“Is that – a Messenger?”

Approaching the altar, Wilfred dropped his bags, fell to his knees, pulled out the Necromonicon and opened it on the grass. Turning to a page he’d bookmarked with one of his business cards, he reached back inside the bag and pulled out a curved black horn. He smiled at the horn, weighed it in his hands to once again feel its non-weight, then leapt to his feet, stepped up to the altar and placed it on the edge of the pentagram.

After taking a few moments to listen to the sounds of distant gunfire and the occasional explosion, he breathed in the view of Jacob’s End, then went to the backpack and pulled out five black conical vases and an oven lighter. One by one he placed the vases on the ground at equal distances around the altar, aligned to the points of the pentagram. Then he went around and lit the wick inside each one with an oven lighter.

Replacing the lighter in the backpack, Wilfred went back to the altar and examined the horn. It was a battered, ancient thing, patinated and covered with scratches and pockmarks. There was a large dent at the end where a former owner might have dropped it. In colour it appeared black, but in fact it had no colour: looking at it was like looking into a black hole. The horn was etched with irregular lines and geometric shapes, apparently in a random configuration – but Wilfred knew better. He knew there was magic in those symbols, and he shook with anticipation at what that magic was about to deliver. He sniffed it, like he’d done countless times before, and smiled at its non-smell, non-weight and non-colour – its alien ability to dampen all senses, like an anaesthetic. There was life in the horn, life from its original owner, and it was this that sucked in the life force from whoever was holding it, and gave the object its power.

Positioning the horn at the centre of the pentagram, Wilfred pulled off his coat, threw it on the grass and stretched his arms towards the sky. Staring into the dark clouds, feeling the pull of the wounds in his belly, the tickle of blood as it seeped from newly-formed scabs, he yelled, “Lord Azathoth! Stir from your slumber and heed the call of your servant, Dhagdar! I beseech you: allow the dimensions to bleed the leviathan! And in your name shall chaos arise from order, and order from chaos! In your name! In the name of Azathoth!”

At his words, violet flames erupted from the vases. Thick clouds of smoke billowed into the air, undisturbed by the wind that was bending the grass and blowing hair into Wilfred’s eyes, and with a life of their own, spread between the vases before settling gently to the ground, staining the grass purple.

Wilfred looked around in satisfaction. The purple circle protected him from any would-be attackers and made him invincible. For the first time in his long life, no one could harm him; no one could so much as touch him. As long as he stayed within the circle, he would finish the spell. There was no stopping it; no stopping him.

Breathing fast, he retrieved the backpack, dropped it at the base of the altar and reached into it again, this time bringing out a human heart wrapped with grey twine. Earlier, he’d stuffed the atria and ventricles with a mixture of herbs and fungi, in the precise proportions instructed by the Necromonicon.

“Alas, poor Sebastian,” he said to the heart with a misty smile. “You served me well. You gave your life for a greater good and at considerable cost to your own wellbeing. May you rest at last in peace.”

With reverence, he placed the heart at the top point of the pentagram. Then he reached into the bag and took out another.

Arika saw the smoke first. “There!” she cried.

Kane followed the line of her finger and saw the violet smoke rising above the scrub. “The road doesn’t go that way, dammit.” He jammed on the brakes. “You know how to get up there?” he asked Dylan, turning in his seat.

His brother shook his head.

“He was only there for a minute,” Arika said.

Kane peered up the hill. “Then we’ll have to walk. It doesn’t look far.” He looked back at Dylan. “You ready for this?”

Dylan gurgled.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

On the summit of M’lal’orla, Wilfred opened his arms towards the distant bay. “Lord Azathoth! In your name I break the five seals! In return I implore you: bleed the dimensions; grant me chaos and open the way for the Great Old Ones to transform this land of vile science and blasphemous human conceit in your divine name!”

He picked up the black horn.

“Enim Azathoth!”

With all the strength he could muster in his young body, he slammed the horn down on the first of the bound hearts.

As blood splattered across the altar, a rumble of thunder sounded in the clouds to his left.

“Interesting,” he murmured, turning away from Jacob’s End. He squinted up at the clouds, his face creased with worry. He’d expected the response to come from the ocean, from the epicentre of the ring of creeping death, not from some point in mid-air. The sky was a whole different scenario, something he hadn’t planned for. It worried him that the ritual had only just begun and already it was going awry. Then again, he reminded himself, wasn’t that the nature of chaos?

Hearing nothing more, he raised the horn again.

“Enim Yog-Sothoth!”

He smashed the next heart.

Kane was running up the hill when the second rumble of thunder came. He was carrying Dylan like a baby, a large baby swaddled in brown-stained bandages. His brother was surprisingly heavy, given how small and shrunken Waite’s body was.

Arika, a few paces ahead of them, dropped to a crouching position.

Catching up with her, Kane saw why. At the hill’s summit, Wilfred was raising a black horn in the air. He was standing over a flat rock, sheared at an angle, his back to them. It was the altar Dylan had described and it was obvious even from this distance that the altar was stained with blood. Then he spied, open on the grass behind Wilfred, the Necromonicon.

Placing Dylan on the ground behind a rocky outcrop, he touched Arika’s arm and motioned her to stay with him. “And keep an eye out for Orwell and Snyder,” he whispered close to her ear.

“Enim Shub-Niggurath!” he heard Wilfred cry in his brother’s voice, and glanced up in time to see him smash the black horn down.

This time the action was accompanied by an ululating voice from the sky, a hollow cry of triumph or pain that shook every molecule in the air.

Kane crept towards the Necromonicon, staying low, his eyes fixed on Wilfred’s back. The sorcerer was staring into the clouds and trembling with anticipation. As the cry from the clouds continued, he began grunting, the grunts rising in volume and turning into words: “Yes! Yes! Oh yes! Oh yes! Oh yes!”

Following the line of his stare, Kane froze. The grey clouds to the north of Jacob’s End were bulging – but not with the normal motion of clouds. They had a weird kind of bubbling plasticity, and inside them, like a baby inside an egg sac, something dark squirmed and called out as if demanding to be born.

Laying the black horn on the altar, Wilfred raised his arms towards the clouds in tribute. He called out something unintelligible.

Kane rubbed his eyes, pulled his hands away, squinted up at the womb in the sky. He’d already guessed what the thing was: another Messenger. Waite was welcoming it with open arms, inviting it to join his infernal army in clearing the land of his enemies.

Taking advantage of the distraction, he scurried up, stepped over the purple ring and knelt by the Necromonicon. Closing it quietly, he took one more quick look at Wilfred, then stepped back over the purple ring and crept back to Dylan and Arika.

Dropping the book on the grass, he opened it, turned a few pages and sighed with relief when he came to the picture of the seven-pointed star with the piercing eye in its centre.

“There you go,” he said, pushing the Necromonicon closer to his brother. “Do your stuff.” Lifting Dylan’s decomposing hand, he placed it on the page. “Now focus.” He nodded at Arika as Dylan concentrated all his attention on the picture.

But when Kane glanced up at Wilfred, he got a shock. The book wasn’t working. Wilfred was rubbing his face on his sleeve. He seemed to be wiping away tears.

“Concentrate more,” Kane urged. “Don’t think about anything else. Just focus on getting back in your body. Concentrate, man.”

“Leave him alone, Kane,” Arika admonished. “You’re the one breaking his concentration.”

Dylan didn’t react to either of them. He appeared to be in a trance, and when Kane looked again at Wilfred, he saw why. Wilfred had the black horn in his hands and he’d raised it above the next heart; but he was swaying and dropping his head like someone starting to nod off.

Suddenly something seemed to click, and he turned and saw the Necromonicon was gone. With a cry of alarm, he spun around and locked eyes on them. His face turned to a mask of hate.

Kane expected him to cry out for assistance or come running at them with the horn raised or destroy them with a magic thunderbolt, and so he was surprised when instead Wilfred turned back to the altar. Lifting the horn in the air, he cried, “Enim Nyarlathotep!” and smashed the fourth heart.

The cosmic voice rent the air again. The clouds seemed to melt over the thing writhing inside them and a mass of black appendages became visible. The thing, larger by half than the Quorn Town Hall, hung suspended in the air, squirming as it struggled to escape the clouds that had birthed it.

Without stopping to check the progress of his creation, Wilfred lifted the horn above the final heart. But as he opened his mouth to utter the words, he faltered. His hands lost their grip on the horn and it slipped from his grasp, dropped to the altar, bounced and fell to the ground. Wilfred bent over the altar with hands pressed against his temples.

Kane glanced at Dylan, who was still focusing all his attention on the page. Looking back at Wilfred, he smiled when he saw his knees giving way. A moment later, Wilfred was lying flat on the grass.

“That’s it; let’s go,” he cried, grabbing Dylan under the arms. He lifted him, and in the same motion started running towards the altar. Arika followed carrying the Necromonicon.

“Be careful,” Kane warned her as they approached his brother’s prostrate body. “Stay behind me.”

At a safe distance, he stopped and said, “Dylan? Is that you?”

The blood-spattered body lay still. Kane tapped it with his toe. There was no response. Turning his gaze to the body in his arms, he saw it was unresponsive too.

“Kane, look!” cried Arika, pointing at the clouds.

Peering up at the thing in the sky, he saw it was starting to dissolve back into the clouds. At least that’s one disaster averted, he thought as the black appendages faded to grey. No Messenger to fly down and vomit over them and suck up their liquefied remains. Time for the spell to be ended once and for all; time for everything to go back to normal.

At his feet, Dylan’s body stirred. His eyes opened and his hands grabbed at the grass. Arika crouched beside him. He stared at her, blinked a few times, pushed himself up onto one elbow. “Arika. Am I …?”

She touched his shoulder. “Dylan? Is that you?”

Kane held his breath. The body in his arms squirmed and he glanced down. Waite was sneering at him. “Gah!” he cried, and dropped him on the grass.

Joining Arika, they helped Dylan get to his feet, and each held an arm as he stumbled away from the altar. They sat him under a small tree, leaning his back against the trunk. Arika placed the Necromonicon on the ground next to him and draped his coat around his shoulders.

Kane asked, “Is that really you, Dylan?”

He nodded.

“I think I need more than that, chum.”

“You’re a dumb jock who doesn’t deserve to get the girl,” Dylan said with a crooked smile.

“Ah,” said Kane, “that’s the brother I know.”

“Ow,” he said, grimacing and bending forward in pain. He lifted his bloody shirt. Wrapped around his torso were bloody bandages.

When they removed them, they saw letters carved deep in his belly.

“What the bloody hell is that all about?” Kane asked.

Arika squinted at the letters. “D-hag-dar. I think it says Dhagdar. Does that ring a bell, Dylan?”

“The bastard scarred me for life!”

“It’s still bleeding. He must have done it for the spell.”

“That psycho!” spat Kane. “Who does that kind of thing?”

“Someone who knows he can swap a body for a new one if he damages it?” offered Arika.

Dylan re-wrapped the bandages around his torso. “Is Wilfred …?”

They all looked over at the pile of dirty bandages and old-man clothes. Wilfred was flat on his chest, unmoving.

“Looks dead to me,” said Kane.

“It’s not the first time you’ve said that,” Arika reminded him.

He pulled a face at her. “Dead or alive, he’s in no state to steal your body now. Look at him. And look at you, kid. You’re young again. We’ve got the book. He’s done for. We won!”

Dylan’s face brightened. “Does that mean I get my inheritance now?”

“You deserve it after all you’ve been through.” He shook his head at Dylan’s bloody shirt. “It’ll help pay for the plastic surgery to get rid of those scars.”

“What will you do with your new castle?” asked Arika.

Dylan grinned. “Two castles, remember. Do you want one?”

“I wouldn’t mind a castle,” she mused. “If you’re giving them away.”

“Would you prefer the Hungary one or the one in Austria?”

“Whichever is the smallest. I’m not much for housework.”

As if spurred by their gloating, Wilfred stirred, raised his arms and began dragging his body towards the altar. When he reached the horn, he took hold of it and pulled himself to his feet at the altar.

Arika noticed him first. Dropping her smile, she fumbled in her bag for her gun. But she wasn’t fast enough: before she could pull out the weapon, Wilfred gurgled, “Enim Cthulhu,” and smashed the final heart.

The action sapped what was left of his energy and he fell backwards. His head hit the ground with a dull thump.

This time the cosmic voice was so loud they had to cover their ears. Kane turned in dread to the sky. The conclusion of the spell had reversed whatever was happening up there, and the mountainous black monstrosity, with its dozens of thrashing limbs and writhing tentacles, was now completing its inglorious entry into this world. With the accretion of mass, it slipped from the clouds and fell to Earth with a ground-shaking boom. Roaring with the voice of a thousand wild animals, its mass of legs and arms and tentacles flying about wildly, it eventually found its bearings and pushed itself upright.

When it reached its full height, Kane stumbled backwards. The thing was almost the size of the hill and had limbs like a spider or centipede and tentacles like an octopus or jellyfish. But its most distinctive feature was its human-like head, black as coal and large as an elephant, crowned with cilia that squirmed like snakes.

“Is that – a Messenger?” Kane asked, glancing at Dylan.

The thing turned its face to the hill as if it knew the altar was the source of its liberation. With narrow yellow eyes and lips thin and cruel, it regarded Kane, Dylan and Arika with an expression that suggested intense boredom. Then it moved its weary gaze to Wilfred’s prostrate figure. On seeing the smashed, bloody hearts on the altar, its mouth opened and words thundered out: FH’URH-GWORRH-CTHUT-ESCHEK’TA!

They turned and ran.

Behind them the thing continued its thunderous cries.

“It sounds like a chant,” panted Arika. “Maybe it’s part of the spell.”

“Either that or it’s really pissed off at Waite for waking it up,” said Dylan.

Kane stopped suddenly. He’d remembered the Necromonicon, which they’d left lying on the grass in their haste to escape. “The book. We forgot the damn book.”

Dylan and Arika slowed to a walk. “Leave it,” Arika said, peering anxiously up the hill. “We’ll go back and get it when that thing’s gone.”

But to Kane, leaving the book wasn’t an option. Not after all they’d gone through to regain it, and not with Dylan still vulnerable to any crazy who thought he could pick up where Waite left off.

Arika read his mind. Pushing Dylan along, she said, “Hurry up, then. We’ll see you back at the truck.”

Read Back underground

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