“I’m a trained fireman, and she’s what? – some ginormous alien battle-queen god. No contest!”

Dylan watched in horror as Q’assog-tha moved slowly towards Kane. She stopped and her head descended towards him, her crown of cilia waving madly as if offended by this puny human’s challenge to her divine might.

Dylan grabbed his cheeks in both hands. “No,” he sobbed. His eyes were streaming with tears, but he was unable to pull them away from his brother. He had a demented thought that nothing bad could happen to Kane as long as he kept his eyes on him, but he was also terrified of witnessing what he knew was the likely outcome of this contest.

“Wait!” Arika cried, gripping his arm. Something was happening. Q’assog-tha, rather than attacking Kane, seemed to be studying him.

Her face, blank until now, creased in impotent rage. PH’TURGH TSUA’IARGH! boomed her voice. Throwing herself backwards, she began moving away from him.

“She’s seen Ys-kar,” Arika breathed. “She’s running away. The mighty warrior queen is scared!” Tapping Dylan on the shoulder, she took off for the truck.

Inside the truck, Henri was spellbound by the spectacle of Kane standing up to a god. Even more incredible was that Q’assog-tha was in retreat. But it quickly became clear the god wasn’t giving up. Circling around Kane, she was intent on making it to the ocean and continuing her quest to find her brother. And barring a miracle, nothing was going to stop her.

“We’re doomed,” breathed Henri, dropping her head. “Doomed.”

Glancing up, she spied Dylan and Arika in the side mirror, running towards the truck. She watched for a few moments as they grew larger, her mind still and calm, hardly registering them. Pulling the rear-view mirror down, she stared at her own reflection. It wasn’t a pretty sight. She looked like she’d aged ten years in a day. “Henri Appleby,” she chided herself, “don’t go trying to fool yourself.” She smiled with self-pity at her red-rimmed eyes, the creases on her cheeks, the way her jowls pulled down towards her flabby neck. Just look at you, old girl. How can you even contemplate it? You’re not the hero type. You’re just what Sam said you are: a scared, frumpish, owl-faced bookworm.”

Pushing the mirror up, sighing with the futility of it all, she shoved the gear into drive, pressed her foot on the accelerator and took off in a surge of power.

Up ahead, Kane was chasing Q’assog-tha. She was moving across the terrain with surprising swiftness, her size and weight appearing to propel her rather than hold her back. She was heading for the cliff edge, her eyes on the ocean, in which slept her brother, the high priest of other-worldly terror.

“Come back and fight, you coward!” yelled Kane as he stumbled over the rocky ground. “You’re not a god; you’re a scared, oversized octopus!” He waved Ys-kar in the air, challenging her to fight, but it was clear she wasn’t to be distracted by a boy’s cheap insults. She was faster and stronger and he was losing the race to the water.

Hearing a rumble behind him, he glanced over his shoulder to find Henri, driving his truck, approaching fast. She came up alongside him, slowed down, yelled, “Get in! I’ll get you closer!”

Kane gaped at his truck as if it were driving itself. His first thought was to wave at Henri to stop, so he could get behind the wheel and drive himself; but he knew there was no time to spare. Henri knew this too. She waited until he fell back and leapt into the tray, then took off again at high speed. Pushing Ys-kar under his armpit, Kane held onto the bar with both hands as the truck bounced over the uneven ground and skidded in the mud as Henri turned the wheel towards Q’assog-tha.

Speeding past her, completing an arc, she slowed to let Kane jump out of the tray, then continued the circle and stopped the truck at a safe distance. Kane hit the ground running and charged at Q’assog-tha with Ys-kar raised.

But once again, Q’assog-tha was onto him. Her face steely with fury, she shot out a single leathery tentacle, which hooked around his ankles and pulled his legs out from under him. The tentacle snapped away and he fell. Landing painfully on his shoulder, Ys-kar flew from his grip. His head bounced on the ground, stunning him senseless.

Backing away, Q’assog-tha continued her trek to the ocean.

Henri hit the steering wheel with both hands. “Dammit, Kane! Get up! You almost had her! She’s scared stiff of Ys-kar!”

Kane wasn’t moving.

Driving closer, she stuck her head out of the window. “Kane! Wake up! You can still catch her!”

Her voice seemed to rouse him, though his only reaction was to roll onto his side and bring his knees up to his chest.

Throwing open the door, Henri clambered out, collected Ys-kar, and knelt beside him.

“You’ve got to get up, Kane. She’s getting away. If you don’t stop her, we’re all dead.”

Q’assog-tha was approaching the edge of the cliff.

“Oh no! No, no, no!” Henri cried, frozen with terror. “She’s made it!” Shaking Kane’s shoulder, she leaned close to his ear and yelled, “Get up, Kane! Get up, get up!”

Pushing herself upright, she watched as Q’assog-tha peered to the left and right, then up at the sky, as if trying to find her bearings.

As Henri stared at the dark behemoth silhouetted against the turbulent sky, a wave of emotion surged inside her. The Black Queen had never looked more magnificent than she did right now: poised above the ocean, her eyes on the horizon, ready to fulfil her destiny by awakening her exalted brother and resuming their reign of this wretched planet and its loathsome inhabitants.

The terror melting from her face, she climbed to her feet and gazed down at Ys-kar. “This is yours,” she said, and a single tear squeezed out of one eye and fell on the horn. It dried instantly.

Henri began walking towards Q’assog-tha, holding out Ys-kar as a divine offering. “You’ll be needing this,” she said in a clipped, librarian’s voice. “It will assist you in locating your brother.”

As she neared Q’assog-tha, she saw the Black Queen was making signs in the air with six branch-like arms. At the same time, the tentacles all along her vast body were curling and waving in a repeating pattern, as if executing a beautiful dance.

“Here,” Henri said, holding out Ys-kar. “Use this in your spell. It’s connected to your brother.”

Suddenly, Q’assog-tha bellowed, CTHULHU LI’THAN R’LYEH! and in that same instant the rapture in Henri’s mind snapped and she stopped dead in her tracks. She shook the fog from her head, hardly believing she’d almost walked straight up to her enemy and handed over the keys to the Earth’s destruction. Standing close to the monster that had sucked Sam Morgan dry, her legs trembled and she almost lost control of her bladder.

“She’s not a god; she’s a murderous devil,” she told herself through clenched teeth as Q’assog-tha’s influence began seeping into her mind again. “She killed Sam: a good man. She’s evil.” With a burst of determination, she yelled, “Prepare to return to your cesspit hell dimension, you she-witch!” and threw Ys-kar with all her might.

The horn flew into the air and landed in a bush.

Q’assog-tha turned her head. A tentacle reached out, scooped up Henri and cast her over the cliff.

Her foes vanquished, the Black Queen now raised herself to her full height and began calling out, CTHULHU LI’THAN R’LYEH! CTHULHU LI’THAN R’LYEH! in a thunderous voice.

The noise raised Kane from his stupor. Pushing himself up, he got onto his knees, took a few deep breaths and blinked the stars from his eyes. With a sideways glance at Q’assog-tha, he climbed to his feet and staggered back to the truck. He arrived there at the same time as Dylan and Arika.

“What did you think you were doing?” yelled Dylan, waving his hands in the air. “Are you stupid or something?”

“Haven’t you ever wanted to be a superhero?” he returned, rubbing the back of his head.

“Not a dead one.”

“You’ve read the comics. The dead ones always come back.”

“I need you, you dumb stupid jock. You can’t go off being selfish and stupid like that. Where would I be if you’re all dead and shit?”

Kane smiled at his brother’s compliment-in-an-insult. It showed he was returning to normal – or rather, turning to normal. Dylan had never been this real and concerned about anything. “You outsmarted a two-hundred-year-old wizard,” he reminded him, squeezing his shoulder. “What do you need me for?”

“I don’t need you,” interjected Arika, punching his arm hard, “but I have gotten used to having you around.” She smirked at Dylan. “Even if you are a dumb stupid jock.”

Kane turned to her. So you do like me, he thought with a burst of elation. I knew it! He could have kicked himself for not acting on his instincts earlier. Realising he would have no other chance, he grabbed Arika by the shoulders and kissed her hard on the mouth. She felt surprisingly warm, and tasted sweet, like an orange. To his great relief, she didn’t push him away.

When at last he pulled back, she stared him in the eye and said, “Okay, I do need you.”

He smiled at her with real regret, and then the reality and urgency of the moment returned and his face hardened. He glanced over his shoulder. Q’assog-tha was still performing her spell, bellowing, CTHULHU LI’THAN R’LYEH! as her arms waved and her tentacles danced and her eyes scanned the watery horizon.

He turned back to Arika. “If only we’d met under different circumstances,” he said sadly, though he knew it was only these unique circumstances that had brought them together. Without the Messenger, their paths would never have crossed. Arika had no reason to visit Quorn and Kane would never have gone anywhere near George University. More to the point, they had nothing in common besides stopping Waite and Orwell – and now Q’assog-tha. What kind of relationship could be built on such flimsy foundations? The thought made him feel a little better. Any way you looked at it, this spark between them would never have gone anywhere.

The chanting suddenly rose in volume. At the same time, the rhythmic motion of Q’assog-tha’s tentacles gave way to a manic thrashing. U-ARGH! DIETSCHE PHTARGH! CTHULHU NA-AI KTHA! she screamed, rising on her hind limbs.

Kane saw Arika’s eyes scan the ground for Ys-kar and realised she was probably thinking the same thing he was. “Do you think her brother heard her?” he asked, to distract her.

“Let’s hope it’s a locating spell, not an awakening one.”

“If Cthulhu was awake, we’d probably have felt something,” Dylan said.

“Good. That gives me time to finish this.”

Dylan looked confused. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know what it means. I need to go.”

“No, I don’t know what it means. No one needs to do anything.”

“Someone has to stop her reaching the water.”

Dylan sputtered and shook his head. “No, it’s too late. That thing won’t let you get close. You saw it. She’ll kill you if you go back.”

“I have to try, Dylan. You know I do. If she wakes that Coolio thing and they start Armageddon, it’s the end for everyone.”

“Have you forgotten about the human sacrifice?”

“I’m counting on that part being an old wives’ tale. Or the dead soldiers might be enough. I’ll just have to play it by ear.”

Ignoring his brother’s protests, he went to the truck, pulled out the Necromonicon and handed it to Arika.

“Keep this safe,” he said. “You’ll need it if I don’t come back. You’re the only two who can stop her.”

Nodding, she took the book from him. He was pleased to see her eyes stayed on him – a stark contrast to all the other times she was near the Necromonicon, when she couldn’t take her eyes off it.

“Don’t do it, Kane,” pleaded Dylan one last time, grabbing his sleeve, pulling his arm towards him. “Let someone else be the hero.”

“There is no one else.” He glanced around. “There’s only us. Only me. And I will come back, do you hear me? I’m a trained fireman, and she’s what? – some ginormous alien battle-queen god. No contest!” He grew serious. “I do need to ask one thing – just in case,” he quickly added. “Can you please find January and tell her I’m sorry? I know I was unfair and immature and – well, a dick. Just say I’m sorry, okay?”

“You’ll tell her yourself.” Dylan threw his brother’s arm away. “But yes, if it makes you feel better, I’ll tell her.”

“Thanks.” When Dylan dropped his head, he said, “Listen, kid: Mum and Dad would have been proud of you. I am too. You’ve been amazing – strong and smart and – and I couldn’t have asked for a better little brother.” He took him in a bear hug, kissed his hair, then stepped away in embarrassment.

The chanting stopped. They turned their heads and watched as Q’assog-tha started her descent, walking down the cliff the way a lizard or a snail would, face first, clinging to the rock in defiance of gravity.

“I’ll be back,” Kane said in a bad Austrian accent. With a bittersweet smile at Arika, he took off, retrieved Ys-kar and ran after Q’assog-tha.

At the top of the cliff, he stopped and peered down at the black mass of sticks and tentacles. Q’assog-tha had reached the beach and was about to start her trek across the sand.

“Here goes nothing,” Kane said, and with a last glance back at Dylan and Arika, jumped.

He landed with a grunt in the soft folds of Q’assog-tha’s back. Her tentacles embraced him, a warm feeling swept through his body, and a beautiful calmness began entering his mind, dislodging all his fears and cares.

With the last of his free will, he raised Ys-kar and slammed it into her back.

The Black Queen roared and Kane was hoisted into the air. But it was too late. Ys-kar had penetrated her hide. The tentacles weakened, loosened their hold, and Kane slipped through their grasp and fell back into the folds of Q’assog-tha’s body.

Flailing, he struggled to turn over and get to his feet. But his energy was flagging. And he was rapidly losing any desire to escape. Q’assog-tha’s body was soft and warm like his bed. She was the home he’d craved all his life, a place of safety and comfort, where Mike and Lauren and Oliver and Dylan waited for him, happy and healthy, impervious to any harm or misery. He felt an overpowering urge to curl up and sleep in the arms of his magnificent queen, the divine one who could make this miracle happen, who, in return for his devotion, would return to him everything he’d ever lost.

With a soft sigh, Kane closed his eyes and surrendered himself to her.

Meanwhile, Q’assog-tha continued dragging herself through the sand in a vain effort to reach the sea. Her tentacles were turning a translucent grey. She was weakening and fading by the second. Her face wore an expression of surprise and hate and disbelief at the victory of this insignificant mammal.

At last she stopped, collapsed in the sand, and with a final raucous scream, faded into a colourless mass of protoplasm before melting into nothingness.

Dylan and Arika watched her defeat from the top of the cliff. After her disappearance, the sand and the sea went on as always under the dismal sky. Gelatinous brown waves lapped against the shore. Dead fish and seaweed in various states of decay dotted the beach. Kane and Ys-kar were gone.

Read Chapter 56: Saving Kane

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