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The Journal of Tomas Wicker5 March, 1902

It's been a month since the maid found father's body, but only a week since my life was profoundly changed, my understanding of the waking world ripped apart as irreparably as the shattering of a pane of glass. And now, I face a decision whose potential repercussions may well destroy me. I write here in desperation hoping that, perhaps, putting ink to paper will allow me to work through the snarl my thoughts have become of late, to arrive upon some course of action that will provide the most desirable outcome. But, I am running out of time.

Where to begin? I suppose as good a place as any is when father began to lose his mind. At least, that was the only explanation I had at the time.

It started as many things do, in a small way.  Perhaps two months before his death, right before the Christmas holiday, father began to complain of a feeling that he was being watched at all times: in his offices, while lying in his bed at night, even in the gods-damned privy.  No matter where he went some malevolent presence was keeping its careful gaze fixed over the man's shoulder, stalking him like a wounded animal.  A common enough feeling, I suppose, especially for a man of father's standing.  He had any number of enemies, dozens of men he'd denied for loans or turned out of their houses when they failed to make payment on their mortgage, hundreds who’d been put out of work when he closed one factory or another.  But whereas most would laugh it off as simple paranoia, nothing at all could dissuade father from this feeling.  First, he took to carrying a pistol about his person at all times.  Shortly thereafter he acquired Maximus.  

To call the beast a dog would be an injustice; half mastiff, half hellhound, he quickly became father's constant companion.  For a certainty, the monster held no affection for me.  Our first meeting involved a lot of low rumbling growls on his part, a rapid removal from the vicinity on mine.  This scenario played out much the same every time we encountered one another.  

Despite his newly acquired security measures, father's discomfort only grew.  After perhaps two weeks, he wholly abandoned attending his offices, instead electing to conduct the entirety of his business exclusively from the house.  It was not long before he ordered the servants move his enormous oaken desk from the study into his bedchamber, the room in which he would subsequently remain until he died.    

It must have been sometime in the last week of January that Anthony, our head butler, came to me begging that I intercede on father's behalf.  I hadn't seen my progenitor since he'd retired to his apartment and had considered it something of a windfall on my behalf; it was virtually impossible for father to rebuke my behavior in person through the walls of his rooms, and I wasn't about to voluntarily enter with the one-headed spawn of Cerberus keeping watch.  Still, Anthony had always been kind to me growing up as a boy, sneaking me cakes when father sent me to bed without supper.  He was so piteously distraught that I felt it would be incongruous not to bestow him this favor. Knowing father's attitude towards me, though, I could not imagine what results he expected I would be able to achieve.  

I knocked softly upon father's chamber door before hesitantly cracking it open.  A waft of foul smelling air passed from the interior, the stale odors of human sweat and other bodily functions taking advantage of the minor opening to make their escape.  Widening the aperture to admit myself, I slipped through into the darkened recesses of the room beyond.  A small flickering candle upon the nightstand provided the room's sole source of illumination and it took my eyes several moments to adjust to the gloom.  Father was abed, seated rigidly with his back pressed against the headboard, his gaze fixed upon the door. Maximus lay on the floor next to the bed, massive head resting upon his paws, the direction of his attention adjoined to that of his master.

Father's upper lip curled into a sneer, “I'd expected Anthony would send someone to try to talk sense into me.  I never would have guessed it'd be you.”

My own mouth raised in a smirk I only half felt. “Pleasure to see you too, father.  I told him as much, but he simply insisted it be me.  Went on about 'familial bonds' and some such nonsense.”

Father's croaking laugh turned into a hacking cough.  He struggled to compose himself, clearing his throat and spitting a thick wad of phlegm into a bucket sitting next to the candle.  I started towards him.

“My God, you're ill!  We need to call a physician ...” I stopped in my tracks as a familiar rumble issued from the bedside.  The hound had raised his head and was staring straight at me, bestial eyes reflecting in the candlelight with a sinister malevolence, his lips drawn back to reveal the glinting fangs beneath.  Father glared at the animal.

“At ease, Maximus.  We've nothing to fear from this pale excuse for a son.”  The beast ceased his grumbling and returned head to paws, but kept his fearsome gaze fixed upon me.  Father turned back to me, his skeletal grin perfectly complementing the dark hollows beneath his eyes. “So fearful.  So weak.  However did you spring forth from me?  Or better yet find the strength to murder my beloved Miriam on your cursed entrance into this world?”

Inwardly I frowned.  True, this was familiar conversational ground for father and I, but I’d done nothing in immediate memory to earn this current round of blatant hostility.  I looked a bit more closely at the man sitting across from me, the set of his shoulders, the shake of his hands, and perceived something that had ‘til then been hidden from me: he was terrified.

“Father, you can confide in me.  Despite our feelings for each other, I’m still your son.  Let me help you, man!”

The careful mask father wore slipped ever so slightly and I saw the exhaustion hidden beneath.  He opened his mouth to speak.  Perhaps, had he told me what he contemplated revealing in that moment, things would have turned out differently.  But he did not, and they did not.  Instead, Maximus let out a bark and began growling once again, visibly startling father and firmly removing him from whatever precipice he had been prepared to traverse.  

“Quiet, Maximus!” He shook his head, “I dare not, Tomas.  No, the things I now know, what they have done to me, I would not share, even with one I despise as much as you.  Leave me.  You may tell Anthony to bring me a bit of soup.  That should pacify the mother hen enough that we won't need to repeat this audience.”

Seeing that any further attempts at conversation would be rebuffed, perhaps violently, I returned to the door.  As I passed into the hallway, father's voice whispered behind me, almost too softly to hear, “Beware the Dark, my son.  Lest it take you as well.” I half-turned to speak, but his eyes were already closed as he fell into a fitful sleep.  What he meant, I could not conjecture to guess.  Either way, those were the last words father ever spoke to me.

Marx Industries, The Present

“Sir, there’s been a disturbance.”

I look up from where I sit at my desk, pen poised over a stack of papers awaiting my signature, and find my head of security standing in the door to my office.

“Yes, James?”

“At the perimeter fence, Mr. Marx.  Cameras picked up an individual moving around in the woods.”

“And that constitutes a disturbance?”  

“He’s got wire cutters with him, sir.  Appears to have made a hole in the fence.”  

“I see.  So he’s entered the grounds then?”

“No, sir.  For now it looks like his plan was just to create the entrance.  My thought is he’s planning on coming back at a later time when he can move around more discreetly.”

“You mean at night.”

“Yes, sir.”

I feel a tension headache start to form at the center of my forehead and massage the bridge of my nose with my thumb and forefinger.

“Do we have an identification?”

“Roger, sir.  Sent some stills over to my contact at the Bureau.  His name is Jack Monahan.  He’s a PI.”

“Perfect.  Any idea who his client is?”

“Based on call records to his office, it’s the Benson girl’s parents, sir.”

“Jesus.  First time we move away from street urchins and we get an investigator on our doorsteps less than three weeks later.  How did you fuck this up, James?”

He shifts his weight nervously, eyes fixed on the floor.  I feel bad for the man.  It’s a deep game I’m playing, the stakes incredibly high.  I’ve had to keep my strategy to myself, lest everything be lost.  It’s not James’s fault that I’ve been slowly having him shift where his teams pick up test subjects to more and more significantly populated areas, praying someone would finally take notice. 

“Not sure, Mr. Marx.  The guy is good.  Initial intel shows he’s cleared some pretty out there cases over the years.”

A thrill of excitement passes through me.  This could be my chance to undo the evil I’ve been made a part of.  But to do that, to ensure there is no doubt in anyone’s mind exactly what is going on here, I’ll have to hurt even more people.

“Fantastic.” 

I close my eyes for a moment, thinking.  

“And you believe he’ll come back tonight?”

“Best guess, sir.  Assuming he doesn’t know we saw him make his entrance, he’ll want to use it before it has the chance of being discovered.”

“All right, James.  We are going to clean up this mess.  It’s not going to be nice, and it’s not going to be pretty.  Just the opposite, but it will be done.  Get me the Benson’s number and a burner.  I’ll make the call myself and get them here tonight.  Then auto-set the cages to release the subjects into Sector Eleven once it’s dark, let’s say eight o’clock.  And put a call to everyone who’s not totally critical on the second and third shifts to take the night off.  I’m talking gate guards and no one else on duty.”

James frowns.

“But, sir, that will let Monahan get onto the facility uninhibited.”

“Exactly.  I want him here, and I want the test subjects to take care of him.  The Bensons too.  I’ll lead them out to Sector Eleven myself.  I’ll want you out there ahead of us to get a signal fire going to attract them.  But no one else knows about this, understood?”

“Are you sure, sir?  There are easier ways to disappear someone.”

I bob my head in acknowledgement.

“Easier, yes.  But not without bringing at least one other person into our trust, or you and I carrying out the deed ourselves which would open us to exposure.”

James nods, a bit reluctantly.

“Got it, sir.  I’ll bring you the throwaway and get their number for you.”

“Thank you, James.”

He leaves and I sit back in my chair with a sigh, my brain already compiling a list of things that could go wrong with my plan.  But I’m running out of time.

“What are you doing, Mr. Marx?”

The voice of the man who seemingly melts from the collected shadows in the corner of my office is a deep rumbling bass and never fails to send a shiver down my spine.  I know what he is capable of.

“Hello, Creed.  Been here long?”

He steps towards me, a giant of a man almost seven feet tall, sunlight from the large bay window behind me shining off the bald cap of his skull.  A telltale glint in his eyes betrays his inner suspicion.

“What are you doing?” he asks again. 

“Dealing with a problem.  One that has found its way to my doorstep while fulfilling my obligations to you and your mistress, I might add.”

His eyes flash dangerously.

“Do not presume to blame myself or the All-Mother for your failings, Mr. Marx.  And please do stop being so intentionally obtuse.  I am not referring to your need to dispose of this detective and the girl’s parents, but rather your proposed course of action.”

I shake my head in exasperation.

“What do you want me to do then, Creed? Hire a hit man?  Gun the Bensons down in their home and this Monahan in his office?”

“There are other ways.  You know this.”

“This will work.  When the children are done with them there won’t be enough left to find, let alone be identified.  Trust me.”

This elicits a grin from the man, his lips curling back to reveal the unnaturally sharp, white teeth behind them.  

“Trust you, Mr. Marx?”

I stare at him, my gaze resolved.

“Yes.  The way I trusted you when you came to me and told me you could save Rebecca in exchange for Olivia.  I’ll take care of this myself.  You’ll see, you and your mistress both.  This is the best way.”

Now he chuckles, his laugh akin to the rumbles of thunder emanating from a dangerous storm just appearing on the horizon.

“Very well then, Mr. Marx.”  He steps back into the corner, his body somehow joining with the collected shadows there, exiting as abruptly as he arrived.  His voice echoes from some far way off even after my view of him has been lost, “but remember well … failure demands reprisal.”

I wait for several long minutes until I am reasonably sure Creed is gone.  I shudder.  There is no true way to ensure privacy from the man, if a man is indeed what he is, the driving force behind my having to keep my cards so damned close to my chest. 

Considering paying a visit to the liquor cabinet situated against the far wall, I give my head a small shake and instead exit my office, making my way across the compound of the pharmaceutical plant and towards the residence I keep on the grounds.  Several of my employees smile and wave when they see me and I return their greeting as genuinely as I am able, internally aware how much of a façade this entire operation is.  

I reach my house and move to the first floor bedroom.  The nurse on duty gives me a tight lipped smile and a nod as she stands and exits the room, leaving me with my wife.   I keep thinking that I’ll eventually get used to seeing Olivia like this, tubes snaking and protruding from virtually every orifice, her eyes half closed and glazed, the surrounding machines blinking and beeping as they monitor her various functions, but even after two years it is still something of a shock.  My wife is dead in every sense but a purely physical one, yet in my mind I still see her happy and whole, a smile on her beautiful face as the wind ripples through her hair.  And though I’d make the choice over and again, it still pains me to know that I am the one responsible for putting her here.

I sit with her, holding her hand.  For the thousandth time, I tell her I’m sorry, if not for my decision then for its necessity.  I hope if there is an afterlife she will forgive me.  I quietly tell her of my plan.  It’s a risk; Creed could be listening in.  But I speak in whispers, and I’ll go absolutely mad if I don’t share my secrets with someone.  After a time, I glance at my watch, the hour hand edging towards the six at the bottom.  I need to get going.  Replacing Olivia’s hand at her side I exit the room and find the nurse to retake her post.

I move down a series of twisting hallways until at least reaching one that dead ends at a thick oak door fitted with a cutting edge electronic lock.  Placing my thumb on the sensor I bend over and allow the laser eye to scan my retina.  I hear the soft click of tumblers turning over as the lock disengages.  I pull on the handle and the door swings open on quiet hinges, accompanied by a soft whoosh of air escaping from the space behind it.  Casting a glance behind me, I step through the opening and begin to descend a long flight of stairs lit by the artificial glow of fluorescent lights, the door automatically swinging shut behind me, the heavy locking mechanism falling back into place.  Moving deeper and deeper beneath the house, my steps are steady and sure, even though my stomach is in knots.  Unlike the surprise I feel every time I see my wife, I’ve long become accustomed to this feeling of dread that latches upon me when I visit my daughter.  

The Journal of Tomas Wicker, 6 March, 1902

I thought it best to collect myself before continuing.  To be sure, there was no love lost between father and me.  Still, to recall the nature of his passing is most distressing; there are some things I would not wish on any man, regardless the level of my personal affection towards him.  And then there is the strange nature of things that have occurred since then, their wholly uncanny nature almost insisting I get my thoughts in order before attempting to annotate them here.

Father died during the early morning hours of February 2nd.  As I mentioned, I had not seen the man since our audience the week before.  My conversation with him made some small effort towards allaying Anthony's concerns, but it did absolutely nothing to extrude father from his self-imposed isolation.  In truth, the only individual who had any kind of interaction with him was whichever maid had currently drawn the task of acting as his personal valet.  Anthony had insisted that someone be at father's beck and call at all hours, in the event he had want of anything or would, miraculously, overcome his fears and venture out of his chambers.  I believe the man would have undertaken the task himself, but for the fact he had an entire household to run making it quite impossible.  On the night in question, father was attended by Lucy, a young woman who had been on our staff for perhaps six months.  I have adapted her account of the events surrounding father’s death.

Over the course of the past several weeks what had begun as nothing more than a chair positioned outside of father's door had evolved into a kind of semi-permanent guard station, complete with a small cot for the attendant lady to earn some modicum of shuteye throughout the night.  It was upon that very bed that Lucy was sleeping when she was awoken by a most dreadful screaming.  Roughly torn to consciousness she stumbled from the bed to father's door and frantically tried the latch, finding it locked.  

Fully awake, she could discern that the shouting was accompanied by a fierce howling and barking; Maximus, apparently locked in mortal combat with person or entity unknown.  Weeping from fear, Lucy continued to struggle with the unyielding handle, the screams growing higher in pitch, now accompanied by the wet ripping noises of the hound mauling some unfortunate individual.  The cries of agony became choked as the beast found the soft spot in the hollow of the neck, until the sharp report of a pistol caused all sound to cease.  Lucy drew back from the noise of the gunshot.  After a moment the door, heretofore unwilling, creaked gently open of its own accord.

With shaking hands, the girl pulled the door further outward, the widening aperture offering a view unto a scene of utter bedlam.  Though the only light was still the dim guttering candle flame from my previous visitation, it was still sufficient to illuminate the mass of carnage occupying the center of the bedroom in the space next to the unlit hearth.  Here was father, his eyes wide and glassy in death, the smell of gunpowder permeating the air from the expended pistol he held clutched in his hand.  And weighing down his chest was the enormous bulk of Maximus, awful fangs buried in father’s unprotected throat, an exit wound the size of a man’s fist still pumping blood from the beast’s torso.  

Of whatever may have prompted this attack, there was no sign.

The girl was understandably distraught, but eventually she collected herself enough to stumble to the servants’ quarters and wake Anthony.  The poor butler was an absolute wreck when he came to inform me of the news, pale and wholly shaken. As disturbed as I was myself by the events, admittedly more due to their incredibly violent nature than the fact that father had passed on, I still truly felt sorry for loyal Anthony.  Law enforcement officials were summoned and, despite the absurdist nature of father’s demise having been murdered by his own hound, there was literally no other rational conclusion for them to reach.  Such was my own interpretation of events, and as such it would have remained had I never been contacted by the man I know only as Creed.   

After father died, and after suffering through the tedium of his funeral services, I spent the next several days reveling in my newfound freedom from an oppressive patriarchy.  With the entirety of father’s fortune now mine at hand, I had the means to live as opulently as I dared, and felt no compunctions to do anything otherwise.  I lost track of time for a bit, between the alcohol and the opium and the vast banquet of women upon which to feed my fleshly appetites.  It was in such a state, drunk, stoned, and half naked in the middle of a very exclusive whore house, that the devil found me.  

At the time I attributed his sudden terrifying appearance, seemingly stepping directly from the shadows of the room, as a trick played by my overstimulated senses.  I’ve since come to realize the truth of the matter; the man possesses abilities far beyond mortal ken.  He found me there, lifted me by the neck as if plucking a flower and, when I deigned protest, stunned me with a sharp blow across the face with the back of his hand.  The women around me lay undisturbed through this entire encounter, but whether from their own liberal self-medication or some more nefarious means, I know not.  

His eyes were black as pitch, and as he held me by the throat in one hand, raised off my feet by his prodigious strength, they glinted malevolently.  Somehow, the world shifted, the very air warping and flexing.  Abruptly my reality snapped back to its normal state, and Creed dropped me to the hard surface now below us.  Struggling to catch my breath, I crawled away from where I lay at his feet, desperately attempting to flee my assailant.  I’d gone perhaps a dozen feet when the ground in front of me dropped off suddenly, a void opening down to black water rippling far below.   A fierce wind howled about me, grasping at my scant clothing, greedily seeking to pull me away into the abyss.  Scrambling back from the precipice, I sat and looked about myself, bewildered.  Lights twinkled in the distance; shivering from the cold night air, I recognized the location though I’d only ever seen it in photographs.  Somehow, I found myself sitting upon one of the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge. 

I felt the immense presence that was Creed approach from behind me.  

“Hello, Mr. Wicker.”  I could hear the amusement rippling through his voice.  “My name is Creed.  I am here to present you with a proposal on the behalf of my mistress.”

“And what?” I asked, attempting to drum up anger to subdue the fear that was currently fighting to control me. “Physically beating and abducting your prospective business partners is your preferred method of introduction then?” I realized that my position, shaking, barely dressed and sprawled on the floor, was not one to illicit fear in even the most timid of adversary.  And Creed was not timid.  

His grin was an evil thing, the starlight reflecting white off of his sharp teeth.  “Typically no, Mr. Wicker.  But in this case I felt it would be … the most efficient means of restoring your faculties to a point we can hold productive conversation.  And,” he indicated the bridge about us in a sweeping gesture, “the easiest way to dispel any doubts you may have regarding my veracity or ability.”

“I see,” I frowned, “and, presuming of course that I have been wholly dazzled, what does a holder of such immense talent and powerful magicks possibly want from one such as I who, though rich and powerful in my own right, am but a man?”

“Allow me to explain, Mr. Wicker.  Several generations ago, a bargain was struck between my mistress and your ancestors.  In return for a specific payment, my mistress would grant the holder of her totem vast material wealth along with abilities that would allow the individual to circumvent certain natural laws. One condition was that the next familial generation be appraised of the agreement upon reaching the age of twenty-three.  Your father,” Creed practically spat the word, “not only violated the terms by failing to bring you into the fold at the appropriate age, but recently failed to make his due payment.  There are harsh penalties for reneging on the contract once bound, but the benefits of upholding your end of the bargain are truly magnificent to behold. 

“Since this covenant has been in place for some time now,” Creed flashed his sharp smile again, “my mistress bade me present you the option of taking up where your father so unwisely left off. She has generously allowed you one week to decide. I will seek your answer then.”

The man disappeared, the darkness of the night enfolding him like a lover, leaving me half naked and freezing on top of the bridge. 

Now here I sit, forced into a dilemma by my father’s actions. What to choose? The man most obviously had something to do with father’s demise, its fantastic nature easily leading even the most skeptical mind to such a conclusion. Do I dare throw in with such a creature, regardless of the animosity that was present between father and myself? Do I dare refuse? His deadline approaches, scant hours remain before my decision is due. God, what to do?

Marx Industries, The Present

The steps at last terminate in a long hallway, its stark whiteness further accentuated by the fluorescent lights continuously humming in the ceiling, their artificial illumination granting an antiseptic, hospital-like feel to the enclosure.  The hallway is about ten feet across, the right-hand wall the same colorless hue as the floor.  The left wall, however, is actually a series of windows, each looking into a room measuring exactly fifteen feet by fifteen feet.  I know this because they were built precisely to my specifications.  The hall extending the length of a football field, my destination lies at the end.  I pass one window after another keeping my head and eyes straight ahead, consciously ignoring the jagged motions I can just make out in my periphery, glass almost a foot thick dulling the horrific sounds and screams from within the cells.  As it does every time, a small voice somewhere inside poses a question to me.

Why do you do this?  Why not move her to the room closest to the entryway?

And, as I do every time, I reply with a lie.

“Penance.  I need to see what I’ve done.”

Then why aren’t you looking? The voice admonishes.

I cannot bear to admit the truth to myself:  I am intensely terrified of my daughter, the false safety granted by keeping her even a few extra feet away the actual reason she remains in the farthest cell.  I love Rebecca more than anything in the world.  This simple fact continues to drive my legs forward one step at a time down the hundred yard, hospital white hallway, but only barely.  After what seems much longer than the sixty seconds my odyssey actually takes, I reach journey’s end.  Now the hard part.    

I turn, at last allowing my attention to shift away from the empty space immediately in front of me and instead through the thick window now standing before me and into the cell beyond.

Similar to the hallway I have just traversed, each cell is well lit by fluorescent lights within, their steady glow dimmed during nighttime hours to, in theory, allow the cell’s occupant to sleep.  Of course, they are never shut off completely, allowing for easier visual observation; besides, I am certain none of the subjects sleep.  And yet, through some trick of my eyes, the interior of the room I currently observe is somehow shadow steeped, as if the manmade light from the fixtures above was being consumed by a living, vociferous darkness.

Other than this strange optical illusion, the cell itself is relatively unremarkable, containing basic pieces of furniture and painted in pastels that some psychologist once determined would serve as a mental touchstone to foster calm and tranquility.  The far wall is covered with what can easily be recognized as a child’s drawings, the bright colors and contrasts used to accomplish them standing out on the white paper despite the unnatural dimness of the room.  Upon a more thorough inspection, as I now give them, one observes that the nature of those artistic expressions are not those typically found in a seven year old’s body of work.  They cover a wide variety of subjects, from dense jungles to strange caves and everything in between, but it is the grotesque focus of the drawings that are particularly off-putting.  Several catch my eye.

The first depicts a house surrounded by a dark fence.  Despite the crudeness of the artist’s rendition, something about the structure possesses an almost malevolent character, as if it were a predator that has insidiously disguised itself and lies waiting in ambush.  The uppermost window of the house where an attic would be has shattered outward, the man who apparently hurtled through it now impaled upon the wickedly sharp spikes topping the fence.   Red crayon has been liberally applied to illustrate the blood spurting from his wounds.  The outline of another figure appears to be watching the entire affair from through a second story window of the house.  The young artist only chose to accentuate one detail of this second character; its eyes, colored the same shade of red as the dying man’s blood.  

A second drawing is of the sea, the waves drawn as a child would with a series of spiky blue scribbles.  But from the deep rises an enormous sea serpent, a leviathan that dwarfs the tiny ships brushed aside from its glistening blue and green coils.  Its enormous mouth, full of double and triple rows of sharp fangs, is shown open wide, as though it means to consume the world.  The creature is the kind of thing often shown on old nautical charts where ‘here there be monsters’, but something about this simple depiction gives me a feeling of apprehension that none of those ancient maps ever could; I imagine it is the same sort of chill a person would ascribe to someone having walked over their grave. 

As grotesque as these first drawings are, I have seen them before. It is the third that literally takes my breath away.  It is new since my last visit.  

Much of the paper has been scribbled over black to show the emptiness of space, only broken by a few, lonely stars twinkling far off in the distance.  The main focus of the picture involves a circular platform somehow suspended within the void.  At one end of the platform is a raised dais, an altar resting on top of it.  A tiny figure, a child perhaps, lies prone upon the altar, colored yellow with small squiggles emanating from it, suggesting a quality of faint luminescence.  On the dais steps are two figures, one with its arms raised in fervent prayer, the other cowering where he kneels close to the other’s feet.  Above the ensemble, considering the offering upon the altar, is the barest hint of an enormous form, a humanoid thing, its maw elongated like that of a wolf, and terrible to behold.  The entire scene is given a unique view, as if the observer were standing on the opposite end of the platform from the dais.  This first person perspective is partially blocked on either side by two dark grey pillars.  A pair of arms, chained at the wrists, the manacles attached to ringlets driven into the columns, are depicted in the foreground as though the observer is being held captive and forced to watch the obscene rite about to take place. 

I know exactly what the scene depicts; it’s where I sold my soul, and my wife’s, to save my daughter’s life.  Rebecca is upon the altar, Creed the priest, and I the trembling wretch.  And the prisoner…  

“She wasn’t there yet,” my voice is almost a whisper.  “The acolytes didn’t bring Olivia until after the creature was absorbed into Creed.”

“I know,” Rebecca answers, “but I like to think of it better this way.  Don’t you?”

With an effort I pull my attention away from the drawing and focus on my daughter perched on the end of her bed.  Her smile is beatific, the blond ringlets of her hair bobbing playfully upon her shoulders.  “Hi, daddy.”  

I consider the child before me, ever the appearance of a whole, healthy seven year old.  Unless you look into her eyes; those are much older.  

“Hello, Rebecca.  How are you feeling today?”

“Great as ever!  But boooored.” Her legs swing impatiently. “Mr. Creed says I’m going to get to have some fun tonight.”

I hesitate for a moment.  “He’s been to see you?”

Her grin is infectious.  “Of course, daddy!  Mr. Creed is my best friend.  He comes to talk to me all the time.  He says you’re going to have some people come over for me to play with later!”

I sigh.  “Not…not you, darling.  The other children.  I want to save you for something special.”

Her lip is a pout.  “But daaaaddyyy,” she whines.

I try to be firm.  “Not this time, Rebecca.  Later.”

Inside the cell, Rebecca has risen to her feet.  Her face is scrunched in anger, her hands clenched into tiny fists.  

“That’s. Not. FAIR!”

Abruptly the air in the hallway takes on a charged feel, as if a bolt of lightning were about to strike where I’m standing.  Rebecca’s eyes have turned completely red, glowing like embers fresh from the forge.  The shadows that had previously been only hinted at in the room begin to coalesce around her, swirling and forming into a shape not unlike the beast depicted in the drawing.  My mind works furiously.

“It’s a surprise!”  I manage to blurt out.

Just as suddenly, everything snaps back to normal.  The shadows return to their normal unnatural state within the cell and Rebecca falls back onto the bed with a laugh.

“I love surprises!” She giggles.  “Besides, it’s not that big of a deal.  After all,” she smiles, her eyes glinting dangerously. “I can leave here whenever I want to.”

“I just…wanted to let you know,” I stutter, not sure how to handle this last bit of information, “why you won’t be going tonight.  With the others.”

“That’s ok, daddy.  I forgive you.  Just make sure it’s a good surprise.  Because if it’s noooot,” she says in a sing-song voice, “I’ll be very cranky!”

I shudder.  “Of course, darling.  I have to go get ready.  I’ll come see you again.  Soon.”

“M’kay, love you, daddy!  Oh, daddy,” she calls as I turn to leave, “Mr. Creed said he hopes you aren’t going to try anything…untoward?  I don’t know what that means.  But he said if you did then I’d get to play with you.”  She smiles again.  “Is your surprise untoward, daddy?”

I force a smile of my own.  “Of course not, Rebecca.  I’ll see you soon.”  

With an effort I turn and head back down the hall towards the entry to the holding facility.  During the return trip I don’t even have to make an effort to keep my attention away from the other cells’ occupants, so intently am I focused on my inner thoughts.  Tonight is perhaps the only opportunity I’ll have to extract myself from this hell my life has become, not even considering the horrific ramifications my work could have upon the world.  Do I dare take my chance?  Do I dare not?

The Journal of Tomas Wicker, 7 March, 1902

It is over.  And yet it has just begun.  My God, I am in no state to write, but write I must for if I do not, if I allow myself even the barest moment of respite, then my rational mind shall reject what happened as the product of a mere fever dream.  Impossible.  And yet, it happened, I know deep in the marrow of my bones that it did.  There is surely proof enough.

Shortly after finishing yesterday’s journal entry I made up my mind to reject Creed’s offer.  Perhaps that is not wholly true; I think a part of me knew from the moment that he ripped me from where I lay sprawled in the brothel that there was no possible way he and I should ever come to terms.  Surprising, perhaps, and at a cursory glance sufficiently out of character for me, the drunken, whoring hedonist that I am.  Here the man was offering the world at my literal fingertips, wealth and abilities far beyond my mortal comprehension, and all I had to do was bend the knee to he and his mistress, whatever they might be.  When have I ever cared for others?  When have I considered the repercussions of my actions? 

But no, it couldn’t balance.  I had just escaped from under father’s withering judgment and authority in the most permanent way imaginable.  Accepting Creed’s offer would be to take up another, unfamiliar set of manacles and reshackle myself to a set of masters wholly unknown but terrible beyond doubt.  And despite the mutual hatred between father and myself, the fact remained that we were blood.  Creed killed him, the devil implied this as clearly as possible, his arcane abilities obviously having controlled father’s hellhound as his means of execution.  On some level Creed released me from the emotional cage I had been in for many years now, a prisoner to father’s disapproval, yet it was not his place to do so.  In this way, he robbed me of any chance that I would have ever had to repair that relationship on my own.

Then there was the matter of my final conversation with father, his concern for me despite his hatred, holding back the knowledge of this pact despite his obvious understanding of the reprisals he was inviting, warning me against the Dark.  What could he have been referring to, if not this creature Creed and the mistress he served?  I may be self-absorbed and primarily interested in my pursuit of pleasure, but I am no fool.  I would have been remiss to cast aside the warnings emanating from a quarter so wholly unexpected or warranted.  

And so I prepared.  I was sure that the rejection of Creed’s offer would not be taken with goodwill, and that I needed be ready to defend myself.  Sitting in the study I loaded father’s pistol, the one that had played its part in his and Maximus’ mutual destruction, the workings of firearms not unknown to me.  It was an ancient dueling pistol, a ten inch flintlock, and had been in my family for many years.  I had no assurances such a weapon would even harm a being of Creed’s nature, but what other choice did I have?  A physical altercation was obviously out of the question, his stature more than capable of manhandling me even without taking his unnatural abilities into account. 

Accordingly, I removed the ball and, taking a sharp knife, with some effort carved a rough cross into the projectile.  I am not a man of faith by any means, though recent events give me cause to reconsider that position, but desperation is a remarkable catalyst for innovation.  Upon further consideration, I placed the bullet in my pocket and took a short walk to St. Peter’s Cathedral.

I had not entered the church in many years, since I’d been a boy really, but reasoned that as I would have no chance of correcting any missteps I may as well take as many precautions as possible.  High gothic arches sweeping above me, the enormous stain glass windows dark with night fully set in, the place of worship was wholly abandoned save for one old woman in the front pew, eyes closed in concentration, her fervent prayer only occasionally interrupted by a hacking, phlegm riddled cough.  

Not wanting to disturb her, I quietly moved to the rear of the cathedral where my destination lay, the still pool of blessed water quiet and undisturbed, surface clear as glass.  Slipping the bullet into my hand I dipped it into the water and, because it felt right, made the sign of the cross over it before returning the cold metal to my pocket.  Preparing to leave for home I paused, noting the bank of vigil candles softly burning unattended near the side of the vestibule.  After a moment’s hesitation I slipped a hundred dollar bill into the collection box before using a match to give flame to one of the unlit candles.  I dropped to my knees then, but rather than entreating a higher power, I thought of father, how he had been in my youth before his intense disappointment and hatred had completely come between us.  In a flash of insight I realized that at least a portion of this enmity must have come from the weight of the pact he had chosen to bear.  I asked him, wherever he was, to give me the strength to do what he had been unable.

I returned home, brushed aside dear Anthony who tried to engage me as I came through the door, and proceeded to return my newly consecrated bullet to its ready position in the barrel of the pistol.  I sat down in a high backed chair near the cold fireplace in father’s room, mere feet from where my progenitor met his demise, my firearm resting close to one hand, a glass of good brandy at the other, and waited for the appointed hour.  

Time seemed to cease its passage, the ticking of the clock in the far corner dragging out so that a year could span within a single second. I thought about the events leading up to this moment and wondered, not for the first time, on Creed’s comment that father had failed to make his due payment.  What could it possibly have been? 

“Have you made a decision, Mr. Wicker?”

The words startled me, emanating from the corner of the room as Creed stepped away from the shadows gathered there.  I swallowed hard.

“Indeed.  I have elected to accept your proposal.”

“You have, hmmm?” Creed’s eyes flicked to where the firearm rested next to me, the ghost of a smile on his face.  “Are you sure?”

I opened my mouth to continue but he cut me off.

“Because a casual observer seeing your actions earlier this evening would not reach such a conclusion.  In fact, one might think you were considering something,” his eyes grew hard, “duplicitous.”

I was found out.  

I snatched the pistol and raised it toward the fiend but he moved with inhuman quickness, the dark shadows collecting about him throwing him forward in a surge.  With a roar he was upon me, his first blow sending the pistol spinning from my grasp, the second taking me across the face and flinging me onto my back in the chair.  

Spots erupted before my eyes, first at the strike of his hand, and again when my head bounced against the ground.  Dazed I managed to roll from the chair and began to pull myself across the floor, desperately searching for my lost weapon.  Pain erupted from my lower back as I felt Creed plant a heavy boot directly upon my spine.

“Oh, my dear Mr. Wicker, you should not have done that,” Creed sneered, “now look at the unpleasantness you’ve caused yourself.  He bent down, gripping my hair and lifting me into the air to face him, my entire weight painfully supported by my scalp.  “No matter,” his grin showed off his white teeth, as wickedly sharp as ever, “I shall enjoy devouring your impertinent soul.”

“Tomas?”  His voice was quiet and unbelieving where Anthony stood in the door.  With a snarl, Creed turned to my unfortunate butler and threw up an arm towards him.  Ropey tendrils of darkness flew across the room, enveloping dear Anthony and bodily yanking him off his feet towards us.  Almost casually, Creed tossed me away like a child’s rag doll.  I struck against the far wall and fell to the floor in a heap.  With a considerable effort I managed to raise my head to observe the unfolding scene.  

Anthony was held in midair, obviously struggling but unable to move, suspended by the same dark limbs that had pulled him into the room.  With an overwhelming tenderness Creed gently pressed his hand against my butler’s cheek before, extending the first two fingers of his right hand, he drove them through the man’s eyes.  

Anthony let loose a horrific screech, his body twitching convulsively.  By some means far removed from my realm of comprehension, the darkness formed itself about my servant, clinging like a second skin and, beginning at his feet, began to eat away at his body.  Anthony’s choking screams grew higher in pitch as the darkness devoured him bit by bit.  Whatever metaphysical slurry it dissolved him into was directly pumped into the fiend Creed through his fingers still lodged in my poor butler’s eye sockets, the devil’s head cast back and eyes closed in a picture of ecstasy.  

Shaking my head to try to clear it, I managed to tear my attention away from Anthony’s demise.  Fortune smiled as my eyes fell upon the pistol laying on the floor.  I scrabbled on hands and knees, snatching it into my hand and heaving myself to a standing position.  

“Creed!” I screamed, pointing the gun at him.  “Release him, monster!”

He turned to me, eyes black as the darkness still entombing all that remained of my butler, the only light about him the white glint of his tooth filled smile.  

“Mr. Wicker,” he grinned, his voice rumbling like a distant storm, “do you really think your weapon will have any effect on me?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged.  And pulled the trigger.  

The round struck true, the ball blowing off the top half of Creed’s bald skull.  His grin finally fled his face, lips forming into a small ‘o’ of surprise, before a flood of living darkness erupted from where the crown of his head used to be, an explosion that enveloped the entire room and everything in it. 

My world turned black.  And in that moment, it ceased to be my world.     

Marx Industries, The Present

“Monahan’s on the compound, Mr. Marx.” James’s voice comes in clearly through the earbud I am wearing.  He is currently sitting in the compound security office monitoring the various observation cameras situated around the perimeter.

“Thank you, James,” I respond in the small microphone secured to the cuff of my sleeve.  “You set charges to remote start the signal fire?”

“Yes, sir.  And rather than auto-set the cages as we discussed, I thought it would be better to have you tell me when to release them manually, since you’re having me hang back here.  Safer anyway.”

“Hmm.  I suppose so.  For me at least.  Just be careful.  The children are extremely dangerous, do not take them lightly.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice, sir.  I’ve seen what they can do.  Oh, the hunting platform is set up in a tree on the southwest corner of the clearing.”

“Copy, southwest corner.  All right, I’m taking the Bensons out now.  Give me ten minutes and then ignite the fire.  Another ten and hit the cages.”

“Roger, sir, good luck.”

“I’ll need it,” I murmur to myself as I press a button on the side of my wrist watch to start the timer.  I gently take hold of Olivia’s hand at her side, and sit quietly for a few moments, the soft beeps of the machines all that break the heavy silence.  There is a good chance I won’t survive the evening and wanted to spend a few moments with my wife, should this be the last opportunity I have.  But now, my time is up.  With a sigh I heave to my feet, bend and kiss Olivia gently on the forehead before turning and exiting the room.  I proceed to the foyer to meet Chase and Molly, the desperate parents of June Benson.  I force what I hope is a winning smile on my face.  

“Mr. and Mrs. Benson. So pleased you were able to make it.”  The pair sit huddled together on a bench just inside the front door.  “I apologize for the delay, but some urgent business came up.”  I couldn’t very well tell them that I had to keep them waiting until, hopefully, Monahan would arrive.  

Creed’s suspicions and Rebecca’s earlier comments had me running scared.  So, rather than insist the Bensons tell no one of their plans as I’d originally intended, I instead ordered them to inform Mr. Monahan his services were no longer required.  I calculated this would serve as proof I could use to show Creed I had reconsidered my actions and that I would, as suggested, summarily deal with the detective in a more traditional manner.  The reality was I prayed Monahan’s sense of honor, knowing that children’s lives were at stake, would force him to continue his investigation as planned, despite the Bensons’ dismissal.  If he didn’t, I would miss my chance at extricating myself from my personal hell, but at least I would be able to extend my own life for a little while longer.  I had been hopeful he’d show though.  This last was perhaps grasping at straws, but when straws are all one has at hand, you must make do.  And so far it seems to be paying off.  

Chase stands up.  The man is of middling height, slender build, thinning blond hair, and nothing to speak of physically.  Still, I have to give him credit, he makes an admirable effort to confront me with a good measure of resolve.

“More urgent than our missing daughter, Mr. Marx?”

Inwardly I grimace, praying it doesn’t show through my grin.  

“Of course not, Mr. Benson.  May I call you, Chase?”

“Well, I suppose…”

“Then of course not, Chase.  In fact it was very much relevant to your daughter.  I was speaking to an associate of mine to ensure we would be able to conduct your reunion this evening.  You know how these things go. Paperwork.”

“I can’t say that I do, Mr. Marx.  On the phone you said it had something to do with…”

“A new disease, yes, very contagious.  Mutated form of the bird flu.  Your daughter was taken into quarantine at the school.  I truly do apologize we were unable to inform you of the situation, but I am under some rather strict nondisclosure protocols from the federal government.  They want to keep everything quiet to avoid a general panic.  We’ll have some forms for you and your lovely wife to sign before you return home this evening.   I agree it’s a beastly practice, having a daughter myself I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through these last few weeks, but I hope you’ll agree that public safety is of the paramount importance.”

“But she’s fine now?”

“We’ve achieved some miracles here at Marx Pharmaceuticals.” I don a heavy winter jacket and pick up a large industrial flashlight.  Moving to the front door, the Bensons follow me outside.

“When can we see her, Mr. Marx?”

“Oh presently, presently my dear, Chase.  In fact, that’s where we’re going now.  Come along.”

I turn on the flashlight and move around the house and into the woods towards Sector 11.  I take a quick glance at my watch.  Ten minutes since I signed off with James.  Damn.  I shouldn’t have lingered so long with Olivia.  I need to hurry.

I pick up the pace, continuing to answer the questions Chase is peppering me with.  I answer almost on autopilot, my focus elsewhere.  If I go too slowly, James will release the children and they’ll beat me to the clearing, attracted by the fire.  That would be disastrous.  However, if I move too quickly, not only will my unwitting guests likely suspect something is amiss, more than they already must, but I’ll risk losing Monahan who I can only hope is now tailing our little party.  The sound of an occasional branch breaking behind me lets me know that he is.  I can only imagine the thoughts going through his head as I move deeper into the woods.  Whatever does he think seeing the Bensons with me, having just been relieved by them earlier this evening?  

My whole plan hinges on Monahan.  I hope he is as capable as James’s intelligence has led me to believe.  I need him to see what is going on here, clearly, so that there can be no possible explanation he can arrive at other than the absolute truth.  I need him to use the full weight of his influence to ensure the appropriate authorities press to investigate the plant.  It’s the only way I can possibly extricate myself from this mess with my life, if not my freedom, while still possibly retaining the few bare scraps of my soul that I have left.  A soft, otherworldly moan echoes through the woods, chilling me to the bone.  Christ.  I check my watch: twenty minutes.  The children are out of their cages.  Through the trees ahead I can see the fire burning merrily, and it’s all I can do to keep from running to it.    

At last, after a seeming eternity, we reach the clearing.  I take a quick look around, confirming that we are alone.  Excellent.  I look at my watch: twenty-eight minutes.  Despite myself, I’ve managed to time this almost perfectly.  Brush breaking in the woods around me, the sounds growing steadily louder, soft moans of animalistic hunger carried gently between the empty branches, let me know that the children are not far behind us.   Frantically I search for the hunting platform James set up earlier.  Chase has been growing more agitated the farther into the woods we’ve traveled.  

“What is the meaning of this, Marx?  You said you were taking us to see our daughter!” 

The breaking brush, the terrible moans, are practically deafening.  How do they not hear it?  And where is the damned platform?

“And so I have, Chase.  So I have.  She’ll be here shortly.”

There!  Southwest corner, just like James said.  Adrenaline pumping through my body I move towards it.

“The fire, you see.  We’ve found it draws them.”

At the edge of the clearing a small, pale figure, a little girl, stumbles against a tree.  Through some irony of fate, it would appear June Benson will be the first of my children to greet her parents.  With surprising ease I hoist myself into the hunting platform.  Fear does marvelous things to one’s physical capabilities.   

“Ah, here she is now.”  

Whatever confusion the Bensons might be experiencing from my actions is mitigated by the sight of their daughter, lost to them now for more than three weeks.  So too dismissed are the facts she is clothed in rags rather than any kind of hospital garment, that her harsh, jerking motions almost carry her into the fire as she moves towards her parents, and the presence of a dried, crusty redness collecting around her mouth.  

“Oh my God! Baby!” Rushing to embrace her child, they are the first words Molly Benson has spoken since I met her in the entrance of my home.  They will also be the last.   

The thing with the appearance of a little girl growls and in a sudden motion sinks her teeth deep into the soft flesh of Molly’s neck.  The woman manages to let out a brief scream before the diminutive monster jerks her head back, removing the majority of Mrs. Benson’s throat.  Blood spurts, covering the pair as they fall to the ground, Molly desperately trying to push her daughter away, June continuing to snap and rip at the wound with her teeth, swallowing chunks of flesh whole.  

Chase runs to his wife but when he tries to pull June away from the mortally wounded woman, she turns and bites two of his fingers clean off.  He stands there, staring dumbfounded at the stumps of his missing fingers, unaware of the dozen other pale forms slowly moving into the clearing behind him.  Molly has grown quiet now, her struggles ceased, her bloodless face and glassy eyes protesting silently as June continues to eat. 

I force my attention to the side of the clearing in the direction we arrived.  At the far edge of the sphere of firelight I can just make out Monahan partially concealed behind a tree, his stealth forgotten in the shock of the moment.  A look of unbelievable horror upon his face, he turns and runs as the other children pull Chase to the ground in a frenzy, his screams echoing throughout the surrounding forest as he is devoured alive.  Hunkering down in the tree stand, my hand absentmindedly moves to my pocket, my fingers running over the small white figure of a woman I carry there.  Creed gave me the talisman the night I first met him, the night when I agreed to sell Olivia for the sake of our daughter.  I have kept it since to remind me exactly what kind of a man, what kind of a monster, that I am.  But now I allow myself the barest glimmer of hope.  Against all odds, my plan is succeeding.  Perhaps I can regain my soul after all.   

That hope is soon dashed.  Monahan hasn’t been gone three minutes before Creed strides into the firelight, dragging the detective’s senseless body by the collar of his coat and dumping him unceremoniously next to the fire.  

“I believe you misplaced something, Mr. Marx.”

The children, still picking over their meal, raise their heads to the intruder and hiss, but Creed almost nonchalantly makes a sweeping motion with his hand, causing the creatures to cringe before silently retreating back into the dark of the surrounding underbrush.

Glaring after them, Creed turns and begins shucking the detective’s clothes off.  I pensively watch the patch of trees the children disappeared into before carefully climbing out of the stand and moving to join Creed.

“Here’s a pretty thing.” 

He pulls an enormous revolver out of Monahan’s shoulder holster and tosses it to me soon followed by a box of shells from the detective’s pocket.  I fumble briefly, the weight of the firearm surprising, before managing to get control of it, slipping the shells into my jacket.  Creed continues to search his prisoner, his back to me.  An insurgent thought enters my mind.  The weapon is enormous, Creed unaware.  Do I dare make a move against him?

“What are we going to do with you, Mr. Marx?”

Though he is still turned away from me, I can readily hear the amusement in his voice.

“Our whole endeavor would have been forfeit had our intrepid investigator been left to roam free.  Fortunate for you I decided to observe the proceedings.”

Creed has stripped Monahan down to an undershirt and boxer shorts.  He moves the detective into a sitting position, his back against a tree before using the man’s overcoat as makeshift rope and deftly tying his hands to the trunk.  Slowly I start to raise the barrel of the gun towards my tormentor.  At last Creed turns. 

“Oh, my.  My, my, my.” His damned grin grows even broader at the sight of the enormous revolver pointed at him.  “Mr. Marx, do you really think your weapon will have any effect on me?”

It feels as though my heart stops beating.  My finger itches on the trigger.  Time stands still for a long moment, all that exists are me, and Creed, and the gun.  And then the moment breaks.  I drop my arm to my side with an empty sob.  

“There’s a good man.”  

Damn him.  Damn him! Why am I so weak?

“Oh, hush, don’t fret Mr. Marx.  Your failure was avoided through my intervention.  We will discuss the consequences of this insubordination of course, but first things first.  Your task for the evening is only half complete.” He indicates the two steaming piles of flesh and bone that are all that remain of Chase and Molly Benson.  

“Return to your home after dealing with Mr. Monahan.  We will discuss matters further.  And remember,” he steps into the shadows on the outskirts of the clearing and performs his disappearing trick, “I am always watching.”

His voice fading in the darkness of the night, I am left in the clearing, the fire continuing to burn merrily behind me. 

I look at the gun.

I slip the barrel into my mouth.

I cannot pull the trigger. 

I scream in frustration, my cry echoing into the empty winter sky. The moon stares down at me, amused at my impotent rage.  I am a pet rat on a wheel and I know it. 

Monahan stirs to my front as I can just begin to make out the sounds of snapping underbrush cautiously moving closer.  I shake my head to clear it, mind racing.  No, I will find a way to be free of these monsters.  I am too terrified to move against Creed directly, and too weak to take my own life.  But there must be a way…

Unbidden, my hand again brushes the small figure in my pocket, the likeness of Creed’s mistress whose poisoned generosity first set me on this path of misery.  And it strikes me.  I smile then, my grin broader and whiter than that monster Creed’s has ever been. 

I know what I have to do.   

The Journal of Tomas Wicker, 7 March, 1902

The darkness was absolute as it overcame me, flooding my senses.  Just as if I had been dropped into a roaring river, I panicked.  Drowning, my limbs thrashed desperately to find a surface that was not there.  In that state, in that existential plane between life and death, my mind was opened.  And I saw.  

I am a habitual drug user.  My family’s affluence and my own malaise towards life has given me means and motive to dabble in as many corners of such recreational activity as I dare.  But in no instance, not from the opioid driven highs of the east nor mushroom fueled spirit journeys of the west had I ever experienced anything like this.

My immediate terror fell away as I realized that in this existence I did not need to breathe.  I ceased my struggles, and instead let the darkness flow around me, unmoving as a rock sunk deep into the streambed.  In the empty black appeared a beam of light, pure and irresistible, its presence pulling at the core of my very soul, a siren song of everything good and right.  It emanated from nowhere, and terminated at an equally indefinable point, an aberration in the nothingness surrounding it.  Somehow I knew that this light, this short, protracted beacon of hope and life, represented the entire existence of the universe; start to finish, every moment that ever had or would happen from my reality’s birth to its death.  And I knew that here, in this state of higher being, I could witness any piece of that reality I should choose.   

Did I, in that moment of perfect clarity, seek to view some instance of grand heroics or import?  Did I choose to travel to the origin of that beam of light and see what kind of God was responsible for creating this strange existence?  No I did not, for I am a simple man.  I chose to see my father, the question burning in my mind of what price was so great he would have possibly refused to pay, even in the face of death.  My perspective shifted as I was sucked into the light.  

Father lay in his bed.  Absentmindedly he played with the small, white figure of a woman threaded on a leather thong worn about his neck.  I was surprised, never having seen the talisman while he was alive, or dead.  His thoughts were an open book to me; I knew that somehow this totem was the key to his wealth and power.  I saw that he gained it in his youth by killing his maternal grandmother, suffocating the old woman where she lay with a thick pillow.  I gleaned from his thoughts that Granny had murdered her own parents, and later her children once they were of an age to be made aware of the standing bargain with Creed and his mistress.  She had raised my father, having disposed of his progenitors, and would have killed him as well to retain her possession of the white woman’s boon had he not struck first.  It was revolting to me, all of that death to maintain the bloody covenant upheld by my family for generations.  And now, as he lay upon his bed, sleepless and staring, father contemplated murdering me.    

He despised me, of that there was no question.  His hatred branched from the weakness he sensed in me, my refusal to make anything of life other than a constant pursuit of pleasure.  My being, my very existence, was the very antithesis of everything he held to be true.  Father could have killed me.  Within the letter of the woman’s law he could have told me the terms and simply shot me as I stood dumbfounded and questioning the epiphany he had just thrust upon my world.  It would have been easy.  And yet, he hesitated.  

Father hated me, but because of who I was, not who I had been or who I might someday become.  His thoughts turned to when I was born, the joy of the new life he held in his hands all that fought back the crushing despair of losing his beloved wife as she struggled to give birth to me.  I saw his hope that someday I would grow into a man he was proud to call his son, one worthy to carry on his name and legacy.  But I was not that man.  So, despite his hatred, father could not bring himself to kill me because of the deep seated familial love he felt.   And, as I was an unworthy heir, neither still could he allow me to learn of the bargain and in turn murder him.  It was this impasse the father struggled with until at last the inevitable yet unthinkable conclusion was reached: if he could not kill me, and could not allow me to kill him, the only possibility was to break the covenant and let come what may.

The moment his decision was made my perspective was abruptly thrust out and away from the scene, soaring back into the cosmos to my previous view of darkness broken by the white light of the universe.  Farther and farther back I flew until somehow my awareness became even more broadened.  I was enraptured by the being of existence, lost in its overwhelming beauty as it struggled to maintain itself within the oppressing shadow surrounding it.  And in that moment I saw, impossibly, something in the darkness shift, its size and scope dwarfing the entire light of reality, the blackness of its being even darker than the void.  My mind, faced with this cosmic horror, threatened to shatter, my subconscious begging me loose its restraints and allow it to escape into the blessed safety of madness.  Somehow, I held fast.  

It was a spiderlike monstrosity, majestic and terrible, its many limbs piercing the light, simultaneously feeding upon the universe while injecting its spawn into it.  I realized that this was the Woman, whatever She may be, the totem my father held a beautiful lie she sold to the unwitting to aid in her endeavors, Her avatar that allowed her to walk in the realm of men without breaking their sanity.  The creatures She birthed were stains upon the purity of existence, their purpose to prepare reality as a more savory meal for their mother, spreading Her darkness through hatred and fear.  As I watched, it appeared reality was somehow fighting back; wherever the creature’s influence spread, small pinpricks shone gloriously brighter, lights in the dark.  Whence those beacons hailed from, whether generated internally or transported from some further dimension my expanded perspective was yet still unable to perceive, I could not say. But at the end of the beam of light, its final termination point before disappearing into the darkness, my God, it glowed like the brightest sun in the heavens. 

My consciousness’s flight continued until at last I was returned to my own reality, the room a shambles.  The chair lay where I had been knocked from it, Creed’s corpse where he fell.  Of poor, faithful Anthony, their existed only a few nondescript pieces, the rest fed to that otherworldly creature through Her acolyte.  I sat upon the ground for some time, weeping bitterly.  Were my tears because a cosmic entity is feeding upon the universe, Her goal to make my very existence a meal for Her succor?  No.  I wept because, despite my many failings, my father loved me.  

A few hours have passed now, enough that I have regained my sense of composure.  I have managed to dispose of the bodies, taken care of the other small things that could otherwise occupy my mind, but now I am left to merely contemplate things of such momentous importance that not long ago I would have rejected the very notion of their existence.  In my final moments of heightened perspective, that view of the entirety of reality’s timeline, I became distressingly aware of how close to that termination point of the light my own lifespan falls.  I should not think I will live to witness the end of existencre, but it will be an uncomfortably close thing, decades at the most. 

My temporary omniscience raises terrible questions.  It would seem that time itself exists simultaneously, the presence of individual moments the mere byproduct of humanity’s inability to perceive everything at once.  What does this speak of free will?  If everything that has happened, and everything that will happen, is all happening now, is our ability to choose our own fate a simple illusion?  

Perhaps.  Perhaps nothing can be done to change the universe’s life and extend the light, to ward off the all-encompassing darkness that threatens to consume us all.  If that is the case, if it is all predetermined, then my action, or inaction, will have no effect upon that inevitability whatsoever.  But there is nothing to be gained from such a fatalistic attitude.  

The way will not be easy.  The knowledge I gained from my brief moment of transcendence is already fleeting, flitting away like water down a drain even as I sit and write this account.  But through my peculiar experience I came to realize there exist a great number of beasts both foul and fantastic, creatures I would have not long ago attributed as simple myths of a bygone era. What then of those most terrible tales? Whispers of ancient Evils slumbering in the deeps, tales of artifacts that grant unto mere mortals the power of gods? What of these? Can I doubt their existence?

It matters not.  I must believe the key lies with the Woman, the means by which She exists and interacts within this plain of reality.  It is in this pursuit, to stymie Her and Her accursed children, that I will find my life’s purpose.  I will seek out those lights in the darkness, those pinpricks that seemed to be fighting the wretched beast, and will rally them to the cause.  I will find the creature’s avatar, I will find a way to contain Her, and in doing so I will save my reality.  And perhaps, in doing so, I will someday become the man my father would have wished.  

Marx Industries, The Present

“Ah, Mr. Monahan, good you’re awake.” 

At my feet the investigator shakes his head groggily, his eyes widening as they take in the scene before him, the Bensons’ corpses still steaming into the freezing winter air.  

“You have my admiration.  Commendable detective work these past few weeks, if not the most discrete.”

I click my tongue, admonishing.  I’m still playing a role, unsure whether or not Creed is out there somewhere in the darkened woods watching to see if I fulfill my part, especially after my earlier indiscretion.  I wouldn’t put it past the bastard to give me a little rope just to see if I will hang myself with it.  Even if he isn’t directly observing me, the man has a way of being able to see through me, read lies on my soul.  Hopefully, my next actions will serve to cloud that precognitive ability of his, give me the means to perhaps confuse his vision by giving me a small kernel of truth to hold onto.  It will perhaps only gain me a moment, enough to throw him off his game, but that will be all I’ll need. I regret it will come at a considerably direct cost to Detective Monahan.  

“I hope you didn't think you were being especially sneaky." I sigh, "Still, it would have gone easier for you if you would have just taken the hint when I had the Bensons let you go. They were so frantic at the thought of being reunited with their daughter, they were fully prepared to do any little thing I asked. But here we are. I must say, this is truly an excellent firearm.”

I admire the weapon for another moment before pointing it at the detective and pulling the trigger.  I have shot guns before but am ill prepared for the recoil, barely maintaining enough control of the weapon to avoid the barrel striking me in the face.  Monahan doesn’t notice, however, as his foot virtually disintegrates in a splash of blood and bone.

Jesus, christ…

Partially deaf from the shot, I stoop down where the detective lies bleeding in the snow.  God, he looks bad, far worse than I anticipated, his eyes already starting to glass over in shock.  Everything movies portray about flesh wounds is hideously wrong.  I pray luck is on my side, the only conceivable way this plan is going to work.

“Must be going, old chap. I'd tell you to simply walk away from this but you've squandered that opportunity already and, well, it'd be quite impossible now for a multitude of reasons." I incline my head towards the man’s destroyed foot. "However, as I've confessed my admiration, I've decided to give you a sporting chance. There's a very realistic possibility you'll bleed out before the children get hungry again. Good luck!” With that, I walk out of the clearing into the darkened woods.

My mental alibi having been established, it’s time to commence with the tricky part, all the while hoping Creed is not watching.  If he is, I am well and truly finished.  

Concealing myself behind a tree, I remove a bullet from the box Creed had retrieved from Monahan and replace the expended round in the cylinder.  The revolver is high capacity, holding eight shots.  Unfortunately there are ten of my demonic children in the woods tonight.

I wait huddled behind the tree, the winter cold seeping in and causing me to shiver.  

Where are those blasted children?  

If the creatures don’t come and take the bait soon, Monahan is going to bleed out and everything is going to be for naught.  

Finally, after a seeming eternity, the first small pale shape at last reenters the clearing, closely followed by several more.  I don’t know what trick Creed used to disperse them, but I wish I knew it myself. 

No matter.  Focus, focus, focus.  

I see Monahan feebly try to move away from the first tentative touch of the hands that begin to furtively explore the offering left to them.  

Still alive, detective? Excellent.  Hold on a bit longer.

Six of the children have entered the clearing.  It is time to begin, before they start to eat.  

Moving from behind the tree I step rapidly toward the clearing.  Having learned from my previous mistake, I hold the giant gun with two hands.  I am upon the children before they realize I am there, so distracted are they by the detective bleeding in the snow.  One child has straddled Monahan and is about to sink its teeth into his neck.  I point the gun at it and pull the trigger, breathing out a prayer that my aim is true.  The monster’s head explodes in a fine red mist.

Startled by the unexpected noise the others turn their attention to me, but I am already moving.  The recoil is remarkably easier to control with a second hand on the grip and I rapidly transition my aim to the next child, then the next.  In the space of three long breaths, four of the children are lying bleeding and broken in the clearing, fist sized chunks having been removed from their limbs and torsos.  

My fifth shot misses, and the sixth.  The two children remaining in the clearing stumble toward me as I fight to breathe through my panic and reestablish my aim.  I fire again and one of them drops to the ground, the bullet passing through its torso and taking a section of spine with it.  I turn as the last child lunges at me, managing to get the barrel swung around just in time, the round bursting through the back of the diminutive monster’s skull and spattering its brains onto the clearing floor.  

No time to waste.  I snap the cylinder open and dump out the expended shells, fumbling to feed new rounds into the chamber from the box in my pocket.  A few bullets spill to the ground but I manage to get six loaded before three more shapes stumble through the trees and into my line of sight.  

My first shot wings the lead child monster, but my second takes it in the chest, knocking it off its feet.  The third misses completely but my fourth and fifth bullets strike true, dispatching the two remaining children in short order.  I make a quick count of the twitching creatures strewn about the clearing. 

Nine down.

A sharp pain flashes through my left calf as June Benson bites into it.  I gasp, falling to the ground.  The child begins to pull herself up me, snarling and biting before latching her jaws onto my thigh.  Panicked and screaming, I strike her in the face with the barrel of the revolver, her nose bursting in a cloud of blood.  Again and again I hit her, shattering her face with the harsh metal of the pistol until she finally releases my leg.  Rolling away I lift the gun towards her.  The creature screams at me, defiant, as I pull the trigger and the top half of her head evaporates in a cloud of gore. 

Ten.

I fall on my ass, panting for a moment, suddenly exhausted.  I take quick stock of my injuries, surprised to find that, though certainly bruised and sore, the skin of my leg is unbroken, protected by the thick pants I am wearing.  A moan startles me back to action as I suddenly remember Monahan bleeding to death where he is tied to the tree.  I stumble over to him.

“Terribly sorry, Detective Monahan.  Don’t worry, I’m going to get you out of this.”

The man is practically unconscious as I untie his arms. 

“Crazy, psycho...,” he murmurs.

I grimace.  “My friend, I don’t expect you to understand anything I’m doing here.  I can’t really blame you for that.”  I grab his belt from the pile of clothes that Creed had unceremoniously dumped next to him and cinch it around his calf.  Monahan’s breathe catches.

“Not…not gonna work,” he hisses through clenched teeth.

“Hmm?”

“The tourniquet.  Belt isn’t tight enough.  Get…strips of cloth.  Two sticks, about eight inches long.”

I move to a fallen tree near the edge of the clearing and break off two branches.  

“About the strips of cloth…”

He eyes me.  “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.  Dammit, here, help me outta this…” With an effort I help him strip off the t-shirt he is wearing, leaving him in just boxer shorts.  “Tear it up.  Or you need me to help you with that too while I’m bleeding out?”

“No.”  With an effort I tear the thin cotton shirt into several long strips.  

“Ok.  Bring ‘em over here.”  

I move to Monahan again and follow his directions on how to apply the cloths.

“Now, when I nod you’re gonna turn that stick until you see that I’m not leaking anymore.  Give me the other one.”

“What for?”

“So I can clamp down on it and hopefully not bite my damn tongue off.  Now, I’m probably gonna pass out here when you do that, but,” he gasps, his voice fading, “whatever happens, don’t stop twisting until the bleeding stops, got it?”

“Got it.”

He places the second stick in his mouth before jerking his head in a nod.

I twist the tourniquet. 

I turn and I turn, Monahan’s screams clearly audible despite the stick in his mouth that starts to crack from the force of his jaws biting into it.  I can tell he’s trying to remain still, but his body is jerking involuntarily from the agony shooting through it.  I’m still tightening the tourniquet when the man falls silent, mercifully drug into unconsciousness by the pain and blood loss.  As promised, I continue to twist until the bright red bleeding has stopped flowing from the shattered stump of his foot, securing the stick with the pieces of cloth the way he instructed.  I sigh.  Effects of tourniquet application appear to be something else that the movies get completely wrong.  

With an effort I carefully drag Monahan closer to the still burning fire.  He may be out of immediate danger from bleeding to death, but shock and exposure could still very well do him in.  And, unfortunately, he’s going to have to wait here a bit longer for help to arrive.  I turn him on his side so he won’t choke in the event he vomits before he wakes up, then drape his long overcoat over him.  There.  It’s not perfect, but hopefully it will do.  Finally, I press the call button on the microphone still secured to my cuff.

“James, are you still there?”  

“Still monitoring, sir.  Everything going all right?  Are the Bensons…”

“Handled, yes.  But there’s been a change of plans.  I’m going to be forward with you, James.  You are aware of the man I’ve been dealing with for the last several years no doubt.  Large individual, bald.”

“Ah, yes, sir. You’d mentioned we might see him on the feeds but not to interfere with anything he was doing, um…”

“Yes, James?”

“I always thought it was a little odd, sir.  Never quite sat right.  But you’re the boss, so I never wanted to say anything.”

I can hear the embarrassment in his voice.

“It’s all right James, it’s all right.  I didn’t want to drag you into this, but now I feel that I must.  The man is a Russian spy.  He’s been blackmailing me and tonight I’m ending it.”

“Sir, what do you need me to do?  I can get a team together in twenty minutes.”

“No, no, no one else gets involved.  I’ll need your help with two more things yet tonight.  Currently Detective Monahan is critically injured and unconscious here in the clearing where you set up the bonfire earlier.  Retrieve him and ensure he gets medical care.”

“Sir?  But I thought…”

“Part of the change of plans, James.  We are scrapping the operation and I need him alive.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Marx.  I’m moving out there now.  What about the, ah, the children?”

“They are not a concern, James.  Before you do leave, there is one other item I’ll require your assistance with.  Tell me, how many more of those explosive initiators do we have?

I stay with Monahan as I wait for my security chief, watching the man’s shallow breathing where he lays in the snow, all the while expecting Creed to step out of the surrounding shadows and find me out.  Part of me hopes he does; at that point the game will be well and truly over.  Soon, now, it will be either way.  At least I can establish one thing: despite his claims, Creed is not omnipotent, lest he would never allow me to proceed this far along my plan.

After about forty minutes I hear the motor of a vehicle close by, soon followed by a beam of light bouncing through the woods.  James walks into the clearing carrying a flashlight similar to my own.

“I’ve got an SUV over on one of the firebreaks, sir, I’ll take him to…” he trails off when as he processes the carnage, the blown apart pieces of the children littering the ground.  “My God, sir.  It’s really over then?”

I nod.  “Yes, James.  One way or another, it well and truly is.  Do you need assistance getting Mr. Monahan to the vehicle?”

He sizes the detective up.  “No, sir, I’ve got it.  Need a workout anyway.”

“Fair enough.  Please inform the attending doctor his patient has been shot in the right foot and that a tourniquet has been applied to the corresponding limb.”

“Got it, Mr. Marx.  You sure you don’t need anything else?”

“No, James.  The rest is my cross to bear.”

“Oh.” He hands me a small box, like a garage door opener.  “The detonator, sir.”

“It’s all wired?”

“As you asked, sir.  Simple enough.”

“I appreciate you not asking questions.”

“Not my place, sir.”

“All right then.” I grasp his shoulder.  “Thank you, James.  For everything.”

He smiles, sadly.  “Thank you, sir.  See you down the line.”

He wrestles Monahan into a fireman’s carry and, after taking a moment to find his balance, begins carrying the unconscious detective to the waiting vehicle.

No, James, I don’t expect you will.

The walk back through the woods takes the same twenty minutes or so that it took me to reach the clearing, but seems to go much faster now that I’m not working against a deadline.  I spend the time thinking about how things had been before Rebecca’s diagnosis, back when Olivia was still awake and happy.  Before my deal with the devil.  It all seems a lifetime ago.  

I enter the house, remove my heavy winter jacket and boots, placing them in the hall closet.  I move to Olivia’s room where the attendant nurse is on duty, as always.  

“I’d like to sit with my wife.  Alone.  I won’t be needing your services the rest of the night.”

“Sir, if something should happen…” 

“Then I expect there will be little you would be able to do for her.  Please, I insist.  Go home.”

“But…”

“Go. Home.”

I take up my familiar position next to Olivia as the nurse picks up her few belongings and heads for the door.  Her footsteps fade down the hallway, and I presently hear the sound of the front door opening and closing again.  Everything is quiet, save for the constant, repetitive beeping of the machines keeping my wife alive, all of the staff dismissed by James in preparation for tonight’s earlier endeavors.  God, somehow, more than two years later, two years of eating through a tube, of shitting into diapers and wasting away…somehow Olivia is still the most lovely, beautiful woman I have ever known. 

Perhaps an hour passes before Creed silently appears in the doorway.  I am only mildly surprised to see Rebecca following him.

“Good evening, Mr. Marx.  I trust you settled our affairs with Mr. Monahan?”

“I shot him and left him to bleed to death in the snow.  Or be eaten by the children, whichever came first if that’s what you mean.”

He frowns.  “There’s something…mmm. No matter, it will be revealed presently.”

“Oh?” I am slumped in my chair, the picture of a defeated man.

“Yes, my dear Mr. Marx.  As I told you earlier, we would be discussing the repercussions for your earlier…impertinence.  Your daughter has graciously volunteered to assist me in doling out the discipline.”

“My daughter?” I intend my laugh to be a chuckle, but it comes out a little too wild.  “Creed, my daughter died more than two years ago.  Whatever that thing you have with you there is, it’s not my Rebecca.  It’s a monster.”

There, his eyes widen slightly.  I’ve surprised him.  I smile as I see it hit him, that moment he becomes aware that the normal repetitive noises of Olivia’s machines has been replaced by a single, steady beep.

“Mommy?” The voice of the thing that looks like Rebecca is quiet, almost a whisper.  

“Marx,” Creed hisses through clenched teeth, “what have you done?”

“Something I should have done a long time ago.  Rebecca,” I turn to the child monster, “if you’re in there somewhere, sweetie, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry for my weakness.  You deserved better than this, my darling girl.”

With that I push the button in my pocket.

It’s amazing what can be accomplished with the right knowledge and experience.  Before he was my head of security, James had spent a career in the navy, part of his time as a demolitions expert with the Seals.  It was a relatively easy matter for him to take the detonators and apply them to a few key areas in the compound, vats of chemicals in the factory, the gas line in the house, and so forth, so that with one simple click of a detonator I have the ability to turn my life’s work into a blazing inferno.

Creed screams, enraged, as flames shoot through the air around us, the air warping slightly as he performs his vanishing trick.  It’s no matter.  I didn’t intend to kill him with my actions here, although I certainly wouldn’t have shed a tear if I’d managed it.  Rebecca begins to distort unnaturally, as if something wearing her skin is fighting to break its way free, her eyes having turned a bright crimson as she screeches in fury.

“I’m sorry.” I whisper as the transformation reaches its completion.  Instead of my seven year old, before me stands an eight foot tall creature, its essence as black as the void, eyes pools of burning scarlet as hot as the flames crackling around us.  The thing howls and leaps at me, knocking me to the ground, its wicked fangs sinking deep into my neck, claws flaying the skin from my bones.  I hardly feel it.  

I have been living in hell for years, ever since Rebecca was first diagnosed with leukemia.  She should have died years ago, her survival only a product of the bargain I struck with Creed.  That choice, a decision made in fear and selfishness from of my inability to live without her; that is my sin that has damned her to this.  

So, yes, even when the flaming roof falls on top of us, the sweet smell of something like burning pork beginning to mix with the stench of sulfur, the pain is nothing compared to the agony my soul has been in for these last few years.  The monster continues to tear and eat as we burn alive together.  Somehow, I manage to lift my arms, pulling the creature close in an embrace as it rips into me.  No child should have to pay for the sins of their father.  

Written by Shadowswimmer77
Content is available under CC BY-NC

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