“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.”
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.