The miserable sky gloomed over the car pulling up to the side of the empty street in the city centre.
“It’s on the next street. This is as close as I’m willing to get,” Stephen Parrish said, “good luck, we’ll be watching”.
Brian nodded and tapped a few icons on his phone.
“It should be connecting now”.
The small screen on the dashboard lit up. Modern technology made things so much easier, in the old days you had to hide radios and wires and tape everything directly to your skin and hope nobody noticed. These days you simply had to install the right app and nobody would ever suspect a thing.
Brian tapped on the microphone and the car was filled with a deep, scratchy knocking proving that the connection was good. He dropped the phone into his pocket, another muffled thump emerged from the speakers inside the car as it landed.
“Audio’s good, ok any other checks”, Stephen said as he looked down a sheet of scruffily handwritten notes. He looked back up at Brian “Got your amulet?” he said.
“Yep, right here,” Brian tapped the still warm vial of his own blood sloshing gently in his inside pocket, only useful in emergencies and only if you could get to it in the right way in enough time. Like carrying a pocket bible just in case someone shoots you in exactly the right way, but one of the only things which had so far been proved to work against the supernatural.
“Audio?”, Stephen said “sorry, we’ve already done that. Amulet? Wait, Sorry”.
The car groaned back to being level as Brian stepped out, his immense weight no longer torturing the suspension. He bent down to look back into the car at his sweaty colleague.
“Cheer up, it might never happen,” he said “it’s just the usual routine, identify the parasite and as many victims as possible. The goons’ll pick ‘em up later. Worst case scenario is, what? Decontamination and quarantine afterwards? No big deal, you’ll get used to it”.
“No big deal?” Stephen didn’t look convinced.
“Well, the food’s a bit shit but apart from that it’s good to have some peace and quiet”, Brian laughed and slapped the roof of the car “right, let’s get it done”.
He straightened back up and walked away. Already he could feel the greasy electricity hanging in the air which meant that the barrier between worlds was being stretched to breaking point. He wanted to take a shower.
As he got closer to the end of the street the air got thicker. His teeth tasted of metal and his few remaining strands of hair lifted slightly from his scalp. Chaotic visions crept into the edges of his awareness, swarms of unrecognisable monstrosities, writhing heaps of slithering death. This section of the street was oddly deserted. Crowded streets were nearby in every direction. The clouds overhead were thin and, with a vague glow blowing through them despite the sun being a distant memory.
Brian made it to the door of the dull grey concrete building where the meeting was being held. The windows were smaller than usual for this type of building. The only obvious door was locked with a row of buttons next to various company names on an intercom on one side.
Brian looked over his shoulder and saw an obviously out of shape man decelerating as he approached.
“Hi,” he came to a complete stop and stood bent over slightly with his hands on his knees to catch his breath “are you here for the meeting?”
He was dressed in office clothes that would have fit him when he was ever so slightly younger and slimmer. If he was a victim, he was fresh, he was smiling. His shirt had come untucked on one side.
“The career advice group? Yes, I am. I take it I’ve found the right place then?”, said Brian.
“I think you’ll find it’s more than just that” the chubby man reached past and tapped a few numbers into the keypad at the bottom of the intercom. There was a clunk as the lock relaxed its death grip on the door. The chubby man pushed the door open and stood aside while holding it open with an outstretched arm. “After you,” he said gesturing for Brian to go inside. Brian squeezed past him, they were both large enough to make it ever so slightly awkward. “I’m Martin”, said the chubby man close enough that his bad breath was all too obvious.
The cramped entrance hall contained a pair of lifts which were both proudly displaying grubby out of order signs made of laminated paper and fixed to the doors with yellowing tape.
“Still?”, Martin said “We’ve been waiting for those to get fixed for weeks”. Martin squeezed past Brian again and started going up the grey concrete staircase at the end. “Let’s get this over with. Eighth floor”.
The stairs were just shallow enough that it was almost easier to scale them two at a time, but just wide enough that it wasn’t.
“First meeting? I’ve not seen you before,” he said and didn’t wait for any sort of reply “I’ve only been coming for a few weeks myself but I’m already seeing the benefit. Jacob comes off a bit posh but the techniques really work and everyone is so friendly, always interested in how you are and what you’ve been up to. The touching was a bit much at first, but I’ve got used to it now”.
Love bombing, the easiest way to suck anyone in. The ones who saw through it would have been trouble anyway.
“What sort of techniques do you mean?” Brian asked. He needed to distract himself from the endless stairs.
“Oh you know, visualisations, meditation, repeating mantras. It sounds daft when I say it but it’ll be better once you’ve been shown in person. I’m already feeling better than I have in years”.
Typical of parasitism. Repetitive rituals kept the victim connected and constant reassurance that the goal was just round the corner kept them going. It was all too easy for even a smart person to fall into the trap if they’d run into tough times. Maybe easier to trap smart people, they were used to being right.
“Sounds interesting, I’m certainly looking to at least try. I wouldn’t have bothered coming if I wasn’t”.
The higher they got up the stairs the heavier and greasier the air felt. Brian felt his shirt clinging to his back in spots and drops of sweat running down his skin. The all too familiar buzzing ache started in the top of his head. The parasite was close.
As they reached the eighth floor Martin opened a door leading into a brightly lit corridor “I swear that gets harder every time”.
Brian was too out of breath to answer immediately, the stairs and the supernatural pressure were wearing him out. He didn’t like that term, supernatural. It just felt goofy. But it was the only term which fit. One day all of this may be consumed by the ravenous behemoth of science, but it hadn’t yet. They were still trying to figure out which bits of the remaining occult texts were accurate, and which were the ravings of those confused people who tended to eat whatever mushrooms they found lying around without asking too many questions. The guys back at the office were split into factions, the ones who fancied themselves scientists wore white coats and talked about extra dimensions, the others talked about astral planes and portals to hell while wearing whatever they thought appropriate. Which usually involved rather too much leather.
They reached a door somewhere a short walk down the corridor, it had been designed with a window, but someone had taped a dark piece of paper over it. Martin opened it “Here we are”, he said.
Brian followed him in. The echoes of his footsteps stabbed back at him as he entered. Even with all his previous experience, all the times he had seen people half consumed, it always amazed him that nobody ever seemed to see what he saw. There were those who had obviously been fed on for a while, gaunt and wretched looking with their awful artificial friendliness just waiting to be unleashed on the unsuspecting newcomer.
There was no way for Brian to know how other people saw this, his ability to see the supernatural for what it really was both enabled him to do his job at the same time as making sure that he never fully understood it. He could have stood on the deck of Odysseus’s ship as it passed the Sirens and felt nothing but disgust at the screeching of the monstrous creatures.
The air was almost solid here. Brian was aware that Martin was still talking to him, but he was only going through the motions of listening while really scanning the room trying to see any clues as to where the energy was coming from. Something was badly wrong with the room, but even Brian couldn’t quite tell what it was yet. Nobody else seemed to be bothered in the slightest.
He was greeted by an excited group who beamed the warm, heartfelt smiles of the mummified and herded him over to a table loaded with pizzas and a fridge crammed with cans of lager. He made an excuse about lactose intolerance to avoid the pizza, it was too easy to tamper with. Beer would be alright. Unless the parasite actually owned the brewery it would be difficult to do too much to a can without it being obvious. He cracked one open and took a long refreshing gulp. He could almost hear Stephen’s grunt of disapproval. Not that it would do him much good while he was sitting alone in his freezing cold, beerless car like an idiot. He could go to hell, this is exactly what he needed after all those stairs.
He took another sip and the realisation hit him like a bulldozer. The room was carpeted. So why were his footsteps echoing? He could see the walls, the room looked small. So why was there such a feeling of vast space in every direction rendering even his hulking form as insignificant as if he was standing on a cliff edge?
The barrier between worlds must have been stretched to absolute breaking point. It couldn’t be long before there was a clear link to the other side. It had to be stopped today. That meant isolating whoever was draining the life force from them to pass on to his otherworldly master like some demonic tapeworm. It was too late to back out to get the containment team now, there was no telling what could happen if he made anyone suspicious. He needed to identify the parasite and call in the containment team to do the grab job as soon as he could get away.
The air thickened again. The door opened. Thousands of tiny tentacles briefly gripping his skin before sliding away into the void made Brian nauseous. His head was pounding.
The sight of the slender, grey skinned man who entered the room was nauseating. His round glasses sat awkwardly above sunken cheeks on his exhausted looking face. His bones made deep grooves in the flow of his beautifully tailored suit which was now clearly made for a heavier man. He was wasting away. The only sounds were the echoing of his footsteps and the laboured rattling breathing of those devotees closest to death. Brian followed the example of the rest of the group and found a seat in one of the rows of cheap plastic chairs. It creaked and deformed slightly as he sat.
The grey skinned man approached the cheap wooden lectern at the front of the room and spoke with a voice that just screamed Oxbridge via money. This must have been Jacob. He spoke in general terms, superficially pleasant introductions, and claims that various people outside of the room were to blame for any and all problems imaginable.
As he spoke the edges of the room seemed to blur away, combining with an image of some vast stone hall, stretching away into infinite darkness.
The inevitable claims that anyone who opposes the teachings of the group was being paid by shadowy figures who were just barely in the awareness of the general public were accompanied by the raising of a terrible shadow immediately behind Jacob. The invisible tentacles were lashing more intensely now, some remnant of yet other worlds all now attempting to occupy the same space. The dark intensified in the distance and the image of the great hall became clearer.
The shadow behind Jacob drew itself up to a great height and guided his hand to a spiked metallic object which seemed to appear from nowhere. He squeezed it tightly and handed it, still bloody, to the almost corpse in the seat on the left side of the front row. He followed suit, squeezing tightly enough to draw a smear of dusty blood and then passing it to the person next to him. A faint smell of cooking infiltrated the room.
With each offering of blood, the shadow behind Jacob further solidified into a monstrous mass of writhing tentacles, pulled together into an awfully proportioned figure looming over the fool trying to control it.
Eventually, the ceremonial blade reached Brian, the spectre to his right pressed it into his hand almost hard enough to pierce the skin before returning his attention to the front. Acting quickly Brian pressed the device into the release mechanism of the blood filled amulet in his pocket, some soaked through his jacket, that would have to be replaced, but by now the blades were bloody enough that mess could be explained easily. The heat of the blood left in the amulet surprised him as it boiled. That was the energy for the link that had been meant for him, it wouldn’t fool anyone for long, but hopefully it would be enough until he had an opportunity to get away. He passed the blood soaked device to the ghoulish spectre on his left who followed suit and pierced his own hand. The stench of burning flesh was becoming overpowering.
The blood in the amulet kept boiling. The glass shattered. The blood spilled out and charred. It was all Brian could do to prevent himself from crying out. In the back of his mind he hoped that there wouldn’t be another scar. He had to start looking for his escape route, his deception would be noticed soon. The amount of energy blasting its way through the blood had been meant for his entire body, if it ran out of fuel to burn through earlier than expected it would be a sure giveaway.
Jacob emitted a screech and stared directly at him. Shit. Too late. The mass of tentacles in the great hall flailed wildly.
Jacob continued screeching as he was lifted gently off the ground.
The air thickened yet again. Electricity tore through the air until Brian’s lungs screamed that he was drowning. His heart was pounding in his ears. He’d been found out.
“He is one of them,” Jacob pointed “the enemy is amongst us. He has plotted against you, he is paid for by those who would be our masters”.
“No, no, I’m just squeamish, that’s all,” a voice blurted out from somewhere behind Brian “I feel faint at the sight of blood, I just can’t do it”. Noticing that everyone was now staring, Brian turned to see a healthy looking man desperately looking around for some sign that the people around him believed him. He was obviously a newcomer to the group, he had no idea what he’d let himself in for. This is exactly why it was infuriating that they were forbidden from publicising any of this, there was just no way to warn people what to watch out for until it was already too late. By the time they were able to speak to anyone they were always either too far gone to be talked back round to reality or staring death in the face. Every now and then they would get someone out. Brian had been one such case, many years ago, but getting so lucky was rare.
The audience rose to their feet and grasped fistfuls of the desperate man’s clothes and hair and skin. They dragged him to the front of the room, tearing cloth and ripping flesh as they went.
A figure coalesced amongst the swarming tentacles behind Jacob, inhumanly tall and thin, grey and wet with vile streaks of some foul black and red liquids, tentacles grasped Jacob’s limbs ever tighter and hunching down as if it was whispering something into his ear. It couldn’t have been speaking any human language based on the hooked and serrated beak that it was chattering with just behind the grey man’s head. Brian could see the faint glowing tendrils flowing from the grey man into the malformed beast and knew that it was far too late to save him.
The crowd had dragged their selected enemy to the front of the lectern and they released him just as the beast whipped it’s tentacles forward, piercing his chest and lifting him into the air. There was no more blood, the man’s body simply withered until it was nothing but a skeleton wrapped in some ancient parchment and crumbled away.
Some of those gathered looked genuinely shocked, and backed away as Jacob was lifted higher by the beast. Too eager to break through and anticipating a feeding frenzy the beast’s hold on them was weakened. There was still a chance, the worlds had not completely merged yet. Newer victims, who had not yet been fully controlled started to run for the door. Some made it, some were tackled to the ground by others. The violence seemed to hold the beast’s attention for a moment and Brian took his chance. He leapt across the room, sprinting down the side of the chairs until he reached the beast, he tried to yank the Jacob away from it but that only succeeded in getting the wrong sort of attention. The beast lashed out a needle like claw at him, tearing his shirt and sending splatters of his blood across the room. He backed away to avoid another slash.
There was no more protection, the decoy blood charm was already destroyed. He had to break the beast’s link to this world quickly if he was going to. Drops of his blood smoked where they landed. Grimaces of pain adorned the faces of the remaining gathered. The beast was infesting them, and they were burning up as it tried to force the two worlds completely together in one final push. Brian had no choice. He grabbed Jacob, ignoring the wild slashing from the beast’s tentacles and the mostly ineffective grabs of the rest of the audience as they tried to hold him back.
The beast never let go of Jacob, even as he stopped writhing and started to blacken, flames spouted from the holes that were being ripped through his flesh as Brian dragged him away from the beast, leaving shreds of cloth and flesh and blood clinging to the tentacles. Punishment for the suffering he was willing to inflict in pursuit of his own ends. He was the beast’s only connection between worlds. The others were only connected through him, and were already too weak to stop Brian in any meaningful way but the beast and the vast chamber from the other side were becoming more and more real.
One last pull.
Brian staggered backwards as he finally managed to pull the burning remains away from the beast. He had to run. The beast snapped at him as the original room began to fade away.
Brian grabbed at the others, now just standing disorientated, as he ran for the door.
“Everybody out,” he said, trying but failing to shout “fire”.
He made it to the door, as he kicked it clear out of the frame the vast chamber from the other side became more and more solid. The beast looked disoriented as it tried to attack, but it was an exercise in futility. The moment Brian left the area where their two worlds overlapped he was invisible to the beast.
As he collapsed onto the floor he landed on top of Jacob’s remains. Face to face with the charred embers of what used to be his eyes Brian barely noticed the containment team rushing up the stairs with their array of gizmos, gadgets and enchantments. The whole world faded away into bitter darkness.
He woke up in a hospital bed, surrounded by arcane symbols and with bandaged and painful arms. Stephen Parrish was sitting in an armchair between him and the window.
“I’m glad to see that you’re awake,” he said “I was worried. The containment team managed to shut everything down. The link was broken”.
“How many survivors?”.
“Twenty seven. From the size of the room it must have been nearly all of them. A few are badly injured, and terribly malnourished but they should recover well given time”.
Not enough. Brian knew he could have done more if he had acted sooner. If he had spent more time warning people of the all too real dangers lying in wait to trap the unsuspecting. He had done his part in limiting the damage. That was some consolation at least.
The miserable sky gloomed over the car pulling up to the side of the empty street in the city centre.