“Is that – a Messenger?”

Approaching the altar, Wilfred dropped his bags, 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 time to contemplate the view of Jacob’s End, he went to the backpack and pulled out five black conical vases. One by one he placed them on the ground at equal distances around the altar, aligned to the points of the pentagram. Then he went around and lit each one with an oven lighter.

Replacing the lighter in the backpack, he went back to the altar and examined the horn. It was clearly ancient, patinated and covered with scratches and pockmarks. There was a large dent at the end where a previous owner must have dropped it. In colour it appeared black, but in fact it had no colour: looking at it was like looking into a 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 achieve. 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 his wounds, the tickle of blood as it began seeping from newly-opened scabs, he yelled, “Lord Azathoth! Stir from your slumber and heed the call of your servant, Dhagdar! I beseech you: cause 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, spread between the vases, then quickly settled to the ground, staining the grass purple.

Wilfred looked around in satisfaction. The purple circle protected him from any would-be attackers, 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 his feet 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. May you rest at last in peace.”

With reverence, he placed the heart on one 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 brake. “You know how to get up there?” he asked Dylan.

His brother shook his head.

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

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

Dylan gurgled.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

On the summit of the hill, Wilfred opened his arms towards the distant sea. “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 the ritual had only just begun and already it was going awry. Then again, he consoled 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 behind a rocky outcrop, he touched Arika’s arm and motioned her to stay put. “Keep an eye out for Snyder,” he whispered close to her ear.

“Enim Shub-Niggurath!” he heard Wilfred cry in his brother’s voice. He 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, his eyes fixed on Wilfred’s back. The sorcerer was staring into the clouds and shaking like a wet dog. 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 like a tribute. He murmured 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, no doubt conjuring it so it could 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 crept back to Dylan.

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 pyramid 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 over at Wilfred, he saw why. Wilfred had the black horn in his hands again, 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 help 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 than Quorn’s 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 final 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 forward with hands pressed against his temples.

Kane glanced at Dylan, who was still focusing all his attention on the page. He looked back at Wilfred and smiled when he saw his knees begin to give way. A moment later, Wilfred was lying flat on the grass.

“That’s it; let’s go,” he ordered, 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 body lay still. Kane tapped it with his foot. 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 he watched the black appendages fade to grey. No Messenger to fly down and vomit over them and suck up their liquefied remains. Now we can end this spell once and for all and everything can go back to normal.

At his feet, Dylan’s body stirred. He opened his eyes 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 up, and each held an arm as he moved away from the altar. They sat him at the base of a small tree. Arika placed the Necromonicon on the ground next to him.

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 into his belly. They all gasped.

“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 needed 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 struggled to put his shirt back on. “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 pulling his body towards the altar. When he reached the horn, he took hold of it and dragged 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 it out, Wilfred gurgled, “Enim Cthulhu,” and smashed the final heart.

The action sapped the rest 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 end 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 dropped 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 soon 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, as black as coal and as 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 yelling.

“It sounds like a chant,” panted Arika. “It must be part of the spell.”

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

Kane suddenly remembered the Necromonicon. He stopped. “The book. We left the damn book.”

Dylan and Arika slowed to a walk. Arika kept walking backwards. “Leave it,” she 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 at the truck.”

Read Back underground

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