Sequel to Darknest
Lisa sat up, gasping. Her smock burned, the carpet burned, but that didn’t matter. Better that, than those mandibles tearing like hot knives into her swollen flesh, those boomerang faces staring silently as they pulled her organs from her body…
She shuddered, swallowed. That hurt, too, but that pain was familiar by this point. The tests the Society science-priests had done had made sure of that. Slowly, she got to her feet, trying to get her bearings, trying to forget the feeling of massive insects eating her alive.
She had told them! She had told them! The Takat had remembered her and killed her. They’d probably be dead, too.
But no, they were still alive somehow. At least, the Exterminator and his odd little companion were still dead on the floor. That meant they were holding their own, up in the Darknest. But it also meant something else. It meant that no one knew that she had come back yet.
Slowly, Lisa understood. She was alone. Out of her cell. In a place that they had proven you could astrogate from.
She laughed. No one knew she was here – at least, no one close enough to do anything about it. She stared into one of the security cameras, mounted high up by the ceiling, and waved. The people on the other side were far too far away to do anything about what she was going to do next.
Lisa laughed a second time, almost hysterically. And then, with a final glance at the security camera, she astrogated.
She stood atop a dull green monolith, the scum of countless millennia encrusted down its carven sides. Around her, stretching off to the horizon, was a yellowish crater plain, the rubble of ancient structures barely distinguishable from the debris that geology and time had strewn across it. Things moved, here and there in the ruins, and the air provided no nourishment as it burned in her lungs, but Lisa didn’t care. She just astrogated again, and left a corpse there on the monolith under that alien sky.
Ashek gasped, choked, raised himself to one knee and then to his feet. ULDUT 19-4 and Skavi were both still dead. It made sense for Skavi, he had felt her leap from his back as the first wave attacked. But the astrogater should have come back by now. She had died before he had, after all…
There was a crash from the doorway, and an acolyte came running in with a pair of class-V security personnel in tow. “Exterminator!” said the acolyte, dropping to one knee. “Was the mission successful?”
“It was not. The target is still at large. Did the astrogater come back?”
The acolyte swallowed. “Yes, Exterminator. Proper protocol was not followed. She…immediately astrogated again.”
Ashek snarled. “Was she equipped with a tracking chip?”
“Yes, Exterminator. The only signal we’re receiving is still from this state.”
“Then she is not currently on Earth. I want to be notified immediately when she returns.”
There was a small sound from behind him, and Ashek turned to see Skavi slowly standing. “Skavi! What happened?”
“They killed you…”
“Yes. What happened to you?”
She rubbed her forehead. “They chased me, but I met Alex – the target – and he took me back to Earth…Where is he?”
Ashek hissed through his teeth. “Skavi, this is not you. This is your previous state, identical in body but bereft of soul. You don’t know where he took your current state to?”
“No…I mean, I know he took us – her to Earth, but I don’t know where to…”
“If only the Priest-Arcanist had agreed to let me outfit you with a tracking chip…No matter. We have bigger problems. Skavi –”
There was a gasp for breath, and the third corpse stood with a mad laugh. “It worked! It worked! Oh, thank God, it…” The astrogater stopped, looked around. “No. No! Oh, please no…”
Ashek strode over to her, grabbed her by the chin with a gloved hand. “Where did you go? Where?”
She spat at the eye-covers of his mask. “Hell if I know. I went to some planet, came back to Earth. No idea where.”
“Any astrogater has some element of control over where they land. And you are neurally hypersensitive. You have even more control than most. Tell me where you landed, before we are forced to take more drastic measures.”
She stopped struggling. “All right, all right…I went to Canada. I used to have family up there, before you lot locked me up. Little town called Howard Falls. Happy?”
Ashek let her go, turned back to the acolyte as she slumped to the floor and rubbed at the red mark he had left. “Back up her story, you should be getting a signal now. Prepare a long-ranged land expedition. Get scouts out looking for the target and Skavi’s current state. And take the astrogater back to her cell, I’m finished with her.”
“Wait!” she cried as the security personnel moved in. “Let me come with you.”
Ashek turned back. “Why?”
“I can help you find her. After all, no one knows her better than I do, right?”
He waited a moment, to judge her reaction. She seemed to be in earnest. “Fine. But only with a bracelet.”
“Yeah, fair enough. All right.”
Ashek turned back to the acolyte. “Prepare the expedition for three, then. Skavi, to me.” He held out an arm, and she scuttled up it to curl up on his shoulders. “With luck, by the time we’re back they’ll have found your current state.”
“Then we must destroy this one. A body with no soul is worse than no body at all.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a cell phone, at least it used to be. Before the radiation got to it.”
The man grinned his toothless grin, barely visible under his wide, shapeless hat. “It’s outta Atlanta, darling. Don’t see stuff like this much. Couple of folks went into the blast zone a couple years ago, after the incident happened, and they brought some stuff out with ‘em. This is one of ‘em.”
Mrs. Miller turned the thing over. It was a mass of black and silver, formed into a twisted mass like a Celtic knot, with shards of glittering transparent plastic sticking out in strange rows. “It’s lovely…What’s it do?”
The man’s complicated coat rustled as he shrugged his shoulders. “Hard to say. These artifacts have different effects. Some of ‘em don’t do anything at all, some of ‘em grant you power. Some of ‘em kill ya.”
Mrs. Miller started at that and dropped the thing, and Skavi caught it as it fell. It really was quite lovely. There was a network of pale threads between the loops of plastic, like a cobweb but hard and brittle, like spun glass. It was heavier than it had looked, and slightly warmer than it really should have been.
Mrs. Miller was speaking again. “I’m sorry, we really can’t afford to pay that kind of money for a trinket – especially not a…potentially fatal one.”
The man shrugged again. “Suit yourself. But if you wanna see more of that sort of thing, me and my brother’ve got a little place over in Saskatchewan, village called Howard Falls. The Odokathsticon.”
“I see…well, that sounds very interesting…”
“We’ll be there.” Skavi handed the phone back to him, ignoring the slight tingle it made as it left her hand.
He accepted it, touching the rim of that hat as he turned to leave. “Pleasure to meet you two.”
“What was that about?” Mrs. Miller asked, watching him go.
“Don’t know. The place he mentioned sounded cool, though…I mean, if he’s got more stuff like that, it ought to be interesting.”
“Are you sure? It’d probably be better to try and get settled in over here then to go running off to the next province…”
But Skavi noticed her rubbing at her fingers as they walked away, rubbing where they had touched the thing he had called a cell phone. Her fingers still tingled, too. She didn’t know why, but she needed to see that thing again.
The boots chafed something terrible. So did the coat, even through the old smock. Her shin screamed bloody murder where she had banged it on the fence as she fled. But at least now she didn’t draw stares by walking barefoot in a shrift down the street. Though now her limp was drawing at least as many…
No. Focus. Focus. Her grandparents’ house. They would take her in, at least for a few nights. It took her a moment to remember how to get there, but though the town had grown since she was last here, it was still small enough that she didn’t have to look very hard to find it.
What had once been an open neighborhood was now a cramped street, little more than an alleyway, without so much as a streetlight to illuminate what the setting sun did not, and as she walked down it, she began to feel a growing sense of unease. This was wrong. This wasn’t a house. It looked more like…a museum.
It was a small, cramped building, as though it had been squeezed by the surrounding houses until nothing remained but a few dark windows and a little wooden door. There was no one else in the street, but there was a strong sense of being watched, and it bothered Lisa that her telepathy couldn’t actually pick up anyone doing the watching. And that sign…houses didn’t have signs like that. It was wooden, and mounted above the door. “Οδοκαθίστων”, it read, above a complicated geometric symbol, and below that, in smaller letters, “Odokathsticon”.
There was no doorbell. She was beginning to realize that her grandparents weren’t here anymore. Either they had moved out or they had died, and neither option thrilled her. But perhaps the current owner of the place would know what had happened to them. And so, when no one responded to her knock, she gently pushed open the old door and entered.
Inside was a small room, which opened seamlessly onto another, this one much larger. Both were almost pitch black – the windows had been painted over from the inside, not that they would have let much light in anyway. But in the larger room were puddles of dim light, illuminating display cases, pedestals, objects simply sitting unprotected on the floor. The lights were dim and flickering, but Lisa didn’t mind. She didn’t want to look at those things too closely anyway.
There was a tapering, striated pillar, pitted with age and labelled as a “Tooth of Lovomuthra, the Burrower on High”. There was collection of twisted, melted-looking household objects mounted under little spotlights in a case marked “Relics of Atlanta”. There was a misshapen statue barely visible in a corner, which could be mistaken for abstract art if not for its semblance of limbs, and a thing in a little glass case which was either a small skeleton or some complicated piece of technology. There were rune-carved monoliths, shiny, spiraling devices, taxidermied horrors, preserved things in fluid-filled jars. Lisa had seen hideous things more times than she could count, but this room was like a concentrated nexus of the twisted unpleasantness of the universe. And as she stood there staring, she suddenly felt the burning pain of a hand on her shoulder.
“Hello, Miss…Warden, is it?”
“Aa! Yes – How do you –Who are you?”
“My name is Archibald Allen. Forgive me if I’ve startled you. I see you’re admiring my little collection.”
“Yes…Where did you get all this stuff?”
“Here and there.” Lisa turned to see his expression, and as she did so she realized something that disturbed her more than anything she had seen in this room. She couldn’t sense his mind. It wasn’t inactive, or protected against her. It was as if he simply didn’t have one.
“What are you?”
He chuckled. Turning around hadn’t done much good, his face was hidden behind a wide black hat. Covering his body were a series of long, black coats, and underneath them she could see dozens of talismans strung on thread from a necklace. “Ah. So you’re a telepath as well. My apologies – I had a little…accident a few years back. Left me in quite a state, let me tell you.”
“Oh…” That didn’t make any sense, but she was beginning to realize that he might not be malevolent, just weird. “Um…Do you know where the previous owners of this house are now?”
“Can’t say as I do. Not my business, anyway. Why?”
“Well…” She groaned inwardly. “They were my grandparents, and…”
“And you’re looking for somewhere to stay the night. No worries. We’ll set you up here, sweetheart. I’ve only got the one bedroom upstairs, but I’ve expanded the basement rather more than the city council would approve of. You can stay down there.”
“Thanks…” She felt uneasy again. Why? He was only trying to help her. “Thanks, but I don’t want to impose. I’ll set up at the local motel.” She moved toward the door, but he blocked her way.
“Now, sweetheart. You’ve got no money, you can’t stay anywhere else. And I’m only trying to protect you. After all, you’ve not got more than a few days.
“Protect me? From what?”
“From the Exterminator.”
“Exterminator! Word from the Facility!”
Ashek stood, strode down the aisle to stand behind the acolyte in the passenger seat. “Report.”
“They’ve found Skavi’s current state.”
“…Just south of Howard Falls, Canada.”
Ashek cocked his head. “How…astonishingly convenient.”
Skavi stretched out her secondary legs, grabbed onto the roof of the converted RV, and scuttled forward to look at the electronic map on the dashboard for herself. Sure enough, the little marker was almost precisely on top of their route north. “Well, then we can pick her up on the way there!”
“Yes…” Ashek continued staring down at the map. “Something isn’t right. This is too much of a coincidence. Something greater is involved here.”
“No…they rarely intervene so…directly.” Ashek sighed. “Research must be done on this. Skavi, bring up the database and see if there is an entry on our destination. Pilot, progress report.”
“We reached the halfway point yesterday, Exterminator. We expect to make substantial progress today, and will likely reach our destination by morning or tomorrow evening at the latest.”
“Excellent. And the astrogater’s state has remained steady?”
“Skavi, you have the entry?”
She had dropped to the floor and was working at one of the big computer consoles in the RV’s walls. “Yes. Right here.”
“Marvelous.” Ashek took her place at the console and began to read.
They were strange quarters, but Lisa didn’t really have high expectations from guestrooms built illegally in a basement. Four bedrooms, each connected to a central bathroom and all arranged in a square block of blank white in the center of the large underground space. Around the outer walls were things that looked disturbingly like prison cells, their barred doors fifteen feet high and their interiors shrouded in darkness. She hadn’t seen anything inside them, but she had heard sounds as Archibald showed her into one of the rooms. And those sounds were beginning to outweigh her excitement at sleeping in a room without a lock on the door.
At last she got up, the oddly smooth white floor stinging less than usual on her bare feet as she pushed open the door. Outside was just as she had left it – flickering lights illuminating a white corridor, those barred doors looming Cyclopean in front of her. She padded up to it, peered inside. And as her eyes got used to the darkness, she began to make out a shape.
It was an amorphous blob, the size of a pickup truck and standing on eight or so stumpy legs like a caterpillar’s. Its flesh was pale, and across its surface were sphincter-like pits surrounded by curved horns or teeth as long as her hand. Those same teeth formed claws around the bases of its feet that scraped as it shifted itself, and though it had no eyes, she could feel it watching her through the bars.
“Hello,” Lisa said, staring at it. She felt bad for the poor thing. She knew how it felt to be trapped in the same little room, day after day, with nothing except your own head to break the monotony. “How long have you been in there?”
The creature didn’t respond, just huddled back into its cell. She wanted to do something for it, feed it or something, but there wasn’t any food available. So she just sort of sat down against the bars, thinking it might like some company.
She woke up suddenly to a tickling sensation in her right ear. It wasn’t painful, which seemed a pleasant surprise. It was just smooth, and silky. She reached up to brush it away, only to find a hair-thin white tendril emerging from her ear and trailing back into the cell. She stood with a yelp.
It was a voice – high, whispering, childish, possibly female. It was a voice in her mind, like a telepathically received thought, but louder and more focused than such thoughts should have been. “Hello?”
There was another tendril, curled around the fingers of her left hand. Another, feeling its way under the shoulder strap of her smock. Another, winding around her ankle. All of them led back into the cell, to the pale creature that stood inches away from her, flesh bulging as it pressed itself against the bars.
“What are you? What are you doing?”
We are Aiothumathakin. It has been a long time since we have seen one of your species.
Lisa backed away, trying to pull the tendril from her ear. It wouldn’t come loose, and she realized with a shudder that it had gotten in much farther than the earlobe. “Can you take this out, please, Aio…?”
No. We must communicate. You must help us, Earth-creature. You must free us.
“Um…” Lisa kept backing away, trying to move towards the door that led to the basement steps. “Look, Aio…whatever your name is, I’ll talk to Archibald. Maybe he doesn’t realize you’re sentient. Maybe he’ll let you out when I explain…”
No! The Odokathsticon is a very, very wicked man. He keeps us locked up, as he keeps you locked up. He keeps us all here, in his collection…
Lisa laughed humorlessly. “Oh, rubbish…I’m sure he’s just eccentric…” She felt the door behind her, tried the handle.
It was locked.
That’s quite enough of that, she thought. She wasn’t neurally hypersensitive for nothing. She closed her eyes, astrogated through the door to the stairs on the other side.
And opened them to find she was still in the room, more tendrils winding their way up her legs.
Lisa started breathing heavily. Less than a day. She’d been out of prison for less than a day, and already she had got herself locked back up. Why on earth did she keep trusting people? Why did she keep letting them invite her inside?
You have no choice, Lisa.
“Shut up!” she screamed, walking quickly back to the cell where the thing still protruded through the bars. “Shut up! Why should I believe you, any more than I believed anyone else?”
Because we can help you escape.
“No, you can’t.” She gave the thing in her ear another tug, felt a wave of revulsion when she realized just how far it extended into her skull. “Get out of my head. I’ll figure this out on my own, thank you very much. I’ll –”
No. There were more tendrils now, hundreds of them. They wound over every body part, and Lisa realized she was starting to go numb. They were in both ears, her nose, the corners of her eyes. They were puncturing her skin, sliding in between her muscles. Obey us, Lisa. Or we will stop the painkiller.
Her eyes went wide as she realized what it meant. She swallowed, and even that didn’t hurt anymore. It actually felt wonderful…
She took a shaky step forward. “What do you want me to do?”
Open the door, Lisa. There is a latch. Open it.
Another step, and another. She was acutely aware of the way the thing’s horrible mouths slavered as she came towards the door, aware of all those tendrils sliding through her flesh and winding around her bones. She raised a hand to the latch, and though they were visibly trembling, she managed eventually to close her fingers around it. Up went the handle. Across slid the bolt. Down went the handle again.
And with a crash of unoiled hinges, Aiothumathakin came lurching out into the corridor.
The RV lumbered to a stop, headlights illuminating a pair of figures standing beside the road. One was a woman, middle-aged and tired. The other was a girl, whose face Skavi knew all too well. They didn’t move, just stood there and watched the vehicle slow.
Ashek was speaking. “– too close. Skavi, stay here. We do not wish to confuse them.”
She swallowed. “Right.” She climbed to the back of the passenger seat, and watched from there as he descended the steps of the RV and stepped into the glare of the headlights. The woman recoiled from him, but the other Skavi – the real Skavi, she reminded herself – cried “Ashek! You’re alive!” and ran to climb onto his shoulders. “How did you survive? I saw the Takat eat you!”
“They did. My soul was transported back to this body when I died.”
“Oh! Of course! Wait…” She was realizing what was going on. “And I had a previous state, too, right? She didn’t come back, did she?”
“Yes. Yes, she did.”
“What’s going on?” It was the woman speaking now. “Skavi, who is this man?”
“This is Ashek, the Exterminator. You remember, he was there on Shathenai…”
Now she recognized the woman. It was Alex’s mother. She hadn’t gotten a good look at her in the tunnels on Shathenai, and it had been ages since she had thrown her old body into her burning house. So where was Alex, then?
“Oh. That’s right. He’s the one who…” The woman stared up at Ashek, her fists balling. “You killed my family, you son of a –”
She ran at him, but Ashek held out a hand. “I am sorry for your loss, madam. All sacrifices made were necessary. Now, I’m afraid we must be going.” He turned back towards the vehicle.
“Wait!” the other Skavi said, looking back at her. “We’re not just going to leave her here, are we?”
“She is extraneous. We do not have the supplies to support her, anyway.”
“Oh, it’ll just be for a few days. We can resupply in Howard Falls. And we can’t just leave her here, she’ll freeze.”
“Skavi, I won’t –” the woman started, but Ashek cut her off. “Fine. Come aboard, then. You and the astrogater can rotate bunks.”
Ashek was coming back aboard the vehicle. The astrogater was moving, saying something from her bunk, but Skavi wasn’t paying attention. She was staring at her duplicate, and it was staring back at her.
Well, it wasn’t quite a duplicate. The real Skavi was dirtier, colder, more tired. There was some kind of rash on her hands that she kept scratching at. She stared down with an expression in her eyes that could have been interest, or could have been hostility.
“Hi.” Ashek was busy talking to the astrogater, and the other one scuttled down from his shoulders and stood behind the passenger seat, just below her. “I didn’t realize he’d survived.”
“Nor did I.”
“I didn’t realize you’d…come back, either.”
“Yeah…It seems so normal, until it happens to you.”
“Yeah.” She rubbed at the rash again, almost subconsciously. “Why are you here?”
“Because Alex –”
“No, why are all of you here?”
“Oh.” Skavi shrugged. “The astrogater came back, too – ULDUT 19-4. She immediately astrogated again, to a little town north of here.”
The other Skavi looked up. “Howard Falls?”
“Yes – how did you know that?”
“Because that’s where me and her are going.” She gestured to Alex’s mother. “A creepy old guy showed up and gave us an old telephone, told us to go there if we wanted to see it again. And we do.”
“Telephone? What telephone?”
She shrugged. “I mean, he took it back, but it’s up there. Unless he’s lying, but I hope not.”
“Is it really such a big deal?”
She just looked at her. “Yes. Yes, it is.”
“Oh. Okay then.”
They sat there in silence for a moment. The RV had started moving again, and the headlights were flickering over the dark trees. Skavi watched them for a little while, before something occurred to her.
“Do you have a soul?”
The other Skavi looked up. “What?”
“Ashek says I don’t, but I don’t feel any different. So I wondered if it had gone wrong, and I had got the soul instead of you.”
“Hmm…I mean, Ashek’s usually right. And I don’t feel any different either. So probably you don’t, but I don’t know. Why do you ask?”
Skavi shrugged. “He’s going to kill me, to ensure that there’s only one Skavi and it has a soul. I just wanted to make sure he had the right one.”
Ashek was standing at the computer console, and she started forward before realizing that the other Skavi had done the same.
“No, you go. I’m tired, I’m going to go to bed.”
The other girl nodded, went to see what Ashek wanted. Skavi sighed, and turned back to the windshield. She would go to bed, eventually. For now, she would just stay here for a while and watch the trees in the dark.
Lisa sighed in irritation. The other woman had asked a few questions and then fallen asleep almost immediately on her bunk. She didn’t blame her for that. She did blame Ashek for taking the only chair.
The trees were giving way to the lights of a town – Howard Falls, she assumed, though it looked bigger than the last time she had been there. She didn’t turn around, but she could feel the version of the bug girl that had come in with this woman watching with her from Ashek’s shoulders. She was nervous. So was her duplicate, pretending to be asleep in a little loft bed. It seemed reasonable enough – they had never encountered themselves before, after all. But the new one was excited as well – excited to find something. It felt almost like the attraction Lisa had once felt to the Takat, but stronger. Something was calling her to this city.
Honestly, Lisa didn’t really care. The bug girls creeped her out. They were like extensions of Ashek’s eyes, watching her even when he wasn’t. She would be glad to see the end of them. The big bracelet that rubbed sores into her wrist might stop her astrogating, but it wouldn’t stop her bolting as soon as she got the chance. Howard Falls might be bigger, but it was still Howard Falls. If she could manage to escape with her own duplicate, maybe they could formulate a plan.
The single houses on the outskirts of the town were giving way to narrow streets that the lumbering RV struggled to fit along. Lit-up signs and the lights of windows chased each other along the vehicle’s floor. The new woman was awake as well, now, and the new bug girl was saying something to Ashek.
Ashek stood suddenly, and Lisa nipped around him and into his chair with a sigh of relief as he strode to the front of the vehicle. “Estimated time remaining?”
“Twenty minutes, Exterminator,” replied the pilot, glancing at his complicated dashboard.
Through the town they drove, and Lisa slowly started to realize something. They were going to her grandparents’ house. Of course that would be where she had gone! Why hadn’t she done something more clever, to try and throw them off the scent? But slowly, ponderously, the vehicle was slowing at the entrance to a narrow side street. The surrounding houses were more built up than she remembered, but it looked like the same place. But…
Ashek was speaking. “Both Skavis, to me. Get in there, give me some preliminary reconnaissance. Astrogater, come here. What relationship do you have with this building?”
Lisa swallowed, stood, walked up to him. “It’s my grandparents’ house, Exterminator.”
“And where in the house are you most likely to be?”
“At this time of night, the guest bedroom, on the second floor…Please, don’t hurt them, they’re only old…”
But Ashek had turned away, was speaking to the bugs again. “Scout the second floor first. Then go down level by level. Keep quiet, stay hidden. Go.”
One of them opened the door, and they ran off towards the house on their scuttling legs.
“Exterminator…” she started again, but he was ignoring her, talking to the pilot, fiddling with something on the side of his mask. She sighed in frustration, turned back to the darkened bunks. The woman was awake, watching them with confused eyes.
“What’s going on?”
Lisa sighed, sat down on the bunk beside her. “They’re hunting my duplicate.”
Lisa was prepared for a variety of questions, but not that one. “Yes, here. This is my grandparent’s house. Didn’t you hear?”
“But it’s not…” The woman had a sort of rash on her fingers, red and swollen. “This is the Odokathsticon.”
“The odo – the what?”
“The Odokathsticon. This is where the man told us to come.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I need to go.” She stood up, suddenly, narrowly avoiding clocking her head on the bunk above. “Skavi? Did she go in?”
“Yes…Lady, you can’t just go barging into someone’s house…”
She wasn’t listening. Why did no one listen? She was half-running to the front of the vehicle, pushing Ashek aside. “Madam? What are you doing? You must remain here. You cannot risk compromising the mission –”
But she had already opened the door.
Skavi scuttled down the sidewalk, climbed a drainpipe onto a roof, took out her phone and called Ashek’s headset. Across the street, she saw the other Skavi do the same, with the same practiced ease. “Ashek? Do you read me?”
“Affirmative. Get me live updates.”
“Do you read me?” It was the other Skavi, checking in as well.
“Affirmative. Again, live updates.”
She was in her element. Across the rooftops she ran, climbed like an enormous spider down the brick front of the building, began to ease the window from its frame, almost dropped it as a shout came suddenly through the telephone.
“What are you – Mrs. Miller – No, get back in the truck!”
A shout echoed down the street. “Skavi! This is it! This is the Odokathsticon!”
“I know, I know! Trust me, I’ll get the phone and bring it out to you!”
“But what if you can’t find it? What if you can’t bear to let go of it?”
Skavi muttered into her own phone. “Skavi, shut up, and tell your friend to do the same. You’ll wake the entire house.”
“Right, of course. Mrs. Miller, be quiet!”
She did, and Skavi breathed a sigh of relief. Ashek was telling them off over the phone as well. The stupid woman had probably compromised the entire operation…
But now the window was off, and she was inside. It led into a little bedroom, dusty, clearly not used in years, and dark enough that it took her some minutes to note with a shudder that the window was painted black. “Skavi?” she whispered. “You inside?”
“Yeah. Small bedroom, empty for a decade at least. One door, locked from the inside.”
“Same.” She tried the door, found it locked as well, undid the little latch to bring it open. “Ashek, narrow corridor, stairs at one end, two more doors across from these ones.”
She scuttled over to the one across the hall. “Locked as well.”
“Get it open, then.”
She heard the other outside door creak open and shut as her duplicate came out. Slowly, carefully, Skavi inserted a long leg into the crack of the door, and began pulling the bolt open.
There was a banging on the street door.
The other Skavi was muttering something. Ashek was speaking, but not to them. “Astrogater, stay here. I need to go deal with this.”
Her duplicate was scuttling towards the stairs. “What was in the room?”
“Same as the ones across the hall. You?”
She finished undoing the lock, pushed the door open with a creak. “…More of the same.”
“Ashek, all the rooms upstairs are empty.”
“Damn. This may prove difficult. Madam! Return to the vehicle immediately, or I will be forced to shoot –”
Skavi made it to the stairs, ran quickly down them, came out in a dark room. Her duplicate was just now speaking, but she could see why it had taken her so long. “Ashek…oh, great Nine, Ashek, you need to see this room.”
“What is it?”
“It’s all full of stuff. Weird stuff. Stuff from space.”
The pounding on the door had stopped, and it was opening to let a crack of light into the room. Who was opening it? It wasn’t her duplicate, she could just make her out, crouched behind a toothlike pillar. It wasn’t Ashek or the woman, because there was a third figure there in the doorway...
“Mrs. Miller, how lovely to see you again. Welcome to the Odokathsticon. Mr. Ashek, feel free to step inside as well…”
Ashek was speaking, dangerously quiet. “Where is the woman called Lisa?”
“Lisa’s downstairs. Wanna see her?”
“What are you?”
“My name’s Archibald Allen –”
“I didn’t ask your name.”
The woman was shoving past Ashek, grabbing the little man by the shoulders. “Where is the telephone? Where is it?”
“Why, it’s just this way, m’dear…”
The other Skavi was breathing very hard, hard enough for her to hear it from where she huddled at the base of the stairs. “Skavi…Stay quiet. I don’t think he knows we’re here.”
“But I have to see it! He says he knows where it is! I have to see it, touch it, hold it…”
And then there was another voice. It was the voice of the man in the doorway, but it didn’t come from him. It came from the telephone, and from the way the other Skavi jumped, she could tell she had heard it too. “Oh, I know you’re here, my dears. And don’t worry, darling. I’ll bring it to you soon enough.”
She had just run off, into her grandparent’s house. Everyone had gone barging into her family’s house. Why did no one ever bother to listen to her?
Lisa descended the RV’s steps, walking quickly towards the gathering around the door. Was that Grandfather the woman was accosting? No…That wasn’t him. This wasn’t even a house, anymore. What was going on? Could no one tell her anything?
Ashek was speaking. “I don’t have time for this. Allow me passage immediately. I have every intention of searching this house, and if I find anything that doesn’t belong –”
The man in the doorway looked up. “Oh, you’re going to search it, are you? What gives you the right to walk in here –”
“My right as an Exterminator of the Society of the Followers of the Nine. Madam, return to the vehicle immediately.” He pushed past the other man, who turned to follow him with a livid snarl curling his lips. “You want Lisa? Fine. Here she is.”
There is someone else in the building.
What, you think I can’t feel them? Let go, I can walk by myself.
Do you wish us to remove the painkiller?
Then allow us to guide you.
There was the thump, thump of people descending the stairs, the click of a key turning in a lock.
It is opened! Run, Earth-creature! Take us through!
Skavi ignored the pounding of her heart as the telephone ceased to make any kind of noise at all. Watched from behind the pillar as the man – that sweet, glorious man – opened the door. Saw him descend the stairs, and Ashek follow. Heard him open another door at the bottom.
Heard the mad howling, like someone who had never spoken in agony.
Oh, my god, it’s Ashek!
Kill him! Destroy him, before he hurts us!
I don’t think that’s a good idea…
There was no pain, but the sensation of ripping flesh was unmistakable. Her cheeks were splitting, unzipping, as white tendrils vomited from her mouth towards Ashek and the Odokathsticon.
No! No! Stop! What are you doing?
There was the high metallic scream of Ashek’s sabregun, and suddenly there was a six-inch metal dart in her gut, pain beginning to come back as her severed organs started to overcome the creature’s painkiller.
Is the body permanently damaged?
Yes! Yes! You need to stop!
No. We will not stop until we are free.
I don’t want to be free anymore!
Skavi looked at her duplicate, standing there below the stairs. Maybe one of them didn’t have a soul. Maybe neither of them did. But right now, she knew they were both thinking the same thing. Ashek was in danger.
Almost in the same motion, they threw themselves forward onto their secondary legs, ran around and over the display cases and horrible exhibits, climbed quickly around the man who stood smiling in the doorway, and looked down the cramped wooden stairs.
Ashek was backing up them, cocking the sabregun to fire it again. And there, at the base of the stairs, was the astrogater.
She was a stumbling puppet, arms hanging like a scarecrow’s, head lolling to one side as she staggered forward, the silvery end of a dart emerging in a puddle of dripping blood from her stomach. All around her, through her, hair-thin white tendrils writhed like worms, and they emerged from her ruined mouth like a threaded column, its tip a hundred thousand reaching arms. Up the stairway she staggered, her eyes wide and glazed, and Ashek fired the sabregun again, the shot barely missing her foot.
Skavi glanced at her duplicate. She was staring, eyes wide, at the horror shambling up the stairs. They had both seen him die on Shathenai, knew how real the threat was. And then, suddenly, she had an idea.
She turned to Archibald Allen, cackling in the doorway. “Call it off.”
“I said call it off. Ashek’s got a flamethrower on that thing, he’ll burn your sorry little museum to the ground.”
The man shrugged. “I don’t control my pets. As long as they come home when I tell them, they can do what they like. As for that,” he said, leering forward, “I would like to see him try.”
There was screaming from inside.
Lisa emerged gasping into the main room of what she realized now was a museum. The woman – Mrs. Miller, was the name Skavi had shouted – was screaming, beating on the little man with her fists. He was entirely ignoring her, laughing madly as Ashek the Exterminator backed out of a little stairwell, one Skavi on his shoulders and the other running on her horrible legs across the museum floor. And behind Ashek, behind the barrel of his gun, came something else.
She was a writhing mass of white tendrils, controlling her like a puppet and stitching through her skin like dolphins through a sea of flesh. Her head was completely obscured by them, reaching forward to grab at Ashek over the gun. He was firing, firing, and darts emerged from wounds that should have been fatal. But nonetheless, she kept coming.
Lisa turned away, gasping. She wanted very badly to be sick. What was going on?
Mrs. Miller had stopped attacking the man, and was running across the museum floor to a cabinet marked “Relics of Atlanta”, screaming something incomprehensible. But the man had stopped laughing. He was staring at her, holding out his hand. And she had stopped there, was floating above the ground, hands clutching at her throat as her legs kicked in vain.
“You think you’re going to fiddle with my collection? Girl, this is the Odokathsticon. No one touches anything in here that I don’t say.”
And she popped like a crushed tomato.
Blood painted the glass cases scarlet, and bits of bone and organ scattered like shrapnel. The Skavi on the museum floor was screaming. Lisa was screaming.
But the man had turned his attention away from the door. Her duplicate had emerged entirely, and behind her, connected by a mass of tendrils like a Halloween spiderweb, was something massive. Something white and pulpy emerging from the doorway like a parasite through skin, like a malformed child being birthed from the wall. Tooth-ringed mouths extended into trunks and then pseudopods, carrying the gargantuan thing in a hideous rolling gait as it kept emerging.
And there was a roar of flame.
Ashek was firing the flamethrower.
Skavi couldn’t imagine what he was thinking. This was a half-wooden building. It would burn like hot tissue, and all of them with it. Surely there was some other way of destroying the astrogater?
But the flames were roaring, climbing. Her duplicate had thrown herself from his shoulders, was desperately fleeing. The intact astrogater was running for the doorway, the other was a screaming skeleton, silhouetted in the flames. The horror in the doorway was reeling in its tendrils, letting the flames that clung to them fall away like hot wax as they retracted into its bloated body. Ashek stared for an instant at the torch that was his target, and turned and ran for the door.
But the other man wasn’t done yet. “You’ve killed my pet! You Society scum, I’ll kill you!” He took a step after the Exterminator, reached out his hand as he had done for the woman.
And Ashek turned and sprayed him with the flamethrower.
There was fire, running across the battered floorboards. Skavi ran, ran for the door, stumbled as her duplicate crashed into her, blinded by the flames. “Skavi! What’s going on?”
“Ashek’s fired the flamethrower! We have to go!” And she looked up to see Archibald Allen walk from the flames as though they were beams of light.
“You think you can kill me?” His voice was low, multi-toned, with none of the accent that it had had before. “I am the Odokathsticon. You are a marginally aberrant lifeform of Earth. You shall be nothing, only the dust that feeds the flames.”
And he unfolded, into a shining, twitching collection of polygons like a miniature sun, drowning out the bright light of the spreading fire, stretching out some appendage that made a limb look laughably simple by comparison down towards the little figure backing towards the door.
The other Skavi grabbed her suddenly by the shoulder. “Skavi?”
“Run. When I go, you go. For the door. Got it?”
“Yes, but –”
“And Skav…Remember me, okay?”
“Wait, what are you –”
They both took off running, like cornered cockroaches across the floor, trying desperately to avoid the hungry flames. That glowing thing by the door was taller, now, taller than the room should have been able to contain, and she could see that Ashek wasn’t going to make it in time. She should do something, distract the thing –
And then it was distracted. But not by her. By the spidery girl clawing at its pillared mass, screaming as her clothes burned and her skin burned and the touch of the titan horror evaporated her flesh.
Just for an instant it paid attention, an instant before angles screamed like the face of the sun through the other Skavi’s ribcage, melted just as quickly and left her twitching on the burning floor. But it was enough. Ashek was through the door, and the one remaining Skavi had thrown herself through one of the blacked-out windows and onto the pavement on the other side.
The astrogater was running to the RV, and Ashek was charging after her. Skavi ran too, but she looked back before she made it to Ashek’s waving arm. Looked back in time to see the Odokathsticon loom upwards from the flames, the size of a skyscraper and the color of a spotlight through milk. Then it was gone, and in the flames was nothing, nothing but an empty lot and the houses around it blazing.
The astrogater was sobbing when she climbed back into the vehicle. Ashek was as cool as ever, telling the pilots to plot a course for the Facility. Skavi just climbed up into her little bed, wrapped herself in her secondary legs, tried to stem the tears welling in her eyes. She pretended to be asleep when Ashek came to check on her. And outside, the world flickered orange and gold as the flames leapt into the starry sky.
Written by StalkerShrike