MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
HAVE YOU EVER been split down the middle, laid on the griddle, and fried, fried, fried?
Ever had your organs scoured in salt?
Ever been sliced in the center and left out in winter till you died, died, died?
Ever had your brain ground into malt?
But I know what it feels like now.
Holy shit, did that hurt.
You try teleporting across the universe, see how you like it.
Snatches of memory crash into my brain, flashes that came through even the protective layer of my coat, the living skin of an archangel I wear—it’s a long story; let’s just leave that for that.
We roared through a cloud of starspawn, scattering them like a school of fish, their little cuttlefish heads and streaming tentacles suckering onto us as we passed only to be sheared away by our velocity. They tumbled along in our trail, a dissipated cloud, before reassembling and continuing on, leaving me only their tiny psychic cries of homelessness to feel in the wrinkles of my brain.
My skin still tingles from the scald of a malevolent sun that tried to roast us for coming too close to it, blasting us with its gaze and a throb of zeta-rays.
A color chased us to the end of the nebula, tumbling its way around a belt of asteroids we zipped through.
A colony of vast alien civilizations all the size of thin needles tried to embed into my skin with the intention of turning my body into their version of a home planet.
These were all outside me. Inside, my lungs pounded like hammers on steel for lack of oxygen and the blood, my magick blood, rushed through my veins like a river of rapids, crashing over and over and over while my heart felt like it had been frozen.
What a long strange trip it has been.
Gods and damned gods and goddamned gods.
I had a normal life. I was a normal girl.
Okay, not normal like most are normal, but I felt as normal as I think I ever will. I had a job and an apartment I shared with people who were becoming friends.
And I met a boy.
Daniel, with his green eyes and his quick mind and his almost bashful smile.
And I fell in love. I think I fell in love.
It wasn’t quick or sudden, it just felt that way. It snuck up on me.
We had one misunderstanding, a big one, but still, it was good until in through the out door came Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos.
The Man in Black.
He told me I would help him save the world from other things like him. He brought Daniel along to keep me on point.
It was lies.
I found out the Man in Black was using me to find and kill other gods so he could gain the power to free his father, who is way worse than him.
I’ve been trying to stop him, but the slippery bastard has been on the run. He got the power, the soul gems of other gods, and zapped his way here.
And I followed him.
And here we are.
I’m lying on something solid, my eyes are closed, and all I can do is breathe and feel the agony inside me. It takes a moment for me to make my brain work in some kind of order.
Not cold-cold, but cool-cold. Gooseflesh cold. The front of me is cool. My arms feel swollen, heavy and sodden, as I reach and touch my torso. Bare skin over my stomach and soft cloth higher up. My shirt has ridden up. I tug it down.
I don’t want to move.
I open my eyes.
Nothing changes. The darkness stays complete.
Are my eyes open?
I try again and they stay shut and now I feel them tugging against themselves, like they’ve been taped down.
Have my eyelids been taped down?
Eyelids … taped …
A scream of panic crawls up into my mouth, like a centipede from behind my heart.
Something warm and wet swipes over my face. It smells terrible. I jerk, pulling away, and something hard presses me back down by my shoulder. I’m pinned to the floor.
Pinned and blind.
Panic slaps me across the mind. Every muscle I have jolts tight and I’m tipping over into going berserk. I will fight! I will flail! I will not be taken like I was before! No, no, no …
A strangled bark cuts through the rising panic like a beam of light through the fog.
It takes a moment for me to be able to speak. “Winnie?”
That warm wet slides across my face again, this time over my eyes. I put my hands there. My eyes are sealed with something gummy.
I wipe it away and it burns as my lids begin to crack open.
Sight returns slowly, fuzzy shapes to clearer shapes. Until I am looking at the skinless face of a hound. Muscles bunch around his jaws and the bone-cracking teeth part, letting a long pink tongue loll out as he begins to pant. He tilts his head and looks at me with one lidless egg yolk eye, the other an empty dark socket.
I pat his face, hands slightly sticking to his tacky lack-of-skin muscles.
My throat hurts as I try to speak, a line of bruising ache around my larynx. The Torc of Ashtoreth, my torc, lies heavy on my collarbones. The bruise is from it clamping around my throat as I used it to wish myself here.
Wherever here is.
I force the words out. “Hey, Winnie. Good boy. I’m glad you’re okay.” It is good to see the skinhound. He stands over me, his breath warm and moist on my face. I lift my hands and push his face, the thin, tough membrane that covers him in place of skin slightly latching onto my fingertips. He turns aside, blister-pink tongue lapping against my hand as he does. He seems to be fine from our trip across the universe.
I can’t believe I was scared of him once. I mean, he is scary looking. The whole skinless thing was super-creepy the first time I saw him, but now I’m used to it. To be fair, the first time I saw him he was part of a pack of skinhounds sent to attack me by the Man in Black to get me to help him, to become his Acolyte. The Man in Black showed up and ‘”saved” me, killing all of them but this one here. He then convinced me to join him. The skinhound began trailing us, showing up anytime I began to question the Man in Black, a subtle threat that I should stay with him.
Anger at the manipulation and trickery flares hot once again.
The skinhound came at me directly after I turned on the Man in Black. I broke the hold over him, named him Winnie, and now he’s mine.
The shape-shifting coat I wear, made from the still-living skin of an archangel, stirs around me, trilling in my mind.
You okay, friend?
A string of nonsensical noise, the coat’s voice, rolls across my cerebellum in a dry tickle I want to reach in and scratch if it weren’t inside my skull.
I am glad for both the coat and the skinhound. Both things that once belonged to him and now are mine.
The skinhound nudges my arm, then tosses his head. I look around.
I’m in a room so white it’s impossible to see where the walls end and the ceiling and floor begin. It is seamless, the light not bright enough to make me squint but coming from everywhere at once. It feels like the room is about the size of an aircraft hangar, but I can’t tell if that’s real or illusion. I know there is a floor because I feel it beneath me, but for all I know I am just standing in some weird diffused light dimension with no boundaries. It feels like there is space around me with a limit. I don’t have that small breath air pressure of a tiny enclosure, but there is room.
Then again, I could take three steps and run smack into a wall.
Or step off the edge of a crevice.
All this thought is giving me vertigo; my eyes feel like they are attached to wires and being tugged in a leftward spiral.
The only things marring the clean, pristine nature of the place are me and Winnie.
And the small trail of fluid about two feet away from my left hand that squiggles off in a series of dribbles and drops.
I put my left hand on Winnie to feel anchored, lean, and hold my right hand over the fluid.
Magick vibrates off it. The Mark on my palm tingles, glowing softly in response. This is familiar. My mouth goes dry with the taste of blackberries and grave dirt.
I know what this is.
This is the blood of Nyarlathotep.
The Man in Black.
The chaos god I came all this way to kill.
I know the rough part of his plan. He’s going to use the soul gems he tricked me into helping him gather from killing other elder gods to free his father and set him loose on Earth. He and his father will then treat Earth like an all-you-can-eat buffet. I had to let him go before to buy some time for my family and friends and Daniel, the man I think I have fallen in love with. But they aren’t safe, not until I stop the Man in Black.
He has a head start on me, but maybe not too much of one.
My hand lowers toward the blood.
Is this blood? Do elder chaos gods bleed blood? Or is it some essence, ectoplasm, or ichor?
It’s something like unto blood, but the thing that matters is I can use this to track him.
Before I can touch it a voice comes from behind me.
“Do not smear that. You will just make a bigger mess.”
Copyright © 2019 by James R. Tuck