A sequel to Horror in Reverse
The monolith looked harmless. Kind of a disappointing end to a rigorous hunt. Tall enough to be ominous, sure. Eerie because of how smooth the black rock was. But there were no fireballs flung from it, no smoky haze around it, and no thunderous voice emanating from inside it. Just a silent tower. It was everything going on around the tower that gave Kelly Greirson the heebie jeebies.
It had been years since the finding of her time-mastering necklace. But those years had swarmed in a nonlinear fashion. Tinkering with the gears of time will do that. It will keep your body young but your brain a demented mess of aged memories.
Kelly did not let herself worry about that. Too much metacognition will drive you mad. Instead, she allowed her emotions to do all the processing. She cried a lot, screamed, cursed, laughed. It was emotional recklessness. But not during a job. At least not if she could help it. During a job she had to pull herself together. Especially a job like the current one.
She watched the ceremonial fires down in the valley. A wide ring around the tall, inhuman tower. Her eyes blurred and the scene converged into a strange point of light. It was happening again. Her mind was slipping away from the present. She felt for a stick among the detritus around her and gripped it. Sometimes if she held on to something, she could anchor herself. It was not working. Her breathing quickened.
She looked down at the stick then back up. The surroundings had changed. This was familiar. It was all the way back to the beginning of her strange adventures. That awful bonfire of fear. She threw the stick into the flames just like she had done so long ago. The twig was dry, eager to be devoured. All the fears she placed on it were fed to the monster flames, giving it a nourished shape.
H. P. Lovecraft got it right. The human mind was not supposed to know all the deeply hidden things in the world. Humans had to confine themselves to small islands of reality. Maybe Lovecraft had seen too much himself. Maybe he had written it down as a way to expel it from his mind. And, of course, he had written it as fiction.
“How else could you write this stuff down and get away with it?” Kelly said.
The fire before her was a wide ring in a valley again. Good. She did not want to relive that fire creature’s attack. She watched the uninhibited dancers fling themselves around the monolith. Some of them bloody, others lusty, all hedonistic rag dolls. These were the same sane-looking folks she had followed earlier. After the protest. Her vision began to blur again. Sometimes remembering something took her to that time. Was the necklace getting more volatile? Perhaps it would not be needed much longer. Not if this tower was what she thought it was.
The dancers turned into protesters, signs bouncing up and down.
“Not my president!”
“No more words of hate!”
Kelly listened to the gnashing chants. They were angry. Obviously. But they were also fearful. A tremor to their lips. Many of her friends told her that many nights they could not eat or sleep because of the anxiety. Some turned to counseling, but Kelly never saw it help much. The world was just becoming … unstable … mentally.
A reporter had a giant camera pointed at the crowd. She was asking them what they wanted to express through their protest.
“We want everybody to know we won’t stand for those who stand for hate speech. They will not speak for us or to us.”
“How do you hope to stop them? Through a change in law? A clarification of the first amendment?”
“Through whatever means necessary. If that evil man wants a wall … We’ll build a wall around him!”
Then the chorus:
“Wall around him, wall around him.”
It was no wonder those fascist-hating fascists needed an outlet for insanity. Their protests only served to tease the angst. They needed more. The tower called to them and they came. They shed their sensitivities along with their clothes. Every hidden epithet they had been too scared to speak could be flung with spittle upon the dark stone.
Kelly did not notice how that spit sizzled and bubbled along the smooth ebony surface of the monolith. She was still transitioning back to the present. Lucky for her, twin sister Katie was more anchored into the now. Kelly envied her, but whenever Katie suggested they share the power and burden of the necklace, Kelly refused. It was like that movie about the short kid and the ring. His pudgy friend just wanted to help, but did not know what he would be getting into. That was a lot like this necklace. Kelly thought she had better protect her sister from as much horror as possible.
A pebble arched and dropped in the thick undergrowth beside Kelly. Then another tapped her on the shoulder. Kelly cursed and looked up as a third flew through the moonlight. It would have hit her head if she had not dodged. They were messages from her twin. Something must be happening. But the tower still looked sleepy to her.
A harder look down into the forest clearing, however, revealed that the bonfire ring was suffering under a heady wind. But she could not feel any wind. It was not blowing the pines, just the fire, pushing it away from the tower on all sides. The nefarious breeze was coming from the monolith, itself.
“Here we go,” she breathed.
She closed her eyes then rose from her hiding place. But in a blur the woods were gone, trees transformed into telephone poles.
“Not again,” she bit. “This is getting ridiculous.”
Kelly looked around the quiet street. Trash blew and a smattering of protestors collected on the corner. One waved to her and smiled.
“Kelly, you going to be joining us today? It’s been a while.”
A devious smile tugged up at Kelly’s cheeks. She played with her necklace. “Sure. What’s this one for?”
“Women’s rights. Didn’t you notice my hat?”
Kelly laughed. “Oh right. Just a little distracted lately. What’s oppressing us this time?”
The friend looked at her funny. “You feeling okay?”
“Yeah, sure. It’s Just … Don’t you get tired?”
“Of being oppressed? Of course.” There was an edge cutting into the woman’s voice.
“What if I told you you could do something about it?”
“But we are doing something. Hashtag resist, you know?”
Kelly sighed. “Yeah. Okay.”
“Hey, cheer up. Come out with us later. After the protest we’re gonna kick back and relax at the clearing.”
Kelly darkened to a grim shade. “The clearing? Where they used to have those safe space meetings?”
“Yep, that’s the place.”
Kelly stopped a groan just before it escaped. What was it with that place? It was a hotspot for collecting snowflakes … and melting them down to raw fear.
“That place sort of calls to you doesn’t it?”
Another strange look from the friend. “It’s just a clearing, Kel.”
“Right.” Just a very hungry clearing. She should have known that place would come back to haunt her, even after she had dealt with the creature from the fire. That had taken, what, about twenty-five tries before she had figured out how to stop it? What would she find there this time?
Kelly blinked forward through time, back to this time, and found she was descending toward the clearing. She tore through thorns and vines and they tore her back. But she did not seem to feel it. She was only half present. Besides, she was used to pain. So Kelly kept running, straight for the stuttering flames that the wind blew right into her. The humans, who had been dancing inside the ring of fire, were now being blown into it, limbs and hair becoming personal pyres. The tower seemed to like its delicate co-eds medium-well. A brûlée to lazily pop down ancient gullet, perhaps.
But this Old One, this decrepit god, was going to get a rude awakening. She hoped.
She saw Katie on the other side. They were both coming through the heat of the fire, careless of the burns. Once through, it would be mere yards to the monolith.
At the top of the tower she could see tentacles push out. The emerald gem of her necklace flared as the she pushed through the naked gyrators and leaped to the stone. This Old One was ready to eat. She drew a knife from an ornate scabbard. A reward from another adventure. An old demon that needed killing. She thrust it now at the ebony and it slid in as through charred bread. Crunch. Another knife in her other hand sank to the hilt as well. Both glowed with sickening sea green. In this way she scaled her way to the top, heart shoving blood hard out of every valve.
There was no trepidation in her clear eyes. She left that to the folk screaming below. But there was pain. Every place on her body that touched the monolith sizzled. Kelly’s receptors crackled in response, popping with agony. She hoped it would keep her anchored in the present … to the task at hand. So on she went, encouraged by the sound of her sister’s voice on the other side of the cylinder.
Katie was screaming defiant profanities. She always seemed to enjoy herself. Kelly smiled and then shuddered. She felt a time shift coming and tightened her jaw.
“Are we doing this? The two of us?”
“You mean rescuing millennials by taking on ancient earth demons?” Katie said. “Heck yeah! Sounds like fun to me. As long as that necklace really does what you say it does.”
“You have no idea.”
“Exactly. When it alters time my memories are all rewound.”
Back to the tower. The tentacles elongated and writhed above. A few whipped down, inky and wet, narrowly missing the heads of the twins. Meanwhile, knives kept cutting chinks in the obelisk and the siblings kept rising closer to the top.
Another fat feeler swung like a tongue licking the lip of the tower. Kelly let go of an anchored knife and swung down to the other hilt, avoiding the protuberance. But Katie was not so lucky. It slammed into her chest head on, flinging her into the air. She flew high before smacking into the top of a tall pine like a rag doll and falling to the ground with a crunch.
Kelly growled and redoubled her efforts. With a strain she reached the hilt of the knife she had let go a moment earlier. She yanked the other blade free and the next tentacle received a slicing cut, spilling watery brown goo. A howl emanated from deep inside the tower’s gut. Kelly smiled. While its pain flared she ascended to the brink. The round top was concave, tentacles all around the edge. The center was pitch black. Only a mouthful of grinding teeth were visible in descending spirals down its gullet. It reminded her of one of the Star Wars movies. Sarlacc pit, right?
A searching appendage wrapped around her middle. It tightened and then lifted her up into the air above the toothy hole. A single tendril of black slithered up from the depths of the mouth. A glowing eye at its tip blinked then stared at the intruder.
There is defiance left upon the earth? Or are you simply eager to be consumed?
“Hashtag resistance,” she grunted, trying to breath inside the arm’s hold.
I prefer my food charred, like the morsels around my foundation. In any case, where did you learn bravery in a world of fear?
“A lot of second chances.”
And yet you shall still be consumed.
Then why bother?
Kelly’s necklace shimmered in the Old One’s eye, catching its attention. Kelly grinned.
I know the feel of that gem.
“What does it make you feel?” There was genuine interest in her voice.
I feel the same timelessness as that of myself. It has been a long time since I have felt that outside of me. But … something else as well. Something molten. Something … incandescent. I will understand more once I have ingested it.
“There are words I once learned that go, ‘It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour’.”
The being shuddered, as though bitten by the words. If there was a time to escape, this was it. But that was not the plan.
Few still speak the words of the Ancient One. But you underestimate my longevity … and my voracious appetite. If you think you can scare me with words then … well, there is a humorous irony to that.
“You can’t be that old. There was no tower here a few years ago.”
You must think of me as a tree. A tree is timeless because its fruit fall into fertile ground, recreating the tree again and again. There is very good soil here.
A needle on the end of the appendage lifted and pierced Kelly’s leg. Droplets of blood spilled down into the creature’s throat.
Yes, I thought so. Your blood is familiar. It was the one thing off-putting about the ground here. But I will eat you just the same.
“I left a lot of it here. All of it, maybe. But I’m tired of talking. Let’s get this over with.”
She ripped at the tentacle around her, wriggling free and slipping down into the maw.
But as Kelly fell, she found herself descending into the ringing chime of a door. It reverberated through her.
She held out the necklace with a trembling hand and a smile. “I’d like to buy this please,” she said to the squat, frowning owner.
“You sure about that? No refunds. Not this time.”
“You know what I talk about. First round on me. Teach you thing or two.” A pause. “So you learn something, eh?”
“You buy this again, you learn more. Maybe things you rather not. Scary things. You can do … handle this?”
“I … I need to learn more. Learn to not be afraid.”
A shrug. “That will happen, but there more too. When you stripped of all fear, will face things others cannot; things that drive you mad maybe. Deep things. Dark things.”
A credit card had been hovering in the air, aimed at the store owner. It began to waver and retreat. The owner snatched and swiped it.
“Okay then. Deal.”
“You start to act like big baby. You need necklace more than I thought. I make decision for you. You welcome.”
The stomach was cold. So cold her extremities began to coat in frost. At least it was not slimy and gelatinous like she had expected. Just empty space, stale, and so very old. Older than anything she had ever experienced. The further she sank the more ancient the smell. Like she was drifting back through the ages. Toward the beginning of evil.
Then time began to break down. Even more so than usual for Kelly. She looked down at the necklace. It was coming apart at the edges, bits chipping off. Had she been wrong about the power of the gem? Had it finally met its match? Snippets of memories like frozen shards spun round and cut her. Or maybe those were teeth. Either way she bled the memoirs of her life.
Her father pushed her on a tricycle which morphed into a bicycle with training wheels. Peals of laughter transformed into terror as a car sped around the corner and straight into her dad.
Kelly was thrown from the bike, soaring back into her mother’s womb. The swollen belly was strapped with monitors. Medical personnel were quietly, methodically, coldly proclaiming they could no longer hear three heartbeats. Beside her was Katie, doing a slow summersault. A third baby floated limp in viscus fluid, eyes vacant.
Then the fetus shrank, enlivening, the three sisters growing what looked to be tails as they swam in their mother’s uterus.
She swam and swam until the stomach stretched into a lake. She was a young teenager. And what once had been an umbilical cord became the serpentine form of a cottonmouth whisking across the surface of the water. Toward Ben, the neighbor boy. A scream bubbled from Kelly’s lips.
The spewed lake water became vomit spilling into a toilet. She gripped the sides of the bowl with white knuckles. Katie was rubbing her back and quipping, “You are what you eat. Or drink, in this case.”
“So I’m a wild turkey?” Kelly croaked.
The following laughter echoed back to the present, bounding off the arcane walls of the old monster.
“No fear,” she whispered.
“Just something written on a shirt my dad was wearing when he died.”
Ironic. I enjoy irony almost as much as the taste of some of those memories you released. Such an interesting past. I can barely wait to finish you.
One of Kelly’s arms, now frozen, snapped off and floated away.
Kelly only smiled. “It’s taken a long time to find you, Old One. But that’s okay. Gave me time to figure out how best to defeat you. Gave me time to notice your appetite for fear.”
It is why I have grown so large here.
“It is why,” Kelly breathed, “it will be your undoing. My gem isn’t timeless, like you thought. It is simply … made of time. You know what happens when a timeless creature eats time? It means your time … is … up.”
Her mouth and tongue were stiffening into ice. She was barely able to creak out a smile before she became a frosty statue. The deadly cold drove down to her brain and forced the last of her synapses to fail. One last heartbeat thudded.
The necklace gem, barely still in one piece, pulsed, then throbbed, then broke, tearing a shaft of light from the being’s mouth. It gutted the creature from the inside out, sending waves of turmoil through those inky tentacles. Never before had it felt such tremors of trepidation. It existed to feed on fear, not to become it. The tower could not endure. Its seams ached and then cracked into tumbling rubble.
Those below still with enough breath left in them screamed and those with working legs fled. This time their fear was a healthy one. One young man scraped along the mossy ground. The left half of his face was charred a papery black, the eye bleeding down his cheek. But his good eye turned to observe the fate of the obelisk. He wondered at the shattering tower. He asked himself why he had come here. But most of all he worked with all his might to escape. For he realized there are things better left alone. And there are fears … real fears … that supersede the petty ones we horde.