Sunday, July 20, 2014

Grey Days: Dread - Chapter Two (the house of my fathers)

I pulled the Caddy off the freeway at the first sign of cornfields. It was always jarring, that abrupt transition between the city and the country. The valley’s life’s blood came from the earth, its entire economy driven by agriculture. It was a constant and curious reminder that no matter how much the world advanced it all came back to the dirt.

We cut off the main road after passing a couple dairies and turned onto a dirt path that led through twenty or so acres of barren orchard, a brown stain breaking up all the green growing things that surrounded it, the whole thing a flat field of dust and dirt broken only by the path itself at the end of which loomed a towering two-hundred year old yew tree that had grown into a strange, tortured looking shape, its naked branches knotted and curled like arthritic hands swaying in a slow breeze.
And looming beneath the shadow of that twisted old tree like stood Der Haus des Schicksals - ‘the House of Doom.’

It was built like a fortress because that had been what my great-grandfather Heinrich Gottesspeer, better known as Henry Grey - may his soul rot forever - had in mind when he’d built it after arriving here all those centuries ago, constructing the whole thing by pulling raw stone from the earth and hewing it with magic. He’d also planted the yew, having carried the seed of it with him all the way from the dark forests of his homeland. Der Haus was a study in brutal efficiency, brooding grey and squat as an irate gargoyle despite its two stories. The windows more resembled murder slits and the front doors were a pair of black iron monstrosities.

We parked beneath the tree and my eyes darted up to the branches, scanning for crows. The beginnings of something vicious and painful bubbled up in me, the erratic energy inside responding to my paranoia, but there were no birds and I swallowed down the rising spell. It had an alkaline taste that clung in the back of my throat.

I didn’t see Rosa’s new car, one of those weird little electric things, which meant she was still at work, which meant I could breathe at least a little bit easier. My roommate was an amazing cook, kept the place spotless, and was a blood thirsty tyrant, Genghis Khan reborn. I swear sometimes I wondered whether or not it was me letting her live in my house, or her suffering my existence in hers.

There was a little area picketed off along the north side of the house, away from the shadow of the yew, and a sprinkler was tossing water in lazy arcs over a sizable garden, courtesy of my other roommate and one time mentor, Hack. The mad old hillbilly doted over that garden, I’d seen him crooning to the plants, singing and whispering to them as he tilled the dirt and pulled the weeds. He’d never been the same after the Sleeper debacle, after his powers were ripped from him by my great-grandfather, his best friend - after we used the Libro Nihil to send Henry to the grave for the second time.

My fingers twitched and my hand strayed to my pocket where the book rested. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

on time

Time is a vicious fiction created by man to impose a desperate sense of control on a reality  that is only tangentially aware of the existence of either.

Do the stars care what day it is, do the planets in their orbits worry that they might be late? After billions of years do they sit and grow anxious about the billions yet to come?

There is something more than a little morbid about keeping track of entropy's march, about collating decay and the inevitable end of all things. Isn't that what time is doing? Counting down to that final moment when, at last, there are no more moments left to count?

There's an uncomfortable finality to that, to the constant awareness brought on by time that time itself is the one thing we all want but can never have enough of, that time is always running out. We plan our lives around the most precious resource imaginable, and make no mistake it is imagined. That must be a sign of mankind's sickness; our obsession with the intangible, with the imposed delusion of control.

I don't have time for that. I don't have time for time. I don't have the strength, and when the sun winds its way down at the end of the day I just don't care how much time flew through my fingers. There's freedom there, beyond time, where everything is allowed to exist at its own pace, in its own now that is a part of the greater, infinite now.

And that must be the surest tell of the lie behind time, the hammer that shatters the bindings that we forge from time: if Creation is infinite how can there be anything so finite as time, how can the endless be limited?

The more disturbing question, then, is what drives mankind to desire the slow death of infinity by seconds, by minutes and hours? Dread fascination, dark obsession? How exhausting it is to be aware at all times of the passage of time and its inexorable momentum.

Better then to step aside for time lest you find yourself caught in its path and trampled.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Grey Days: Dread - Chapter Two

TWO

We returned to the Caddy and sat in uncomfortable silence watching the Red Manor burn. In a detached sort of way it was impressive, the fire huge and burning so hot that some of the bricks from which the house had gotten its name began to explode, sending sharp fragments of masonry flying like bullets. Between that and the sheer intensity of the flames themselves the fire fighters seemed content to let the house burn down, its roof already sagged and the walls slumped at perilous angles, while the men and women of the emergency services crew busied themselves with keeping it contained and getting the crowd - which had grown large - to move back across the street to a safer distance. One ambulance team was already busy patching up one on-looker who’d gotten too close and took a flying chunk of smoldering brick to the face.

“What’s going on?” I couldn’t take the quiet inside the car anymore. “And don’t you dare give me any cryptic nonsense, Swift.”

He didn’t say anything and when I turned to face him I saw that he hadn’t been watching the house burn, his gaze had been fixed up and out the windshield, watching something. I ground my teeth and tracked his gaze to where an old growth elm stood sentinel in front of a house down the road, but it wasn’t the tree Swift was looking at.

Crows.

Tens if not hundreds of them perched in the gnarled branches of the elm, looking like patches of rippling shadow and in the thickest knot something stirred. Without peering across the Other Side I could feel the echo of the power that had birthed the fire, ancient and sluggish but virulent and growing more aware, its very presence a gnawing corrosion on the fabric of reality.

I never got the chance to speak.

It sounded like the world breaking apart when the Red Manor collapsed, like the bones of the earth tearing apart. My heart leapt up into my throat and I tore my eyes off the thing in the tree in time to see people running, screaming, and a crimson fireball hurtling into the sky like a monstrous fist. The explosion was more than physical, there was a blistering release of magic, and the force threw people off their feet, rocked the Caddy and slammed into me like a wrecking ball, snapping my head back. I could taste the copper tang of blood in the back of my throat and my vision dimmed. I could see Swift through a blur, face twisted into a vicious snarl, still watching out the windshield.

Outside the crows had burst out of the tree in a raucous explosion of their own, a writhing black cloud with an unnatural darkness at its heart that tore into the sky and spiraled away.

I didn’t get the chance to speak, there wasn’t time for it before Swift gunned the throttle on the Caddy and I was slammed back into my seat, scrabbling to put my seat belt back on and clutch at my satchel like a shield. The smoldering rubble that had once been the Red Manor shrunk in the rear view as we chased the crows, Swift pushing the Caddy to uncomfortable speeds on the small, winding roads of Downtown.

“Swift,” I managed through clenched teeth, “what’re you doing?”

“Not letting him get away,” he said.

“Who?”

The Caddy whipped around a corner, tires screeching and smoking, engine howling. I almost screamed when the car levelled back out only to find a pick-up truck coming down the road straight at us and saw with shocking clarity the terrified look on the witless driver’s face as he cranked the wheel and the truck went careening off the road and onto the sidewalk. Swift didn’t seem to notice, or care.

“Swift I swear if you get me killed I will never forgive you,” I bit back from yelling and my words came out strangled. I began wondering how much of myself I could manage to stuff into my satchel.

“We have to finish this,” he said, never once taking his eyes off the birds, “before it is allowed to begin again.”

A sharp right turn whipped the back-end of the Caddy around and I went smashing into the passenger door. It hurt and it knocked some clarity into my skull, gave me something to focus on. “Again?” I still wasn’t yelling. Barely. “So help me Swift if you don’t start making sense real quick I’m going to do something I will definitely regret.”

We’d torn through most of Downtown without raising undue attention, how I couldn’t say. In the span of a few blocks we’d missed death by scant inches a half dozen times while Swift drove like a maniac in his desperate chase of the birds and whatever it was that appeared to be controlling them. We were fast approaching the freeway, and beyond that the south side. The Caddy slid onto the street running alongside the freeway, a tired stretch of asphalt studded with rustic buildings that had stood for a hundred years and more, and looked every day of it. Many of were shut down, doors and windows covered in boards and black plastic sheeting, the ragged few that remained open had been converted into seedy bars of ill-repute and convenience stores that often stood as fronts for shadier business. There were some in Hanford who thought to reclaim the crumbling bits of Downtown, though how they thought that was going to happen without cash and cleansing fire was beyond me.

A row of decrepit factories stood across the street up against the freeway and were all that was left of the city’s once booming industrial zone.  Brick and steel skeletons of man-made behemoths sagged and looked as if collapsing would be a mercy. Where once it had been the bleeding heart of industry in the city the area had become derelict, abandoned, given up to time to demolish because no one could be bothered to handle the issue. Over the years some of the structures had been adopted by vagrants and turned into impromptu shelters and hideaways. A few had become bases for the local criminal element, dens of iniquity as it were.

And I had no doubt one or two had been, or was, the lair of a vicious, inhuman monster. I was becoming more and more positive about that much.

The crows flew over what used to be a milling plant, a towering edifice of sheet metal and masonry, spindly flutes rising up from its slanted roof, faded, unreadable paint across the fa├žade had once bore the company’s name and insignia but over the years had come to resemble a putrid brown streak across bricks the color of bone. Most curious about the structure were the windows, tall and wide, and a second glance confirmed my initial hunch: stained glass. Too many of the little panes were missing or had been destroyed to ascertain what they once depicted, but enough slivers of covered glass remained to catch the light and toss it back in yellow and green flares. Swift rolled the Caddy up into the dirt lot in front of the plant as the crows wheeled once above the building and then dove, disappearing in a dark rush into the flutes and a ragged hole in the center of the roof itself where it had collapsed, making the whole thing look like it only waited to follow suit.

I watched, but mostly I waited. I waited to see what the birds were going to do, driven as they were by whatever alien malevolence it was I’d sensed and that had sent Swift off on such a tangent. And more than anything I waited to see what Swift would do. In all our years working together I’d never witnessed him in such a state. He knew what it was he was chasing, what it was he had dragged me along with him into, and he was afraid because of that knowledge. And that knowledge bore deep down inside me, into my guts where it twisted and settled and radiated a quiet dread that turned my brain to jelly and my bones to lead.

I didn’t want to be within a hundred miles of anything that could scare Swift.

Yet there I was.

Swift had stopped the car in front of the plant’s loading bay door, a rusted maw of corrugated metal that rolled up to allow trucks and freight in and out. It was open and beyond it I could see shafts of weird, colorful light playing across the misshapen shadows of machinery and debris. “Wait here.” He was already getting out of the car.

“Not a problem.”

He didn’t look back and I didn’t even unbuckle my seatbelt. Walking in there after him would be absolute suicide, whatever it was that waited inside. I could feel the slow, sick heartbeat of it, the cloying miasma of its power that tasted like blood and rot and that made me feel giddy with a barely suppressed instinct to flee. Whatever it was Swift was walking into I reacted to it on an atomic level, my DNA screamed and my brain begged to hide behind the comfort of madness.

The edges of my vision dimmed, I was getting dizzy.

Swift spared one brief look back and then he disappeared inside the milling plant and a frigid fist clenched around my heart.

What was I supposed to do? Running would be the easiest thing in the world and if I went that route at least I’d die of guilt and not whatever eldritch monstrosity waited beyond the door not twenty feet away from where I sat. But that would also mean abandoning my friend when he needed me, whether or not he said so.
I’m a lot of things. I am definitely a coward and that had saved my life before - but not as many times as Swift had.

With a death grip on my satchel I got out of the car and started walking before I could give myself any time to think about it. If I thought about it I would be more likely to hit the ground in a gibbering heap than to go any further. My hand grazed over a small lump in my bag and a whisper of power brushed across my senses and stopped me in my tracks. It was ancient power, hungry and vast - quiet but waiting as if eager to be unleashed.

The Libro Nihil.

I felt one corner of my mouth crook up in a bizarre and unnatural sensation. It took a moment to realizing it was a smile beginning to form. I started moving again, reaching a hand into my bag as I went and pulling out the slim black volume, big as a pocket bible, with its faded, featureless black cover gone soft and smooth with age that was always warm to the touch.

I stopped again before entering the plant and watched as motes of dust flickered and danced, eyes searching. “Swift?” Nothing. My thumb grazed over the cover of the Libro and a trickle of its presence seeped out and swam across my nerves singing a quiet hymn of power as it went. It wanted to be used. It wanted to be unleashed to devour and given the chance I would let it.

A movement from nearby flitted at the edge of my vision and I swung around with the little black book out as if it were a pistol and I was about to pull the trigger when Swift came out from around a silage bin.

“Jerk,” I spat and lowered my hand.

And in a white and black blur Swift was on me, one fist crashing into mine and knocking the Libro Nihil to the dirt as something in my hand popped in a way it wasn’t meant to. I yelled something unintelligible but didn’t manage much else before his hand was around my throat and hoisting me up into the air so that my boot-tips scratched at the ground. I clawed at his hand. It was like digging at marble, and his grip began tightening. My lungs burned and darkness began to well around my eyes, I stopped fighting and gasped at my friend.

He smiled.

“Poor little thing,” his voice was all wrong, “confused?” There was a metallic edge to it that made his words ring inside my skull. He loosened his grip enough that I was able to suck in a few short gasps of air. My brain must have taken more damage than I’d thought, because as he continued to speak it looked as if the bones of his face were shifting. “Strange, pitiful company my brother has been keeping these days. But poor little brother has always been a bit strange a pitiful himself, hasn’t he?”

“What?” I squeaked and managed to get a hand up to slap at the arm holding me out like a piece of dirt laundry.

He wasn’t wearing glasses and I could see his eyes. The whites of them had gone red, a deep crimson that threatened to swallow the brilliant blue of the iris. They gleamed with a kind of hunger that sent waves of panic rolling down my spine.

“Don’t worry little thing, I’m starving.” The thing that looked like Swift smiled wider and revealed teeth that looked like broken porcelain. “This will be quick.”

There was a faint, cloying whiff of rot on the thing that wasn’t Swift’s breath. I wanted to say something clever and biting that showed that I wasn’t afraid but I couldn’t come up with anything because I was too busy being terrified. I didn’t want to think about what had happened to Swift, what was about to happen to me. I just wanted it to be over with.

And then the monster wearing my best friend’s face and I were hit by what felt like a city bus and I was skidding through the dirt, coming to a full stop when I crashed into a wall. My whole body pounded along with the strained, irregular beat of my heart, and the world filled with static. I hurt so bad I wanted to throw up but I clamped down on that, fearing I might fall apart if I did, so instead I curled up into a ball and breathed and thanked my lucky fishes that I was alive - if only for a little longer.

Sounds began coming to me through the pall of white noise and gradually shapes to go along with them. Two forms - smears of black and white on a plane of grey - flew at each other with maddening speed and slammed together hard enough that the force of their impact shook the ground beneath me and the walls of the mill rattled. The forms would rebound and streak through the air only to collide again and again.

Watching it all made my head hurt worse, made the pounding sharper, I had to wrench my eyes away and stare out into the middle distance, waiting for the world to clear up and make sense while what sounded like an artillery shelling went on in the background. I doubted the building would stand that kind of punishment for long, and eventually someone was bound to hear - and then the situation would get even more uncomfortable. Mortal law enforcement doesn’t react well to blatant supernatural events, typically falling back on the philosophy of shooting until everything stops moving.

I had to end the brawl before it got even more out of hand, but I couldn’t tell what I was looking at. Teeth clenched, I slid through the spectrums and lifted my head to see what was really going on. The blurs of black and white became streaks of warring light, one a beam of purest white with wings like lasers, an angel of blistering luminescence, the other a distorted reflection of that same light, its edges jagged and being eaten away at by a festering bloom of darkness that roiled over it and made its limbs and angles twisted and wrong, its light watery and suffused with a hideous rot.

When they clashed the air around them burst, handfuls of tiny stars flaring up only to go nova and die out, waging their own explosive wars. Watching it all set my head to pounding worse than before but there was no denying what I was looking at: the thing that had destroyed the Red Manor was like Swift, one of the Malakhim - but, as was quite obvious, afflicted with a chronic case of evil. I’d seen the same kind of rot that clung to it and wrapped it in a cloak of malignance, when I’d fought my great-grandfather who had been reanimated and possessed by an abstract cosmic force of entropy.

I wrenched my eyes away from the fight that was tearing the mill apart, bolts and wreckage clattered to the ground like heavy rain and I scrabbled out of the way of a falling support beam that speared into the ground with a burst of dust and a metallic groan right where I’d been. I hacked and coughed, and jumped when my hand brushed against something on the ground that popped me with a little shock of something what wasn’t quite static electricity and I turned to see my fingers had fallen onto the Libro Nihil where it lay face down in the dirt.

There was no time to think about whether or not what I was doing was probably tantamount to suicide. I didn’t have that kind of luxury. The place was coming down around my ears, and my best friend was fighting - probably for my life - against some twisted doppelganger.

When my hand clenched around the Libro Nihil I felt it reach out to me, its hunger and eagerness to be unleashed. I could sense the weird, alien awareness and immense power within the little black book. The things I could do with it, the things I had done with it. It took considerable effort to muster up the will to counter the book’s own intentions, but I gathered myself and stood finally on shaking feet.

Two streaks of light tore through clouds of dust and falling glass and steel. They made an abrupt change of path and flew straight up at the ceiling, tearing through the girders and sheet metal there without missing a beat, and kept going. There was a smell of scorched metal, and when I squinted I could see the edges of the sheet metal on the roof were glowing hot.

I gulped.

I didn’t have long to wait before Swift and Not Swift came crashing back into the mill, bursting through the upper windows in an explosion of glass. My hand came up with the Libro Nihil in it, tracking the two with it as if it were a pistol while holding my breath and focusing on the distorted, jagged light of the evil twin. In my breath I held my fear and anger and a spark of the fire inside me that echoed the fire of Creation itself. I shaped my fear and anger and that little spark and when I let go of my breath I shouted a wordless cry of rage and pushed it all through the Libro Nihil.

Reality answered me with a cry of its own as it warped inside the old mill, a sound like a thousand colossal, ancient bells cracking, a deep and horrible sound that made my heart lurch up into my throat. The Libro Nihil bucked in my hand like a pistol and a cascade of swirling, grey light shot out from it to and slammed into the two hurtling combatants, catching the evil twin in the back as they went spiraling overhead. They both went careening in separate directions, one through a wall in the back and the other smashing into the ground and then bouncing off out the bay doors I’d come in through.

I winced.

All around me the building was groaning and making disturbing creaks and pops, like an arthritic old man about to collapse. I began shuffling to the doors, eyes darting back and forth. The Libro Nihil hummed in my hand and little tendrils of smoke wafted from it smelling of ozone. My hand was numb but refused to let go so I ignored it and instead turned around to make a more determined escape, shoving my vision back to normal as I went.

Outside, crumpled up in a heap against the bumper of the Caddy, lay Swift. His jacket was smoldering and in tatters, and I could see one side of his face was a mess, eye already beginning to swell shut behind a darkening bruise, mouth split and bleeding. He had both arms wrapped around himself like he was trying to stop himself from falling to pieces. Shoving the Libro Nihil into my front pocket, I cursed under my breath and stooped to try and lift him.

The guy was made of iron. He weighed ten thousand pounds if he weighed an ounce.

“Come on, man,” I gasped, “we got to get out of here.”

He nodded, after a fashion, and made a grunt of agreement. His good eye had the thousand yard stare of the recently concussed, but he got his feet under himself and together we managed to get him dumped into the backseat of the Caddy.

I was going around the car to the driver’s side when I stopped dead in my tracks, looking across the street where a small crowd had gathered, ten or fifteen people at least, some of them with cellphones and cameras out, most of them with incredulous or outright shocked expressions on their faces. I blinked and looked up and down the street. There didn’t seem to be anymore coming, but I did make out the distant wail of sirens.
My face twitched into a manic grin and I waved at the crowd, back-pedaling towards the car door. I flung a dart of my will and no little amount of malicious intent at the people, more specifically at their phones and cameras and as I swung the Caddy door open and ducked inside I could just make out the satisfying sounds of electronics warbling their death cries and a few cries of shock.

The keys were in the ignition where Swift had left them. I turned the engine over and floored it, which was stupid, because instead of tearing off down the street in a rooster tail of dust and glory, instead we spent a few precious seconds fishtailing and spitting gravel in every direction before the tires finally caught traction and then my head snapped uncomfortably on my neck and we were tossed down the road with the Caddy’s engine roaring.

I kept the pedal to the floor, racing along in the shadow of the freeway until I saw what I was looking for: the subtle curve of an on-ramp. I jerked the wheel and we cut onto the freeway where I shunted in between a couple semi-trucks hauling mountains of hay bailed into cubes. There were no more sirens, and I whispered a prayer to nothing in particular that we were in the clear. I glanced up into the rearview mirror and saw Swift curled up on the back seat. He looked like he was sleeping, and the swelling on his face had already begun to go down. I shuddered.

Never in all the years that I’d known him had I ever seen Swift like that. Vulnerable and hurt and looking so very human. My stomach turned, and I clenched the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles popped and I fixed my eyes on the road, heading east towards home. For a time there was only the low, throaty growl of the Caddy and the hum of its tires on the asphalt, momentum, and the pleasant static between my ears of having recently survived a minor personal atrocity, and then a shadow passed over the car and I frowned. Looking up and out through the windshield I saw the sun had passed behind a bank of lurid, roiling clouds.
I jumped when something went cracking into the windshield, and got ready to have a heart attack when more followed - hailstones, big as coins, dropping down and smacking into the windshield, crashing into the freeway and bursting like celestial ordnance.

“Hail,” I said to myself. There was a joke there that the world was trying to tell me that I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around. I should’ve known that the day was only going to keep getting worse, that everything would keep rolling downhill.

I started laughing, though in behind the pattering of the hail and the purr of the engine it sounded a lot like sobbing. I got the joke.

The day can always get worse.

Always.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Grey Days: Dread - An Excerpt (i could die with a little help from my friends)

I didn’t want to be within a hundred miles of anything that could scare Swift.

Yet there I was.

Swift had stopped the car in front of the plant’s loading bay door, a rusted maw of corrugated metal that rolled up to allow trucks and freight in and out. It was open and beyond it I could see shafts of weird, colorful light playing across the misshapen shadows of machinery and debris. “Wait here.” He was already getting out of the car.

“Not a problem.”

He didn’t look back and I didn’t even unbuckle my seatbelt. Walking in there after him would be absolute suicide, whatever it was that waited inside. I could feel the slow, sick heartbeat of it, the cloying miasma of its power that tasted like blood and rot and that made me feel giddy with a barely suppressed instinct to flee. Whatever it was Swift was walking into I reacted to it on an atomic level, my DNA screamed and my brain begged to hide behind the comfort of madness.

The edges of my vision dimmed, I was getting dizzy.

Swift spared one brief look back and then he disappeared inside the milling plant and a frigid fist clenched around my heart.

What was I supposed to do? Running would be the easiest thing in the world and if I went that route at least I’d die of guilt and not whatever eldritch monstrosity waited beyond the door not twenty feet away from where I sat. But that would also mean abandoning my friend when he needed me, whether or not he said so.

I’m a lot of things. I am definitely a coward and that had saved my life before - but not as many times as Swift had.

With a death grip on my satchel I got out of the car and started walking before I could give myself any time to think about it. If I thought about it I would be more likely to hit the ground in a gibbering heap than to go any further. My hand grazed over a small lump in my bag and a whisper of power brushed across my senses and stopped me in my tracks. It was ancient power, hungry and vast - quiet but waiting as if eager to be unleashed.

The Libro Nihil.

I felt one corner of my mouth crook up in a bizarre and unnatural sensation. It took a moment to realizing it was a smile beginning to form. I started moving again, reaching a hand into my bag as I went and pulling out the slim black volume, big as a pocket bible, with its faded, featureless black cover gone soft and smooth with age that was always warm to the touch.

I stopped again before entering the plant and watched as motes of dust flickered and danced, eyes searching. “Swift?” Nothing. My thumb grazed over the cover of the Libro and a trickle of its presence seeped out and swam across my nerves singing a quiet hymn of power as it went. It wanted to be used. It wanted to be unleashed to devour and given the chance I would let it.

A movement from nearby flitted at the edge of my vision and I swung around with the little black book out as if it were a pistol and I was about to pull the trigger when Swift came out from around a silage bin.

“Jerk,” I spat and lowered my hand.

And in a white and black blur Swift was on me, one fist crashing into mine and knocking the Libro Nihil to the dirt as something in my hand popped in a way it wasn’t meant to. I yelled something unintelligible but didn’t manage much else before his hand was around my throat and hoisting me up into the air so that my boot-tips scratched at the ground. I clawed at his hand. It was like digging at marble, and his grip began tightening. My lungs burned and darkness began to well around my eyes, I stopped fighting and gasped at my friend.

And he smiled. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Grey Days: Dread - Chapter One


CHAPTER ONE

“Thank you for choosing the Mad Cow, how can I help you?”

“Yeah can I get...an Insane-O-Burger, with extra Crazy Sauce and...”

I watched the fly that had been evading my attempts to murder it make lazy, bumbling loops while the guy on the other end of the speaker ruminated over whether or not he wanted to super-size his impending coronary.

From inside the cramped, hot, smelly little booth it was hard to believe that just a few short months ago I’d been busy saving the world and trying not to get killed in the process. Abstract cosmic forces, insane mutant wizards, evil relatives with god-complexes...

My life.

“Thomas!”

I’m tossed violently out of my day-dreaming and just about jump out of my skin, whirling on my attacker and preparing to unleash the unbridled forces of the cosmos - or a blistering string of expletives. Instead of a slavering monster, though, it’s the hulking, disgruntled form of my boss, Del. Who had a tendency to be worse than most monsters I’d had the displeasure of knowing. Monsters at least I could blast at with mystical and explosive arts.

Del was what one could politely refer to as large in every regard, a man of disturbing gravity. Pasty and fleshy, with sweat-slick rolls barely contained in his purple polyester manager’s uniform he reminded me of a particularly disturbing golem I’d once exorcised out of an adult video store. But for all that he was still huge and imposing, with enough aged muscle beneath all those layers of fat to make a person believe that once upon a time he must have been an impressive specimen - before middle age and an addiction to greasy, questionable meat by-products caught up to him.

“Remind me again how much I pay you to stand there and look stupid?” Del’s face had a weird way of screwing up when he was displeased. His caterpillar brows crash together atop his shelf of a brow as if locked in battle and his profound jowls tremble like sacks of jelly. It wouldn’t take much of a stretch to envision smoke billowing from his nose.

“You - man I hope I get this right - don’t?” I hazarded a shrug.

With a grunt he stepped in close enough to completely shatter any illusion of personal boundaries and pushed a meaty finger into my chest. At that range he was close enough for me to smell the weaponized funk of his cheap cologne.

“No. I don’t.” Somewhere in Del’s family tree there had to have been an ogre or something in the brutish and bestial spectrum of Others. When he spoke again his voice dropped an octave and a low growl rolled behind his vowels. “Now how about you explain to me why I had to give that redneck free burgers because you were too busy back here drooling on the windows.”

Deep, controlled breaths. I needed my job, dreadful though it may be. It paid the bills and afforded me continued sustenance and other fine things like electricity and the internet. Slaving away at the Mad Cow was the first legitimate, vanilla job I’d ever had in my life - not counting an aborted stint as a paperboy that ended in a broken clavicle and a minor haunting when I was a kid. I don’t precisely have what is considered a relatable skillset for the mainstream job market. Granted, I always found it a bit odd that more companies weren’t actively looking for employees that could harness and manipulate the arcane forces of creation.

“Sorry Del.” I began shuffling slowly. Swaying.  “I think I was having some kind of seizure.” I couldn’t look him in the eye for fear that my face would crack into an anxious, manic grin. “Maybe I should go take my break.”

Face down primordial entities of destruction and chaos? Whatever.

Confrontation with my employer because I’m a spaz? Shoot me now, Cletus.

There was a curious moment when the noise in the rest of the store seemed to fade away and everything became very still while the pressure cranked up until I could feel an colossal pair of invisible fingers pinching my head. I heard with hideous clarity the sound of Del grinding his teeth together and the tiny explosions his knuckles made as he clenched his hands into meat hammers. I could see what he was thinking and it was atrocious. With his eyes narrowing dangerously he advanced one final step and I nearly squealed with helpless anxiety as his entire mass stopped a hairsbreadth from touching me.

My eyes clenched shut as I braced for the imminent mauling.

“Get out of here,” he rasps as if parched, or possibly strangled by the rising urge to see how much of his fist he could put through my skull.

I blinked my eyes open cautiously. “Really?”

Del’s brow furrowed and it confirmed my speculations about his heritage. I’d seen a similar look once right before a pair of ogres rained havoc and destruction on everything around them. With that as my cue I skirted around Del’s bulk and out of the little cubicle, shedding my headset and apron as I made good on my escape.

Del chewed on a few select curses and threats as I retreated.

I ran the gauntlet that was the back kitchen of the Mad Cow, a devious and threatening maze of calamity filled with pits of boiling oil, archaic, faulty grilling equipment and other assorted mechanical nightmares. And studded throughout the ordeal were my coworkers - mostly teenagers and twenty-something underachievers - wandering back and forth with the glossed over, thousand yard stare of the truly soul-dead that one only gains after prolonged exposure to the food service industry.  They moved through the perpetual miasma of greasy smoke barking in arcane, vaguely food related dialects. “Big yellow, extra ugly,” came a shout from one end of the grill. “Extra ugly,” booms a response from the other end. Between all that mess and the din coming from up front where customers waffled about over how they wanted their questionable meat by-products trussed up and the incessant squealing and shouting beyond that while they ate - it all congealed into a level of chaos the likes of which I’d rarely experienced outside of a heated supernatural melee.

I managed to cut a path without incident, aided by the fact that not a single one of my coworkers so much as glanced in my direction or even so much acknowledged my existence. I was used to that. I’d never gone out of my way to make friends with any of my coworkers, and I’d heard the whispers and speculation they liked to pass back and forth when they thought I wasn’t paying attention, but as a burgeoning master of the mystical I paid attention to everything - plus I’d cultivated a level of awareness that bordered on the supernatural itself thanks to nearly a lifetime of near misses and close calls. Like a very specialized form of paranoia mixed with a dash of ADD. According to word around the place it was unanimous that I was a giant weirdo - which was true - and probably a pervert, a criminal and a number of other things that were funny and a bit offensive. It was to be expected. Besides being strange in an entirely normal, non-magical way the fact that I was a person of the magical persuasion guaranteed I wouldn’t be getting any invitations to any parties. Something about my magical aura naturally set people on edge, or as my wonderful roommate once told me, “You’re so weird I can smell it, brujo.” Sweet lady, my roommate. At any rate I made it into the converted janitor’s closet that served as both break room and repository for the employee’s belongings. It was an immense relief to find the little room empty. One less thing I would have to deal with.

There was a series of motivational posters starring the restaurant’s insane mascot, a drug-addled mutant, bovine Mad Hatter capering about in a purple suit with a grotesquely gyrating udder full of ‘Crazy Sauce,’ each poster depicting the vile abomination performing some usually benign activity - riding a bicycle, paragliding, paradoxically wrangling a herd of cows from atop horseback in the wild west - though perversely twisted by the character’s own presence and the deluded lens of corporate marketing. Each one had been vandalized in some fashion or another by a few of the more creative crew members, either with lewd slogans or ponderous and disturbing genitalia in unsettling locations. In the corner of the room, pushed up against the wall and buried under a growing pile of trash and half-eaten food was a dilapidated picnic table, and once upon a time some industrious individual had screwed coat hooks at random, schizophrenic intervals around the walls.

I hurried to the back where my own coat was hung, a much battered and abused old army jacket, the kind with all the super helpful little pockets that I was constantly filling with random bits of nonsense, its once coarse, brown fiber gone soft and worn and turned the color of sunbaked mud.. A bit of research of the perfectly normal along with the paranormal had shown me that the coat once belonged to an unfortunate corporal serving in the trenches during the so-called Great War. I didn’t need magic to tell me how the poor schmuck died. There was a hole in the back, somewhere near where a person’s heart would be, about as big around as my thumb and the material around it a darker shade than the rest by a stain that had survived all the intervening decades. I shimmied into it, comforted by its age and subtle weight. Beneath my coat on the hook proper hung my satchel, a much mended and patched grey leather affair I’d had since I was a kid. It bulged, and hung with a ponderous weight by its thick canvas strap, filled with all my necessities - the tools of my true trade, not to mention books and writing pads, and a round dozen other sundry items. Casting a paranoid glance over my shoulder to ensure I remained alone and unwatched, I held my breath for a few stuttering heartbeats and waited. When no one approached I turned back to my bag, gathering my will and reaching for it while sliding my vision across the spectrum to peer at the Other Side.

There was the gentle stabbing of a fine, invisible blade into my brain, right behind my eyes, as the skin was peeled off the face of the world and the truth beneath was revealed.

The baby-smooth old grey leather of my satchel crawled with arcane traceries, spidery scrawlings of sigils and formulae that flickered with a pale iridescence. I’d long ago begun layering protective magics into the fabric of my bag, adding and strengthening the enchantments all the time. I did carry around some potentially dangerous items - I had a bad habit of acquiring artifacts of questionable origin and dubious purpose. Things I felt better having on my person in case of sudden apocalypses or incursions from beyond the sundered edges of reality. 

God forbid I ever get assaulted by feral, undead swine.

Again.

Around the bag and on the walls, sprawling out across the rest of the building crept a virulent, quiet rot, a greasy taint I had to cleanse myself of daily after work. The Mad Cow was a place of fundamental wrongness, a den of corruption. It was also a company that paid an exorbitant amount of money to its employees, no doubt to balm their imminent soul-death.

Being able to see the Other Side, to see the meat behind the masks and the power that ran through all and everything was a wonderful and often times terrible thing.

Clearing my mind with a snort I brushed my hand over my bag and at the same time grazed it with a fragment of my will, a whisper of my power. The glowing marks faded and I snapped my vision back to normal as I hefted the satchel by its strap and slung it over my shoulder, leaning a bit as its not inconsiderable bulk settled. Aside from being enchanted to sustain an unfeasible level of damage, my bag had been enchanted to deliver an immediate and violent demise to anyone who touched it while the wards were active. I wasn’t the biggest bad on the block, but I could do some pretty awesome stuff when I set my mind to it and really worked on it.  

That accomplished I wasted no time bulldozing my way out of the building, coming close to planting my elbow into the face of a snarl-toothed crone screeching about cold eggs. I hit the doors almost at a run and let loose a strangled gasp when the too-bright sun crashed into my eyes, sending me into a series of spastic, scrambling gestures and choking curses as I dig through my bag, howling in victory when I uncover my sunglasses, cramming the big, blocky things over my no doubt seared eyeballs. Add to that the bitter and sudden cold - a bone-jarring change after the mouth-humid funk of the Mad Cow - and it took me a bit to gather myself, shambling my way to stand under the awnings and stare blearily out at the parking lot while my eyes adjusted.

It was a veritable ghost town. Even the twenty-four hour liquor store that shared space in the lot was dead. A tattered plastic shopping bag floated in drunken jerks and bobs on a sluggish breeze. The sky itself was an entirely unreasonable shade of sapphire, cloudless, with the sun a baleful white ember rising ever higher. Winter was clinging desperately to Hanford, to the valley, refusing to relent to Spring. Which was all to the norm. The valley had never had proper seasons, only warring extremes of Winter and Summer with fitful bursts of moderate weather. All in all it was not conducive to embarking on the long walk home.

It was easier to find my cell phone than my sunglasses. After idly thumbing a rote series of buttons I hold the little thing up to my ear and wait.

There is no dial tone. It’s a loop of some power metal guitar solo. I sigh.

The solo repeats itself. Again. Halfway through the fourth repeat it cuts off and is interrupted.
“This is Swift,” comes the voice on the other end, familiar, deep and melodious. The kind of voice you could imagine narrating books. “You know what to do.”

A recording. Voice mail. It’s followed by a sharp beep. I hang up.

Swift always answered. Weird.

For a scant moment of feverish delusion I considered calling Rosa. My roommate. But that would require calling her, interrupting her at work, and of course inevitably getting my head chewed off for committing such a grievous offence. She was scary. A decent human being, but scary. I’d gotten her house destroyed a few months back - ogres are horrible like that - and felt I owed her. So I invited her and her son to stay my place, it had more than enough room. Which became another of those blessed and cursed kind of situations. Blessed that she was a fanatical clean freak and capable of culinary feats that bordered on the magical, and she even helped out with the bills. Cursed because she was a vicious, often times violent, despot who brooked no dissent and reigned with an iron fist. Things like magic and the Others, those manifold, alien entities from the Other Side, it didn’t faze Rosa. I sported a black eye for a week after a moment of dreadful judgment led me to conduct groundbreaking - also quite loud - research during one of her beloved soap operas.

Learned my lesson.

Lacking other options I huddled into my coat and set off down the sidewalk, moving somewhat East. My house was out at the furthest edge of the city limits. At least I would have plenty of time to stew with my thoughts and figure out what I was going to do with my impromptu holiday.

I made it to the first intersection and stood waiting for the crosswalk to light up when the banshee wail of sirens split the morning apart and a parade of fire engines and police cars went tearing down the road in a blur. I blinked and followed the commotion, squinting as I looked down the road. A thick column of black smoke drifted up to mar the perfect blue of the sky, hanging over the horizon in the distance. It looked to be somewhere Downtown. I was straining to track the fading warble of the sirens when my satchel began to vibrate. I continued staring at the smoke as it grew into an ugly smudge and reached up to strangle the sun, casting a gloom about the world. My skin crawled and my grey matter quivered. A sick twitch ran through the skein of the cosmos. For a lurching heartbeat it looked as if the smoke was a maw devouring the sun.

My bag vibrated violently and rocked me out of my stupor. Wrenching my gaze away from the sky and screwing my eyes shut I answered my phone. 

“What?” I might have yelled.

“Stay where you are, I’m coming to get you.”

It was Swift. And the jerk hung up before I could say anything else. Muttering a half-hearted string of expletives I marched back to wait in the parking lot of the Mad Cow for Swift to arrive. I tried to ignore the way the smoke in the sky hung inside my peripheral vision and the way everything seemed to have dimmed. I could say for certain I did not appreciate in the least Swift’s behavior. He had actually sounded concerned. Upset, even. And that did not bode well. Besides being the closest thing I had to a best friend, my dear old pal was a bona fide celestial entity, an Angel of Death. Maybe. Whatever he was, he was a heavy-hitter who commanded equal parts respect and fear from the local community of Others. He’d pulled my tail out of the fire on more than one misadventure, and gone head to head with things that made me want to run away screaming and gibber in a corner.

Coincidence was something I couldn’t afford to believe in, it was a soft ideal propagated by the infirm and the weak-willed. My kind had many names throughout the millennia: mage, witch, sorcerer and more. Names that evoked power and mystery. People born with the ability, for whatever reason, to see the true nature of reality and harness its forces with their will. We knew, for we saw it every day that the world was full of terrors. Nightmares and monsters lurked around every corner, skulked in every shadow. Ageless, inhuman creatures controlled mind-boggling power behind the scenes and vast, alien gods slumbered fitfully beneath the scabrous surface of Creation. There were wonders and miracles, too - but those tended to pale after scarcely surviving your third of fourth end of the world. So when Swift sounded the least bit agitated my razor-honed paranoia buzzed behind my molars. Things were without a doubt gearing up to get ugly. I squinted a baleful eye over at the smoke and shivered.

No. No coincidences.

Waiting there in the lot I had an uncomfortable amount of time to sit and gather my thoughts, to ruminate over possible futures and what new, foul hell waited. Exactly the kind of thing I desperately tried to avoid, my brain already well stocked with its own brand of nightmare-fuel. But it made an awful lot of sense, everything deciding to come crashing down after what almost felt like a relatively peaceful handful of months. While the debacle with the Sleeper and the Libro Nihil - the thought of it in my bag made my hand twitch in its direction - had been a catastrophe, and could have been worse but all the pieces settled and life resumed as it almost always did, albeit at a stranger and more convoluted pace. Not that there wasn’t the occasional existential emergency, there was always some kind of reprehensible nonsense happening. But I wasn’t the one that had to deal with it, the way I saw it I deserved something of a reprieve after everything I went through. I lost track of the number of times I nearly died in a single day, all while trying to procure one stupid - hideously powerful - book and stop my - evil and murderous - great-grandfather.

Apparently it was past time for reality to come kick me out of my comfortable little hole.

There were a few choice words I had to say about reality, but that would’ve been an exercise in futility.

Reality did not care.

I was jerked out of my reverie by the mechanical roar of an over-sized engine and the sound of tires skidding across the asphalt and looked up in time to see the gleaming black hulk of an old Cadillac as it tore through the parking lot at an absurd speed and came straight at me. There was no time for magic or any kind of defense. I threw my hands up over my head and howled.

Which meant I was a bit surprised when the impact never came.

There was only the low rumble of an engine as it idled nearby and the wind. And me standing there screaming like a spastic chimp.

I stopped. After lowering my arms and straightening my coat I did a brief mental check to ensure my briefs were unsoiled before glowered at the car that had stopped with its gleaming chrome bumper not a foot from me. Behind the wheel of course was Swift himself, blue-black hair slicked back, stylish mirrored shades resting atop his aquiline nose and hiding his eyes though I could feel the weight of his gaze. He’d let his beard grow out some, the coarse, dark hair a stark contrast against the pale marble finish of his skin, but Swift had always been a creature of enigmatic contrasts.

He rolled down the window and leaned his head out. “Come with me if you want to live.”

I gaped. “He did not just say that,” I muttered. There was a fleeting moment where I almost turned around and walked off, but instead marched to the car and hauled the passenger door open. Leaning in I jerked my clunky sunglasses off and glared. “You did not just say that.”

 He turned to face me and his face was a mask, unreadable and impassive.  “Get in the car, Thomas.”

Something in his voice shifted. There was a hitch in it and that made me nervous. A vision of smoke and the sun disappearing played behind my eyes and I ducked into the car, clutching my bag to my chest like a shield. Swift didn’t even wait for me to buckle up before gunning the car out of the lot and onto the road with a screeching of tires. He was aiming directly for Downtown, which played to my fears and did nothing to make me look forward to where we were going. I watched him drive in silence. His hands clenched the wheel so tight I was amazed it didn’t snap, and he kept his hidden gaze locked ahead on the road - on that dark smudge that marred the sky and rose to strike the sun. There was a twitch in his jaw, the muscles there all taut as he ground his teeth. I’d known Swift for a good long while, had many a questionable adventure with him, and he’d saved my life more times than I could count even if I cared to. Whether or not his origins were in truth divine was still up to speculation but he was without a doubt, in many ways, my guardian angel. He also had the dubious honor of being the closest thing in the world I had to a best friend, and I couldn’t remember the last time I saw him in such a state. Always the picture of calm and collected, always in control. I’d seen Swift stride like a colossus into the most insane situations and come out without so much as a hair out of place. So the longer I looked, the longer I thought about it, the more my own fear grew, rising up and gnawing at the edges of my heart.

Swift was worried about something.

“What gives, man?” My voice was too loud, too sharp.

He let out a slow breath and turned to look at me. The corners of his mouth dipped in the barest semblance of a frown before turning ahead again. “Look.”

I had the irrational urge to yell but I choked it back and did as he said, turning to look out the window. We had made it to Downtown, the heart of the city proper, with all its turn-of-the-century architecture and manicured yards, its labyrinthine streets and neighborhoods where everything reeked of history and the air buzzed with a curious, otherworldly undercurrent. Being Downtown made it easy to believe that Hanford was the apex of a confluence of energies - hence its proliferation of Other inhabitants - if you knew what you were looking for, of course. Otherwise the place tended to be simply strange.
Swift pulled off to the side of the road and parked. Not far ahead I could see a knot of emergency vehicles and personnel in front of an inferno. The building sat at the corner of an intersection, dominating the space with its immensity, the lot it was on stretching out in a broad swathe of barren dirt that had once been a palatial expanse of green grass and flowering bushes, where a crooked, dying cedar stood in the center of the yard in what looked like grudging defiance to the flames. I knew where we were. I knew the house that burned and the knowledge of it crashed into me like someone had swung a baseball bat into my guts.

The Red Manor, home of Devlin Desmond, my late benefactor and Warden of Hanford.

“What?” I wanted to throw up. “What happened?”

It looked like the fire was too big, raged too hot and too wild, to combat directly so the emergency services were instead preoccupied with cordoning off an area around the whole thing and hollering at the growing crowd of on-lookers, folks from the area coming out to see the conflagration that had once been one of Downtown’s most prestigious homes. There were more than a few people with their phones and cameras out, documenting the event for posterity I’m sure. The sight of that, of blithe-faced, slack-jawed strangers standing by to witness the destruction, it made me angry, but not near as angry as the fact that someone had put the home of one of my friends to the torch.

I threw open the car door and hit the ground at a half-jog heading straight towards the fire and the crowd. I could hear Swift behind me, heavy boots thumping the concrete as he moved to catch up. I had to see. Anything, something. Who would do it? Why? It didn’t make sense.

Through the whirling haze of thoughts it took me a moment to notice a nagging, uncomfortable sensation. It grew with every step closer to the fire until I could hear it as a kind of dissonance behind the crackle and roar of the fire. I came to a staggering stop a few feet back from the edge of the crowd and swung my head around, scanning, searching. The little sensation had become insistent, the march of a thousand-legged beetle as it stampeded through my skull, the power of something massive and alien beating a staccato across the fabric of reality. My vision blurred as I pored over the spectrums to look across the Other Side.

And the fire became a thing of blackened glass, a writhing construct of shimmering, jagged edges that swayed and crashed in a nerve-grating cacophony, lit from within by veins of flame. The power behind it tasted alkaline and toxic, cancerous, and above it hung the shadow of huge wings that boomed a thunderous cadence to the crystalline inferno’s din and then were gone.

I snapped back to reality and into a coughing fit, bile rising.

There were tears in my eyes and everything smelled acrid and hot. I shivered from an unreasonable, bone-deep chill as the echoes of the presence - whatever it had been - thrummed through my bones. I settled after a moment and saw that Swift stood a close, almost protective, distance away, all black and white and imposing between me and the crowd and the unnatural fire and whatever malignance had spawned it. Composure came with time and breathing, and I turned away from the fire to look out at the crowd, wiping at my eyes with the sleeve of my coat. While every other head was turned, eyes glazed over and fixed to the burning house and talking in rushed, excited tones of fear and shock and eager, quiet pleasure, there was one person who stood silent and did not look at the flames - because she was looking at me.

She stood on the far end of the crowd from me, near the back as I was. She looked to be on the lighter side of thirty, smooth face with high cheekbones and large, canted eyes that seemed almost glowing in the light of the nearby fire. She wore no make-up but was the kind of woman that never needed to anyways. Her hair was dark, chopped short and left mussed, and she wore a practical pair of jeans and sneakers, with a hooded sweater bearing the insignia of some college or other. There was a satchel slung from one shoulder and she held an impressive and no doubt expensive camera that she lifted, aimed, and fired at me in a furious succession of clicks.

I stared.

When my brain finally registered what it was she was doing and I moved to do something about it, she had disappeared into the crowd again. I shook my head and frowned, turning back to Swift.

“Thomas,” he began.

“It’s about to get bad, isn’t it?”

He nodded.


I felt the heat of the fire like a living thing crawling across my skin and turned. Rising from the destruction, roiling out of the blaze itself poured thick black smoke. It rose until it swallowed the sun and the whole world was in its shadow.