Book: Black Wings III - New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror

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Waller

 

Donald Tyson

 

Donald Tyson is a Canadian writer who lives in an old farmhouse in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, with his wife, Jenny, an American bulldog named Ares, and a white Siamese cat named Hermes. Best known for his many nonfiction books on various aspects of the Western esoteric tradition, Tyson is the author of Alhazred (Llewellyn, 2006), a novel about the life of the writer of the Necronomicon, and more recently of The Ravener and Others (Avalonia, 2011), a collection of horror stories featuring the doings of Elizabethan mage Dr. John Dee and his friend, the alchemist and necromancer Edward Kelly.

1

 

Lou O’Brian cupped his hands around the wooden match and waited for it to flare through the head to the wood, then applied the flickering flame to the tip of his cigarette. He drew the smoke into his lungs and held it for a moment with his eyes closed, dropped the match, and leaned his shoulders against the brick wall of the hospital. Dr. Goldman’s words were still in his head, like the lyrics of a song he couldn’t forget.

“I’m sorry, Mr. O’Brian, there’s no easy way to tell you this, but the test was positive. That means you have a cancerous tumor on your liver. There’s more bad news, I’m afraid. The cancer has spread throughout the rest of your body and is inoperable. It’s terminal.”

The doctor’s brown eyes were filled with compassion when he said it. O’Brian just sat there, numb.

“By terminal you mean I’m going to die.”

“I’m afraid so, yes.”

“How much time do I have?”

The doctor gave an apologetic shrug.

“If you want my best guess, I’d say about three months. The cancer is aggressive.”

“There’s nothing you can do?”

“I’m afraid not. Any therapy we might give you would be ineffective and would only make you feel much worse over the weeks you have left.”

“Months,” O’Brian reminded him. “You said months.”

“Of course, months. But you realize that toward the end, your quality of life will decline dramatically.”

“How many good weeks do I have?” O’Brian asked, his throat dry.

Goldman would not give him a number. He said that was a subjective judgment. However, O’Brian should waste no time in getting his financial affairs in order. Goldman folded his hands on the top of his desk.

“There are treatments we can give you that will make you more comfortable, but they won’t change the outcome.”

“I understand.”

“Do you want me to break the news to your wife?”

O’Brian thought about it.

“Thanks, no, I’ll tell her. Thank you.”

Now here he was, a walking dead man. Thirty-seven years old, a chartered accountant, with a wife who liked to shop, an eleven-year-old daughter in need of new braces, a dog with a skin condition, and a house in the suburbs that wasn’t paid for. His life insurance policy should just about cover the medical bills, pay for the funeral, and pay off the mortgage. Cindy would have to get a job. Maybe he could help her find something before he got too sick.

He flicked the butt of his cigarette onto the asphalt of the hospital entrance and pushed away from the wall. The wind was cold, the sky a featureless silver-gray. The perfect day to be told he was going to die.

Well, what of it? Everyone dies. Death was the great equalizer that made a president or a king no better than a homeless bum. The only difference between him and those other gray-faced wage slaves who hurried along the sidewalk was that he knew approximately when it was coming.

A drop of rain cut an icy slash across his cheek. He turned up the collar of his topcoat and looked reflexively at his watch.

I should go home and tell Cindy the bad news, he thought.

Instead, he started to walk along the sidewalk, following three college girls who chattered and laughed as one of them tried to open her umbrella against the wind. They were dressed in bright colors, the only spot of brightness in the blurring grays and browns of the city. He was acutely aware of how drab and impersonal the office buildings looked as he passed them, and of the defensive hostility in the faces of most of the men and women walking in the opposite direction.

He found himself in an unfamiliar bar, getting mildly drunk on Scotch. No one tried to talk to him. The other patrons seemed to sense that he had received bad news. A few people cast him sympathetic looks, but nobody spoke. He sat on the bar stool in his private bubble of bleak despair.

A few sentences, and his entire life was ended. Just like that. He would join the swelling ranks of those who had died from cancer. There seemed to be more of them every year. It was almost as though cancer was trying to crowd out all the other forms of death and take their place. For a while he wondered who would get his job. Then he spent some time wondering who would get his wife.

The mild drunk he had going made him sentimental. When at last he made his way back into the street, tears of self-pity welled up in his clear blue eyes. Full night had fallen. It was raining, but not hard. The rain drove most pedestrians off the sidewalks. The few who remained hurried past him, anxious to get into their cars and taxis, or into their doorways. He felt the same sense of being separate and apart from the human race that he had experienced in the bar.

His mind void and gently spinning from the Scotch, he crossed the street and entered an alley. All he wanted was a moment or two of privacy so that he could gather his strength and stop his pointless tears.

There is nothing in this dreary world more useless than tears, he thought. Yet we all cry.

The empty alley looked surprisingly clean. At its end was a closed loading bay for the trucks that must back into it during business hours. On one brick wall some budding graffiti artist had used spray paint to draw what resembled a black tree, only the branches of the tree were tentacles that writhed out on all directions. Wrapped in the ends of some of the tentacles were little stick figures of human beings that appeared to be shrunken in on themselves and sucked dry of life. O’Brian realized that the tree was feeding on them. Creepy, he thought.

He pressed closer to the opposite wall so that the overhang would protect him from the rain, and drew out his pack of cigarettes. Taking a wooden match from his pocket, he struck it on the bricks and lit the cigarette, then leaned back against the wall to enjoy it.

He fell through the wall.

 

2

 

There was a kind of disconnect. For a few seconds he could not tell how much time had passed, or where he was. He rolled to a sitting position and realized he was sitting on a street. It had rained recently—the bricks of the street were still wet. They were set in a herringbone pattern and were larger than regular bricks and made of a kind of blue stone.

He looked around in confusion. This wasn’t the alley. That had been paved with asphalt. This street was narrow and sloped, and bent to the side around some odd-looking cigar store. The street lights were dim and yellow. As he stared at one of them, it flickered.

He reached up and felt the back of his head. To his relief, there was no bump and no blood.

It must be the cancer, he thought. It’s already starting to fuck with my life.

He pushed himself to his feet and stood swaying. The Scotch was still with him, so he could not have been out for long. He wandered over and touched the cast-iron lamppost. It was old-fashioned. The whole street looked old-fashioned, he realized, like something out of an old black-and-white movie. Holding the iron post for balance, he looked up at the lamp. It flickered as he watched. He could hear a faint hiss coming from it.

Gas. It was a gas light.

When had the city started using gas streetlights? And why was it so quiet? He realized that he must have wandered in an unconscious condition to some other part of the city—maybe down by the waterfront, where they were restoring some of the streets to the way they had looked a century ago, in the hope of drawing the tourist trade. Sure, that must be it. What other explanation could there be? The cancer had made him black out. He’s better get his ass home, Cindy would be looking for him.

He started to walk down the hill, only because it was easier than walking uphill. The street was dirty. In fact, it was the dirtiest street he had ever seen. A kind of black soot clung to the walls and coated the bricks beneath his feet. Scattered here and there were small heaps of what looked like horseshit. In the gutters at the edges of the sidewalks torn pages from old newspapers and ragged bits of brown bags fluttered in the breeze.

A stench arose from a pile of crumpled papers when he nudged it with the toe of his shoe, and he stepped back with his hand over his mouth and nose. A dead dog lay near a storm drain grate, its face and belly eaten by rats. The white skull of the little animal showed at the edges of its ragged fur. Maggots crawled over its intestines. From inside the grate he heard the angry squeaks of the vermin, annoyed that he had disturbed their meal.

As he approached a corner, some of the tension left his shoulders. The street that crossed the one he was on was wider and busier. He heard the voices of pedestrians. From some open doorway, piano music floated on the night air. A horse and carriage was drawn up at the curb near the corner.

He turned the corner and saw a group of young men and woman at the same moment they saw him. They stopped talking amongst themselves and paused to stare at him. He had only a moment to register that the two women were wearing long dresses that brushed the bricks of the sidewalk, and that the three men had on bowler hats and white spats covering the tops of their shoes.

“It’s a Waller!” one of the men yelled.

He looked excitedly around and took a step into the street, still pointing his finger.

“Waller!” he shouted.

One of the women squealed with excitement. The man beside her drew something from his pocket and opened it. The gas light above them glinted along its edge. O’Brian realized that it was a folding pocketknife.

All five of them rushed toward him. From the other side of the street he heard a woman cry out.

“Waller! It’s a Waller!”

Some instinct for survival took over. O’Brian didn’t try to talk. He didn’t even think. He just turned and ran.

Ahead of him, he saw several pedestrians moving to cut him off and darted down the nearest side street. In spite of his cancer he was in good physical condition. He had worked out at the company gym five days a week during his lunch hours. He was able to put some distance between himself and the growing mob that pursued him.

He realized that he was close to the river. The buildings took on a more rundown look. Some of them even appeared abandoned, but the doors he tested were all locked shut. He turned a corner and ran along a boardwalk that edged a kind of foul-smelling boat canal with decaying buildings along either side.

An old woman in a green knitted shawl stood on a doorstep hunched over a corn broom, which she used to sweep dust out the open door and onto the boardwalk. Like everything else since he had come back to his senses, she seemed wrong in almost indefinable ways. Her long dress looked at least a century out of fashion and her gray hair was piled up in a tight bun on the top of her head.

She stared at him over her broom as he stood looking at her, and her wrinkled eyes widened. The one on the left was milky-white. She extended her hand and beckoned him to her with urgent little waves of her fingers.

“Quickly, my son, we’ve got to get you out of sight.”

Her voice had an accent to it that O’Brian had never heard in his life. It sounded a bit like Scottish or Irish, but was neither one of them.

From behind on the street he had just left, the shrill cries of the mob drew closer. He hesitated for no more than a moment, then hurried forward. She put her gnarled hand on his shoulder and pushed him through her doorway, then shut the door behind them and turned an iron latch to lock it. The old woman guided him around the corner of an archway into a narrow hall.

“Wait here. If they try to come in, you slip yourself out the rear door, and then later on you can come back to me.”

O’Brian nodded and withdrew himself further into the shadow of the unlit hall. The front room held a single oil lamp burning on a table. She went to it and turned down the wick, but did not put it out.

Within seconds the feet of the mob thundered past on the boardwalk. O’Brian made out exclamations of frustration and several curses before they went out of hearing. The old woman sat in a tapestry-covered armchair beside an iron woodstove, which was not burning at present, and took up knitting from a basket. She did not even turn her head to look toward him.

Five or six minutes passed. Then there came the sound of heavy footsteps outside the door. A fist pounded on the doorframe.

“Old woman! Are you in there?”

O’Brian glanced toward the far end of the hall, but it lay in total darkness. Now was not the time to be feeling his way down a strange hall.

“What do you trouble me for?” the woman said in a querulous tone. “Go away.”

“We’re running down a Waller,” the voice said.

“What’s that to me?” she demanded from her chair.

“Did you see a man run past your door about five minutes ago, or didn’t you?”

“I did not,” she said emphatically. “Now piss off.”

“You crazy old witch,” the voice said.

O’Brian heard him stomp away in anger from the doorstep and along the boardwalk.

The old woman let another ten minutes go by, then set down her knitting in the basket and, with a grimace of effort, pressed herself to her feet using the arms of the chair. Glancing suspiciously at her front window, she went through the archway to the hall, where she could not be seen by anyone who might happen to peer through the crack in the curtains.

“We’ll let them have time to give up the chase, and then I will fix you something hot to eat,” she told him.

“Whoever you are, thank you.”

“My name’s Maggie Spry,” she said. “Everyone calls me Maggie.”

O’Brian told her his name.

“Why are those people chasing me? Are they all crazy?”

She studied at him keenly from her good eye, which was light gray in color. He tried not to stare at the milky cataract covering the other one.

“Did you attend to what they called you?”

At first O’Brian didn’t understand what she was talking about.

“You mean that word they used? Waller?”

“It means nothing?”

He shook his head slowly. She put her hand on his shoulder.

“Come to the kitchen. I see that I have much to tell you.”

 

3

 

I will tell you what the priests say to us on Monday morning.”

O’Brian looked up from his bowl of split-pea soup.

“Monday? Don’t you mean Sunday?”

Maggie chuckled.

“The things in our world are not like the things in your world.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Then listen,” she said, patting the air with her hand to silence him.

He took another spoonful of the hot soup. By this time the Scotch had left his system, and he felt chilled and exhausted.

“The priests say there are two worlds, side by side, like this.” She clenched her fists and held her forearms up so that they touched along their edges, then parted her arms and looked through them at him solemnly. “One of them is the real world that has always been, and the other is a world that was made by the gods. You came from the other world, the world that isn’t real.”

He blinked at her, wondering if she might be insane.

“My world seemed real enough.”

She nodded.

“The gods made it that way, to deceive all of you who dwell there. You think it is real, and you know nothing of this world, the real world.”

If he contradicted the old woman, she might become angry. He decided to humor her.

“Why did the gods make my world?”

“For the bean that grows on your liver,” she said.

A chill tingled up O’Brian spine and settled at the base of his neck.

“Excuse me?”

“They say the gods made your world to be the plantation for their life seed. It won’t grow here, so they made a special place where it would grow.”

“Life seed,” he repeated numbly.

“That’s what they call the little thing growing out of your liver.” She peered at him keenly through her good eye. “You know about it, don’t you?”

He thought of his tumor and nodded.

She opened a drawer in the kitchen table and took out a clay pipe with a long stem. He watched her fill it with tobacco and light it by inverting it over the glass oil lamp. When she had puffed a series of blue balls of smoke across the table, she continued.

“The gods sow the life seeds throughout your world, but even though they take root in many of your kind, they only grows true in a precious few of you.”

“This life seed? Do you mean cancer?”

“I don’t know that word.”

“You don’t know what the word cancer means?”

She shook her head, puffing on the stem of the pipe.

“There is no cancer in this world?” he asked again in incomprehension.

She shrugged her shoulders beneath her knitted shawl.

“What happens, then, when the seed grows true?” he prompted her. It was some kind of warped fairy tale, but she appeared serious.

“When the seed ripens, you fall into our world, and we catch you and cut the life seed off your liver, and sell it to the priests.”

“You cut it off,” he repeated, unable to believe what he was hearing. Then he remembered the knife in the hand of one of the men chasing him.

“You are a Waller, and what you have inside your body is the most precious thing in this world. A single seed is enough to keep an entire family in luxury for the rest of their days.”

“Why do you call me a Waller?”

Her laughter was disturbingly close to a cackle.

“You fall through the wall between our two worlds.”

“I’m called a Waller, because I fall through the wall?”

She nodded, puffing contentedly on her pipe.

“It’s the only way the life seeds can get from your false world to our true world. The priests cannot go into your world to harvest them. Not even the gods can enter the Plantation.”

“Plantation?”

“That’s what the priests sometimes call the false world. Because it grows the life seeds.”

O’Brian realized his soup had gone cold, and he set down his spoon in the bowl. He shook his head, trying to comprehend what the old woman had told him. It was the ravings of a maniac.

“How could this go on, yet no one in my world know anything about it?”

She smiled around the stem of the pipe.

“Are you so sure nobody in your world knows?”

He remembered the strange image of the black tree on the alley wall, and of the shrivelled bodies that lay in the coils of its tentacles. Why was he thinking of it? With a twinge of anger, he pushed it our of his mind.

“If people were just falling through the wall between worlds, it would get noticed.”

“Don’t people ever disappear in your world?”

O’Brian stared at her, thinking of all the milk cartons with all the tiny faces.

“These Wallers—are they ever children?”

She nodded.

“Wallers come in any age, though now that you mention it, when I was a girl, not too many were children, but it seems that more children fall through every year.”

The enormity of her words crept upon him like a lengthening shadow.

“You mean the people who vanish from my world without a trace, and are never heard from again, are all Wallers?”

She shrugged.

“I don’t know about all of them, but some of them, maybe most of them. They fall through, just as you did, and we harvest their life seeds.”

He swallowed, his throat dry. The old woman grunted and got up from the table. Going to the sink, she worked a hand pump and caught the spurt of water that came from it in a tin cup, then brought the cup back to the table and sat down once again.

“Drink. It’s good water, drink it.”

He gulped half the water from the cup.

“What do the gods do with the seeds?”

“Nobody knows. The priests pretend that they know, but they are all liars. The priests pay in gold for freshly harvested seeds—the fresher they are, the better they pay.”

And now for the big question, he thought.

“Why are you helping me?”

She pursed out her lower lip with a stubborn expression.

“Why should I kill for the priests? I don’t need money. What good does money do an old woman? Anyway, I had a son once. You look like him around the eyes.”

O’Brian wondered if he should leave this talkative madwoman and risk his luck on the streets. It must be after midnight, and most of the mob would have gone home. She seemed to read his thoughts.

“You wouldn’t get two blocks. It’s your strange clothes that give you away. Anyone who sees you will know you for a Waller.”

“Then I need new clothes.”

She got stiffly to her feet.

“First things first. You need sleep. You can use my son’s bed. Tomorrow morning I’ll find you some of my son’s old clothes. They should fit you. I’ve even got a pair of his best Monday shoes.”

O’Brian stood. His legs trembled with fatigue. He had not realized until then how exhausted he was. If he didn’t sleep, he would fall over where he stood.

“How can I thank you?”

“No need, no need.”

He followed her up the stairs. In the first bedroom there was a neatly made poster bed and a double bureau, both of pine, along with a tall wardrobe of walnut.

“I’ll leave the lamp with you,” Maggie said, setting the oil lamp on the bureau. “I don’t need it. I know this house blindfolded.”

She closed the door behind her when she left. He went quickly to it and was relieved to find that it had no lock. He did not want to be locked in, no matter how charitable the old woman might be.

 

4

 

The darkness was almost absolute. A faint sky glow found its way between the lace-edged curtains, which he had neglected to draw shut before going to bed. He lay staring at the unseen ceiling, his body strangely tense. He realized he was holding his breath and let it out with a long sigh.

Was there something beside the bed? He squinted through the darkness, but the shadow, if it was really there, refused to resolve itself. He remembered the strange words of the old woman and shook his head on the pillow with a rueful smile. Whatever had happened to him, he was not in another world. That was impossible. The cancer must be affecting his mind. When it got light he would get out of this place without waking the old woman and find his way back to the hospital. Maybe Dr. Goldman could give him something to prevent him from passing out and seeing things.

It was the old woman’s foul breath that betrayed her. O’Brian smelled her exhalation as it brushed his lips and reached up in time to grasp the hand that held the knife before its edge touched his throat. She was much stronger than he would have believed possible, but he fought for his life, and despite the unfortunate news he had received from Goldman, he discovered that he very much wanted to keep on living.

The two of them ended up on the floor beside the bed, entangled in the blankets. He managed to get his elbow into the old woman’s throat as he struggled to pry the knife loose from her powerful fingers. Something crunched, and she began to wheeze and gurgle. After around a minute her arms went slack, and he tore the knife from her lax hands. With a feeling of dread in his heart, he scrambled to his feet in the darkness and cast off the blankets that still clung around his legs. He stood listening, holding his breath, the knife at the ready in his hand, but there was no other sound from the floor or from the dark hallway.

He still had matches in his pocket. He found the solitary wooden chair with his suit draped over it and got out a wooden match, then used it to light the wick of the lamp on the bureau. What he saw made his stomach roll. Old Maggie lay grotesquely dead in a tangle of blankets, staring up at him with her one good eye as though in accusation, her tongue poking from her mouth. Her hands were held up in front of her face defensively. They reminded O’Brian of the crooked talons of a hawk.

As he looked, a low gurgle came from her mouth that almost stopped his heartbeat. He realized it must be some kind of death rattle and forced himself to relax. He had to think. He had just killed a woman. True, she had tried to kill him first, but there was nothing to prove that. If the insane mob of the night before had chased him without a reason, they had very good reason now.

Was any of what dead Maggie had told him true? He thought about it and shook his head. It was the ramblings of a senile old woman. It must be.

Even so, while waiting for the first light of dawn, he found some of her son’s clothes and put them on. He even went so far as to put on underwear and socks from a lower drawer of the bureau, so that his disguise would be complete. He knew the old woman had talked crazy talk, but for some reason he could not bring himself to ignore her words. It would do no harm to play along with the story, he rationalized to himself. In any case, his suit was soiled and he needed clean clothes. The son’s churchgoing leather shoes fitted his feet surprisingly well.

He didn’t leave the house at first light, reasoning that if he was the only person on the streets, he would draw attention to himself. Instead he waited until the sounds of passing feet on the boardwalk began to filter into the silent downstairs sitting room. When there was a break in the foot traffic, he slipped out the door.

There was a rat hole in the corner of the side board of the step. Glancing left and right, he slipped into it his watch and wallet, pushing them as deep as his elbow. Thankfully, nothing bit him. He couldn’t leave the wallet in the house or his name might be linked to Maggie’s corpse, but he couldn’t carry it in his pocket in case he was stopped and searched.

He made his way along the canal toward the nearest street. He tried to look casual and unhurried as he worked his way up the hill and back into the heart of the city.

Wherever he was, he was not in the city he remembered. The unfamiliar streets had a vintage look that resembled the period shortly before the introduction of the automobile. Wagons and carriages rattled by, but most of the traffic was on the sidewalks. If anything made him wonder whether he really might be in some other world, it was the sight of all these people walking instead of driving. None of them were fat, he noticed. Their clothes were just strange enough to be unsettling. The colors were not as bright as they should have been. Nobody was wearing tennis shoes or jeans. The women had on modest dresses that almost dragged on the bricks, or long skirts and white blouses, and all the men without exception wore hats.

There were little differences that jumped out from the drab background. A boy about eighteen years of age passed him riding a bicycle that was not driven by pedals that moved on cranks in a circle, but by levers that went up and down as he put his weight on them. On one corner, a dirty little street urchin was hawking newspapers that were the wrong shape and color—instead of broad white rectangles they were yellow and fan-folded in narrower strips.

I must be hallucinating, he thought, trying not to gawk and draw attention to himself. Could what the old woman had told him be true? He shook his head in answer to his own question. Which was more likely, that he had gone crazy from the stress of finding out that he way dying of cancer, or that he had fallen through a wall between two realities? Cancer, that was another thing—the old woman had not known the word cancer. And the priests paid for cancer tumors. That was too much of a coincidence. The little speech from Dr. Goldman must have caused a mental breakdown, and he was dreaming all this.

But it seemed so real! He could feel the grit of ashes under the leather soles of his new shoes, and smell the smoke from coal stoves. The breeze on his face felt plausible enough. He looked up and saw gray clouds creeping across the sky behind the cornices of old-fashioned buildings, none of which was taller than ten or twelve stories. Between the clouds were patches of blue sky.

Raised voices drew his attention to the sidewalk in front of a theatre beneath a projecting awning, where a young woman lay on her back with her hands raised. A crowd of five or six men and women had gathered around her, and more were running across the street.

“Waller! It’s a Waller!” a woman beside him said with excitement.

She dropped her brown shopping bag onto the sidewalk and hurried forward.

O’Brian followed in a kind of trance, mesmerized by the scene and with a sense of horror rising within him.

“I saw her first,” a man said harshly.

He waved a knife in the air, and the people around him backed off a step. It had a long, thin blade, like the kind of knife used to fillet fish.

O’Brian saw that the girl lying on her back was young, probably no more than thirteen or fourteen years old. She wore a short skirt with a bright red stripe across it and white tennis shoes. Her hair was dyed purple. What really sickened him was the realization that she had metal braces on her teeth. She reminded him of his daughter, Anne.

“Help me harvest her, Jack. I’ll give you part of it,” the man with the knife said.

Another man knelt quickly and began to rip the clothes off the girl, while the crowd milled around with excitement. When he couldn’t get them off fast enough, he dug into his pocket and flicked open a knife, then used it to cut the remaining clothes away. Everyone in this place must carry a knife, O’Brian thought.

The girl began to scream. She thrashed around and tried to writhe away, but the second man held her down with his knee on her chest between her small breasts, her wrists locked together in his hands against the sidewalk. The first man knelt and, with an expert motion of his knife, cut into the white side of her abdomen. He felt around inside the gash and extended his blood-stained knife into the wound, then withdrew something and held it up in triumph.

“Lucky bastard,” one man next to O’Brian muttered with disgust.

He looked at O’Brian. There was a nasty cold sore on his upper lip that O’Brian found himself staring at, the way a bird stares at a snake.

“Yeah, lucky,” he said faintly, trying to imitate the accent of the old woman.

A drop of sweat ran down the side of his nose. He resisted the reflex to wipe it away. The other man held his gaze for a moment, then turned back to the bloody scene on the sidewalk. The friends of the first man with the knife were gathered around him, congratulating him and laughing with excitement. He had wrapped his prize in a white handkerchief and cradled it close to his chest, his lean face twisted in an expression of possessive ecstasy. The other spectators began to move slowly away, casting envious glances back at the nearly naked, bloody corpse, which still wore its tennis shoes but little else.

 

5

 

Walking at a casual pace past the body and the scattered clothes that lay around it, O’Brian turned into the first empty alley he came to and went behind some oak barrels to throw up. There wasn’t much in his stomach. He spat out the acid taste and wiped his lips on the palm of his hand, than transferred the wetness to the side of his pants. He found himself wiping his hand over and over along his leg, and forced himself to stop.

Eddies of wind swirled bits of paper, lifting them high and then dropping them. Like everything else in this world, the alley had a rundown, neglected look. This other world, he thought. This world not my own. As much as he wanted to be crazy, or in a coma dreaming, he no longer believed it. The sickening smell of fresh blood when the girl’s side was slashed open still lingered in the back of his nose. Her staring dead eyes had watched him as he walked past her body. He looked around. These barrels, stained with tar, bleached by the sun, were real. These red bricks in the wall, longer and narrower than the bricks he was accustomed to, were real. He could touch them, feel their rough surface.

He rested his forehead against his arm on the wall and closed his eyes. A wild panic struggled to rise inside him, but he fought it down, knowing that if he gave in to it, he would run from the alley screaming and end up in a pool of his own blood with his side cut open.

If what the old woman said was true and he had fallen through a wall in his own world, then maybe he could fall the other way, out of this world and back into his own. He tried to remember the last thing he had been doing before waking up in this place. He had leaned back against the brick wall of an alley much like this one, about to smoke a cigarette. He patted his pockets, then remembered that he had left his cigarettes back at the house of the old woman. His matches were in the pocket of his suit pants, also back at the house.

He turned around and allowed his shoulders to press against the cool bricks. Glancing at the mouth of the alley to see if anyone watched him, he closed his eyes.

Now what do I do? he thought. Do I just will myself through the wall?

He tried imagining the wall becoming soft like the surface of water. In a moment he would slip under its surface. He just had to let go. It would happen any second now, as he released the memories of this world from his mind and thought about his own house, his office, his car, his wife and daughter. Any second now. Any second.

With a soft curse, he opened his eyes and turned to look at the bricks behind him. They were just bricks. Maybe they were long and thin, but they were as hard as any bricks in his world. He thumped the top of one of the barrels with the heel of his hand. It made a dull sound. It was filled with something. Something real. Everything here was real.

Setting his mouth in a grim line, he tried again, harder this time. Nothing. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, he thought. He tried again. This time instead of trying to push himself back through the bricks by the force of his will, he let his mind go soft and empty, as it had been in the other alley. He had been half-drunk and tired, and had just wanted to relax. After ten minutes or so, he opened his eyes. Nothing.

He left the alley and started to walk along the sidewalk of the street with his hands in his pockets and his head down. It was not smart to do anything that would attract attention. From the corners of his eyes he watched the people who passed. They ignored him. Apart from their old-fashioned clothes and funny hairstyles, they looked normal. Thank God his own hair beneath his hat was the same length as that of the men.

I can live here, he thought. If I am careful and don’t ask any questions, I can find work and get a room. Maybe if I practice, I’ll catch onto the knack of falling backwards through walls.

He giggled. A woman glanced at him. He hunched his shoulders and hurried on.

Who am I kidding, he thought. I’ve got terminal cancer. At best I might live three months, and I won’t be walking around at the end, either. Say two months of real living. Eight weeks. Fifty-six days. That’s what I’ve got to look forward to, best-case scenario—I don’t get my guts cut open, and I drop dead in three months.

A slow, hot rage built inside him. All this was so damned unfair! What had he ever done to deserve this? He should be sitting at his office desk right now, going over columns of numbers. Instead, he was screwed, not just by this crazy world, but by the cancer. It was so over the top, so overkill.

Fuck it, he thought. If I’m going to die anyway, I might as well get some answers.

 

6

 

The church was at the end of a little triangular park with a conservative-looking stone structure he guessed to be a bank on one side and a tall office building on the other. The bank had stone columns in front of it, but they were smooth, not fluted like the Greek and Roman columns he was accustomed to seeing. Maybe all old banks everywhere had stone columns in front of them. Only this bank probably wasn’t that old, he corrected himself, it just looked old to him.

As was true of everything else in this crazy place, the church resembled a church, but did not look exactly like any church he had ever seen before. He crossed the grassy triangle between cast-iron park benches and made his way up the stone steps, which ran the full width of the high-roofed building. It had an enormous round window of stained glass over three sets of oak doors at the top of the steps, and was impressive enough to be a cathedral.

The right side of the middle door that he tried must have been twenty feet in height, but it opened soundlessly with surprising ease. He closed it gently behind him.

It was cooler inside. Sunlight slanted through the round window and cast bits of bright color over the rows of pews and the altar. Marble columns ran down either side of the long nave. They were smooth like the pillars on the front of the bank, but highly polished to show the different colors in the stone. The church was the most colorful thing he had seen in this world, he thought, apart from the clothing and the blood of the murdered teenage girl.

It appeared to be empty. He walked slowly up the carpeted aisle, his soft footfalls echoing down from the stone arches in the painted ceiling. The altar was of polished black stone and huge—it rose four feet or so above the floor and had a triangular surface that could not have been less than nine feet long on each side. The top was covered with an embroidered black cloth edged with gold braid that showed the design of a white tree with three spreading branches bearing lush green leaves. From the tree hung numerous small, bean-shaped white seeds. The tree had three sinuous, curling roots resembling great serpents, the wedge-shaped heads of which came together and seemed to drink from a round pool of red blood at the base of the tree.

He turned to look back down the center aisle the way he had come, and for the first time noticed the design worked into the round stained-glass window above the doors. It had not stood forth clearly when viewed from outside the church. S-shaped lines radiated from its center to divide it into three parts, each of which held a monstrous head. One was like the head of a dragon, another resembled the head of a bird with an enormous beak and a spiky crown of feathers, and the last looked something like the head of a hyena. All three seemed to stare down directly at the altar. The effect was unnerving. O’Brian had the uneasy sense that they watched him.

He heard footsteps from one end of the church transept, where there was a side door, and turned to see a mature woman in a white robe edged in gold approach with a smile. She had a full figure, her large and somewhat heavy breasts balanced by broad hips, and a round face with startlingly pale gray eyes and a small colorless slot of a mouth. Her curling, dark-blond hair was cut short enough to reveal her ears and was streaked with gray. Around her neck hung a silver ring that was divided into three parts by radiating S-shaped lines, just like the church window.

The woman extended her plump hand. O’Brian took it hesitantly, wondering what the custom in this world might be, but the woman shook his hand up and down in the usual way and released his fingers.

“How may I help you, child?” she asked in a gentle voice.

“Are you a priest?”

She regarded him with curiosity for a moment before she replied.

“I am Mother Theodora, a priestess of the Givers of Life. As you see by my robes.”

O’Brian glanced around the church.

“Are we alone?”

“For the moment,” the priestess said. “Why do you ask? I hope you don’t intend to rob the church?”

She laughed, and O’Brian realized she was joking. He forced a smile and shook his head.

“Not today. I’d just like to talk with you for a few minutes, if I may.”

“Of course, child. What troubles you?”

O’Brian dropped his eyes. He didn’t want her staring into them while he was lying to her.

“Mother, I’m feeling confused about my faith.”

“Don’t be ashamed, child,” she said in a warm, gentle tone. “Everyone has moments of confusion. It will pass.”

“It would help me if you would answer some questions for me.”

She took his hand and guided him to the nearest pew.

“Here, let’s sit down while we talk. Now what do you wish to know?”

“About the two worlds,” he began.

“Three worlds,” she corrected gently. “The divine world, the real world, and the world of illusion.”

“The world of illusion is the Plantation, right?”

She studied his face with curiosity.

“That’s right.”

“Mother, I’ve been wondering if it is truly as unreal as everyone says. I’ve been wondering if maybe it could be as real as this world.”

She smiled with amusement.

“Many children say that, but I seldom hear it from a grown man.”

“But how do we know it’s unreal, if nobody has ever been there?” he persisted. “And aren’t the Wallers real when they fall out of the other world into our world?”

“The gods made the other world for our use, child. It has no other purpose but to grow the life seeds that we harvest for the gods. It is the Plantation, they are the masters, and we are the reapers.”

He turned on his seat and pointed at the round stained-glass window.

“Are those the gods?”

“Those are but the earthly trinity of the gods. No man or woman has seen the gods, who maintain their places in the divine world as we maintain our places in the real world.”

“So it is only the Wallers who cross from one world to another.”

“That is correct,” she said, nodding. “The gods do not pass through the walls. They have no need.”

“Do the gods themselves plant the cancers in the people of the other world?”

“Cancers?” she repeated. “What are cancers?”

“The seeds that grow on the livers of the Wallers.”

“Ah, the life seeds. The gods make the false world and the people who dwell there in such a way that the seeds grow inside them. Most of them grow wrong, or too slowly, or in the wrong part of the body, but when the seeds grow right, those who bear them become Wallers and come to us for the harvest.”

“What of all the other seeds?”

The woman shrugged her rounded shoulders.

“They return to the dust along with the hosts who bear them.”

“You mean they kill the hosts,” O’Brian corrected, his voice tight.

She looked at his face for several moments with a strange expression.

“You speech is odd. Are you from some other province?”

He realized that he had forgotten to maintain his accent. Careless, he told himself, don’t get careless.

“I’m from a province far to the south,” he said quickly. “Tell me, Mother, has it ever happened that the Wallers who fall into this world fall back out of it?”

She drew away from him on the wooden seat of the pew.

“That is quite impossible,” she said more sharply. “Your questions are very curious. Every child of nine knows these things.”

“Humor me, please. Pretend I know nothing of these matters. Tell me this: Has a Waller ever fallen into this world and avoided detection?”

She wrinkled her small nose in distaste.

“Such things happen, but not for very long. Sooner or later, the hounds smell them out.”

He wanted to ask what the hounds were but realized it would be something he would be expected to know. It was dangerous enough, asking questions on points of theology. He wondered why she was humoring him. Maybe she thought he was mentally impaired.

“Wouldn’t the cancers—I mean the life seeds—kill the Wallers if they stayed hidden in our world?”

“The seeds of life cease to grow when Wallers fall out of the Plantation. They begin to wither and shrink. That is why they must be harvested while they are fresh.”

That was worth knowing, O’Brian thought. Maybe if he could avoid detection in this world, he wouldn’t die of cancer after all. These people didn’t even know what the word cancer meant. Maybe none of them had cancer, because it would not grow here.

There was a rattle from the back of the church. O’Brian turned in his seat. The middle set of doors opened to admit a tall young man dressed in white robes similar to those of Mother Theodora, and a shorter man who was older wearing a tall black hat, a leather vest over a checked flannel shirt and leather trousers. But it was the thing on the end of the leash in the older man’s hand that fixed O’Brian’s attention.

It came sniffing up the aisle, its wedge-shaped head questing from side to side as it sampled the scents of the wine-colored carpet. Its body was all black, the deepest black O’Brian had ever seen with no highlights, and its limbs and torso were incredibly thin. In profile it resembled an emaciated greyhound. Around the head of the beast was a black ruff, somewhat like a lion’s mane, except that the hairs were thick and moved independently of each other.

O’Brian realized that this creature must be one of the hounds the Mother had mentioned. It was following a scent trail. His trail.

“There he is,” the short man muttered in a low voice, pointing at O’Brian.

The hound lifted its head and opened its long snout to reveal an array of triangular white teeth. It howled with an unearthly sound, like the hopeless cry of a damned soul.

Mother Theodora stood and moved away from him.

“Waller,” she hissed in accusation.

From a pocket of her robe appeared a folding knife with a white pearl handle. She flicked its long blade open expertly with one hand.

O’Brian leapt to his feet and stared around. He realized he was boxed in. The hound and the two men blocked the main entrance, and the priestess barred the side door. He thought about pushing past her, but the familiar way she held her knife cautioned him against it.

The man in the leather vest released the hound from its leash. It made a bound toward O’Brian. Without thinking, he scrambled up onto the top of the triangular altar.

“Sacrilege!” the priestess cried.

They all paused, even the black hound. He realized that none of them would break the taboo of touching the altar. They could not reach him with their knives. They spaced themselves on the three sides of the altar and glared at him with fanatical purpose, each with an open knife in hand. The hound sat by its master and howled damnation.

“I saw him first. The offering is mine,” Mother Theodora said in a possessive tone.

“But I identified him first,” the short man in the black hat said.

“We will share in the blessing,” the priest told them both.

“Just let me go, that’s all I’m asking,” O’Brian said.

They ignored his words.

He felt a kind of pulling sensation in his right side that gradually became more insistent. It began to hurt. He grunted and pressed his hand over the place. Why was the air around him becoming brighter? It sparkled above his head like dust motes caught in a beam of sunlight.

“What’s happening?” he asked.

The hound howled once, and he found himself alone in darkness.

 

7

 

The place was vast, to judge by the distant echoes that re-turned faintly when he spoke.

“Where am I?”

He straightened up. The pain in his side was gone. He felt his body gingerly and was relieved to discover no gaping wound. Whatever was growing from his liver must still be there. He turned a full circle and found only uniform darkness on all sides. It felt as though he stood in some gigantic cavern beneath the earth, but that was due only to the sense of vaulted space above him and the total silence.

When he tilted back his head to look directly upward, his heart froze for an instant, then thudded painfully.

The thing was enormous. Its central mass was larger than the body of a blue whale, and from it radiated innumerable slender tentacles that floated on the darkness like the stingers of a jellyfish in water. Tiny flecks of light covered its entire complex, convoluted surface. This was the only reason he could see the thing, since its body was as black as the darkness that surrounded it like a womb.

“Where am I?” he repeated, louder this time.

The fine black tendrils of the monster darted down and surrounded him. He screamed and fought against them as they wrapped themselves around his arms and legs, holding him helpless and immobile. Realizing that it was futile to struggle, he finally relaxed.

An image formed in his mind. He saw a kind of complex diagram of three spheres, one above the other. They were joined by a central conduit that reminded O’Brian of an umbilical cord. This channel ran through the centers of all three spheres. In some wordless way he understood that he was presently in the highest of the spheres.

“This is the divine world,” he said.

He felt a wave of affirmation.

“Are you one of the three gods?”

Amusement rippled through his body. It was mingled with the bitterness of contempt.

“Why do you poison my world with cancer?” he demanded.

Fear had left him. His very helplessness in the grasp of the monster gave him a kind of fatalistic courage.

The thought-sensation that came in response was too complex for him to absorb. He caught a hint of mingled yearning and hunger, and with them a sense of ownership. The overall impression was that the god, if god it was, needed his world and would do whatever it wished with its inhabitants.

“Why don’t you kill me.” It was more a request than a question.

Amusement tickled through his body, mingled with a sense of delight and attainment. This thing on the ceiling had been waiting for him, or for one like him, for a very, very long time. He felt the tingle of demand. It was ordering him to obey.

“You’re a god, I’m just a man. What can I do that you can’t?”

In his mind he saw an image of himself falling backward through a wall. This was repeated over and over, but each time the wall was different, sometimes brick, sometimes plaster, sometimes wood. At last he shook his head.

“Stop! I get it. You can’t pass through the wall between worlds, but I can.”

The black tentacles caressed his skin. He shivered with revulsion. It was like being touched everywhere by slender writhing eels. An image came into his mind. It showed him swallowing a black pill, and then falling backwards through the wall. He recognized the streets of the city in which he lived and worked. In the next scene he saw himself lying in a hospital bed, his body eaten up by cancer. Then he saw a scene of a closed coffin being lowered into an open grave. Beside the grave, dressed in black and weeping into a handkerchief, stood his wife, Cindy. At her side stood their daughter, Anne, a bewildered expression on her young face.

A single sparkling tentacle descended slowly from the undulating mass of black flesh on the ceiling of the cavern. Its end wavered through the air before his face, and he realized that it held something wrapped in its slender tip—a black bean about the size and shape of a small unshelled peanut.

The image filled his mind of him taking the bean between his fingers and swallowing it. Then he saw himself released from the tentacles, and saw himself falling backward through the darkness to his own world.

“If I do this, what will happen?”

He waited. No image came into his mind.

“I won’t do it until I know what will happen. Why do you want this?”

Suddenly his body was wracked with excruciating agony. He would have collapsed into a fetal position had not the web of tentacles held him up. The agony stopped as quickly as it had begun. He shuddered and gasped for breath, his body bathed in a sweat of pain.

“Now we both know you can hurt me,” he said through gritted teeth. “Tell me why you want me to swallow this black seed.”

He felt a sense of reluctance, and then saw an image of a black shoot growing out of the center of his chest. He somehow knew he was dead and beneath the ground. The shoot pushed itself above the surface and quickly grew into a black tree with writhing tentacles in place of branches. O’Brian recognized it as the tree he had seen drawn on the wall of the alley, when he had fallen through from his own world. It seemed so long ago, but had only been yesterday.

“You can’t make me do this, can you? You can only hurt me.”

A sense of untold ages of agonies rolled through his flesh. The god was telling him that it could make him suffer for a million years, for eternity if needed.

“But you can’t force me,” he repeated, knowing somehow that he was correct. It might be able to make him swallow the seed, but it could not send him through the wall between worlds. Otherwise, it would not have needed him to carry the seed.

Another wave of agony racked his body, stronger than the first. It felt as though every nerve were being scraped by the edge of a knife blade. He endured it without screaming, but it left him weeping silent tears of relief when it finally ended.

“The black tree is a death sentence for my world, isn’t it?”

He received a complex sense of renewal and saw a moving image of a farmer tilling his field with a plough, the rich black soil turning over on the shining steel blade.

“You are replanting,” he said as he suddenly understood. “Your crop of life seed is almost played out so you’re going to grow another crop.”

Affirmation.

“I won’t—”

The pain was a hundred, no, a thousand times more intense than before. It became his world. He forgot who he was, where he was. He lost all sense of the passage of time. How long he hung in a mindless, screaming state he had no way to estimate, but at last he became aware that the pain had stopped.

The sense passed through his body that what he had felt thus far was only the smallest part of the torments he would endure unless he obeyed.

“Very well, I agree,” he shrilled, his throat raw from scream-ing.

No tricks, the thing on the ceiling conveyed to him with a sense of playful warning. The merest tickle of pain passed through him and made him shriek in terror.

“No tricks,” he said.

His body was released from the enfolding black tentacles, which withdrew upward like hairs, all but the one that held the black seed. He took it into his hand. It felt unnaturally cold and heavy. Without hesitating, he placed it in his mouth and swallowed. It took a while to work its way down his esophagus, since he had no water to ease its way. At last he felt it reach his stomach.

“That’s done,” he said tonelessly. “Now how do I fall back into my own world?”

The tentacle that had held the black seed touched and caressed him on the forehead almost with tenderness. He had a sense of knowing what to do. It was absurdly simple. He had been trying too hard before, in the alley. It was just a matter of relaxing the mind and letting it slip backwards.

At the last possible instant, he filled his thoughts with an image of the interior of the church and its triangular altar.

Just before he fell through the wall, he caught an explosion of fury from the black god on the ceiling, and he smiled.

 

8

 

The inside of the church was dark. Night had fallen.

Whether it was the same night he had vanished into the divine world, or some later night, he had no way of guessing. It had seemed like an eternity in the black place, but perhaps it has been no more than a few hours.

As he had hoped, the church was deserted. He had returned to the altar because it was the one place in the real world where he was certain he could pass through the wall. He would have visualized some other, less conspicuous part of the city to fall into, but he was not sure the trick worked that way and had not dared risk the chance of failure.

He climbed off the altar and made his way to the side door of the church, which he found unlocked. The priesthood was uncommonly trusting, he thought. Perhaps there was no one in this accursed place who would dare to rob them.

The door opened on a walled burial ground. From the star-shot sky clear moonlight bathed the headstones. The moon hung high above the trees, a little more than half full. Wandering across the grass between the stones, he found a grave newly dug and waiting for its occupant. Here, he dropped to his knees.

His stomach felt strangely full. It rolled and undulated with unease. Without hesitation, O’Brian leaned forward and forced himself to vomit. It was not difficult. The thought of that black seed within him revolted him on a primal level of his being. Something caught in his gaping throat and gagged him, then slid forth and landed in the bottom of the hole. He blinked and peered down. It was black and soft, about the size of a large slug, which it resembled. Its slowly undulating sides glistened in the moonlight. He wondered in horror how it had managed to grow so greatly in size during the few short minutes it lay within his stomach.

Grimacing with determination, he crawled to the side of the grave where the soft earth was heaped and began to push it into the hole with his hands until the black thing was covered with grave soil. With a final gasp, he sat back on his heels. He thought of the frustration of the writhing god on the ceiling of the vault in the divine world, and smiled to himself. Whatever happened to him, the black tree would never grow in the world occupied by his wife and daughter.

After resting for the space of a quarter hour, he pushed himself up and left the burying ground by a gate in the wall. In spite of the late hour, the streets were not deserted. He heard voices in the distance shouting back and forth, and every so often the despairing howl of one of the black hounds. Mother Theodora had raised the alarm. Men were still searching for him. If one of those accursed hounds crossed his trail, it would run him down quickly. The black thing in his stomach had left him drained of energy, too weak to walk far.

He decided to try to make his way back to the canal and the house of the old woman. If her corpse had not been discovered during the day, he could sleep there in safety until morning. There was food and water, and a change of clothing. Besides which, I need a cigarette, he thought. His pack of cigarettes, still more than half full, was sitting in the inner vest pocket of his suit jacket. He could see it when he closed his eyes, could smell the tobacco and feel the texture of the filter end on the tip of his tongue.

One of the mobs caught him on a back street before he had gone half the distance to the old woman’s house. They had a hound and it picked up his trail and led them unerringly to where he fled, a small and dirty little courtyard with only one way in or out. All the doors that opened on the courtyard were locked for the night. O’Brian found himself trapped. When they came pouring through the gateway with their wicked little knives drawn and open, he faced them and merely spread wide his arms.

“Here I am, you crazy murdering bastards,” he said. “Do your worst.”

The leader of the mob, a big man with a bald crown, who was the first hatless man O’Brian had seen apart from the priest, turned and held back the others until he was able to restore some sanity to their blood-crazed eyes. The black creature they called a hound continued to howl and bay at him by turns until the man who held its leash cuffed it to silence with his hand. Much to O’Brian’s surprise, they put away their knives and took firm hold of his arms on either side.

“Aren’t you going to cut me open?”

“I only wish I had the pleasure,” the bald man said. “Mother Theodora has commanded that you be brought back to the church unharmed.”

“What do the priests want with me?”

No one bothered to respond. They dragged him along the brick streets, muttering with dissatisfaction among themselves. They were not accustomed to running down a Waller without taking his life seed, and it vexed all of them.

As they neared the church, the ground began to shake and a low rumble filled the night air.

“Earthquake,” one of the men said.

“No, look!” another cried out.

Beneath the bright light of the moon, a black stalk rose behind the church and curled around its bell tower. Its trunk was as thick as a subway car and grew thicker even as they watched. Branching shoots extended outward from the main stem, writhing like black serpents, and curved down to touch the street, where they burrowed into the paving stones, breaking them up with ease and penetrating deep into the ground beneath. Within seconds new shoots arose from the places these branching tentacles entered the earth.

The speed with which the black tree propagated itself was both astonishing and terrifying. It froze the mob into place. They could not move, even when two of the questing black tendrils of the tree caught up a man and the hound and lifted them high into the night air. The hound wailed piteously a single time. O’Brian heard its spine break as the tendril tightened its grip. The man was not so fortunate. His screams continued for the space of half a minute while his vitality was sucked from his body, leaving a shrivelled and blackened corpse.

O’Brian recovered his wits before the others. He twisted free from the grasp of those who held his arms and ran away from the church even as the questing tendrils sank themselves into the ground beneath the street all around him.

The leader of the mob noticed him flee and screamed an order to the rest to go after him. Three of them obeyed and ran at his heels after O’Brian. The others scattered in different directions, trying to avoid the questing black tendrils that sought to wrap around them. All this, while the ground never ceased to quake and rumble.

What have I planted in this world? O’Brian wondered as he ran.

He felt satisfaction, not regret. Contact with the moist black soil of the open grave must have activated it. The tree would continue to grow whatever happened to him. If ever a world deserved to be destroyed, it was this one. Maybe the world that replaced it would be remade into something less pitiless and grim. In any event, his own world was safe, at least for now.

A thought almost stopped him in his tracks. He stumbled and kept running. What would happen to the other Wallers who fell through into this world? They would be caught up by the black tree and killed the instant they came here. He had to get back to his world to warn them. The entire human race had to be told what was going on when people suddenly disappeared without leaving a trace. Parents had to know what happened to children whose faces ended up on cartons of milk. Maybe the liver cancers could be treated if they were caught in time. Even if nobody believed his story, he had to tell them, to try to warn them.

But how can I get back home? he wondered. I was only able to fall from the divine world to this world with the guidance of the god. I tried before and couldn’t do it alone.

He stumbled, dropped to his hands and knees, and spat out the bloody taste that welled in his throat. This was more running than he had done in twenty years. He wasn’t in condition for it in spite of his workouts at the gym. Staggering up again, he looked behind and saw that his pursuers had dwindled to only the bald leader of the mob. His companions had all deserted him. The bald man jogged grimly toward him, puffing like a bellows with the effort. Behind him, a nightmare of black and writhing stems that looked like the tentacles of giant squids rose high above the roofs of the buildings and seemed to cover half the city skyline.

O’Brian faced his pursuer. The bald man stopped a dozen feet away and stood gasping for air. He face dripped with sweat and his clothes were soaked with it. I probably don’t look any better to him, O’Brian thought.

“I’m not going back with you.”

“You will do what the church tells you to do,” the bald man barked.

O’Brian pointed over his shoulder.

“What church?”

The other man stared at him with a strange expression, then turned slowly. He stood frozen to the spot, looking at the nightmare scene while the earth continued to shake and heave beneath their feet. The shaking was strong enough to make bricks and cornice stones fall from nearby buildings. One of the cast-iron light poles tipped over and clanged to its side on the street.

O’Brian left the bald man and continued to walk in the other direction until he came to an alley. He entered its mouth and stopped midway along its length. Concentrating to shut out the rumble of the ground and the distant screams, he closed his eyes and leaned his shoulders back against the brick wall.

If I can only remember what the god showed me, he thought. It was the opposite of force. It was a kind of mental ju-jitsu, a misdirection whereby the power was turned inward against itself.

Something slammed hard against the street at the mouth of the alley. He opened his eyes and saw that a huge black shoot had sprouted up through the bricks and was sending out numerous questing side tendrils in search of nourishment. Two of them felt their way blindly into the mouth of the alley. He closed his eyes again and thought of his wife and daughter, holding their images in his mind. A sense of peace rolled over him like a soothing wave.

His belly twisted in on itself and he fell backward.

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