Note: This is a sequel to Curiosity Killed The Rat
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Nate Welsh didn’t mind the fog, but this particular fog made him uneasy. It moved disturbingly like a living intelligence. The long fingers of fog seemed to have an oily consistence as it reached out and caressed his face. It spun in great, towering spirals as it retreated before him, only to suddenly close in and envelop him.

Dimly ahead, he could just make out the lights of the other investigative team. Toward the west, the soft murmur of the ocean, and the continuous mournful drone of the fog horns.

Grimacing, he pulled the hood of his slicker further over his hairy ears, while moisture dripped from his long aquiline nose. His eyes narrowed slightly as he carefully regarded the ground visible in the narrow beam of light cast by his electric torch.

Gray Man Weather, he thought as he recalled the stories that his grandfather had told him in his primary school days. When a thick, blinding fog swirled around the houses and trees in corkscrew spirals, and when its long tendrils felt like solid moist fingers when it brushed your face and hair, that was a sure sign that the Far Liath, as he was sometimes known, was about. Once a pagan weather God worshiped around 1500 BC in the coastal communities in and around Ireland and Scotland, he had been demoted to fairy status with the arrival of Christianity.

However, this former God showed no sign of fading away and for matters only known to him, decided to emigrate to the States where he took on a modern-day form that now had a big following among the coastal towns and villages of Northern California, Oregon and parts of Canada, who also went by names of the Gray Lurker, Grimmin or the Grey Gentleman. But regardless of what he was called now, it didn’t change the fact that the Far Liath was a highly dangerous entity who hated any mere mortal and took great delight in inflicting much death and misery among them.

His grandfather had assured him that he had nothing to fear from The Gray Man since Welsh was of the Old Blood. A Wehr: one of the True People, and not one of those Humes who worship and follow the Bureaucratic Control God of Endless Torment and False Hopes. But young Welsh wasn’t so sure, having heard enough gruesome Gray Man stories to acquire a persistent fear of thick, gray mist and silvery, opaque sunglasses.

The hair on the nape of Nate’s neck bristled as he suddenly remembered Behr’s expression of stark terror.

Was there possibly an unearthly explanation to the tragedy that befell the Chalmers family, and an even more unimaginable one that quite possibly claimed hundreds more?

Wehr weren’t the only humanoid race to inhabit this planet with the humans. There were other sentient nonhumans, and some of them were generally distrustful or hostile toward humans, especially toward those who were of the eager, zealous, missionary variety.

The local paper almost always had some story about someone trying to peddle Christian supremacy and moralistic bullshit in the Restricted Territories, and ended up as a few pickled parts in a jar.

It disturbed him greatly that people still choose to disobey the rules of proper conduct. Crossing over the borders of Faerie without authorized permission was risky enough; trying to ram the Gospel down the throats of Otherworldly Nations was inexcusably stupid.

Obviously the Chalmers had pissed off someone majorly to get themselves mutilated and burned up like that. But why the hell would the Sidhe (if they were responsible) do something like that to the kids? They raised any children they captured on raids to ensure the survival of their diminished race; blonde children were especially popular. Wiping out potential genetic material? It doesn’t make any sense... unless it wasn’t the Sidhe.

He got that scalp-crawling feeling as he passed into the looming forest, as though he was being followed. He always had that feeling whenever he was walking in this type of weather. One of the penalties, he guessed, from living in a town that seemed to be a daily hotbed for otherworldly weirdness.

Of course, he wasn’t being followed. It was all just his imagination.

He tried walking at a good pace, but then suddenly stopped and pricked his ears. He thought he heard the slow shuffle, shuffle of footsteps. Welsh pulled his hood down for better listening and tried to concentrate. Then he felt something cold and soft touch the back of his neck and he jumped, yelping. Hands shaking, he slowly put his fingers to his nape and they came away with a huge glob of a gooey, white substance. His nostrils were soon assaulted by the smell of rotting fish similar to what you might find in the dumpster behind a busy seafood market.

Okay, relax Nate, he told himself as soon as he finally recovered enough to start walking again. Just guano from a gull.

“That you, Nate?” a familiar nasally voice suddenly called out.

Through the nearly whiteout distance, hazy shapes appeared carrying flashlights.

“Yeah!” Welsh bellowed back.

One of the shapes strolled forward, materializing from the fog back as Corporal Dave Croyce. He was a tall, lanky half-elf with cheerful blue-gray eyes, but there was no smile on his thin pale face as he came over to Welsh.

“Beastly night we’re having?” Croyce slowly removed the wire-rimmed spectacles from his skinny nose and carefully wiped them with a red silk handkerchief.

“Yeah, a regular pea-souper.”

Croyce frowned as he placed his spectacles back in place and pocketed the handkerchief. “For a minute there, we thought you might have stumbled into an ambush.”

Welsh grimaced as he wiped the remaining guano onto his rain slicker. “Just got nailed by a seagull, that’s all.”

This prompted a few chuckles which quickly died when Croyce asked, “You’ve seen Behr?”

Welsh nodded. “Yeah. I’ve seen him. Poor guy was rambling on about some ‘abomination of abominations,’ and that I shouldn’t go into ‘that festering hell pit.’”

“Pretty much sums up the description,” Croyce muttered as he and his fellow officers led the way through the banks of fog. “Ever heard of H. P. Lovecraft?”

“Never heard of him,” Welsh murmured, swatting a Wandering Titania Creeper away from his face. Bloody exotic! Wish people would stop importing these Faerie pests. “So what did this guy do?”

“One of the most influential horror writers of all time,” Croyce explained patiently. “Created one of the most intriguing and multi-layered mythos of cosmic horror literature, The Cthulhu Mythos. Not only did his work survive so long, it inspired so many other writers as well as heavy metal bands.”

“Interesting, but what does this...?” Welsh stumbled and nearly fell, and the Wandering Titania Creeper latched onto him. A lot of swearing and struggling ensured. He heard several people, Croyce included, shout at once.

“Hey, it’s okay--it won’t hurt you!”

“Try not to struggle! You’ll get free easier as long as you don’t struggle!”

“Don’t thrash around like that! You’ll only make it more mad.”

As the small crowd converged on him, Welsh managed to break free from the vine’s embrace.

“Not the greatest introduction to the local fauna.” Croyce pulled Welsh out of grab range. “Really sorry about that, I should have explained earlier.”

“It’s not your fault,” Welsh muttered, still casting a glowering eye toward the still squirming menace. “Blame the idiot who decided to plant this arboreal assassin so near the bloody foot path!”

“A lot of the Nye Am and Elven people use this plant to defend their property around here,” Croyce explained as soon as they resumed their walk. “Far more sightly than a barbed-wire fence and far less demanding than a dog.”

“Rather bloody stupid, if you ask me,” Welsh snorted before changing the subject. “So what’s Lovecraft got to do with anything?”

They were now plodding the way through the nightmarish tangle of unpruned willow branches and neglected vegetation. Welsh thought it resembled something out of one of those Arthur Rackham illustrations. All that was missing were the little buggy-eyed gnomes and trolls peering out of every nook and cranny.

“Well, a consistent theme in his stories is that humanity occupies only a very small portion of the universe, a fleetingly pointless and insignificant bleep when compared to the infinity of time and space...”

Like most elves, Croyce had a penchant for waxing poetic and drifting into philosophical musing rather than getting straight to the point.

Welsh frowned as he pulled up his hood again. “That’s nothing new. We’re not the only Earth in this space-time continuum. We got communist cat people living next door as well as tentacle-haired monster clowns and Steampunk British Imperialists. The only reason they haven’t invaded yet is because the forces of Faerie and Hell keeps them in line.”

Croyce’s antenna eyebrows swayed as he shook his head. “No, I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the Things On the Outside. Outside the dimensional branches, twigs and roots of the Yggdrasil space-time, there are terrible Things lurking in wait.”

“What? Like demons?” Welsh inquired.

“No,” Croyce replied with another shake of his antennae. “Worse, far worse. Older than the Known Worlds, older than the entire universe possibly.”

Welsh frowned even more. You’ve got to freaking kidding me, man! No life form can be that old!

“If they ever break through, they would overrun the entire planet, wiping out all intelligent life in the process.”

“Kind of like those aliens in Independence Day?” a pixie patrolman interrupted.

“Aye, but more like a force than anything breathing and living,” Croyce answered. “Things like that got no business being in our material universe, and only the very stupid and very evil ever try calling Them into existence.”

“You thinking the Chalmers were cultists?” Welsh asked.

“Maybe,” Croyce shrugged. “Still too early to say for sure, but given the things we've found so wouldn’t surprise me that they were involved in something... a little less family friendly.”

“What things exactly... Behr said there were bodies--hundreds maybe, unless he was exaggerating.”

“He wasn’t,” Croyce replied somberly. “It’s pretty bad... something straight out of a horror movie.”

Welsh stared at the half-elf, eyes narrowed. “How bad exactly? Like bloody outright butchery?”

Croyce cleared his throat hesitantly. “Well, that’s the most puzzling bit. Not a trace of blood to be found anywhere. Yet all evidence seems to indicate that the killing took place there and that the victims weren’t killed elsewhere and then deposited at the location.”

Welsh nodded. “Like those cattle mutilations down at Roswell?”

“Not quite,” said Croyce quietly. “Those cows all died from natural causes and then the predators--buzzards, blow flies, ghouls, whatever--came along and chowed down. That’s all. That’s all. No dopeheaded Satanists, no half-assed alien surgeons. No Agent Smith or Men in Black. No sinister government conspiracies, just natural forces at work.

“Whereas those people suffered the most painful and most hideous unnatural death imaginable.”

He looked across the clearing they just entered at the triangular brick building jutting from the side of a small grassy hill. Yellow crime scene tape encircled the property. A tall, lean, sandy-haired man with Amish sideburns was busy talking to a huddle of people in hazmat suits.

Welsh felt his insides turn to ice. He turned back and looked at Croyce. “You didn’t mention a biohazard risk.”

“Something new has apparently has come up,” Croyce replied with a dazed shake of his head. “Maybe after what happened to Behr, the Sheriff’s not taking any more chances.”

Marc had waited till his parents had gone away to talk with the police downstairs before making a quick search of his pillow case. Much to his relief, the envelope was still in place. Still he waited until his little brother Kenny’s infantile babbling and finger slurping had subsided to snoring noises.

Then he took the envelope, ducked under the covers and switched on his flashlight. He started to read the third page of Constance’s letter. There were still six more pages left to go. It was going to be a long night.

“I just can’t believe Clarisa Milonakis, possibly the meanest girl in all of Curtisville Middle School, actually asked me about her missing friends/gang.

“I mean she must have been so worried that she didn’t make her usual bitchy comment about my clashing choice of fashion.

“I was in a particularly festive mood that day because my totally troll-horridous parents as well as the entire adult population of the Kingdom Hall Community had up and ‘vanished like a fart in the wind.’”

Marc’s eyes narrowed sharply when he read the final lines of that passage. He remembered it quite clearly as if it all just happened yesterday. The mass vanishing was all in the paper last year and had even made it to the national news, even to some of the most prestigious news sites overseas such as BBC and NPR.

Mom and Dad as well as the neighbors talked about it for several weeks, how so many people just disappeared without a trace, the numerous police interviews and state-wide search that eventually turned nation-wide then world-wide as reports came of hundreds of other Witness disappearances across the globe. Then there was the growing group of the bewildered and bereaved orphans that needed major counseling. Eventually they all got adopted out to their remaining saner relatives or to brand new families.

Constance ended up moving out of that ugly rat trap of a trailer right smack next to the freeway and in with a boisterous Fixit Elf family--the Teslas.

She had relatives back in Utah, but she wanted nothing to do with them.

“I don’t want my brain and personality getting consumed by another cult,” Constance told his Mom when she inquired about the family issue. “Common human etiquette and kindness did not apply in my old home so why should it apply to any of that LDS lot!”

Mrs. Henshaw never did bring up the subject again.

Marc skimmed through the stuff he knew already--police searches and interviews, posters and flyers being plastered everywhere, Constance feigning sorrow while the people at school offered sympathy, and vowing never to return to the old stiflingly oppressive fold of cultic doctrine, Constance happy with her new adopted family with its cheerful bustle and stability.

Then it was back to the halls of Curtisville Middle School...

“It wasn’t until around lunch that I finally found out what really happened to Clarisa Milonakis’s Cliquey Queen Bee Wannabees.

“When I went to get my lunch from my locker, I noticed a note taped to it.

“At first I thought it was a note of sympathy from a student or teacher. I’ve been getting quite a lot of those lately that it really started to bug me. I mean, most these kids didn’t even give a damn about me when my parents and the Kingdom Community were pushing me around. Now I’m reeling from all this overwhelming support, I don’t even know what to think.

“Looking closer, I noticed it wasn’t one of sympathy, but one of summons in big glaring letters.









“Now the only ‘haunted locker’ I know of was right next door to this maintenance room. The reason why people thought it was haunted in the first place was that someone actually died in it. The infamous incident took place about a couple years earlier. This really unpopular Toad-Dork of a girl was totally jealous of this pretty Nesei girl, and snuck into the locker one Halloween, dressed as this hideous monster in order to do a jump-scare. I guess she was angry enough to also grab the Nesei girl by the neck and either give her a heart attack or choke her to death.

“However, the Nesei girl had pinkeye that day and ended up having to stay home, and the Toad-Dork ended up suffocating in that cramped space.

“I think her name was either Rene or Rena or maybe even Renee and she was a Milton. The Miltons were this pompous, social-climbing, nouveau-rich family that used to live in the area up around Shelby Cove and would do absolutely anything to improve their faux-genteel reputation and clamber further up the rungs of the class ladder, including pushing their sorry-ass brats into poshy boarding schools and marrying into High Elven families of ‘good breeding’ and ‘blue-blooded’ certification.

“This girl may be rich, but she was also, apparently, not very bright enough to be with blue-blooded thoroughbreds and licornes and got stuck with the llamas and donkeys.

“Nearly the whole town despised the Miltons, and a lot of folk (other rich people included) were glad when these parasites finally moved elsewhere shortly after the Toad-Dork funeral.

“Okay, sorry. I tend to ramble on a bit. Moving on.

“So I go and knock on the metal door of that maintenance closet, totally stressing out and wondering if Clarisa had invited me to her meeting just to totally humiliate me and blame me for the sudden bug-out of some of her cohorts.

“Much to my total surprise instead of getting super-peeved with me and labeling me a possible suspect, Clarisa and the remaining CMS Culture Club just wanted to discuss what I know about the Chalmers.

“You see, since the start of school, I've been spying on those Unholy Three as well as the rest of this family, and been keeping a secret diary.

“Much like Harriet the Spy, I’ve been following them about and writing down every sordid detail (much of it involving frequent visits to a red brick building in the woods near their mansion).

“Somehow my diary ended up in Clarisa’s clutches, and how I had no choice but to come clean about my secret investigations.

“Then I was total surprised that Clarisa Milonakis and the CMS Culture Club all got really teary-eyed and upset.

“Not at me, but at the Chalmers... for what happened to Olive, Nikki, Bethany, Ariana, Bess, Zoey, Brianna and Violet.

“Well, it turned out they were investigating the Chalmers also, but unlike me, instead of being really discreet about it, they started asking the Triplets a lot up front questions. Apparently these fashion-savvy junior investigators had watched a lot ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ and other TV crime dramas and thought it was all really going to be quick-and-easy.

“Now they were all in the hospital having these tumors that contain fat, teeth, bone and hair, amongst other gross stuff. They’re called teratomas, by the way, removed from their gonads, and Clarisa only just found out about because the junior investigators didn’t even bother telling her beforehand of their plans. So now just about everyone in school, aside from a few of the slow-witted folk like me, suspected those beastly Chalmers were somehow responsible for CSI: Curtisville for suddenly falling ill and maybe even for the mass disappearances that had been happening around town.

“Then I was even more surprised when they all hugged me and said they were really sorry for me having to go through all the bad stuff that had been happening to me lately.

“And I started to cry, not out of sorrow of losing my killjoy parents and the rest of the Kingdom Community Kook Club. I didn’t feel like I was part of that wretched family at all. I cried because people were finally taking me serious and not some Nutzo Clown-Dork.

“When everyone finally finished crying, we got down to work planning the Chalmer’s ultimate downfall.”

Marc didn’t remember coming out from under the covers nor did he remember switching off his flashlight and slipping the story back into its hiding place.

Somehow he did all that and then dozed off. While he slept he had another strange and very vivid dream. He dreamed about that odd little Hobbit-like house hours earlier, but instead of seeing those same shadowy figures carrying weapons, he saw people in protective clothing and face masks carrying plastic bags, cameras and aluminum cases.

Having watched a lot of crime shows, probably more than was actually good for him, Marc immediately understood what was going.

Cool, he thought, diving under the crime scene tape without hesitation.

Although there was a meticulous search going on in the clearing, somehow no one impeded his hurried progress and he seemed to pass through the investigators as if they were smoke.

Before he knew it, he was within the triangular-shaped threshold and slowly descended down the rusted staircase.

He had expected a dark, claustrophobic root cellar crowded with old rusty garden tools and sacks of mouldering potatoes, but instead he emerged straight into a high, vaulted room that was lit by ceiling pendant lamps and full of investigators bustling to and fro. At first, he got the uncomfortable sense that he was intruding on something of major importance, but then a sense of wonder soon took over as he noted the vintage supplies lining the concrete walls.

The emergency rations consisted mostly of thick round crackers that seemed to be made of sawdust. The larger cans gave you three choices: hash, fruit cocktails, or Vienna sausage. The fruit and sausage were OK but the hash were favorites with the canines, at least that was what Dad told Marc whenever he spoke about his days working in the Forest Service.

This studious assemblage of these grave individuals puzzled him beyond belief. It was just a perfectly preserved 1960s nuclear fallout shelter. No grisly crime scene to be seen anywhere.

Well, this dream sucks, he thought, as he looked about in great disappointment. Nothing here but old food stuff you can’t eat anymore.

And that was when he glimpsed the vending machines across the room. Not antique ones, but sleek, shiny new ones that you often see nowadays at schools and student lounges. Marc hardly bought anything from them anyway; his parents kept him on a rather strict budget, and the stuff that was mostly inside consisted of raw veggies and fruit treats.

It seemed like a lot of the activity in the room seemed to be centered on those two machines. From where he was standing, Marc couldn’t see what the attraction might be. Everyone was mostly blocking the view.

Maybe there’s some cool stuff in there, he figured as he marched steadily across the room. Maybe some X-Files alien stuff or Transformers even.

In less than a minute he found himself facing the back of the white and yellow-clad assembly, and in less then another minute, he was through and standing up front.

At first, Marc didn’t know what he was looking at exactly. In the dim yellow light cast from the ceiling lamps he could just make out the things that were stuffed to the brim inside those two machines. He thought they were dead chicks: one of those newly hatched near-fetuses you might stumble across every now and then in the woods or floating in a dingy jar of preservatives on the shelf of a school biology lab. He wondered what kind of a person would take pleasure in keeping such things in a vending machine in the first place.

Scrutinizing the things closely, he was soon proven wrong. They weren’t chicks at all. They were fetuses of a sort, however; Marc got that much right. Yet instead of being avian, they were vaguely simian, with the consistency and coloring of something exhumed from a mass grave. And yet they weren’t dead. They pulsed and twitched spasmodically, their tiny, gluey mouths opening and closing fish-like, their grimy, milky eyes rolling in their sunken sockets. Then Marc noticed the elf woman close by him, petite with short black hair and long curved ears. She was staring at the machines, her delicate, ethereal face taking on a greenish-gray complexion.

Marc found himself saying, “I hope she’s not going to hurl.”

“What the frickin’ hell are those things?” a man suddenly exclaimed. Then, his voice dropping, “Are those...are those humans?”

“Not anymore, they're not,” another man replied.

That was when the elf woman finally lost it, much to Marc’s disgust. After having disgorged much of her dinner as well as the last shreds of dignity, she pitched backwards into the stunned crowd.

Marc then jolted awake back on the army cot in Kenny’s room. The entire house was quiet now. He glanced at the Felix the Cat clock beside the window. The moving fluorescent eyes and the clock face glowed eerily green. Two o’clock. As soon as he regained his composure, he slid his hand beneath his pillow and felt around for the envelope. It wasn’t there.

Marc made a futile search of his pillow. Frustrated, he leaped from the cot, and whipped off the covers and pillow. A scrap of paper soon fluttered to the carpeted floor. Quickly, he snatched it up and squinted at it in the dim half light.

Unlike the previous notes, the script was sloppy, faint and shaky. It was short, but was enough to jerk him into rigid and terrified wakefulness just before dawn. It read,

“Marc, I didn’t want you reading the rest of that letter or looking at those really gory pictures. I didn’t want you getting curious and go tracking down the CMS Culture Club, or even go looking for that building in the woods (you probably already saw it your dream with those things squirming around in those machines). Fortunately, for you haven’t seen the second room where the unspeakably horrible thing happened to those missing people. Reminds me a whole of the HELL scene in the "Event Horizon movie (one of those movies on the lengthy list your folks had forbidden you to watch until you’re old enough to vote and drive).

"That wasn’t ME who wrote that letter or took those photos or came to babysit you recently. That was MY body but THAT WASN’T ME!

"A HELL of a lot more went on in the maintenance room than just a serious lunchtime discussion with Home Ec class cookies for dessert.

“We called up the Gray Gentleman in that place. It was basically Clarisa and Marina’s idea that we call up the Ultimate Boss of All Bosses to defeat a brood of evil energy parasites, Clarisa, because she was majorly peeved at what happened to her junior investigators and Marina Majyo...I swear that girl had a grudge the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, she hated the Chalmers as well as the very mention of the Old Testament God. I guess it all stemmed back to shortly after Pearl Harbor when her family on her mom’s side all got transported to a internment camp near Tulelake , and the Chalmers family claimed that Majyo property as their own. Old hatred like that can spread sometimes burning like coal fires underground for decades, until they suddenly errupt like volcanos. Oh, by the way "'majyo'" is the most common Japanese way to say "witch, and Marina got a lot of Yamauba from her Mum’s side so it was not surprising that Marina had a lot of issues, practicing black magic being a rather minor one.

“And, like the gullible idiot that I was, I went along with them. I thought all my problems would be solved with a emergency call to the Underworld. I didn’t care about the ultimate consequences. I just wanted my parents and the other wingnuts out of the way so I could move in with the Teslas.

“So the Ole’ Gray Man came and we eventually got all our occult powers, although it took a couple more meetings before it all took effect, and that was after the final prize was settled with our signatures in our own blood.

“You want to know what that ultimate prize was, Marc? Clarisa agreed that at the end of the third and final meeting that the last one to make it to the door would have both their body and spirit possessed by that creature. Naturally, there was a big rush for the door and I ended up in the rear because that Marina witch-bitch spiked my serving of snicker doodles with some potent tranquilizer so I was dopey and slow.

"He walked around nearly a whole year wearing my bod like some kind of latest designer suit, and he ultimately fulfilled my wish of getting rid of nearly every damn Witness in town and as well as the world. He might of continued on with his extermination campaign with the other most-disliked religions had it not been for the Teslas intervening on my behalf, even though it ended with me hanging on a live wire. But I was too far gone anyway to speak on my own for that fiend pretty much consumed my spiritual essence.

“Right now I’m still far gone to talk to you vocally--but I can still write and I’m bringing you the last word and warning. Stay away from black magic, Marc, it’s like Murder Inc, and I’m not talking about rappers. You’ll might get your wishes granted, but you end up paying BIG TIME! Goodbye, Marc--you’ve been a great friend. If the police ever come to see you, tell them what you know. I’m really sorry to drag you into this filthy business. I really hope I go to someplace good or else get reincarnated as something nice... like a wolverine or a Tesla. And if you ever see someone with no shadow or a tall man all in gray--RUN!

"Yours truly--Constance."

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