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Short Fiction: Detective Manse and the Horror from Beyond Time
The opening line is an example of what I'm calling a "meta-metaphor"
Her dress dragged on forever like a bad metaphor, making a show of covering its subject with self-indulgent flourishes while revealing essentially nothing, before finally tapering off without converging on a single coherent point.
If the author of the book of Revelations had thought to include a horsewoman of the apocalypse, I imagine she would have looked something like the dame who floated into my office wearing that description-defying dress. I had spent enough time in this business to know you should never take a client more desperate than you are. Ignoring that advice was my first mistake.
My ideal client is rich but not well-connected, in a bind but not at the end of their rope, respectful of the value of my profession but with manageably low expectations. A businessman worried that his partner is trying to outmaneuver them, a socialite worried about a cheating spouse—these are problems I know how to handle, for twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses. And if you were to take one of those steady paychecks and put it through a funhouse mirror to imagine the worst client possible, it would look something like the eerily dressed blonde in a veil staring at me from across my cracked desk, telling me she thinks I’m the only person who can help her.
I would have bet three months rent that she had spent the morning ensuring every hair on her head was perfectly in place, wearing a dress that seemed custom-made to fit her figure and smelling like old money. Dames like her don’t see guys like me unless something is very wrong, and what little common sense I had was urging me to split and tell her I only take referrals, or say I was retired, as of yesterday.
“I have a job for you, and I have no time to waste. I need you to follow someone for me.” Something about the way she talked sent a shiver down my spine, as if she already knew I wasn’t going to be able to refuse her. Like I was just another bauble at the store she had her eye on, and all she needed to know about me was my price.
I should have told her no right then, but being a month late on rent (or was it two?) had made me progressively more open-minded to unorthodox opportunities. I leaned back in my chair and gazed into her cold blue eyes that shined like the light from a long-dead star. “Who is this bloke, your husband? Your lover? An ex?”
“You can refer to the target as H, if you require a designation. It is not safe for you to know more.” Her tone was flat, like this was no more consequential than telling me she was thinking of picking up an icebox cake on her way home.
A symphony of sirens began blaring in my head, briefly harmonizing with the screeching pulse of the city outside my window. This already sounded like a bad idea, and if she thought I’d like it even less if I knew more, it had to be worse than I suspected. I shook my head as I began to stand up. “I’m sorry miss, but I think you’ve got the wrong guy…”
“Your regular fee is twenty-five dollars a day, correct?” Her eyes were fixed on mine like a lion tamer at the zoo staring down a rowdy charge. I couldn’t tell you if she had looked away the entire time she had been in my office. Or blinked.
I hesitated, asking myself how badly I wanted the money. “Plus expenses.”
The dame nodded. “And what is your fee for a job with no questions asked?”
Dollar signs began counting up in my head, as the sirens in my imagination and outside the window grew louder, reminding me of the risks of an early trip to the morgue if I got mixed up in whatever mess she was in. Might as well scare her off now. “Two hundred a day.”
The dame reached into her purse and pressed a wad of bills into my open palm. The sum was already counted out, two hundred dollars even. “Here is your first payment, then. You can have twice that again for successful completion.”
I stared at the overflow of cash in disbelief, questioning whether I really wanted this, but she was already out of reach to hand them back as she stared pensively out the window.
“You will find H in the park at sunset, dressed in black. I want you to follow him and report back on all of his actions to me.” She looked back at me to make sure I was paying attention. “Do not attempt to make contact with him. He can be dangerous, but you will be safe so long as you keep your distance. You should also avoid staring at him for too long. He is extremely perceptive, but you should have no difficulty observing him through the wake he leaves behind. Do this for me, and it will be more than worth your while.”
She was gone before I had the chance to say anything else. I shook my head as I looked down at my palm. She had me and she knew it, the bills in my hand were as good as a contract signed in blood. I just wish I’d sold for a better price.
Electrified globes split the shadows between pools of light as I strolled through the park, trying to make myself appear as inconsequential as possible. I was just a private dick out for a evening stroll to clear my head, with nothing to see, and nothing worth seeing. Out of the corner of my eye I picked up a few figures in the fading light: a businessman poring over a document like it was the long-lost fifth gospel, a pair of young lovers holding each other close on a bench and giggling at jokes no one else would care to hear, an artist capturing the last rays of sunset on a canvas that made the world out to be conspicuously more radiant than it actually was.
I paid them no mind, and they treated me with the same casual indifference as I began my circuit around the park, feeling the gentle squish of the wet grass beneath my feet. The evening air was quiet, but it was the good kind of quiet. I was just allowing myself the brief hope of earning a paycheck for taking a pleasant evening stroll, when the periphery of my vision caught a figure dressed head to toe in black, moving like a shadow across the grass.
I kept my gaze straight ahead, not wanting to risk eye contact or giving the game away by conspicuously observing my ticket to renewing a healthy relationship with my landlord. Whatever the dame might have thought, this wasn’t my first time tailing a target. The man in black… H? H seemed to be gravitating in the direction of the artist, setting a course to intercept the man himself, rather than his canvas.
H and the artist dropped out of sight as I passed by a patch of trees, doing my best to act as indifferent to the temporary loss of visibility as any tourist would be. Seconds later, I could see the artist standing alone, and I allowed myself to look more closely at a puzzling sight. It seemed possible that both of them had left the scene, as the man standing in front of the canvas looked more like a tramp than an artist. This man was unshaven, wearing tattered brown clothes and with a hollow look in his eyes as he added the finishing touches to a canvas depicting a blood-drenched spiral staircase sinking down into a yawning abyss.
I frowned, but quickly looked away before the remaining figure could take notice of me. There hadn’t been enough time for anyone to paint over the original painting or decorate a fresh canvas. Could H have taken off with the original painting, leaving another one behind? But then how… I pushed the thought away as I saw H approaching one of the other figures in the park, the businessman. H was walking alone but empty-handed. I turned to one side and pretended to be engrossed in the minutia of a particular tree for a moment, as my gut told me this was not the right time to draw the attention of either of them.
Seconds later, I glanced back and saw an emaciated figure that looked like he could have been the father of the businessman I had seen in plain clothes, scribbling on a ream of paper in what appeared to be a frenzy, words flowing out of him faster than any mind should be capable of generating thought. I felt a shiver run down my spine. This was like something out of a magic trick, there was no way anyone could have changed their outfit that quickly. I gave myself license to study H more closely now that his back was facing me. He was moving towards the couple on the bench. Some part of me wanted to intervene, but I had to remind myself that whatever was happening here wasn’t my responsibility, and more importantly, not what I was being paid for.
And as I squinted at him in the fading light, H suddenly froze in place, and whipped around to face me.
I quickly (too quickly?) turned to one side and began to shuffle away like I was on my way out of the park. There was no way he could have noticed me staring, but it was better to be safe than sorry. A shiver colder than the night air came over me, as I asked myself if I actually should split, I had probably seen enough to give my client some food for thought. Cautiously, I tilted my head to one side to look back. H seemed to have lost interest in the couple and was now moving in my direction.
I adjusted my pace to walk more briskly, but a quick check confirmed H was gaining on me, beelining and cutting across the grass with no regard for the local flora. Shit. I switched to a sprint, setting a pace I would have been proud to have hit on the track as my lungs tightened from the strain. Just as I decided I must have made it clear, I felt a cold hand on my shoulder and saw the man in black staring at me with empty black eyes and a sinister smile.
And then reality folded into itself like a cocktail napkin.
The sky wiped away before my eyes, leaving behind the color of rust backdropping a charcoal-black castle looming in the sky. The unsettling structure pulsed and rippled like a living thing, with spires that seemed to stretch up into infinity. My body trembled as I felt its unsettling hum vibrate though me, the sound ever-present and unrelenting, refusing to diminish even when I covered my ears. It had to be coming from the castle itself, and I felt myself backpedaling as I spotted a dark figure on the roof with jet-black eyes staring into my own—
The sky melted into blue again and my legs were pumping as fast as I could up the hill, racing with my friends on a warm summer’s day to see who could reach the top first. I was making brilliant time, this was finally going to be my chance to show them all. I turned back to yell out a challenge, only to see those same empty black eyes staring back at me, as a wave of shock forced me to trip and skid into a sharp rock, tearing up my leg—
I was floating in a dark void peppered with pinpricks of starlight coming from every direction but one. To my right, floating tendrils of light spiraled into a swirling ball of emptiness, consuming all the warmth and illumination it could find and leaving behind an inescapable nothingness I felt in my heart as the black hole swelled with its insatiable appetite—
I was bleeding out an alley, my heart issuing one final complaint to the universe that the last face I would ever see was the ugly mug of the gangster whose gun had perforated my chest with all the enthusiasm of a kid who had just discovered a hole punch. He had a sneer on his face, like he was about to ask me if it had all been worth it, as I clutched Cassie’s locket to my chest. The gangster’s smirk morphed into a scowl as he saw me looking away from him, wanting to know why he wasn’t worth my attention in these final moments. I felt his boot on my chest in response to the perceived insult, but my gaze remained fixed. For it wasn’t the prospect of my imminent death that filled my heart with fear in that moment, it was the face looming in the darkness that grinned at me with malevolent black eyes filled with a promise that not even death would let me escape—
I could barely regain my sense of self before my reality shifted into another discordant scene, like a character in a badly written novel being rushed from one plot point to the next, too disoriented from tonal whiplash for anything to have a chance to sink in. My mind felt it was fragmenting under the strain, trying to somehow adapt to this endless splintering experience where who I was and what I was never held on for more than a few seconds before my world was torn apart and remade again—
The thought stayed in my head as the world melted into an underground cathedral of blood and bone where robed figures sang with a devotion deeper than church, deeper than love, as they called out H’s true name in unison, the blasphemy of it shaking the foundations of the world. My head raced to piece things together before my world scrambled again as I realized that even as my lives and memories changed I was still the same—
—person. I finished the thought, ignoring the brutalist world reforming around me. This couldn’t be real. Well, even if it was real, it hadn’t always been like this. This had all started during that night in the park, HE had to be responsible, if I could just find the right moment—
In an instant, I was back in the park, the man with black eyes still gripping my shoulder, the shock of his touch leaving me frozen in place. This is it. Without giving either of us a chance to think, I wrenched my body to the side and tore myself away, ignoring the pain in my leg as I fought through the aches in my chest to force my body into the glow of the closest streetlight.
As I heard the sound of cars screeching on the asphalt, I took a deep breath and realized that my world had remained the same. I must have broken free. I held onto the streetlight for support as I glanced behind me, not daring to believe I had lost him. Still not wanting to take any chances, I dived into an open cab, my eyes still flitting from side to side for a risk I no longer saw but felt, before tossing out some change and ducking out at my office to check for my tail again. My heart was beating too fast to think. I unlocked the door with my key before slamming it shut behind me, finally stopping to catch my breath.
I felt like I had lived years in the past few minutes. I needed to lay low. I needed to split town. I needed to not have my reality yanked out from under me like a rug in some vaudeville show. I lifted my pant leg to check on my thigh, only to find it covered in scars that suggested my body had already healed, scars that hadn’t been there until just minutes ago. No, they were scars that had been with me since that fateful day when I cut myself falling as a teenager. No…
“I did warn you not to look at him for too long.” The dame was sitting in my chair with her heels kicked back, her voice suggesting as much disappointment as genuine concern.
“How did you—” I leaned back against the wall, shaking my head. She must have gotten the building supervisor to let her in, dames like her didn’t take no for an answer. I sighed, doing my best to regain my composure and act like I wasn’t just reacting out of fear. “Listen, lady, I’m out. I don’t know what business you’re mixed up in, but I want nothing to do with it. That man is bad news.”
“We can discuss your options from here in a moment.” Her tone was non-committal as she stood up, taking a closer look at me. “But assuming you’d still like to be paid for what you’ve learned so far, I’d like to know everything you saw.”
“Fine.” I blew out the air from my chest as I tried to regain my composure. “I saw a man dressed in black, like you said. Everyone he talked to came out looking like they just got back from a war, shell-shocked and a little nutty. I tried to give him the slip myself, but he grabs my shoulder and next thing I know I’m living out nightmares like a badly spliced moving picture, watching parodies of my past and future play out alongside a surrealist’s conception of hell.”
“Fascinating.” The dame murmured as she began to move in closer, seemingly indifferent to my newfound respect for personal space. “And what about yourself, do you feel shell-shocked? Like your grasp on your sanity has lessened? Any urges to seek out this H again, and enter his service?”
I looked at her like she had decided to wear a fruit platter on her head and start belting out an opera. “I need a good night’s sleep, but I’m—” As she came closer, the whispers of her veil brushed up against me, and I pushed them out of the way in irritation. “perfectly fine—” The motion tipped her veil into sliding off her head and I saw the space where her face should be extend into an infinite yawning abyss, a cataclysm of stars shining through at unnatural angles, converging into my sight like an entire universe was gazing back at me unfiltered and immanent, expanding out and unfolding out of itself in defiance of all natural geometry…
And then the world went dark.
When I came to, I was the one sitting in the chair, and the dame was on the other side of the room, her veil once again secured to her head. “I’m sorry for the trouble, I am still not used to this form.”
I rubbed my head as I tried to straighten out my thoughts. I must have fainted, like some blushing damsel in distress out of a dime novel. I felt like I had a hangover in ways I didn’t even know you could get hangovers. “That one’s going to cost you extra.”
“Of course.” The dame opened up her purse to fish through it. “There’s only one more thing I need from you, and then…”
“Ah, maybe you didn’t hear me before.” I pulled myself up to my full height, trying to regain some control over the situation. “I don’t know how the reception is out there in freakville, but I don’t want anything to do with whatever the two of you have going on.”
“I don’t know if you’ve been slipping me mickeys or what, but this has been the worst night of my life, and I once tried to date a kingpin’s daughter.” My head was finally clear enough to remember some of the higher tiers of need beyond sanity and survival, like rent. “I’ll take the cash you promised, and be done.”
“Detective Manse, that is not an option.” The dame’s eyes seemed to glow in frustration. “You have encountered the Horror from Beyond Time. He has fed on you. He has infected your timeline. He already plays a pivotal role in your past and your future, and he will continue to twist the thread of your life around himself until you either fall into his thrall or snap from the strain.”
Something about her tone told me she didn’t think she was lying. I shook my head again, trying to process all of this. “And just who the hell are you? What do you want with him, and with me?”
The dame sighed, carefully adjusting her veil. “My name is Yidhra. You and I share a similar profession, although my scope is larger. I investigate problems across multiple realities. And I need your help to end the Horror’s life.”
The dame said we needed to go back to the park, so like a sucker, I found myself returning to the scene of the crime. Despite knowing that she might be an eldritch horror from another dimension who could destroy everything I held dear, or perhaps because of that fact, I felt somewhat safer standing next to her. At least the Horror would have someone else to inflict his madness on. And who knows what else she has hiding under that dress, besides those non-Euclidean curves.
“Why do you wear that dress, and that veil?”
The dame wisped down the street as she spoke. “I am not as skilled as the Horror at containing my form to your three spatial dimensions. The veil helps block any accidental spillover. I am sorry for the wardrobe malfunction, although the accident did prove useful in a sense.”
“To confirm you wouldn’t go mad. And I would prefer it if you would think of me by my actual name. I do not often share my True Name, and I am not just ‘the dame’.”
Well, that was rude. I briefly imagined some loud noises in my head to see if that would get a reaction out of her. Yidhra seemed non-plussed. “Why did you think I wouldn’t go mad? Do people usually go mad when they see you?”
“More often than not, lower-dimensional beings become psychologically disturbed after contact with creatures like myself or the Horror. The experience directly refutes many common theories of your reality, making it impossible to return to your prior state of ignorance of what lies beyond your perception.” Yidhra paused for a moment. “Frankly, to remain coherent after multiple encounters with the Horror and now myself makes you quite the oddity. I wonder if it has something to do with your use of metaphor.”
“How do you mean?” This was getting a little personal.
“You are constantly re-framing and re-interpreting your experience through the lens of metaphor. It is your entire aesthetic. You take your experiences and process them again, like…” Yidhra seemed to be searching for the words.
“Like a barista making twice filtered coffee. Like a cow ruminating on its cud. Like a winemaker…”
“Yes.” Yidhra cut me off. “Like all of those things. You are practiced in taking the cruelty and confusion of the world and pressing it into different shapes, and when faced with the truly incomprehensible, your mind keeps throwing out frames of reference against the experience until it finds a workable paradigm, allowing you to bounce back more quickly than most.”
I rolled my eyes a little. Monster or not, at the end of the day Yidhra was like any other dame in this city, buttering me up and telling me I was special so she could have an easier time sending me into the lion’s den. “Another interesting fact about myself if we’re on the subject, I prefer to be paid in advance. Especially for a dangerous job like this.”
Yidhra sighed. “Always so much concern about money. You do realize that if our efforts against the Horror prove unsuccessful, you will have precious little chance to use it.” Yidhra reached into her purse and pressed another stack of bills into my palm, visages of Lincoln, Washington, and some balding bloke I rarely had the chance to cross paths with.
I shoved the talismans of material security into my pocket, before resuming my interrogation of my otherworldly client. “Why are you calling him the Horror now? I thought it wasn’t safe to refer to him anything other than ‘H’.”
“To speak, or even to think of a moniker approaching the Horror’s True Name risks drawing his attention. He is more attuned to its mention than you are to your own, and his reach extends further. But with the efforts we are about to undertake, his awareness of us will be unavoidable. And you need to understand exactly what we are up against.” Yidhra stopped walking and looked at me. “We are here. I need you to show me exactly where you made contact with the Horror.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, remembering the subjective eternity it felt like I had spent in the creature’s grip, and how the ground had felt around me. “Over here.” I pointed to a spot where the grass now appeared withered.
Yidhra nodded and walked over to the spot, tracing a circle around it in the dirt and filling it with an eight-pointed star as I watched her. “So what exactly are we up against?” I asked.
Yidhra did not look up. “You are a four-dimensional creature, experiencing reality in three spatial dimensions and one temporal. To you, the decisions in your life feel undetermined, fully up to your volition. To a higher-dimensional being from the right vantage point, the flow of your future is fixed, and can be seen in its entirety. There is a metaphor you might appreciate: a higher-dimensional being can interact with your life as you might with a stream running through the forest. If you encounter a stream at a given point, you can trace it back to its source where you could redirect its flow, or cut it off completely. A higher-dimensional being can do the same to your timeline, rewriting your past so that you find yourself living in a world you feel was always this way, but bears the scars of its interference. You could end up living your whole life under its judgement for an offense committed in a timeline that no longer exists for you.”
I paused for a second, letting it all sink in. “Then why am I able to remember more than one version of events? Like the scars on my leg, I remember having them, and not having them.”
“That is because you have become, by some standards, slightly insane. Normally your mind would tune into your current timeline, filtering out any dissonant impressions from a shifting past like background noise, keeping you secure in the present moment. Your exposure to the higher dimensions have weakened your filter, allowing impressions from discarded timelines to bleed through. For most people, their sanity largely depends on ignoring these echoes to tune into what is currently real. But I trust you will find a way to manage.”
I shook my head, trying to make sense of it. The Horror could jerk me around in space and time, and she was saying I might have been better off not knowing about it? “And how exactly am I supposed to kill something like the Horror?”
“In your case? It would be a complete impossibility.” Yidhra finished drawing her star and stood up. “For a being such as myself, it is a three step process. The rites of Measurement, Essence, and Annihilation. The rite of Measurement can restrict the Horror’s access to the higher dimensions, forcing it to play by the spatial and temporal rules of this realm. The rite of Essence contains it further, confining its corporeal form and influence to a fixed space. And the rite of Annihilation can purge its presence from this reality. Tools are required, but I have come prepared.”
From the depths of her purse, I watched as Yidhra extracted what looked like a silver metal yardstick, but in the shape of an X rather than a rectangle. The fact that it was geometrically impossible for it to have fit inside her purse was the smallest point of my confusion. “What the hell is that thing?”
“This, is a meter.” Yidhra held the metal object with some reverence. “To be more precise, it is THE meter. It is a platinum-iridium alloy constructed by your world’s scientists to serve as the official definition of spatial length. This object undergirds your world’s science and industry. It should be able to provide a Measurement capable of fixing the Horror to one time.”
Platinum and iridium… I started to wonder if I’d held out too cheap in asking for a handful of bills. “I would have thought something like that would be well guarded.”
“I suppose that it was. There was excellent coverage along all three of your spatial dimensions. But it was as permeable to me as a flat circle would be to you, simply by stepping over its border.” Yidhra looked over at me like she was a nurse ready to stick me with a long needle and say it was for my own good. “Now, I am going to need to use your timeline to help locate the Horror. This shouldn’t feel any worse than what you experienced before.”
I flinched, my body pulling away on instinct at the thought. “You’re not really selling this.”
Yidhra held out her hand expectantly. “I can promise you that the alternative to acting now would be much worse. You just need to get through this. The moments where the trajectory of your life has been affected by him have already happened, confronting them again changes nothing.”
“Easy for you to say.” I muttered. I grimaced one last time, and took her hand in mine.
The shining crescent of the moon faded into the glow of a streetlamp lighting my steps, as I snuck into a dark alley, on the tail of some bad egg a client had sent me after. Yidhra was still gripping my hand, her eyes scanning in all directions as the scenes continued to change around me. The day I lost my first tooth. Apologizing to my landlord for being late on rent, that hardly narrowed anything down. A friend’s wedding. A funeral. My eyes were blurry with emotions I could only feel rather than understand, as I looked over to Yidhra, the one constant in my vision as my life unspooled around me. “Any luck?”
“We are getting closer.” Her voice was firm, with a strain I had yet to hear from her before. “The Horror does not want to be found, but he is too deeply embedded in your timeline for that. Hold on.”
I gripped her hand tighter, and felt it shift into the cold rubber of a steering wheel as I glided down the road. Cassie was riding shotgun next to me, laughing at some silly joke I had made no one else would have ever appreciated. We were just a couple of dumb kids in love, and the world was ours for the taking. I felt my heart chill as part of me started to remember. I twisted the wheel to turn off the road, but it was already too late, the stranger with cold black eyes was steering into me, faster than—
“We’ve got him.” Yidhra whispered. The world shifted again, but those same black eyes remained fixed, regarding the two of us with a malevolent hunger as the sky turned the color of blood, barren black rock beneath our feet. Yidhra released my hand and quickly withdrew the meter from her bag, angling it at the Horror, her eyes sizing up the Horror like a surveyor evaluating a building scheduled for demolition.
I felt the strange familiar hum begin to grow, but Yidhra’s voice was louder, shaking the rock beneath us as her eyes glowed. “I hold in my hands the True Meter, the instrument by which the laws of this universe are measured, the standard of mankind. And by it, I fix your height at two and thirteen ninety-ninths of a meter. Hazat-Yai, the Horror from Beyond Time, by the rite of Measurement, I bind you to this time.”
I heard a crack split the air, louder than a thunderbolt, and we were back in the park, the Horror still watching us with unflinching black eyes. His figure seemed to shift and wisp in the air like Yidhra’s dress as he floated closer to us.
Yidhra appeared to be visibly exerting herself, one hand touching the circle with the eight-pointed star on the ground, and the other extended in the direction of the Horror.
“Is it working?” I yelled out, unclear if my role in all this was over yet.
“Yes. No.” Yidhra was breathing heavily. “This is not good. This spell is supposed to be powerful enough to contain him for years if necessary, but he is already breaking through. He must been gathering strength here for eons, infesting this world without drawing notice.”
“How long will it…”
“Less than two of your minutes. We have to push through.” Yidhra looked over at me as if to issue a warning. “Try to hold on. The spells become less stable when they first overlap, and they are already at risk falling apart. You may encounter some temporal turbulence. If anything happens, try to at least remember your name.”
The Horror was already upon her, but Yidhra was quicker, her body stretching into unnatural shapes within the confines of her dress, snatching at the Horror’s head to tear out a lock of hair as the Horror growled in pain. Yidhra’s voice rang out a second time as her eyes glowed. “I hold in my hands a follicle of your hair, containing the deoxyribonucleic acid that is the blueprint of life for this realm. It is the signature of the form you have chosen. Hazat-Yai, the Horror from Beyond Time, by the rite of Essence, I bind you to this form.”
Another crack of thunder resonated and I was back behind the wheel of my car, staring at the world upside-down in front of me. I grunted as I tried to shove the door open, pushing my way out of the mangled mess the vehicle had become. The door gave, and I hit the asphalt as my body rolled out. I felt myself laugh from the release of tension as I realized I was alive. I turned back to look at Cassie and found nothing. Nothing I wanted to see. A chill ran down my spine, the black-eyed stranger from the other vehicle gazing at me as I froze in place, despair sinking into my stomach as I realized my life was over as surely as if the accident had taken me instead…
I could dress it up in metaphors or analogies all I wanted, but the truth was a simpler thing than any of that. This world was cruel, hopeless and empty, every moment destined to end the same way with the Horror lurking through all of it, draining life and joy as surely as entropy itself. I blinked my eyes, feeling the black in them begin to rise as I faced the ugliness head on, no longer fearing it, no longer caring…
“Detective Manse!” The voice was screaming at me now. “You are a number of things, stubborn, cynical, and a misogynist, but you are not an ally to this creature. Pull yourself together and let go of me—”
I blinked my eyes and I was back in the park, my hands gripping Yidhra’s dress as if I was trying to tear it apart with a brutality that was alien to me. I let go, despite the tears still stinging my eyes.
“She’s dead because of him. Because of you. Because you brought this creature into my life.”
Yidhra was breathing heavily. “This had already happened before we met. The Horror was already feeding on you, I merely took advantage of your intersection to find a way to trace his presence.”
I blinked my eyes, trying to sort together the mix of past and future in my head. “That’s not possible, it hasn’t happened yet, I haven’t met her—”
“Branching streams. Your future at the moment I encountered you was already leading to that moment, from your perspective it has yet to unfold, from mine your future was already warped by him before we met.”
I swallowed. I needed a blackboard and some chalk to work this out, but I suppose it made a certain kind of sense. “Also, you should know, I’m really not THAT much of a misogynist…”
Yidhra sighed and turned away. “Just keep yourself together, detective. This is the last chance we’re going to get.” There was nothing in Yidhra’s hands this time as she faced down the Horror, her palms crackling with energy as she extended them. “Hazat-Yai, the Horror from Beyond Time. My name is Yidhra the Dream Witch. The Shrouder, the Life-Giver. I am charged with protecting the boundaries of reality. By the authority of the Outer Gods, for your desecration of this world I sentence you to Annihilation.”
Yidhra’s palms folded together into a diamond shape and a beam of energy burst forth, piercing the horror with blinding white light. For a brief moment I thought it was about to be over, but the Horror simply grinned and gripped its palms together, sending a swirl of darkness slithering towards her. I watched Yidhra’s eyes widen in shock as the darkness grew larger, encircling the two of us, slowly extinguishing the light as the Horror’s form pulsed in place like an overfilled balloon ready to burst from its containment. And then faster then my eye could follow, it was all over. With a third crack of thunder, I saw the meter shatter into pieces, Yidhra’s circle scattered to the winds, her light extinguished, as the Horror grew into a looming abomination of eyes and tentacles hovering over us, not so much injured as amused.
I took a step backwards in fear as Yidhra grabbed my hand and pulled so hard I thought my arm was going to fall out. It felt like my entire body was being squeezed through a pinhole, and then I was back in my office.
I leaned up against the wall, trying to catch my breath. “What happened?”
“We failed.” Yidhra’s voice was flat, as she stared down at the floor.
I took a look out the window, hearing the familiar screech of cars and the symphony of sirens. “This is where we first met, isn’t it? You took us back to this moment. Are you going to try again?”
“No.” Yidhra shook her head. “I made a mistake. He has lived here too long, grown too strong off this world. He knew we were coming, and he had no fear of us. There is nothing we can do now.”
I stared at her, not sure what to believe anymore. “But we have to…”
“I am sorry, for what it’s worth.” Yidhra was looking at me now, her face pained. “I never know what to say in these situations. But I hope there is one thing I could share which might give you some small bit of comfort.”
I watched in stunned silence as Yidhra began to fold her dress around herself. “There are no regrets you need to hold on to. Time and choice are illusions. The simple fact of the matter is that I arrived too late, I didn’t find the infection soon enough. From the moment we first met, there was nothing either of us could have done. You and your world were already doomed.”
And with one final pointless flourish, her dress wisped around itself and she disappeared, leaving me completely alone.
I stood motionless in my office, barely paying attention to the screech of the sirens outside beginning to transpose into actual screams. It was fear that held me in place at first. Fear that now that Yidhra was gone, the Horror would return to seek revenge for the part I had played in the attempt on his life. But I remained completely alone, the universe seemingly indifferent to my presence, like I was so far beneath his notice he had no need to spare another thought on me.
Somehow that didn’t make it any easier to get up the courage to move, as I watched the sky outside shift to hues of red. I was still unable to believe what was happening to me, like a reader who had made it to the end of a story only to discover they had been mistaken about its genre the entire time. Apparently there was no great mystery to be solved. No obstacle to be overcome, no inner struggle to work through leading to some triumph or life lesson on the other side. Just a brutal truth that we were not the dominant species we imagined ourselves to be; our existence was at the mercy of terrifying forces hostile and alien to us. The genre of our reality was that of a cosmic horror, with our only escape being brief periods of blissful ignorance in which we could fantasize that were in control of a world we understood. Clinging desperately to a dream for which madness was preferable to awakening.
When I finally found the strength to venture outside, I watched as the rain washed away the veneer from our reality, transforming skyscrapers into dark temples conducting rituals in worship of power, theaters into opium dens that dulled the mind for a brief moment of escape. Sporting arenas became coliseums where crowds cheered the destruction of the body and mind. In a strange way, it looked different but felt the same, like I was finally seeing the world clearly. Admittedly, the rivers of blood were new.
I tried to hold myself steady in the shifting landscape as buildings and streets morphed around me, feeling the past continue to be re-written from underneath me as I watched. There must be nothing holding back the
Horror, no, H now. Whatever had been happening to me must be happening to the entire world as he sank his claws in deeper, rewriting our history in service to himself, filling the world with his will.
It was becoming hard to breathe, hard to think as the sky filled with a red miasma. This city had always had a vibe, but the despair in it now felt as tangible as anything coming from the five senses. It was like having your ears deafened by the roar of a jet engine or your sense of smell overwhelmed by a sewer’s stench, impossible to feel anything except that single overwhelming sensation. The air was so thick with despair it was hard not to lose yourself in the collective madness, succumb to that same will, feed the emptiness with that same insatiable lust in service of monstrous appetites.
I breathed heavily against the growing morass and tried to think, tried to make some space for myself amongst the madness. Something still didn’t sit right with me, an itch in the back of my mind that refused to resolve. It was the same sense I had in the moments where I felt myself actually trying to be a halfway decent detective, refusing to let go of a case so long as there was still some clue unchecked, some question unanswered.
Walking into the shrinking field of green that had once been the park, I replayed all of the recent events in my mind. I understood H’s purpose, and why he was here. I understood why Yidhra had hired me. I even had a sense of how I had ended up like this, what impact H might already have had on my own timeline. And I knew why we had lost.
I paused for a moment, realizing I didn’t really believe that. Yidhra had attempted three rites, taking his Measurement to fix him in time, holding his Essence to bind him in space, and calling on the authority of the Outer Gods for his Annihilation. The details made little sense to me, but it should have been enough, she’d measured him with one of the most important objects on the planet. Well, to an egghead, anyway.
And then a strange emotion began to dawn on me, as foreign to the world I was in as a new element on the periodic table. I knew what the issue had been. It wasn’t because of a lack of preparation or power.
The problem was, that she had used the wrong metaphor.
Barely able to keep my thoughts straight, I began to speak out loud, forcing my train of thought into the air. “This world is not measured in meters. They may denominate the laws of the universe, but not the laws of human reality. There is another, more powerful force that binds the world together, serving as an accounting for space, time, and life itself.”
Hardly knowing why, I began tracing a circle on the barren dirt, filling it with the eight-pointed star I had seen Yidhra draw earlier. “Money is the lifeblood that flows through the veins of the world. It binds nations together with its flow, circulating across the entire world, a force inescapable in in its pull.”
Completing the star, I reached into my billfold and slowly set all the bills I had received from Yidhra in the center of the circle, universally recognized talismans of value bearing the images of our leaders, our revered ancestors. “I have been paid six hundred and sixteen dollars as the price of your life. And at this cost, Hazat-Yai, the Horror from Beyond Time, I take your Measure.”
A crack of thunder shook the sky and the circle pulsed with a bright light. Hardly willing to believe it, I looked around me to find the towers in the sky no longer pulsing in place, re-anchored to a past that was no longer shifting. I took a deep breath as the realization set in. It had worked. The Horror was stuck in this time now.
“Excuse me, what the ♐︎◆︎♍︎🙵 do you think you’re doing?”
I flinched. The voice was grating, like a cat’s nails scratching into glass. Hovering in the air above me was a black-eyed figure gazing directly at me with a malice I could feel in the air.
“I’m Detective Manse, I’m not sure we’ve been formally introduced—”
“I know exactly who you are.” The look in the Horror’s eyes suggested he was barely holding himself back from acts of unspeakable violence. “Release your spell.”
I hesitated for a second, my will straining against the creature’s. “I’m not sure that would be in my best interests.”
“You clearly have no idea what would be in your best interests.” The Horror began to float closer to the ground. “This world is abandoned by the Outer Gods, you are all under my dominion. And even confined to this time, I can destroy your body and mind in ways you cannot begin to imagine.”
“I’m new to all of this, can’t you just break through the spell yourself?” I bluffed, trying to buy time to think of something. Measurement. Essence. Annihilation. The form of the rites was already laid out for me. I just had to think of some way to adapt…
The Horror regarded me with a withering gaze. Sorry— just to clarify, that one actually isn’t a metaphor, I literally felt the grass wither beneath my feet. “You are wasting my time, you need merely choose for the spell to end. This spell is stronger than the last one, but you have no hope of carrying it further. The Dream Witch herself could not oppose me.”
Shit. My mistake was obvious in retrospect, if Yidhra could pick up on my thoughts, the Horror must be able to do the same. I had to play this like a Grandmaster running a game of speed chess, with no ability to spare a second to plan ahead from the current moment, taking it one move at a time to avoid giving anything away.
“So you’re saying it will hold you here for longer than minutes unless I remove it. Are we talking months? Years? Decades? It seems like we both have something the other wants.”
“Yes. I want access to the full time of this world. And you would like to not be the first of your kind to taste the limits of suffering.” The Horror floated closer until he was right in front of me. “Release your spell, now. This is your final warning.”
I hesitated, trying to think of something, anything to improve my position. “So is this some kind of ‘get killed last’ situation? Can we at least shake on it?”
The Horror gritted his teeth as he stared at me, looking like he was weighing whether I was actually dumb enough for this pointless gesture to be necessary. It probably helped my case that a more intelligent creature would have never ended up in this situation. Slowly, the Horror extended his hand.
Acting on instinct, I grabbed it and pulled myself forward, quickly grabbing a clump of his hair. Might as well go double or nothing. “By this piece of your essence…”
Only six words in, a bolt of dark energy shot through me, causing my hands to spasm uncontrollably as I fell to the barren ground. I tried to right myself, then felt my ribs crushed in a vice-like grip as the Horror looked down on me, his hand clenched into a fist.
“You absolute imbecile.” The Horror’s hand jerked to the side and I felt myself skidding on the ground as if flung by an invisible force, my jacket making a record of every sharp rock I hit along the way. “Did you really think there was the slightest chance I would allow you to carry on this farce any further, that I did not know these rites better than you?”
When I finally came to a sudden stop against a tree stump that looked half-way to fossilizing, the Horror was floating in the air above me, far out of reach.
“It doesn’t…” I wheezed, trying to pull myself together. I didn’t have many more hits like that left in me, but I had to do something to goad him, to get him to come closer. “I mean, it doesn’t seem like you saw this coming.”
“Yes. I had assumed that any creature capable of performing one of the rites would be intelligent enough to understand their futility. Hence the earlier demonstration. But I have apparently overestimated your species.” The Horror raised his palms into the air, and I felt the air grow still as the din of street noise faded away. Under the nearby street lights I saw a sea of vacant and hollow faces staring at me with unblinking black eyes. The Horror pointed in my direction and the swarm began to flood towards me like a colony of ants descending upon a picnic. “I am impatient to restore my full power. But first you must be made an example of. You will wish you had taken my offer.”
The air around me grew thick with despair as the mob descended upon me, their bloodlust and hunger as tangible as their stench. I tried to climb up the tree stump before being pulled to the ground, fingernails clawing and tearing at me, dull impacts of blows bludgeoning into me from all sides.
Think, Manse, think. I shut my eyes and tried to concentrate. The blows were painful but far from fatal, the Horror must not want me dead before I gave him what he wanted. The impacts were strong, but not as strong as the Horror’s grip had been, he wasn’t doing the job himself, which meant he must not want to chance letting me get close enough to him to grab anything tied to his essence. And without it…
His essence. How literal did we need to be, here? Come on Manse, you’re the master of metaphor, or at least more obsessed with it than anyone you’ve ever met. A new plan began to form in my mind. This was going to be a stretch, even for me. But all I needed to do was sell it.
I gritted my teeth as my face pressed up against the dirt, bearing the blows from the mob long enough to spit the words out. “Your essence is not defined by your deoxyribo-whatever acid, whatever that is.” The letters ‘DNA’ briefly flashed into my mind, a memory from a life I had yet to live. “This world is bathed in your essence, spreading across it like a plague. Your will is not confined to one form, your name is Legion, for you are many.” I reached out my hands to the crowd. “And you have brought your essence right to me…”
In an instant I felt the pressure on me release as the mob scattered in all directions, the figure in the sky stretching his hands to the sides to call on them to disperse, leaving me completely alone again. Maybe it had been a bluff. Maybe not. My mind raced as I tried to carry the point forward, I was on to something.
“Your essence is the insatiable appetite for power, a hunger that can never be quenched, a desire that would rather burn the world than be sated. Your will has infested this world, this city…” I paused for a second, realizing I had it. This was the play. “And me. I carry in me a seed of that same greed, that same lust for power for my own advantage, driving me mad like a splinter in my mind. You could not hide your essence from me if you wanted to, our trips together through time have bound us together too closely for that.” The figure in the sky begin burning the air as it flew towards me like a falling star, while I rushed the final words out. “And by that essence which lives in me, Hazat-Yai, the Horror from Beyond Time, I bind you to this form.”
The sky rumbled with a sharp crack of thunder, and in the distance I saw the circle I had drawn earlier begin to flicker with light. The Horror was still bearing down on me, but I could feel the walls of my reality beginning to flex again, as I tried to remember what Yidhra had said, the spells became unstable as they first…
“Overlapped.” I cleared my throat, letting the dramatic impact of the line sink in as the audience gazed at me with rapt attention, on the edge of their seats. For once, no one was gossiping to each other or checking those insipid black rectangles they carried in their pockets, the lecture hall was as reverent as a royal funeral. Even if they all knew how the story had to end, they were as caught up in the journey as I myself had been.
“The creature growled at me with impotent hatred in its eyes,” I continued, letting my voice convey the very real threat I had faced. “But it was bound in time and space, and at my mercy as to whether it would be allowed to leave. I had done my job well, for all either of us knew, he could be trapped like that for millennia.” I could feel the tension build in the room, and ham that I was, I doubled down on it, ad-libbing on top of the text I had prepared. “A voice that grated like a death rattle assaulted my ears, as Hazat-Yai—”
The lights in the room began to spark, and I felt myself losing control of the audience as the fixtures on the walls burst in a rapid-fire staccato of flame, causing an uproar among the crowd as we became drenched us in darkness.
The emergency lights flickered on as a polite voice took over the room. “Sorry for the trouble everyone, we’re switching to backup power. The H-energy is a little unstable at the moment, and I think we all know why. It would seem Doctor Manse is the only one still willing to utter the True Name, but if anyone has a right to, it’s him.”
A chuckle took over the crowd, and I forced myself to laugh along, before anyone started thinking too hard about the property damage. This is why it was a mistake to go off-script, my speech had been carefully scripted out, in no small part for this reason.
As the last emergency light flickered on and the sparks died down, the polite voice continued. “If you can restrain yourself from flaunting your special access, I think you can continue, Doctor Manse. I will admit that even I am curious to hear the rest of it. What deal did you strike with the creature? We’ve all seen the H-energy for ourselves and the advancement it has made possible, but what were your exact terms? Can we expect more gifts from the creature?”
I smiled generously, as the crowd’s attention turned back to me. “But of course. As I was saying…” I cleared my throat as I went back on script. “The creature turned to me, and I could sense the desperation in his eyes as it told me I could have whatever I wanted from him, if I would end this conflict between us. And I told him…”
I paused for a moment as the words I was about to say caught in my throat. This didn’t sound right. I looked further down the page and to my lower-case horror skimmed an account of a bargain being struck, his freedom for a pocket of reality to do as I pleased in. Forget the inevitability of history or the narrative demands of the genre, there was no way I would have agreed to this, even if I had trusted the monster. All the lives he had destroyed, mine, Cassie’s…
I grimaced as I realized what I had to do. “And then the creature took me up to the highest mountaintop and showed me all the kingdoms of the Earth, and promised that all of them could be mine if I would bend the knee and restore his dominion over time and space. And so I did what anyone would do.”
I heard a nervous chuckle as the polite voice came back in the room. “I think we could use a quick break…”
I continued, forcing my voice louder. “I told him to go to hell, I completed the third rite, and I killed the son of a bitch.” The light fixtures that had blown out started sparking again, black tendrils oozing out of them as the crowd began to scream and run for the exits. “Whatever trick you're pulling, this future can't happen unless at some point I make it happen. Hazat-Yai, the Horror from beyond Time, I reject your bargain.” I reached my hand out to a broken fixture on the wall, grasping that dark energy, picturing the precise moment I had left—
“Fine. What do you require instead?” The black-eyed figure was seated cross-legged next to me, his voice dripping with impatience.
I took a deep breath, glad to be immersed in the comparative health of my younger self, despite the recent aches and pains. We were back in the park, the nearby streets empty other than the two of us. Must be a consequence of him no longer being able to extend his influence. “Nice try.”
“As I said, I am willing to try again. I have no idea how long this combination of spells will last, but at this point it is likely to exceed your natural lifespan. You have acquired some leverage, I would be taking a risk of being trapped here with no recourse by even putting you in danger. So name your terms.”
I shook my head. He must truly be desperate. “There is nothing you could offer me.”
“And you have no way to kill me. So we are at an impasse. The combined might of the Outer Gods could not overcome me in this realm, and you are one mortal man. There is only one way this story can end. Accept the offer, or you're as trapped here with me as I am with you.”
The Horror must have seen the hesitation in my eyes, as his own dark pools glistened in anticipation. “I can grant you more than just the fame and attention you crave, that was just a taste of what I can create. You could have an entire segment of reality crafted to serve your whims. Absolute power over those who wronged you, to take revenge or force your enemies to grovel as you see fit. A harem that rivals the emperors of old, a never-ending feast of pleasure. Wealth so vast your life could be endless leisure, able to claim anything you wanted by asking its price. This world is large enough to both feed me, and carve out a portion to fulfill your desires. Let me claim my part of it, and you can have yours.”
I flinched, hating myself for listening to him as long as I did. He knew me too well already, even the parts I would deny to myself. “As if I could ever trust you.”
“There are rites I can perform to commit me to this course of action as securely as you are committed to the flow of your own timeline. I am offering you a deal rather than destroying your mind and body in justifiable rage. Accept my offer, and we will be done with each other forever.”
I felt myself shiver, knowing he was telling the truth. He had the power to offer me anything I wanted, and he must have studied my mind for long enough to know exactly what would motivate me. “What about the people I would be leaving behind, in the world you would claim.”
“What. Has this world ever done for you? Your clients cheat and underpay you. The crimes you report are ignored by corrupt and callous authorities, more likely to create another murder than solve one. Your world is held together by the application and threat of violence, it is already destroying itself. You are simply offered a chance to not go down with it.”
I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth. The part of me always looking for an angle so I didn't end up on the street knew this was the only way I would come out ahead, Yidhra herself had said it would be impossible for me to kill him. And if he thought I would refuse his offer, he had no reason to keep me alive. I didn't have any alternative that would accomplish anything.
The Horror gnashed its teeth in the air, in a motion I would believe had claimed lives before. “You are testing my patience, which neither of us want. The principles that would tell you this was wrong, your very notions of good and evil have no meaning outside your pocket of reality. They are founded in myth, a metaphor your society created to warp your perceptions to make you easier to control. The only law of the universe is power. Take the offer.”
I felt myself shiver again, I'd seen the world through enough versions of myself to know that your sense of right and wrong, your intuitive feel of the world could change in an instant, your moral foundations as intransient as mist under different circumstances. “No.”
The Horror stepped closer to me, making my blood run cold as I sensed the barely controlled malice within him. “It may take time, but the deal is always taken. It is how I accessed your world, spread my control over it, changing the lives of those who serve me. You have been betrayed in precisely this fashion many times already, but it is finally your turn. Accept my offer.”
Everything he said made sense, but I knew what I had to do. “I call upon…”
In a moment the breath was knocked out of me, pinned to the ground faster than my eye could follow, his weight as massive as a steel tanker all compressed in one spot as his fist pressed down on my chest. The Horror seemed to barely be containing itself as it stared down at me. “Do not waste my time. You said it yourself, everything in this world has a price, it is the law which measures your world. You are a creature of this world. Name. Your. Price.”
I grimaced, as that bothered me for reasons that had little to do with my current dilemma. “Look, I never said it was a perfect metaphor…”
A universe of pain shot through me as his fist met my face. It was untranslatable, impossible to reprocess or diminish. The blow to the face felt exactly like a blow to the face. The stabbing pain in my side, exactly like a stabbing pain in my side as the creature applied unseen reservoirs of trapped strength to flood my mind with agony. The creature finally stopped itself, but I could tell it was on the verge of losing control. Either that or I was winning the argument against keeping me alive.
“My entire offer.” The creature heaved. “Remains on the table. Accept my terms, live as you see fit. And be done with me forever.”
I strained to force the words out. “Go to hell.”
The Horror raised his fist, and I was suddenly blinded by a bright beam of light.
A dark-veiled creature snapped into reality right in front of me, moving at incredible speed as it wrestled with the Horror in a perverse inhuman dance, brief flashes of tentacles cutting like blades shining through the gaps in her dress.
I would know that swirl of veils anywhere. “Yidhra.” I breathed.
Her dress furled up to one side, briefly manifesting the form of the woman I recognized while the rest of her body attempted to pin the creature. “Detective Manse, you have to finish this, now.”
“I would have taken some of this pep earlier. When you abandoned me.”
Her dress jerked to one side as Horror struggled against her. “You have no concept of the scale of what I'm risking by being here. I don't know how long I can contain him, I assume you have a plan to finish it?”
I yelled back at her over the crescendo of chaos breaking out between the two of them. “I definitely do not!”
I heard a terrible inhuman screech in the air, what I could only assume was a string of unutterable eldritch curses. I yelled even louder. “You have to finish this, he's weaker than before. Complete the rite of Annihilation, call on the Outer Gods…”
“Even if I wanted to, even if I thought it had the slightest chance of matching up any differently than last time, I can't touch the spell at this point. This is your show now, you have to find a way to finish it.” Yidhra spilled to one side, trying to maintain her balance as the Horror attempted to tear into her. “This is your world, isn't it? You clearly understand its rules more deeply than either of us. You have to be the one to complete the last rite and kill him. Figure. Something. Out.”
I stood there blankly, being so sure a moment ago that we had won, that my part in this was over. “I thought you said that was impossible.”
“It is impossible!” Yidhra screeched as her veil flew back, revealing an inhuman alien monstrosity entangled with the Horror, terrible and beautiful in its rage. “Do it anyway!”
I closed my eyes to shut out the maddening sight and tried to think. Whatever allies Yidhra had drawn power from, even their efforts hadn’t been enough. The Horror had said nothing could touch him here, that had to mean their power must be localized, and he had said that this was his world now. Well, not just his…
I took a deep breath and started to speak. “Our world may be abandoned, with no authority reigning over us. But we are still here. You said you had nothing to fear from one man, but what about every man.” I winced as my ears recoiled against more inhuman eldritch screeching. “And every woman. Obviously. And anybody else we’ve got that’s not a perfect match for either of those descriptions.”
The screeching stopped, hopefully that meant I was onto something. I took a deep breath and continued. “I call on the eggheads, the artists, the dreamers. The private dicks, the businessmen. The, uh, businesswomans.” Tiny pinpricks of light began to appear in the air like fireflies, rising up from the ground and converging from all directions. Nothing close in magnitude to Yidhra’s spell, and the Horror didn’t even seem to notice my efforts.
Still, better than nothing. I scrunched my eyes and tried to think. “Students, preachers, masons, farmers, soldiers, cops. Everyone we’ve got coast to coast who ever swore an oath to defend their country, their city, their family, it’s time to call it all in.” The lights began to grow in number, as I kept rushing the words out. “All of the Americas, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, every piece of our continents I’ve forgotten from geography class. All of Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, anybody we’ve got down in Antarctica. Every last island, floating city, ship, boat, and canoe.” The lights were growing in number and the Horror spared a brief moment to smirk at me as he brushed aside the growing wave, as if to ask if that was all I could do.
Come on, think big, this is no time to play by the rules. He’s confined in time but we… Another thought crossed my mind. His influence must have been felt all over our history for the havoc he had wreaked. And if that could go both ways…
“Every empire, ancient civilization, assembly and village that brought us here. Rome, Angkor Wat, Cahokia. Babylon, Israel, Persia, Greece, Egypt, the Aztecs, every Chinese and Indian dynasty, every tribe and people…”
The pinpricks of light had grown into a solid white swirl, but I could tell it still wasn’t enough. My mind raced through possibilities. “I call on every primate, if you’re along for the ride. Every mammal, invertebrate, plant, bacteria, fungus… every fish, bird, and dinosaur.” I closed my mind and tried to focus, doing my best to direct the energy swirling around by sheer will, as I pictured the lights descending on the horror like ants invading a picnic—
“You’ve used that one already!” An inhuman screech that must have been Yidhra’s voice assaulted my ears.
Geez, everyone was a critic today. Fine then, like locusts swarming on crops, like white blood cells attacking an infection, like a phalanx of soldiers circling their foe. Like a writer going back to the well and just completely running the entire concept of self-referential literary metaphors into the ground, where at just the moment you think it might finally be over and you can enjoy some peace and quiet while focusing on the narrative, nope, here comes another assault on your cognition, buckle up bucko, because it’s about to get weird. The Horror flinched in pain, seeming like he was finally breaking under the onslaught, as I gave it all the juice I could.
“Every future we’ve been denied from this moment on, every form of life I can’t imagine yet. And to everyone and everything I’ve left out, I call on you for the Annihilation of Hazat-Yai, the Horror from beyond Time.”
Dark black droplets begin to fall to the ground as the lights began ripping into the Horror at the speed of… light, I suppose. I saw a flickering glimmer in the distance from the circle I had drawn, as Yidhra pulled herself away from the creature. “It’s working, but the containment spells are growing unstable again. They were never meant to handle this much energy. You cannot let him—”
“—return after this brief intermission.”
I quickly rose to my feet over the applause, wincing and trying to clear my head of my current mental context to place myself in whatever timeline I’d been flung into. The crowd was clapping for what looked like some kind of play. Actually, there was an orchestra in the pit, maybe a musical? An opera? There was a program at my feet that seemed to have my name on it. Focus, you don’t have time for this, Manse. You may only have minutes. The Horror can’t have gotten far. You just have to find him and make your way back.
"Mr. Manse, sir! Could we have a moment of your time?”
A trio of glasses-wearing nerds were waving at me from the back of the theater, as I rushed to the higher vantage point, trying to quickly scan the crowd for any signs of black eyes.
“This really isn’t the best time—” I began.
“But Mr. Manse, we’d love to talk to you about your inspiration for Hazat-Yai, the Horror.”
I heard an angry grunt from the left side of the theater. He’s sensitive to the mention of his name. He really picked the wrong timeline this time. “Actually, that sounds great, I would love to talk about Hazat-Yai, biggest jerk in the universe. Can you walk with me?”
I hurried towards the left side of the theater scanning up and down the rows, as the young man with a facial hair arrangement I had never seen before excitedly blurted out a speech he must have prepared.
“Your work leans so heavily on the device of metaphor, we couldn’t help but think about the entire story itself as a metaphor for something deeper. Take the Horror itself…”
“You mean Hazat-Yai.” I said quickly, scanning the rows for my target.
"Hazat-Yai, yes.” I turned my ear to one side as I heard the angry grunt again. I was getting closer. The young man continued. “It seems to me the entire narrative is a metaphor that’s psychological in nature, focusing on the way trauma warps our perceptions of our own pasts and futures. The battle with Hazat-Yai and the protagonist surviving the otherworldly madness is a stand-in for the power of re-conceptualizing traumatic events through the lens of metaphor to change the story we tell ourselves…”
“Well, obviously.” The young woman laughed nervously as she interrupted the furry young man. “That’s impossible to miss. But at a deeper level, I think the monster... sorry, Hazat-Yai…” I listened carefully again as the same inhuman grunt sounded out. The sound was coming from the front of the theater, maybe even the stage itself. The woman kept prattling on, hardly seeming to notice my divided attention. “The climax serves as a metaphor for our civilizational struggle. The impersonal dehumanizing forces which diminish and corrupt us, which we can only be free of by facing the source of the madness and naming the beast, which is—”
“Yes, yes.” A second young man interrupted her impatiently, as I moved closer to the orchestra pit. “But at an even deeper level, you have to see the story as a spiritual conflict, the text is dripping with religious overtones, to mix a metaphor. The story of Hazat-Yai is about how we relate to—”
Got him. Lurking in the corner by the drums, there was a pair of unblinking black eyes. I cleared my throat as I briefly addressed my guests. “This is all great stuff, I really appreciate it. But if you want my perspective, not everything has to be a metaphor. Sometimes a monster is just a monster.”
I leaped into the orchestra pit, trying to ignore the disappointed voice ringing out behind me. “Yeah, I’m going to call death of the author on this one.”
“Watch out, that might be foreshadowing…”
I charged at the creature, knocking over a set of drums and grabbing at its arm as the world wiped away.
I was flat on my back, Cassie’s locket resting on my chest, the rain dripping down on me as the gangster sneered over my helpless form, overlooking his perforated handiwork. This one wasn’t one of my favorites. I forced myself to turn away from the gangster, waiting for the moment his foot swung at me, then grabbed at it and yanked, pulling him to the ground. I reached for his tommy gun, aiming not at the gangster but at the dark black eyes glaring back at me as I shot a flurry of lead into the Horror, tar-black droplets falling on my face—
I was back in my car gliding down the street, Cassie laughing at my side without a care in the world. I slammed on the brakes, my eyes fixed to the pavement, waiting for the impending specter of doom about to run my life off the road.
The words rushed out of me in a torrent as I turned to Cassie. “I’m sorry, but you need to get out of here.”
“Why?” Cassie was looking at me strangely, confused by the sudden shift in my mood. “Is everything ok?”
“Yes—no, not at all.” My words were failing me as I looked back at her, feelings rushing back I had no ability to deal with. “I’m sorry, I don’t have the time to explain.”
Cassie crossed her arms and looked back at me. “Well, can you at least try, for a few seconds?”
I sighed. What did I have to lose. “All right. I’m chasing an otherworldly monster through time who threatens to destroy our reality, I’ve already watched this scene play out twice, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to go badly when we clash here and I don’t want you caught up in it.”
“Got it. So it’s one of those things. That’s fine, you could have just said so.” Cassie gingerly opened her door and slipped outside, her soft brown eyes looking back at me with concern. “You’re going to be ok, right? You sound really serious.”
“Hopefully. Better now.” I smiled back at her, an effortless smile I could hardly remember making before. She really was something special. “Thanks for understanding. I’ll admit I’m a little confused about everything going on right now, but based on how long I end up wearing your locket, I think I probably love you.”
“Oh, Adam.” Cassie sighed, her eyes beginning to well up. “I think I probably love you too.”
Two thoughts immediately came to my head. The first, that I must have really botched the delivery on that one, hopefully I could get a do-over. And the second… who the hell is Adam? As she looked back at me with that tender smile on her face, I realized it had to be me. Adam Manse. Of course that was my name. How long had it been since I’d thought of it? That creature must have really done a number on me.
“I’ll be seeing you.” I gave Cassie one last look, then revved the engine and raced down the road. In less than a minute, I had caught up to the black-eyed figure, as for once I didn’t swerve away but into—
I felt a familiar dull hum resonate in the air, as I looked up at the starless charcoal sky reigning over a desolate landscape. This world was nightmarish and alien, but I had found my quarry again. “Sure, keep saying that, maybe one of these days it’ll even turn out to be true.”
The Horror sneered at me. “I am once again confined, but you are cutoff from your allies. You are in my timeline now. And this world has nothing left for you to draw on.”
“We’ll see about that. Now where was I.” I clapped my palms together expectantly. “And for anyone around these parts, past, present, or future, who has a bone to pick with this asshole, I’m now accepting all applicants.”
I waited for a flurry of lights to appear in the air, but the air remained still, as I heard a dark laugh. “Did you not hear me? This world’s timeline has been picked clean. The past is a barren rock. I have already consumed anyone who could help you. A fate your world will share once I am freed.”
Not going to go down that easily. I pressed my palms together more tightly, trying to will what I needed into reality. “You know, there’s a metaphor that’s been stuck in my head for a while now…”
“How is it that I am stuck with the only member of your species unable to distinguish metaphors, analogies, and similes…”
“That’s because I’m using the term metaphor as a metaphor for all those things. Try to keep up.” I closed my eyes and tried to picture what I had in mind. “I have no idea how any of this works, but I’ve been told that to a creature like you, time is like a flowing stream. It can be redirected, visited at different points…”
"Right. I don’t buy that.” I took a deep breath, focusing on what I believed to be true. “You can redirect a stream, but it still carries with it the same water, the same patterns of flow from the journey that led it there. You must have redirected my life into a hundred different branches by now, but I carry with me every scar, every memory of that journey. I don’t think even someone like you can annihilate the past. We carry our history with us, every triumph, every heartbreak, the agony and the ecstasy of being.”
“You have no idea…” the voice died away as I felt a flurry of sparks begin to grow between my hands, spiraling out into the air.
“Every world you’ve destroyed.” I opened my eyes, breathing the words into the air. “Every alien creature, every doomed civilization, every traitor who drew you in, every soul that fought until the end.” The Horror began to lunge towards me, but the pinpricks of light were faster, pushing back against him, holding his entire weight in place effortlessly. “Every living thing that watched the sun rise, hoping for a better world for their descendants before you snuffed that out. To all those souls, buried and forgotten from time, I call on you.”
I felt myself shiver as the lights continued to grow, the energy pouring out of me and through me as it swirled around the two of us. I felt the memories and impressions of uncountable souls, their sorrow, grief, and rage. God, the rage. The sort of anger that refused containment in one lifetime, reverberating in songs and legends as it seared itself into the collective consciousness of a species, screaming of a fury that could burn longer and hotter than the stars, an undying scream into the void.
And I knew that I hated him more.
I watched as the expression on the Horror’s face began to change as he stared at the growing force allied against him, revealing emotions I had never seen in him before, feelings I did not imagine him capable of as he must have felt his entire conception of the universe change from underneath him. The being who had imagined himself to be untouchable was having his mind split by the realization that he was wrong about the genre of his reality. He was trapped in a cosmic horror, at the mercy of forces beyond his comprehension, and the image of his place in the universe that he had so confidently clung to was a dream that was finally breaking apart.
The Horror looked me in the eyes and I felt the force of his will still straining, as a mind that had hatched plans across eons and that had bridged universes searched for some escape, some gambit to turn the tables. And as he turned his dark gaze to me, I could tell that he believed he still had one last card to play.
“I can make you live forever as a god.”
There it was. I took a deep breath, looked the creature straight in the eye, and gave him my answer. “My name is Adam Ignatius Manse. I stand here as a representative for all the worlds you have destroyed, all the souls you have corrupted and consumed. And for your desecration of our lives, we sentence you to Annihilation.”
The lights shot into him as though a dam holding them back had finally burst, the energies glowing brighter than my mind had a concept for its intensity, perforating the Horror and knocking him to the ground as black droplets spewed out, sizzling as they ate into the ground as if the rock beneath us was rejecting him, denying him any resting place or memory of his passing as the sublimated rage of an entire universe ripped through him in violent catharsis.
And then the Horror was gone.
Like a nightmare at sunrise Like the morning mist Like a shadow on the wall Like he had never existed in the first place.
I took a deep breath as the exhaustion and emotion finally hit me, and I allowed myself to crumple to the ground. I felt numb and spent, like a reader who just read the word “metaphor” for the twenty-fourth time in a story and was sort of losing their sense for what anything meant anymore.
And for what was only the second time in my life and hopefully the last, I fainted.
When I came to, I was back in my office, with Yidhra gazing at me from the other side of my weathered desk. It looked like I’d gotten the chair this time.
“I don’t often say this,” Yidhra began, as I started to stir. “But that was some really excellent work, adapting the rites given what you had to work with.”
“Well, sometimes you need a local’s touch. Home field advantage and all that.” I took a deep breath and patted myself down. Recent aches and pains, conspicuously absent. Leg, unscarred. My left hand felt a little strange but other than that…
“The payment I had originally arranged was unfortunately annihilated with the Horror.” Yidhra pulled a briefcase out from the folds of her dress, and handed it over to me. “But I trust that this will suffice.”
I clicked open the clasps, and gazed inside. What looked like a recently melted grey bar sat in the briefcase. Platinum and iridium, if I had to guess. Hopefully no one was missing their meter.
“Not to complain, I would have done it all anyway.” I shut the briefcase closed and clicked the clasps back in place. “But you do realize that the other side would have paid better.”
Yidhra seemed apologetic. “We are operating under more constraints, the stability of your world was already badly damaged by Hazat-Yai’s meddling. There were even those who would have preferred to scrap the whole thing, and start from scratch.”
“Well, thanks for that, then.” I took the briefcase in my hand, as I felt the familiar trappings of my normal life return to me. Another day, another job. At least this one had paid better than most.
“I should warn you, you may experience some discrepancies from the timeline you remember best. It took a great deal of effort to repair the damage done to your world, and some compromises had to be made. I hope everything is to your satisfaction, but please know that I did the best that I could.”
I shrugged. “Just let me know if I’ve moved, before I stumble into someone else’s home.”
“That won’t be an issue.” Yidhra slowly began to furl her dress around herself as she gazed back at me. “Thank you again for your help, I will be pondering these events for some time. Like a blacksmith picking up the pieces of a shattered blade and re-forging them into something stronger, as you might say.”
I raised my eyebrows in appreciation. “Hey, that’s a good one.”
Yidhra smiled at me, an expression I never would have expected her to wear. “Goodbye, Adam.”
I started to call out my own farewell, but she had already vanished. I suppose she probably already knew what I was about to say next. Shrugging, I pushed open the door to my office, noting one small change already as I checked the inscription. “Adam I. Manse. Private Detective + Occult Investigator.”
I clutched the briefcase tight to my side as I walked down the street back to my flat, trying not to look like I was guarding two of the rarest minerals on the planet. I was already thinking through how I was going to fence it… does it count as fencing if it wasn’t stolen, but taken from a timeline that no longer exists? As I came out of the rain, the key in my pocket found the lock—rusty, but still a perfect match—and I gratefully swung open the door, returned to my own little world at last.
And then, on the wall opposite the entrance, I saw a door where there should not have been a door.
I took a deep breath as I walked closer to the foreign surface in my apartment, my feet doing their best to avoid making a sound. There was no light shining from underneath the crack, no noise from the other side as I pressed my ear to it. I knew this flat better than I knew my own face, I tried to picture where an extra room could even go in the building I remembered, attempting to account for a violation of spatial geometry as strange as anything I had seen underneath Yidhra’s veil.
And finally, seeing no other option, I opened the door and looked inside.
I have, at times, done my best to communicate concepts most would consider to be beyond the potential of language to express. Through metaphors and linguistic trickery, to make a rough sketch of the otherworldly sights and experiences I have endured which make a mockery of mankind’s conception of the universe, to give a faint impression of violations of reality so alien and incomprehensible that to experience them would change you forever as a person, and not always for the better. But even if I have succeeded in some small part elsewhere, I know that here I must admit defeat. Given all the time in the world, with all of my faculties at their best, no conceivable metaphor I could craft could ever convey what I saw and I felt when I walked into that room.
I gently pushed the door open, scarcely breathing as my eyes scanned a space I didn’t recognize. Where previously there had been nothing, a complete void in my mental map of the world, there was a block-like prism of wood facing me, closed at the bottom and on two opposite sides, with small white bars separating me and its contents. And inside, a small creature fidgeted and stood up as it saw me, a smile breaking out on its face. Her face, I think.
She had Cassie’s eyes. And my nose.
She reached her little hands up from the crib, and I gingerly picked her up in what must have been a practiced motion, muscle memory taking over as I balanced her in my arms. And as I gazed into her smiling face, I felt my life change out from under me once again, as the boundaries of time all blurred into one moment.
I felt like I was staring back at myself, given a chance to rebuild my own broken past and make it into something better. Like I actually had been given the gift of immortality, the chance to leave behind the best part of myself for the future. That after all the timelines and alternate worlds I had witnessed, all the warped realities I had been offered, I had finally found myself in the one I was meant to be in. Playing a role that could echo in history, still out there saving the world by nurturing the small part of it entrusted to me.
Like I said, that probably either makes sense to you, or I might as well be speaking Esperanto. I really don’t think I can get the concept across if that’s not your path in life. It’s not for everyone, for the wrong bloke this could be landing in a surprise horror twist ending. But for me, it felt like something had finally been set right.
“Someone looks happy to see you.” Cassie appeared over my shoulder, planting a kiss on my cheek. “You look like you’ve had a hell of a day.”
“That’s closer to the truth than you might think.” I smiled at her, feeling a familiar trickle of memories begin to pool in, as I continued the conversation almost on instinct. “Honestly, it was like—”
“Actually, before you get all carried away, I bet I know someone who would love to hear all about it.” Cassie gently led me over to the chair in the corner, helping to position our baby girl in my lap. “She loves your stories—doesn’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about, but I think she just likes the sound of your voice.”
I cuddled my arm up against the little tyke, cherishing the moment, slowly rocking back and forth as I thought about how to start. “Her dress dragged on forever, like…” I paused for a second, searching for the right words, doing my best to resist the urge to overdo it. “Like a bad metaphor.”
Update: The next story in this series can be found here:
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