Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Dreamer

The Dreamer
In her humid dark bedroom, sweaty sheets trapping her, Amia dreamed.
After what had happened at the fairgrounds a few days ago, it wasn’t surprising she’d had nightmares. When she’d finally got home, nearly two days later, she’d toked up an extra large bowl, turned on a stupid 60’s horror flick, and zoned out. She’d fallen asleep that way, utterly relaxed from the pot, sated from the munchies, safe in her room, with some blonde bimbo screaming her head off on the screen.
It hadn’t stayed that way. As she slept, the sounds from the TV infiltrated her mind. She wasn’t alarmed. She usually slept with the TV on, and she’d had some pretty funny dreams as a result – the one she loved to tell people about was the time Back to the Future had come on as she slept, and she’d had a dream about screwing Michael J Fox. Not this time. This time, she dreamt of the fairgrounds. She dreamt of David and his book – the book she’d barely glimpsed.
David read from the book as he sat on his bench under the ferris wheel, his face slowly liquefying, sliding across his face instead of down. His voice began to slur as his mouth warped. His entire body began to warp the way it had before, a hole opening in his stomach, slowly widening as his body melted into a kind of O shape. His head was melting into his neck and skewing sideways, but he kept reading. As she stood, frozen in the immobility of nightmare, his eyes met hers. She couldn’t make out his words anymore, but he kept speaking, his words a murmur she could almost understand. She didn’t want to understand, though. She tried to cover her ears, but couldn’t move. She managed to close her dream-self’s eyes.
She could hear David reading still, the droning murmur going on and on, almost lulling in its rhythm. With the typical illogic of a dream she found her eyes open again, but she was still in pitch blackness. Ahead of her, a tiny light shone, and slowly grew larger. There were patterns in the light that she couldn’t make out. Around her, the light illuminated –
Amia tried to wake screaming in the darkness of her bedroom but could not. Her hands clawed at the sheets as they entangled her. Her legs jerked as if she was trying to run.
In the dream Amia screamed and screamed as she saw what lived in the darkness Outside.  The light still grew, exposing more and more, and she reached out to shut it. Her hands touched the edges of the light and tried to jerk it closed. The edges felt like skin. Trying to see what she was doing, she looked straight into the light, and could finally see. Staring into the light, she saw that it was a hole, and through the hole, she saw the fairgrounds the way it had looked one week ago, with herself and Rob looking horrified beyond words at what David had become and the gate They had tried to open in his stomach. The gate which Amia had stared at……and the gate which They had looked back at her.
She knew, now, that they had her. They had pulled her through, somehow, even though the gate was closed and David was dead. She strained to close the gate, though her stomach heaved at the way David’s flesh ran like wax under her hands, but she couldn’t. Something picked her up, around the waist, like a lasso made of iron encased in rubber. It pulled her away from the gate and threw her down where the light still shone. The touch vanished. David’s voice still muttered softly. She tried to stand, and, trying to see where she was, looked around.
Amia was beyond screaming, now. She simply knelt and stared as her heart squeezed in her chest and her pulse pounded in her neck. Her breath came in hoarse, panicked gasps. She couldn’t seem to get  enough air. She wanted to pass out, and had this been reality, she would have. But here in the dream-world they would not let her.
She knelt on a plain of skin and bone. The plain extended beyond the light, easily larger then football stadiums she’d been to, maybe bigger than some mountains she’d been to. Nearby bone reared up and created a kind of hill still covered by skin. Stretched taut , she could clearly see the outline of bones under the hill, looking very like a ribcage. In other places bone ruptured skin and contorted into warped, vertical spikes. By her knees, a blood vessel pulsed. It was large enough to drive a car through. Fluid pushed through the vein making it pulse under her. Further in the distance, huge pillars of flesh towered into the sky. They swayed slowly from side to side.
She began to hear a bizarre droning whistle, as if from a bone flute, overlaid on David’s omnipresent mumbling.  The combination was oddly hypnotic. Once again, something grabbed her; this time she was hoisted straight up in the air as if fired from a cannon. The living landscape of flesh and horror receded. Somehow she could still see, even beyond the now-tiny circle of light. As she soared into the sky, the living world spread out, and out, and out, revealing more living geography; rivers of blood, lakes of blood, churning constantly as unseen city-sized hearts pumped, a simple, bottomless hole that some part of her realized was a nostril; mouths of every size and shape, from tiny, puckered lips to mile-long lipless maws pierced by teeth the size of football fields; appendages and projections of every size and description, human arms and hands a thousand feet high, tiny tentacles, cruel claws, atrophied wings, all of them spasming uselessly; and worst of all, the eyes, the hundred thousand eyes that all looked at her. And still she rose straight up, revealing more and more of the endless horror until she lost all sense of scale or proportion. It became a wall of flesh extending infinitely away. Still, she rose; still the planet/creature/thing did not end as the droning of David’s voice and the hideous piping became louder. When her heart finally burst like a ripe melon and the blood vessels in her brain ruptured, it was a mercy.
Amia slowly came back to the waking world. She had the worst headache she’d ever had, her chest hurt, her lungs burned, and her face was sticky from blood. Her brain didn’t want to work. She could hear a muffled thudding, as if from a great distance. For a moment she thought it must be her heart, then realized it was someone banging on her door. A thought slowly formed in her brain. I should answer that. It might be important. She sat up, slower than she’d meant to; she was terribly dizzy. And thirsty. She stood up cautiously, took a step, and went down as if someone had kicked her legs out from under her. The carpet in her apartment tasted vaguely like hair, stale cigarette smoke, and old cat pee.
The pounding at her door increased in tempo. “Just a minute!” She shouted, or tried to. It came out in a croak. She tried shouting it again, with more success. The pounding on her door stopped. Someone shouted something through it but she couldn’t understand them. Slowly, her head swimming and threatening to fall off, she crawled to the door and opened it without checking to see who was there. Stupid, she thought. Could be the landlord or something.
The door swung open. Rob, her good-looking, sweet, but dumb boyfriend stood there. Next to him stood the short, brown man. Who she was supposed to meet in slightly less than a week, and had vanished until then. Rob’s rant stopped before it started as he stared at her huddled in a heap on the carpet. The expression of surprise on his face was almost comical. She giggled. Then she passed out.
She remembered the next few hours in scattered pieces, isolated images and noises with no meaning. In the past she would have been terrified, completely out of it and at the mercy of strange men, but she could muster up nothing more than mild concern. After the fairgrounds and the dreams, more mundane fears were laughable.
Memory: a metal ceiling, with bright lights. The room was moving. Several faces wavered in an out of focus above her. She recognized Rob, a look of worry on his face.
Memory: a tiled ceiling, with bright lights. There were a lot more people around her now. She felt odd sensations, a stinging pain from her inner elbow, someone poking her stomach, something stuck on her chest, like tape. Voices she didn’t know saying odd words like “ICU stat” and “IV fluids” and “BP 120/60”.
Memory: another tiled ceiling. This time the lights were dim. Her head hurt a little less. No one was around. She could see the dim glow of computer screens, hear a soft, rhythmic beeping, feel things stuck to her, all over her chest and head. She could tell she was in a bed with nice, clean sheets. A thought: Damn, still in bed. Guess I missed work.
Memory: the same tiled ceiling. The lights were brighter this time. Her head felt much better, almost clear. Otherwise the room was unchanged. Someone was snoring nearby. She was recovered enough to turn her head slightly and see who it was. Rob was awkwardly sprawled  in a chair, snoring vigorously. She managed the hint of a smile. He really is sweet.
The next time she awoke, she felt almost normal, though weak. Someone was saying her name and touching her shoulder.  She opened her eyes agreeably. She recognized the room, but not the person. Seeing the white lab coat, scrubs, stethoscope, and air of self-assurance, she amended that to Doctor. Hospital. Rob took me to the hospital. What’s wrong with me? She focused on the doctor with difficulty. “…you hear me, Amia?”
She said, her voice weak but clear, “Yeah. What’s wrong with me?”
The doctor smiled. “Now, nothing. We’ve got you all fixed up, but it wasn’t good for a while. “
“Why am I still weak? And what happened to me?”
The doctor’s smile went away. She missed it. It was reassuring. “We know what happened, but not why. Why could take a while to figure out.”
“What happened to me?” The words would have been a shout but she wasn’t strong enough yet. They came out in a kind of demanding rasp.
The doctor paused for a long time. “Amia… were asleep for six days. You were out for another two after you got here while you got better. You were severely dehydrated; most people die after four days without water. If your boyfriend hadn’t found you, you would have died.”
Amia passed out again. It seemed the only thing to do that didn’t involve crying, screaming, or throwing things. The nest time she awoke, Rob was there, holding her hand, the small brown man standing behind him. She stared at them for a while, full of questions, accusations, protests, insults, and general abuse. She had so many confused thoughts in her head she simply didn’t know where to start. Finally she settled on a time-honored American saying.
“What the fuck.” She was looking at the small man when she said it.
He stepped forward.  His accent was odd. “I shall assume that is a succinct way of asking what has been happening to you.” He paused, indicating that he wasn’t entirely sure that’s what she meant. Amia nodded. The man pulled up a chair, sat down, and leaned close. Rob looked baffled, the way he usually did. But he looked good doing it.
“My name is Christos Telemakhos. You may call me Chris.” He smiled briefly. “My given name is a bit long for America, it seems. Miss Moretti, you have fallen into an unfortunate situation by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Do you recall the fairgrounds incident, last week?”
Amia glared at him. “How could I forget something like that?”
Chris said, “The question was not entirely rhetorical. People sometimes forget what they do not wish to remember. Sometimes they are helped to forget. Do you recall the book your friend David had?”
She nodded.
“That book was more than just a book. It was a trap. You saw the results when it corrupted David.”
“The book was going on about…gates. And hosts. “
“Yes. The book’s creator needed a host to accomplish its goal. In this case, it wanted a gate from its world to ours. It attempted to accomplish this by infiltrating David’s mind through the medium of the book. After it had him, it began using the materials readily available to fashion the gate – David himself, and some unfortunate bystanders. The chaos you saw it create was only the beginning. If it had completed the gate, the result would have been catastrophic.”
Rob interrupted. “What do you mean by catastrophic?”
Chris glanced at him. “A fate worse than death inflicted upon every human now alive.”
Rob sat back. “…..oh.”
“How do you know all this?” demanded Amia.
Chris shrugged. “It’s my job. I am part of a group that tries to stop these things from happening. By any means necessary.”
“And your big friend with the guns…”
“He was the other half of my team, yes. You might say I specialize in more intellectual solutions, while he specializes in more direct, physical solutions. Many of our people work in similar teams. We never know exactly what we will find when we respond to an emergency. With a mixture of different skills and outlooks on a single team, we can be prepared for anything. Well, almost anything.” He looked thoughtful.
“So,” said Amia, thinking hard, “your group or whatever….you watch for stuff to happen. Like what happened at the fairgrounds. And you go and stop it….’by any means necessary’.” She mimicked his accent. “Does that make you feel more badass, to say it like that?”
Chris looked at her calmly. “You don’t understand.”
“Then fucking make me understand!”
“By any means necessary is a cliché, but it is precisely accurate to our mission. We stop these intrusions into our reality any way we can, doing whatever we must, and we do not let considerations of morality get in our way, for we have no choice.”
Amia opened her mouth to interrupt again, but Chris cut her off. “The incident at the fairgrounds was in the early stages. If it had progressed for a few more hours, we would have had to kill everyone left alive in the town. Not that there would have been very many by that point. If it had grown for a week without anyone stopping it we would have had to use a nuclear weapon on it. Anything past that would be too late to stop. We would have to flee, to save those few we could, and hide for a few thousand years until the apocalypse had run its course.” Chris stared into Amia’s eyes, then Rob’s. “You don’t believe it because you cannot believe it, because it goes against your entire life’s experiences. You think, ‘things like this don’t happen.’ You believe that because when something does happen, there are two outcomes: either we defeat it and cover it up, or there is no one left to remember.” Chris was leaning forward, his eyes burning.
Rob looked scared. “It’s a lot to take in.”
Amia nodded. “Damn straight it is. What does this have to do with me sleeping for six days?”
Chris became, if possible, even more intense. “There were three people in close proximity to the book and two who read from it. David read the most. He was also the most intelligent. The combination of the two gave them an ideal host. Amia is the next most suitable. You’re also quite intelligent, Amia, but you did not read very much. Also the book is no longer present. Rob is the least suitable, as he did not read from the book and has below-average intelligence.”
Rob glared at Chris. “I know I’m not a genius like David, but don’t call me stupid.”
“Shut up,” Amia said. “Chris, go on.”
“I know about your dreams, Amia.” Chris leaned back again, looking calmer.
“How? Wait, let me guess. You read my mind or something.”
Chris smiled very, very slightly. “No ‘or something’.  You dreamt of the creature trying to attack your mind. We are vulnerable in dreams.”
Amia stared at him. “It was real?”
“In a way. Your body never left your apartment, obviously. “ Chris looked troubled. “This is very difficult to explain. When humans and cats dream, our minds travel to another reality. This is the same reality that our enemies inhabit.  The dreamlands are a radically different realm from the waking world. Time does not flow the same way there, and physical form is malleable, able to form and reform. “ He paused. “I am not certain what it was trying to do to you. If it was trying to fashion you into a gate, it failed. Apparently you fought it off.”
“So she’s safe?” Rob looked relieved.
“No. Every time she dreams, they will try again. She has a great deal of defiance, and would be able to hold out for a long time. Eventually, however, the constant assaults will take their toll. She will either give in and suffer David’s fate, kill herself, or go mad in a way that denies them access to her.”
Amia wanted to pass out again, but couldn’t. “So that’s it? I’m going to either go crazy or die?” 
“I can help you, if you want me to.”
“What do you mean ‘if’? Why would I not want you to?”
“Because it’s not a case of simply flipping a switch and making this all go away. The problems are too complex and our enemies too powerful for that. You will still have nightmares. You will still be attacked, probably every night for the rest of your life. But you will have a chance.”
There was a long pause. When someone finally spoke, it was Rob who broke the silence. “I’m having a hard time taking all this in.” He shook his head.
Amia slapped him. “You’re having a hard time? Asshole.” She buried her face in her hands.
Chris simply watched. After a moment, Amia looked up, wiped her eyes, and said, “So you’re saying I have to choose between going insane, killing myself, getting….taken… David did, or having nightmares like the one that just nearly killed me every night of my life?”
Chris nodded. Amia laughed bitterly. “Well, fuck it! Bring on the nightmares! Not like I have much choice.”
Chris put his hand on her shoulder. “It’s not all bad. My group has a fund set aside for people in this situation. It’s not very much, but it’s enough that you won’t have to work. And you could get a better apartment.”
Amia smiled weakly. Chris continued, “If you wanted to, you could work with us. We have other people who are also in this situation. You could talk with them. You could make a difference. Maybe even help the next person this happens to.”
Amia glared at him. “I already agreed. You can stop trying to convince me now.”
To her secret delight, Chris appeared surprised. “Oh. Ah. Well. Good.” He rummaged in a pocket. “In that case…” He pulled out a small crystal and murmured a word. The crystal began to glow softly. “Touching this crystal will set a series of spells within your mind. The next time you sleep, you will see the mountain, and meet those who are sympathetic to humanity.  Use the opportunity to ask for their help.” He offered the crystal to Amia.
She touched it. The glow faded and she felt a slight tingling. “I thought these things were all evil?” She looked at the hand she had touched the crystal with. It didn’t seem any different…
“Not all,” answered Chris. “There are actually an infinite number of these entities, creatures, whatever you want to call them. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority do not care about us at all. Only some are hostile. And a few are on our side, more or less. “ He paused, shifted in his seat, looked uncomfortable. “What you must understand is, even those we work with are not necessarily ‘good’, as opposed to ‘evil’.  All of them, with very few exceptions, are so alien we cannot understand them. We don’t know why any of them do what they do, again, with a few exceptions. So, when you next dream, be careful. All right?”
She nodded. “All right.” Her voice was shaky.
Chris stood up. “I’ll be back tomorrow.” He smiled sadly at her, and left.
Amia looked at Rob before he had a chance to say anything. “I want to be alone. Come back tomorrow.” Her tone of voice did not invite debate.
He tried anyway. “You need someone to look after you –“
She cut him off. “I’m in a fucking hospital. I have a building full of nurses and doctors looking after me. Besides, everything that’s wrong is in a damn dream. What are you going to do, punch it? Go get a damn shower or something and come back tomorrow.” She hadn’t meant to, but her voice rose to a shout. She bit her lip and folded her arms, feeling herself on the edge.
Rob looked angry, but he shut his mouth and left. That was all she wanted from him right now. Amia curled up into a fetal ball and cried herself to sleep.

Amia got a wave of salt water right in the face. Sputtering, she got her breath back just in time to get slapped by another wave. She closed her eyes, held her breath, and waded through the frigid chest-deep water, aiming away from the waves. She got hit in the back of the head a few more times before she reached the shallows. Wiping her face, she opened her eyes.
She was standing in shallow water just off a large beach. The sand was the sugar-white, the water a deep purple. Small spheres of light moved randomly back and forth along the beach, smoothly cruising along at about jogging speed. Just past the high water mark, the beach grew into small dunes. The sand was as smooth as if it had been raked or manicured, without a single discoloration or blemish. Behind the shallow dunes rose a dark forest , trees of every type packed tightly together. Behind the forest rose the mountain. Its merest foothills loomed above the treetops like the Himalayas, rocky triangles thrust upwards in a sawtooth pattern, black rock standing out against white snow. Beyond the first ridge was another, even higher, then another, details lost in the haze of distance and altitude. Finally, at the uttermost limit of her sight, rose a spike of bare rock so sheer and so high it seemed to pierce the sky itself. Amia lost her balance trying to see the top of it; she was looking nearly straight up. When she regained her footing she saw the uttermost peak of that impossible mountain looming above her, unnaturally clear even though surely it was dozens of miles away. She realized, belatedly, why she could see the peak at all; the mountain was so high it broke free from the planet’s atmosphere and thrust into vacuum. That, and its crystal clarity was illuminated by a pure, piercing white light. Just barely visible on the fringes of the light were circles or arcs, with details she couldn’t make out, moving oddly around it.
 Amia stood there, knee-deep in purple water, goggling stupidly at the mountain for a long time. Eventually, she thought:  Now I know what he meant by ‘you will see the mountain’…. What the hell do I do now?
Something splashed in the water in front of her. Looking down from that insane mountain, Amia saw a creature standing in the water. I was about seven feet tall, wearing polished sliver armor, and holding a sword etching with odd runes which twisted as she looked at them. It was at least human-shaped (she breathed a mental sigh of relief), though it seemed to have wings. After looking at them more carefully, she realized they weren’t wings but arcs of polished bone, interlocking with one another, and floating behind the creature seemingly unsupported. Its armor had gaps; a pale white glow seeped out between the plates. She tried to look at its face, and got a shock; it didn’t have one, only the featureless glowing outline of a head with two jet-black eyes glaring at her. The eyes were narrowed to slits, like she’d seen cats do before a fight. It isn’t happy to see me.
After her last dream, this wasn’t worth being scared of. She glared right back at it. “Can I help you?” She asked, putting extra sarcasm in her voice.
It raised a hand, palm towards her, fingers together, as if to say “stop” or “wait”.
She put her hands on her hips. “Wait for what?”
It pointed to her right. There was a small sand dune rising above the water that hadn’t been there before. Hovering above it was a……something. Amia took a deep breath to calm herself. The silent, glowing figure wasn’t frightening, but this thing was. Three wheels nested within one another hovered above the dune, turning with machinelike precision. Each wheel turned on a different axis, reminding her of the gimbaled rides at the fairgrounds last week, the ones where they strapped you in the middle and let you get spun in three directions at once. Instead of a person in the middle, this thing had a complex-looking spherical network of smooth, polished bone. Somewhere in the middle, a pale white light shone. At first Amia thought it was a machine. Then she saw that the rim of every wheel was covered in eyes. As the circles turned, the eyes tracked her with inhuman precision.  Then it spoke. “Come here.” In an unmistakable tone of command. The voice seemed to come from the center of the thing, but nothing moved that she could see, nor was there a mouth anywhere. In spite of that, it was a deep, rich male voice.
Amia walked over to it, slowly, trying not to shake. She said to herself, over and over, It’s not that bad. It’s not that bad. It’s not that bad….
When she stood on the small mound of sand, entirely too close to the ring-creature for her taste, It said, “Stop.” It floated there, spinning, for a moment. “You are here to ask for help for yourself.”
“Um. Yes.” She said. I guess this is what Chris meant by help. Thanks for the warning, asshole.
“You have been touched by Azathoth. It seeks you. Without our help, it will find you, and it will take you. Your fate will not be pleasant.”
She looked at her feet. “I…I know,” She stammered.  “I don’t deserve it, I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“But you have.”
Shocked and hurt, she looked back up, trying to meet its eyes. “I haven’t! I’m just….another person. Trying to survive.”
“You are lying.”
Amia started to get frustrated. “How the hell would you know?”
“I can see your thoughts and read your memories. You can hide nothing from me. “
Amia blushed furiously. Trying to make some progress in this confusing interaction, she demanded, “Who are you to judge me? Why do you even care!”
“If I had no moral code, I would be no different from those who seek to consume you. I judge you by that code.”
Amia started to complain again. “I don’t –“
“BE SILENT.” For a moment, its voice was deafening. Her mouth shut abruptly, her teeth making an audible clack. “You do not understand. I know everything you have done. You have wasted your potential time and time again. You have destroyed your relationship with your parents. You had the potential within you to be a great poet. When you studied literature in college, you traveled that path. Then you threw it all away for drugs and sex. Now you dance and prostitute yourself for money because you are too arrogant to work at a menial job. You prefer to destroy whatever dignity and self-respect you have left. Worst of all, you lie to yourself about the path you’ve taken, refusing to believe that your life is on the path to self-destruction, and so robbing yourself of any chance of changing course. You are a fool and a whore, and the only unknown that remains is this: will Azathoth or madness  claim your soul first?”
The words evoked a flood of memories, all of them bad. Amia was aware of the wheel-thing watching her and her memories as they unfolded. She got just a hint of its mind…. Cold and sharp and relentless as a glacier. Tears poured down her cheeks. She desperately tried to think of an objection, an oversight, something that it was wrong about, but there were none. Every word it said was the precise truth, and they flayed her like razors. It merely floated, spun, and stared at her with its innumerable expressionless eyes.
Finally, she sobbed: “I can change.”
Its voice was unchanged, untouched by any hint of pity. “Unlikely. The majority of probable futures extending from this point lead to your suicide. You are not worth the effort.”
Amia stood openmouthed. She started to get angry.
“This discussion is over.” It began to move away, slowly, picking up speed.
Amia’s anger surged. She lunged forward and grabbed the thing’s outermost ring. The eyes twitched horribly under her hands. The wheel itself and incredibly smooth, almost polished. Then it began to heat up. Rapidly. Amia let out an ear-piercing shriek as the flesh on her palms burned and charred. She tried to let go but couldn’t; the muscles in her hands were ruined, either fried and dead or ripped loose from the bone. The ring continued to get hotter until even the bones in her hands began to char and splinter. Finally, her hands came loose. She dropped to her knees in the surf. She held her hand in front of her face and let out a low moan. Her hands were utterly ruined, her palms completely scoured of flesh, the bone blackened and splintered. Several fingers had simply fallen off because nothing was holding them on anymore. At least there wasn’t any blood; all the blood vessels in her hands had been cauterized. She moaned again as waves of pain washed over her. As she began to go into shock, she stared upwards as the wheels within wheels moved closer to her. It was still burning with heat, blue-white flames roiling upwards from the rings. It began to heat up again. Amia saw what was coming and closed her eyes as the flames reached for her. Someone hit her on the shoulder…
….and she was awake. A nurse was shaking her frantically. Another rushed in carrying something. Amia let out another scream at the memory of pain, then raised her hands to look at them.
They were completely normal. No burned flesh, no pain. Amia whimpered in confusion.She tried to bury her face in her hands and slapped herself in the face instead. She stared, baffled. One of the nurses grabbed her hands, tried to wrestle them down away from her face. Amia screamed again when she realized that her hands were numb and useless.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


“David, quit reading that book, man. You’ve had your nose stuck in it all afternoon.”
Rob has his arm around his girlfriend – at the moment, a skinny brunette dancer named Amia – but he was looking at his roommate David.
David, surprised, returned Rob’s look, and promptly came close to bumping into a little kid. He stopped just in time, did a double-take at the kid, smiled apologetically at the nearby mom, and dropped his book. Amia rolled her eyes. Rob snickered, but kindly, and plucked it off the ground for his roomie. “There you go. One ratty old paperback you got for a dollar at the used book store. Now can you save it for later?”
“Thanks, Rob.” Amazingly, David actually closed the book and put it in a back pocket.
Six months ago, he wouldn’t have done that – or been at the fairgrounds at all, for that matter. Rob wouldn’t have been caught dead with a nerd like David back then…but times had changed. What started with both Rob and David cursing their luck in dorm room assignments had resulted in the most unlikely imaginable friendship: a nerd and a jock.
At first things had been rough, but now they’d settled into a good system of give and take. Dave helped Rob with his math homework; Rob helped David get outside more. Rob introduced David to girls (whom he completely failed to get along with); David introduced Rob to the joys of Call of Duty on PC. Their mutual love of things that went boom – and pornography – helped them to bond.  It all helped Rob feel good about himself, kind of like helping your kid brother figure things out. Plus, it made him look really good in comparison.
Tonight was just another night, though David was being a little nerdier then usual. Rob had dragged him to the fairgrounds in yet another attempt to meet girls. He’d had it all planned out; Amia was going to bring some of her friends from work, some of Rob’s friends from the gym said they’d show up, and David managed to take a shower and dress decent for a change. It had all derailed when they’d wandered into a used book store while waiting for Amia and her friends. Well, ‘wandered’ wasn’t strictly accurate. David had moved in on that store like a hungry cat zeroing in on a wounded bird. There wasn’t even a cute nerdy girl at the register for  Rob to flirt with. David had bought a paperback so old it was falling apart. Rob couldn’t even read the title, the cover was nearly worn through. Amia’s friends from work showed up and then left immediately, Rob’s friends never showed, and David was ignoring everything so he could read. As David would say, “This evening’s fun levels are dangerously low.”
Rob wasn’t having any of that. They were at a crowded public fairground, with rides, beer, pretty girls, even cotton candy, and by god, they were going to have a good time. Picking something at random, he said, “Anybody want to ride the ferris wheel?”
“Sure….I guess,” said Amia, with a look that said, Not really.
“Ok,” said David, in a tone of voice that said, I don’t care.
“Great! Let’s get in line,” said Rob, ignoring the unspoken messages.
Amia surprised everyone by asking, “What’s your book about, David?” Rob glanced at her, surprised. She’d shown David nothing but contempt since meeting him a few hours ago. She met his eyes, gave a sad smile, and shrugged, as if to say, If I’m going to be stuck with him, I may as well be nice to him. Rob was surprised. Amia had shown no sign of higher brain function since he’d met her a few weeks ago.
David, as usual oblivious to the nuances, replied, “Well, I’m not sure, exactly. That’s part of why I keep reading it.”
“Weird,” she said. “Can I see it?” Rob braced himself for an expression of female disdain.
Unable to read the cover, she opened the book to a spot near the front. Several pages had been torn out, and other had been ripped apart, leaving only meaningless lines of letters. Even on the intact pages, printing errors made it difficult to read. Some paragraphs were tilted at an angle, others overwrote the end of the previous paragraph, and the font changed randomly. Amia remarked, “I hope you didn’t pay much for this.”
David replied, “I didn’t. I know it’s terrible printing, but read the text. I’ve never read anything like it.”
Amia chose a passage at random and read aloud. “These are the names of those that are known to me of Those Who Wait Outside.  Bel-Pha-Muht-Kha is the least of them, for he was once human, a god-king of ancient Egypt, who was first among humanity to explore the art of necromancy. He attempted to gain eternal life by the sacrifice of one hundred thousand slaves. His wish was granted by Yog-Sothoth, and he was cursed by an endless thirst for blood. Yog-Sothoth, the Other, the Keeper of the Gate, is the strangest of them. Whence he comes and what his desires may be, none can say. Yog-Sothoth sometimes grants wishes to mortals, but the price he demands is more horrible then can be imagined, and the result is never exactly what is intended. Cthulu is the youngest of Them, if that term can have any meaning applied to those who live Outside. He is not here yet. Shub-Niggurath is disturbing to look upon –“
Rob interrupted. “Bo-ring.”
Amia said, “Kind of boring. Is there a plot or is it just more of this?” She handed the book back to David.
David took it and said, “Yeah, check this out.” He flipped to a later section of the book.  “He who would be the conduit continued in his path to damnation. Those Outside watched him with ravenous eyes, for their attention had been drawn by him. As the process continued they grew more and more aroused.” David looked up. “It’s pretty creepy but good once you get into it. It’s about some guy who runs into these things, draws their attention somehow.”
Amia seemed interested. “So what happens to the guy?” Rob tried to conceal his surprise.
“Don’t know yet….still reading.” David looked like he was about to dive back in, but Rob stopped him by observing, “Wow, the guy running the ride looks….dirty.”
Indeed, the ride attendant looked like he hadn’t bathed in a while, and the ferris wheel didn’t look very well maintained. Rob wasn’t feeling too optimistic about riding it. Fortunately, the line was pretty long. Maybe they could bail before they had to get on. David said, ”I’ve got a headache.”
Rob said, “Probably neck strain. You’ve been looking straight down at that book all day.” David rubbed his neck. “Yeah, maybe…”
“The way the font keeps changing probably didn’t help either. I felt like I was kind of getting a headache from trying to follow it.” Amia rubbed her forehead. Rob instantly began giving her a neck rub.
The three of them moved ahead in line with the usual stop-start motion of lines everywhere. Rob, absorbed in rubbing Amia’s neck and busily working his way downward form there, suggested, “There’s a bench over there. You guys want to sit down?”
Amia, enjoying the neck rub, agreed immediately. David said, “Yeah. This headaches is getting kind of bad.”
The bench was next to the ferris wheel’s base. The clanking hum of the ride’s machinery filled the air. Rob made sure to sit down between Amia and David. David didn’t notice, instead diving right back into his book. He began reading aloud again.
“The conduit. The host. The living gate. The receptacle. Those Who Wait Outside prepared themselves for the orgy that would soon begin. All the while their prey continued on his way, oblivious.”
He shook himself. “Weird, man.”
Amia said sleepily from the crook of Rob’s arm, “Read another part.”
“Ok,” said David, flipping to a random page. “Speak not Their names, for They will hear you. Think not of Them, for They will sense you. Pray not to Them, for They will mock you. Above all, open not to Them, for They will consume you. “ He shook his head, flipped to another page. “This is like a song or something…..I’m not going to try to sing it.”
“Thank god,” commented Rob.
David didn’t seem to notice Rob. “It goes something like….’IA! IA! IA! Chech ning huoa fhtagn. IA! IA! IA!’” He paused. “I have no idea how to say any of these words.”
A fat middle aged lady leading two children stopped as she was walking by. “I should hope not! There are children present.” She walked off in a huff. Rob shrugged, David ignored her, and Amia said, “Bitch. People like her are always the same.” Amia paused, looked thoughtful. “This is cool is a kind of weird way. It’s almost like poetry. I could dance to it. What about you, sexy?”
“Uh….I guess?” said Rob, trying not to say what he was thinking, which was, This is stupid, and that book makes no sense at all. Seeing that Amia was interested in David’s book, he bowed to the inevitable and said, “Yeah, read some more, dude.” She called me sexy!
David cleared his throat. “Ok…..uh…..From Outside They fish, casting their bait upon the waters above them. Their lures are designed to attract that which They need; a mind of sufficient intelligence to serve as a host, and then a receptacle, and then a gate. The lures They have designed so carefully are no simple trap. Preperation is required before they can consume the host, and use its raw material to forge the gate. Their lures usually take the form of books, scrolls, or carvings. First, it is necessary to gain Their attention. The book will introduce its reader to Their names and Their histories. They will sense his thoughts and rise from the depths. Second, after They have focused on the host, They must prepare the way. The conduit’s mind must be altered in shape and drawn closer to the boundary. They will alter their book to accomplish this, so that Their prey will always see what is required for the next step. The final stage in the process requires the conduit to understand what is about to happen. When all is prepared, all deception must be dropped, as They force their way into their prey’s virgin mind, using brute force to burst the wall between worlds. “
David flinched and tried to drop the book, but couldn’t. He stiffened, every muscle straining against itself. Hid eyes rolled up into his head and his teeth bared in a hopeless snarl. “David, what’s wrong?” asked Rob, his voice tense. Amia took one look at David and shouted, “Crap, he’s having a seizure!” She sprang to her feet and ran back to the line for the ferris wheel, shouting for help. Rob, stunned, simply grabbed David and tried to keep him from rolling off the bench. Oddly, David’s fingers were stuck to the book, and Rob couldn’t get them off.
After a moment Amia came running back with two women in tow. “They’re nurses,” she explained. They shoved Rob away from David, lowered him to the ground, and knelt over him. “Yeah…seizure, all right.”
David’s muscles relaxed, only to begin spasming. His limbs began to flail wildy, his mouth working soundlessly. One of the women tried to hold him down. “Call the ER!” She shouted.
Rob, standing nearby and feeling useless, said, “I saw an ambulance parked at the back gate earlier. I can go get them—“
One of the nurses interrupted him. “Yes, great, go do it.” She had her hands full trying to hold David down while her friend dialed her cell phone. Rob could take a hint; he ran. After a moment he was surprised to find Amia keeping pace with him.
She saw his look of surprise and snapped, ”I keep in shape. And I want to help.”
The wind began to pick up. There was a lot of shouting behind them.
Dodging various rides and groups of people, Rob and Amia trotted up to the ambulance he’d seen earlier. There was a police car there too, with a bored-looking cop leaning on it. Rob opened his mouth to explain when Amia beat him to it. “We need help! Our friend’s had a seizure.” The EMTs appeared from behind the ambulance. “Seizure? Where?” one asked. The two paramedics looked secretly glad to have something to do. The cop didn’t.
Rob said, “On a bench behind the ferris wheel.” The EMTs grabbed some bags from the back of their ambulance and ran off into the crowds.  The wind was really beginning to move – Rob could see the ferris wheel sway and then stop in the high winds. Several other rides stopped as well.
The cop said, “Guess I’d better go too.” He began to follow much more slowly. He gestured for Amia and Rob to follow. Then, abruptly, he stopped.
Standing in their way was the tallest and most muscular man Rob had ever seen. He wore an all black outfit with lots of pockets under a thick black vest with more pockets. His vest was covered in equipment. A pistol was visible on his hip, but it seemed unimportant compared to the assault rifle he carried at the ready. Standing next to him and slightly behind was a small, brown, wrinkled man wearing jeans and a white shirt. He carried a wooden walking stick carved with pretty, ornate designs, and a gym bag. 
The police officer reacted predictably. His eyes widening, he drew his pistol and said loudly, “What the F-“
The large man in black interrupted him by grabbing the cop’s wrist, just behind the gun. He pivoted faster than Rob would have believed possible, throwing the policeman to the ground and knocking the wind out of him. Before the cop could react, his attacker pulled a taser out of his vest, jammed it into the cop’s forehead, and pulled the trigger. The policeman convulsed and then passed out.
Rob grabbed Amia’s arm, turned, and ran. He got exactly four steps before someone tackled him and slammed him to the ground. Before he could get up Rob got a knee in his upper back.
Amia surprised everyone by kicking the large man in the face as he kneeled on Rob. She followed up by screaming like a banshee and trying to claw the man’s eyes out.  He recoiled from the kick and tased her, knocking her to the ground. In the brief silence that followed, Rob heard the shorter man speak. His voice was soft, and he had a sing-song Indian accent, but his tone was firm. “Pay attention. Your lives are in great danger.”
Rob managed to draw enough breath to say “No shit!” Amia growled agreement from the ground nearby.
The small man looked annoyed. “Not from us. We are here to protect you. As I was saying, you are in danger, and I need to answer my questions precisely. Do you understand?”
Amia shouted, “Understand? I understand that this asshole is going to JAIL. He assaults a cop and two other people, carries around a freaking machinegun at a carnival with kids around……”
Rob tried to shout in agreement, but managed only a strangled grunt of “I don’t understand shit.”
The small man nodded at his large associate, who shrugged, and let Rob up. Amia also stood up, shakily. She noticed it first, gasped, and hugged Rob. When Rob saw it, he gasped too.
Around them the wind howled silently. It was just like someone had hit the mute button on the TV. Families and children ran screaming past them, also silently. None of them seemed to notice the five people in their midst. All the rides had stopped. The sky had turned black; not from clouds, but as if someone had covered up the stars. In the center of the fairgrounds, a column of air was howling straight downwards toward the ferris wheel.
Rob and Amia held each other and stared. The small man relaxed slightly. “Now that I have your attention, please answer my questions exactly. We do not have much time.”
Rob nodded. Amia asked, “how did you make the sound go away?”
The small man shrugged. “A simple privacy spell and barrier to keep the wind out. Now. Have either of you read any odd books lately?”
They both started talking at once. The two men listened intently for a few moments. Then the small man interrupted them. “So. Your friend David, who is very smart, bought an old book, which gave everyone who tried to read it a headache. The book spoke of Them from Outside. After reading it for a while David began to convulse next to the ferris wheel. Yes?”
Rob nodded, numb. “Yes.”
“And he read aloud form the book?”
The small man’s voice became very, very mild. “Did either of you read from the book?”
Amia answered. “I did.”
The tall man had his assault rifle up and pointed at Amia’s head before she’d finished the sentence. Both Rob and Amia were too shocked and bruised to react much. They simply stared, their eyes wide. The small man stepped forward and pulled a crystal from his pocket and put it on Amia’s forehead. Rob noticed how short he was compared to her. The crystal glowed in an odd pattern. The small mad stepped back and relaxed noticeably. “She has been touched, but is not taken.”
The large man lowered his weapon. He didn’t relax, though. Instead he stared grimly towards the ferris wheel and the pillar of wind.  The small man said, “We must act now. You two – “ he nodded towards Amia and Rob – “stay within the circle and you will be safe. Leave the circle and you will die. Interfere with us, and my friend will kill you. Do you understand? Just watch. Nothing more.”
They nodded.
The small man pulled something small from his bag, then dropped it on the ground and left it. Hefting his walking stick, he began walking forward slowly. The circle of silence followed him, staying centered on his staff. Amia and Rob, by this time bewildered, frightened, and totally intimidated, followed as well.
The fairgrounds had changed. Everyone had fled. None of the rides were moving. Winds howled past them at hurricane force. All the trash strewn about the fairgrounds had vanished, blown away. Even the spots of dirt and sand on the pavement were gone. A pale greenish-yellow glow came from ahead.
As they approached the ferris wheel, Amia and Rob looked for David. The saw the bench he’d been sitting on, now obscured by a river of air. The column of air was almost a tornado, except it wasn’t spinning, and it didn’t move. It remained centered on a large, lumpy shape next to the bench.
The curtain of air parted reluctantly before the small man’s remorseless advance. They had a clear view of the lump next to the bench.
David had…..changed. His hands stuck to the book, the book stuck to his stomach, the two nurses stuck to him where they tried to help him. Their flesh moved sluggishly, quivering like gelatin. There was no sign of the paramedics. David’s torso had swelled up into a donut shape, with a void at the center, where the book had been. His head was still attached, thought the neck was gone, and his features were distorted horribly. The two nurses were slowly flowing into David’s side, increasing the size of the donut.
Rob made the mistake of looking into the void in the center of what used to be his friend. The void looked back at him, and something touched his mind. Its gentle touch, almost a caress, was like razors raking through his brain. It’s thoughts – of which he only caught the very edge – were so alien that he could not understand them. He staggered backwards and fell right on his ass. Amia stood stock-still, transfixed by the void. The large man pushed her down next to Rob. After a moment, her eyes refocused, and she began crying.
The small man stood right next to David. The was no wind, though the pillar seems to be battering at the barrier. The large man calmly walked over and emptied a magazine from his assault rifle into the shapeless mass of flesh. The noise after the quiet of the bubble was deafening. He reloaded and did it again. Then he nodded to his comrade and walked back over to watch Rob and Amia. The small man pulled something from his pocket. He held it a moment and appeared to concentrate, then tossed it into the void. There was a flash of light. The void vanished, along with the wind. The stars were back.
The small man canceled his privacy spell. Amia and Rob lay clutching one another under the skeletal frame of the ferris wheel.  Nearby, several bodies lay entwined, riddled with bullet holes. It would take time to recognize faces among the twisted limbs. The small man nodded to the large, and they turned and walked away.
Rob stood up, shakily. “Wait. What…..was all this? Who are you? What the hell happened?”
The small man paused. He seemed to think for a moment. “Come back to this spot in one week and I’ll tell you. Bring your girlfriend.” He continued on his way.
Later, when more police and paramedics and firemen and reporters came, Rob and Amia were gone. The fairgrounds stood empty, save for the horribly mangled corpses by the ferris wheel.  The cleanup took days; the fair ended up going out of business from the disruption. Reporters speculated about what had happened, but didn’t have the imagination to understand what had really happened. They kept talking about serial killers. Life slowly returned to normal.
In a bookstore a thousand miles away, a ratty old book appeared in a rarely-visited part of the store. An employee found it, and took it home to read. 


As Kit stepped through the portal, the world vanished in a burst of light. Blinded and disoriented , she staggered forward and immediately ran into something. She felt a moment of terror before remembering it was her boyfriend. 
John hugged her, keeping her from falling down. “Told you it would make you dizzy,” he said. She could hear the smirk in his voice. 
Her vision slowly returned, as if she had been blinded by someone shining a flashlight into her eyes at night. At first all she could see was plain cotton t-shirt. She pulled back a bit and looked up to see his smile and immediately blushed. She couldn’t help it. Every time he smiled like that – a knowing, slightly mocking smile, that said he know something you didn’t – she felt a flush from her face down to her chest and a weakness in her legs. It was his smile that had made her fall for him, against all common sense. After all, he was a skinny, outgoing, stylish, and popular guy with a thousand friends, and she was a pudgy, introverted bookworm whose best friend was her cat. She knew, from bitter experience, that she was better off not dating. But this time he fell for her, too, glasses, split ends, and everything.
The relationship had given her something she’d given up on in college – love. And large amounts of really great sex. She’d always been kind of indifferent to sex, never really wanting it like everyone else seemed to, but with John it was better then she imagined possible. After three months with him, she was totally in love with him. So when he suggested a camping trip she agreed, ignoring the fact that she hated camping. He’d also promised to show her a magic trick, which she thought would be something silly, like a card trick, or a position from the Kama Sutra. Instead she’d gotten two dead trees, bent together to form an arch in the middle of the woods, and a flash of light when she stepped between them, hand in hand with her boyfriend.
She looked around, and promptly tried to fall over again. Surprised, he still managed to catch her.
Kit was no longer in the woods. Instead she was standing on a large bridge over water. A dense mist cloaked everything in a grey, damp blanket, blocking the sun and sky, as well as anything more than fifty feet away. Standing right next to Kit and John were two pieces of wood which had been twisted into odd shapes. They bent towards one another, making an arch. Beyond the arch, the bridge ended abrubtly. She could see a hint of ground beyond it, with two pairs of footsteps visible.  Completely confused, she stammered, “What? Where….? How…….?”
John chuckled. “Want the answers all at once or one at a time?”
She hugged him back. “All at once please. This is freaking me out.”
“OK. What happened is, we walked through a portal to somewhere else. A magic portal. Told you I’d show you a trick.” He smirked again. She flushed again, thinking, Jesus Christ I’m like Pavlov’s dog. No one else has this effect on me…..
“Where is a little more complicated. This is an in-between place, made to tie many portals together.  If you know the way, you can get almost anywhere through it. As for the how….I have no idea. All I know is, you think a certain phrase while stepping through the portal, and you’re here.”
Kit realized she was staring at him with her mouth open and her eyes wide. She closed her mouth and thought Stop it, you idiot, you look like a retard. Suddenly she was irritated. “Come on, John. I’m not stupid. This is just….a hidden bridge or something. You’re tricking me, just like you said.”
John let go of her and stepped over to the edge of the bridge. “I’m tricking you, but not about the bridge. Think about it: a minute ago the sky was clear, now it’s foggy. We were in the middle of the woods, on dry land, no lakes or anything, and suddenly we’re on a large bridge over deep water. Not only that – look at the bridge. There’s no rails on the sides.” She did. There weren’t.  “Look at the bridge itself. What’s it made of?” She looked down at a featureless grey surface. It wasn’t concrete or metal,  wood or stone, glass or plastic. It wasn’t dirty or faded or scuffed or….anything. It was just grey, the exact same shade as the mist surrounding them.  Uneasy, she asked him, “That doesn’t mean anything. I’m not an expert on bridges. It could be…I don’t know, some new kind of plastic or something. And they built it out in the woods to test it before they started selling it.”
He rolled his eyes. “People never want to believe.” He sighed. “All right, I’ll prove it to you, but we have to do something a little dangerous.” He gestured to her to walk over to him, near the edge of the bridge. She walked over and, insecure, grabbed his hand. “Lie down beside me,” He said.
They lay down with their only their heads poking out over the edge of the bridge.  He pulled a rock out of his pocket and held it over the edge. “I grabbed this before we went through. Hoped I wouldn’t need it….you need to understand, this isn’t really a bridge.”
“But you just said –“
“I know, and I know it sort of looks like one. But it’s just a metaphor, an illusion to make traveling easier. The ocean below is also a metaphor, but not for the same thing.” He dropped the rock. The mist was so thick, Kit could barely see it hit the water.
Nothing.  Kit asked, “What am I supposed to see?”
 “Just wait. And be ready to run, if we have to.”
“John, what the hell –“ she was starting to get frustrated with this whole situation.
“Look down.”
Directly beneath them, the mist was clearing. Kit noticed that the water was incredibly clear, clearer then she would have believed possible. Her vision was limited only by the dim, directionless  lighting. Deep beneath the surface, huge shapes coiled around each other.  Kit froze with utter and complete surprise as she realized how big the shapes had to be. The mist kept clearing, an expanding bubble of clarity centered on her and John. She felt a slight breeze. As she stared, stupefied, a cluster of long, serpentine shapes began rising to the surface. She realized that they were much, much larger then she had thought.
John grabbed her arm and dragged her to her feet. “Time to go,” he said, his voice tense. He practically dragged her along the bridge, away from both the portal and the shapes.
Kit could hear waves crashing behind them. There was a noise, somewhat like a foghorn, only much louder and deeper. It was so loud that Kit covered her ears, so loud that she could feel a breeze aginst her back. When it stopped, she looked back.
A pillar the size of a skyscraper was rising beside the bridge. Water cascaded off its wrinkled surface and out of holes scattered randomly across it. Each hole had a rough fringe of what looked like moss. It was a mottled dark green. It towered over them, hundreds of feet at least, and it was still rising. It bellowed again, every hole blasting sound into the air, and this time Kit could make out a word, howled in a register so deep it made foghorns sound soprano: “hunger.”
John dragged her into the mist, and it vanished.

Later, she went into hysterics, which made her feel much better. John, always considerate, held her until she was done. Afterwords, she blew her nose on her sleeve, and said, “Well, you were right, that did the trick. I believe you now.” He laughed out loud and kissed her. “I figured.” Her pulled her to her feet. “Ready to get going?”
Kit let him pull her up. “Go where? Aren’t we going back?”
“Nope. I want you to meet my mother.”
Kit felt a confusing mixture of emotions when he said that. At first, she thought, Ohmygod he wants me to meet his mother! He’s going to pop the question! I knew he was the one!
Then, We have to go through this bridge thingy to meet his mother? Where in the hell does she live?
Her second reaction seemed to make more sense to her, so she said it out loud. He started walking and said casually, “Come on, I’ll tell you on the way.” 
As she caught up with him, he explained, “yeah, we have to go through here to meet my mom. The reason she lives through here is that I’m not strictly speaking human.”
Kit would have stopped and gaped at that, but John kept on walking briskly. Instead she snapped, “Don’t you think you should have told me sooner?”
“come on. What would you have said if I’d introduced myself by saying ‘hey baby, want to go out? By the way I’m not from this reality and am not human.’ You’d have thought I was on crack, at best. “
That was true, but “I’m still not happy about this. You drag me out here, saying we’re going camping, tell me you’re not human and you want me to meet your mom, and what the HELL was that thing!”
The last part came out in a shout.
John kept walking. “I don’t know what it was. I’m sorry you’re upset, but I couldn’t think of a better way to do this. And I’m sorry I lied about the camping.”
There was a long silence. Kit stewed. She was angry about having been lied to, but John was right about everything he’d said. Which, of course, just made her angrier. And all this supernatural stuff wasn’t making it any easier. How do you deal with something like this? Dump him? Go back? Keep going? Am I going to end up in a tabloid or something – “I married an alien!”
It was curiosity that finally got them talking again, nearly an hour later. “You really don’t know what that giant thing was?”
He glanced at her, seeming distracted. “I really don’t. As far as I know no one does. We just know that they are attracted to people on the bridge. If you throw something off the edge, or even just look into the water, they show up and start killing.”
She wanted to yell at him about that, but took a deep breath instead. Don’t be a stupid cow. Just go with it.  “You said someone made this bridge. Or whatever it is. Who made it?”
“We don’t know that, either. It’s been here as far back as we have records. “
“And how far back is that?”
“About three thousand years.”
Another pause. Go with it, right. “Oookay, so….you’re not human. What are you?”
“Back in the middle ages, humans called my people Incubi and Succubi.” At her look of incomprehension, he went on, “They said we were sex demons and we would steal people’s souls.”
“Um…..should I be worried?”
John laughed so hard he had to stop walking for a second. “Ah….sorry….it’s just the way you said it was so calm….I’m sorry.” He kissed her. “No, of course you shouldn’t be worried. According to the old stories, we would suck the soul out of people by seducing and having sex with them. We’ve already had sex, so you tell me – how’s your soul feeling?”
He couldn’t help but smile. “Feels fine to me. Maybe we just haven’t been doing it hard enough.”
He smiled (she blushed!) and kissed her again. “Feel any soul suckage there?”
After a good fifteen minutes of making out – by which time Kit was ready for action right there on the bridge, giant monsters or not – John gently pulled her along. “Come on, we’ve got a ways to go yet.”
Kit kept possession of one hand. “Sooo….how big is your family?”
“Pretty big. But don’t worry, they mostly don’t live with mom anymore.”
“What’s she like?”
“Quiet…..I hate to be mean, but kind of fat. We love her anyway, of course.”
“Why do you want me to meet her?”
John gave her the smirk again. “Because I want to ask you to move in with us.”
Kit giggled. “You still live with your mom! I guess you aren’t too inhuman after all.”
He nodded. “We really aren’t. I’m sure you would have noticed any major differences by now.” He smirked and leered at the same time; Kit blushed and went weak in the knees.
“So, how much farther?” she asked.
“Should be almost there, actually…just need to find the right path.”
“Path…?” Barely visible through the mist, dozens of other bridges joined theirs. They didn’t all look the same. A couple were identical grey. One was pale, nearly white, with what seemed like holes in it. One was darker, nearly black. A cold draft vented from it, barely noticeable. Several others had gates or doors mounted on them. She walked over to one gate, made of wrought iron, with intricate filgrees all along the bars. It was mounted on a pair of plain brick pillars, standing tall in the mist. Kit’s first thought was, this is stupid, you can just walk around. She remembered the monsters in the water, and thought, No it isn’t. In the middle of the gate was a polished brass plaque with an inscription. Beneath several lines of squiggles that she assumed were other languages, there was a sentence in English:
Zarathustra and Sons: Professional Paranormal Eliminators
John walked up behind her and kissed her neck. A thrill went through her. “Ready?” He murmered in her ear.
“Well, when you put it like that…” He took her hand and led her over to a large, battered wooden door.  It wasn’t in the best repair – extra boards had been nailed over it, and various chips and gouges marred its surface. It was covered in symbols and words, mostly in languages Kit didn’t understand. Two words, near the bottom, were in English: Keep Out.
The door opened as soon as john touched it. They stepped through, a blinding white light hit her, and John grabbed her again to keep her from falling.
“Uh….Another….portal?” Kit was proud of herself for realizing. I’m starting to figure this out.
“Another portal,” John echoed, “this time off the bridge.”
Kit took in her new surrounding with mild surprise. Compared to what she had already seen, this was a letdown. It was a simple cave – cylindrical, about seven feet high and seven feet wide. Chisel marks were visible on the walls. Every few feet crystals were embedded in the wall; they glowed with a soft red light, painting everything in blood. A sweet, cloying scent was very strong, and it irritated her nose.  Kit clung to John. “This isn’t what I expected…”
“I know. Let’s go meet mom.” John pulled her down the tunnel, his grip on her hand now vise-like.
Kit started to get dizzy. She felt as if she couldn’t think straight. With every breath, the stench assaulted her.  “I don’t….” She mumbled.
John ignored her and pulled her deeper into the warren. Kit was dimly conscious of passing a junction with doors, going through a midsized room filled with shelves and cabinets, passing a few people in the tunnels…she tried to pay attention to the people they met – John’s family? – but she was too out of it to get a good look. She saw a blond girl, pretty, in jeans and a tank top…..a naked man……a pair of legs walking along with no body above the waist…
John pulled her to a huge door. “Straighten up.” He smirked, the expression that always said, I know something you don’t know. “Time to meet mama.”
The door swung open, revealing a huge cavern. The lighted crystals were everywhere, dying the scene within shades of blood red and scab ochre.  The cavern was dominated by the pale veined sluglike thing that lay in the center. Slime oozed down its flanks, collecting in a shallow pool on the floor. It towered a good three or four stories above the cavern floor, nearly to the roof. Ramshackle wooden balconies extended from the chamber’s sides to the creature’s flanks, where small appendages moved restlessly. Shadowy figures moved along the balconies, tending to their Mother.
Kit screamed until her breath gave out. John dragged her before Mother’s front side. Kit saw that the creature’s front was covered in eyes and lips, all of them human, none of them in any sort of order or pattern: clusters of blinking, rolling eyes of every color, drooling mouths muttering nonsense sounds. John leered at her, than addressed it. “A new one for you, Mother!”
Mother stared at Kit with all her eyes. Her mouths opened, inhaled. Somewhere inside Mother, vast lungs worked. It exhaled, and spoke, all the mouth shaping words separately, so it was as if a chorus of voices said, “Good…”
Kit lost control of her bladder. She tried to fight, to scream again, to beg, but the scent was everywhere, in her nose, in her brain, sedating her. She could barely think. Another man stepped in front of her and punched her in the face, knocking her to the ground. Hands carried her up stairs. Her head lolled to the side, a trickle of saliva running from her mouth. John grabbed her hair and forced her to look. Mother’s flank extended beyond her field of view. The protrusions she’d seen before were directly in front of her. They came in pairs, each with two segments joined by a normal-looking joint. They flexed restlessly. There was something in between each pair of limbs, a small triangle of hair and folds of flesh.
John said, “Do you see? Do you get it?” He giggled. “See where you’re going to join the family?” He pointed to an empty spot. There was a large horizontal slit there, fringed with tiny tentacles or cilia. As they pushed her closer Kit saw them reaching out for her eagerly.
One of the large limbs bumped into her from the side. At its end was a human foot. Looking past the foot, over the leg embedded in Mother, she saw the damp tangle of pubic hair at the junction of the endlessly moving legs. Kit understood then why the legs came in pairs, and why they all merged with Mother’s form just above the waist, and what was about to happen.  Somehow Kit was able to scream one last time, a heart-rending howl that tore her throat and spewed blood from her lips, before they put her in Mother’s hungry mouth.