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…..you 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?”
“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…..like 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.