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SUNDAY

Eric Carver slowly pulled his vehicle to the side of the road, turned off the engine, and stepped out. After putting on his mask, he removed the package from the passenger seat, closed the door and stepped away from the sidewalk, into the cover of nearby bushes. He had already driven by this remote area of road many times before, and knew there were no surveillance cameras and that people rarely came by at this time of night. Rarely, unless you counted the person for whom he was waiting.

The man waited, crouched in the bushes, until he heard the crunch of leaves under feet which indicated that someone was coming. Eric Carver glanced out, seeing that it was his target. He waited, not moving a muscle, barely breathing, until the man passed by, less than a meter from him. Then Eric rose silently and, in a few short steps, crossed over to the other man, who barely had time to glance backwards before Eric was upon him.

There was a brief struggle, but the hunted man was no match for the much greater strength of his attacker, and before long was unconscious. Once the man had stopped moving, Eric opened the package and removed a syringe full of a chemical which he injected into his target’s neck. He then placed the body in his trunk, got back in the car and drove off.

After pulling into his garage, which was conveniently attached to his house, Eric removed the body from the trunk and carried it to his basement. He had just finished cleaning it up from the last one, and everything was in its proper place. He laid his target down on the table, stripped off his clothes and attached the chains to his wrists and ankles.

He made sure all the tools were in place and properly sharpened and functional. He placed a ball gag in the man’s mouth. Then, noticing that the man was starting to wake, Eric Carver turned on the camera.

“Hello, people,” he declared. “As always, I am the Hartsville Hunter, and here is our latest guest, a man by the name of Henry MacPhail.” Turning the camera to face his captive, he said, “say hello to the viewers, Henry.”

Henry MacPhail, bound as he was, could only manage a cry of surprise and fear.

“Henry,” Eric Carver said, turning the camera back to his masked face, “is a special case for us tonight. You see, our new friend Henry has this weird belief that someone called Jesus is watching over him and looking out for him. We’re going to teach him that that is complete bullshit and that nobody up there gives a shit. Through the next few episodes we are going to teach Henry how the world really works, and how completely meaningless a person’s life is in the grand scheme of things.”

Henry started crying out, a completely useless gesture even had he not been gagged, what with how well the basement had been soundproofed. Eric Carver took a moment to watch him, greatly enjoying the futile struggles of his helpless captive. Then, turning back to the camera, he said, “I reviewed your comments based on my last guest, and you said you wanted more nails, more needles, and that you had a fever, and the only prescription was more blowtorch. So here we go.”

He picked up a nail gun and showed it to the camera, then showed it to Henry, making sure to step aside so that the audience could enjoy the look of terror on his face. Slowly enough to create anticipation, but not so slowly that it got boring, Eric Carver brought the end of the nail gun to his victim’s right arm, near the wrist, and pressed down, until he heard the thud of the nail going through.

Henry MacPhail screamed then, writhing in agony, his body thrusting upwards, and Eric was reminded of his first erection. He had been twelve years old at the time, and had stumbled in on his step-father molesting his older sister. He remembered how his step-father had slapped her in the face and told her to shut up and stay still when her struggles had gotten too much for his liking. Eric’s left hand began moving towards the front of his pants as the memory came back to him, but then he stopped himself. He was not alone, after all, and there were people who would be watching this. So instead he moved on with the nail gun, putting a further three nails into the man’s right arm and four nails into his left. He then held down the man’s right leg and put another nail right into the front of his kneecap, pinning it to the table, before repeating the same with his left.

With this, Henry MacPhail fell unconscious. Eric, checking to make certain he had not unwittingly pierced any major blood vessels, concluded the man had simply fainted from the pain. Quickly pulling out a syringe filled with adrenaline, Eric injected it into the man on the table. No reason to let him pass out just when things were warming up.

MONDAY

“How are things going for you?” asked Ellen, the girl at the front counter of the café.

“All right, I’m doing all right,” Eric replied. “Things are actually going pretty well for me. I think I’ll have a black coffee, bran muffin and one chicken sandwich, please.” She was pretty good-looking, really. He was thinking he might make her his next guest. He usually did his hunting out of town, but felt like making an exception for this one.

“Coming right up,” she said, smiling.

As Eric was leaving with his food, he overheard two customers sitting at a nearby table. “I heard there was a guy who went missing last night in Auburn,” one of them said.

“Yeah, people are saying it might be a serial killer,” replied the other.

“Well, we don’t need to jump to any conclusions,” the first one insisted. “I mean…”

Eric laughed to himself as he left the restaurant. It was really turning out to be a fine day.

“Eric, before you leave for the day, could you please come into my office,” Dwight Xavier, Eric’s boss at the law firm, asked.

Eric gritted his teeth. He was definitely going to make this man a guest on his show soon enough. “Of course,” he replied, smiling, as he hurried to comply.

“You’re one of our most productive and hard-working employees,” Mr. Xavier began. “That said, some of the clients, and some of your co-workers, think that you’re rather, shall we say, arrogant.”

“Well, I just point out to people when they’re wrong. After all, I’m the top expert we have on contract law,” Eric said. “People should listen to what I have to say.”

Mr. Xavier sighed. Eric thought, he’s just like the Elders at Kingdom Hall when I was a child, the ones who always told my mother to respect my step-father’s authority as head of the household, who constantly got on my case for not wanting to spend my spare time going door to door preaching to people who wanted to slam the door in my face, who forbade my sister from getting a blood transfusion when she was in the hospital after cutting her wrists. Eric had loved his sister, he truly had, even if he had enjoyed watching her get sexually abused by his step-father. It was such a shame that she had to cut off all ties with him because of such a little thing. I know where she lives, he thought.Maybe I can pay her a visit, even bring her onto my…

“Hey.” Mr. Xavier snapped his fingers. “Earth to Eric. Look, I just need you to stop acting like you’re better than everyone else. Do you think you can manage that?”

“Yeah, whatever. Can I go now?” Eric asked sullenly.

Mr. Xavier sighed again. “Fine. Just try to take my words to heart.”

Eric Carver rose to his feet and, with a disdainful sniff, he walked out the door.

“So, how was work?” Eric’s friend Jacob asked as they sat at the bar about half an hour later.

“Same old bullshit,” Eric replied. “Doing the same shit for the dumbass clients, and then the boss gives me crap for having a bad attitude.” He lifted his glass of beer to his lips and gave a long swallow.

“Hey, man, don’t let it get to you. It’s just a job, and you shouldn’t worry about work when you’re not at work. I sure don’t. When I’m off work, it’s just my wife, my dog, and my art.” He stopped for a moment to scribble in his notepad.

“What’re you drawing?” Eric asked, curious.

In response, Jacob turned the notepad to show his friend. Jacob had always described his scribbling as him going over ideas which he thought might be good in his sketches. This sketch showed a group of anthropomorphic cats sitting around a table while another anthropomorphic cat, dressed as a waiter, took their orders. Above it was a strange image, unlike Jacob’s usual whimsical drawing. It was a series of eyes, arranged in a tight circle, inside of which was a clockwise swirling shape. Eric noticed that there almost seemed to be depth to the shape, as if it was leading somewhere.

“Hey, cool thing up there,” he commented. “So, what’s up with the eyes and the vortex?”

“Oh, nothing much,” Jacob commented absentmindedly. “Just something I’ve seen in my dreams the last couple of nights. I thought I should get it down on paper, see if I could figure it out.”

Eric Carver did not know what it was, but something about the picture unsettled him. “So,” he asked, “is that picture going to be appearing a lot in your art?”

“Not sure yet,” his friend answered. “I’m still trying to see what I can make of this.”

Eric, for some reason he could not explain, found himself staring out into the darkness of this night, as if he expected to see something out there.

Henry MacPhail let out another muffled scream as Eric Carver shoved yet another needle under one of his toenails. “I’ll bet you like that,” Eric said into the camera. “Now how about this?” He shoved one of the needles in further, eliciting yet another scream.

“Just like a little bitch,” Eric announced to the camera, laughing as he did so. “Can’t help but wonder where his precious God is now. Now, I know, I know, toenails are not what you really wanted to see. I was just warming you up there. Now the real show begins.”

Eric picked up another needle and slowly approached his captive, moving his gaze up and down the body, as if wondering what he would do, before his eyes settled on the man’s genitalia. Henry began shaking his head while making frantic noises that sounded like no and please, which caused Eric Carver to laugh. It always amused him to get his targets nice and terrified, and he knew his audience felt the same way.

He waved the sharpened piece of metal in front of Henry’s face while giving him a mocking smile, enjoying his prisoner’s fear, before bringing the tip down to press against the man’s scrotum. He left it there for a moment, feeling himself grow hard as he felt Henry MacPhail’s body grow tense as the man attempted to hold himself perfectly still, even though he was struggling to stop himself from hyperventilating. Then Eric suddenly jammed the needle through, impaling one of his victim’s testicles and pinning it to the left leg.

Henry screamed, louder than he ever had before, and thrashed about as much as he could on the table before falling still. Eric had to struggle to keep himself from shooting a load off into his own pants, and knew that the viewers watching this episode were feeling the same way. Or, at least, they were, until the little bastard on the table fell unconscious.

“Hey, asshole, wake up!” Eric Carver yelled, slapping his captive on the face. Henry MacPhail stirred, groaning, one eye slipping slightly open, but did not fully awake. This did not please Eric. He had made an effort to avoid doing anything that could kill the man, had put an IV drip in his left arm, all to keep him alive for as long as possible, and now this was happening. Eric was fairly certain his victim was just fainting from the pain, not dying, at least not just yet, but he still couldn’t allow something like this to happen. His viewers would be disappointed if the subjects just kept fainting, and Eric Carver’s boss would not be happy if his show started losing views. That could mean less money for Eric, and possibly even… Eric looked at the unconscious man as he prepared another shot of adrenaline and shuddered.

TUESDAY

“The usual?” Ellen asked.

“Yes, certainly,” Eric replied. In his mind, he was occupied. There was the client he’d had that morning, a real jerk who seemed to think he knew the Contract Laws better than Eric, who had studied them for over a decade. Then there was Henry. Eric felt he needed to spice things up with this guy, try something different. Maybe it was time he brought out the blowtorch…

He suddenly noticed that the index finger of Ellen’s left hand seemed to be idly tracing some design across the counter. It almost looked like…

“Hey, what’s that you’re doing?” he asked suddenly.

“What?” replied Ellen, confused.

“You looked like you were drawing something with your finger on the counter,” Eric Carver explained, realizing how strange he must seem. “A swirl or something.”

“Oh.” Ellen appeared surprised that he had noticed. “It was just something several of us came up with in art class last night. No big deal, really.” She gave him a strange glance as she handed Eric his food and drink. He walked quietly to his table, wondering what was going on.

As Eric Carver wandered out into the street after completing his meal, and began the walk back to his workplace, he kept glancing about, wondering if there was something different. Everything seemed the same. People were walking in whatever direction they were going, or stood about. Vehicles moved down the streets. People walked in and out of buildings, same as they always did.

Eric chuckled lightly to himself. What am I getting all worked up about? He asked himself. Some new trend among local artists? Scariest thing in this town is me. I’ve just been working too hard. Thinking about work, and all those idiots back at the office, killed his smile and made him scowl as he kept walking.

Having finished with drafting the contract for that equipment deal, Eric decided to take the day off early this time, to relax and enjoy himself for the evening.

He buttoned up his suit, put his jacket on, and headed for the door. “You’re out early,” Mr. Xavier remarked as he saw Eric walking past his office.

Eric Carver restrained the urge to say something that would have gotten him in a lot of trouble, maybe even gotten him fired. Instead he just smiled and said, “I finished up with the rough draft of the Stevens Heavy Equipment contract, so I thought I would head out early.”

Eric’s boss nodded. “Make sure you wrap that one up soon,” he reminded. “There’s a lot of money on that one, and they want it finished up quickly.”

“I’ll get it done by the end of the week,” Eric assured the man, maintaining his pleasant demeanor only with difficulty.

“Good,” Eric’s boss answered, and turned away. Eric moved quickly to the office entrance, calming himself down by thinking off all the things he would do to Mr. Xavier. I’ll make what I’m doing to Henry look PG-13, once I’ve got that asshole Dwight in my hands, Eric reflected, and this brought a slight smile to his lips.

“Heading out?” Rosemary, the office receptionist, asked as she saw Eric Carver head past.

“Yeah,” replied Eric. “Think I’ll take the night off early. I got some stuff to take care of tonight, and I got a lot accomplished, so one night of leaving work early won’t kill anyone.” But it might make someone wish they were dead, he thought to himself, laughing inwardly at the thought of the man held prisoner in his basement.

“Well, have fun,” she answered. “And see you tomorrow.”

“You as well,” replied Eric Carver, waving as he stepped out the door.

Eric Carver hummed quietly to himself as he strolled down the street. It was a brisk autumn evening, and rather chilly, but the weather had turned the leaves on the trees which lined the street into glorious shades of yellow, orange, and red, and he liked to take the time to admire the sight. Several vehicles drove past him along the streets of the town, paying the man no heed, and pedestrians also walked by. He waved to a few whom he recognized, and they waved back, but for the most part they simply went by, minding their own business. It irritated Eric Carver that he was being ignored, but he drew comfort from reminding himself that among certain circles he very much was quite famous, and of why it was that the general public should not know about him and his work.

Eric suddenly noticed movement from the corner of his eye, and before he could properly react, a figure darted out in his direction, then took a left turn and kept on running down the street. It took Eric a moment to realize that this must be Johnny, that weirdo he’d heard about at work who liked going out for runs at all hours of the day and night, and never paid attention to anyone else while he was doing so. Asshole, thought Eric Carver. I wonder how well that guy would run if I shattered his kneecaps with a sledgehammer. Maybe I could rip out his toenails as well, and gouge out his eyes. Not like he uses them for anything anyways…

Shaking his head, he mentally added that guy to his list of future victims, and kept walking.

“I’m feeling really good about my art,” Jacob said as they sipped their beers.

“Really, what do you mean?” Eric asked.

“Well, you remember what I showed you last night. I realized last night I was really on to something. So I called in sick for work today.”

“You what?!” Eric could hardly believe what he was hearing. Jacob skipping out on work was unheard of.

“I know I shouldn’t have,” Jacob acknowledged. “My wife really wasn’t happy about it, but I knew I couldn’t let this moment of inspiration go to waste. Just… just see what I made.” He pulled out a rolled-up piece of paper and unrolled it for his friend to see.

At the center was the same ring of eyes but now the pattern inside seemed different, a complex series of lines crisscrossing each other…

“I drew two swirling patterns this time, one going clockwise and the other going counterclockwise,” Jacob explained.

Yes, that was it, Eric realized. Around the form was a landscape filled with people kneeling and worshipping before this thing. Even the trees which he could see appeared to be bending themselves in its direction. Eric noticed that the shape at the center of the drawing was done in exquisite detail, as were the nearest figures, while those further out were drawn in progressively less detail.

“So, what do you think?” asked Jacob.

“Well,” replied Eric, not quite sure what to say, “it’s definitely something new. Not like your earlier work.”

“Yeah,” Jacob agreed. “I spent my whole life trying to draw funny pictures and humanlike animals, but this just feels right somehow.”

“So,” Eric asked uncertainly, “what is that thing in the middle?”

“Oh, just a picture I’ve had going around in my head for a while,” Jacob answered absently. “I just… feel like it’s important somehow, and I need to get it on paper, show it to the world.”

Eric nodded along, but he could not help his misgivings.

Shackled and nailed to a table, with needles stuck into many of his joints, having spent two days with only intravenous nourishment, Henry MacPhail was starting to weaken. He still managed to scream, however, when Eric Carver took the blowtorch to him.

Eric started around the genitals, mainly because it amused him. It was such a sensitive part of the male body, so obviously hurting people there was all the more fun. He next moved onto the torso, which was large enough to be a great canvas on which to work. Slowly, he moved the flame along the man’s exposed skin, tracing long lines of burned flesh. Seeing the man attempting to cry out in pain, but not being able to manage much more than a muffled moan, reminded Eric of the first person he had ever killed. Her name had been Sandra Peterson. Eric had approached her at a party, and she had turned him down. Eric had not been pleased about this. After all, who did she think she was? He’d shown up, being a perfect gentleman, and she had the gall to act disinterested and turn away? So he had excused himself and stepped outside. He’d seen the vehicle which she had used to drive to the party, and knew that she had come alone. So he had gotten in his own vehicle and waited. Later, when Sandra had stepped out and gotten in her car, he had followed her, keeping his lights off as they drove through the night. He had kept a good distance behind her, but suspected that she had noticed him regardless, as she seemed to keep looking over her shoulder, and seemed to be making a lot of unnecessary turns. She probably thought she had been mistaken about being followed when she pulled into a driveway and he kept driving, which was what he had wanted her to think. Eric had then turned a corner and pulled his car to the side of the road, before checking up on the GPS device which he had attached to the underside of her car.

He had watched as she pulled out of the driveway and drove for two blocks before making a left turn and pulling into the driveway of what, when he drove by it himself, was revealed to be a townhouse. Over the course of the next few weeks, Eric Carver had observed her movements surreptitiously using the tracking device, when she was working, when she came home, other places she usually went. He then began going by her house when she was not around, taking pictures of her there, and similarly attending at her other usual haunts, though he never went inside her workplace.

He had gotten lucky one day when he had tried her front door after she left for work, and found it unlocked. Whether this was something she had forgotten to do, or she simply did not feel afraid of her neighbours, it was this mistake which would seal her fate.

Eric had waited there, inside her house, where he knew that she lived alone, until she had come back. When she arrived she seemed unaware of the invasion of her inner sanctuary, a fact which still gave Eric a great deal of pride. It had been easy enough to sneak up on her when her back was turned. She had turned to face him at the last moment, but it was too late, as Eric had already clamped a chloroform-soaked rag over her mouth. As soon as she was unconscious, Eric used the rope he had brought with him to tie her up, and quickly bundled her into his car before driving off. He had thought himself lucky to have been unnoticed, though he turned out to be wrong about that.

Back at his place, Eric placed her in a room in his basement. He had been preparing the room for weeks, attaching insulation to the walls to soundproof them, installing locks on the door which could only be opened from the outside. It was the first time he had ever used the room in which he now stood for its current purpose.

Not long after Eric had untied her, Sandra had started struggling. Boy, could she fight. She had struck at him and bitten and scratched him until he got sick of it and knocked her unconscious. He had left her in there, giving her occasional water but not feeding her for five days. When he decided to take another shot at her, she had been significantly weakened. She still tried to fight him, but it was a wasted effort, and she knew it as well. Henry’s feeble thrashing about reminded him of her vain struggles against him once he had starved her…

Eric paused, looking down at his captive, and frowned. He had been so caught up in his nostalgic reverie that he had not bothered to pay attention to what he was doing with the blowtorch. Much to his dismay, he realized that he had been using it to draw a spiral pattern on the abdomen of his victim, akin to what he had seen in his friend’s drawing of Monday evening.

Angrily, Eric Carver turned the blowtorch off and used it to strike Henry across the face, causing blood to spurt from his broken nose. “We’re going to have to cut tonight’s episode a little short,” he said quickly into the camera before turning it off and stalking upstairs, deeply unsettled.

WEDNESDAY

Eric woke the next morning to a voice message on his phone. He felt a chill run up his spine as he heard the message. “Call me back,” were the only three words spoken by the smooth, yet menacing, voice.

Without hesitating, though with great trepidation, Eric picked up the phone and called the number. He was answered on the first ring. “Hello,” the voice said. It was the voice of Eric’s boss, his real boss. “You seemed a little… off last night. You were doing well with the whole blowtorch thing, and then suddenly you just smacked him on the head and walked out. Is there something you wanted to talk about?”

Eric considered lying, saying he was just tired or something, but he somehow knew that his boss would see right through any attempt at deception or withholding information, and that he would suffer dearly as a result. “I have a friend,” he said. “An artist, who has been fixating on this weird symbol the last couple of nights. Also, the girl at the place where I eat lunch seemed interested in it yesterday. It’s been bothering me for some reason and last night, I noticed I was making that symbol with the blowtorch without even thinking. It must have just thrown me off.”

The voice on the other end seemed thoughtful for a moment. Finally it asked, “are you referring to a spiral shape?”

“Yes,” Eric answered, surprised. What did the boss know?

“Describe exactly what you saw your friend draw,” commanded the voice on the other end in a tone which permitted no argument.

“Well,” Eric said quickly. “The first night it was like a clockwise spiral surrounded by a ring of eyes. The next it was like two spirals, one clockwise and one counterclockwise, still surrounded by a ring of eyes. I don’t really know what else to tell you,” he added weakly.

“The girl at the restaurant,” the voice said. “Is she an artist as well?”

“I think so,” Eric replied, not certain what significance that could possibly have. “I mean, she’s mentioned an art class a couple of times during conversations.”

“And have you observed anything similar with anyone else?” asked the voice on the other end. His questions made Eric think of a doctor asking a patient about their symptoms.

“No,” Eric answered, feeling somewhat exasperated. “Look, I don’t see what…”

“Call me on Saturday,” the other voice cut in. “Give me an update on any new developments with this. Also call me if anything major happens. You’ll know what counts as something major if it happens, trust me. Until then, carry on as you were. Also, I’d like to see something interesting tonight, to make up for yesterday.”

“But what’s going on?” demanded Eric. “What’s happening here?”

“That’s no concern of yours,” replied the voice on the other end. “If it’s what I think it is, you have no reason to worry. Your business is making sure to put on entertaining shows for me and my customers, and updating me on what happens. Keep your head down and don’t do anything stupid, and you should be fine.” He hung up before Eric could ask any more questions.

Well, this day started out just great, Eric thought sarcastically as he put his cellphone away and started to get dressed.

“Eric, could you come in here for a moment?” While it was phrased as a request, Eric knew the summons was not to be ignored.

This is fucking bullshit. Why does everybody have to be getting on my case all the time? he thought as he made his way to his boss’s office.

Mr. Xavier was sitting behind the desk. Sitting across from his manager were a man and a woman, who appeared to be in their mid-forties. The woman was short, with short-cut brown hair, and slightly overweight, though her body somehow still seemed to be a thing all of sharp angles. She wore a severe expression on her face and seemed to command the entire room with her presence. The man was tall and thin, with incredibly pale skin, as if he never saw the sun, and pale, almost white, blond hair. He seemed bored and disinterested in his surroundings, as if this was all a waste of his time and he had better things to do.

All of this Eric took in in the seconds immediately after the inside of the room first came into his line of sight. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t realize you were seeing clients. I’ll just come back later.” Relived at the chance to get away, but confused as to why his manager would have called him in if he was seeing clients, Eric quickly turned to leave, but was stopped before he could take a step out of the room by Mr. Xavier’s impatient words.

“No, Eric, get back in here. I want you to meet these people. Come in and take a seat.”

Self-centered prick, Eric thought as he moved to obey the command. I’ll tie you up and make you watch me have my way with your wife. She’ll probably enjoy it, too, considering she has to deal with an ugly fatass like you all the time. “Of course,” he said out loud, smiling politely at his employer and the two people whom he assumed to be his employer’s clients. “So, what was it you wanted to discuss with me?”

“These,” Mr. Xavier stated, gesturing to the two people across from him, “are Mrs. Smith and Mr. Onassis. They’re old friends of mine. They taught me everything I know.”

“Oh, I see,” Eric nodded, understanding. “So they were senior lawyers at the law firm where you did your articling.” This seemed unlikely to Eric, considering that the three looked to be of a similar age, but this seemed to him like the most reasonable answer.

“What?” Mr. Xavier seemed quite surprised by this suggestion, but quickly laughed it off. “Oh, Heavens no, that’s not what I meant. I meant…” he suddenly stopped what he was saying, glancing over at the couple across from him. Whatever silent message or signal he got from his former mentors, he immediately shut his mouth concerning the subject. “It’s not important. They were coming through town, decided to check up on me, and happened to run across you. They want you to handle some work for them. They asked for you specifically.

“Okay?” Eric was confused by this, and annoyed by the whole situation. He found himself wondering where the couple might be staying, and how easy it would be to get in without being noticed by anybody else. “So, what was it you wanted me to do?”

"Oh, nothing much,” Mrs. Smith stated, handing a document to Eric. “We just wanted a lawyer’s opinion on this contract. The matter is of significant importance to us, and we felt that the opinion of a highly experienced lawyer such as yourself would be most welcome.”

Eric felt himself puff up slightly at the praise. Maybe these people aren’t so bad, he thought. I don’t think I want to kill them after all. “Well,” he said. “Let’s see the contract, then.”

“Here you go,” Mr. Onassis muttered disinterestedly, handing three pieces of paper stapled together to Eric.

Looking over the document, Eric quickly saw that it was pretty straightforward. Just a standard car rental agreement, not something that you would usually bring to a lawyer. Looking at the last page, he saw that it was already signed.

“Fucking shit,” Eric cursed under his breath. Is this some kind of fucking practical joke? I’ll bet those asshole motherfuckers are probably laughing at me right now! Enraged, he stormed into Mr. Xavier’s office, only to find it completely empty.

“Oh, he just left,” Rosemary said when he asked her. “He said something important came up and he had to go.”

“What about the others?” asked Eric.

“What others?” inquired the receptionist, confused.

"You know, the folks who were in with him, Mr. Onassis and Mrs. Smith.” Noticing the confused expression on the receptionist’s face, Eric grew exasperated. “They were just in there!”

“Look, I didn’t see anyone who doesn’t work here come in today, so stop yelling at me,” the receptionist said, an edge to her voice.

They’re all in on it, Eric thought as he stormed back to his office.

“The usual?” Ellen asked when Eric stood in front of her at the restaurant.

“Yeah, sure,” Eric answered absentmindedly. He was still thinking about that bitch back at the office, her stuck-up husband and his no good, piece of shit, talentless employer Dwight. I’ll get them all, he thought angrily. I’ll make every last fucking one of them regret having ever crossed me… His gruesome reverie was interrupted as he noticed Ellen idly tracing the index finger of her right hand across the counter, making what he quickly saw to be a spiral pattern.

“Hey, what’s that?” Eric asked.

“What?” she asked, seeming genuinely confused and stopping her tracing.

“Nothing,” Eric muttered. He paid for the meal, took his food and then hurried to his table, glancing quickly over his shoulder to look as she recommenced idly traced that weird pattern across the counter. It was as if nobody saw how bizarre it was.

Outside, he was walking back to the office at a brisk pace, when suddenly Eric noticed a crowd, on the other side of the street, staring at something. Curious, he hurried across the street to see what it was. There, spray-painted on the wall, was a clockwise spiral shape.

Eric Carver looked at the people. Nobody was muttering or commenting on what they had just seen or pulling out their cellphones to take pictures. Everyone was just staring, as if in some sort of reverential trance.

“Hey,” Eric grabbed the shoulder of one of the onlookers. “What’s going on here?”

The onlooker jolted into awareness and looked at Eric. “Get your hand off my shoulder,” he said, shaking Eric off and walking away. The rest of the crowd seemed to similarly be coming to and walking off as if nothing had happened.

“Hey,” Eric demanded of a woman walking past him. “What was that just there?”

The woman looked up, confused, startled and somewhat frightened at the large man standing over her. “I… I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said quickly, and hurried away. Other passers-by looked at Eric rather strangely as they went about their business.

Shaking his head and cursing under his breath, Eric Carver turned and walked back to the office.

“All right, so you understand the offer,” Eric confirmed.

“Yes,” said his client, Andrew Farnsworth. “And I feel comfortable signing this. It’s exactly what I wanted.”

“All right, would you like a pen?” inquired Eric.

“No, I got my own,” Andrew replied, producing his own pen with the logo of his construction company and signing his name to the Heavy Equipment Rental Agreement. He then slid the Contract across the table, so that Eric could sign to confirm having witnessed the signature of his client.

As Eric brought the tip of his pen down to the line where he was to place his signature, he noticed something strange. At the end of this client’s signature, the line of ink did not end with the h, but rather curved upwards, forming a counterclockwise spiral shape.

Eric frowned. “Uh, what is this?” he asked uncomfortably, pointing to the strange shape at the end of the signature.

“What do you mean?” asked Andrew, confused. “That’s my signature.”

"No, I mean the thing at the end, the weird spiral?” Eric persisted.

The look of confusion remained on Andrew Farnsworth’s face, though tinged with an edge of hostility and something else, something deeper, something frantic and desperate, as if he were terrified of something. “That is my signature,” he said. “Unless there’s something wrong with it, I would like you to sign.”

Eric stared for a moment at the faintly menacing expression of his client, as the client stared him down. Eric was not accustomed to being intimidated. Normally, people were intimidated by him, and not just when he had them tied up in his basement. Eric Carver was a large imposing man with a commanding presence, and he made sure to use it to his advantage when he could. Now, however, he found himself backing down, desisting from his line of questioning.

Eric turned his gaze away from his client, down to the sheet of paper in front of him. “Of course,” he said almost meekly, as he signed the contract. His client’s face immediately returned to its usual friendly demeanor as he stood up, offering his hand to Eric Carver for a handshake.

Eric didn’t really want to go to the bar that evening. He would rather have skipped and not faced his increasingly strange friend. Still, he felt compelled by morbid curiosity to go and see what new developments had taken place with his friend’s art.

As he walked through the door, he saw Jacob furiously scribbling in his notebook. The man did not even look up as his friend approached. It was only when Eric took a seat next to him that Jacob looked up and said, “oh, hey. How’s it going?”

“It’s… uh, going ok,” Eric answered as he sat down next to his friend. “So, uh, how are things with you?”

“Difficult to say,” Jacob replied. “I had to fake being sick again today. I just… I have to keep drawing, you know. I’m having one of those moments when I can’t think about anything but my art. You probably don’t understand, but sometimes I feel like I have something to draw that I have to draw, like it would be wrong to let it go.”

“Do you normally call into work and lie to avoid having to do your job?” Eric asked.

“No,” his friend admitted. “But this is like nothing before. I feel like I’m on the verge of a masterpiece, something that will make me famous and renowned forever in my field.”

“And what does your wife think about this?” asked Eric. He knew that Martha would be absolutely furious about her husband skipping work twice to draw.

"She was pretty mad when I called this morning,” Jacob conceded. “Wouldn’t talk to me, except to say that we were both going to end up on the street thanks to me, and threatening to call the boss and tell him the truth. Then,” he added, much to Eric’s surprise, “later this morning, I caught her staring transfixed at one of my new drawings. The moment I called her attention to it she got up and walked out as if she had never been staring in the first place, of course, but later, when I was walking past our bedroom on the way to the bathroom, I noticed her staring at one of them again.”

Eric remembered the crowd from earlier that day, who had been staring at the spiral shape spray-painted on the wall, then had acted as if nothing had happened when he disrupted them, and shuddered. “So, your wife likes your new work?” he probed, not really wanting to hear more.

“Oh, she’ll never admit it, but I think she’s getting hooked,” Jacob confirmed. “Say, I’ve really added to that drawing I showed you last night. Wanna see?”

Before Eric could answer that he would pass, thank you very much, Jacob pulled out the page and showed it to him. The surrounding scenery and people were unchanged from yesterday, but the shape at the center, the two interconnected spirals surrounded by eyes, had been added to a great deal. Between the multitude of intersecting lines had been added an overwhelming cacophony of bright colours, so bright it was almost painful to look at them, yet at the same time strangely entrancing. The eyes had been added to as well, pupils coloured in with myriad bright shades, including ones which did not normally appear in the human eye. The detail of the eyes was exquisite, to the point that Eric could almost believe they were real, but with no evidence of eyelashes or eyelids.

“Well,” Eric remarked, picking over his words with care, “you seem to have put a lot of work into this. It looks… good, and I bet it will look even better once you’ve coloured in the rest.”

"Oh no,” replied Jacob, laughing as if what his friend had told him was absurd. “That is my drawing as I intended. The rest is supposed to be in black and white, and less detailed. The whole point, after all is to focus on Oranath. To show that Oranath is at the center of all, and that everything else is but a pale imitation…”

Eric noticed how Jacob was staring not at him but at the shape on the page, the one that he had called Oranath, as he said this, and that his tone had become strange, reverential yet also somehow distant, as if he were in a trance of some sort. Eric, staring at the page from different angles, noted that whatever angle it was from which he looked at that shape, it seemed as if the eyes were staring straight at him. It was all very unsettling, and his friend’s creepy words and manner of talking were only making it worse.

“What did you call that?” Eric cut into Jacob’s bizarre and unsettling speech.

Jacob bolted upwards, as if startled. “What do you mean? I was just talking about my drawing.”

“No, not that,” Eric stated. “I mean what you called it. Oranath, I think. Why did you call it that?”

“What do you mean?” Jacob seemed confused. “That’s not even a word. It just sounds like some gibberish name.”

"You just called it that,” answered Eric. “Right now.”

"No, I didn’t,” replied Jacob, seeming genuinely confused. “I’ve never said or thought that word in my life. Though now that you think of it, it seems to fit, somehow. Oranath,” he muttered, staring at the drawing, his voice becoming reverential and distant yet again.

“I just heard you say it,” persisted Eric, starting to grow annoyed. “You heard it, right?” he turned to address the bartender, only to see that he was staring, transfixed, at the same drawing.

The bartender suddenly looked up, confused. “What did you say,” he asked.

“You might not be well,” Jacob said to him, though there was something strange to his voice, as though someone, or something, else was speaking through Jacob’s mouth. “Maybe you should go home for a bit, rest yourself, realize that there is nothing to fear.”

Thoroughly disturbed, Eric rose immediately and left the bar, not even bothering to pay for his drink. The bartender did not try to stop him.

Eric’s first plan, when he got home, was to pack a couple of bags and leave town at once. He nearly did so, too, except that he remembered the man nailed to a table in his basement. The boss had made it quite clear that Eric was to put on a good show that night, and as much as Eric was freaked out about whatever was going on in town, he was still far too afraid to go against the boss. So it was that Eric took a few deep breaths and headed downstairs to his playroom, for the first time in his life not happy to have a prisoner in his home.

Entering the room, he saw that his subject had weakened considerably. It would not, he expected, be long that he still had to play with this one. He might have been overeager the first night. Picking up a water bottle, he unscrewed the top. Holding the bottle in his right hand, he removed the ball gag from Henry MacPhail’s mouth with his left hand.

“Please…” Henry gasped weakly. “Let me…”

“Asshole,” Eric snarled, backhanding his captive across the face with his left hand. “Shut up and drink.” He then pressed the bottle to his victim’s mouth and tipped it forward. Water poured forward, into Henry’s mouth. Some went into his nostrils, and he choked and sputtered on the water. Just as Henry finally got himself under control, Eric shoved the ball gag back in and put the water bottle away.

Taking a few deep breaths, Eric turned to the cameras, turned them on and said, “welcome back, people. Sorry about cutting things short last night, but we’re back, and I promise not to disappoint this time.” Thinking about the person watching, who would most certainly hold him to his promise, made Eric shudder inside, though he did not let himself show this.

“So, I’m going to try something different today,” Eric explained. “I know a lot of you have been saying you wanted to see something… shocking, so I’ll start with that.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small Taser.

“Now,” he commented, looking over his captive like a piece of choice meat, “where should I start? How about here,” he pointed the end of the Taser to the head of the nail sticking into his captive’s left knee. Henry gave a muffled scream as electricity ripped through him. “Now how about here?” Another scream as the Taser was brought to bear on Henry’s testicles. More screams came as the Taser was brought down on different parts of the captive man’s body.

Eric was starting to feel a little better, a little more like his old self, as he continued to torture his helpless prisoner. “Now,” he continued, putting the Taser away, “let’s try something else. Now, I know this guy’s nailed down, so there’s no need to break his legs to stop him running away, but you know the old saying among actors, ‘break a leg,’ and, well, sometimes you have to break a few eggs, I mean legs, in order to put on a good show.” Picking up a hammer, he advanced once again on his prisoner’s body.

The hammer came down, hard, on Henry’s right foot, then on the left. Next he began bringing the hammer down hard on the man’s legs. The screams of his victim were relaxing to Eric. Indeed, they were like music to his ears. This made him forget all about the strange happenings of the last few days. Now, in this moment, this was Hell, and he was Satan. This was his dominion, and no outside force could interfere with him. Eric was about to bring his hammer down again when he glanced up. As Henry was screaming in agony, his eyes were screwed tightly shut, as if to prevent himself from seeing the horror that was happening. This gave Eric a sudden idea.

“You know,” Eric said suddenly to the camera, “you might have noticed our guest closing his eyes. But really,” he remarked, a wicked gleam in his eyes, “this is a show, people. Shouldn’t you be watching the show, enjoying every moment?” With these words, he picked up a very sharp pair of scissors, letting his viewers get a good look through the video camera as he slowly approached the prone body of his prisoner, then leaned over with the implement of torture.

Slowly, deliberately, he cut off the eyelids, exposing the terrified eyes beneath. Unable to shut themselves, the orbs moved wildly in their sockets, as if attempting to see anything other than the maniacal sadist leering down at them. They could not, however, as once he had finished his work, Eric held the head in place for a moment in his vice-like grip, forcing his victim to stare up at him.

He began walking back to his table full of tools, intending to pick up the hammer again, when his eyes fell upon something that gave him a different, cruel idea. “You know,” he said, looking back at the camera, “on second thought, maybe I should show the guy a little mercy. No reason he has to see what comes next.” He picked up a pair of needles with these words, laughing maniacally as he did so.

Henry began to scream, more frantically than he ever had before, attempting to plead for mercy through the gag in his mouth, shaking his head frantically from side to side, as he stared at the needles and realized the horrible intentions of his captor. “Squirm, little pinned insect,” he mocked as he leaned in above the man’s face once again.

“Nuuhh, pweeashe,” said the muffled voice as tears and blood streamed down the face.

Grinning, Eric gripped the struggling head in his left hand while bringing the long needle in his right hand towards the man’s left eye. He positioned the tip just above the desperately moving orb for a moment, savouring that moment, before plunging the needle down while laughing.

Henry’s screams and writhing made Eric get hard. Enjoying the feeling of absolute power over his helpless victim, he laughed in Henry’s face and suddenly, on impulse, hoping to wring a bit more pain out of the captive man, Eric plunged the needle down further.

Suddenly, Henry’s struggling stopped, and he fell still. Eric stared down, confused for a moment, wondering if maybe Henry had fallen unconscious again, and he should get another shot of adrenaline ready, and then he suddenly realized, to his mounting horror, what had just happened. He had plunged a long, thin needle into the brain of Henry MacPhail, and now he was dead.

“Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck,” Eric cursed as he crossed to the table, prepared a shot of adrenaline, and injected it into Henry’s arm. Nothing. Eric checked the man’s pulse, nothing. He began desperately doing chest compressions, almost sobbing as he did so. He heard a couple of ribs crack, but life did not return to the still form stuck on the table.

Eric tried mouth-to-mouth, followed by more chest compressions, but it did not work. Looking down, he noticed that his hands were placed over where he had made that hated spiral shape with his blowtorch the night before.

“You son of a bitch,” screamed Eric as he brought his right fist down on the dead man’s chest. Another rib cracked. Henry did not stir. “Come on,” Eric screamed, grabbing the corpse by the shoulders and shaking violently, barely registering the sound of the nails being ripped out of the table. “Wake up! Wake up, you stupid, son of a bitch asshole! Wake up! Wake up! Come on… wake up… please… just wake up…” His words trailed off into a sob as he dropped the limp form, somehow mocking him with a peaceful smile, onto the table and collapsed to the floor.

“Nononononononononononononononononono,” Eric moaned, holding his head in his hands. Torturing people was the one thing that could always relax him, the one thing that had been able to make him forget about the insanity gripping his town, and now his subject was dead, dead, dead, and his escape was gone. It’s so unfair, he thought bitterly. I work my ass off every day for my jackass boss and my dumbass clients, and am in the middle of a town that’s going insane, and I can’t even enjoy myself every now and again. Then another thought, one which had not occurred to him up until that point, occurred to him, and caused him to shudder. He had promised a good show, and now that he had failed to provide one…

The cell phone in his pocket buzzed, jolting Eric Carver fully out of his self-pitying reverie. Terrified to answer, yet more terrified of the consequences of not answering, Eric replied on the fourth buzz. “Yes,” he said nervously.

“First things first,” the voice of his boss said tersely. “Turn off the fucking video camera. The last thing I need is one of my guys having a meltdown that everyone can see.”

With a startled yelp as he remembered the camera, Eric crossed the room in two strides and turned it off. “There, done,” he said.

“Good. Now, you promised me a good show tonight. You certainly started good, but then you cocked it up part way through, and I most decidedly am not happy about that. You know what I think of fuckups, right? And what I do to them?”

“Y-yes,” Eric whispered in a terrified voice.

“Do you remember,” the voice on the other end said, “the night we met?”

“Yes,” Eric whispered again. He could never forget that night. It had been both the most terrifying night of his life, and one of the best. He had just finished with Sandra and had stuffed her body into a box, which he was hauling out to his van. Just as he had finished stuffing the body in and closing the back door, he had heard a voice behind him say, not a bad job, if I do say so myself.

Eric had wheeled about, to see a tall man in an impeccable black suit and tie, a silver mask covering his face, and another man to his right and slightly behind, wearing a mask that looked like it came from a costume store and holding a long straight razor.

Who are you? Eric had demanded, but the man with the silver mask had only laughed and said, someone who knows everything about you. At least, the relevant parts. I know you have a dead body in that box, and…

Eric had had a switchblade in his pocket, and he had pulled it out at that moment and charged the stranger, planning to kill him then and there and claim self-defense. The man with the razor blade had made as if to step in, but them man with the silver mask had waved him back and advanced himself.

Eric was a powerful man. He had been involved in sports throughout his school years, and had been a champion at Varsity Football, both during his undergraduate years and in law school. He had furthermore trained in both Judo and Wrestling, and continued to train regularly at the gym. Once, in a bar, he had beat up a man whom he’d later discovered to be from the Special Forces. He was pretty confident in his abilities to take on any normal opponent, unless they had a gun.

Which was why it surprised him so much that this unarmed opponent was able to take him down with ease. This stranger had dodged casually out of the way, and before Eric could react, had grabbed Eric’s knife-holding harm and twisted it behind his back. You’re tough, the man had hissed in Eric’s ear in that smooth voice that would become so horribly familiar to him. But I trained in a school that would make even you piss your pants and run crying to your mother. Now, my servant and I can come inside and we can talk, or I can kill you right here. Your choice.

Had there been anybody else outside or looking outside at that time of night, Eric would probably have called for help. At this point he had forgotten all about the dead body in the trunk of his van. All he could think about was that he was now trapped, held in someone else’s power entirely. As much as he liked putting other people in this situation, he absolutely hated the thought of being in this position himself. But it was almost three in the morning and nobody was out, so he led these two strangers into his home, sat them down at his table and gave them each a glass of water.

Now, let’s get down to business, the man in the silver mask had said. There is something I would very much like to show you. Jason, he gestured to the other man, who pulled out a laptop, powered it up, and played a video. Taken from what was clearly a concealed position, it showed Eric carrying the bound and limp form of the woman now in the trunk of his van out to his car. Even though it was dark, Eric’s face could be clearly seen from the streetlights above, as could be the license plate of his vehicle. Eric could still remember how his stomach had tightened and his throat had gone dry at the sight.

What do you want? he had asked. I have money…

The man in the silver mask had laughed at this. I’m not looking for a bribe, he had said when his laughter had died down. I’m looking to give you a job.

Eric, confused, had just stared at the man addressing him, until he sighed and continued. I was impressed by how you were able to get in there and drag her out. I will want to see you at work, but from what I’ve seen so far, I think you might be a good fit at my organization. You see, I’m head of a group of people who understand how the world really works, and don’t go around getting all sentimental about people too weak to look after themselves. We like to have fun, and to enjoy watching other people having fun, and I want you to try out.

And if I don’t want to. Eric had calmed down somewhat, and was now starting to get angry at these intruders in his home.

How dare you! The second intruder suddenly spoke up for the first time. The boss just personally came out to offer you a chance to work for him, and you’re spitting in his face. I ought to…

The first intruder held up his right hand in a gesture for silence. Calm down Jason. I’m sure he just didn’t understand who he was talking to. Perhaps I should explain things to him in greater detail. He then turned to face Eric, and pulled off his mask.

The silver mask went back on a second later, but by that time Eric had already seen his face. Oh God, his face. Eric could remember nothing about the face itself, but when he had gazed upon it, he had seen centuries of suffering and madness, cities, burning, people being tortured and devoured by hideous monsters. And it was as if he was forced to experience all of this in that one instant. Had the mysterious stranger not immediately put his mask back on, Eric was certain that he would have gone mad then and there.

Now, the man in the silver mask said pleasantly, you have two choices right now. Either I can put you in the Looney Bin for the rest of your life, or you can come with me to your job interview.

Reluctantly, Eric had followed the two out to their vehicle, and let them take him to an abandoned house outside of town. Inside a room in the basement was a naked, bound woman in her early 20s, with tears streaming down her face. On a table nearby were screwdrivers, hammers, knives and a variety of other toys. Jason had picked up a video camera lying in a corner of the room and pointed it at the woman.

Show me what you can do, the silver-masked man had said.

Eric, of course, had done as instructed. As terrified as he had been of the man in the silver mask, he had started enjoying himself very quickly with the woman who had been presented to him, and when he was done, the man in the silver mask had said, not bad for a new guy. All right, I’ll take you on. Jason, right away, he had then said to the other man, who put down the camera and gave an envelope to Eric. Later, when he had opened the envelope in his home, Eric had found it to contain $5 000 in $100 bills.

On the way back, the silver-masked man had explained to Eric the terms of his new employment. Basically, he was to continue in his current job, while at the same time snatching people up and taking them back to his house. The boss would set up a camera to livestream to his website, and Eric was to turn it on before he started working. Eric was also to review the comments and requests from paying viewers, and make his decisions as to subjects and methods accordingly. As long as he did this, he would be well compensated and would not have to fear being harmed.

Just one more question, Eric had said as the silver-masked man was turning to leave.

Ask away, the silver-masked man had responded.

What do I call you? Eric had asked.

Boss will do, the silver-masked man had replied before leaving. Eric had not seen the man or his lackey since.

All this was running through Eric’s head as his boss continued. “Do you understand?” the boss concluded.

“Oh, uh, um, yes, of course,” Eric answered, mortified that he had just spaced out while the boss was talking.

“Really?” The boss’s tone indicated skepticism. “Then why don’t you repeat my instructions?”

Eric began scrambling through his memories, trying desperately to remember what his boss had said. “You wanted me to…”

“I told you I want daily updates, the minute you get back from work, on the evolving situation in your town. And I want no more fuckups, not a single one. Capiche?”

Eric gulped. “Yes,” he said quickly, and the line went dead.

THURSDAY

Eric did not want to get up that morning. He was afraid of what was out there, and depressed about losing the one thing that could make him forget about what was out there. In the end, it was fear of the boss, and what the boss might do to him, that made him get out of his bed and onto his feet.

Normally, Eric got out of bed when his alarm went off at 7:00 am, and was out of bed, dressed, and finished with breakfast by 7:30 am. This morning, however, Eric did not get out of bed until 7:20, and did not finish getting dressed and eating breakfast until a little after 8:00.

It was around 8:10 am when Eric finally was able to get himself out of this house. At this point, he knew it was too late for him to be able to walk to work, so instead he chose to drive. Getting into his car, turning the key in the ignition, he suddenly noticed someone he had never seen before staring at him from the woods, but at this point he was beyond being bothered by such things.

Driving into town, he noticed that the people he passed seemed different somehow. A number of them seemed… subdued, as if they had lost something important that was animating them, and they were not fully cognizant of their surroundings. Many others appeared to be as confused and alarmed as he was.

Pulling into a parking space a couple of blocks away from the office. Eric got out and began walking towards the office at a brisk pace. He passed by two young women standing next to each other. As he walked by, one of the women suddenly grabbed the other by the shoulders and shook her, yelling, “what’s going on? Snap out of it!”

The other woman’s vacant glance suddenly became normal and the looked at the woman standing beside her, confused and irritated. “The fuck is going on with you?” As the two noticed Eric staring at them and turned to face him, he quickly hurried away.

Entering his office, Eric hung up his jacket and tried to distract himself with his work. He reviewed the draft of an Agreement of Purchase and Sale for a Condo building, reminded his assistant to copy and fax the contract signed yesterday, and otherwise sought to occupy himself. It seemed to go well at first, until his stomach grumbled and he realized it was 1:00 pm. He found himself wishing that, for the first time in years, he had decided to pack himself a lunch. Eric's first thought was to just skip lunch and work through until work was over, preferably after everyone had gone inside, but then he remembered that the boss wanted updates, and he would be able to do a better job of getting updates if he went out. Fucking shit, why does everything have to go bad for me? he thought as he left the office.

Eric kept his head down, trying not to make eye contact with anybody as he kept walking. Stopping at a street corner, he was waiting for the light to turn, and trying to avoid the gaze of the person standing beside him whom he knew was there. At last it became too much and he looked up.

To his right stood Johnny, the man who had run past him two days before. Eric's momentary flash of anger vanished as he was relived to simply be looking at someone who didn’t seem to be in a weird trance. “Hello,” Johnny said. “Nice day we’re having. Sorry about how I ran past you the other day.”

“Yes,” Eric replied. The guy appeared to be fully aware of his surrounding and not spacing out, but Eric thought there was something strange about him. It was as if he was completely calm and not at all bothered by what was happening around him. “I’ve been finding things a little weird around here, to be honest. Did you notice anything strange with folks? They seem to be sort of… out of it.”

“Yes,” Johnny answered, seeming pleased. “It’s going good. I noticed you seem unaffected. I wonder which group you are.”

“What do you…” Eric began to ask, but at that moment the light changed, and Johnny began running across the street and away from him. For a moment Eric noticed the watch that Johnny was wearing on this left wrist, and that there seemed to be something strange about it, but he did not glimpse it for long enough to figure out what this was.

Eric decided to go somewhere different for lunch. As he walked along the street, he noticed spiral shapes everywhere. Clockwise spirals. Counterclockwise spirals. Clockwise and counterclockwise spirals intersecting. Like some weird graffiti on the walls and windows and even the sidewalks. Many of the people, the ones who seemed to be in a trance were stopping to stare, then walking on. When people who seemed unaffected touched them, it seemed to jolt them out of their state.

Suddenly, he heard a crashing sound behind him. Turning, he saw that a van had crashed into a fence. On a wall behind the fence, Eric Carver saw a large, multicoloured mural, in the form of two intersecting spirals, one clockwise and one counterclockwise, surrounded by a ring of eyes. A woman screamed and ran over to the van, attempting to open the door. “Somebody help! Call 911! Help me get the door open! They might be hurt!” she screamed.

Looking about him, Eric saw that almost everyone had stopped where they were and were staring, unmoving, at the scene. This lasted for a moment, and then everybody was jolted back into awareness and they were running over to help or to watch or to do whatever it was that people did when they saw that something unusual and bad for someone else had happened. Another time, this would have interested Eric. As it was, he just turned around and walked away, faster this time.

Walking into a Deli he had never been to before, Eric noticed a bunch of the people staring at something on the opposite wall from the counter. Not really wanting to look, he glanced over to see a pattern made of intersecting spirals, one clockwise, one counterclockwise.

Approaching the counter, Eric addressed the young man standing behind the counter. “Uh… hello?”

“Hello,” the man answered, startled out of his observation of the symbol on the wall opposite him. “Welcome to Bannerman’s Deli, what would you like?”

“Well,” Eric could think of only one thing to say. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the symbol on the wall.

The man seemed confused for a moment, then appeared to notice the symbol, as if for the first time. “Oh, just a mural we had commissioned,” he said.

“Yes, but what is it?” Eric insisted.

“Just some art,” the man repeated, this time with a strange urgency in his voice, a desperation that made Eric Carver decide to not press the matter. Quickly placing his order, Eric waited impatiently for his meal, then ate as rapidly as he could, trying not to pay attention to all the people transfixed by the image on the wall.

He was almost back to the office, ignoring as best as he could the incomprehensible strangeness all about him, when he bumped into somebody. Glancing up, he saw that it was Mr. Onassis from yesterday.

“Why hello,” the man said quite cheerfully, in stark contrast to his behavior of the day before.

Eric bit back the urge to say something rude, and instead replied politely, “nice to meet you. I reviewed your contract and found nothing wrong. You’re okay to sign.”

“Oh good,” Mr. Onassis answered, clearly indifferent as to this fact. “My wife was quite interested when she heard of you, you know, but I thought it was a waste of time. I’m starting to think she was right, though. I suppose she usually is.”

“What are you talking…” suddenly Eric noticed the man’s hands, and the rings thereon. On the ring finger of his left hand was a ring, with a strange black-and-white stone, the colours forming the shape of a clockwise spiral. On the ring finger of his right hand was another ring, though the spiral on this one was counterclockwise.

“Something got your attention?” Mr. Onassis asked, with a knowing look in his eyes.

Not saying a word in reply, Eric ran back to the office. A pair of people were staring at a spiral shape drawn on the sidewalk in chalk, and he shoved them aside, not turning around for a moment in response to the litany of curses shouted after him.

Eric was not even sure why he bothered asking if Mr. Xavier was in. He knew already he would be told that the man was still out. Quickly he made some bullshit excuse, which he forgot as soon as it was out of his mouth, about not feeling well, and left for his car. On the drive home, he kept passing by people in trances, staring at the bizarre symbols which appeared everywhere, or walking about, seeming not to notice their surroundings. Some he noticed creating new spiral symbols with whatever means they had, from spray paint to chalk, to blood in one case. Those unaffected seemed as unsettled as Eric himself.

Looking forward just as he reached the edge of town, Eric had to suddenly slam on the brakes as he nearly ran over a man drawing a spiral in chalk on the asphalt. As Eric lay on the horn, the man looked up, dazed and confused for a moment, as if he did not know what was going on, before he appeared to snap back to reality. Giving a little yelp, the man hurried off the road, leaving Eric to resume his driving. Should’ve just run over the little fuck, Eric thought as he drove on. Not like anybody would’ve noticed.

Driving along the road, Eric noticed somebody wearing jogging clothes running along the side of the road. Somehow, this individual looked familiar. As Eric came alongside, he saw the runner come to a stop, and realized that this was Johnny, the man who had run past him the day before, and whom he had seen earlier that day. Eric looked straight ahead as he noticed Johnny smiling and waving.

It was a few more minutes before he got home, and Eric was blessedly alone. He did not usually listen to the radio while driving, and did not do so during this ride either, afraid of what he might hear if he did. Pulling into his driveway, Eric felt as if there were eyes upon him, staring him down, judging him, assessing him. Looking out of the vehicle, to his right, he noticed Mrs. Smith and Mr. Xavier, staring at him from the edge of the woods, before turning around and returning to the forest as soon as they saw that he had noticed them.

Getting out of his car, Eric thought about getting his shotgun and going after them, but decided against this. After all, at this point he had no idea if they were armed, and something about that pair made him not want to get near.

After closing the car door, Eric stepped into his house, got a bottle of beer out of the fridge, and drank it while contemplating his present situation. The whole town seemed to be going crazy, he was starting to suspect that folks in town were behind this, he couldn’t just run away because his boss was looking for updates, and to top it all off, there was a dead body in his basement, and he couldn’t just go burying it in the woods behind his house like he usually did, because now other people had taken it into their heads to start trespassing into those woods. All in all, his week, which had started out so promising, was rapidly going to shit.

Suddenly his cell phone rang. Looking down, Eric cursed, seeing that it was his boss calling. “Hello,” he answered on the second ring.

“Give me your update,” the voice on the other end ordered, without so much as a hello.

Without hesitating, Eric told his boss everything that had happened, as best as he could remember. When he was done with his account, there was silence on the other end for a moment. Finally the voice spoke. “Very interesting. I shall make the proper inquiries immediately. In the meantime, continue to monitor the situation. I expect another update tomorrow.”

Eric could not think of anything to say, any way he could try to object, futile though it might be, to the awful command given to him. Finally, unable to think of anything else to say, he choked out, “what about the body?”

“Body?” the boss asked. After a moment he said, “oh yeah, that body. Leave it. Trust me, that corpse in your basement will be the least of your concerns before long.”

“But…” the boss hung up before Eric could say another word. Eric pondered these instructions for a moment, then sat down on the floor and downed the rest of the bottle, before reaching into his fridge for another.

FRIDAY

The next day, Eric woke to a splitting headache and an uneasy stomach. He had not gotten that drunk since his University days, and now he was suffering the price, but that was the least of his concerns at the moment. He was going to have to go out there, to the town that had gone mad, and this was just too much for him.

However, his fear of his boss made him get up off the floor and stumble over to the washroom, where he voided the contents of his stomach into the toilet bowl. Flushing the unpleasant-looking contents down and out of sight, Eric moved to the sink, washing the foul taste from his mouth and then drinking some water. Once this was done, he walked over to the kitchen, frying himself some bacon and eggs.

Having finished his breakfast and drank more water, he contemplated his situation. He didn’t want to go back into town. For all he knew, every single person there had succumbed to whatever the fuck was going on. In fact, now that he thought about things, that seemed increasingly likely. He was far enough away from town that walking was not a viable option, and he was clearly in no condition to drive. If it weren’t for the fact that the boss had ordered him to go into town, this would have seemed a perfectly reasonable excuse to stay home.

Problem was, his boss had ordered him to go into town, and as tough as Eric liked to think himself, as tough as Eric was, his boss was far tougher, and as much as Eric feared going into town, he feared the boss more.

The only viable options that Eric could see for getting into town were the bus and a taxi, and he was sure that anyone he encountered while taking these methods of transportation would be similarly affected. Perhaps, Eric thought, I could try driving. I can do my best to focus on the road, and the cops probably wouldn’t even notice a drunk driver, the way things are.

Still, he decided, this wasn’t a viable option, because there remained the possibility that he would crash. The damage to his vehicle might rob Eric of his only means of escape from this town if things got so bad that even fear of the boss couldn’t keep him. Worse yet, was the possibility that Eric might find himself injured and stuck in a hospital full of those… things.

No, Eric decided, he would need to get someone else to drive him into town, even if it was someone moving about like they were in a trance all the time. A bus was what he thought of at first, but he quickly decided against this. It was not the problem that the bus stop was a bit of a hike. Eric Carver had no objection to walking. In fact, in his current state, he expected that he could use the exercise. It was the twin factors of not having the foggiest idea of the bus schedule and being in no state to spend time researching this, and the deep, instinctual fear of being stuck in a confined space with a whole crowd of those… whatever they were. No, better to get a taxi, or call a ride share service, and only have to deal with one of them.

After thinking about things for a moment, he decided to call a taxi company. Picking up his cell phone, Eric tried to look online for the number of a taxi company, but found that his cell phone could not access the internet for some reason. Next he turned on his laptop, but this had no access as well, and no available networks either. Remembering an old phone book he had lying around, Eric spent about half an hour finding it before reviewing the book until he found a number for a taxi company. When he tried calling this number, he found that there was suddenly no cell service in the area.

“Fuck!” Eric yelled, then remembered his landline phone, which he hadn’t used in almost six months, since the last time he had lost his cell phone. Wondering if it was worth the effort of trying, he used this to call a taxi service. At last he connected. Eric gave his address to the emotionless voice on the other end, and hung up. He considered having himself another beer before the taxi arrived, but decided that the boss would not be too happy about him drinking on the job. Instead, he put on a jacket and stepped outside to await his ride.

Presently it arrived, a small white car with dark blue stripes running along the sides, and the words Wellington Taxi Service printed in yellow letters above the blue stripe. Nervously walking up to the vehicle, Eric got into the backseat and said, “downtown.”

“Where downtown,” the driver asked, seeming rather put out.

“Uh… the post office,” Eric said, from not having an answer more than anything else, then suddenly realized something. “Wait, can to just turn around for a moment?” he asked.

The driver looked around, suspiciously. “I don’t see what this is about…” he began, but Eric cut him off.

“You’re not one of them!” he exclaimed. “You don’t look like you’re in a trance! For God’s sake, please tell me you’re not one of them!”

The taxi driver seemed taken aback for a moment. “Oh, good, I picked up someone normal. Seems like everyone in this fucking town’s been high or something for the last two days.”

Eric Carver felt like he was about to cry. It was so good to meet someone who wasn’t under the influence of this thing. The man looked somehow familiar, though Eric couldn’t place it right away. But whatever, here was someone he could talk to who wasn’t… affected, and who wasn’t his boss. “Thank God, you’re not one of them. Do you have any idea what’s going on here?”

“Of course not,” the taxi driver said. “On Monday, my brother started drawing spirals, and then a couple days ago they started appearing everywhere and pretty much everyone in town starting obsessing about them. There’s a few people who don’t seem affected, but you’re the first one I’ve picked up. Rest of it is just people who look like they’re sleeping or hypnotized or some shit. They just get in, tell me to take them somewhere, and stare straight ahead the whole fucking time.”

“Have you tried snapping anyone out of it?” Eric asked.

“Of course,” the taxi driver answered. “They just look at you, confused, like you just yelled at them for no reason, then insist that nothing happened. They’re back to being fucked up in a few minutes, of course.”

“Fuck, man,” Eric said. “I’d probably leave but my boss says not to, and I’m scared to go against him.”

The taxi driver gave a harsh laugh. “Your boss must be a pretty scary guy. No point trying to leave anyways, though. I made a run for it last night, tried driving out west. I came across a blockade. Some soldiers pointed guns at me and said I had to return to my home. Said they were monitoring the situation and trying to resolve things and help us, but we couldn’t leave for the time being. Even when I told them I wasn’t one of those freaks, tried to show them, they wouldn’t let me through. I went the other way, same thing. Checked the internet to see what was going on, internet is down, cell phones don’t work, landlines work, but only local. Like the government’s sealed this place off.”

Eric had to struggle for a moment to process this information. They had been cut off. They were sealed in with whatever this was. Maybe they were being sacrificed as part of some secret government experiment. Eric had never been the type to believe in conspiracy theories, not even after his first encounter with his boss had revealed that there were things in existence which he would not previously have believed possible. But now, hearing the taxi driver’s words, he realized that he was in the middle of exactly the sort of thing he would have scoffed at merely a week before.

Finally, Eric just said, “I need to go into town. I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t want to do this, but I need to go into town and find out what is going on. Take me downtown, please.”

The taxi driver looked skeptical, but shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said. “I might as well take you there. Those things don’t seem interested in hurting me, and if I stay home I just have to put up with my brother and his wife, who are as crazy as everyone else.”

At that moment Eric saw the taxi driver’s name, Edward Westing. Suddenly he realized who this was. His friend Jacob’s brother Ed, who had been living with Jacob since he got out of prison about a year before, having been incarcerated for beating his wife into unconsciousness while drunk. Eric had heard that he had found work as a taxi driver, but wondered why Ed, like himself, was unaffected by this.

The road was mostly empty as the pair drove into town. They only passed two vehicles during the drive. One was a black van which sped past them, in the opposite direction, going out of town, clearly above the speed limit. The other was a car, which had driven off the road and seemed to have collided into a tree. At least a couple of the doors were open, and there were a couple of shapes in the tall grass nearby, which bore a passing resemblance to dead bodies. Eric did not think for even a moment of pulling over to take a closer look, and knew that Edward would not have done so even if instructed.

Finally they drove into town. The taxi began driving down a suburban street filled with row upon row of houses. The place looked nothing like the day before. The spiral designs were everywhere, the people wandering aimlessly about or simply standing and staring. They seemed heedless of anything other than the drawings which were their fixation, not of each other, nor of the vehicle heading down the street. Ed had to slam on the brakes as they nearly ran over an overweight man in his early forties. The taxi driver laid on the horn and shouted at the man, who only gave a brief, disinterested glance before continuing to shuffle aimlessly about.

Staring about them, Eric noticed something else. Many of the houses had open doors. Some doors looked broken. A few seemed to have windows smashed. A trail of blood could be seen across one window. There were also a couple of bodies lying on the front lawns and the streets. They seemed to be dead.

“Fuck your boss, we’re out of here,” Edward yelled as he put the vehicle into reverse. Eric could not agree more. Just as the driver was turning the vehicle around to back up, however, a fire truck pulled around a nearby corner and started moving at breakneck speed right in their direction. Eric barely had time to register the truck in his field of vision, barely time to notice the multiple people clinging to the roof and hanging off the sides, before they collided.

The fire truck clipped the side of the taxi. While Edward struggled to regain control of the machine, Eric briefly noticed that several people had been dislodged from the side of the fire truck, which had kept driving straight ahead. Ed floored the gas while spinning the wheel to get back in the direction of leaving town, and accidentally collided with a parked truck.

Eric briefly lost consciousness. When he woke up, the noticed that the driver was still, slumped against the wheel of the car. He heard what sounded like chanting coming from all around him in some strange language, but it ceased before he could register what was being said. Opening the passenger side door and stumbling outside, he could see a great crowd of people gathered about something suddenly pull back. Where they had been concentrated were two fresh corpses. Out of the corner of his eye Eric saw someone running off into the distance, though nobody seemed to pursue this individual.

Eric began fleeing wildly away from them, only to accidentally bump into a boy who looked to be in his mid teens. The boy turned vacant, staring eyes in Eric’s direction, and Eric felt his bowls release. “Please,” he begged knowing it was useless. “Let me go. Don’t kill me.”

“Kill you?” a mocking voice asked. Eric turned to see someone sauntering in his direction, an arrogant smirk on his face. The man was wearing a light grey three-piece suit and tie, rather than jogging clothes, so for a moment Eric had trouble recognizing this man as Johnny, the runner he had seen on several recent occasions. “You don’t seem to understand the situation in which you find yourself, Mr. Carver.”

“What?” It was all Eric could think to say.

“The Reaping is only for those who are worthy,” explained Johnny, in the tone of someone explaining something new to a child. As he did so, he raised his left arm, to show the wristwatch with its pattern of intersecting spirals. “Those less worthy, yet not without value, get to become one with Oranath. As for you,” he pointed at Eric, then gestured to the figure slumped in the driver’s seat of the crashed taxi, “you are nothing. A curiosity some of our members were interested to see, but nothing more. Someone else has a claim to you. As long as you stay out of our way you will live, though I do not envy you.”

Johnny turned around and walked off at this. Eric saw that, much as Johnny had indicated, none of the people were making any move to attack him. Nevertheless, he turned immediately to run out of town. As he did so, he noticed that the rest of the crowd were walking in the opposite direction from him, towards the middle of town, chanting as they did so, Oranath, gu’thulu atho veni Nyar’gathalla abono veni Ilaneth awanna, il’guk veni veni Oranath, over and over again. Eric did not know why they were doing this, or what it meant and, at this point, he really did not care. He’d seen enough, and the boss could go eat shit for all he cared.

Reaching the edge of the buildings, Eric saw a couple of people approaching. As he got closer, he realized that they were in trances like just about everybody else, and they passed him by without even glancing in his direction, chanting that strange phrase, over and over.

Eric Carver was just cresting a hill, when he heard a bullet ricochet off the asphalt right next to him. Looking up, he saw someone with a rifle in his hands, pointing it at him. “Wait, don’t shoot,” Eric called out. “I’m not one of those things.”

The man fired again, this time once again barely missing Eric. “Goddammit, you said you would let me go if I didn’t get in your way,” Eric yelled.

“Stan,” a woman said to the man with the rifle. “I don’t think he’s one of them.”

“Bullshit,” the man whose name was Stan said. “You saw the ones controlling them. They ain’t all in a trance. This is probably one of those guys.”

“Come on,” said the woman. “Put the rifle down. We’ve got to conserve the ammo.”

“We can’t just go shooting every survivor,” another man said. “They might come back, and we need everyone we can have in case they do.”

Reluctantly, Stan lowered his gun. “Come over,” he yelled to Eric, “and keep your hands where I can see them.”

Slowly, keeping this hands visible the whole time, Eric Carver approached the small party. Cresting the hill, he noticed, next to the fire truck he had seen earlier, a party of eight men and women, plus two children, for a total of ten.

“I’m Erica,” the woman who had stepped in to prevent Stan from shooting Eric said, stepping forward and extending a hand. “You’re lucky you came across us when you did. Our truck was damaged when we collided with a car on the way out of town, so we were just going to make a break through the forest.”

“We’re leaving,” Stan said impatiently. “Unless you plan to stay here and start making out with the new guy, I suggest we…”

At that moment a bullet ripped through his left leg, and the air was filled with gunfire. Stan fell to his knees, howling in agony, and pointed his gun in the direction from which the shot had come. He managed to fire off two more shots before a second bullet struck him in the chest, and a third hit his head, blowing away part of his skull and a chunk of brain.

As Erica screamed and the rest of the people began running in the direction of the forest, many dropping as they attempted to flee, Eric looked in the direction from which the shots had come, and saw the senior partner at his firm, Mr. Xavier, holding an assault rifle pointed in his direction. From its muzzle emitted a steady barrage of bullets.

Keeping his head low, Eric ran into the woods, the gunfire and the screams of the dying echoing behind him. I just need to keep moving, he thought. Just keep running and keeping as many trees as possible between me and Dwight. He must be in on this too. That’s why he’s trying to kill us. Probably those people he introduced me to on Wednesday are also in on it, maybe they’re after us too…

As if in response to his thoughts, a gunshot rang out beside him, and a child fell screaming to the ground, clutching his side. A woman, presumably his mother, turned to him, only to get shot in the head.

Looking quickly up in the direction of the shots, Eric saw a woman holding a shotgun. It took a moment for him to recognize her as Mrs. Smith, to whom he had been introduced before. He expected her to shoot him immediately, but instead she flashed him a toothy grin, one that seemed somehow not entirely human, before waving at him to keep running.

So he did. Eric kept running, hearing shots and screams ringing out all around him. He remembered the time he had taken a prostitute out to the woods, not these woods but somewhere far more secluded, handcuffed her, and set her loose into the woods. He’d then hunted her down, wearing night vision goggles which recorded the entire thing. Once he’d caught the woman, he had ripped her clothes off, raped her and took her back to his place. It had been an enormously popular episode of his show, and a great way to introduce one of his guest stars. He had quite enjoyed himself, until the park ranger had showed up. It had been just after he had placed the bound and drugged woman in the trunk of his car and closed the lid, when the car had driven up, parked, and the officer had gotten out. As it turned out, a man had driven out to his estranged wife’s home earlier that night, shot her in the head, and abducted his two children, and the officer had thought Eric’s car looked similar to the one being driven by that man. Fortunately, Eric looked nothing like the man being sought after, and the officer did nothing more than ask a few questions and get going. But Eric had never forgotten the moment of absolute terror, that had made his legs go weak and his heart beat so fast he thought it might burst from his chest. He like being the hunter, not the hunted, and had never done anything like that again.

Now Eric felt that terror once again, as fled through the trees, just like that woman had fled from him three years before in another forest. Breathing heavily, his heart pounding in his chest, his mouth having gone dry, Eric paused for a moment, hidden behind a large pine. The sounds seemed to have faded into the distance, so perhaps they had missed him, and he could slip away. He got back on his feet, and started slowly moving in the direction away from where he still heard gunfire, when a twig snapped behind him.

Wheeling about, Eric thought he saw something dash behind a nearby tree at the edge of a clearing. “Fuck!” he cursed, turning to run in the opposite direction. He made it perhaps ten steps when there came the report of a gunshot from his right, and something flew right past the back of Eric’s head, so close that it brushed his hair. Wheeling about, Eric saw a middle-aged woman, slightly overweight, pointing a shotgun at him, looking about to shoot.

“Please,” he begged, holding his hands in the air. “Don’t kill me…”

“Shut up,” the woman spat. “You led them to us. You’re one of them.” With these words she pointed the barrel of her weapon right between Eric Carver’s eyes.

Before she could shoot, however, a noise caused her to turn and face the direction from which Eric had run. There, standing perhaps fifteen metres away, facing them with a cruel smile on his face, was Mr. Onassis.

“Hello,” he said, then suddenly dodged out of the way as the woman fired, moving faster than Eric thought possible for a human. Then again, there was something strange and different about his eyes, but he was in no state to try to place it right now.

“Johnny said you had no interest in me,” Eric called out. “He said I was unworthy.”

“Of course,” Mr. Onasssis said, once again running from one tree to the next, at a speed that would have made Usain Bolt envious. “This isn’t about the Reaping, or Oranath, not for either of you. No, this is just for sport. And also for food.” With this, he left the cover of the trees and charged through the clearing, straight at the woman. She had backed up a good deal, and was perhaps fifteen metres from him now. In spite of this, it could not have taken more than a second before he was almost on the woman, and she pulled the trigger.

Perhaps it was luck. Perhaps she was just really good at hitting moving targets. Likely the fact that he was less than a metre away at the time the woman pulled the trigger had something to do with it. In any case, the shotgun shell struck Mr. Onassis square in the chest, causing him to fall backwards and lie still on the ground. Eric felt relieved to see this, but his relief was short-lived, as she turned the weapon right towards him. “Now it’s your turn,” she said, and was about to pull the trigger when the bear leapt on her.

It was a large brown bear, and as it landed on the woman the gun flew from her hands. The bear swatted the woman on the head with a large paw, causing her to fall still, then turned to face Eric, who saw that the bear had glowing red eyes.

From behind the bear, Eric heard a low chuckle. “I really need to do better at coordinating with my familiar,” Mr. Onassis said. He emerged, walking, from around the bear and picked up the fallen firearm. Already the wound on his chest was healing. “My wife keeps telling me about that. She’s right, of course. She usually is. I mean, just look at this. An inch or two over, and I would’ve gotten hit in the heart. No way would I be getting up from that.”

While he was talking, Eric tried slowly backing away. Before he could get far, the bear with the red eyes charged him. Eric tried running, but the bear got hold of him and threw him to the ground. From his angle, Eric saw as Mr. Onassis walked up to the fallen woman with the shotgun. Now he realized what was strange about the man. His eyes were not like normal eyes, but were a solid black.

“My wife will yell at me, of course,” Mr. Onassis added casually, pointing the barrel of the shotgun against the woman’s head and pulling the trigger. When nothing happened, he opened up the shotgun, checked inside, then searched around in one pocket with his left hand while still holding the shotgun in his right, and continuing to talk. “Women can be like that when you do something stupid and put yourself at risk. Of course, I suppose she’ll only yell at me because she loves me.” Removing a shotgun shell from his pocket, he loaded the firearm and pressed it against the woman’s head once again. She was starting to stir at this time, though this stopped right away when Mr. Onassis pulled the trigger, and a large report echoed through the forest.

He tossed the gun aside and listened for a bit to the sounds of the forest. “I guess it’s over,” he remarked. “I should probably be getting back so I’m not late. Guess I’ll finish you off first.”

“You monster,” Eric spat, almost sobbing as the words left his mouth.

The bear snarled and brought a claw down on Eric, scoring red-hot lines of pain across his back with its claws. “Now that’s rich,” declared Mr. Onassis, indignation entering his voice. “Look, we checked out your house after you left and saw what you’re keeping in your basement. I mean, God Damn, I know I like to kill humans more than I strictly need to survive, but that’s nothing next to what you’ve got going on there. No wonder you weren’t worthy of the Reaping and Oranath wanted nothing to do with you. I think I’ll enjoy this one even more than I usually do, and that is saying something.” He knelt down in front of Eric and brought his right hand to Eric’s neck, stroking it almost gently, before suddenly clamping down on Eric’s neck in a vice-like grip.

The bear backed off as Eric struggled vainly to loosen the grip his attacker had on him. Even using both hands, Eric Carver was powerless against the one-armed grip of his inhuman foe. Mr. Onassis’ coal black eyes flashed with hunger, and saliva began to appear at the corners of his mouth, as Eric felt himself begin to fade into unconsciousness.

Suddenly the grip loosened, and Eric fell to the forest floor, gasping for air. When he finally found the strength to sit up, he observed that Mr. Onassis was standing and staring past him, a nervous look on his face, while the red-eyed bear seemed to transform into a sort of black mist flowing back into his body at all points.

The black-eyed creature standing above Eric turned to stare contemptuously down at him and said, “it seems you have a friend in a high place.”

Eric looked in the direction in which his attacker had been staring, and bit back a scream. There was Henry MacPhail, as he had been at the time of his death, yet somehow not. The nails and needles which had been stuck in his limbs, the needles in his eyes, the burns marks all over his body, the various other injuries which had been inflicted upon him, all were still there, yet the man was walking, and had a serene look of peace on his face, and the injuries seemed to be fading right in front of Eric’s eyes. Though he walked, the grass was not disturbed by his feet, and the wind did not move even a single hair on his head. And then there was the light, a bright, warm, soothing light that seemed to both clothe Henry and come from within him. Staring at the figure in front of him, Eric Carver felt a strange mixture of joy, terror, longing, and despair such as he had never felt before in his life.

“He is at rest, at peace,” Mr. Onassis said in response to Eric’s unasked question. “Something you will never know. Anyhow, I guess he was just feeling forgiving, or maybe he wants you to have to live through what’s coming, but he wants you to live, and I ain’t inclined to go against him. So goodbye, I have somewhere to be. Hopefully we never meet again.”

With these words Mr. Onassis turned and vanished into the trees in an instant. Eric’s legs could not even hold him, so that he began scrabbling backwards as fast as he could on his hands and feet, while his former victim advanced steadily upon him. The injuries on him, the various sharp objects that Eric had stuck into his body, were now barely visible on Henry’s ethereal form, while the light that seemed to both clothe him and glow from within him grew brighter and brighter, until it burned his eyes. He’s going to burn me up, Eric thought. He’ll burn me up, body and soul, until there’s nothing left.

But then Henry stopped, less than a metre away from Eric, and looked down at him. His expression was not hateful, or angry, or filled with a desire for vengeance, but looked almost… pitying, as if this ghost felt sorry for him. Leaning forward, staring him in the eyes, Henry said one word: “live.” Then he grew brighter, until Eric had to close his eyes. When the light had faded, Henry heard the thumps of several small objects hitting the earth. Opening his eyes, he saw a number of bloody nails, pins and needles littering the ground where Henry MacPhail had stood. Eric did not need to count them to know that they corresponded exactly to the number he had stuck in his former victim.

At that moment Eric noticed a bright light coming from behind him, in the direction of the town. It was not the warm, soothing light that had been coming from Henry, but rather a series of constantly changing multicoloured lights. Turning, Eric could see them more brightly, a strange, constant light show, beautiful and alluring, yet at the same time terrifying.

In spite of his fear, Eric found himself rising to his feet and moving in the direction of the light. It was as if another was controlling his body and directing his movements, and he was simply a passenger. As he walked, Eric found himself wondering if this was how all those people had felt, the ones he had seen so entranced by the spiral drawings just in the last few days, though it felt to him like it had been going on forever.

Before long Eric came to the crest of a nearby hill. The town had been built in a river-cut valley, and Eric Carver had an excellent view of that valley from where he stood. Even from his great distance, he could see that a great crowd had gathered in streets of the town. Probably everyone still alive was there, other than himself, or as near as made no difference.

But this was not what truly captured his attention. For there, in the centre, was the source of the light display. In the center of the town was a great mass of spiral shapes, intersecting and weaving in and out of each other in patterns of such intricate complexity that Eric could hardly track then with his eyes. None of the drawings he had seen, not even the ones made by his friend Jacob, came even close to describing the reality.

These spiral shapes were not black or white or any conceivable colour, but rather seemed to consist of disturbances, ripples in space, which Eric could not explain to himself in any way. The entire thing was suffused with a glowing light, of many constantly changing colours, and tendrils of white light emerged from the points of intersection of the spirals, reaching out to the assembled crowd. Whenever a tendril touched someone, they were taken up and carried along the length of the tendril, becoming insubstantial until they vanished entirely. The tendrils were rapidly absorbing everyone in the crowd, yet not a figure moved while they were sucked up into that thing.

Within what must have been less than a minute, pretty much everyone had been sucked up. At this point the tendrils withdrew into the mass at the centre, which gradually rose into the air, forming into a perfect spherical shape as it did, before suddenly shooting straight up into the sky and vanishing. The few remaining figures seemed to disperse at this point. Eric could not see them clearly, but he had no doubt in his mind that among them were Mrs. Smigh, Mr. Onassis, Johnny, and Mr. Dwight Xavier.

“Real pretty,” a familiar voice remarked beside him, and Eric, who for a moment had felt relieved, thinking it was all over, broke out in a cold sweat.

“You seem nervous,” the boss remarked, a mocking tone in his voice. “Could it be that you fear me? Don’t bother trying to deny it. Pretty much everyone who knows me fears me, especially my subordinates. The smart ones, at any rate.”

“Wh-why are you here?” Eric asked, not daring to face his boss.

“Is it the place of a servant to inquire as to the affairs of his master?” asked the boss. “Don’t answer, that question was just meant to remind you of your place. If you must know, I’ve always wanted to see one of these things, so when you told me about it, I knew I just had to come. Oranath, gu’thulu atho veni Nyar’gathalla abono veni Ilaneth awanna, il’guk veni veni Oranath,” he said in an offhand way, then chuckled to himself. “Besides,” he added, his tone turning serious once again, “I realized there wasn’t going to be much work left for you to do here, so I figured I should pick you up.”

“Pick me up?” Eric did not like the sound of that.

“Why, of course.” Something dropped on the ground in front of Eric. Bending down to pick it up, he realized that it was an envelope full of cash. Eric had completely forgotten that this was the day he was usually paid. “You didn’t think you were getting that money for nothing, did you? No, when someone starts working for me there’s only two ways they leave, madness or death.”

“No, God no. Please, anything but that.” Eric had turned towards the boss, who was wearing a silver mask, and started backing up, holding his hands out in front of himself. “Take the money back, just please leave me alone.”

The blow to Eric’s back knocked him onto his stomach, taking the wind out of him. As he was still struggling to catch his breath, Eric found himself hauled to his feet by the back of his shirt, then turned around to stare into the snarling face of an unfamiliar man with coal-black eyes. “You do not question the decisions of the master, worm,” this creature hissed.

“Now, now,” the boss admonished lightly while chuckling. “I think that’s enough to send a message.” Suddenly turning serious, the boss got down on one knee, staring directly into Eric’s eyes. Eric could not see them because of the mask, but he knew that the boss’s eyes were staring directly into him.

“Now listen carefully. I know you think you’re some bigshot apex predator when you’re doing your show, but you were never anything more than a big fish in a little pond you didn’t realize was the ocean. Now I,” the boss pointed to himself, “am a Megalodon, and that glowing thing you saw back there, well, there’s nothing evolution brought forth on land, in the sea or in the sky on your world that could make a good comparison to that. You got nothing left here anyways, no job, no home, no friends. Only people left here are a few bad apples like yourself and the guys who made all this happen, and trust me, you do not want to be running into them. Besides, the military will be coming through soon. They’ll search the houses, and find what you got in your basement. Do you really want to fall into their hands after they connect you with that?”

“I saw him,” Eric said, dazed, barely noticing the words which left his mouth. “He walked up to me, then just vanished in a flash of light.”

“You saw his spirit, nothing more,” the boss waved a hand dismissively. “Now, enough talk. You’re coming with me, or I’m taking over your show, with you as the next guest star, and I promise, I won’t fuck it up after a few days.”

Jolted back to reality, Eric said, “no, not that. Anything but that.”

“Then. Get. Your. Ass. Off. The. Ground. And. Get. Moving!” the boss yelled.

Eric Carver suddenly felt himself getting yanked to his feet and pushed forward. “Get stepping, worm,” the black-eyed creature snarled in his ear.

Numbly, without another word, Eric allowed himself to be led away.

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