Drip, drip went the water over the end of the culvert, a cold, cruel reminder of the storm that had just blown over. Drip, drip went the blood of the homeless man, a cold, cruel reminder of the thing she was.

She hadn’t meant to kill him, of course. She had just needed shelter from the rain, and had sought it in here. But he had been here, high on who-knew-what, and he had had a knife and wanted to pick a fight. She had defended herself, that was all. But that didn’t mean she didn’t feel bad about it.

Well, now she had a knife – not that she needed it. She had a filthy coat, but she didn’t really think her brother’s stolen rain jacket was in bad enough shape yet to switch out. She had a six-pack of beer, but it tasted foul and didn’t quench her thirst. She had fourteen dollars in a little plastic bag, and the tattered remains of what had once been a driver’s license. After all that, this guy didn’t even have anything she could use. She felt even worse for killing him.

Don’t get distracted, said Cephalos. You have ten days remaining. At the speed you travel, you will need more than five times that to complete the trip.

“Shut up,” she said absently aloud. “I’ll think of something.”

You do not have much time for that, either.

Aha! The man had a granola bar in his pocket. That was something. She sat back against the side of the culvert and tore open the wrapper. “Like I say, I’ll think of something. Maybe there’ll be a train I can hitch a ride on or something like that.”

There are few ideas more foolish than those that depend on circumstances out of one’s control.

She took a bite of the granola bar. “You’re always the one that goes on about the dependence of actions on quantum randomness, aren’t you? You can’t have it both ways, Ceph.”

That does not mean one should give over what little control one has to randomness.

Ugh…it was one of those dry granola bars, with no chocolate or nuts or anything interesting in it. She made a face, then took another bite. “I mean, I don’t hear you pitching any better ideas. I don’t think fourteen dollars will buy me a bus ticket.”

Take the money you need. You are equipped to do so.

She crumpled up the granola bar wrapper and threw it into the little bit of water in the bottom of the culvert. The homeless man’s blood made interesting shapes in the water as it hit it. “What, rob a bank? I’m not bulletproof, Ceph. And I feel sick from killing one guy. You expect me to massacre my way through a crowd?”

Not too sick to eat.

She sighed and stood up as best she could in the cramped space. “Look at that – I’m all wet now. Hope you’re proud of yourself.”

I did not cause you to enter this condition. Don’t change the subject.

“No, Ceph. I’m not robbing a bank – or breaking into some little old lady’s house and stealing her stuff, if that’s what you’re going to suggest next. We’re going to keep on as we’ve been doing. If you have a problem with that…well, too bad. You can’t do anything about it, now can you?”

Fine. But if you do not complete the journey in time, I will not be pleased.

“I never thought anything less.” She ducked her way out of the culvert, winced as a car shot by on the freeway above. It was still wet out here, and she knew it wouldn’t be long before it finished soaking through her shoes. But there was nothing she could do about it, so she beat her way through the wet grass to the shoulder of the road and kept walking.

“Name, ma’am?”

“Annie Thorne. Trust me, you’ll know her. Her arm...She has black hair and green eyes, if that helps.”

“Hmm…” The policeman typed on his computer, scratched his beard as he stared at the results. “Ah, yes, here’s your missing person’s report. I’m afraid no one’s reported in matching that description. I’m sorry.”

“Are you sure?” Mrs. Thorne rubbed her forehead. “Where could she have gone…?”

“Pardon?”

“Nothing…” She shook her head. “Well, you have my phone number. If you find any trace of her, please, please let me know.”

“Of course, ma’am. If you have a photo of her that we can put out, or any information about where she might have gone…”

“That’s the thing, though – I don’t have any information! Otherwise, I would go after her myself. And pictures…well, honestly, I’d really rather not disclose any pictures.”

The policeman raised an eyebrow at that. “Ma’am?”

“I’m sorry. She has a…deformity.” Mrs. Thorne shuddered. “I don’t feel comfortable putting pictures of her out into the world.”

The policeman leaned forward across the desk. Officer Dannison, was the name on the little card on his shirt. “Ma’am, pictures can make the difference between a failed search and a success. I understand not wanting to violate your daughter’s privacy, but her life is more important. I’m sure you understand.”

“Of course.” She sat there for a moment, thinking. “I’ll email you some pictures.”

“Excellent!” Officer Dannison scrawled something on a piece of paper and pushed it across the desk to her. “Here’s the address of the office. You’ve made the right decision, Mrs. Thorne. I hope that we’ll be able to find your daughter.”

“Yes…” She sighed, stood up, tapped the shoulder of the young man huddled in the seat beside her. “Come on, let’s go.”

He shook himself, as though waking up from something, and stood up as well. “Ah, right. Coming.”

As they walked out of the police station, Mrs. Thorne took the piece of paper out of her pocket. Without so much as glancing at what was written on it, she crumpled it up and threw it in the nearest trash can.

“It always looked so much nicer from inside,” Annie said, trudging across the latest dull mile of wet road between dripping trees.

Explain.

“You were looking out too, weren’t you? Out the window, at the sun and the trees and the birds. You saw how pretty it looked. And now I’m out here, and it’s all wet and cold and cars going too fast on the interstate.”

I saw those things, but I did not feel what you seem to feel.

Another car roared by, sending her hair and scarf aflutter in its slipstream. “No? You must have felt something. So lovely and green. I spent hours looking at it.”

Time that could have been better spent preparing the rites.

Her hair was all in her eyes now, and she took a moment to rearrange it. “You and your rites. I got them done, didn’t I? And in plenty of time, too.”

It was not in “plenty of time”. You have less than two weeks.

A semi-truck thundered by like a storm front, and Annie had to come to a stop to remain standing. “What, did you just expect me to spend a year waiting there for you? You’re lucky I got out when I did. You could have been telling me how to pick locks, instead of all your rites.”

I have no knowledge of the mechanisms of locks.

“You have no knowledge on the mechanisms of something…” Another car came roaring up behind her, but this one took longer to pass than the others. It took her a second to realize that it had stopped.

She turned around. “Hello?”

It was a little yellow station wagon, the backseat piled with stuff. The woman in the passenger seat was rolling down the window, and as Annie came closer she smiled at her.

Ignore them, Annie. They could be dangerous.

“Oh, bug off. You were the one who was just going on about getting there faster, weren’t you?”

Yes, but –

“Pardon, dear?” said the woman. There was a man in the driver’s seat as well. Both of them were rather large, and both were grinning cheerily. “What was that?”

“Oh, nothing,” Annie said, walking over to the open window. “Why did you stop?”

“We were just wondering what a girl your age was doing walking along the side of the road all on her own. What’s your name?”

“An –”

Use a pseudonym.

“– nabelle Lee.”

“Like the poem?” The woman’s smile grew wider. “How romantic! What are you doing here, then, all alone?”

“I need to get to Atlanta.”

“Atlanta?” The woman’s brow furrowed. “But that’s hundreds of miles away yet! You don’t plan to walk the entire way, do you?”

“I mean, I don’t have any other options, do I?”

“You have one!” She was smiling again. “Ride with us, Annabelle. We’re going to Atlanta too.”

“Are you sure?” Annie was nervous now. It was what she had wanted, but it sounded entirely different when they suggested it. Maybe Ceph was right. “I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you…I’ll just keep going on my own.”

“Nonsense!” The woman was getting out of the car, opening the rear passenger door, pushing some of the stuff aside. “Come along, sit down. Here’s some water if you want it. You look exhausted, darling.”

Annie really was thirsty, and she gladly took the bottle of water. As she was drinking it, she felt a hand on her shoulder, but it wasn’t until she put down the empty bottle that she saw that the woman had steered her into the car seat. “No! Wait, no. I’m fine. Thank you for the water –”

But the woman had already slammed the door and climbed back into the passenger seat, and the man had started driving again. “What’s the matter, dear? We’ll get you to Atlanta in record time. It’ll just be a few hours more.”

“I…” Annie trailed off. She had messed up. Who knew what these people’s motivations really were? And why did they want her to come with them so badly? Ceph? Are you there?

Yes. More data has been correlated. Stay with these people. They will take you where you are trying to go.

But I don’t trust them!

Neither do I. But if they attack you, you can defend yourself.

Yeah, about that – if they’re so nice, why didn’t they so much as bat an eye at my arm?

​There was no response.

Ceph?

She tried again and again, but he didn’t answer, and at last she just sort of curled up in the back seat and tried not to cry. The woman was right about one thing, though – she was exhausted. And as much as she tried to stay awake, her body had other ideas. She was asleep by the time the car had gotten back up to highway speed.

“Todd?”

He was sitting in the corner of the room, surrounded by pieces of paper coated in cramped writing and complicated drawings. The fruits of that game he and Annie had played, that he never seemed to grow out of. “What are you doing?”

“I think she went southwest.”

“Why?”

“Look at this.” He beckoned her to the corner of the room. “The wallpaper’s all torn up here.”

“So? It’s torn up all over the room. It’s like the little freak had nothing better to do than sit here and claw at the walls.”

Todd closed his eyes, exhaled. “It’s all gone here, Mum. She’s even got into the drywall. This is where she spent most of her time.”

Mrs. Thorne squinted at it. “I mean, maybe…but this is an exterior wall. Maybe she was trying to dig her way out?”

“No. And you know why I think that? Because I realized something. She kept talking about Atlanta. I always assumed it was a person, but it’s not. It’s a place. I don’t know why I never bothered to look this up before, but Atlanta is a city. And you know where it is? Five hundred miles southwest of here.

“Five hundred miles?” Mrs. Thorne picked up one of the pieces of paper, started toying with it. “She can’t walk that far! That poor thing, all alone…”

“What happened to ‘little freak’?”

“She may be a freak, but she’s still my daughter. That’s why your father left – he could never see that.”

“No, Dad left because his wife insisted on keeping his daughter locked up like a dog.”

“Shut up, Todd! You were ten. You don’t remember.” Her hand clenched in anger, crumpling the paper.

Todd winced. “Careful with that! That’s important!”

“Why? What is it?” Mrs. Thorne unfolded the paper, squinted at what was drawn on it. It was some kind of diagram, interlocking circles and angles drawn in black crayon, with parts circled in red and strange symbols written with a ballpoint pen. “What does all this stuff mean? I thought it was just a game.”

Todd shrugged. “Maybe? I’m still not super clear on it. I think it was some complicated thing she dreamed up. She kept going on about rites, and things her imaginary friend told her.”

Mrs. Thorne cocked her head. “Huh. Do you think it can help us find her?”

“Yes? I think so. Maybe. I mean, look at the stuff she’s taken – the crayons, the teddy bear, some Legos…I think if we count, we’ll find there’s exactly forty-seven missing…”

He bent down, presumably to do just that, but Mrs. Thorne stopped him. “Unless you think it’s important, let’s not get distracted. You say you think she went southwest?”

“Yes, to Atlanta.”

“Excellent.” Mrs. Thorne turned, started walking down the hall.

“Where are you going?”

“To the car. I’m going after her.”

Todd straightened, grabbed up some choice papers, and followed.

It was dark when Annie woke up. They were still driving, along some back road by the looks of things, though she could see the lights of a city in the distance. The radio was blasting some kind of country music, loud enough that she would have had to shout to speak over it. It looked like the woman had fallen asleep in the passenger seat, though the man was still awake to drive.

That is Atlanta.

“Ceph!” She could have cried with relief, and she almost did, but he cut her off.

I apologize for my absence. Your star’s reach is greater than anticipated. Speak in thoughts. I do not want these people to know that you are awake.

Right. She slowly curled up again, watching the man to make sure he hadn’t heard her cry out. Should we get out of the car?

No. These people will take you to where you must go. You will feel something momentarily. Do not indicate that you have felt it.

Something touched her shoulder. It was cold and damp, and it took all Annie’s efforts not to jump. “Pssst,” said a voice, just loudly enough for her to hear.

What is it?

Look.

​From the massive pile of duffel bags and household paraphernalia on the other seat, a tentacle was protruding. And next to it, an eye. A human eye.

“You’re like me, aren’t you?” The voice was a whisper, but even through that she could tell it was distorted, malformed. “You can hear him. He told me to talk to you. I didn’t know there were other people like me.”

Annie leaned closer, trying to make it look like she was just shifting in her sleep. “Cephalos? Yeah, I can hear him. Are you saying you’re a freak too?”

“Cephalos? Huh. I just called him ‘the Voice’. But yeah, I’m a freak. More than you, it looks like.”

“How far does yours go?”

“My face, my right arm, most of my chest and back, and it’s starting on my stomach. It’s been having a bit of a growth spurt lately.”

“Same. Mine was only my arm until a few months ago. Then it started on my face. I’m guessing you’re going to Atlanta for the same reason I am?”

“Probably. Did he tell you why we need to go there?”

“No. He just goes on about ‘arrivals’ and ‘rites’.” The radio went silent for a second, and Annie’s heart skipped until it finished switching stations. “Why are you all boxed up in there?”

“Mom said they’d ask weird questions if they saw me.”

“Ugh…Mums, right? Mine kept me locked up in my room, wouldn’t let me outside.”

“Oh dang. She at least let me out into the backyard to play at night. And she’s agreed to take me on this trip.”

“Well, I’m glad of it. Ceph was getting worried I wouldn’t make it in time. If you guys hadn’t come along…”

The car stopped.

“What’s going on?”

“Don’t know. Gas? Food?”

Annie peered out the window. “We’re just in the middle of nowhere.”

The man got out of the car, came around to the door opposite her, and opened it. She couldn’t see him very well through the junk, but she heard him swear as stuff dropped onto the ground, and stuff fell onto her as he started pushing it aside. “Come on, kid, we’re getting out.”

“Why?” His voice really was messed up. The mutation must have gotten into his neck something awful.

“I’ll tell you when you need to know. Now come on.”

A duffel bag fell onto Annie’s face, and she went to push it off, but Cephalos stopped her. Don’t move. Pretend you are still asleep.

Why?

This was not anticipated.

​The man had finished clearing the stuff away, and was helping the boy inside out of the car. He really was as mutated as he said – skinny, hunched, the human parts of him almost obscured by the bloated, swollen growths, unable to wear anything except a pair of tattered blue jeans. “Come on, then. Out you get.”

“Where are we going?”

“Out into the woods a bit. I’ll tell you when we get there.”

“But –”

“Dammit, I’ll tell you when we get there!” He was forcing the boy in front of him, pushing him towards the front of the car, and Annie couldn’t hear him speak anymore. What do I do?

Wait. Wait until things have become clearer.

​The woman was waking up now. “John…? John?”

There was no answer, but Annie could see the man and the boy in the light of the car headlights standing a little ways away.

GO. GO AFTER HIM. NOW.

Annie had never heard Cephalos speak in that way before. Almost without thinking, her left arm was reaching out, the tentacles that had replaced her hand grabbing the door, shoving it away, ripping it from its hinges. The woman was screaming. The boy was screaming. The man was shouting. She was screaming.

There was a gunshot.

She was running, running, across the clearing. The woman had climbed out of the mutilated car behind her, and was screaming her husband’s name. Between the trees, she could see the boy, dripping blood, holding the man aloft in the horrific mass of tentacled flesh that served him for a right arm. The man was choking, clawing at the tentacles, but she could see the gun in his hand, and as she watched he aimed it, at her.

There was a second gunshot.

There was no pain. The bullet hadn’t entered her body. But behind her, the woman screamed, and Annie screamed too. “No! No! Put him down!”

The boy dropped him, turned to look at her. In the light from the headlights, his eyes glowed green. He was panting. “He tried to kill me!”

She finally reached him. She should have fallen over from the exertion, but adrenaline and something more kept her up. “That doesn’t mean you should kill him! That makes you no better than he is!”

“But he’s my father!” The boy turned to look at him. “He’s my father!”

There was a third gunshot.

NO!

“NO!”

“Father…”

The boy crumpled and fell, blood spurting from the circular hole in his forehead.

The man tried to stand up, but sat down hard, coughing. A trickle of blood came from the side of his mouth. “Forgive me…It had to be done.”

“Forgive you?! What do you mean, forgive you?! You’ve killed your son!”

The man looked up. “You! Of course you’re here too. I thought you’d sleep through the apocalypse, but apparently not. Curse that woman, picking up freaks like stray kittens from the side of the road! Well, I know better. I’ll send all of you back where you came from.” He raised the gun.

Kill him. Quickly, before he kills you.

She obeyed.

“I’m telling you, we should have seen her by now!”

They were driving down the freeway in the old white sedan, Todd doing his best to keep an eye on the road, Mrs. Thorne peering into the dark around them. “We need to turn back! We’ve missed her! Maybe she’s not even gone by the road. Maybe she’s just gone cross-country.”

“Mum. You need to calm down. She’ll take the road – it goes close enough to the right direction. And she can handle herself. If we get to Atlanta and we haven’t seen her, we’ll turn around and come back. We can’t miss her the second time.”

“But what if she’s seen us and hidden?”

“I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t really think so. We don’t exactly drive a unique car, and it’s not like she’s expecting us.”

“But what if other people have seen her?”

“And what, reported her to the local news? What do they care about an odd-looking girl when there’s politics and wars?”

“I suppose…”

On they drove, on and on and on, through the oppressive dark and rare, flickering lights, until the glow on the horizon started to give way to the more steady lights of a massive city, a city of tall, tall buildings with pointed tops like castles, a glowing oasis above the dark trees. Mrs. Thorne stared at it. She was so tired – she was being kept awake only by adrenaline at this point – and her thoughts kept drifting off to strange, dark places. She was so on edge that she jumped awake when the car turned and the lights of the city swung away. “Where are we going?”

“Looking for some gas. We’re almost out.”

“Ah. Of course.”

It was an oppressive little road, so much so that it was hard to believe that just a few hundred feet behind her was the glowing roar of the interstate. The trees loomed, high enough to obscure the stars and thick enough to shut out any hope of light. But wait – there was light. An orange glow, painting the dark trunks like a Halloween festival.

“What the heck?” said Todd. “Is that a body?”

It looked like a wreck. There was a car there, pulled over by the side of the road, headlights shining blindingly into the trees. And – oh, god, there was a body, there, by the open passenger door. And what was wrong with the car…?

Todd was pulling over behind the wreck, shifting the car into park. “Why are we stopping? This isn’t our business.”

“Does that body look familiar to you?”

Mrs. Thorne peered at the corpse. “No…I mean, I can’t see it very well, but I don’t recognize it…”

“Not that one. The other one.”

She got out of the car, walked quickly after him. He was right, there were other bodies. And – “Oh god…is that her? Annie!”

Todd was bending over it. “No…I thought it was, but it isn’t. It’s a boy...and he’s been shot.”

“What? By who?”

“This guy, I assume. At least, he’s the one with the gun next to him.”

“Oh…” She was going to be sick. After everything, after this horrible, horrible day, this was too much. This had to be a bad dream. She walked up to the road, bent over, and stopped.

“Todd?”

“Yeah?” She heard him stand up behind her.

“There’s footprints. And they’re of the sneakers she took.”

“What?” He jogged up and bent down next to her. “Oh dang, you’re right.” He crouched there for a moment longer, then stood up and started running back to the car.

Mrs. Thorne stood and followed.

“There…it’s finished.”

And just in time, too.

It was massive – a gigantic diagram, a thousand feet across, consisting of massive fractal circles and angles and glyphs, all built beneath the spaghetti tangle of highways that formed a howling niche at the center of Atlanta. Some of it was drawn in chalk and crayon over the asphalt of surface-level roads, made quickly and hazardously when there was a break in traffic. The rest of it was carved inch-deep into the earth or marked out with sticks and stones and leaves. Annie wished she’d brought more of the drawings she and Todd had made, but no matter. It was done.

Of course, she hadn’t done it on her own. It was far too big a project for that. But she hadn’t needed to. There had been hundreds of people lurking under those overpasses the past week and a half, of all ages and all genders, and all of them freaks. On some of them, it was barely visible – a few tentacles on a hand, a growth on the side of a face. On others, it consumed them, obscuring their bodies and cutting off their voices, leaving them to try and work with the remains of limbs and the masses of tentacles that sprouted like body hair. They had different personalities, different backgrounds, had received different treatment by those around them. But they all had one thing in common: the voice in their heads. It talked to them, gave them advice, helped them. And in return, they built the diagram as it desired.

It had been long. It had been arduous. Annie had only been there for the last bit of its construction, but even that was enough to help her understand what it was like. They spent long, hot days, arguing over precise angles, filling in lines and achingly caving out new ones. They had eaten and drunk what they could find or steal. They slept and worked and foraged in shifts. They found bizarre solutions to bizarre problems, and told them to as many people as they could, and had been told them back again by those who didn’t know where the solutions came from. The only foreman had been the voice, the only organization the common need to build. And now, here they were, on the evening of the ninth day, looking out over the thing they had created as the sun set and the cars whizzed by.

“I never thought it would actually happen, you know. All those years of thinking about it, wondering about it, designing it, and now here it is.”

I always knew it would come to fruition. That is why I prepared you for it. You have done well, Annie. This will make everything far, far better.

“Thanks…” Annie smiled. “I’m so nervous.”

Do not be. You have succeeded. You have overcome the massive trials set before you. Now go. It is almost time.

Annie stood up, and watched the others stand up all around the circle. She found her place – a seemingly random position on the concrete divider between two five-lane highways, just outside the edge of the diagram. She dashed through gaps in traffic, jumped back to avoid cars, and slowly but surely picked her way to it. She took a deep breath, turned to face what was left of the sunlight, and lifted her arms to the sky.

And one of the cars pulled up beside her and stopped.

“Annie! Oh, Annie!” Mrs. Thorne leaped from the car, scrambled up onto the divider, and ran to her daughter, burying her in a hug.

“Mum?” Annie said, tentatively returning it. “What are you doing here? How did you find me?”

“The car…the dead people…we searched for days, but Todd was so sure you’d come here…”

“Todd? He’s here too?”

Todd climbed up onto the divider beside her, tears shining in his eyes. “Annie…you could have said something!”

“You would have stopped me! Well…she would have stopped me.” Annie looked up at her for a moment, before turning back to Todd. “And even you would have asked awkward questions. It was never a game, Todd. All those drawings, all those practices…I had to find it. I had to work out the right combination.”

“For what, Annie? For what?”

“For Cephalos.”

“Your imaginary friend?” Todd stared. “You did all this for your imaginary friend?”

“He’s not imaginary, Todd. I’m sorry you can’t hear him, but he’s real. That’s why my arm is the way it is – because he made it that way.”

Mrs. Thorne cut in, letting go of Annie. “What are you talking about? Who is this imaginary friend?”

Annie sighed and looked around, nervously. “Mum…I’ve never told you, but there’s more to it than…this.” She gestured at the mass of flesh and tentacles that replaced her left arm. Mrs. Thorne glanced at it, but turned away. “There’s a voice in my head. Cephalos, I call him, because apparently that means head. He talks to me, gives me advice. He kept me company, all those long days in there, all alone. He helped me make this.” She turned, gestured towards the space around her and in front of her. Mrs. Thorne looked around. There were people there, their arms raised towards the sky. But not all of them were people. Some of them were like Annie, parts of their bodies twisted and mutated. And some of them…some of them were worse.

“Annie… what is going on?

“He’s not just a voice. He’s not just a mutation. He’s a being. That’s what Todd and I were doing in there. That was the game. We were working out patterns of sigils, specific chants. We needed to make the diagram, here. We have to show him where to land.”

Mrs. Thorne took a step back. “Annie. Get in the car. Now.”

“Just a minute!” she screamed, wincing and clutching her head. “No, Mum. I can’t. It’s too late now. He’s coming, fast. He’s still outside the orbit of Mars, but he’ll be here within the hour…”

“Annie. I don’t have time for games. You need to come home – now.”

“Mum…” Todd was pointing upward. “Look.”

Barely visible through the haze of city lights and tangle of overpasses was a new star. It wasn’t bright, but it didn’t twinkle either, and it was almost directly overhead.

“What’s going on?” Todd said. “Annie? Is that him? How can he move so fast?”

Aaaaaaa! Yes, that’s him…he can bend space…that’s how he can talk to me so fast, even though he’s so far away…No! Stop it! All right, all right, I’m doing it!” And she raised her hands to the sky, and from her mouth came a chant. It was deep, horrific, alien, and Mrs. Thorne realized that the same chant was coming from all around her, the people in that giant ring chanting, chanting, at that star in the sky. And she realized that Todd was muttering the chant along with her, occasionally breaking out into full speech: “Fahn-dri, kra’nu, fahn-dri khaa…”

And she looked up, and sure enough the star was bigger, brighter.

NO!” Mrs. Thorne screamed. “No! This can’t be happening! Annie come with me, you little monster –” She reached out to grab the crazy girl, to make here leave this insanity, this cult she had fallen in with.

And the crazy girl grabbed her with the tentacled thing that was her arm, grabbed her and shoved her back, and stared down in horror as she fell and cracked her head on the unforgiving concrete. She was winded, dazed, but even through that she knew that as much apology was in Annie’s eyes, her mouth never stopped chanting.

“MUM!” Todd bent down over her, clearly panicked, feeling for breath, for a pulse. “Mum, are you all right?”

But she could only look up as that star swelled, swelled, bigger than the moon now, and flickering orange and red as it entered the atmosphere.

And Annie chanted, chanted, stared up at the thing as it swelled – no, as it descended towards the stopped streets of Atlanta.

“Mum…?” Gradually, Todd saw that she was all right, and helped her to her feet. The thing was slowing, now, as it descended, and she got her first proper look at the thing. It was immense, swollen, vaguely spherical in shape, its underside lined with tentacles that it was using to break through the overpasses and finish its descent. There was a ring of mouths above the tentacles, and more, shorter tentacles above those, though if it had any eyes she couldn’t see them. There was rubble falling, debris, but the thing didn’t care, it just smashed its way through the last of the highways and floated there, ten feet above the ground.

And Annie collapsed.

It was hideous, twisted, horrific. Mrs. Thorne couldn’t bear to look at it for more than a few seconds. But Todd just stared at it, at the horrid, dripping, wriggling, squelching thing, and as he stared he spoke. It was to himself, and it was just one word, but it was one word said with the despair of a man who knows he has lost everything to forces outside of his control: “Emily…”

“You’re welcome,” said Annie, from where she lay on the divider.

“For what?” Mrs. Thorne bent over her, partly to talk to her and partially to have an excuse not to look at the gargantuan horror behind her.

But Annie didn’t respond, and Mrs. Thorne realized she wasn’t talking to her. She was talking to something else, and Mrs. Thorne was only hearing one side of the conversation.

“What are you going to do now?”

Mrs. Thorne fell to her knees, while her son cried behind her and her daughter stared up at the thing she had summoned, and sobbed.

“...Why? But then we’re all going to…oh. All right…I suppose I can’t stop you, can I? No. I didn’t think so. Well go on then, get it over with.” And Annie closed her eyes.

There was a burst, a world-consuming blast of white light and white noise and hot white fire, and then there was silence.



Written by StalkerShrike
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