As Mary Carter approached the charred ruins of what had once been a barn, she thought she sensed a hint of power in the air. Diffuse, dimmed by the years, but still present, like the smoky scent which often lingers long after a fire has been put out. But then again, it might have been her imagination. After all, she wanted to feel power here. Needed to.
Still, there were signs. The closer she came to the ruins, the more weeds she had to fight, and the taller, thicker, and uglier they became. Twisted, mottled things with rough, almost scaly stalks, bloated leaves and jagged thorns that ripped holes in her jeans and gouged gashes in her skin. And the soil didn't feel quite right beneath her boots. The earth gave just a little too much, as if it were wet, but when she reached down to touch it, she found the dirt dry and brittle. It left a faint oily residue on her fingers which she wiped off on her pants leg. It made a dark smear, almost like blood.
Hopeful signs. Perhaps this time would be different.
She stood, shifted her backpack to a more comfortable position, and walked on. A breeze wafted toward her from the direction of the ruins, bearing with it a mingled scent of ancient spices, mold, rot and desiccated, crumbling leaves. It was late fall in Ohio and the wind was chilly, carrying the promise of the coming winter. Out of reflex, Mary used her good right hand to zip up her windbreaker, though she didn't care about the cold, barely felt it, for that matter. Ever since the accident, she spared little thought for personal comfort. She reserved her mental energy for far more important things.
She pushed past a particularly troublesome growth of thorns which almost seemed to wrap around her legs of its own volition -- losing a significant amount of jean fabric and leg flesh in the process -- and broke through into the small clearing which surrounded the jumbled, blackened mass of timber. The ground here was dark and smooth, almost like polished obsidian. She knelt, ignoring the stinging from the many wounds her legs had taken, and gently, reverently, placed the fingers of her right hand against the ground. She felt nothing special at first, but after a few moments, she thought she detected a slight warmth in the strangely smooth soil, and she wasn't certain, but perhaps also the faintest of vibrations. As if the earth itself still reverberated from the echoes of power that, if her sources were correct, had once been released here.
She slipped her right hand into her coat pocket, unconsciously mirroring the position of her left hand, or rather what was left of it. She then stood and regarded the ruins of the barn from a respectful distance. The mass of blackened, splintered beams put her in mind of a huge spider which had collapsed in upon itself and lay where it had fallen, patiently waiting for the elements to finish the slow work of reducing it to nothingness.
A few dozen yards to the northeast sat a weathered farmhouse
surrounded by weeds and high grass. The broken windows were boarded over, and the porch had long ago collapsed. There were no signs anyone had been here since the fire, not even any litter or graffiti left behind by bored teenagers. The place was well out in the country, a good piece from the nearest town. Though perhaps distance wasn't a factor so much as a basic animal instinct which told people this was a site best avoided. Whichever the case, it appeared the house -- and more importantly, the ruins -- hadn't been disturbed. Excellent.
Mary closed her eyes and tried to imagine what had happened here, tried to see it. But if she had been expecting to experience a vision of some sort, she was disappointed. She saw nothing but the inside of her eyelids, heard only the soft rustle of grass and weeds stirring in the wind.
She felt a sting of doubt. She opened her eyes, and told herself this was the place. It had to be!
She whispered a dark prayer in an ancient blasphemous tongue, and stepped toward the ruins.
When Mary first awoke in the hospital, she was pumped so full of drugs, she had no idea what her name was, let alone her location.
She swam in and out of consciousness for what she later learned were days before finally gaining a foothold on reality once more.
The first person she spoke to was her brother Gerald, and the first question she asked wasn't "What happened?" or "Am I going to be all right?" It was "Where's Bill and Lizzie?"
Gerald's gaunt, sleep-deprived face and the haunted, sorrowful look in his eyes told her before his words did. They were gone.
Gone thanks to a driving rain, a twisty stretch of country road, and a half-asleep trucker who'd gotten off the highway at the wrong exit and was desperate to make up some time.
She didn't even get to go to the funeral. She'd been in the hospital for almost two weeks. Too long for the rest of the family to wait to bury Bill and Lizzie. Mary was furious with them, although she knew she shouldn't be, knew they hadn't had a choice, not really. But it was bad enough to have lost her husband and infant daughter, but to not even be able to say goodbye . . .
Mary stopped at the edge of the ruins and knelt to examine the wood. Instead of being cracked and crumbling, it was like the ground: smooth, almost shiny. As if the fire which had devoured it had somehow also transformed it into another substance, had, she mused, eaten and then excreted it.
She thought of the fragmentary account she'd discovered buried in the stacks of the county historical library, a frequently read and annotated photocopy of which rode in her pack. She didn't need to pull it out to refer to it; she knew the words by heart.
This land had once belonged to a farmer named Josiah Mast. It had been in his family for generations, but though the farmland in Southern Ohio was usually rich and fertile, the Masts had always had to struggle to bring in their crop. After several seasons of harvests which were poor even by the Mast's hard-luck standards, Josiah knew he had to do something drastic, or else he would lose his family's land, lose his livelihood, and worse, be diminished as a man in his own eyes.
And so he turned to something else that had been in the Mast family for generations: a yellowed tome that one of his ancestors had brought to America from Germany.
The account was vague on how Josiah precisely went about making use of the arcane knowledge contained in the book. Frankly, Mary thought his resultant success was due more to blind luck than mystic skill. Perhaps the barrier between worlds was naturally thinner here, which might account for why the land had been so infertile in the first place. Or perhaps one or more of Josiah's forebears had also tried to use the book but merely managed to weaken the dimensional boundaries instead of breaching them, paving the way for their descendant's eventual, if ill-fated, success.
Whichever the case, Josiah had opened a gateway on this very spot and Something came forth. Something Josiah intended to request a boon of: a blessing on his land.
The account -- written several years after the fact by Josiah's youngest son, the only surviving eyewitness -- was unclear on the reason for what happened next, likely because the boy didn't understand it himself. Mary suspected the doorway Josiah had created had been highly unstable. But whatever the precise reason, the dimensional portal collapsed in a spectacular blaze of mystic energy before the entity could fully emerge into the world. The barn, and everything -- and everyone -- within was
destroyed in a terrible conflagration. Only the youngest son survived, though so badly burned that he was an invalid for the rest of what remained of his life, which wasn't very long.
Mary thought of the twisted claw that was her left hand. She supposed she should be grateful the accident hadn't left her in worse shape. But she wasn't.
One particular aspect of the son's account especially intrigued her. According to the boy, when the doorway collapsed, the tip of one of the entity's obscene appendages had been trapped and severed. The son's description of the thing's shrill screams as the doorway sealed shut had been chilling, but he had failed to recount what had happened to the remnant of itself the entity had been forced to leave behind. She supposed if he had thought of it at all, he'd assumed the piece had been destroyed in the mystic fire which had devoured the barn and claimed his family.
That had been in 1957.
But Mary, while far from being a true expert in occult lore, knew a great deal more than Josiah Mast or his son had. Those From Beyond were unimaginably powerful, and she thought it quite possible the remnant hadn't been destroyed in the blaze, at least not completely. And if she could locate it, she would have a token of great Power, a link to the entity which she would be able to use to contact it, to bring it forth into the world properly this time. And like Josiah Mast, once it had emerged from the gateway, she would ask a favor of it. But nothing so trifling as revivifying sterile soil.
She would ask for the return of her husband and daughter. And whatever price the entity demanded, she would pay, and pay gladly.
Tentatively, she began to sift through the ruined timbers.
Mary sat on hard earth, the fingers of her good hand trailing across cold stone. She traced the grooves on the words etched there: ELIZABETH MARIE CARTER, AGED 3 MONTHS, 9 DAYS. And below this, a line Mary's mother-in-law had insisted be added: HEAVEN NOW HAS ANOTHER ANGEL.
Mary snorted derisively. If she'd been conscious at the time, she'd have told Bill's mother where she could shove her maudlin little bit of Hallmarkery. Was God so desperate to swell the ranks of His heavenly host with new souls that He had to resort to murdering babies? No, if there were a heaven and a benevolent, loving God who ruled there, Lizzie and Bill would still be alive.
But that didn't mean there weren't true Powers in the universe. Powers far stronger than mere Christian myth, Powers which could be appealed to directly, provided one had the knowledge. Mary had had some friends in college who'd been into what they'd described as "alternative belief systems." At the time, she'd dismissed their fascination with the occult and the outre [accent] as just a bit of arrested adolescence. But now . . . now she was willing to try anything, do anything, if it would reunite her with her husband and her beautiful baby daughter.
She looked up her friends and listened to what they had to teach her. And she learned well.
Mary had no idea what the remnant she was searching for might look like. Josiah's son hadn't bothered, or hadn't been able to describe the being his father had summoned. And the descriptions of the Elder Gods and their ilk which she had read over the years were all second and third hand, if that, and none had been particularly clear. That the remnant had belonged to something alien and perhaps beyond human comprehension was a certainty. After that, well, she supposed she'd know it when she found it.
Before long, she came across a fragment of dull white sticking out from beneath a beam. A fragment which could be nothing but bone.
Excited, she knelt and leaned closer to examine her find, careful not to disturb it, not so much as breathe on it. Now that she was closer, she saw other pieces of bone partially hidden among the charred debris. She frowned. The bones didn't look especially alien, and they appeared too small to have belonged to Josiah or his family.
No longer feeling the need to be quite so careful, she poked around a bit, stirring the bones, until she revealed a tiny skull. She was no biologist, but it appeared to be the skull of
a rodent of some sort, a squirrel or perhaps a field rat. Whatever the animal had been, it was definitely terrestrial.
She didn't think the animal had perished in the fire that had consumed the barn. The bones showed no sign of flame damage, and they weren't too weathered. She guessed they'd been here only a few years, maybe less.
She moved on, continuing her search of the ruins. By the time she'd completed her first circuit of the debris, she'd discovered several more animal skeletons, some old, some, like the first set she'd found, of more recent vintage.
Had the place itself somehow drawn the animals here to be poisoned by the lingering power released by Josiah Mast's incomplete Summoning? And if so, might that power be doing the same to her right now?
The thought was hardly enough to make her consider abandoning her quest. But she wondered if it might not be prudent to take a break for a bit, to put a little distance between herself and the site, and then come back when --
A soft rustle.
She froze and listened intently. But after a few moments of hearing nothing, she began to think it had been her imagination, but then the sound came again, issuing from somewhere within the mass of broken, blackened timber. And it was coming closer.
Most likely the sound was caused by another small animal that hadn't been reduced to bones yet, she told herself, but there was something odd about the rustling. It sounded like a snake's slither, only not as smooth, not as even, and there was a thick, moist quality to the noise as well, as if whatever was making it were crawling through slime. Or was coated with it.
She watched the area of the ruins where she thought the sound was coming from, kept her gaze trained on its location. A couple times she caught glimpses of gray, hairless flesh, but before she could make out any other details, the creature slipped out of sight. But it continued toward her, its pace accelerating. Within a few moments --
It burst forth from a tangle of splinters and earth at her feet and threw itself onto her right boot. Even though she'd been expecting something like this, she started, lost her balance in the jumble of broken, charred wood, and fell backward. She tried to catch herself, but it wasn't easy with just one hand, and she fell hard. And even though she had her pack to cushion her fall, the impact still sent the breath whooshing out of her lungs.
She lay there, struggling to breathe, and watched as the
glistening gray thing which had frightened her so slid up her leg. It resembled nothing so much as a huge, fat garden slug, perhaps nine inches in length, if that. Its slimy hide was studded with strange protuberances which looked to Mary's eyes like the hypnotically waving fronds of hundreds of tiny sea anemones.
The creature slowed as it crawled across her abdomen and onto her chest, its dark gray hide seeming to lighten as it neared. She realized then that she had found what she'd come for: the remnant of the Old One. But this was no lifeless token of power. It was still very much alive. And hungry.
Now she understood where the animal skeletons had come from.
The slug-like thing slithered across her chest, and Mary instinctively brought her good hand up to fend it off. Instantly, dozens of the creature's tiny frond appendages fastened to her flesh with a burning-freezing sensation which penetrated to the bone. With a cry of panic, Mary shook her hand violently. At first the slug-thing held on tight, but soon its fronds began to lose their grip, and Mary was able to fling it off. It flew halfway across the debris field and hit the side of a splintered beam with a wet smack.
Mary pulled herself up to a sitting position. Her breath came in short, ragged gasps, and her heart thundered in her ears. Her first impulse was to examine her hand to see how badly she was hurt, but she didn't. Instead, she kept her gaze fastened on the creature, expecting it to recover any moment and come at her again.
But it didn't. Instead, it clung unmoving to the beam. Mary wasn't sure, but she thought it was an even lighter shade of gray now.
After a few more moments passed without the thing renewing its attack, Mary risked a glance at her right hand. It was covered with tiny red dots where the slug-thing's fronds had attached themselves, but the marks were already fading. She checked the creature; it was still just sitting there. She flexed her hand several times. It was a bit stiff at first, but it limbered up quickly. Whatever the creature had tried to do to her, it appeared she had stopped it in time.
Her breathing and pulse had eased to close to normal, and she got to her feet, keeping an eye on the creature the entire time. Its color was definitely lighter now, almost white. Had she injured it? Was it perhaps dying?
Despite what it had tried to do to her, Mary found herself filled with horror at the possibility that she had finally made a connection with one of the great Old Ones -- even if it hadn't been quite in the manner she had anticipated -- only to have her stupid, human fear ruin it.
She picked her way across the debris over to the creature. Its rapidly lightening hide was no longer covered with slime. As Mary watched, the creature's skin dried and began to flake, its tiny fronds to shrivel and curl up. Surely she hadn't killed it!
The Elder Gods were far too powerful to be destroyed in such a simple and mundane fashion!
But this wasn't an Old One, was it? Just a piece which had possessed enough power of its own to mutate into a separate creature and to lure animals to the site so it might feed on their life forces. Enough power to survive on its own for forty years. But perhaps the life forces of mere animals hadn't been enough to sustain it all that time. Hadn't it slowed after its initial burst of speed, crawling ever more slowly along her body?
And hadn't it already begun to turn white before fastening to her hand? Perhaps it had used up the last of its energy coming after her and hadn't had enough strength left to actually feed.
Before her was a piece of wonder, of Mystery, and it was dying. And along with it, her hopes of ever seeing her husband and daughter again.
She reached out and gently placed her hand on the creature. No, not a creature. A child. For was it not, in a fashion, the offspring of the Old One Josiah had summoned?
"Go on," she whispered. "Take what you need."
But its fronds didn't stir. The creature felt like nothing more than a cold, dead lump of meat beneath her hand.
Mary began to chant words in a lilting, oddly accented language that the human mouth wasn't quite designed to pronounce. She willed the residual power that remained in this place to flow through her and into the creature, to make it whole again, make it strong.
But nothing happened. The creature's skin was now dry and white as chalk. She sensed it had only moments of life left, and there was nothing she could do.
No, she refused to accept that. There had to be something . . . she forced herself to remain calm and mentally sifted through the mental storehouse of arcane lore she had collected throughout her years of study.
And then it came to her.
She got a grip on the creature and carefully pulled it free of the wooden beam. It came loose easily, its skin cracking and flaking from the pressure of her fingers despite the care she took. It was so light -- if she hadn't been looking at it, she might not have known she was holding anything at all.
She brought the creature toward her face and opened her mouth.
When it was done, her stomach felt like its acids had been turned to ice water. The sensation of cold began to spread through her body, and then the pain hit. She doubled over, a shriek of agony erupting from her throat and forcing its way between gritted teeth. It felt as if every organ, every nerve, every single atom of her body were trying to tear itself free and flee the alien presence she had taken within herself. But just when she thought she could stand it no more, the pain ceased.
She straightened and surveyed her surroundings. Everything looked the same, the ruins, the obsidian-like ground, the malformed weeds, the abandoned farmhouse. But superimposed upon them she saw a desolate plain stretching in all directions, and she knew she was seeing the world as it would be on the blessed day when the Elder Gods finally returned home.
She pulled her left hand free of her windbreaker's pocket and with smooth, straight, limber fingers lovingly stroked her abdomen. Perhaps she had failed to bring back her husband and daughter, but that hardly mattered anymore.
She was going to be a mother again.
Mary continued stroking her gently swelling stomach as she turned away from the ruins of the barn and began walking toward tomorrow.
Created: September 18, 1997; Updated: August 9, 2004