All we know is that people who suffer repeated exposures to wickening eventually contract the nethergaze. After that, they are never quite the same.
As the condition advances, anger and frustration leads to violent physical outbursts by the victim. For whatever reason, they cannot stand to see their own reflection in a mirror. We suspect this has something to do with a sort of permanent sense of unresolved psychological dissociation. The primary effect of gazing into the abyss, as all the stories claim, is the loss of one's memories. But the nature of memory is inscrutably complex. We know very little about how this is accomplished, what types of memories are most susceptible to being erased, whether they are truly gone for good or merely contained, or if other elements of the mind are impacted in the process.
There are physiological changes too. The victim's pupils grow until the whites of their eyes turn pure black. Shifts in appetite may reveal themselves as the condition progresses. Brillewater becomes unpalatable and bitter. If the creature is regularly eating dire meat, their muscles begin to grow tremendously. Wounds heal and harden into scabs instantly when burned, without any cautersap required. Dark veins fork outwards from their eyes, and around the face. When the nethergaze finally takes over, their vision will go dark, their eyes may begin emanating a dark smoke when emotions are agitated, and they will see only the heat signatures of the creatures around them - a perfect adaptation for feeding the unrelenting hunger they now suffer.
The Secret Symptom: Metalucidity
To be sure, we know a lot more about the obvious physiological effects of the nethergaze than its psychological ones. But new research suggests that these symptoms are actually only characteristic of the extreme cases. More common and less obvious are the effects of incidental exposure: the kind you get when a person wouldn't even be aware that they are taking in trace amounts of gloomspores. Unbeknownst to the average person, the toxin can make its way into the body through tainted water in the village well, for example, or a lifetime of exposure to the fumes present in a coilrig's foundry.
What we have learned about the symptom that presents in the milder cases, the ones that until recently went undiagnosed, sheds some light on what may be behind the more severe variant. With this particular symptom mostly invisible, it is possible that there are people who are only mildly wickened walking amongst us. The implications are nothing short of ayrthshaking.
This additional symptom is something that my team has begun calling Metalucidity: In layman's terms, it means that the victim is convinced that their experience in their waking life is not their own genuine reality.
It may happen without any warning, or failure on their part. Remember, these people don't deliberately seek out the toxin, so it may take longer for us to notice our friends and loved ones drifting away from us. By the time we see its effects, it may masquerade as simple eccentricity, bad manners, an overactive imagination, or the early onset of senility.
Slowly but surely though, they begin to unravel. They become reluctant to form commitments. They treat this world as their personal playground. They treat the people around them as less than disposable, outright ephemeral. They stop caring about the consequences of their actions because, as they will swear with utmost conviction "It's not going to matter when I wake up."
You would think that over time, they would accept that the existence they lead here with the rest of us is indeed their true life. You would think that they would eventually stop when they realize that they are never going to escape this material reality. But it's actually not that easy.
Because we all have to sleep sometime.
Which cues the question: where do the wickened go when they actually dream?
Through a mirror darkly
Here at Belthambrach University, faculty have long been curious about the dreams of the individuals that gaze into the abyss. Since this method of exposure is the least likely to repeat, it has proven the most reliable marker for metalucidity.
However, the conversations that our psychonautrists have elicited from these subjects generate more questions than answers. If they can be convinced to speak at all, they speak of astonishingly ordinary things. The dreamworlds they concoct for themselves are remarkably plain. They speak of boring routine jobs that they dread going back to. They speak of household chores, and transit delays, and arguments with spouses. They want to wake up and check on their kids. They are convinced that they need to "snap out" of their lives here on Gahla because they "left the oven on"...elsewhere.
When they return to their dormitories here on campus at the Institute, they seem to forget their conversations with their doctors the next day - the same way our memories of dreams flee our minds before we even eat breakfast. But they return with fresh stories from a life that seems more real to them than Gahla itself.
Sometimes they do remember being here, sometimes they remember us, and the bad food, and their small little rooms.
"Oh. It's this dream again," they say in disappointment, as if this life is a recurring nightmare that they can't shake off.
Mental illness has always been a challenge for society, and only recently have there been earnest attempts to treat the afflicted. Throughout history, the wickened have faced persecution by forces of law and faith alike. It is understandable that the same people who risk their lives to protect us from the monsters that threaten our safety would be tempted to expand the definition of "monster" to include those whose minds work in ways that they don't understand. Especially in this particular case, when the affliction exists on a spectrum that includes truly monstrous creatures.
Most attempts at treatment either through medicinal or therapeutic means have failed, but emerging research suggests that this has much to do with the methods that we have traditionally used. Historically, the objective of the treatment is to get the patient settled back into what we would consider a "normal" routine. It focuses on suppressing the visibility of the symptoms by teaching the patients not to think about their "alternate" lives, or the imaginary people that they have come to value on the "other side". What we have found is that the patients simply learn to hide their true beliefs. They may learn never to speak their beliefs aloud, until one day, you find the chest full of letters to people that don't exist.
We just expect them to forget, to shake it off, and become productive and self-sustaining in the ways that we approve of. But how would you feel if, after a long day of work and family responsibilities, after you've finally tucked in the kids, and turned out the lights and drifted off to sleep, you began to dream of...more of the same?
Wake up, go to work, go home, go to sleep, go to "work", go "home", wake up, go to work...and so on...
Every. Single. Night.
What wouldn't you give to enter instead a recurring dream that celebrates your return with excitement, and variety, and good company, and all the things that seem so hard to come by in "everyday life"?
Towards A New Paradigm
A recent cross-disciplinary analysis conducted in partnership with the department of historical studies has identified dozens of notable figures from the past who may very well have wrestled with metalucidity. They are not all who you think they might be.
They are fearless war generals, legendary ship captains, charismatic leaders, titans of industry, celebrated artists, and revered prophets. Good or bad, these outliers seized the moment. They didn't take no for an answer. They didn't care if others called them crazy. They believed passionately in their own ability to ignore all obstacles - as if they could simply will their own success into existence. They fought the wickening without any help by simply refusing to let themselves become alienated.
They lived their lives the way that you and I are told we should, but which few rarely do.
How many times have you heard in your own life that the cure for the depressive malaise that afflicts so many people is to simply smile, to stop worrying, and to live each day as if it were your last?
The mind needs dreams! It needs the freedom to explore, to experiment, to be reckless! It cannot live in submission to contrary ideals! It cannot survive in perpetual alienation!
There are negative and positive to ways to channel that impetus, but it is a need, and we ignore it at our own peril.