Excerpt from The Tower of Zhaal

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The stars were not right. This fact was burned into the minds of every human being living on the ruin we called planet Earth. Once, the stars were white pinpricks of light against a black sky. They were comforting guides to astronomers, lovers, and sailors. The little dots of light hinted at vistas that humanity might one day visit. Those are not the stars of tonight’s world. The stars I’d grown up with, which hung above me this evening, were red, orange, and yellow burning orbs that pulsated and hummed with eldritch energies. Sometimes the night sky was black, other times white, and others still colors not meant for human eyes.

Billions of years ago, the alien gods known as the Great Old Ones descended from the sky to claim our still primordial world as their own. Entering an epoch-long hibernation, they and their servant races slept as the world evolved around them. A dozen sentient races lived, and went extinct before the rise of humanity. In the Twenty-First century, the Great Old Ones had reclaimed the Earth and humanity was reduced to small tribes, scattered towns, and bandit gangs.

It was like the Old West Reborn, though I supposed it was a New East given we lived in the ruins of Massachusetts. Every year, it seemed humanity drifted closer and closer to extinction with no end in sight. The stars were the most visible sign of the Great Old Ones’ presence, altering the very fabric of the universe with as causal a thing as a thought. Was it possible to survive in such a place where light, which should not have reached our world from distant solar systems for millions of years, now changed every second? I couldn’t say. It was a heavy set of thoughts for a caravan guard.

“Booth?” a voice called at my side. I stared up into the endless void above me. We were lying on rocky Earth in dusty plains far to the north of the city we called our home.

“Yes, Mercury?”

Mercury Halsey was one of my few remaining comforts. A short flame-haired woman of mixed Japanese and Caucasian descent, she had a thin, angular face with skin just recently weather-beaten from the sun. Mercury was not the sort of person one expected to survive in the harshness of the Wasteland. Appearances could be deceiving, though, and in Mercury’s case she was silk hiding steel.

Though she looked like either a merchant or scholar, Mercury was the former chief torturer for the recently overthrown New Arkham government. As a scientist, she’d been made to use her knowledge of healing to torment instead. In the end, she’d revolted and fled with me into the Wasteland. We’d been traveling together for almost a year and had become lovers—a development expected by everyone but me.

Mercury lay on a sleep roll beside me, her small body tucked under the blankets. I took a moment to admire it and wish we weren’t currently celibate thanks to my “condition.” Behind us, there were beaten-down carts and composite cars made from a hundred different vehicles being used to haul freight and drive cattle from Kingsport to New Arkham.

Creatures the locals called horses, but were a wide variety of strange mutated animals of a quad or hexahedral nature, also rode as part of the caravan. Dozens of humans were asleep or standing watch around us, a mixture of workers and guards like myself. Mercury was the caravan’s medic. The two of us had been intent on changing the world, but we’d somehow ended up becoming traders instead.

“What are you thinking about?” Mercury asked. Though we were resting, she wore  rough denim and goggles around her neck. Given the potential dangers of the Wasteland, we had to sleep lightly and wake instantly, ready for action at any given moment.

“The stars,” I admitted.

Mercury looked up. “Yeah, I suppose they are pretty tonight.”

I snorted. If there was one survival advantage evolution had granted humanity over the many Extra Biological Entities (or E.B.E.s, as the Remnant used to call them), it was the ability to normalize the inexplicable. Six-and-a-half billion humans had died in the Rising and the survivors had learned to share their world with all manner of strange creatures—many of which had lived beside us all along.

The surviving humans still hated the Deep Ones, ghouls, mutants, and Serpent Men of the world, but their existence no longer drove an otherwise rational man to madness. Even now, a century later, we were still scraping by with all the divisions that had existed before. The members of the Morgan Trading Company were more afraid of Dunwych tribals or human raiders than they were of monsters robbing them.

“The stars are beautiful,” I admitted, smiling. “I’ve been looking at them for hours.”

“Can’t sleep?”

“I don’t sleep much anymore. Sometimes I go for weeks at a time without rest.” I was speaking literally.

“Don’t let the others hear that,” Mercury whispered, looking over at my right arm. “They might take it the wrong way.”

“I’ll bear that in mind.”

I flexed my right hand, feeling the immense, terrible power within it. It was bound in bandages and cloth wrappings, long sleeves as well as gloves hiding its true nature. Arcane glyphs from the Necronomicon and Book of Eibon had been branded into my flesh while juju beads bought from Dunwych mystics were spun around the hideous black chitin that covered everything from my fingertips to my arm socket. On my right shoulder, spreading alien poison through my veins, was the Hand of Nyarlathotep. It was a scar in the shape of a human hand that often glowed with an ethereal white light.

The Hand of Nyarlathotep was a symbol of being “touched” by one of the Other Gods. I had only suspicions as to how I’d acquired it, but it now defined my life. Once, I thought the strange marking had been killing me, but time had revealed it portended a more insidious fate. I was becoming something other than human.

A stronger man would have taken his own life by now, but years of serving as a soldier had left me with a tenacious desire to live. The runes and beads kept the infection at bay, albeit poorly, and I’d gotten to live a few more months with my lover. Mercury could turn her attention away from the horror within me and love me regardless. Even so, she’d terminated her pregnancy last month lest she gave birth to a monster.

“How are the spells holding up?” Mercury asked, her voice uneasy.

“Not well,” I answered, more frustrated than scared now. “They slowed its progress in the beginning but I’m not sure they’re doing anything now.”

“We could try amputating it again.”

“No.”

“John—”

“It isn’t a matter of me not wanting to be a cripple. I tried cutting off my arm with the help of a tribal warrior during the trip through the Bloch Passage, but I awoke days later covered in blood and no idea how I got there. My arm had regrown and the amount of mutated flesh had doubled.” I didn’t tell Mercury that I’d awoken with blood in my mouth and a full stomach.

“I wondered what happened on that trip,” Mercury said, reaching over to place her hand on my shoulder. “I can judge the current rate of progression and give you a rough estimate if you want but—”

“How long do I have?”

Mercury touched my right and I shifted from her. Not only because it was my cursed one but also because of how her touch felt. It was electric and excited the dark alien parts of my brain that wanted to make her my mate in a way antithetical to human love.

“You have perhaps another two or three months until the change reaches your heart.” Mercury’s expertise with E.B.E.s and mutation had allowed me to get an accurate measurement of my condition. “After that, I don’t think it will stop. It will accelerate and consume your entire body. From there, you will no longer be John Henry Booth. You will be—”

“What?” I asked, daring her to say monster.

“I don’t know.” Mercury looked away.

I didn’t want to encourage her to try and cheer me up about my condition. There was too much scientist in her still. I felt like a specimen under her microscope some nights, a creature that might survive the end days yet carry some spark of humanity. Despite this, I loved her and tolerated her eccentricities. After all, Mercury was one of the few people I trusted enough to share my torn feelings with—just not all of them.

There was a part of me that I kept from her, a part of me, a repressed and hidden part that wanted to be changed. While I no longer slept much, I still dreamed. Azathoth, Azathoth, Azathoth. The relentless repeating of the Blind Idiot God’s name was a constant in the back of my mind now. Outside the ordered universe was an amorphous blight of nethermost confusion that blasphemed and bubbled at the center of all infinity.

Surrounding it was a court of nameless otherworldly priests, bards, and courtiers of descriptions that defied conventional reason. Their hideous chanting paid homage to the End of Everything and called to me to join them in an eternal dance of nightmarish joy. I wanted to join their revelry. To be free of this dead, dusty world of causal violence and hopeless nights so I could stop caring that every day seemed to bring us closer to oblivion.

But then I wouldn’t love Mercury. I wouldn’t love anything at all. Not my daughters, my son, or my squad mates living and dead.

Monsters didn’t love.

Only humans did.

“So what are we going to do?” Mercury asked, perhaps sensing my increasing ambivalence. There were times I’d seen her stand over me, thinking I was asleep, perhaps contemplating ending my life as a form of mercy. Her hesitation made me happy, but I wasn’t sure if it was the right emotion to feel.

“I don’t know,” I said, taking a deep breath.

“We need to make a final decision before the decision is made for us. Assuming we haven’t made the decision already by waiting this long.”

“I know,” I said, the bitterness in my voice harsh and thick.

I looked over to the other caravan crew to make sure no one was listening. Those who weren’t asleep weren’t close enough to hear, a fact I found relieving. Mercury hadn’t been exaggerating about the mutant burnings. I’d seen hundreds of them killed over my four decades of life, mostly at my hands.

Was the alien blood in my veins polluting my mind? Were the visions warping my will? Would a rational, uncorrupted John Henry Booth have hesitated to kill himself if it meant saving the world from one more predator? I just didn’t know anymore.

“Will you remember me if you change?” Mercury asked. “Us? Anything?”

“Nothing could make me forget you,” I lied to her.

“I can’t kill you.” Mercury’s blue eyes blinked in the darkness. “I’ve wanted to at times, even prepared the instruments, but I can’t. I’m as addicted to you as you are to me.”

It would have been a shocking revelation coming from anyone but her. Mercury had planned for killing every member of this caravan, should they turn on us, when we’d taken this job—and all our previous employers. It was a quality I liked about her. I’d already lost friends to my impending metamorphosis. Jessica O’Reilly, a woman I’d grown up with, had turned on me and tried to kill me. I still found myself wondering if she hadn’t been the sane one among us some nights.

“Thank you,” I said, looking down at the dusty ground beneath my bedroll. “I mean that.”

“I want you to live, no matter the cost. One more monster won’t make this world any worse. Maybe you’ll be able to remember it when everything else is dead.”

The bitterness in Mercury’s voice surprised me. It shouldn’t have. Mercury wasn’t just speaking grim cynicism, but prophecy. Nyarlathotep, the Messenger of the Other Gods and the inspiration for countless divinities, had spoken to me of humanity’s fate.

Three generations.

I did not know if he meant the accumulated lifespans of three humans or sixty years, but he had been clear in the rest of his statement’s meaning. Humanity, that weak race of primates I could no longer call my own, was doomed. Extinction would claim our race after Nyarlathotep’s ambiguous deadline passed and no force in the universe would stop it. I had sworn myself against this destiny, proclaimed I could stop mankind’s destruction, but that had been hubris. How could I save humanity when I couldn’t even save myself?

I reached over to grasp Mercury’s hand with my left one. Our fingers touched. “No one knows how long we have on this world. I might be cursed to something horrible in a few months or I might die tomorrow. The condition could reverse itself as well. Where there is life, there is hope.”

Even if it was a fool’s hope.

“Damn, you’re a bundle of joy tonight.”

“I thought I was being cheerful, actually.” I gave a half-smirk.

Mercury abruptly changed subjects, still squeezing my hand. “Do you think Jackie will be all right while we’re on this trip?”

Mercury was speaking of her our adopted daughter, Jackie Howard. Jackie was living under a curse every bit as dreadful as my own, possessing the hybridized blood of human and ghoul. Like my dear lost friend, Richard Jameson, Jackie would undergo a terrible transformation when she reached her thirties and cease to be as she was. The ghouls were not an evil race, their love of human flesh aside, but she would be forever ostracized from humanity thereafter.

“We left her in a city of murderers, pimps, and slavers—she’ll be fine,” I said, smiling.

Mercury snorted. “Not funny, Booth.” She was smiling, though.

I wasn’t joking. Kingsport was a town of criminals—it was also the only civilization I trusted not to kill Jackie out of hand should her true parentage become known.

“Mister Death has promised to look after her. The Dunwych tribesmen do not think of the E.B.E.s the same way we do. They think Jackie’s blood makes her strong.”

I did not trust the tribal shaman as far as I could throw him, but I did not believe he would betray our trust. I’d saved his people last year, as much through luck as anything, and he owed me.

“I just worry about her. Jackie’s the one good thing that has come out of the past year, our relationship aside.”

“Jackie is, indeed. We had to come out here, though.” One could not survive long in the Wasteland if one didn’t have a useful skill to trade for food and water. To feed our non-traditional family around me, Mercury and I both needed to work, and caravanning was the only thing that allowed enough payment for research into a cure as well as comfortable living.

Well, that and banditry. I wasn’t about to turn desert pirate, though.

“We will be home soon,” I reassured her. “You can continue to teach Jackie all the skills she needs to be a doctor or medic.”

“Fat lot of good they’ll do her in Ghoultown.”

I snorted. “Who knows, maybe they’ll find it amusing to learn about what humans called their bones.”

“Versus supper?” Mercury said, making an unfunny joke.

I laughed anyway. “Yeah.”

“I love you, Booth.”

“I love you, too.”

I leaned over to kiss her and as our lips met, I felt a dreadful pain in my chest. Pulling away, I placed my hand over my heart and felt it beat several times faster than normal. Looking up, I stared into the darkness and saw.

In a spectrum denied the three dimensions afforded to humanity, I saw past the dusty plains we were camped on to a group coming at us. A very large group. Dozens of gray-robed figures, each holding rods of crystal, were approaching in an eerie octagonal formation.

Some were men and women.

Humans.

Others were not.

“Mercury, awaken the camp,” I said, sucking in my breath.

“Alarm!” Mercury shouted at the top of her lungs, running around the camp and waking up the guards who weren’t already on watch. “We’re under attack!”

Chapter Two

Cultists. There was one scourge greater than any other across the Wastelands, and that was those humans who’d chosen to devote themselves to the Great Old Ones. Not because they were more dangerous than the monsters around us, but because they focused their rage squarely on humanity. Not all the Great Old Ones’ worshipers were evil. The Dunwych, for example, walked the balance between fear and awe with practiced ease. Cultists mistook the Great Old One’s indifference to the Old World’s destruction as deliberate malice and attempted to curry favor by slaughtering their fellow man.

Now we were surrounded by them.

I did not know this group to be cultists because of their attire—robes were just practical desert wear, after all—but by the crystal rods in their hands. I’d last seen them wielded by the Elder Things on a trip to the Dreamlands—a dimension even more chaotic than our own. The weapons could deliver terrible electrical shocks and perform all manner of other, seemingly mystical, feats. No human could acquire them on their own. They had to have been given to madmen.

Our caravan wasn’t composed of fools. They went for their weapons and defensible positions. Everyone in the camp was armed and had ammunition to spare. Even a century later, it wasn’t difficult to find guns in the former United States—not that regular bullets did much against monsters. Hopefully, we’d get in some lucky shots.

On my end, I went for my A19 rifle. It was one of many composite weapons the United States Remnant had constructed in the aftermath of the Rising. A combination of a sniper rifle and an assault weapon, it had seen better days. Still, it was a weapon I knew well and had been trained in the use of. Furthermore, I had a secret weapon—a clip of orihalcum ammunition I’d managed to recover from the wreckage of a crashed Remnant helicopter. Made from a Deep One’s metal harvested from the bottom of the ocean floor, orihalcum could kill the unkillable.

Sometimes.

Lifting the weapon’s crude half-functioning night scope, I gazed out into the darkness. The robed figures were a few dozen yards away now, having somehow traveled farther in the short time than they could have walked (or run). The one at the head of the group, a tall brown-skinned man wearing slightly more ornate robes than the rest, lifted a crystal rod as if to signal the others to do the same.

Snapping a cartridge clip into the chamber, I wasn’t fast enough to fire before the air filled with glowing bolts of light. The bright beams arched through the darkness like mortars before landing on our campsite. Explosions knocked over and killed many of the workers around me, igniting our cargo. The fire burned unnaturally fast, leaving a near-instant ruin of char in its place. Some of the guards I’d befriended—Davidson, Bone-Face, and Hillary—were already dead. I intended to avenge them.

It was Mercury who scored the first kill as she raised a pistol and fired repeatedly into the night. I saw one of her bullets strike a cultist in the chest and send him spiraling to the ground. I switched to automatic fire, gunning down another figure with tentacles for a mouth before switching to a second, and a third. The air filled with staccato bursts. My ears stung, but I ignored the pain, concentrating on taking down as many attackers as possible.

Unfortunately, the battle was lost before it began. More energy bolts sailed our way, adding to the slaughter. I saw a woman, Mavis, fall to the ground with her entire chest burned out like it was kindling. Her eyes stared into the star-filled sky, the orbs glazed over with a primordial terror.

The cultists continued to advance.  Their weapons could tear us apart from a distance, but they chose to move closer, enjoying the slaughter.  More of the robed figures dropped as the five or six of us remaining relocated behind cover to retaliate. As advanced as their technology was, the cultists weren’t bullet proof, and more of them died every step they took. The problem was, their steps were not normal. Somehow, they were warping space and time, not running, or taking long strides, but seeming to flash ahead, every foot they moved seeming more like a yard.

I kept firing. The cultists ignored the bloody bodies they left behind, proceeding as if not assaulted by a hail of gunfire. Only the brown-skinned man in the lead reacted differently. I targeted his head with my rifle and pulled the trigger. He showed no response at all—it was as if my bullet had passed through him.

“Fuck,” I muttered, focusing on the other cultists, who seemed more vulnerable to my attacks. They were less than thirty feet away now and their numbers had halved, but they still outnumbered us. They probably could have killed us, and I wondered if they planned to drag us back for some sort of ceremony. If so, I vowed to save the last bullet in my gun for myself.

“They’re not slowing down, Booth,” Mercury shouted, scoring her seventh kill. She was having more luck than I was. I noticed that several of the bodies I’d gunned down earlier were getting back up.

“No shit,” I muttered, before shouting, “We need to fall back!”

The other surviving guards didn’t get a chance to respond, as less than ten feet away, the cultists aimed their crystalline weapons and obliterated them. So much for not killing us. Their bodies didn’t get blasted apart as Mavis’s had, but were burned with such heat that they seemed to melt where they stood. Soon, only Mercury and I were left.

“Fuck!” I swore again, this time running backwards as I fired. Mercury did as well. All of the corpses on the ground we’d shot to pieces had risen. I decided to switch to my orihalcum clip but wasn’t sure those would do any good either. How did you fight an opponent who wouldn’t stay dead?

“What was that about us heading back to Kingsport after this?” Mercury baited me. “Funny, I seem to recall the word ‘easy’ for this mission.”

“Not the time!”

The two of us maneuvered through the burning wreckage of the carts and composite cars, firing at the cultists as we went. They were forming a circle around the camp. My head started to ache as I heard the chanting of Azathoth’s name in the back of my head change. No longer was it the sound of his distant court, but instead, seemed far closer and in an eerie language that was not meant to be spoken by a human tongue.

“F’gnarrgaa haaa’ra abagarnaaa cathaaal Yith. F’gnarrgaa haaa’ra abagarnaaa cathaaal Yith. F’gnarrgaa haaa’ra abagarnaaa cathaaal Yith.”

Taking yet another shot, I grimaced, feeling like my head was about to explode. I understood that language. It spoke to memories locked in the fabric of my DNA, or perhaps some spiritual link my consciousness had to the greater universe. Moreover, I knew the word Yith.

Spoken of in Unknown Kults, they were an ancient race which had once inhabited the Earth during the Cretaceous Period. Advanced yet peaceful, they psychically sailed the oceans of time and space, learning about other worlds by seizing the bodies of lesser creatures. They had lived among the dinosaurs before the latter’s extinction and occasionally popped up to record humanity’s dying days in the present. Did the cultists worship the Yithians, or had they simply adapted the word to their use with no understanding of what it meant?

Reaching the end of my clip, I bumped into Mercury as we slipped behind the one composite car undamaged by the cultists’ hellish bolts. A former school bus, the vehicle had carried the largest portion of cargo in the caravan—foodstuffs like grain, rice, and fruits for the people of Arkham. The other goods had been destroyed out of hand, but the cultists had left this one alone. Was it simple robbery? Were they just cattle rustlers and horse thieves? The lives of dozens sacrificed for the price of a few crates and animals? Perhaps. I’d seen people killed for much less.

Behind us, the inferno of three carts that had been pulled by a now-half-melted truck hid us from the cultists now encircling our campsite. I had no doubt they knew where we were, though, and that they could kill us at any time. Indeed, it was strange they hadn’t done so already. They had killed everyone else without hesitation. We were being kept alive for some reason.

Why?

Mercury turned to me, sweat covering her brow, her eyes reflecting the flames around us. The heat was tremendous and it was difficult to breathe. For all the horrible changes I’d undergone, I still needed to breathe, and we’d run out of the battlefield into what was close to a raging inferno. Still, I saw no hopelessness or terror in her face.

Only anger.

“If you have any ideas, now would be a good time to share them.” Mercury’s voice was choked, but I knew she’d rather go down fighting than become a cultist’s pet.

So would I.

I lifted up my ammo clip of orihalcum bullets and switched it out for the one in my A19. “Perhaps these will make a difference.”

“Ia Cthulhu, motherfuckers!” a voice spoke from the doorway of the bus beside us as the drunken figure of Rodriguez Castro stumbled out.

I did a double-take, seeing the wizened old man. Rodriguez was seventy years old if he was a day, but the white-bearded, hunched-over figure seemed more defiant than either of us.

Wearing a brown vest, linen pants, and a moonshine-stained shirt, he was carrying a small carved stone figurine and a revolver. I had not spoken to the man much, but my brief experience with him told me he was a lunatic who’d survived more terrors in the Wasteland than perhaps anyone else in Kingsport.

“Stay in the bus!” Mercury shouted, stunned by his appearance.

“I choose this!” Rodriguez shouted, waddling over to nearest flaming wreck and tossing the stone figure into it. “Die and burn!”

Then he shot himself in the head, And the ground started shaking.

“That was unexpected,” Mercury muttered, blinking rapidly.

I couldn’t quite believe what I’d seen. “Yeah.”

Mercury tugged on my sleeve. The psychic repetition in my head dissolved as I heard rapid discussion in a variety of languages ranging from the alien tongue I’d heard earlier to English. The last voice spoke words of panic and warning, and very suddenly, a sense of terror from our attackers. Whatever their mysterious plan, they had not counted on dealing with what we were now faced with.

A summoning.

Summonings were just one of the black arts mankind had turned to in the wake of the Rising. Ancient and inscrutable creatures had taught us the secrets of drawing them to this dimension through the power of will alone—I suspected this was akin to ringing a dinner bell as far as they were concerned. Controlling such creatures was possible if one were a very powerful psychic or if you were the one who summoned them.

I was not a powerful psychic and Rodriguez was dead.

“I’m not sure which way to run,” I said, clutching my rifle.

The ground beneath us began to crack as the air charged with static electricity. The largest of the cracks expanded while Mercury and I backed away. Like a rift between worlds, the ground beneath us had become a portal to somewhere else.

Mercury sensibly looked away from the manifestation, but I stupidly gazed forward and saw the harrowing sight of an alien world beyond. Its skies were green and storming with metal raindrops while vast glowing clouds hung beneath the planetary rings. A horrendous sickly-green tendril, as luminescent as the clouds of its world, moved up through the portal and planted itself on the surface of our world.

On its native planet, the creature might have been an average or weak member of its species, but Earth was fantastically blessed for fostering weakness even in its present shattered state. Evolution had created life in places where gravity was hundreds of times worse and the air would sear the flesh of men like dry paper when tossed into a fire. Here, this creature would be all but indestructible.

Yet another god in a world ruled by them.

My apathy toward death dulled my reflexes and left me staring at the creature in admiration while it rose to its full height. The glowing-green creature was several long tentacles stretching from a single body that resembled a half-melted wax candle possessed of a single enormous maw. Hundreds of glowing orbs of blackish light were buried into the side of its rock-like carapace, and above its head there was a nimbus of colorless energy swirling around its central stalk.

Mercury, thankfully, wasn’t as entranced by the monster’s sudden appearance as I was. Grabbing my A19, she aimed the weapon and began firing into the surface of the horrible, yet majestic abomination before us. Black orbs and pockets of its flesh exploded from the orihalcum bullet strikes. The creature thrashed and hissed under the fire, feeling the sting of the mysterious metal.

“Yeah!” Mercury shouted, keeping her finger pressed on the trigger.

Right until the clip ran out.

“Fuck,” Mercury hissed.

I pushed Mercury out of the way before she could do the same and found myself wrapped in the crushing vise of the alien monstrosity’s tentacle. As the creature’s carapace burned, its body heat felt like a hot iron pressed against my skin. It seared away my clothes where it touched, and with the slightest squeeze, it could have bisected my body like burning metal through cheese. The pain was immeasurable, erasing rational thought.

I cried out, the sound an incomprehensible roar. Inexplicably, I found my golden side-knife, a gift from my ex-wife Martha, in my right hand. A weapon of the Deep Ones, it was made of orihalcum and woven with spells far above those any human wizard could inscribe. Animal instinct took over and I jammed the weapon into the monster’s tentacles.

While appearing to be made of gold, which would have made the blade malleable, the weapon sliced through the creature’s carapace and I began carving it away to the flesh underneath. Orihalcum was a gold-like substance that tore other-dimensional creatures apart like fire and tinder. Black acidic ichor bubbled forth from the wound underneath, melting away my sleeve and revealing the chitin-covered black arm beneath.

I laughed insanely, stabbing my black arm deeper into the creature’s tentacle and pulling out a yellow set of tubes. The creature let forth an ear-piercing multi-pitch wail from a dozen holes that opened across its central stalk. The tubes I held burst when I squeezed them, causing more of the black ichor to pour out onto my mutated hand.

The creature dropped me on the ground, thrashing its tentacles in every direction. Hideous burning scars raked across my chest, but I felt no pain. Were I a normal man, I’d have been dead or screaming in agony, but instead the sensation felt like a baroque echo of pain. I threw up a greenish black substance on the ground.

“Ib’in ack thuhl kargrba zach ign Cthulhu!” I heard Mercury mangle and spit out the guttural language of the Deep Ones. I recognized the spell she was casting, one of the many described in the ritual section of the Necronomicon.

“Mercury!” I shouted, calling for her to stop. The forces the spell harvested were enough to tear most human hosts apart. I’d seen hybrids of the Deep One, regular humans, and ghouls ripped to shreds for attempting to invoke Great Cthulhu’s power.

Much to my surprise, the creature behind me stopped thrashing and began to sweat sulfurous ooze from dozens of holes across its body. The crack it had emerged from began to seal behind it and the creature attempted to flee through it, half of its vile body sinking back down into the alien world from which it had emerged.

“Ib’in ack thuhl kargrba zach ign Hastur!” Mercury screamed, raising her hands high in the air. “Ib’in ack thuhl kargrba zach ign Shub-Niggurath! KATHALL!”

The creature slipped into the last of the crack before it sealed over, disappearing from our world forever. I did not know if it feared the power of Cthulhu being channeled through Mercury’s invocations, the equivalent of a rocket launcher held by mice, or whether it had been forced back into its realm by her will alone.

Either way, she’d saved us.

Rushing to her side, I reached for her with my inhuman clawed hand. Mercury shuddered away from it and I hid it behind my back. Lifting my human hand instead, I said, “You banished it.”

“I did.” Mercury coughed, clearly shaken. “Yay me. Now we just have to deal with a horde of rampaging cultists.”

I looked over my shoulder and saw that all of the fires had gone out and we were surrounded by the dozens of gray-robed cultists who had left their circle to approach us. They’d done so silently. I hadn’t picked up on them—which was impossible.

“Oh, ha ha,” Mercury said. “Very funny, gods I don’t believe in.”

The brown-skinned cultist from earlier stood at the front. He was close enough now that I could get a better look at his features. The man was tall, as tall as me, with a handsome face and short, dark hair. A pair of wire-frame spectacles sat on the bridge of his nose and there was intelligence behind his eyes.

There was also a sense of contempt, as if I was not worth his attention. Then again, from his perspective I was a mutant who’d just gotten into a fistfight with a creature from another world. Not exactly someone you wanted to invite to a dinner party. The figure had a crystal rod aimed at my chest.

The man spoke in a calm, soothing tone. “I am Professor Harvey Armitage. Mister Booth, Ms. Halsey, we need your help.”

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