In The Shadow Of His Nemesis
By AL BRUNO III
Saturday, December 4th 1996
...John Fry was driving home from work, feeling relived to have reached the end of another disaster free eight hour shift, if this kept up he might start moving up the management ladder again. While he might not be as dedicated or clever as the other guys he had a good sense of when to keep his head down and keep quiet. That counted for a lot in the corporate world and it wasn’t something they taught you in business school.
When the first twinge of unease struck him. It was just a feeling of being suddenly conscious of being noticed. His first thought was that he had made some minor infraction and there was a police car behind him but there was just an ordinary car behind him.
Another half mile along South Main Street and the feeling became a physical sensation, an itch that seemed to travel up and down under the skin of his arms. Now he started to truly worry. Was this a stroke? He was too young for that wasn’t he? He debated pulling over to the side of the road but he worried he was panicking over nothing. A muscle spasm, he was sure that was all it was.
He switched on the radio to distract himself and that was when he noticed the flesh of his hand was writhing and twisting as though the muscles and tendons beneath the skin had begun to wriggle independently of each other.
The squirming sensation began to spread, moving up his arms and through his body. John Fry felt the muscles under the skin of his face fluttering as though it was a mask that was about to crumple and fall away.
When the sensation reached his legs he stamped down on the gas propelling his car into oncoming traffic...
It had only taken a moment for Warren to experience that other man’s final moments but the horror of it was enough to drive him to his knees.
Half swooning he looked at the chamber he had blundered into, the great secret kept behind a stone doorway hidden deep beneath Laurel House.
Well, he had wanted to know hadn’t he? He sure as Hell knew now.
The chamber was cavernous. Warren would have thought of it as a cavern but caverns are natural formations and there was nothing natural about this place. Pale illumination that seemed to come from nowhere, there were no stalactites or stalagmites and instead of subterranean cold there cloying heat. The walls, floor and ceiling of the chamber were smooth and curved, like a lava flow that had long cooled. Parts of stone swelled out like half-formed bubbles but these were not bubbles, they were faces.
Faces of stone grew everywhere, out of the walls, floor and ceiling, they crowded and swarmed over each other, each one trapped in an expression of eternal agony.
...It had been hours since Charlotte Galloway had turned in for the night and she was fast asleep. Her husband was still puttering away in his office. Over the years their sleep schedules had begun to grow apart and both of them would say it meant nothing but they both knew it was more than that, it was that they were growing apart. Charlotte still enjoyed her husband’s company but she had begun to find herself wanting more, she had begun to find herself wondering about the other guys she had dated in college. Sometimes she dreamed about them and woke to found she had been crying in her sleep.
It wasn’t crying that awoke her tonight, it was shivering. She was shivering despite the fact she was warm and toasty under a blanket and a comforter. She was shivering even through she didn’t feel the slightest bit feverish and didn’t chills and shaking seem to work their way out from your insides?
These shivers were working their way into her, tickling and burrowing down into her insides.
At least that was what it felt like. Charlotte blinked awake, her bedroom was dark save for the sliver of light that came from her husband’s office. She wished he was in the bed beside her now but she knew that damn stamp collection could hold his attention for hours and now that he’d had cable TV installed in there, all bets were off.
She opened her mouth to call him but it was Novocain-numb, even her tongue wouldn’t obey her. She could only groan feebly.
Beginning to panic Charlotte twisted her head around, looking for something she could throw to get his attention but then she glimpsed the writhing shape looming above her...
Warren reeled, he couldn’t breathe, the stolen memories and horrors were too much. The taste of their sufferings made his stomach churn. He was on all fours now as he retched bile onto the silently screaming stone face beneath him. It spattered all over his bathrobe.
There were so many faces. The entire cavern was made of them, one growing over the other like barnacles. How deep did they go? How many were they? He knew now that each one was a life cut short in horror a life claimed by the secret engine of Laurel House.
They were sacrifices, long distance sacrifices all so he and the others could live in comfort and seclusion.
...Amanda was only nine and she lived with her mother in a modest little house on the outskirts of Marseille. Her parents had been divorced for so long that she barely remembered her father as anything more than a friendly stranger that visited her on the holidays with his arms full of presents. Amanda never felt fully comfortable around him, but she liked the presents just fine.
Today was a school day and she was on the playground enjoying recess. She and the other fourth grade girls were swarming over the child-safe structures of slides, ladders and swings. It reminded her and her friends of a castle so they all played at being Queens and Princesses. The made sure to stay clear of the boys because they liked to rough house and insisted that the royal castle was a pirate ship.
All around her were clomping footsteps, laughter and the occasional scream. Amanda was by herself now, hunkered down beneath in the little playhouse beneath the tallest of the slides. She had been banished her by the other Princesses because she had forgotten to feed the royal ponies. The Queen of the afternoon would send for her soon so she could make her apologies, Amanda just hoped it would be soon, there wasn’t much recess left.
In the meantime Amanda amused herself by drawing in the dirt with a stick. She made busy with letters, numbers and the occasional house. It was shortly after she had spelled out her name that she saw something shift under the dirt, shapeless and wriggling like a worm but it was longer than any worm she had ever seen. Was it some kind of snake?
She screamed at the though, blundering backward drawing in a breath for a loud scream. Something cold curled around her ankle and pulled. She fell, smacking her head on the lowest of the steps that led up and out to the slides.
Sparks flashed before her eyes, she tasted blood. The thing was still wrapped around her ankle. It was joined by another.
Now Amanda did scream but more of the wormy shapes were rising up out of the ground lashing themselves around her and squeezed the breath from her.
“Mommy!” she choked, “Mommy!” but her Mommy was at work, too far away to hear her daughter’s final moments of existence...
Warren didn’t have the luxury of calling for his mother, even when they had lived in the same house together she had been lost to him.
His heartbeat roared in his ears. He realized that the thing that dwelt here, the dark and ravenous presence that he felt digging through his mind, could only take these victims, these sacrifices, if it was given permission. If it was given a conduit.
Now that conduit was him. Warren felt deaths flowing through him knowing that each one was a murder he was responsible for-albeit accidentally.
What about the others? They had to know, or at least suspect. And Hao? She was the Castellan; that meant that she came down here every day to oversee this...this horror.
His sanity felt like it was about to give way, Warren almost welcomed it. Better madness than having to live with this.
He slumped to the floor, his agonized expression coming to rest against one of the eternally screaming faces.