Michael James Sempter was pissed. Five miles of cold, five miles of RV exhaust. Now the bike rack of Johnston's Grocery blocked off by some idiot's black Mercedes. No, not some idiot. Sempter knew exactly whom. "Whore," he muttered, the word taking form in the frosty November sea coast air. Slapping his hands together to get some circulation going, he walked over to the end of the parking lot and looked out over the edge. Far below, waves smashed themselves against unyielding rock. Muttering his outrage to himself he turned and walked back towards the store.
Inside, it was blessedly warm. Old Fred Johnston made it a policy to lure customers out of the hills by offering an alternative to wood-fired stoves and expensive heating bills. Despite himself, Sempter scanned the aisles. Where was the infamous, mysterious Susan Dagon? Was it Ms. now, or still grieving Mrs? Two months ago Phil at the gas station called her an "expensive toy for old man Prichert." The tourist he'd been helping disagreed, pointing out that Susan Dagon had made quite a name for herself as an artist on the east coast, starting with her native town of Innsmouth. Phil had merely shrugged, wandering off to make change. Muttering about how this, after all, was Shellcove, Oregon . . .
Sempter poured coffee into his resident ceramic cup. Two months ago Prichert had died of a heart attack. Plenty of jokes came out of that one, but when the shock and nervous laughter had died down it was Susan Dagon who now owned the beach house. The beach house where strange things were said to still happen.
"Howdy, Mike. Kinda cold for a bicycle huh?" Sempter accepted the offered donut.
"It's O.K., Fred. Cold just takes getting used to. Get to like it after a while. But, hell, that Mercedes out there . . ."
The back door opened. Sempter spun around. Susan Dagon came walking towards them, conch shells in hand. Mike Sempter stared in awed disbelief. She was fairly short, about five foot four, with a body that just never quit. Lushly beautiful, sleek and firm. Dagon walked with animal grace, her long black hair bouncing like surf off her tight ass. Amazingly, despite the cold, she wore only a soft black sweater and a jaw-dropping black miniskirt. Susan Dagon was so beautiful that the shopkeeper would not pull his eyes off her to give Sempter his famous "told you so" look.
Sempter stood by in lustful, humble respect while Johnston rang up the conch shells. Inexperienced, poor, caretaking someone else's house, he had no chance at all. Besides . . .
Dagon turned to leave. Sempter prepared himself to speak as she passed. His mouth was half open when Susan Dagon stopped and looked directly at him. Sea green eyes. Soft hungry mouth set into the face of an angel. "Michael," she said. Her voice was a teasing kiss. "So happy to finally meet my neighbor! Please, join me at one this afternoon for tea." Without waiting for his response she opened the front door. Halfway through, she turned back towards Sempter. "Oh, about the skirt, Michael. Cold just takes getting used to. Get to like it after a while." The sound the closed door made coincided with the sound Michael Sempter's coffee cup made as it smashed to pieces on the floor.
The ocean was invisible, the beach nearly so. Wave sounds so muffled they seemed to come through time as well as space. He walked south along the upper beach, grateful for the sea grass which gave him glimpses of waving green to follow. Everything lost inside fog. He had never known it could be this bad. The only thing left in the world was the way each downward step into the sand felt to be the step the beach would not let go. By his luminous watch a half hour had passed when his feet hit the blacktop road Prichert had financed for access to the coastal highway. In Shellcove, Sempter had heard the crazy stories about sea monsters -- and worse -- stalking the road at night; but he considered it far more likely that Prichert's rise to wealth had come through drug smuggling, rather than trafficking with demonic entities. The fog lifted a little, showing him a large, vague shape. His goal. A flight of steps broke through the fog as he got nearer. On the top flight he punched the doorbell. No sound at all. He rapped the gargoyle octopus doorknocker several times. No response. He rapped again, violently. A sudden awful doubt arose in his mind. What if Susan Dagon was even now sitting in the Dolphin Lounge in town. Laughing at him! That thought sent him to the oceanward side of the house, where he tried in vain to see through curtains guarding big picture windows.
"Michael!" She came out of the surf, rising like Venus from the end of the waves. Her bright green bathing suit shining with all the colors of the underwater world. Without another word or glance she lead him back up the steps and into her house.
She brought him into the large room whose windows overlooked the Pacific. Soft electrical light revealed two chairs, an old looking sofa, a large oriental rug covering most of what looked to be a redwood floor. By the windows, two statues of nude, non-Christian female deities bathed in the natural light. The ocean's roar was somehow louder inside the room than it had been outside. The wave sounds, Dagon's swimsuit, all gave Sempter the impression that he was somehow deep underwater. He threw that off by wondering when Ms. Dagon was going to divest herself of that wet suit. For that matter, oughtn't she to be shivering?
She wasn't shivering. She wasn't doing much of anything but sitting on the sofa and smiling at him. To cover his sudden confusion Sempter walked over to examine the statues. As was typical of pagan goddesses, their curves were lush and obvious.
"The short one is Aza, moon goddess of Lemuria. And the exceedingly well endowed one is Tell, fertility goddess of Mu."
Sempter blushed. "Fascinating," he managed. Still wearing her smile, Susan left the room. She was back in a minute with a couple of drinks. Michael tasted, then drank swiftly. Fruit juice, of a sort.
"I'm a, well, you might say I'm a worshipper of the Goddess, Michael." Sempter stared at her in dismay. The sexual harassment charges in Chicago had left him with a horror of the polished fury of those worshippers. Susan only smiled indulgently at the look on his face. "The Goddess is the true power of the world, and she is coming back very soon." She opened a cleverly hidden wall closet, bringing out a velvet bag whose contents seemed to be a large roundish object. "Here, Michael. This is a piece of Goddess art I've done for their temple up on Mt. Hood."
The object in Dagon's hands was about twice as large as, roughly the shape of, a football. His first impression was that it was merely driftwood. Why stain it black?
"I know a secret, Michael. It isn't just on the surface of the ocean that there are stars." Her voice was endlessly melodic. Now the driftwood art was in his hands, though he couldn't remember reaching out for it. A part of his mind told him there had been something in that juice, something which made this sculpture of hers so strange. But it wasn't a sculpture at all, was it? A sign, a symbol, a sea-born whisper drifting in black woods -- no, black wood, . . . he was falling off the ladder by which everything stayed in the world. . . . With an effort, he threw off that bizarre thought and willed himself to gaze steadily at the object in his hand. The wood wasn't stained at all. Where had such a night black tree washed ashore in this world? Suddenly the room was gone, he was standing on the beach of the black tree, something vast and awful was standing behind him . . . before he could scream he was back in the room again, staring into the center point of driftwood where spiderwebs of wood and wave patterns met. Only, there was nothing there. That crazy woman who'd drugged his drink had carved only emptiness there, emptiness made of solid wood, emptiness that was a knot in wood, emptiness made of embedded pebbles and sand. Ah, but that knot in the wood, that emptiness, went on forever. So many stars, so many grains of sand, so many beaches, so much night above them all; they all would cease to be, but the knot in that wood went on forever.
Susan was caressing him; he could feel her small soft knowing hands touching him, felt himself growing, but that really didn't matter now. All that mattered was . . . inside the spiderwood of wind and wave and sand was . . . A sudden noise of seabirds out in the ghost world that was ceasing to be brought him back to himself again. He was staring down at the knothole in the sculpture of black wood. A flower stared back up at him. A black flower slithering silently through endlessly burning, endlessly drowned undersea galaxies. Now the night sky was in his hands and yes, something was falling, something feminine, the burning took place among the stars and something had fallen. . . . But the driftwood knot went on forever.
Sempter felt something soft and wet upon his face. He opened his eyes. Susan Dagon had a wash cloth in her hand and was expertly dabbing at his face. A surge of anger at being drugged filled him, vanishing into excitement as he tasted the lipstick traces she had left on his mouth. Lord, but this woman played fast and kinky! He forced himself to stand up, firmly refusing her offers of further aid and insisting he was all right. It did not seem necessary for him to further the charade by explaining he'd had a sudden fainting spell or something. She lead him to the door where she kissed him for a long time. At first he kissed back, but gradually she reduced him to passivity. Then she let him go. "Midnight tonight, Michael. We'll serve the Goddess together." Susan Dagon closed the door and was gone.
Sempter started up the beach, his thoughts a whirl of confusion. Had she drugged him? Or was there something truly uncanny about the house, about her sculpture? Did it matter? There had been nothing violent in her actions. Quite the opposite. Damn right he would be back with her at midnight. Besides, after all, who was he to judge feminist art?
By eleven PM he was showered and dressed. Going to the closet, he got out his down jacket. Autumn on the coast was more sea weed and wind than leaf change, but at least the nights were fog free. Cold. He took one last look in the mirror -- young man, nicely built, why else would she want him? Opening the door he stepped out into darkness.
The sky's brilliance and the chill of the night hit him at once. For a moment he forgot the woman awaiting him. High above, star brooks and star streams overflowed the Milky Way. The stars were so bright they cast shadows; he could not recall that before. Far down the beach, Susan's house was lit. Probably by candlelight, for the illumination wandered about so.
"There is no darkness in me."
Sempter froze. He stared upward. The Milky Way had spoken to him. He was sure of it.
"There is no darkness in me."
No, not the Milky Way. His eyes focused on the North Star. That was where the voice was coming from. Now a shadow lay on the ground, a shadow which stood up and smiled at him. All silver light, in size and shape a man.
"There is no darkness in me," the silvery being repeated. Sempter fell to his knees, overwhelmed by the joy he felt in its presence. Rising to his feet, Sempter could make out a face that was nothing like human. Voice and words, he somehow knew, were not something he was hearing, but rather a brightness in his head.
"There is no darkness in us, but ocean holds night. We drove the real darkness out of the night sky. It lives now in the oceans of the dead star Earth." The entity wore a garland of jewels. Sempter tried and failed for the names of their colors. "It dwelt dreaming on the bottom of your silent world for a billion years. When it awoke, it created life. Worse, when more time had passed, it created death for the life it had made. It did this by . . ." The voice stopped. Sempter's own mind continued the words, star carbon in each neuron thinking. The beast that had fallen out of the night sky had created death by creating male and female. Creating two where there was only a simple one celled one. Of the two, it was female which served it most, being more of its creative nature. The witches of the sea built a house for it out of fragments of the night sky which had also fallen. On that same island they had built a temple whose height would return the beast to the sky. Angered, the victorious stars had drowned the island, whose name in the sea-witch language was R'yleah. The temple became an undersea tomb. But inside its darkness the beast from the sky still dreamed. Sea witches and others of their kind still strove to free it. The island had risen; that far they had succeeded. One of the sea witches was Susan Dagon.
Shining fingers left afterimages as they pointed to the house down the beach. With new eyes Sempter saw it was not candlelight but witchlight which crawled there. And he, a moth to that flame. His blood, and worse than his blood, an offering to open the tomb. The silver being lifted both hands to the night sky. When it lowered them again somehow Sirius the dog star was in one hand, a silver dagger in the other. The dog star, placed carefully in Sempter's pocket, became a glowing five-pointed star. The silver dagger Sempter held in his hands. The silver being laughed. Lay down on the ground. Became a shadow again. "Why me," Sempter whispered. "Why do you both want me?" But the silver being was gone.
Curiously, this time the doorbell worked. She was nude, for the cold of the air is as nothing to the cold of the ocean floor. Susan Dagon raised her angel's face for a kiss and he kissed her belly with the silver dagger, thrusting, twisting it in till the witch glamour was broken and pale white fish skin exposed. Another stroke cut the pale white skin, spilling blood once sucked from the lungs of drowning sailors. All fish now, her body thrashed, great thumping sounds while wet life ran out across the darkening redwood floor. His final knife strokes were as thin and clean as the pale gills pulsating uselessly for water. Those slits stopped moving. Sempter held the great fish head up and looked into its sea-green eyes. Nothing. Tossing the head between the two goddess statues, Sempter sat cross legged on the floor, waiting.
Starlight filled and shook the room. Sempter crawled inside that light and was gone.
Somewhere, clear blue water rushed under and around him. Yards ahead, a beautiful white sand beach. Splashing through warm softness onto hard-packed sand, he entered the nearest shade of the tropical forest which looked to border the beach. He rested for a time, aware of nothing but waving shadow and cool breeze. He sat suddenly bolt upright when he remembered where he was! Except . . . except this island had certainly not just arisen from beneath the ocean floor! Baffled, he touched the zippered jacket pocket which held the starstone. Starlight touched him back, giving no answers.
Three hours' exploration further confused him. No seaweed-encrusted stones, no bones of another universe. A tumbling, raucous, hooting across the trees became no more than a troop of monkeys. They came and went; cries dwindling in the green forest spaces. Late afternoon (if the sun could be trusted) he came upon a still, crystalline pool of water. He set up camp there for the night. After building a large campfire, he went back down to the beach.
Perhaps an hour later, sunset came. Great cloud ships catching fire, slowly turning cold. Fragrant wind came out of the northern sky. High above, in the beginning darkness, two stars shone. To Sempter, watching below, they seemed the first glittering leaves of a great black tree.
All at once, he understood. He did not need to wonder at the sudden stench of decomposing seaweed coming from behind him. Nor at the way his body was quaking with fear. Of course. Now it was night. This was R'yleah.
Eventually, he turned around. The beautiful tropical forest was gone. In its place a forest of shattered black stone reached upward in final useless embrace. It had fallen from the sky, Sempter remembered. Part of the sky had fallen with it.
As best he could -- for the stones terrified him -- he made his way back to his campfire. The crystalline pool of water seemed the same, but he dared not drink from it. After a while, lights that were not his fire's reflection began to appear between the darkness of the stones. Lights streaking, tumbling between the darkness of the stones. Falling stars they were, which by day had worn the spirits of monkeys.
Sempter's fire began to die down. He made no attempt to feed it. He saw well enough. Somehow, where the black shattered stones had been, the tomb was now there. Wider than the universe was tall, taller than the universe was wide. Endlessly flowing black stone, starlight pooling in carved hieroglyphics. Following the outer edge, in a few hours time he came all at once to a door. Human sized, it opened easily and noiselessly as he entered.
Inside, night and day lay shattered. The forces inside were so strong that had not the starstone in his pocket protected him, Sempter would have died in a thousand dreadful ways. As it was, he simply walked down corridors holding outer space. Whether it was miles or inches or light years he walked, at last he came to an open room. Inside, visible in the silvery darkness, was a table of black wood. A pot of tea sat on it. The teapot was so old that the decay of atoms age by age cleaned it. A pale young child-woman, rather thin, with a lost look in her eyes, sat drinking tea from that pot. She wore a gown woven of the most common fibers of Earth. The child-woman sat in a chair of moonlight silver, whose glow illuminated the room.
She's lost something, Michael thought to himself. Then he thought, this is no monster, no crawling darkness. This is another star. The others renounced her, somehow. Now they want her destroyed.
The pale young woman smiled and rose to her feet.
"Michael. Have you come to destroy the one who created you?"
Sempter stood stone still. He recognized her voice. Somehow, he had heard it, faintly, on the lonely nights when he was a child.
"I was no more beautiful than the others, Michael. We all shone so very wild and lovely in the sky. There were no planets then, no life, nothing. No one to see us, no eyes with which to see. We all shone the same in the sky, Michael. Still, they envied me." She began walking towards him.
He awoke from his shock, moving back, remembering the starstone, her bane, in his pocket.
"They hurled me from the heavens. Stole my light. Even so, to this planet, to the life I have created, I am the Goddess." He touched the starstone and in front of him he now saw a withering mass of snake light. His fingers recoiled from the starstone and the pale young woman was there again. Still walking, slowly, towards him.
"You killed my daughter Susan, but that is all to the good. It will give power to my worshippers. Power to me. When I come into my own I shall set fire to this world. Then it will truly be my home."
He could see and hear her clearly now. A seething mass of hydrogen light -- but the light was alive and snarling.
She stood now in front of him. He tensed himself to touch the stone to her head. The pale young woman smiled.
"We all shone equally, Michael. But shall I show you why they drove me away? Why they wish to destroy me still?"
She reached lightly up and touched his forehead. All at once the veils fell away and he knew he was nothing but a drop of sun. He screamed and was gone.
The murder, in Oregon, of Susan Dagon was a fixture on the evening news. When Michael Sempter was brought to justice and tried, the ranks of the worshippers of the Goddess tripled overnight. The accused was finally judged insane; partially for incessantly repeating that he had only obeyed the Goddesses' wishes.
Created: March 12, 1999; Updated: August 9, 2004