Welcome back to . Today we’re featuring an extended excerpt from by Levi Black, a Lovecraftian dark fantasy of eldritch demons and cosmic horrors. The Mythos War series will continue in , available November 7th.
Charlie Tristan Moore isn’t a hero. She’s a survivor. Already wrestling with the demons of her past, she finds herself tested as never before when she arrives home one night to find herself under attack by three monstrous skinhounds straight out of a nightmare. Just as hope seems lost, she is saved by a sinister Man in Black, dressed in a long, dark coat that seems to possess a life of its own and wielding a black-bladed sword in his grisly red right hand.
But her rescue comes at a cost. The Man in Black, a diabolical Elder God, demands she become his Acolyte and embrace a dark magick she never knew she possessed. To ensure her obedience, he takes her friend and possible love, Daniel, in thrall as a hostage. Now she must join The Man in Black in his crusade to track down and destroy his fellow Elder Gods, supposedly to save humanity from being devoured for all eternity.
But is The Man in Black truly the lesser of two evils–or a menace far more treacherous than the eldritch horrors she’s battling in his name?
The cheap alcohol burned as it splashed down my throat.
Fumes roiled up the back of my esophagus, making me choke. It felt like getting punched in the tonsils with a fistful of kerosene.
I sucked in a breath, swallowing hard.
Dammit, Daniel …
I really like you.
Holding the dented, plastic bottle of vodka, I smeared my arm across my face, wiping away hot tears.
The first guy I … and he knew. He knew.
I fumbled keys out of my pocket and held them up, jangling them in front of my face. They woozed and blended in a fuzz of eyestrain, tears, and alcohol.
Now you know there’s nobody in this crappy world you can trust.
My rage had cooled on the walk home, devolving into a ball of hurt and anger and drunken fog. The stairs to the townhouse I shared were treacherous, threatening to throw me back down them with each step, but I wasn’t going to let them get the best of me.
I’m stubborn that way.
Besides, it was cold outside.
The key in my hand stabbed at the keyhole, brass clicking on brass. I had to lean my forehead against the door frame to get the key to slide into the lock. It turned in a smooth motion, barely a click to tell me it had unlocked. I stumbled across the threshold, slamming the door closed behind me, harder than I meant to.
At least the night is over. Just go to bed and try again in the morning. You’ve got jujitsu at ten. You can take it out on the mat.
My keys hit the table by the door with a metallic clatter, clashing against my roommates’ keys.
Keep it down, or you’ll have the whole house up. Shasta’ll want to know what’s wrong, and you do NOT want to get into that. Not tonight.
I looked up the stairs to my room.
Just get to bed.
I’d taken only a few wobbly steps when the first skinless dog stepped from the shadows.
My mind stuttered, jut-jut-jittering around what I saw.
I didn’t have a dog. None of my roommates had a dog, and no one I knew had ever had a dog that looked like this.
It stood on the hardwood floor in four slowly widening puddles of goo. Wet ran in rivulets down its legs, the musculature of it strung tight over a rack of bones. It stood by the stairs leading up to my room, watching me with a low-slung head. Skinless hackles bunched over its neck in knotted cables of raw meat.
Adrenaline slammed through my bloodstream, driven in a stampede by my heart suddenly trying to pound its way out of my chest. It burned away the fog of alcohol, shocking me sober. The jug of cheap vodka slipped from my fingers, tumbling to the floor. It bounced, spun, and lay on its side, spilling astringent alcohol over my shoes in a splash.
The dog stepped closer, a low growl rumbling from its vivisected chest.
The growl echoed in the stairwell, doubling, then tripling as two more hounds trotted out of the shadows. These two were leaner than the first, their rib cages hollow and caved in. They stalked toward me, the three moving in unison with the same squelching lift of paws, then the same click-clack of crescent razor claws as descended again. Their shoulders moved up and down; heads swinging side to side, panting rib bones expanding and contracting in time with harsh snuffles as long, blister-pink tongues lolled out of jaws over-filled with bone-cracking teeth. The rasping sound of their breath scraped my ears like a nail file on the membrane of my eardrum, dragging down and flicking up with just enough pressure to never quite tear through.
Clickety-clack squelch, clickety-clack squelch, pant-pant-pant …
My mind screamed at me.
Move! Get out! Don’t just stand here!
I wanted to turn, wanted to run. Panic clawed at the front of my throat. Somehow I knew that if I took my eyes off the hounds they would take me. They would lunge and snap and latch and drag me to the ground where they would rip me open and bury their snouts inside my shredded body. My mind bounced around, unable to latch on to any one thing, unable to focus, desperate for a way to escape.
You didn’t lock the door.
I stepped backward, slowly, carefully. The hounds matched me step for step, their baleful eyes pinned me, glowing the color of rotten squash. Lidless, they stared at me from deep sockets of raw gristle.
I stuck my hand out, fingers twisted in a ward against the evil eye my grandmother always used on a neighbor she accused of being a witch. I don’t know why I did it. It was just instinct, a fetish from childhood—worthless and, worse, ineffectual. I used the same sign whenever I thought a car might not stop for its red light when I crossed an intersection. A tiny, stupid, reflexive habit.
My keys still sat on the little table in the center of the foyer. I snatched them up. The weight of them hung familiar in my fingers, a sliver of comfort, the merest ease to my jangled nerves.
The first hound growled again. It stepped quicker, trotting closer.
My throat closed, the pounding of my pulse throbbing through each side. Tension stabbed inside my lungs, stilettos sliding in.
Breathe. Remember, you have to breathe.
The air between me and the hounds became a plucked string singing with tension. They stopped, raw haunches crouching, front paws click-clacking against the floor as they spread apart, preparing to lunge.
Grabbing the table, I yanked it around me, tipping it over, letting it crash to the floor between me and the hounds. I turned to the door as they pushed off, leaping over the table. My hand had closed on the door knob when I felt the hot, sharp slash of claws down the backs of my legs. I was driven to the floor, knees banging hard, pain shooting up my thighs. My fingers scrabbled as my hand slipped off the slick brass knob.
A weight slammed into my back, smashing my face against the door. Pain blasted across my forehead, flaring white behind my eyes. My ears closed, turning the snap and snarl of the hounds all tinny and hollow. A blow knocked me sideways, scraping my cheek raw on the wood of the door. I tumbled across the floor, banging knees, elbows, and hips until the wall stopped me.
My body went numb, skull stuffed with cotton. Nothing worked. Panic screamed.
Get up! Get the hell up or you are dead!
My eyes were the only things I could move. I rolled them around, watching the dogs as they circled. The big one lunged, snapping at my face. Its teeth clacked together, its lips pulled back in a snarl. A string of brackish saliva slung off those raw lips, slapping across one of my eyes. It hit, itching and burning like jalapeño juice on steroids.
The hound pulled back.
It shook its head, jerking from side to side. Its jaw distended with a loud POP, dislocating to take a bigger bite. Cold, baleful eyes were pinned on my throat. My fingers flexed, scratching the floor. Striated muscle on the hound’s shoulders quivered as it prepared to lunge and tear my throat out in a spray of hot arterial blood.
I couldn’t close my eyes. Couldn’t look away.
My eyelids were glued open, eyes stuck wide in their sockets as the door slammed open and a tall man in a long black coat strode in with amusement in his glittering eyes and death in his red right hand.
The hound jerked around, its skinless head still looming over and dripping on me. The rumble in its chest shook loose fat droplets of slick liquid that drizzled across my arm, my shoulder, my neck. They splattered, as warm and thick as fresh milk. Its brother hounds moved back as the Man in Black filled the doorway.
The wind swept in behind him, blowing and billowing his long coat around a slender frame. The black leather fwapped around his legs, the sound reminding me of bat wings. The wind cleared the air of the moist, green-rot smell of the hounds, filling my nose with the scent of woodsmoke and blackberries.
He stood, outlined by the streetlights behind him, his face in shadow. Just a shape, just the form of a man, all shadowed moving edges and hard silhouette. His eyes glittered deep in his face. Other than that I couldn’t see anything about his countenance.
Then he smiled.
It was a shark-toothed grin, a glistening grimace from a mouthful of murder. A chill slid slowly down my spine. The gleam across his teeth was the same gleam that slid down the edge of a sword like a drop of quicksilver. Gooseflesh that had nothing to do with the chill night air rushing through the open door rose from the base of my skull to the bottom of my shoulder blades.
The hound standing over me growled from within its exposed rib cage.
“Shut up, mongrel. Recognize your better.”
The voice was deep and clear, a tolling bell that echoed in the tiny vestibule. The hound tilted its head, watching the man with an unblinking sulfurous eye. Fear pulled tight every tendon in my body, squeezing like a python, making me want to scream. The tension in the air suffocated me and clamped around my chest, thick with the potential for violence.
The hound above me turned, snapping at its brethren with a hoarse bark and a clack of wicked teeth.
The two smaller hounds sprang in an explosion of deadly, liquid grace. They were a blur, hanging in the air at the same time. Ropes of spittle and foam slung from raw-lipped snouts as their teeth gnashed.
The Man in Black turned, flicking the black-bladed sword in his terrible, red right hand. The slender length of steel licked out, not slowing as it bit deep into the belly of one airborne hound. Muscle parted like water in a gushing plop of strange organs on the floor. The hound fell as if struck down by the hand of God. Both halves of it twitched, sloshing out more of the chunky stew its entrails had become.
With a twist of the red right hand, the sword’s curved blade sliced the air again, cleaving the second hound’s side with a hollow, drumming thunk. It struck deep, a hack instead of a slash, driving through contracting, skinless muscle and grating along the vertebrae of the hound’s spine. The hellhound fell at the man’s feet, spasming its life out in a gout of black, runny ichor that spread like sewage underneath it.
The Man in Black spun the sword, slinging gore off the blade. It flicked in a wet arc across the wall. He pointed the weapon at the last hound.
“Your move, cur.”
The last hound took a half step back. Clackety squelch. It stopped, stood, and quivered.
Then it turned its head and latched its teeth into my ear.
Pain exploded, hot and immediate from my eyebrow to my chin. The fangs scissored in, puncturing the skin, the cartilage, and the flesh, ripping furrows deep in my cheek and temple. Saliva sizzled and popped like bacon grease in a hot pan.
I tried to jerk away from the agony. The skinless dog shook its jaws, worrying the meat in its mouth. It felt like my face was being yanked off the bone, pulled away like a rind from a melon. The teeth that had punched through my earlobe ripped free in a spit of hot, thin blood, but the ones through the rim of cartilage around my ear held fast, the gristle strung tight in the hound’s mouth.
My ear filled with blood, but I could still hear the hound’s breath whuff and hiss as though we were in an echo chamber. Blood ran down my ear canal, filling my brain with sound, the moist snuff of canine breath bouncing off walls of throbbing, pulsing agony.
My feet slid and slipped on the gore-covered tile of the floor. I jerked as an electric current of pain jolted all the way down to my heels. My nerves burned as one hand slapped against the smooth, skinless muscle of the hound’s chest, trying to push away, the other cramped around the keys I still held.
Hard metal dug into my palm.
My mind went animal blank, panic slaughtering all rational thought, leaving behind only hollow, raw instinct. Deep in the lizard part of my brainpan, that base-of-the-skull place, a spark flared and my training kicked in.
I drove my keys into the hound’s face as hard as I could.
The metal sticking up between my knuckles bit deep. Punching through muscle, scraping on bone. The long, serrated key to my car punctured a lidless eye, spilling spoiled aqueous liquid across my fingers like runny egg yolk.
The hellhound gave a shrill yelp, and my pain cut away in a wash of cool sensation as its teeth slipped free. I popped my eyelids open in time to see the Man in Black slash with his sword. The hound turned skeletal tail, bounding across the room. A wide gash gaped open along its flank, the meat split wide and peeled back. The hound didn’t slow or turn or hesitate, and when it hit the corner behind the stairwell it disappeared.
The world flickered in my mind, sputtering like the end of a movie reel. The Man in Black knelt beside me, his dripping sword held out and away. The fingers on his left hand touched the side of my face. They were cool and clean. He smiled a crooked, shark-tooth grin. His voice came to me clearly, more inside my mind than out.
“Do not die yet, Charlotte Tristan Moore. We have much to discuss.”
“Do you have cream or sugar?”
The side of my head throbbed, pulsing in time with my heartbeat. I could feel the blood lurching underneath the skin, slouching its way toward the Bethlehem of my face. It hurt. Like claw hammer to the skull hurt. Even my teeth were sore.
I held a towel against my shredded ear to catch the blood that poured out, running hot and sticky down my neck. The world sounded half muffled through the blood-soaked cloth.
I stared at the tablecloth in front of me, elbow propped on the red-and-white checked vinyl my roommate Shasta had brought back from her last visit home. The little red squares wavered with every pulse from under the towel.
What the hell is going on?
A dark hand sat a steaming cup of black coffee on the table under my face.
“I asked you a question, Charlotte Tristan Moore. I would appreciate an answer before this turns cold.”
I looked up. The Man in Black stood close beside me. My neck hurt as I twisted my face up to take all of him in. Tall, he loomed, his head seeming to brush the ceiling—though some small part of me knew that was a trick of perspective, the angle I looked up from. A black coat stretched from his neck all the way down to the floor. It moved even though he stood still, shifting subtly, delicately, as though it was breathing. Not that coats breathed.
It must be a trick of the light.
Or my head injury.
Oh, shit. Do I have a head injury? Something cracked inside my skull, making me think weirdly?
The Man in Black held a second steaming cup in his right hand. My eyes locked on that hand. It thrust from the edge of his coat sleeve, the one bright patch of color on the doom-black darkness of him. This close, it glistened in the incandescent kitchen light. Wet, or possibly greasy—as though it had been flayed, dusky skin peeled off, leaving behind the raw red of meat, the exposed underflesh. Subtly shiny like it had been dipped in crimson liquid latex.
Or fresh-spilled blood.
Now that hand held my favorite mug, a bright yellow cup with a picture of George Takei doing heart hands to the camera.
I caught myself leaning away, threatening to slip off my chair and onto the floor, trying to get as far from him as possible. Dammit. I was cowering.
I pulled myself upright.
My voice didn’t tremble when I spoke. That surprised me.
“My name is Charlie. Only my family calls me Charlotte. Sugar is in the cabinet above the coffee maker, creamer is in the fridge. Help yourself.”
He nodded, turning away in a swirl of coat.
As he rummaged through the cabinet, I pulled my hand away from the towel. The hand moved, but the towel stuck, held to the side of my face by a clot of dried blood.
I pulled on one corner, tugging sharply. It peeled free with a tearing sound. I winced—I couldn’t help it—the pain flaring hot and bright like a struck match laid against my skin.
You’ve been hurt worse. Get it over with.
My fingers closed on the corner of the towel, and with a swift, sharp yank I pulled the whole cloth free from the clotted wound. It felt like being slapped with a belt sander. I sucked in air hard and fast between clenched teeth.
The man was there, next to me.
I didn’t see him move—my eyes hadn’t been shut longer than a second—but he somehow crossed the room to me. He was just there. As though he’d teleported. His red right hand reached for my face.
His voice came, a dark murmur. “Do not move.”
My nerves locked, freezing me in one spot. That hand moved closer, drifting lazily near. It hung, exposed and obscene, from the end of his sleeve, almost limp, its fingers slightly curled like those of a dead man.
It became all I could see, all I could look at, blocking the whole world. Made of striated muscle attached to tendon and bone, stringy nerves laced over the entire surface like electrical feeds. It came closer, everything else going blurry with strain as I tried to watch, but it slipped out of my line of sight. I couldn’t move my neck, couldn’t tilt my head, frozen by his command like a field mouse hypnotized by a cobra.
The hand touched my ear. I felt a slight pressure and then … nothing. No pain, no stab, no tear, no rip. None of the searing agony I expected. He pulled away, hand falling to his side, disappearing in a fold of that long black coat.
My own hand flew, touching my ear. It felt … strange. Odd. Hot with fever. I felt the rough, crumbly crust of dried blood. My hair was matted with fluid into a hard knot. As I felt around, the blood crumbled and dusted down my cheek, down my neck. My fingers moved the flaps of soft, spongy tissue where teeth had ripped through the earlobe, leaving it a tangle of skin strings. The hard rim of cartilage felt like a frond of plastic under my touch.
A gnarled, half-melted frond of plastic.
A chunk of scab came off in my fingers, and they were suddenly slick with new blood. I felt all that in my fingertips.
None of it in my ear or the side of my face.
That skin was dead. Rubbery. No sensation at all.
The Man in Black now sat across from me at the little table, a long-handled spoon clinking around the rim of the yellow coffee mug as he stirred in hazelnut creamer.
I hadn’t seen him move. One second he stood at my side; the next I examined my ear; the third he was in the chair across from me.
“Did you heal my ear?”
He smirked, making the corner of his full lips twitch upward. Dark eyes glittered, smudged with deep hollows underneath. “Does it feel healed to you?”
“No, it still feels like shredded meat, but it doesn’t hurt anymore. Why?”
He lifted the coffee mug. George Takei smiled at me. “I shut off the nerves in that part of your face.”
“You did what?”
“Your eardrum is not damaged. You heard me.”
“Is it going to come back? Will I have feeling again?”
The Man in Black sipped his coffee, not answering.
“Are you going to tell me what the hell is going on?”
“Tonight is your night of destiny, Charlotte Tristan Moore. You have been chosen to receive a great blessing.”
“A chewed-up ear is a great blessing?” My hand banged against the table. Coffee splashed over the rim of the mug in front of me, spilling across the plastic tablecloth. “Quit talking in riddles and tell me what’s going on.”
Slowly, the man set his coffee on the table. His hands folded around the mug casually, lying loose and relaxed around the yellow cup, fingertips barely touching the smooth ceramic surface. His left hand had long, slender fingers, each one carefully sculpted and covered with smooth skin the color of the coffee in his cup. The nails were even and manicured. It made me think of the piano. His fingers looked like they would be able to seduce a tune from an instrument.
Stroke the keys.
Tickle the ivories.
Then my eyes fell on his other hand.
The right hand.
The terrible, red right hand.
The memory of it touching my face slithered through my brain. A chill ran up one side of my spine and tumbled down the other to splash against something low and deep inside me.
I tore my eyes away, forcing them up to his face.
He looked at me, gazing intensely from under a dark brow. His nose was sharp, hawkish at the bridge and widening at the bottom over full lips. He had an exotic face, feral and Semitic, the face of an ancient Babylonian or a time-flung Assyrian.
That sensation happened again, the sick thrill that churned deep inside me.
Fear wrapped itself around me. I felt like an injured swimmer in shark-infested water.
This time my voice did tremble, just slightly, just below the surface. “Who are you?”
“I am Nyarlathotep.”
“Why does that sound familiar?” I’d heard that name before.
“Your uncle Howard Phillip Lovecraft wrote of me.”
“My uncle Howard?” Who the hell was he talking about? Knowledge slammed into my brain. “You mean my mom’s great-uncle? The dead writer?”
“You are of the Lovecraft bloodline.”
This makes no sense.
“My last name is Moore.”
A sip of coffee, a twinkle in dark eyes. “Your father’s last name is Moore. You are a Lovecraft through your mother’s blood.”
“Wait, wait, wait a damn minute.” My hands were flat on the tablecloth, holding onto something solid because the world had tilted on its axis. My brain fumbled around, trying to figure things out. “I read that stuff as a kid ’cause my mom made me. It was weird and boring and totally made up.”
My mom took great pride in being related to a famous writer and wanted me to be proud too. She used to assign his stories to me like homework. I would sit on a Saturday and try to plow my way through words that filled pages like marching insects. Words that had been out of date when he wrote them, containing enough syllables to make my jaw hurt, and he used them as though it were his job. Four adjectives to describe one noun, and three or four nouns in a sentence. Everything became eldritch, elephantine, horrifying, terrifying, or some other ten-dollar descriptor.
Too wordy and dry for a twelve-year-old.
Too wordy for me now.
“Howard Phillip Lovecraft walked your planet as a prophet, able to see through the veil between worlds. He didn’t understand his gift, passed to him from his own mother, a daughter of the original wardens. It very nearly drove him mad. He wrote stories to clear his mind and warn your kind of dangers they knew nothing about.” He leaned toward me. “You have the same gift, Charlotte Tristan Moore.”
“Stop using my full name. It’s annoying. Just call me Charlie.”
He shrugged and sipped his coffee.
“Let me get this straight. You’re telling me that all this craziness is real, and I’m a prophet, and you’re a demon named Nar … how do you pronounce your name?”
“I don’t know if I can say that.”
“You may call me savior.” His lips twitched. Not a smile, just a flicker of amusement. “Or master, if the name is too hard to pronounce.”
“Are you serious?” I stared at him. “Did you seriously just tell me to call you master?” Anger spilled into my voice, making it crack. “What the…”
Something in the tone drew me up short, some power catching my breath in my throat like an animal in a trap. His eyes flashed, crackling with the heat lightning of anger. Dusky skin flushed even darker, a shadow of a thunderstorm rolling over the horizon. His voice dropped into a hiss.
“I am Nyarlathotep. I am the Crawling Chaos. It matters not if you call me the Thing in the Dark or the Nightmare Man. I am that which you fear. I have been named Shaitan, Loki, and the Spider God. Know this.” He leaned forward. “I have chosen you, Charlotte Tristan Moore, to be my Acolyte. That gives you leeway.” A raw, red finger stabbed the table. The plastic tablecloth sizzled underneath it. “But I will not be mocked.”
He sat back in the chair, his dark eyes boring into me. The words vibrated the air between us. They hung like a suicide, dangling loose and swinging slightly. The silence swelled, filling the air like a humidity, making it hard to draw a breath.
I clenched my teeth, keeping words trapped in my mouth. Sweat ran under my hair with a gut-locking sweep of fear. My mind raced, thoughts pinging off the insides of my skull, tearing along the twisted pathways of my brain and stumbling over each other.
Oh shit this is crazy why haven’t Bobbi Annette or Shasta come down this is crazy what is he a man is he a man did he kill them in their sleep what the hell were those things when I got home why did Nyar … nuh-yar-la-THO-tep save me what the hell is going on?
Nyarlathotep waved his normal hand in front of me. “The other people who live here are asleep. They will not wake until I allow it.”
My tumbling thoughts screeched to a halt.
“Did you just read my mind?”
“I did. Your housemates are locked in their dreams until I allow them to wake. I chose to not kill them. I am not a man. Those things were skinhounds, bidding-doers of the Ones Locked Away, sent to kill you before I could find you. I saved your life because you can be my Acolyte.” He smiled. “Did that answer your questions?”
I pushed the chair away from the table. The legs grunted across the floor, loud and sharp. I needed to get up, to move around. This was weird, too weird, too strange, too much. I felt trapped on a train headed off a cliff somewhere down the line. I couldn’t see it from my car, but I could feel the tracks were loose under the wheels. My skin twitched all over from the adrenaline pumping through my bloodstream. I paced beside the counter on the other side of the kitchen, as far away as I could get from the Man in Black while staying in the kitchen. He sat between me and the door. Somehow I didn’t think he would let me leave the room.
I took a deep breath, making my mind calm down.
Think, Charlie, think. Work the problem.
“Why would those skinhounds want to kill me?”
“To stop you from becoming my Acolyte.”
I put my hand up. “Stop that. Stop talking like I know what the hell you’re saying. I don’t know what”—my fingers jerked quotation marks into the air—“become your Acolyte means. Tell me what you want in plain, dumb, human English.”
Nyarlathotep took a sip of coffee. He studied me over the rim of the mug with half-lidded eyes. Slender brown fingers held the cup to his lips. That awful red right hand lay somewhere out of sight, under the table or put away in the folds of his coat.
I didn’t care, as long as I couldn’t see it. That thing creeped me out. It filled me with a cold dread in the bottom of my stomach. Nyarlathotep drained his cup and placed it gently on the table.
He stared at the empty cup, his hand tented on the table just in front of it. After a long moment his hand twitched, fingers flicking out. The cup upturned and flipped to its side. It rolled until the handle thunked on the table, bringing it to a stop. Dregs of heavily creamed coffee slowly ran to the edge of the mug and spilled over to drip out onto the tablecloth.
His voice was clear. “There are things, gods if you will, beings of immeasurable cosmic power who covet the Earth. They desire to overrun it. Some want to destroy your species. Some want to enslave you as playthings. Some want to devour you as succulent prey. They are the Elder Gods, the Outer Gods, the Great Old Ones of time long forgotten. They ruled when this world was without form, and void. They were the darkness upon the face of the deep, slaughtering the ancestors of Adam, laying waste to Creation until they were bound, imprisoned on the edge of the universe. For eons they have tried to crash their cell gates, return to this world, and seek vengeance on the sons and daughters of the ones who slammed shut the door against them.”
I blinked, my eyelids shuttering down for only a split second. When they opened, the Man in Black stood in front of me.
Everything inside my body locked down, every muscle tightening in alarm.
Nyarlathotep loomed over me. Sharply arched eyebrows creased together, obsidian eyes boring into the meat of me. The weight of his gaze lay heavily, a physical thing, pressing against my skin.
His voice came low, nearly breathy, pushed between too sharp and too many teeth. “After millennia of howling and gibbering against the gates, they have a new design. Now they slip quietly into this realm, squeezing through the cracks and the fractures and the fissures little by little, seeding themselves here in this reality. They come like a thief in the night, growing in might and power until enough of their substance has crossed over to make a full and complete transition.”
He leaned in, his sharp-angled face inches from mine. I didn’t flinch, didn’t draw back.
“I have grown fond of your world, of your little humanity. I do not wish to share my playthings with Old Ones who would destroy you all. If the human race is to die in glorious slaughter, it will be by my hand or none at all.”
I took a slow, careful step back. Like you back away from a dog that may or may not bite you, but definitely will if you move too fast. “What do you need me for?”
“Only the Lovecraft bloodline carries the gift of Sight. I need you to be my hound, to help me hunt the avatars of the Old Ones that have already crossed the threshold before their power grows too great to stop.”
“I’ve never seen anything like what you’re talking about. Not until tonight. Not until you.”
“The magick lies dormant inside you. After I place my Mark upon you as my Acolyte, your gift will spark. You shall be of me, and I of you. Then your magick will be accessible to you.”
Dread sat like lead in my stomach. I didn’t want anything to do with this. I just wanted to get away from this … this Man in Black and his craziness. I felt stuck.
Trapped like …
I shoved that behind its door, locking it away.
No! Not like that. Never like that again. Keep it together, Charlie. Play along until you get your chance.
“What do I have to do?”
“Simply give me your hand.” His right arm moved out of the folds of his coat. His hand hung, red, raw, and sticky-slick. I pulled back. I didn’t want to touch that hand. I clenched my fist and shoved it in my hoodie.
The Man in Black looked amused.
“Do not fight me on this, Charlotte Tristan Moore. I will have your hand one way or another. It would be best to give it willingly.”
Slowly, I unfurled my arm, stretching out my palm like a sacrificial offering. His dreadful crimson hand fell quick and terrible, clamping around the bones under my skin, rubbing them against one another. My mind loosened. The shiny cinnamon skin touched mine, firm and slick like scar tissue. I thought it would be sticky and tacky, like semicongealed blood. For a second it almost felt pleasant. Comforting.
Then the pain struck. Small and quick, like a biting cuttlefish under the water. Just a sharp nip that faded before I realized it had happened.
That wasn’t so …
And then the cutting began.
A jolt of agony slashed across my palm. My mind filled with the image of my dad using a woodcarving tool: the spiral blade spinning furiously, carving grooves into a piece of wood clamped to the worktable. The pain burrowed deep in my palm, and it moved, zigging and zagging across my grip, building and building and building, crashing and clanging inside my brain like a crescendo, a cacophony of agony. I tried to jerk away, but the red right hand clamped harder, grinding my phalanges together until they felt shrill and spiral-fractured.
My muscles yanked and stretched, threatening to tear tendon from bone as I fought to break the grip. My mind babbled at me, overloaded from my nerves being set afire, the edges gone brittle and crackling like spun glass, threatening to shatter.
He let go.
I fell backward, ass banging on the kitchen floor, jarring my spine in a click-clack of vertebrae. My jaw slammed shut, teeth tearing through the sides of my tongue. Blood dripped and splattered on the linoleum around me, sizzling as it landed. My hand was smeared with it, looking like a kindergarten finger-painted version of his. I looked at my palm.
The flesh had been excised in lines and whorls and squiggly trails. The raw wound was in the shape of a symbol I’d never seen before. It looked like a pentagram, but there were too many lines, too many swirls. The edges of the skin were crisp, the cuts deep, grooved all the way to the pink flesh underneath. Blood, my blood, pulsed out in time with my heartbeat. Each pulse matched a sick, queasy throb deep in my belly.
His voice rolled like thunder. Pronouncing, “Charlotte Tritsan Moore, you have been Marked as my Acolyte. Now you will be able to See.”
I looked up.
The Man in Black was gone.
In his place stood a monstrosity.
I am going insane.
I couldn’t see it all, couldn’t take it all in, my vision breaking on the edges like cheap windowpanes, crackle-fracturing from the outside in. The thing in front of me filled the room, a mass of limbs and tentacles writhing in knots. The tentacles roiled against each other, worm-white membranes tearing as they rubbed. Clear ectoplasm gushed, lubricating the smearing caress of alien flesh against alien flesh. From this mass jutted spindly limbs ending in grasping, many-fingered hands with too many joints, each finger capped by a talon black and curved to pull meat from bone.
I don’t, I don’t, I don’t …
The massed tentacles were split-seamed with gaping mouths, gnashing rims of razor-sharp chitin crowding and pushing each other in jutting, jagged rows, piranha mouths designed by a mad, sadistic creator. The teeth chomped together, the noise a cacophony, driving into my mind like a drill.
… understand, no sense, what, what, WHAT …
Hundreds of orbs of all sizes dotted the oily membrane skin. A few were as large as my face; some were the size of a pea. Unblinking they stared, drinking in my human frailty, my weakness, my lowly pathetic life. They looked on me without pity, seething animosity in their cold, unmoving stare.
… toomuchdontknowwhatiamlook …
Over this sloppy, slithering form lay a shaggy hide, still raw and bloody from being cut off its original host. It moved on its own, rippling around the chaos it clothed, trying to pull away each time its sore subcutaneous inside brushed against the skin of the chaos god who wore it. Each kiss of contact raised a sizzle and a thin wailing scream that cut through the teeth-gnashing noise of a hundred hungry mouths.
My mind broke, sanity washing away like sand on a crumbling beach. I already knew fear; since that night it had been my constant companion, living in my bones, stalking my shadow, always waiting for a trigger to come screaming back into my mind.
A certain look from a man, the smell of Sax body spray, carpet against my skin, four men in a group, my face touching the bare mattress if the sheet slipped in the night, that song … that damned song that still haunts me. These things and a hundred others had stalked my life since that night, looking for any opportunity to take me and drag me back to the edge of madness.
That was nothing compared to the terror that ripped my soul at seeing the Crawling Chaos in his true form.
A tentacle slithered toward me. My eyes locked on it, unable to blink or look away. It slapped around my arm like an obscene bracelet, the membrane cold and greasy as it curled around my right wrist. Its touch turned the thick line of scar tissue running up my arm into a throbbing current of ice. It ached deep in my tendons, racing along my carpal tunnel. My fingers opened, uncurling to reveal the symbol carved into the flesh of my hand. A scream tore out of my throat.
The chaos moved, surging toward me.
Something hot and wet hit my palm, setting it afire.
The world exploded.
I snapped back to the real world in a harsh, pulling jerk.
I found myself on my knees, still on the kitchen floor. Nyarlathotep stood over me, hand clamped around my wrist. His normal hand. The red right one held my now empty coffee mug from earlier. Something sticky ran down my arm in a twisty, winding trickle. I looked. Coffee. Coffee mixed with blood streamed down my arm, dripping off my hand onto the floor. My mind tumbled into working order and my first coherent thought became:
Who’s going to clean up this mess?
The bones of my wrist ached under the Man in Black’s fingers, and the scar that ran up my forearm thrummed with cold.
Let me go!
I jerked down and to the inside, like I’d been trained to, and slipped my hand out of his grasp. I scrambled, my shoes squeaking on wet linoleum, putting as much distance between me and the Man in Black as I could. He watched me, his lips pulled into a bemused smirk. My back hit the wall. The wall was solid. It was real. Carefully I stood, sliding up, getting my feet under me.
A hornet’s nest buzzed inside my body. I could feel my blood running under my skin, rushing and blasting through the veins. I felt high, charged, jolted full of some weird energy that made the world spin faster.
“What the hell just happened?”
Nyarlathotep smiled. “Blood touched your Mark, and your Sight activated.”
“Stop.” My left hand, the smooth uninjured one, flew up between us. “Stop using those words like they mean something to me.”
I thought for a second, pulling it all together. I looked down, studying the symbol etched into my palm. My hands were shaking, vibrating and tingling like they were hooked into a live wire. The lines and swirls made grooves in my flesh, open and raw, but they weren’t bleeding anymore. My hand felt sticky, but the stickiness had the sugary tack of coffee instead of the iron-tanged texture of blood. “You’re saying my blood, on this thing you did to me, made me see … what the hell did I see?”
His normal hand swept up and down, indicating his body. “This is merely a glamour, a skinsuit I use to walk unhindered in your world. Your Sight revealed to you my true form on this plane of reality.”
“It’s ugly as hell, just so you know,” I spat. The insult felt good. A tiny stab. It didn’t change the fact that this situation had become completely batshit crazy, but it made me feel stronger, a little more in control.
The Man in Black shrugged.
I wiped my shaky hand on my hoodie. The material was tissue-soft from hundreds of washings, but it still felt like sandpaper across the symbol cut in my flesh. “No more blood on this, not ever. ’Cause I never want to see that again.”
“You will need your magick, Charlotte Tristan Moore, if you are to be of service to me. I will require much of you before I am done.”
“You can require whatever you want. I’m not doing it.”
Nyarlathotep appeared suddenly there, in front of me, looming tall, much taller than me. Dark eyes glittered as he leaned in, voice low and sinister. “When the time comes, Acolyte, you will do exactly what I need you to do.”
That close he was overwhelming, looming like a tidal wave pausing before it devastates the shoreline. He smelled like musk and grave dirt, something primal that pulled deep inside me. In a blink he was back across the room. “When you need your magick, it can be activated by touching your Mark with any bodily fluid. Blood is the strongest, followed by sexual issue, but any secretion will spark it to life.”
Bodily fluid? Secretion? Sexual issue? What?
I pushed those thoughts out of the way.
Stay focused. Work the problem.
“Why should I help you?”
Dark eyes sparkled. “I could kill you.”
The threat hit me like a slap. “Then do it and get it over with.” Anger bubbled at his words, boiling away the fear I’d felt since seeing the skinhounds. I was sick of being terrified. I’d worked too hard to not be terrified every day of my life. Nothing was worth being stuck in fear. Fear grinds you down to bone dust and nothing, breaking your will, making you less than human.
Been there, done that, fuck you.
The Man in Black sighed and chuckled.
“Charlotte Tristan Moore, I am not the only one who will seek you out now that your gift has been activated. There are other things, things that crawl and slither at the edge of night, things that would find you. They will come, and they will not have the mercy I have shown.”
“Mercy? I haven’t seen any mercy from you.”
“I spared your life from the skinhounds. I have not slaughtered your friends in their sleep, even though I could. I have not sought out everyone you love and care for and reduced them to mewling pieces of meat that cry for death as a relief from the tortures inflicted upon them.” His red right hand tapped the tabletop. “You will not receive such kindness from those that will seek you without my protection.”
“Wait a minute, you’re the one who Marked me! If these things come, it will be because of what you did to me.”
“That does not matter.” He stuttered in my sight again, suddenly standing without having stood. “What matters now is your choice. Serve as my Acolyte and be protected, or refuse and die.” He reached out his hand, his red right hand, to me.
My eyes narrowed. Anger twisted in my belly like a snake.
“You’re a bastard.”
The Man in Black chuckled in amusement.
Copyright © 2016 by Levi Black
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