“Freddy, is this really necessary?” Cora tugged at the manacles pinning her hands above her head. She had been chained to one of the stone pillars scattered throughout the room, and could hardly see anything from the many candles placed around her. Their frenzied glow and greasy smoke made her eyes burn, and she squinted while adding, “It all seems a bit… theatrical. Don’t you think?”
Somewhere in the darkness, he laughed. “It’s essential, Cora dear. Some things require great care.”
“Oh.” She hoped she sounded satisfied instead of doubtful.
In truth, she was beginning to think none of this would be worth it. She couldn’t even make him out among the others. There must have been at least twenty people there, all wearing red robes with hoods that covered their faces. She wasn’t sure how any of them could see, which was perhaps why they merely waited among the life-sized statues circling the room, as motionless as the carved marble itself. A few could be heard panting, though, as if very excited.
“And… why am I the only one without a robe? Or for that matter, the only one without a stitch on at all?”
At that, Freddy stepped within reach of the candlelight. He had shed his suit for a ridiculous white garment that looked like a puffy bathrobe more than anything. “Because you are extremely special. A guiding light in the unformed darkness.”
“You’re too kind.” She took a close look at his eyes, which were glinting strangely. “Freddy, are you sure you’re all right? You don’t seem like your usual self, even for these kinds of parties.”
“I’m more myself than you’ve ever seen,” he said, moving over to one of the robed figures, who balanced a shallow, gilded bowl on one hand and held a fine-pointed brush in the other.
She turned her head to follow him, using the movement to hide her fingers as they plucked a hairpin free and began working on the nearest manacle. She spoke again to hide the sound of its lock clicking open. “I never understand a riddle for an answer. All I know is that this isn’t your usual idea of a fun night.”
“Sweet, simple Cora,” he said, with real affection. Then he took the bowl and brush from the figure and approached her.
She decided it was safer to keep up the charade while she was still chained in place, and kept both hands in the manacles while he dipped the brush into the bowl and painted something on her throat. It smelled like blood, and worse, it was still warm. The figures around them shifted, hunching strangely inside their robes.
Before she could do more than make a disgusted noise, he said, “I’m still your good old Freddy, who loves his cars and boats and always adds three sugar cubes to his coffee. But some time ago, I came to realize none of it made me happy. Haven’t you felt it, the boredom of having done everything? It’s an emptiness I’ve seen in all our eyes while we drink and smoke away our time. Then one man showed me how there’s so much more than this world and its undercooked pleasures.”
The brush had been moving along her body the entire time, painting strange symbols with that strange liquid, and Freddy finished with a final glyph in the center of her forehead as he added, “Your uncle was a very wise man, Cora.”
“Uncle Alfie? I’d call him a lot of things, but not that. Especially after he went a little batty and started a…” Then her voice faded. “A cult. Freddy, don’t tell me this is…”
He had already walked away, and now paused before each of the marble statues to stare into their faces. “A continuation of what he started, yes. I kept it going after he passed on. I had to. The gods must be tended to in their fretful slumber. And I paid tribute to those who came before me whenever I could, including commissioning these. They cost a mint, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The other manacle was rusted. Cora worked on it carefully, not wanting to break the hairpin. Frankly, she was barely paying attention to what Freddy said. At this point, she just wanted to get out as quickly as possible.
Then she realized he was painting a symbol on the forehead of a statue, just like he had with her. Furthermore, it was a statue of her, as naked as she was now, even though all the rest were swathed in the same silly robes that Freddy wore. She didn’t know what the implications were, but they felt disquieting all the same.
So did Freddy’s next words. “You’ll hear their whispers soon, darling, and once you do, everything will grow clear. The crawling chaos will reach out and show you its true meaning of comprehension.”
As she picked at the lock, feeling it start to give, Cora watched the cultists break their positions to light more candles, revealing a stone archway built into the wall across from her. There was also a throne off to the side, but before she could really study it, Freddy looked over. “Are you listening?”
Her fingers froze. “Oh, yes. I’m all ears. Comprehension doesn’t sound very fun. What else do the gods reward you with?”
He smiled, the one he always used while feeling particularly smug. “Power and protection. And to their most devoted followers, ascension. Alfred showed us the way, and now we’ve finally built up things to where we can do it. I’ll be the first, and just had to bring out the old man to show him that his efforts weren’t in vain.”
Then Freddy shifted enough to let her look beyond him to where the others had gathered to bow. The candles flickered and then brightened, revealing the throne in full. A wizened figure had been placed on the plush velvet, hardly more than a skeleton and some skin.
Cora’s voice rose into a shriek. “You dug him up?”
“He was never buried.” Freddy moved for the archway, then, his hands spreading in the air as if basking in invisible light. “That was a lie to keep your father unaware of our plans.”
“My father?” She lunged up against the chains, straining to see after Freddy even as the cultists returned to her. “Did you—”
“No more questions. It’s time.”
Then hands caught her shoulders and face, pinning her still even as the manacle clicked open. The fingers felt cold and clammy against her skin as they forced her to look at the archway while Freddy intoned, “The blood of our beloved leader has dried up, but yours will suffice as his closest kin. There’s no use fighting, darling. He’s had this planned since you were a child.”
As soon as the archway began glowing, Cora pulled free of the manacles and scratched at the cultists holding her. Her nails caught the hood of the nearest one and ripped it off. She shrieked and renewed her thrashing at the sight of lumpy flesh and nubby horns where there should have been a face.
They fumbled in silence despite her kicks and blows, trying to hold her without smearing the symbols on her skin. More than one bled thick, dark blood down the brighter red of their robes. It was a nightmare of features, all caught in glimpses as she struggled. Pulpy tentacles where a hand should have been. Eyes slotted like a goat’s. Two tongues in one mouth, each caught between the teeth in determination while their owner tried to keep her still.
Then Freddy approached, frowning slightly in the same manner as when he lost at billiards. An irritation over the presumption of the other person not giving him what he wanted. “Be a dear now, Cora. There’s no reason to—”
The rest of his words were cut off as she grabbed the nearest thing—an iron candleholder—and clubbed him in the head. When he crumpled into a motionless heap, his followers froze and stared at him uncertainly. It felt almost as satisfying as turning the candleholder on them until they flinched away and let her go.
Then the archway brightened into the strength of sunlight, and all the cultists shuffled for it, hands and tentacles and hooves raised high as they began chanting in a language she didn’t recognize.
Cora didn’t waste time watching anything else, instead running for the stairway up to the door. Her clothes had been left in a pile beside the first of the steps, but she stopped only to grab her revolver from its holster. As she checked to make sure they hadn’t emptied its chamber, fresh light flared, erasing the entire room. Even when she flinched and threw a hand in front of her eyes, its sheer intensity lit her skin into something translucent, revealing the blood beating through her veins.
The chanting grew increasingly wild as hot winds whipped at her hair. The ground beneath her began to shake. Then the light flickered, offering glimpses of the archway and what could be seen through its mouth.
It looked like a dark, endless void, and yet somehow that absolute blackness writhed to the rise and fall of what sounded like broken flutes. Cora blinked, deciding her dazzled eyes were seeing things, and continued for the stairs. She had the revolver cocked and ready in case a cultist came after her, but they all seemed lost in the sight before them, bodies contorting into impossible shapes while their voices disintegrated into moans and cries.
The stairway was long, long enough that falling from the top would mean sure death, but the strange light still surrounded her like a malevolent presence as she reached the door. It wasn’t locked, opening as soon as she turned it, but her relief melted into shock when it revealed the same shining nothingness. It couldn’t have been possible. There should have been a room with normal people having a normal orgy. There should have been a way to escape.
When she stretched out a hand, wondering if she’d somehow been drugged or had started hallucinating things, a tentacle lashed out from the whiteness, snaking around her wrist. She shrieked, trying to pull away, and then shot herself free.
A hollow roar filled the air as the wounded tentacle snapped back and disappeared, and even as Cora slammed the door shut again, panting, all light flickered and faded. Her skin prickled at the sudden silence, and she slowly turned around to face the archway.
The cultists had collapsed, the fabric of their robes pooling around their bodies like blood. The room had returned to something dimly lit by candles. And the archway… the archway had disappeared. How could that be?
A wet, sucking sound caught her attention, and she aimed for it without thinking. Shadows rippled and unfurled, and then she realized the archway hadn’t disappeared but had merely been hidden behind a hulking mass. A moving mass. A living creature. Even as she gasped, appendages slithered into the light cast by the nearest candles.
She didn’t even know what to aim at. There wasn’t any sign of a head or eyes. No arms or legs. Grey flesh oozed out between grasping tentacles of all shapes and sizes, some thick and hollow-seeming, and others long and whip-like. And there were so many of them, covering the creature’s entire bulk.
The creature explored with two of its longer tentacles, feeling everything within reach. From her remote vantage point, Cora felt safe enough but made sure to keep very quiet while it probed at the tile floor and iron candle stands.
It ignored the seizuring bodies of the cultists, instead feeling along the pedestals of the statues, something about its movements seeming confused or unsure. Then it reached the one sculpted to look like her. A tentacle brushed over the symbol Freddy had painted on its forehead. Within a breath, all its nearby appendages reached out, carefully wrapping around the statue.
“Oh, my,” murmured Cora, realizing it was able to perceive the glyph.
The entire mass of flesh shivered and split open into a blubbery, toothless mouth. Then the tentacles ripped the statue off its pedestal and shoved it in whole.
Cora screamed, and screamed again when the creature spasmed as if swallowing. The nearest feelers reacted to the sound, squirming along the bottom of the steps. She fired off two rounds, exploding one, but the rest kept searching, leaving slime behind. Then a long, thin tentacle whipped out, missing her by inches to smack against the door. Only her hand over her mouth kept her from shrieking a third time. She inched down the steps while it explored the ceiling.
The creature seemed to be blind, and she moved as silently as possible while trying to keep away from its many arms. Once she made it off the stairway, she searched for any nearby fabric to scrub the symbols off her skin. Some part of her realized she was panting with nerves, but she avoided making any other noise until she stepped over a prone cultist and felt a hand latch onto her ankle.
She kicked back, muffling yet another scream, but the scuffle was enough to send the creature rocking in her direction with a gurgle. She fought with the cultist’s grip and finally went for a headshot while writhing shadows fell over her.
Too late, she thought desperately, expecting the pressure of tentacles.
Instead, she heard an explosive shot. The appendages reaching for her burst into grey slime. Before she could do more than flinch, another shot rang out, taking more of the creature with it. The wounds forced it to shrink back from her with an inhuman screech.
This time, she twisted to look up the stairs and felt her heart leap into her throat. Hayes was there with a shotgun, eyes bright gold even in the surrounding darkness while he took the final steps down to her.
“Hayes!” She had never felt so relieved in her life. “I tried to get out, but when I opened the door, nothing was there. It was just—it—”
“I know,” he said, shortly. “It’s warping space. We can’t get out until it’s dead.”
While the creature repositioned itself, bleeding sluggishly, he shrugged off his suit jacket and gave it to her. “Here. Can you use a shotgun? There are more shells in the pockets. Work it over in places I can’t reach.”
“What are you going to do?”
He was taking off his tie and shirt as well. A bead of sweat ran down his neck, but he otherwise seemed calm. “Bleed it out. Maybe it doesn’t look like it, but it’s just flesh.”
“Hayes, you should have seen what it did to a stone statue. It’ll strangle you to a pulp.” When he just shook his head, already focused on the writhing creature, she caught his arm, feeling her breath catch. “I’m sorry. I got us into this.”
At that, he looked over with his wry smile. “Don’t worry about it, Bunny. I’ve done this before.”
Then a shudder went through his body, and she realized he was changing form. She didn’t know how to describe it. Plays and pictures always made it out to be something grueling on the body, but all she saw was a flicker of movement that seemed effortless, like when a bird took flight or a cat jumped. Even with the severity of the situation, she couldn’t help marveling at how big he was, certainly larger than any dog she’d seen. His thick fur was a smoky grey where it wasn’t white, but his eyes were just the same color while he gave her a final glance, as if making sure she was ready.
When she nodded, he ran at the creature, which now groped at the walls as if to tear them down. She hissed in a breath, steadying her nerves, and then reloaded the shotgun.
The creature hardly seemed to notice him until he bit into the thick tentacles close to its body and ripped one off with a jerk of his head. Cora winced against the roar that followed, and again when the other nearby tentacles lashed out at the source of pain. Hayes was already gone, ducking around to the other side and tearing into grey flesh. The creature was too soft and pulpy to withstand such brutality. Even the merest glance of Hayes’ teeth left slime gushing to the floor.
It rocked in frustration, tentacles grabbing the bodies of cultists and flinging them hard enough to break the stone columns and crack the ceiling. Dust and chips of granite scattered through the air, but Cora kept focused and began shooting. She used most of the shells on the upper half of that mountain of flesh, which was well away from Hayes and his routes of attack.
By the time her shoulder throbbed from the shotgun’s recoil, most of the creature’s mass had been reduced to lifeless splatters on the archway and floor. Its remaining appendages flailed at Hayes without coordination. His fur was covered in its blood but he didn’t even shake it off, too intent on getting yet another bite in.
Finally, the creature heaved toward her, most of its tentacles gone, oozing slime everywhere. When it roared, she used the last shell to shoot it right in the mouth. The splatter reached the ceiling. Hayes ripped at the final, twitching feelers, but the creature had already slumped, its visible skin starting to bubble.
Cora didn’t realize what was happening until Hayes raced back and nosed her to hide behind the nearest column. She could hear the creature sizzling like fat dropped into a hot frying pan. She curled herself up into a ball, burying her face into Hayes’ thick fur as a final, ear-splitting shriek shattered the air. Light flared brightly as a star, and for a heart-stopping moment, she wondered if they were about to die. Then a cold nose pushed against her neck, nuzzling where her pulse pounded until she stopped shaking.
When the light faded again, she could hear herself panting. Then she realized her fingers were clutching skin instead of fur. Shoulders, actually.
“Are you all right?” murmured Hayes against her ear, his voice rough.
She nodded, for once without words. A wave of warmth filled her, starting from the touch of his fingers and spreading throughout her body. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had been genuinely concerned about her.
A little voice deep in her mind insisted that she must have felt such attention once before, that the memories had been burned away by the sigil, but the rest of her knew that this was truly a new feeling, and it was hard to speak through it.
Just as he moved enough to look into her eyes, she said, “Strangely, I don’t think I’ve ever felt better.”
He blinked at her, as if that wasn’t the answer he expected.
When they stepped out from their shelter of stone, she found that the archway had crumbled. An especially large chunk had crushed the throne. The broken bodies of the cultists remained, but all the blood and slime from the creature had disappeared. Only a scorched stain on the floor indicated where it had been.
Cora rubbed at her face, trying to make sense of it all, and then realized there was ash on her forehead. When she checked her arms, she saw that the symbols on her skin were now mere smudges of charcoal.
Hayes was back in his trousers when he rejoined her. “I just tried the door. Everything’s back to normal. Ready to go?”
Just as she was about to ask how he had found her, they both heard a groan. Someone else had survived. What was more, Cora recognized the voice.
“Freddy?” she said, and watched him crawl free of some rubble.
“Oh hell,” he moaned, weaving while pulling himself up. His eyes remained dazed while his hand rubbed at the side of his head where she had clubbed him. “What happened? Did he reject you? He couldn’t have. You have the sacred blood.”
She scoffed. “Freddy, you louse. I can’t believe you were going to sacrifice me to that… that thing.”
As soon as the man started toward them, Hayes growled.
In response, Freddy grimaced and smoothed a hand over his disheveled hair. “Let’s make this easy. Name any sum you want in return for the girl and your silence.”
“Freddy, you should stop talking,” murmured Cora, recognizing the kind of stare Hayes was giving him.
“Sky’s the limit. Whatever she’s paying you, I can triple it.” Then he stepped close enough to offer a handshake.
Hayes grabbed him by the front of his robes with one hand and socked him in the jaw with the other. Freddy’s head snapped to the side, and he was unconscious even before Hayes let go.
“You really are something,” said Cora, watching Freddy drop to the ground again. “Do wolves ever get tired?”
He returned to her, still moving too smoothly to seem human. “Sometimes, Miss Marshall. Let’s get out of here before we start asking each other questions. The cops will be here any minute.”
She nodded and turned with him toward the stairs, but couldn’t help insisting, “Cora.”
Half a beat of silence passed before he relaxed enough to smile. “Bunny.”
She grinned back. She could live with that for now.