You know what's worse than going on a business trip during a pandemic? Going on a business trip during a pandemic to a place you've never heard of. My boss sent me out to the odd little city of Sombermorey, which has no commercial airport and is several hours away by car from the nearest real city.
I wasn't exactly happy about it, since if the virus didn't get me, the blood clots from the car ride would. But, when I got there, I had to admit that Sombermorey did have a quaint sort of charm to it.
So, rather than spend all my free time cooped up in my hotel, I decided to take a walk around downtown and take in some of the local culture, which is how I ended up on Albion Avenue.
According to the tourism guide I was reading on my phone, many of the old Victorian houses that lined Albion Avenue had been converted into small businesses. In the olden days, the houses’ proximity to Queen Street had made them highly desirable as residences. But as the town of Sombermorey grew and the advent of automobiles made living close to downtown both noisy and unnecessary, the homes became more desirable as retail space.
Eve’s Eden of Esoterica was the highest-rated shop on Albion, but it looked like a pretty granola New Age center, so I decided to pass. Nearby was The Barbarian Barber Surgeon, but as I was currently in need of neither a haircut nor bloodletting, that got a pass too.
Kinks & Inks, which I just assumed was a tattoo parlour/sex shop (though now that I think about it, it could have been a chiropractor/art studio), was the hardest pass of the day.
I was briefly tempted to check out Angelique’s Boutique, if only because it appeared to be the most vanilla business on all of Albion, but ironically it seemed to be an all too conventional tourist gift shop and bakery. I wanted a more memorable memento of my trip, which is why I settled on visiting Orville’s Old-Fashioned Oddity Outlet.
It was the lowest-rated shop on Albion Avenue, the only one with a below-average rating, and every negative review had a very irate response from the owner. From what I could see from the street though, it was filled with some legitimately weird stuff. It was the kind of place one might expect to find a Monkey’s Paw or a Mogwai, which was enough for me to at least give it a look.
The window on the front door said Caveat Emptor on it in large lettering, which I – perhaps naively – shrugged off as just being part of the shop’s foreboding mystique.
The bell chimed as I stepped through the door, a musty odour coming forth to greet me as I did so. The store was packed with strange wares that I could only barely make out in the dim light. Not much sunlight came through from the grey day outside, and the only artificial light came from a few dull, naked orange bulbs hanging from the ceiling.
He doesn’t want me to get a good look at his merchandise, I thought to myself. That’s not a good sign.
The shopkeeper himself, an elderly white man in a periwinkle seersucker suit, was easy enough to spot. He lowered his newspaper and looked up towards the entrance at the sound of the bell.
“You here for a dreamcatcher?” he asked in a gruff voice.
“I… no?” I half-replied, half-asked to the unexpected question. “Why?”
“A lot of the hippies that go to Genevieve’s across the street want dreamcatchers, but she doesn’t sell ’em because she thinks they’re culturally insensitive or something,” the old man explained. “I got ’em though.”
He pointed to a corner filled with colourful dreamcatchers made with fake feathers and plastic beads, along with an assortment of wampum and arrowheads. The centerpiece of the display was a cigar store Indian.
“If it offends you, I took one of those 23&me DNA tests and it said I was nearly three percent Ojibwe,” the man claimed.
“I… I’m not here for a dreamcatcher, sir,” I explained. “I was just hoping to pick up an interesting souvenir.”
“Well then, let me show you the goods!” he said excitedly. He put on an opalescent comedy mask that had a pink surgical mask attached to the inside of the mouth, and placed a straw fedora that matched his suit upon his head. Standing up, he grabbed a cane that seemed to be for a mix of effect and genuine support.
“The name’s Bucklesby. Orville Bucklesby the Last, owner of the finest oddity shop in all Harrowick County. What I got here is the only collection of occult paraphernalia for a hundred miles that isn’t tucked away in an immortal millionaire’s vaults or buried in a Hedge Witches’ hovel.
“Take these for example; Doctor Philoneus Fritz’s Fine Franken Fish. Just ordinary dead goldfish floating inside a burnt-out light bulb, right? Wrong!”
He flipped a light switch, illuminating the bulb and causing the dead fish that had been confined inside it to come to life.
"And it gets better. Watch this; alive, dead. Alive, dead. Alive, dead," he said as he flipped the switch on and off, the fish appearing to die and resuscitate each time. "Playing God has never been easier, or more consequence-free! Er, make sure you’re using a surge protector though. You don’t want to see what happens if these guys get too much juice.”
I glared at the Franken Fish incredulously, utterly unconvinced that anything supernatural was actually going on.
“I was hoping to find something a bit more useful,” I confessed. “You wouldn’t happen to have a Monkey’s Paw in here, would you?”
“I did. Hence my current circumstances,” he replied sardonically. “But, if horrific, unintended consequences are what you're after, might I interest you in some vinyl records with genuine satanic subliminal messaging? Just have it playing in the background to implant forbidden desires and compulsions into your guests’ subconscious. What could go wrong? When something goes wrong, just play the record backwards, but be careful you don’t accidentally play any of the backmasked summoning spells.”
I looked him in the eyes for a moment, trying to tell if he believed what he was saying or if he was just trying to pawn some crap off on me.
“I… don’t have a record player,” I said truthfully.
"Yeah, these things are a racquet. To be honest, I only got one girl who really buys’em, and the only reason I keep selling ’em is that she'd literally gut me like a fish if I stopped,” he replied, waving for me to follow him deeper inside the shop.
We passed by a caged shelf of ‘Daeva skulls’ with fangs, ram horns, and large sagittal crests. Around them were ornate black blades, elaborate drinking horns, fanciful slave collars, and regal stone tablets inscribed with odd glyphs and horrific illustrations of brutal conquests and ritual sacrifices.
It was a bit over the top, but I could almost buy that they were relics of some bygone civilization, so I’ll give the old man credit for that. It was a bit odd though that he didn’t give me a spiel about a collection he had obviously put a lot of effort into.
“Ah, is that supposed to be a nuclear bomb?” I asked apprehensively as my attention turned to a small Fat-Man style bomb hanging from the ceiling.
“It is a nuclear bomb, and it’s not for sale, because I lost the launch codes. Genevieve’s great aunt gave it to me as a social commentary about crazy old men being able to destroy everything with a push of a button. I loved that old Witch,” he reminisced. “And speak of the Devil, or Horned God, or whatever, this mirror here also once belonged to my dear neighbour and gifted psychic, Ms. Evelyn Fawn. It’s backed with silver, not aluminum like modern mirrors, so it’s actually useful at exposing the supernatural. In a pinch, you can break it and use the shards to fight off vampires or werewolves. It’s still seven years of bad luck, but if you don’t end up as fang food, I’d say you’re at least breaking even.”
I had no interest in an old mirror, even one that had once been owned by a Witch. Orville’s act was already starting to wear thin and I was considering leaving, but that’s when something did catch my eye: A pair of black and gold goggles with round lenses, each encircled by a golden ouroboros – a snake eating its own tail. There was a smaller ouroboros above and between the two lenses, holding a strange reddish-purple gem in its center.
“What are these?” I asked as I bent over to peer at them.
“Ah. Those are the Ophion Occult Order’s Omni-Ocular Opticons,” he announced proudly. I shot him a questioning glance for his needless tongue twister. “I used to work for a circus; they loved alliteration. We can just call ’em Ogglers if you want.”
“What are they for?” I asked. The lenses were the same reddish-purple as the crowning gem, and looked nearly opaque from the outside.
“Try’em on. You’ll see. You won’t believe me unless you try ’em on,” he insisted.
I saw no reason not to, so I slipped them over my head. Everything in the room looked dimmer and blurrier with a reddish-purple tinge to them, but some things now gave off a spectral aura.
Mr.Bucklesby himself had a soft white aura splashed with every other colour on the spectrum in slowly shifting undulations. I looked around the room, and saw that the mirror had a faint silver halo, the records gave off orbiting visual distortions, and the entire Daeva shelf was engulfed in a turbulent dark red haze streaked with bright red lightning bolts.
The Franken Fish, interestingly enough, were unchanged.
“What is this? Some kind of augmented reality?” I asked, trying to make sense of what I was seeing.
“Analogue augmented reality,” Orville chuckled. “Those are alchemically treated lenses; they emit normal light when stimulated by paranormal forces. It’s the next best thing to having clairvoyance, and they come with more than one setting! Trying turning the lenses.”
I did as he suggested, turning each lens inwards in unison until I heard a click. The auras disappeared, but weren’t replaced by anything else.
“Everything just looks normal,” I said.
“Well there’s not always something around to see on each mode – but if you buy ’em you can take ’em anywhere you like, see what you've been missing. What do you say, kid, you interested?"
I pulled the Ogglers off and examined them as closely as I could, looking for any sort of modern display or processor that could explain what I saw. As far as I could tell without taking them apart, there wasn’t a single electronic component to be found. I didn’t completely believe that I was seeing anything supernatural, but even if it was just an illusion, it was still an intriguing one.
I glanced at the price, and they were three hundred and ninety-nine dollars. A bit pricey if all they were doing was creating a light show, but if they actually did reveal paranormal phenomenon, it was an absolute steal. I had no plans to return to Sombermorey for the foreseeable future, so whatever my choice was it would likely be final.
I knew it was a moon shoot that the Ogglers were real, but I thought they were cheap enough to risk it. Even if they were crap, they’d still be a souvenir that I would never forget.
“Do you take American Express?”
Orville tried to sell me a vampire-slaying kit, a fetal sea monster – possibly a mermaid – preserved in an epoxy egg, and a three Testament Bible he said was from a parallel universe, but eventually accepted I was only going to buy the Ogglers. With tax and the, ah, warranty he talked me into, they came to nearly five hundred dollars. He at least put them in a nice, indiscreet box for me, along with a ‘buy one exhumed wedding ring and get the other one twenty percent off’ coupon.
I sincerely hoped I would never have an opportunity to use it.
I didn’t look at the Ogglers again until I was back at my hotel that evening. They weren’t exactly inconspicuous, and I didn’t really want to draw attention to them. Besides, my room on the seventh floor of the Golden Horus Hotel offered a spectacular view, and I was hopeful that such a wide vista would provide ample opportunity for the Ogglers to pick up something of interest.
As soon as I was on my balcony, I gently opened the box and slid the Ogglers back over my head. They were still on the same setting they had been when I last took them off, of course, the one that hadn’t detected anything abnormal in Orville’s shop.
Apparently, that setting was intended for outdoor use.
On the horizon, which had been clear a moment ago, was a towering dark cloud that seemed to stretch higher up in the atmosphere than was meteorologically possible. I would have thought that it was a mountain were it not for the fact that it was wider on the top than the bottom, and that its structure was reminiscent of a coral reef. The only way anything of that scale and shape could exist was if it was lighter than air.
I scanned the landscape and saw that there were several other similar clouds at varying distances and elevations, including one almost directly above me. They bobbed up and down slightly, but didn't appear to be affected by the wind, and some of their branches wafted back and forth like they were underwater.
I didn’t have a clue what the dark clouds were, which scared me a little, but I reassured myself with the knowledge that they had almost certainly been there long before I ever put the Ogglers on and I had no cause to believe they had ever caused anyone any harm. That may have been a bit existentially unsettling, but as far as physical safety was concerned, I was convinced I was in the clear.
I stared at the clouds for a good long while, trying to deduce anything I could about their nature, but they remained placid and inscrutable to my gaze. I was just about to turn the Ogglers to a different setting, when I spotted a dark moving shape below me.
It was either made from or covered in a dense black vapour. Its body was a tall, skinny ellipsoid with an unevenly dented surface and several irregular tentacles hanging from its bottom end. It drifted through the air effortlessly as if it was moving on a track or following an orbit. Its movement was so steady that only the presence of its tentacles were what made me think it was a creature of some kind and not an inanimate object being moved by some external force.
I kept my gaze locked on the entity until it was too far to see. If it had noticed me looking at it, it had given no indication. I wondered if it could see me, or if we were as invisible to its kind as they were to us. Had it come from the dark clouds? Were they some sort of city or hive, or were the clouds actually colossal living entities and the creature that had flown by merely an insect in comparison?
Many other questions raced through my mind, I’m sure, but my focus was broken by the spontaneous arrival of nightfall. I looked up towards the sun and saw that it had been eclipsed by one of the enormous clouds.
I was confused since I didn’t think the Ogglers worked that way. Why would the sun be blocked by something that’s normally invisible? I reached up to take the Ogglers off, or at least change their setting, when I spotted more of the strange creatures zooming through the air. Dozens, then hundreds of the entities came from all heights and directions, but all converging at my location.
Obviously, they had noticed me looking at them.
The swarm hovered outside my balcony; many rows tall but only one layer thick. They bobbed up and down now, in sync with the dark clouds on the horizon, their tentacles languidly flailing in all directions. They were silent, but of course, that was only because the Ogglers didn’t produce any audio.
For all I knew, the swarm was screaming at me.
I was a little freaked out at this point, but still rational. I could see them now, and they could see me, but they otherwise didn’t appear to interact with normal matter. That meant that they couldn’t hurt me.
I remained on the balcony, examining the swarm and their behaviour, scrutinizing them for any sign of hostile intent. As alien as they were, their motions weren’t exactly threatening. It was almost soothing, actually, watching them rise and fall and thrash about.
That sensation was shattered by a lone creature rising up from below and meeting me at eye level, right on the edge of the balcony. I screamed out in surprise and stumbled back a few steps, but I still didn’t run.
Now that I was able to get a better look at one of the entities, it vaguely resembled a smoking black raisin with randomly sized and spaced pseudopods at one end. Its body had at least a few erratically spaced orifices where the black smoke was coming out, and it expanded and contracted rhythmically as if breathing.
It wasn’t until it started reaching out one of its tentacles that I ran inside and slammed the balcony doors shut. I locked them and backed up as far as the room would allow, but I refused to look away from the door in case it broke through.
It didn’t break in though. It floated through the doors like they weren’t even there. I was cornered up against the wall, and before I could even make for the door the creature inserted its tentacle into my torso.
It didn’t penetrate my skin or even my clothes, but I could still feel it moving around inside me. It was a wriggling, burning coldness moving around inside of me, grazing my liver, heart, lungs, and intestines.
I screamed, not just from pain but from the perverse sense of defilement I got from this thing probing me. As I screamed, I saw multiple replicas of my face emerge from the creature’s body, the exact same expression of tortured horror on every one of them.
More of the creatures started phasing through the walls, their tentacles poised to probe me as well, and that’s when I finally just ran for it. I had to run through them to get to the hotel room door, that same burning cold writhing though my flesh each time I did.
I threw open the door and ran into the hall, screaming wildly as I did so. Looking back on it, it was a purely instinctive thing to do, since there was no hope of escape and no way anyone could protect me from these things.
My behaviour quickly caught the attention of staff and guests, but I just pushed through them without acknowledging any questions or attempts to calm me down.
The creatures were bleeding out through the walls and into the hallway, so I kept running. I could barely even see where I was going in those damn Ogglers, though I didn’t dare to take them off and give up my one hope of evading those monsters.
I didn’t even see the security guards before they tackled me to the ground.
I screamed, I fought, I pleaded as the creatures swarmed around me and stuck their tentacles into every inch of my body, my anguished face reflected countless times in their wizened figures.
The guards managed to get my arms and legs into zip ties and hauled me into the elevator. When it opened, I was taken out into some kind of sub-basement and strapped to a table.
That was weird, of course, but I was in no state to question it at the time. I just laid there helplessly as hundreds of invisible, incorporeal monsters took turns groping my internal organs, and seeming to mock me as they did so by constantly mimicking my face.
I'm not sure how long this went on for, but eventually, the elevator doors opened again and someone new came into the room.
“They’re still at him, are they?” I heard a man ask.
“Yes sir. We haven’t touched the artifact, per your orders,” one of the security guards replied.
“You could have sedated him, you realize?” the man asked.
“We figured you’d want to interrogate him, and we’d hate to waste any of your time, sir,” the same security guard answered.
“Right then. Well, no sense in letting the little blighter suffer any longer. Hold his head still,” the man ordered.
Both guards obeyed, holding me in place as the man took the Ogglers off my head, all three of them standing inside of the creatures that were assaulting me as they did so.
But as soon as the Ogglers were gone, so were the monsters, along with any sensation of their tentacles thrashing inside me.
“We call them the Children of Erebus, if you’d like to have a proper name for the nightmares you’ll be having the rest of your life,” the man said as he placed the Ogglers inside of his red, three-piece suit.
I had no idea who he was or why he knew anything about the Ogglers or the things that had been torturing me, and at that moment, I didn't care.
“But, but, but they’re still there! They’re still there!” I protested, a dreadful sense of paranoia overwhelming me. The man shook his head, and I suspected he was smirking beneath his black and gold Oni facemask.
“Don’t you remember anything about your childhood monsters?” he asked condescendingly.“If you can’t see them, then they can’t see you. Now then, I have exactly one question for you;
"But when he returned to the charmingly bizarre little shop, it had mysteriously vanished, dashing all hopes of a refund or of holding the kindly old proprietor in any way liable for his own misuse of his purchase," Orville ‘narrated’ from behind the closed door of his very much still there shop as I demanded to be let in.
"Open up you sick old bastard! You are responsible for the worst night of my life and you are going to pay for it!" I screamed.
After the hotel, I had been whisked straight to the hospital where I was tested for drugs and kept for 72 hours of observation. Whatever those things had done to me, it hadn’t left any damage or trace of physical evidence. I was released when the doctors couldn’t find any medical or psychiatric explanation for my ‘episode’.
“Caveat Emptor; Buyer Beware! You can’t return cursed objects! It’s a thing people know!” Orville shouted. I saw his face go pale though when he noticed that I wasn’t alone.
The man from the hotel basement had come with me, having met with me outside the hospital upon my release. I had plied him with countless questions, of course, but he refused to answer any of them. He instead simply offered to accompany me back to Orville's shop. I was at least able to infer that he had some stake in whatever had happened to me, though he was less angry and more amused with the whole situation than I was.
“Oh. Hey there, Seneca. What brings you out here?” Orville asked. “Genevieve’s new girlfriend, maybe? She lives out in Harrowick Woods you know, so I think she might-”
“Mr. Bucklesby,” the man interrupted with a slight shake of his head. “You recall the conversation we had about selling your ‘select items’ to the uninitiated, don’t you?”
Swallowing nervously, Orville nodded, reaching for his mask as he reluctantly opened the door.
“Alright,” he said, sounding sincere and looking right at me with an expression of contrition in his eyes. “I can maybe offer you store credit.”
Written by The Vesper's Bell