He might be playing left back in Salt Lake City. He scored arguably the team’s goal of the season. He’s getting paid about as much as Kellyn Acosta or Brad Guzan. And he’s been easily the most…
Thrown violently into the arm rest, Ira Reeder jolted awake in his seat, elbow bones colliding with cold metal.
Upon opening his eyes — for one febrile moment — it was as if gravity had been suspended. Still half-dreaming, he watched on as the contents of his briefcase broke free, hovering in mid-air right before him. He reached out to grasp for them, but was snatched back into his seat as the stagecoach came out of its tailspin and juddered to a halt. A flash of light. Stabbing through the darkness like a rapier. Then the spell was broken; his levitating papers and books hit the floor, strewn across the aisle like confetti. The roar of the engine cut out and the voice came once again from the darkness up ahead.
“Jesus… Goddamn potholes. Hey, you alright back there mister?!”
Thoroughly discombobulated, Ira’s gaze raced over the seats around him. He then recalled that he was the only passenger on board, and that the question, therefore, had to have been directed at him.
“Uh, yea — uhm,” he eventually spluttered, and cleared his throat. “Yes, I’m alright. What in the name of everything holy was that?”
“Pothole the size of a damn swimming pool. Roads out here been real bad all night — or ever since we crossed the state line, anyway.”
Ira didn’t respond, and instead began gathering up his effects from the centre aisle. He straightened his half-moon spectacles and peered out through the window to see if he could work out where they were. Nothing but raindrops and darkness. He attended to a thin sliver of black hair that had fallen across his brow, returning it to the slicked back fold atop his scalp.
“I’m gonna head on out to take a look: see what the damage is. Could I trouble you for your umbrella a second?”
Ira didn’t look up, preoccupied with salvaging his papers from the well-trodden aisle.
“You don’t have your own? Surely the coach company…”
“Forget it then, jeez.”
The driver disappeared, torch in hand, muttering something under his breath. Ira attempted to catch anything that he could report to the man’s superior, but his gripes were obscured by the incessant tattoo of the rain on the coach windows.
Ira stared resentfully at the letter in his hand, dimly lit by a lamp overhead. Though he cursed the letter for its part in bringing him here, re-reading the exquisitely typed words brought about a sense of calm from deep within. The adrenaline of his violent awakening began to dissipate as his eyes scanned the lines:
His reading was interrupted by the door of the cab being wrenched open, and shortly thereafter the sodden driver clambered back inside.
“Not good. Not good at all.”
“Yeah. Rim’s shot to shit. We’re going to have to stop somewhere and get it looked at.”
“Before we reach the university?”
The driver scoffed, as if Ira were not his social and professional superior, but merely a naive child.
“Oh yeah. That much I can say. I reckon we’ve got about…” he sucked a deep breath in through his teeth before continuing with a note of incredulity. “… I dunno, maybe two more miles — and that’s tops we’re talking — before the damn thing comes right off the axle.”
“Doubt even he can help us all the way out here. Middla-buttfuck-nowhere, if you’ll pardon the expression.”
Ira raised an eyebrow, indicating that he would do nothing of the sort. The driver didn’t appear to notice, his gaze having turned to a sodden map of Massachusetts.
“Well, this says there’s a town a little ways east of here, out towards the coast. I just hope they’ve got a mechanic.”
“What about my business? Am I to be delayed?”
“Well, yeah, probably mister,” he shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell ya. Best case scenario: this town actually exists, we make it there before the goddamn axle gives out, there’s someone in the place with a toolkit and some smarts… if all that falls into place we’ll get the old girl fixed up tomorrow mornin’ and get you to where you’re goin’ by sundown tomorrow. Maybe.”
Before Ira could protest, the driver turned and made for the cab. The engine squealed at the turn of the key in the ignition, and they set off with a disconcerting rattle.
This was utterly unacceptable.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Though Ira’s watch said that only 45 minutes had passed, it felt like countless fitful hours before they pulled to a stop again. Peering through the murky dark, he could see that they had indeed reached the town. Or some sort of settlement, at least: it would be a very liberal dictionary indeed that would include the ramshackle assortment of shacks that lined the unlit street in its definition of the word “town.”
But needs must. There was nothing else for it. Ira rose and collected his belongings, then made his way to the doors at the front of the coach.
The driver had already alighted, hammering in vain at the sheet metal of a sliding door, steadfastly ignoring the heavy-duty padlock chained to the handles. Ira looked up at the sign and grimaced: ‘Dhunwytch Automobile Repear.’
“Looks closed,” he offered, after a while.
“So what’s the plan?”
“Plan?” he scoffed. “Ain’t no plan mister.”
“There isn’t a plan,” Ira corrected, reflexively.
Ira paused, suddenly acutely aware that the driver had at least a foot in height and a couple of weight classes on him. He stuttered a little, unsure what he had been trying to achieve by correcting the grammar of this burly, uncouth man, who — disagreeable as the fact was — remained Ira’s best hope of reaching Miskatonic University in good time.
“Oh I see. You think your fancy education makes you better than me, huh?”
“No, no. Just a professional habit.”
“I bet. Well the plan, if it ain’t too common for you, your damn highness, is that you go find some lodgin’s for the night. I’ll stay with the coach and see if there’s anything I can do before the mornin’.”
Ira glanced up and down the street.
“Head towards the water. They always build hotels by the coast. Sea views…”
“Good idea,” Ira hesitated “Do you, uh…”
The driver looked at him expectantly. Ira half-heartedly offered his umbrella, but the driver waved it away and turned back to the wheel of the stagecoach, now hanging by mere threads.
“To hell with you, then…” muttered Ira, and embarked out into the street.
A silvery mist had drifted in from the water, hovering a few inches above the wet cobblestones. Carefully watching his step, Ira continued along the road, following the sound of the waves lapping at the rocks, somewhere out in the darkness.
As he walked, he began mentally composing the letters of complaint he would be lodging once he arrived at Miskatonic University. Yes, some people would be hearing about this.
After perhaps five minutes — or was it twenty? — he was able to make out what looked like the sign for a tavern. He hurried onward as the salty rime enveloping the street grew thicker, trying to ignore the uncanny sensation of something damp and effervescent clutching at his ankles.
His instincts had proven correct: it was a tavern. The Star and Anchor Guesthouse, to be precise. As Ira approached the door, he saw a sign in the window that read “VACANCY’S” . He shuddered as he read, the night seeming to grow darker, the cold sharper, the sting of the salt in the air more distinct. Remembering the incident with the driver, however, he tried to swallow his disdain.
At least there was a patch of tape above the offending word, presumably obscuring a “NO” that would be displayed when the inn was all booked up. He should, at least, have found shelter. Ira pushed open the door.
From what he could make out in the gloom— the room was scarcely any lighter than the street outside — he stood before a drab reception desk that had seen better decades, enclosed by peeling green walls. The unmanned desk bore a voluminous leather ledger, a feebly burning gas lamp and a copper bell. The room was quiet, still, but Ira was certain he could almost make out a low hum emanating from the end of a corridor to his left.
He strained to hear.
It almost sounded like… chanting. He couldn’t make out any words: not English words, anyway. Just a long, uninterrupted vowel sound. What was that?
Craning forward to try to hear better, his briefcase collided with an as yet unseen side table, piercing the quiet of the reception room with an almighty clatter.
The hum immediately fell silent. Flustered, Ira righted the table and glanced back at the door, then at his pocket watch. After a breath, he adjusted his posture and rang the bell with all the confidence he could muster.
Almost immediately, a cheery woman in her sixties emerged from the corridor, holding a lit candle.
“Welcome! Welcome. My, you look like you’re having quiet the night, no mistake—gosh I hope you don’t mind my sayin’ so. What can I do for you, dear?”
“Please accept my apologies for the lateness of the hour, ma’am. If possible, I’d like a room for the night.”
“Certainly! Room and board’s what we do best here. Finest breakfast in town, so I’m told. It’s the kippers. Fresh from the bay.”
“Is that so?”
“So I’m told. Say, are you in town for The Event?”
“The event? No… I was on a stagecoach from New York up to Miskatonic University. It broke down, you see.”
“Oh sure, you’re lucky you found us here in Dhunwytch, then. Not another town around here for a fair few miles in any direction. There’s estates and the like about the place, of course, but the folks that live out there ain’t always so welcoming when it comes to outsiders. Anyway, listen to me blathering on: you’re probably wanting a nice warm bed, eh? Now, room and board’s a dollar a night, you can settle up when you leave, of course. If I could just ask you to leave your name and address in the ledger here,” she gestured to the desk in front of her. “I’ll take you up to your room.”
Too exhausted to ask any further questions, Ira signed his name and followed dutifully. The pressing need to sleep had come over him quite suddenly as the woman spoke, his legs feeling increasingly leaden as he climbed the stairs. He took the key that was handed to him.
“Which room?” he yawned.
“Number one there — no one else staying tonight so you might as well have the biggest room. You just call if you need anything: my name’s Lavernica Dowd. Breakfast is served at seven.
She bustled cheerfully away down the hall towards the stairs. Ira watched her go, and then crossed the threshold into his room. There was a gas lantern above the bed, but most of the light came in through the window: the moon breaking through the mist to rebound off the water’s surface in undulating silvery shards.
“A sea view,” Ira thought to himself as he collapsed into the bed. He fell instantly into a deep yet tumultuous night’s sleep.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Ira awoke from dreams of the inky black cosmos and the frigid, salty depths of the ocean to the sound of low voices in the hall.
Disoriented, he looked around the room in a daze. Empty. But the murmuring persisted. Still dressed from the night before, he rose and adjusted his crumpled jacket, combed his hair back into place with his fingers, and stepped out into the corridor.
There was no one there.
Confused, he made the short walk down the hall to room two and cupped his ear up against the wooden panelled door. That was the source of the noise, alright. But what exactly was it? A quiet voice, surely. Surely? Wasn’t he the only guest? It sounded like whispering, but not in any tongue he recognised.
“Maybe it’s the driver,” he thought. After all, the fellow had certainly come out with some choice terms that were unwelcome foreigners to Ira’s ear last night. His temper rising at the thought, he rapped on the door.
He knocked again, now listening closely for any activity. Nothing.
Then the unmistakable sound of footsteps, but not from the room — from behind him; coming up the stairs. He pushed himself away from the door and scuttled back down the hall, reaching his room just as the landlady’s head bobbed up the stairs.
“Good morning to you mister Reeder! How did you sleep?”
“Good morning. Err fine, yes.”
“Delighted to hear it. Breakfast is served downstairs if you’re ready.”
Dismissing the churning feeling in the pit of his stomach, Ira reluctantly conceded that it would be good to have a hot meal before setting back out on the road, and so followed her down the stairs to the dining room.
She sat him at a table in the middle of the empty room and bustled away into the kitchen. Ira twisted in his seat to look at the rest of the room behind him, attempting to smooth down his hair in the reflection of a mirror which hung amidst a flotilla of nautical paintings. A lightweight door, framed on either side by tastelessly ornate wallpaper, swung back and forth, allowing Ira a glimpse into the kitchen behind him.
The landlady hurried past a young woman stood over a stove, stirring away at a large pot with an enormous wooden spoon. His eyes were immediately drawn to her curious dress, which was old-fashioned even by the standards of this backwater place. It was oddly anachronistic, like something he had seen in an etching of Victorian London. Its simple, tunic-esque top half ballooned out at the waist like the ribbed canopy of an umbrella, with the starched blue fabric reaching all the way to the floor, obscuring her feet entirely.
Ira craned his neck to get a better look, drawn in by the sight of the first thing that had pleased his eye since he arrived in the town. And then he heard it: she was humming. A simple ditty, no more than a wordless tune. it was low, under her breath, but tuneful — entrancing.
Ira sank into the sound, carried away in a gentle reverie by the undulating harmonic resonances. He realised, transfixed, that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Ever heard.
He jolted out of his daze as the landlady came back into view, busybodying her way through the kitchen with a tray. Her careless bluster drowned out the young woman’s song, and Ira adjusted himself in his chair. What had come over him? The girl was not unattractive he supposed, but she was hardly a beauty: barely even pretty by New York standards. She was comely, but homely, and hours spent over the stove had left the skin of her arms worn and flaky.
As he made his reappraisal, she pushed a lank strand of black hair behind her ear, revealing her neck. The porcelain skin beneath bore two deep, ugly gashes. Scars? They looked… open. What —
The kitchen door slammed shut and Ms. Dowd was upon him, standing over his table clutching a steaming bowl and an antique looking cup of coffee, which she proudly placed down in front of him. She stood between him and the kitchen door, blocking his gaze with a broad smile.
Ira let out a faint gasp at the mere sight of his breakfast. An insipid white broth with unidentifiable chunks of flaky white protein floating just below the surface. And the smell…
“There you are, Mr Reeder,” she beamed. “Best breakfast in all of Dhunwytch.”
“Thank you,” managed Ira, struggling to mask his disgust and failing to mask his incredulity. “Do you happen to have a newspaper I could read while I eat?”
“I’m afraid not. We don’t get the New York papers out here, and we haven’t had an issue of the Dhunwytch Enquirer for a few weeks now. Useless editor fellow’s gone missing, so I heard. Vacation, or some-such. Good riddance, if you ask me: turning our little local paper into a no-good rag with his editorialising. No more than gossip-mongering and conspiracy theories, if you ask me. So no paper I’m afraid. But, as the folk here say: ‘if you’re fixin’ to know what’s happening in Dhunwytch, just stick your head out the window and sniff.’ Anything else I can get you?”
“No, that will be all, then.”
Ira’s head was swimming, struggling to stay afloat in the torrent of the landlady’s babbling and the pungent stench of his breakfast.
“Right you are! Say, I meant to ask last night. Any idea how long you’ll be with us?”
“I’ll be departing this morning, provided my driver has managed to get the stagecoach repaired. Say, he didn’t stop in here last night, did he? Tall fellow, shock of red hair?”
“Afraid not. You’re the only soul aboard for the time being mister Reeder. Just the short and sweet visit it is, then. I’ll go and prepare your bill, and have it waiting for you at reception.”
Ira picked up a spoon as she bustled away and poked around in the broth in front of him. Did kippers always come like this? No kipper he’d ever seen before had been so large; so fleshy. And surely that can’t be a… tentacle?
He pushed the bowl away sharply, his stomach cramping painfully in shock and revulsion. High time to get the hell out of this Godforsaken town. He rose, collected his belongings from upstairs and settled up with the landlady.
Stepping out into the street, Ira felt a weight lift from his shoulders. To his surprise, it was a pleasant autumnal morning. The fresh sea air was already working wonders on his gut and the heaviness in his legs began to fade. He strode back down the street towards the mechanic’s workshop, his mood improving with every step.
That is, until the workshop came into view. The stagecoach was nowhere to be seen on the street.
“Perhaps they took it inside the garage to be fixed up,” Ira thought, quickening his pace. By the time he reached the corrugated iron door he was all but sprinting.
A small man in oily overalls stared up at him with a look of amused surprise, as Ira burst wild-eyed over the threshold into the empty garage.
“Good morning, sir, what can I do for— ”
“Where is it?” Ira cut him off.
“I’m afraid I don’t catch your drift, mister. Are you new in town?”
“The stagecoach, man! The coach that was parked out here overnight.”
“I’m mighty sorry but I’m quite sure I don’t know what you’re talking about. A stagecoach you say?”
“For the last time, yes. The driver parked it here late last night. He was supposed to be here waiting early this morning.”
“Driver eh? What was this fella’s name?”
“It was…” Ira’s overflowing frustration turned ever so slightly inwards as he realised he had never asked. He quickly shook it off.
“He was a tall man. Broad. Red hair. What does it matter? I’m sure there was only one stagecoach parked up outside your garage this morning.”
“Sorry mister, can’t help ya. If he really was here then sounds like he must’ve up and left before I got in this morning, and that was just after dawn.”
Reeling, Ira recalled the last conversation he’d had with the driver. The way he had turned his back… That sensitive fool: he’d have his job for this! Just as soon as he could get in touch with the coach company. Abandoning your only passenger in a backwater town with nothing but a briefcase and an umbrella. And on official academic business, too! Heads will roll.
Doing his best to subdue his indignant rage, Ira turned back to the mechanic.
“You couldn’t possibly tell me the best way to get to Arkham from here, could you? I’m en route to Miskatonic University on very important business.”
The man whistled ruefully and looked around at his workbench. His eyes settled on a crumpled grey sheet adorned only with numbers.
“Let’s see now… timetable says there’s a coach out to Boston in two weeks. I reckon you could get a train to Arkham from there pretty easy.”
“Two weeks?! Isn’t there anyone in town here who could drive me?”
“Well you could ask around, sure.”
“How about you?”
“No can do mister, sorry: I don’t drive.”
“What?! But you’re a mechanic!”
“All the same. If you wanted a boat ride, I’d be your fella. To answer yer inference, I can fix any sort of engine you like, but I’ve no need to get any further inland than I already am.”
Ira had to hold himself back from calling the man a simpleton. What utter nonsense he was spouting. He took a deep breath, still panting slightly from the exertion of the run.
“Fine. You fix automobiles, so someone in this damned place must drive one. No?”
“True enough. But you’ll have better luck after tomorrow, truth be told. Once The Event is over. Doubt anyone’ll be heading out of town today.”
At the mention of this Ira felt a slight shiver, the hairs on his forearms bristling.
“Sure. Lots of folks from the big houses outta town will be making their way in. You won’t be havin’ much luck hitchin’ a ride until they’re headin’ home. When The Event is all over. Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got plenty of business that needs attendin’ to.”
Ira looked back around at the empty garage. He blinked.
“So, if you don’t mind?”
His sense of despair growing deeper, Ira allowed himself to be ushered back out into the street. The corrugated iron doors pulled shut behind him with an almighty groan.
As he traipsed back toward the seafront, his feeling of dejection began to turn to righteous fury. That damned fool of a driver! These slack-jawed locals. The inescapable reek of gutted fish on the air. He strode back into the tavern and rang the bell.
The landlady appeared from the corridor and smiled.
“Mr Reeder! Certainly wasn’t expecting you back so soon. More coach troubles?”
“Something like that, miss… err.”
“Dowd. Lavernica Dowd.”
“Of course. Miss Dowd, how would I go about contacting Miskatonic University? Do you have a telegram machine here, by any chance?”
“Not here at the tavern, no. But you can find one over at the Enquirer. Office is in the town hall. Just off the market square dear. I’d give you directions, but all you’ll have to do is just follow the others. It’ll be all hustle and bustle that way I’m sure.”
“May I ask why?”
“The Event of course! Oh yes that’s right — if you’re staying a few more days you’ll be able to join us for The Event after all! How wonderful.”
“I hope to be gone by tomorrow Miss Dowd.” Ira reflexively cut her off. But curiosity was beginning to get the better of him. “Pray tell, what exactly is this event?”
“Oh it’s the highlight of our year here in Dhunwytch. I suppose you’d call it a market, or perhaps a fete. There’s stalls with produce from out of town, food, dancing. Some of our old local traditions too, and homemade masks. Oh and the big bonfire! It’ll be…” her wide-open eyes glistened with wonder. “… magical.”
“I see. Well, like I say, my business is urgent, so I hope to have left before then.”
“A pity. But at least I’ll have you here to stay another night. I’ll prepare your room for this evening.”
She turned and whistled her way cheerily down the corridor, leaving Ira stood alone at reception. Something in her enthusiasm felt strange, somehow. If this event was such a big deal, why was he the only guest at the inn? And what was that she said about masks? All he knew for certain was that he didn’t want to find out first-hand. An urgent telegram to Miskatonic University, that would do the trick. Surely they’d dispatch someone post- haste.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
True to the landlady’s word, the street was now busier than before, which is to say, a small handful of people were out and about. He saw two gruff men in threadbare overalls and rubber boots struggling to lug a trestle table out of a doorway and into the street.
Ira kept a discreet distance and followed their lumbering path, hoping to find the town hall. And sure enough, they finally set down their cargo in what appeared to be the market square.
It was a broad clearing, skirted on each side by tall, shabby buildings and narrow side streets. Ira begrudgingly admitted to himself that it was bigger and more impressive than he had expected. What did a ramshackle little place like this need with such a large marketplace? The faded grandeur of the stone buildings suggested that the square was a relic of better times now long since past. There must have been a prosperous society here, once, sadly driven to ruin by the slack-jawed townsfolk with their godawful dialect, their myopic lack of ambition and intellectual curiosity.
“This” Ira noted to himself, “is what happens to a civilisation when people stop using proper grammar.”
As he inspected the clearing, he noticed that some of the cobbles in the square were painted white — shining brightly in the cold sunlight. “Must’ve been painted recently,” Ira thought, inspecting the thick black grime coating the cobbles on the ground where he stood. But why? It seemed to him like the gleaming white lines made some sort of pattern, but what the symbol meant he could not discern. It wasn’t helped, of course, by a large pile of wood heaped in the centre, stands of wicker kindling strewn around the bottom. There, at the foot of the pile, stood a pathway, of sorts. Or perhaps a tunnel would be a better descriptor: an arch of curved branches allowing ingress into the dark innards of the woodpile.
For lighting the fuel, Ira supposed. But he could not stop himself gazing at that entrance and noting that it was the perfect size for him to crawl into. Like it had been made expressly for him. The hushed whispering he had heard at the inn crept back into his ear with a rasping scrape and the churning in his stomach resumed. The darkness inside the pyre — his pyre — grew blacker, somehow. Something in there was beckoning to him. Drawing him in.
Ira shook himself out of his terrible reverie. The lack of sleep was obviously playing tricks on him. Resolving that he would be well shot of this awful town and, ideally, working away in the University library by the time the bonfire was lit, Ira hurried towards the biggest building he could see. The town hall.
He was directed to an office towards the back of the building, bearing a sign on its door that read ‘The Dhunwytch Enquirer’. A sheet of newsprint had been affixed to the plaque, with “closed till ferther notise” scrawled in red ink. Ira’s blood curdled at the mere sight of it. The tavern and the garage he could understand — if not forgive — but this was a newspaper office! Was nothing sacred?
Incensed, he barged through the door, startling the young man who lounged in the editor’s chair, his feet up on the desk.
“Jeez mister you scared the living — “
“I have been informed that you have a telegram machine,” Ira interrupted, cutting him off mid sentence. “I need to send an urgent message to Miskatonic University.”
The man — little more than a boy, really — gulped and guiltily removed his feet from the desk. He looked up at Ira and stammered:
“The University? In Arkham?”
It was a rare altercation in which Ira got to feel physically intimidating, and he intended to enjoy it. He puffed out his chest, and answered loudly, without making eye contact.
“That’s correct. Get the machine ready. I’ll dictate.”
Ira sat in a leather upholstered swivel chair across from the desk and waited. After allowing the boy about a minute of inept fumbling at the machine, he decided that he was tired of waiting and began dictating his message.
“Dear sirs STOP. Abandoned by stagecoach STOP. Stranded in Dhunwytch STOP. Request collection ASAP from Star and Anchor tavern STOP. Ira Reeder, NYU STOP.”
As soon as the boy finished his frantic tapping, Ira held out his hand and demanded to see the sheet. His nostrils flared as he struggled to decipher the mess of symbols haphazardly strewn across the page. Scarcely a single syllable was spelled correctly. Even ‘stop’ was wrong. He turned to the lad behind the keyboard with a baleful glare.
“Where the Hell did you learn to type? In fact, where the Hell did you learn anything? This is supposed to be a public office!”
“Beggin’ your pardon mister, I’m just a stand-in. Just covering mister Phillips’ absence, see?”
Ira waved the boy’s protestations away and rounded the desk. He jerked his head upwards to indicate that the boy should stand. The young man obliged and stepped away, as Ira sat down and typed out his own message.
“See that this is sent off immediately. I am to be notified of any reply. Frankly, I’m appalled at the state of literacy in this town. If this Mr Phillips were here I’d give him a piece of my mind. Where the devil is he, anyway?”
“No one knows sir. Some folks been sayin’ he’s on vacation, but…”
“Well, other folks ain’t been none too happy with the Enquirer for quite a while. Too high-fallutin’ in the words, some say. And then there was the reportin’ on the preparations for The Event.”
Ira’s arched eyebrow indicated that the boy should continue.
“Mr Phillips did one of his Letters From the Editor that weren’t none too complimentary about the Misples.”
“The Misples?” Ira interjected, seeking to focus the young man’s blathering. Though clearly bitterly lacking in education, the boy might be in possession of some information that could prove useful.
“Sure, yeah. Them’s the family that own most every business here in Dhunwytch. They all live in that big old manor up on the bluff overlooking town. Mr Phillips said they was disorganised and making a mess of things. That the town was better before they took over as governors. He called The Event, oh what was it now… ‘a navel-gazin’ celebration of mediocrity and decline,’ whatever that’s supposed’ta mean. Nobody’s seen him since.”
Ira tried not to let it show, but privately noted to himself that there may be people in this town he should watch his tone around, no matter how ill-educated. His posture slackened a little as he stood, the boy across from him looking a little relieved as some of the tension left the room. Ira barely noticed; he was lost in thought. Better to keep his head down. It should only be a day until someone from MU came for him.
“Remember: any reply, you contact me immediately.”
He turned on his heel and stormed out of the office, returning to the tavern to wait. To while away the hours, he read from one of the research manuscripts that he had brought with him from NYU’s library: a grim tome on cryptozoology and the mythic origins of long-forgotten old gods.
Of heretical prophecy and ritual.
Of sacrifice and witness.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
That night his dreams were yet more vivid than the last.
One moment he was in bed, reading the academic tome. The next, the letters began dissolving away from the page and rising into the air, leaving inky black trails in the sable mist that was gathering around him.
As the letters warped and shifted, he was transported to the shore, cold waves lapping at his ankles. The trails of ink above him kept squirming, gleaming in the moonlight.
She was standing at waist height in the swirling waters. The girl from the kitchen. She combed her hair, which hung freely over her bare chest, alabaster skin radiating amidst the dark.
He was unable to turn away, now in the water up to his knees. As he drew nearer, pulled by an unseen force, he saw that her hair was not hair at all, but seaweed, clinging to her face and neck in greasy clumps. In the sky behind her, he watched on in horror as the swirling glyphs took familiar form:
As the letters fell still, something squeezed tightly around his ankles. He was waist-deep now, and the girl was inches from him, her face contorted into a baleful sneer. He looked down, but suddenly the clear water had become a thin white broth. The girl stared into his eyes and let out a piercing shriek.
With that, she plunged into the broiling soup. Ira tried to run but was seized by a pair of slimy aubergine tentacles, writhing over his bare skin, pulsing and contracting. Looking up, trying to scream for help, he saw the unmistakable glint of a pair of deep red eyes emerging from the depths of the cosmos. Then came the sound of chanting from the shore. Two men in overalls and grotesque wicker masks stepped forwards and grabbed him by the arms, hauling him unwittingly toward the formless dark and the eyes that waited.
He awoke with a scream, sheets drenched in cold sweat. Throwing the covers back, he grabbed at his ankles. No sign of tentacles. No selkie tormenting him. No old one emerging from the deep.
But he was still shaken. This godforsaken place was getting to him.
The dawn broke an hour or so later. He dressed and made his way down to the dining room. He declined his breakfast, much to the landlady’s chagrin, but took a cup of coffee. He was relieved to see that the kitchen was empty, and relaxed a little at his table.
“Say,” he asked. “I’ve heard that there’s a family who run most of Dhunwytch — The Misples?”
“That’s right! Their family’s been here generations. Longer than Dhunwytch itself, some say. And you’re right, they own pretty much every business here. Including this place.”
“You don’t own the tavern?”
“Heavens no. They let me manage it and pay me a wage. I came here over a decade ago. I was sent to Dhunwytch by the state of Massachusetts as an English teacher, but turns out they had little need for one.”
“I know. Writing ain’t exactly our strong suit here in Dhunwytch. But that’s the way the Misples like it. Whole family has terrible trouble with words. Must run in the blood or something. They can talk fine… just can’t get the letters the right way round.”
“Now don’t tell anyone, but I think having an English teacher at the school house made them feel a little embarrassed, like. And since they own the whole town, they can pretty much do as they please. Hasn’t been another English teacher here since.”
Her words fell into a contemplative silence.
“They have some peculiar ideas…” she offered, after a moment. “Took me a while to come around to the Misple way of thinking.”
“But you’re a convert now?”
“Oh heavens yes. Absolutely. But listen to me blabbering on while your coffee goes cold, how careless of me. I’ll leave you in peace. I shall have to head out for The Event shortly anyway, the first march starts at 12 noon.”
Ira nodded, troubled by the thought of a whole town without the ability to read or write. A crisis of illiteracy. “That would make for a good headline,” he thought, and resolved to contact the New York Times as soon as he was able. Standards were slipping across the country, and when language breaks down, where next for society?
As he recalled the signs he had read while walking the streets, he felt as if a deep black darkness was enveloping the room around him. Shuddering, he rose swiftly and headed out for some fresh air, eyes fixed firmly to the floor.
Concerned that he had still not heard back from Miskatonic University, he resolved to drop in on the telegram boy at the newspaper office and check for messages himself. If he had to spend every last penny he had on telegrams then it would be worth it. A great investment if it meant getting out of this town even a minute sooner. The salty air no longer felt fresh, it had grown damp and heavy, thick with the unmistakable scent of rotting fish.
When he arrived at the town hall, he found the door locked. He knocked, but to no avail. Was he here too early? Or was this event really sufficient cause for a public holiday? He looked around, puzzled.
Spread around the stack of wood in the square’s centre was a small ring of market stalls, most still in the process of being set up. As the mechanic had suggested, a few of the stallholders were unloading their goods from cars and vans. There was even an ambulance in the far corner of the square, ready, no doubt, to make a quick buck out of any overly exuberant revellers.
Ira stared at one of the cars and deliberated for a moment: should he enquire about a ride, or was it best to wait until the university dispatched someone to collect him? Of course, he had no way of knowing that his message had even been sent correctly. He was not normally prone to indecision, but the night terrors and the churning unease in his stomach were giving him pause.
Though it stung his pride to admit it even to himself, every sinew in his body was telling him to just get out, any way he could. Yet he knew at the same time that he couldn’t trust anyone he met here. They had all lied and deceived him from the start. All just to keep him here. Why?
The white cobblestones in the square were bothering him more than they had any real cause to. When he first saw them yesterday he had deduced that they marked the boundary for the market stalls. And indeed the tables were all set up inside the outer ring. But what of the other lines? Did they hold the key to all this?
His dilemma about transport put to one side, he tried in vain to identify the individual lines on the ground, to trace the path of each one. No good from this level, too much activity, too many damned simpletons getting in his way. He needed to get a better vantage point.
He wheeled around to look back at the town hall. It was the tallest building in the square, after all. Especially with the bell tower on top. But the hall was locked. He scanned the exterior frantically, instinctively, looking for a way in.
“That’s it!” The fire escape. Ira set off at a half-run, seizing the rusty metal of the matchstick-thin balustrade. Somewhere at the back of his conscious mind, a small voice whispered that he had never had a head for heights, but he dismissed it out of hand. He had to know. So he began climbing.
As he hauled himself up onto the roof, adrenaline coursing through his veins, he congratulated himself on such an ingenious idea. He’d like to see any of his colleagues in the editorial department scale a building. Hah! Now, to the cobbles. He would not let something so trivial trouble him even a moment longer. He could speak four modern languages, and read ancient Greek, Latin, Sanskrit. He was hardly likely to be stumped by something thought up by these fools who could not even manage to learn English.
The view was indeed spectacular. If he had cared to cast his gaze east, he would’ve been treated to a stunning panorama, with the bay and Atlantic ocean beyond stretching out before him. But all he was interested in was the square. And the symbol within.
Although the height gave him a far better overview, he still could not make sense of the shape. The outer ring was clear enough, and he thought he could make out some sort of diamond shape inside of it… yet the lines within didn’t make sense, as if bound by some otherworldly geometry. Whenever he tried to single out a line and trace its path, it seemed to spring from his grasp, melding into the fog of curves. Like writhing, primordial tendrils.
With a start, Ira regained his composure. He threw himself away from the edge and clung to the brick wall of the belltower. What the hell was he doing up here? Had he truly climbed a damned building?
It was long since time to get out of here. Even if he had to steal a car to do it.
Terrified, he descended via the fire escape. The journey down took at least twice as long as the climb, that nagging little whisper now having grown to a booming alarm call, and vertigo sending him spiralling with every other step. By the time he was back on terra firma, most of the stallholders had finished their preparations.
Focus: all he needed was one sympathetic out-of-towner. But finding someone meant crossing the threshold marked by the white lines.
Ira took a deep breath before stepping out into the square, crossing the outer ring.
And he felt… fine.
It was just a market, as far as he could see. A few stalls selling vegetables grown in the better soil further inland, a baker, even some quaint hand- carved bird boxes. Suddenly unsure what he had been so worried about, he began to wander through the square, eyeing up the holders to find the most sympathetic-looking of them.
But then, in the corner of his eye, a familiar niggling feeling:
His gaze raced from stall to stall.
He retched, feeling physically repulsed by the signs adorning the tables. It was impossible: no one could write like this, be this wrong. The landlady’s explanation about the school had gone some way to explaining it, but these were out-of-towners. What was their excuse? Why were they doing this to him?
In a frenzy, his retinas scanned over the letters, attempting to discern some sort of pattern. There had to be a… code. A code! Clandestine messages spread through a deliberate pattern of incongruous letters. Directions to meeting places, perhaps? Or instructions! Yes, orders being passed down from some shadowy cabal. But what did they want?
Caring little for the attentions of the stallholders, he paced from table to table, noting each mistake and muttering animatedly. He was adamant now: the mistakes were a code. In fact, he couldn’t believe it had taken him so long to see it. Those sneaky Misples, trying to get one over on him.
The Event. A ridiculous name for something so important. But this was just like those devious Misples, hiding their true, malign intentions behind a facade of ignorance. He knew better. He had read about it, in his book. The one at the inn.
Oh yes, he was onto their little word game. It was not ‘The Event’ but ‘The Eventide.’ The puzzle had been under his nose the whole time. Hah! They reckoned with the wrong academic editor, that was for sure. But still, what were they trying to achieve? What did they want?
He was swaying now, unsteady on his feet as he circled the as yet unlit bonfire. Beads of sweat were visibly running down his brow, and he had removed his tie, stuffing it into the top pocket of his now dirty and dishevelled suit.
That damn driver had been in on it too. And the landlady, the mechanic, and the telegram boy, of course. Of course! A conspiracy — a conspiracy of ill-intentioned fools attempting to indoctrinate him in the wicked ways of their eldritch cultistry. Oh yes. And a lesser man would’ve succumbed by now, surely. Surely! But they were sorely mistaken to have crossed Ira Reeder. Sorely mistaken indeed.
His mind raced over the pages he had read, trying to recall the details of the Eventide prophecies. A ritual. A beacon ashore to guide the safe passage of the dark one. The devourer.
He stopped in front of a stall which had just finished setting up. An array of womens’ accessories laid out on a table. Rings, necklaces and the like. The merchant had just finished setting out some leather goods, handbags and such. He looked up at Ira and smiled.
“I’ll be with you in just a moment sir — just need to hang out my sign and then I’m open for business.”
His smile faded as he registered Ira’s unkempt appearance and frantic energy. Though it was quiet, he could hear Ira muttering something. He couldn’t be certain above the light bustle of the market, but it sounded like “oh yes. oh your sign, yes. This should be good. Some Misple propaganda designed to ensnare me in their web, no doubt…”
Unperturbed, the vendor made his way around to the front of the table and balanced a placard on a wooden frame.
Ira’s eyes widened. Holy hell. There it was: the sign that unlocked it all. Their intentions — the very object of their eldritch desires — laid bare. His mind snapped back to the pages of the book he had read the night before. The old ones of the deep.
And the one they called the devourer. The one who had to be called forth by name. The one who demanded two souls: one as sacrifice, and one to bear terrible witness.
That terrible name… CTHULHU
A hand gripped Ira’s elbow firmly. He was paralysed by horror, locked in the grip of the pulsing tentacles that had stalked him through these rime-bedecked streets.
“I heard you’ve been asking for me while I’ve been on vacation? I’m Phillips, the editor.”
Having received no response from Ira, Phillips gently shook him by the arm.
“You know? The editor of the Enquirer? Say, are you feeling okay Mister Reeder?”
Phillips looked on in bemusement as Ira slowly sank to his knees, muttering frantically, convulsing. A white foam was beginning to form at the corners of his mouth. He was chanting one word, over and over, and over: CTHULHU.
“Hey! We need some help over here.”
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
When the porter from Miskatonic University arrived in Dhunwytch, he found Ira Reeder strapped to a trolley, ranting and squirming. The orderlies pointed him in the direction of a stallholder, who explained what had happened.
“I put my sign out and it must have set him off. No idea what he’s got against lady’s clutch bags…”
The local newspaper editor confirmed the story, and the porter watched with a sigh as the patient was loaded into the ambulance.
“Where will you take him?”
“There’s an asylum some miles south of here, just north of New York City.”
“I suppose there’s no chance of him returning to work any time soon?”
The orderly’s laugh told the porter all he needed to know.
He looked on as they loaded the trolley into the back of the ambulance and slammed the doors shut.
You just can’t get reliable staff these days. All these academics, too tightly-wound by far. Irritated by his wasted journey, the porter got back into his car and departed for Miskatonic University.
— — — — — — — —? — — — — — T H E — E N D — — — — —? — — — — — — —
Through the thin metal walls of the ambulance, Ira heard the town clock strike twelve.
As the ambulance began slowly crawling away, he watched through the rear windows as the belltower sank out of view.
And then a procession of hooded figures emerged from an alleyway. He saw their expressionless wicker masks, their crimson robes. He saw the glint of silvery metal as the lead figure raised a hand to reveal a long knife. He heard the unmistakable hum of the kitchen girl: now loud and resonant, a banshee’s wail that carried through the streets.
Straining against the restraints, screaming to the orderlies to do something, Ira watched on as the hooded figures descended on Phillips, the editor.
Two of them held him aloft, clutching his wrists and ankles. He writhed, helplessly, as the dagger was plunged into his stomach.
They carried him, bleeding and screaming, to the pyre.
The bonfire was lit. The tide drew in. The Event had begun.
— — — — — — — ? — — — — — T H E — E N D — — — — — ? — — — — — —
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