by Tamari Erin (玉里えりん)
The rain hammered on the roof of the car. It fell in sheets on his windshield, obscuring what little of the road his headlights had lit up. Carter tried to start the engine yet again, and swore as it sputtered and grinded noisily and died again. He slammed a hand against the steering wheel—
And jumped as the horn klaxoned through the empty stretch of road.
His hands were shaking. He turned off the lights and pulled out the keys. In the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, and his car was dead. He hadn’t seen another car for hours, and it had been longer since he’d passed a house or a gas station. The road—barely a step above a dirt path—cut through a thick, wooded area, and he had no idea how close or how far Almsbury was.
Carter grabbed his knapsack from the passenger seat and rummaged around in it until he found his phone. He ignored the scraps of paper and stray sock that dropped on the car floor; he’d find them when it was light out. He jabbed at the home button and scowled at the lock screen.
“No Service,” he read, turning the phone back off again. “Just great.” This had to be what he hated the most about New England; huge swathes of land with not only no cell coverage, but no signs of civilisation whatsoever. Carter rubbed at his eyes. It was 2:49 in the morning, according to his phone. He sank back in his seat and stared up at the roof. His eyes had adjusted to the dark just enough so he could make out the texture of the fabric covering it. He’d been driving for hours, fueled by caffeine and greasy, roadside diner food. He was wired and worn out, and knew he’d have better luck finding help once it was light; he didn’t want to get any more lost than he already was.
Carter closed his eyes, but he knew sleep wouldn’t come anytime soon. He had too much on his mind, too many worries, too many thoughts. His great-uncle Royle had died only a few months ago, and he’d left Carter, who he hadn’t seen since Carter himself was eight, an excessively large stipend.
And a house.
But there were conditions, of course. He couldn’t sell the house for ten years, and to receive the stipend he had to spend at least two months over the summer living in his dead uncle’s home. Tomorrow—today, technically—was when he was supposed to arrive. The lawyers had been very clear: if he skipped a year, if he was even so much as late, he would forfeit everything.
He felt guilty and anxious about the whole endeavour, and wished he had the kind of life that let him say no to this sort of thing.
He unbuckled his seatbelt and massaged his closed eyes. The rain was letting up. The sound of it was almost soothing, so different to the thunderous downpour earlier; like the low hum of a fan, white noise…
There was someone in front of the car, long, dark hair glistening in the yellowish moonlight.
Carter jerked out of his seat and banged his head on the roof. He cursed loudly, and rubbed at the sore spot. When he looked out the front window, the road was empty. The rain had stopped.
He picked up his phone from where it had fallen. The screen read 4:22 am. “Fuck,” he muttered weakly. He’d fallen asleep. He’d only dreamt of seeing a naked boy in the middle of the road. Carter rubbed at his eyes, and rubbed and rubbed until he could see stars on the insides of his eyelids. The motion soon became almost hypnotic, meditative, like repeating a word over and over so many times until it lost all meaning.
Dropping his hands to his sides, he waited for the afterimages to fade. The moon had drifted down to the horizon and reflected brightly on his rear-view mirror. Cater yawned and stretched as much as he could in the cramped interior. Dawn couldn’t be more than an hour or so away—
Someone rapped a knuckle against the driver’s side window.
Carter nearly screamed. The man standing outside his car smiled at him and waved. Carter edged closer, working his jaw and swallowing a few times to dislodge the tightness he felt in his throat, and squinted out into the gloom. The man was short and burly, with an easy smile and an odd jaundiced cast to his eyes—although that could have been the moonlight. Carter looked into the rear-view mirror again and then out the back window. The man’s car was idling behind him, headlights spotlighting Carter’s car. How tired was he, that he’d missed that?
The man spoke, but Carter could barely hear anything through the glass. Carter hastily rolled down the window and the man bent down so they were nearly face to face.
“I said, that’s an odd place for a nap.”
Carter laughed weakly. “My car broke down. I figured it would be easier to search for help once it was light out.”
“Tourist, are you?”
“Ah, no,” Carter replied hastily at the suspicion he saw in the man’s eyes. “My great-uncle lives—lived in a town nearby named Almsbury, and he chose me to take care of his estate when he died, which he did a few weeks ago and that’s why I’m—”
“What’s your name?”
“I—” Carter narrowed his eyes. “I’m Carter—”
“Olmstead?” the man finished. “Royle’s nephew?”
Carter blinked in surprise. “You knew my uncle?”
“I surely did. I’ve lived in Almsbury all my life, and it’ve been a hard thing to not know Royle Olmstead.” He held out a hand. “My name is John Burrow, Carter.”
Carter shook it gladly. “I don’t suppose you can give me a lift into town?”
Burrow laughed. “I can do you one better. After I’ve dropped you off at your uncle’s place, I can pop ’round to Wright’s garage and have him bring in your car to get it fixed.”
Burrow kept up the friendly patter during the drive into town. Carter was glad for it, though he only listened to about half. Burrow’s voice, with its broad down-easter accent, was just enough to keep him from falling asleep. Burrow had offered him a swig of tepid coffee from a thermos, but Carter had turned him down. While he did want to stay awake for the drive, he also wanted to be able to sleep once they arrived in town.
Carter stared out the window and watched the blur of passing trees, smudged green and grey shapes like a painting left out in the rain.
As the sky grew lighter, Carter noticed a dark grey shape buried in the greenery at the side of the road. It looked to be about knee-high, and once he spotted the first, he saw another and then another, all at regular intervals along the side of the road. He pointed one out to Burrow.
“That’d be the milestones. In better light you can see the town’s name and how many miles you have left to go before you reach the town. They’re nearly four centuries old; the town’s grown a mite since then so the numbers are a bit off.”
The sun was rising by the time they reached Almsbury. They crested a final hill and Carter sat up straighter to get a better look at the town. It was clustered around a small bay, all sturdy New England architecture. Plumes of dark smoke rose from the chimneys of a few houses. Several of the boats in the harbor were already heading out to sea.
Carter felt a pang of nostalgia. It had been well over a decade since he’d last seen Almsbury and he hadn’t realised how much he’d missed it. His last visit had been when he was eight, and had ended when one of his mother’s arguments with his great-uncle—they’d never gotten along and it had always bothered him—had exploded into a full-out brawl. His mother was an Almsbury local who had married into the Olmsteads; a strong, opinionated woman, she had clashed with them at every turn, and after that final argument—Carter had been upstairs, and heard the yelling but not the actual words—had insisted they leave Almsbury and cut off all ties with her husband’s family. Carter’s father had gone along with it quite willingly.
But over the years, Carter would sometimes see or hear something that reminded him of his estranged family. He would wonder, late at night when everyone else was asleep, what his life would have been like had his father chosen his family over his wife.
Carter wondered what his parents—his mother in particular, really—would have thought of him doing this for his great-uncle. Carter had a hunch they wouldn’t exactly be pleased. He wasn’t too keen on spending two months out of the year in the middle of nowhere house-sitting, but the stipend he’d receive was too big to say no to. Art school was expensive; he needed the money.
Burrow pulled up at a large, Georgian-style house on the outskirts of town. It was built atop a small hill so that it loomed over the town, a not-so-subtle reminder of exactly who Carter’s uncle was. Royle Randolphe Olmstead had been a very wealthy man despite his miserly ways; the family fortune was a relic of Almsbury’s golden days. He owned the town, in all ways that mattered. Carter wondered how long Almsbury would survive, now that Royle was dead.
Carter yawned and noticed two women emerge from a small, two-storey stone-ender house just down the way from the Olmstead house. He watched as they ran towards the car. They had the same dark hair and the same intensity in their eyes, although that was where the similarities ended. While the younger one was tall and solidly built, the elder—her mother?—was short and gone to fat, her hair streaked with grey at the temples.
Burrow turned off the ignition and shoved open his door. Carter followed suit and got out of the car, stretching in relief. Burrow nodded at the approaching women. “Ah, that’d be Mrs Waite, Mr Olmstead’s housekeeper, and her daughter, Lavinia.”
“John Burrow, who is it that you have there—” Mrs Waite froze in her tracks once she finally caught sight of Carter’s face. Her voice softened, became almost maternal. “Why, you must be young Carter.” Her accent was even stronger than Burrow’s
Carter blushed, feeling embarrassed by the scrutiny of her gaze. “I, yes, ma’am.”
She took his hand in hers. Her grip was warm and powdery, and her hand so small it made him feel like a giant. “Your uncle’s death was a great loss to all of us, but I can’t imagine how bad it must for you. You two were so close when you were a boy.”
He opened and closed his mouth a few times, but he couldn’t think of anything to say to that.
Mrs Waite seemed to take his silence for grief-stricken assent. “He was a great man, and—”
Carter let out an involuntary yawn that cut her off. It was loud and deep, and seemed to go on for an age. When he finally stopped, he could feel Mrs Waite’s daughter’s eyes on him. She hadn’t spoken a word since he’d arrived, and she studied him with an odd sort of disinterest, like a lepidopterist going over a collection of pinned butterflies. But when he met her gaze, something like worry started to creep into that coldness.
She spoke first, turning her head sharply to her mother. “Can’t you see the man’s exhausted, Mam? Let him get some sleep before you chatter his ear off.”
Mrs Waite pulled back, a flush spreading over her sallow complexion. “Lavvie! Honestly, the cheek of you, girl—”
“Mrs Waite,” Carter interrupted. “Your daughter is right about one thing. I am dead tired.” He rubbed at his face and tried not to yawn another time. “Would it be possible for you to make up a spare bed for me? Either in my uncle’s house or your own, I don’t really mind—”
“Oh, it’s no bother at all! Come, come!” She grabbed his arm and quickly bustled him into the house. “Lavvie!” she shouted back over her shoulder. “Bring the rest of his things, will you?”
She led him upstairs to a spare bedroom that had been set up for him. (“The lawyers let us know you would be coming, but they didn’t say when.”) Carter took just enough time to get undressed and fell happily into bed.
When he woke, it was late in the afternoon and he was starving. Lavinia must have brought up his luggage from the car because his clothes had all been unpacked and neatly put away. He threw on a clean pair of jeans and a wrinkly oxford shirt; he needed a shower but that could wait until after he’d eaten.
Carter heard the raised voices as soon as he pushed open his door. They grew louder as he approached the stairs. He peered down at the ground floor, standing in the shadows so he wouldn’t be easily seen.
He saw Mrs Waite and recognised John Burrow’s voice, but there was a third person down there that he could hear but not see. It was a voice he’d never heard before, masculine, sharp and strident, like a particularly uptight math teacher.
“He shouldn’t even be here!” Every word was a harsh staccato burst, as if he were delivering his diatribe through clenched teeth. Which he might as well have been—he still hadn’t come into Carter’s field of view.
There was a sudden muffled noise, of flesh against flesh, and the angry voice—Henry—continued. “Don’t you ‘now Henry’ me, woman. You know as well as I do that Royle intended me to be his heir in all senses of the word. That outsider—that pretender—should not be here and should never have been in Royle’s will, let alone been contacted after Royle passed.”
Ooooh, dear. Carter chewed at his lower lip. This was eight kinds of no good. He’d had no idea what kind of relationships existed between Royle and his nephews, but Carter had naively expected them to be the same as his—decent but very distant. He’d never expected anyone would want to dispute the will—Royle had certainly been alive long enough to be sure of where and to whom he wanted his estate to go. What kind of hornet’s nest had he blundered into by agreeing to this?
He wondered if it would be possible for him to sneak away without being seen.
“Carter, dear, is that you?”
He started. How had she known he was up here? “Yes, ma’am,” he replied, stepping down the stairs. He raised a hand at John Burrow, who smiled at him in response. At the far end of the parlour, he saw Henry, a tall, angular young man with a pallid look to him, like a plant that had been left in the dark for too long. They were second cousins, Carter knew that much, but he remembered little of Henry save for his name. Carter made to approach him, arm extended for a handshake, but he froze in his tracks, a greeting dying in his throat, at the cold rage in Henry’s eyes, at the sudden sense of recognition.
Henry wore a near-identical copy of the face Carter saw in the mirror every morning. Save for a few cosmetic differences, they could have been twins.
But Henry obviously felt no shock or sense of kinship. His lip curled and he arched his eyebrows derisively. He looked Carter up and down slowly, his gaze lingering on Carter’s untucked shirt, his wrinkled jeans, his scuffed shoes. Carter felt heat rise in his cheeks from an unpleasant mix of anger and embarrassment. He felt out of place enough as it was and wished Henry wasn’t deliberately trying to make it worse.
When Henry was finished, he took a step forward, bringing himself uncomfortably close to Carter. He met Carter’s gaze, staring aggressively and unblinking for a good minute before he spoke.
Henry’s eyes were the emptiest Carter had ever seen, black and dead like a shark’s.
“Interloper,” he snarled, voice pitched low so only Carter could hear it. “You don’t belong here and we all know it.”
Carter swallowed, loudly, but he didn’t step back or look away. “Henry. I’m sorry for your loss, I truly am. I know you and Royle must have been—”
“Don’t.” Henry’s jaw tensed and he narrowed his eyes.
Carter blinked. “I’m sorry. Listen, I’m only going to be here for a couple months, and I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes—”
Henry rolled his eyes dramatically and huffed loudly.
“I didn’t ask for this—”
“And yet you didn’t say no, when given the chance!”
Henry jabbed a finger at his chest. Carter stumbled backwards. He was rapidly losing what sympathy he’d had for Henry. “Hey!”
“You forfeited your right to any of this,” Henry said, with a broad, sweeping gesture, as if to take in all of the town, “when your ungrateful mother left Almsbury.” Henry pushed past Carter and moved towards the entry hall. He stopped and looked over his shoulder with a sneer. “For your own good, you should do us all a favour and just leave.”
Carter pinched the bridge of his nose as Henry stalked out of the room.
Mrs Waite cleared her throat, and Carter dropped his hand from his face and blushed. He’d forgotten they’d had an audience. Mrs Waite and John Burrow shared a sheepish look.
“I’m sorry about that, lad,” Burrow said softly.
Carter’s shoulders sagged. Whatever brief flash of anger he’d felt had dissipated as soon as Henry had left. “What was that even all about? Why… why is he so mad I’m here? I don’t understand.”
Mrs Waite patted his arm sympathetically. “It’s all right,” she said. “Henry’s not usually like that, he’s a good boy, usually. It’s just grief, it makes people lash out, and you were the easiest target.”
Carter nodded and swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. He remembered how he’d felt when his mother had died. “So he was close to Royle?”
Mrs Waite nodded. “Yes. Henry’s parents passed when he was very young, and Royle took him in. And when Royle got sick a few years ago, Henry was the one who moved in to take care of him.”
“I understand,” Carter said. “I really do. I’ll give him space. And could you let him know, no hard feelings? I’m going to be coming here for a while, and I’d like to get to know my family again.”
Mrs Waite beamed at him. “Of course. I’m sure it won’t be long before you two are the best of friends.”
Mrs Waite sent him back upstairs with a hastily-assembled sandwich once she’d wrestled a promise from him that he’d try to get some rest before dinner. (“And don’t worry about the lawyers, dearie, I gave them a call while you were asleep!”)
He inhaled the sandwich, suddenly very aware he’d managed to sleep through breakfast and lunch, and rummaged through his bag for his cell phone, intending to start on one of the books he’d brought with him.
But when he finally fished it out of his bag, the screen was black and wouldn’t turn on no matter what button he poked at. Carter groaned. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d charged it, and the battery must have run dry after he’s arrived it town.
He found his charger cable after some more searching, and plugged it into an ancient-looking socket He crossed his fingers it wouldn’t burn the house down and laid down for a nap.
Carter had barely closed his eyes when he felt a cool hand touch his shoulder. He jerked upright and stared out the window. The sun was already beginning to set. He’d been asleep for hours.
Lavinia Waite was standing by his bed. “I’m sorry,” she said, tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear. “I didn’t mean to startle you. Mam just sent me up to let you know it was dinner time. If you’re hungry, that is.”
“Oh! Um.” Carter swung around and set his feet on the floor. He rubbed at his face and tried to smooth out his shirt. It was starting to look a bit worse for wear. “Do I need to get changed?”
Lavinia cupped a hand over her mouth and laughed. “Not unless you want to. It’s just you for dinner tonight.” She laughed again. “Sorry. You’ll be eating alone, is what I meant.”
Carter gave her a half-smile. “What about, um… ?”
Lavvie looked away and coloured. “Mam spoke to Henry, it’s all right. He’s already eaten. He’ll be fine.”
He followed her downstairs to what she called the smaller dining room. It was a grey room, with dark wood furniture, and the only light was from candles clustered around the single place setting at the head of the table.
Lavinia bustled out of the room and Carter sat down, feeling a bit ridiculous to be sitting here by himself. He wished they could have just had dinner somewhere less ostentatious, like in the kitchens.
While he waited for the food, Carter took a sip of water and made a face. It was tepid and had an odd metallic taste to it. He set the glass back on the table and peered after Lavinia, but all he could see through the doorway were shadows.
He waited in awkward silence for a few minutes until she returned with a brisk trot, carrying a plate of salad on a wooden tray.
“Wow,” he said, when she set the plate in front of him. The salad was a small greenish jelly mold set on a spray of endive leaves that were almost as pale as the china plate. About half a dozen stalks of asparagus were fanned out on the bottom half of the plate. Carter peered closer at the jelly mold. He could see bits of green floating in its depths, and two sliced olives were visible near the jelly’s surface
Lavinia laughed. “I’ll tell Mam you liked it. She’s a firm believer in the importance of presentation. She always says food tastes better if it looks nice.”
Carter picked up the furthest fork and hovered above the plate, unsure of what to start with.
“I’ll be back with the wine,” Lavinia said and vanished back out the darkened doorway.
Carter scooped up some of the jelly and took a careful bite. He chewed it slowly; it tasted bright and green but the gummy texture was unfamiliar and felt strange on his tongue. But he was also hungry enough that he finished about half of it before Lavinia returned with the wine.
She filled his glass from the dusty bottle and waited expectantly for him to take a sip. It was very dry, and a bit more acidic than he liked. “I guess it’s fine,” he said hesitantly, “but I’m not a big wine expert.”
“As long as you like it,” she said, and showed him the label. “It’s from Pennsylvania!” She left the bottle on the table and left the room.
Carter took a sip of his water, the wine had left a musty flavour in his mouth.
He finished the jelly and ate the asparagus and endive stalks to try to get rid of the jelly’s sour aftertaste. He’d only just set down his fork when Lavinia reappeared with the next course and to whisk his dirty plate away.
He let out a huff of frustration, almost tempted to call after her. It made him uncomfortable to be waited on like this, and even moreso that she and her mother seemed to be going out of their way to make it seem as though they weren’t there. He wished he could ask them to join him, but he also knew they wouldn’t think it was proper, and they’d probably be genuinely scandalised.
Carter turned back to his plate and started in shock.
His dinner was staring back at him.
It was a large wedge of seafood pie, decorated with a few swirls of a lumpy bright green sauce. The pie crust was flaky and shone in the candlelight. And erupting from the top of the pie like it was about to leap onto his plate was a fish head, eyes still clear. The way Lavvie had set the plate on the table, the fish was angled so it was almost staring directly at him.
Carter had to make an effort to not back away from the table. You were not supposed to be able to make eye contact with your food. He slowly rotated the plate so the fish stared up at the candles, all the while hearing his mother’s voice in his mind that he was not to turn his plate at dinner.
He ate around the fish head but he could barely taste the pie. It felt like warm rubbery lumps in his mouth.
He drained his wine glass, and when Lavinia offered desert, he only accepted once she promised the ice cream wouldn’t be able to look back at him.
In the darkness, he swims.
The water is like ice. He shivers once; the cold passes through him like wind. It becomes part of him now and he no longer feels it.
He exhales, and sinks. His arms are limp at his sides, his legs motionless. The water fills his ears, his nose. He exhales again, and a rush of bubbles burst upwards. He blinks lazily and watches them. They drift up slowly.
He hears nothing but the sounds of his own body, the dub-dub of his heart, the susurrations of his breathing. He is surrounded by darkness, by the weight of the water…
A thunderous roar echoes around him, inside him. He hears a scream of stone and steel. His eyes fly open.
A flood of bubbles engulfs him and he is blind, disoriented. He flails his arms, kicks his legs, and the bubbles dissipate. A meaty tendril coils around his ankle, tightens, and then pulls.
Carter woke, in his own bed and drenched with sweat. It took him a moment to remember where he was.
He sat up, drawing his knees to his chest. He pushed a hand over his brow, brushing his damp, straggly hair out of his face.
Carter turned on the lamp by his bed. It was dark out, and the house was still and silent.
The sea dream. He hadn’t had that in years. It’d started when he had been a child, before his family had left Almsbury, and for a few years it had been a regular thing, occurring at least once or twice a week. But the dreams had petered off once he reached puberty, and by the time he’d been about sixteen or seventeen, they’d stopped altogether.
He’d told his parents about them once, and while his mother had laughed a bit too loudly, his father’s expression had gone dark and pensive, and Carter didn’t bring the dreams up again.
There was something comforting in its return. It felt like the sort of thing that should be a good omen.
He swung his legs off the bed and rose, shakily, to his feet. The floorboards creaked softly as he crossed the room. Carter loved this time of night, when he could pretend he was all alone in the world. And Almsbury was quiet enough that if he stood still, all he could hear was his own breathing.
When he reached the eastern window, the one overlooking the town, he set a hand on the cool glass pane. The moon had set long ago, and Carter felt a great peace settle though his limbs.
He stared out the window. He could see his reflection in the glass, faintly, like a ghost. The bare branches of a nearby tree made it appear as though he were wearing a crown, and the few, faint lights from the town dotted his reflection like jewels.
He let his hand fall to his side. There was a halo of condensation on the window around the imprint of his hand, but it faded after a few minutes.
As he stared out past the town at the inky black waters of the bay, he had the oddest feeling of being watched. As if someone else had woken up in the middle of the night and was staring back at him.
If only he knew how to see them.
Carter continued to look out the window, and with each breath he took, he felt as though he was drawing more and more of the night’s quiet within himself.
This was the Almsbury he remembered, the silence, the dark. It felt like a weight he’d been carrying for years had been lifted from his shoulders.
When he returned to bed, he felt as though he had finally returned home.
He overslept the next morning and wandered bleary-eyed down to the kitchen. It was nearly noon, and the house was still and cool. No one else seemed to be around.
There was barely any food in the kitchen. Leftovers from last night’s dinner, carefully wrapped in tin foil and labeled with a strip of masking tape and yesterday’s date. A trio of one-quart Mason jars in the freezer, labeled with ‘SOUP’ and a date less than a week before Royle’s death, full of frozen murky liquid. Tinned soup and baked beans in the pantry. A half-full sleeve of soda crackers gone damp and mouldy.
And on the shelf below that, he found a small bag of coffee and half a loaf of white bread, the kind his mother never bought because she said it was too full of preservatives.
He made toast on the stove as he waited for the water for his coffee to boil, and ate several slices topped with cold baked beans.
The coffee mugs, filters, and filter cone were all kept in the same cupboard above the stove, and once everything was set up, fresh coffee dripping into a plain black mug, Carter walked over to take a look out the kitchen door. It overlooked the sloping hill behind the house and he could just see the Waites’ little stone house.
Lavinia was hanging laundry in the yard.
Once his coffee was ready, he walked down to join her.
She waved at him as he approached. “We thought you’d never wake up,” she said, as she threw a sheet over the clothesline. It was blindingly white and flapped heavily in the slight breeze.
“Sorry, I guess yesterday took more out of me that I’d thought. Did I miss anything?”
“No. Royle was an early riser but he abhorred breakfast, said having food in you that early slowed you down.” She eyed the mug he was holding. “He didn’t even drink coffee.”
Carter put his hand to his face. “Oh no. Well if he didn’t have reason to hate me before…”
Lavvie laughed. “It’s all right, if he notices I can tell him I drank it.”
Carter took another sip of the coffee. It was dark and bitter, just the way he liked it. “He does have good taste in coffee though.”
“Mmm.” Lavinia lifted another sheet out of the basket at her feet. The wind picked up and she had to wrestle it awkwardly over the clothesline.
“Ah…” He held out a hand to her.
Lavinia shot him a glance and shook her head. “It’s faster if I do this myself.”
“Sorry,” he said, and took a step back. He tried a different tack. “Have you always lived here?”
“In Almsbury, you mean?”
“No, ah, here, by Royle’s house.”
Lavinia nodded briskly. “Yes. Mam has worked for him since she was a girl, and I started helping her when I was a teenager. We’re the only staff Royle kept on after he got sick.”
“What was he like? Royle, I mean. I can only really remember snippets.” He sighed. “I still wish I knew why he left me all this.”
Lavinia set down the last sheet and put her hands on his shoulders. He could feel how cold they were through the thin fabric of his t-shirt. “He was always kind to me. Distant but kind. And he put Almsbury first, above all else. And if he left you the house, he must have thought you could do the town more good being here than away.”
Carter felt a blush creep up his cheeks. He suddenly found it very hard to talk.
Lavinia dropped her hands and turned to finish up the laundry. “But I only worked for him. You really ought to ask someone who knew him better.”
“Like your mother?”
Lavinia gave an unladylike snort. “No. Like Henry.”
“I… don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon, Lavvie.”
She looked down at her hands and her smile grew wistful. “He’s not as bad as you think. He just needs a bit of space, and time, and he’ll come around to you, I promise.”
Carter looked down at his coffee. He wondered if she realised her cheeks pinked every time she mentioned Henry’s name. He wondered if Henry had noticed how in love with him she was.
“What about you?”
“Huh?” Carter jerked his head up.
“Wasn’t it hard, putting your life outside Almsbury on hold, when you decided to come?”
She shot him a look as she picked up the empty laundry basket.
“I mean, I have a job, but it’s only during the school year. Coming down to Almsbury meant I didn’t have to try to find a summer job this year.”
“And there’s no one waiting for you, back home?”
“Nope. My parents passed away a few years ago, and it’s just been me since.”
Lavinia laughed. “No, I meant, don’t you… have anyone? No girlfriend?” She hesitated and raised her eyebrows. “Boyfriend?”
“No and no, and it’s not that I’m not interested, it just feels like I… haven’t met the right person yet.”
She looked down and nodded, clutching the laundry basket to her chest. “I have to get back to work, Carter, I’m sorry. It was nice talking to you.” She took a few steps backwards in the direction of her mother’s house.
“You too, thanks. Oh! Lavvie, before you go?”
“Hmmm?” She looked back over he shoulder.
“Ah, my cellphone didn’t charge last night, do you know where I—”
“Royle’s study!” She yelled back. “It’s on the second floor! I’m sorry, Carter, I really have to go!”
He started back to the house as she ran down the hill.
Carter sat in his uncle’s study, his phone charging in one corner and a rapidly cooling cup of coffee before him. He drummed his fingers on the edge of the great oak desk, absently doodling on some scrap paper he’d found under the desk.
He’d been here for nearly an hour, and his phone still wasn’t charged enough to turn on. He was desperate for some contact with the outside, Almsbury felt like it was trapped in its own little bubble. And he needed to get in touch with his roommates and landlord, make sure everything was all right back home.
Carter sighed and set down his pen. He rubbed at his face and cocked his head to see what he’d drawn. He and some classmates had gotten really into automatic drawing over the last few months; he’d produced a few interesting pictures and today was no different.
It was a lumpen, vaguely humanoid winged figure, with great claws, too many eyes, and a mass of tentacles where its mouth should have been. He’d drawn it seated, hunched forward, on a square plinth with an inscription in an unreadable language.
He stared at the drawing; there was something terribly familiar about it, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t pin the source of it down.
Something moved out of the corner of his eye.
Carter’s head shot up. He saw a flash of green skin and long hair dart past the study door and he lept to his feet. Out in the hallway, he saw the boy from the drive into town turn up a flight of stairs and disappear from view. Carter didn’t even hesitate; he ran after it as though he were on a lead.
His heart hammered in his chest and he nearly tripped over his feet as he scrambled up the stairs.
The house felt huge and labyrinthine as he followed it through corridors and up and down stairs. It certainly didn’t look this big from the outside.
He was out of breath once it finally went through a doorway into a room he hadn’t seen before.
It was Royle’s library.
He remembered it vividly from his childhood, one of the few rooms in the house where he hadn’t been permitted. Royle would lay a hand on Carter’s head, feather-light, and in a hoarse voice that now echoed through Carter’s mind, would say, “when you’re older.”
Carter stood on the threshold and stared into the dark room. He suspected that by now he was old enough. He switched on the lights and stepped inside.
It was just… books. There was a faint smell, like an old bookshop, and a window on the far wall with the curtains drawn closed. He could see a few murky jars on the mantlepiece full of dark shapes he didn’t want to look at too closely.
He heard a dull thud behind him and spun around, half-expecting to see the mysterious figure.
He was almost disappointed to see that it was only a book that had fallen from a shelf and onto the carpeted floor.
When he picked it up to put it back on the shelf, the book fell open and something tumbled from its pages onto the floor. A tarot card. He bent to pick it up.
Carter held the card in the first two fingers of his left hand. It was the Hierophant; the front of the card had been defaced, quick pen strokes added to give the figure of the high priest an undulating beard and a pair of bat wings and the sun had been coloured black.
He felt a strange sinking feeling in his belly when he looked at it, and he moved to quickly slip it back into the book. He hoped it hadn’t been marking a particular page.
There had been no title on the cover, nor an author’s name, but a symbol—a diagonal line with five shorter lines branching off it—had been drawn in pen on the flyleaf, and when he flipped through it, he saw it was written in a language he didn’t recognise. There were a few illustrated plates, but he passed them by quickly; their imagery was disturbing and he didn’t want to look at them for too long.
He knew he should just tuck the card back anywhere and put the book back on the shelf, but… there was something about this books, something compelling.
Something about the language it was written in that was starting to look familiar.
Carter turned a page and froze.
There, jotted in black ballpoint pen in the top margin, was a note.
“THE BEAST WILL RISE WITHIN OUR LIFETIMES.”
His heart froze in his chest. The note had been written in his mother’s handwriting. It was unmistakeable.
Carter’s hands shook so much it was difficult to turn the pages. But he found another note. And another. And another. All in his mother’s handwriting. All predicting the coming of this Beast.
On the last page, she’d written ONE OF THE BOYS? followed by CARTER and HENRY. A few other names followed, but they’d been scratched out and were illegible.
In a different ink colour, someone had circled Carter’s name.
“Hello Carter,” Mrs Waite said.
Carter looked up sharply and the book fell from his hands.
She stood in the doorway, a satisfied look on her face. Behind her were Henry and John Burrow. Henry gave him a feral smile, and John Burrow nodded a greeting.
“What’s going on?” Carter stammered.
John Burrow stepped between them for a moment to pick up the book and the card and place them both back on the shelf.
Mrs Waite moved forward and raised a hand to Carter’s arm, but he flinched away from her.
He jerked a finger at the book. “What is that? Why is my name in that book? What’s going on here?”
“That book,” Henry said with a derisive sneer, “was our holiest of texts, and your mother—”
Mrs Waite raised a hand and Henry fell silent. “Amelia was one of our best scholars. A bright girl who saw things clearer than anyone else. I think she suspected what you were when you were still a child, perhaps even before you were born. But as I’m sure you know, you mother was not one for hunches. She needed proof before she would act.”
“That’s what those notes where,” Carter interjected, his voice wavering.
“Yes. She collected her evidence and proved her hypothesis true.” Mrs Waite bent her head. “But her faith wavered, and she chose you over those we serve.”
Henry had started darting his gaze from Carter’s face to Mrs Waite’s, deep suspicion in his eyes.
“So she diverted attention from you to Henry and made her escape. It took us years to figure out the truth, else we wouldn’t have had to resort to Royle’s suicide to lure you here—”
Carter and Henry both blurted out “What?!” at the same time. Carter’s was out of confusion, but there was only rage etched in Henry’s face.
Henry’s head swung around, and Carter took a step back. “Henry,” he began, “whatever this is, I don’t want it—”
“Oh Carter dear. It doesn’t work like that.” Mrs Waite turned to address Henry. “And don’t act so surprised, Henry, you should have figured it out already that it was never meant to be you. Carter was always the chosen one.”
Henry charged at Carter, a wordless cry on lips. Carter could barely get a word out, could barely react before Henry was at his throat.
Carter thought, remotely, stupidly, ‘this is how I’m going to die,’ as Henry’s clammy hands closed around his neck.
And then it was as if something snapped, and Burrow was wrestling Henry to the floor. Carter lifted a hand to his neck, touched it, exploring for damage.
Henry was writhing on the floor under Burrow’s weight, eyes wide and white. “You can’t have it,” he shrieked, “it’s mine, it’s mine! I earned it, I took care of that old man for years, it should have been me!”
He heard Mrs Waite approach him; she laid a hand on his arm. “Come on, dear, let’s go now.”
Carter threw off her touch and staggered back. “It’s not true!” He shouted
There was so much pity in her eyes. “Oh, Carter, of course it is. And you already know it’s true. In your heart, you already know.”
Behind them, Henry made an outraged noise as Burrow lifted him to his feet, arms pinned to his sides.
Mrs Waite turned back to face him, one hand still on Carter’s sleeve. “Henry,” she said, shaking her head. “Just because Carter is the chosen doesn’t mean you will have no place in the Great Ceremony. As you’ve said, you are Royle’s heir in all senses of the word. You will take his place in our order, Henry. When it’s time—and it will be, so very soon—you will lead us.”
Henry leered at him, showing off far too many teeth.
Carter shook off Mrs Waite’s hand. “This is insane. You’re all insane.”
Mrs Waite shook her head sadly. “Oh no, dear. We’re the only sane people left in this corrupt world. And while Henry might lead the Great Ceremony, you will have the starring role—”
Carter cried out wordlessly and shoved his way past them out of the room.
Carter sprinted away from the house, arms pumping. They were insane. No wonder his mother had left and stayed away. If he’d had any lick of sense, he would never have returned. But…
His uncle’s house was surrounded on nearly all sides, and Carter ran blindly into the woods. He had to get away, away from them, away from the town. Carter had no idea how far this madness spread. His breath came in short bursts as he passed under the canopy of trees and was plunged into semi-darkness. The pallid light of the setting sun could barely penetrate the thick ceiling of leaves; Carter ran through shadows, black and green.
Bare branches whipped at his face, undergrowth snagged at his trousers He felt a stitch pulse to life in his side. He wheezed, unused to exercise, but he didn’t dare stop.Though he couldn’t hear anything over the sounds of his own laboured breathing, he did have a sense of something—someone—following him.
Carter saw something dark flash by behind him, out of the corner of his eye. He ran faster.
Soon, the shadows grew fainter and he was able to make out his footing. Carter slowed down and mopped at his brow with his sleeve. He looked up at the sky; he couldn’t see the sun, he had no idea where he was—
Carter froze and stared. He wasn’t looking at the sky any longer; he was looking at what was no longer blocking it. Every tree in sight was bare, branches cracked and grey. They looked like withered claws, pulling on the sky.
He looked slowly around, gravely soil crackling loudly under his feet. “What happened here?” he muttered. It was so silent. He had to be the only living creature around.
Something moved, just out of sight. Carter spun around and for a moment caught sight of a dark figure standing in the trees. A boy, with long hair that shimmered like an oil slick in the tenebrous light, the boy from the road, the library. Carter opened his mouth to call out, but before he could speak, it was gone again, as suddenly as it had appeared.
Carter shook his head. He had to keep moving. He had a very strong impression that John Burrow knew these woods far better than he did, and would have no trouble tracking him.
He set off, walking toward where he’d seen the shadowy figure.
In the distance, he saw a house. He had to be close to the shore, because he could smell seawater and the heavy stench of low tide. Carter started to run, and reached it after a few minutes.
It looked like an old school house. Carter leaned against the door until he’d caught his breath. It gave him a chance to examine the structure more closely. After further consideration, he concluded that it was much more likely an abandoned church. There had been a cross on the door once; he could still see the imprint on the wood, but it had been vandalized, a large, red sigil painted overtop, a diagonal line with five branches.
He grinned to himself, in spite of his exhaustion. He could hide out here until dawn and then try to make his way to the nearest town.
Carter glanced at the church’s windows, but they’d been painted over. He wouldn’t be able to see what was inside without going inside—and, fortunately, neither would Burrow.
He pushed open the heavy wooden doors—and stepped inside in shock. The church hadn’t been abandoned at all. It was still in use. It was being used.
Hundreds of candles, dripping white wax on the floor, lined the walls and the pews. Carter stepped forward and let the door swing shut behind him. He could hear low voices and craned his neck. He could see three people kneeling by the altar, bent over something on the floor.
Carter cleared his throat. “Excuse me?” he asked hesitantly.
One of the three by the altar—a woman—turned around and looked up. Carter cried out in horror and stumbled backwards, falling to the floor. There was blood around the woman’s mouth, on her lips, her teeth. When she moved, Carter could see what the three were preoccupied with. The room spun for a moment; Carter pressed his fists into his temples. There was—there was a corpse by the altar, and they were been eating it.
Carter was sick behind one of the pews.
A low laugh echoed in the church. Carter looked up warily. The woman was still looking at him, a smile on her face. She’d tried to wipe the blood from her mouth, but hadn’t done a very good job of it. There was still a red stain to her skin.
“Hullo,” she said.
Carter opened and closed his mouth a few times. The nausea was passing, but he felt dizzy, faintish. There was a gray tinge around the edges of his vision. He wrapped his fingers around the worn rim of the pew.
The woman held out her hand to him. “We found an outsider wandering past the town limits. Join us, cousin, for his flesh is quite sweet.” And then she made a noise like a frog being vivisected. The others took up her cry and they repeated the awful guttural noise several more times before turning back to the body.
There was something about the sound that felt terribly familiar to Carter. He pressed the heels of his palms into his ears and looked away, trying to block out the noise. He could see faint flashes of light in his field of vision, as if someone were setting off fireworks inside his eyes.
He looked away from the altar and tried to focus on the crude murals that had been painted on the walls of the church. He held onto the pew as they grew blurry. Carter blinked and the walls came back into focus. He passed a tongue over his lips; they’d gone dry and cracked since he’d arrived in town. His mouth felt as dry as a salt mine. The murals… the murals were numbingly familiar.
Carter had seen them before. In his mother’s book, in the book Henry claimed was a holy text. Carter sucked in an unsteady breath and whipped his head back to stare at the altar, at what was hanging over it. He gasped at what he saw. Pinned high above the altar was a statue of what had once been Christ. It had been heavily reworked and bore a resemblance to the tarot card his mother had defaced. Its knotty word surface had been painted a grayish-black and was anatomically deformed in such a way made Carter’s nausea rise again.
For an instant he would have sworn it had moved. “No,” he moaned. He stumbled towards the door, but the room was growing dim. The murals lining the walls in turn were growing clearer and brighter, as if they were becoming more real.
They showed the world aflame, and the sun a ball of fire beginning to rise over the horizon. Great dark shapes loomed in the skies above, and Carter’s stomach lurched. He felt a furious stab of claustrophobia. The ground shook and Carter dropped to his knees.
Behind him, he heard a noise like a tree being wrenched from the ground, followed by footfalls. He did not need to turn around to know that it was the statue above the altar, coming for him. An icy touch brushed his neck.
“God help me,” Carter cried, his voice a reedy moan.
He heard the woman’s voice, like a distant echo. “God can’t help you anymore, he had no jurisdiction here.”
“It will rise!” He cried out. “When the sun first shows its face, it will rise!” And then everything went black.
He woke, later, as a damp cloth was pressed against his brow. He opened his eyes groggily. He was on a bed, in a small, dark room and—he tugged experimentally—his wrists had been tied securely to the headboard. There was no one else in the room with him.
Carter felt drained, empty. He shivered, though the room was warm. His shirt was still damp with sweat, and someone had taken his jacket off. He exhaled unsteadily and looked up at the ceiling.
His mother had called it the Beast.
If it had a true name, she’d never once mentioned it in her notes. He suspected she’d still believed it held power over her.
He knew what it was too. He’d seen it lurking around his life since he was a child, spotting it in shadows, out of the corner of his eyes, in his nightmares. In his fantasies.
It was coming, and Carter had been chosen. It was calling for him in particular.
The visions were gone. Now it throbbed in his mind, like the steady pulse of a lighthouse or the beatings of a moth’s wings.
He recognised the room he was in; it had been where he’d stayed as a boy when he would visit his uncle. The room smelt damp, of mothballs and mold.
The door creaked open. Carter hastily closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep.
“Is it him?” a voice asked. It sounded like it belonged to a man who went through life with a perpetual smirk on his face.
“Henry says it’s him.” If the second voice wasn’t identical to the first, it was a damn close match.
“Hmph.” Carter heard light footsteps approach his bed. “Bit skinny, isn’t he?”
The second man giggled. “Now, now…” A hand touched his cheek and though Carter tried to keep still, he couldn’t help but twitch at how cold the touch was.
“Oho! He is awake.” A finger prodded at his eye.
Carter swore and shook his head from side to side to try to throw them off. He opened his eyes and glared. Two identical, handsome young men were sitting on his bed, looking at him, eyes bright and curious. And, as he’d suspected, with twin smirks on their faces.
One bent down to peer closely at him. Carter tried to pull away, but he was limited by his bound wrists. “So you’re the chosen one.”
The second stroked a hand down Carter’s chest. “What makes you so special?”
“Get off me,” Carter rasped.
They both laughed. The first moved his head and blew gently into Carter’s ears. His tongue then traced a line along the shell of Carter’s ear. The second twin moved his hand down to Carter’s groin and squeezed.
Carter moaned. He heard the twins laugh in stereo.
The door opened with a thud and the twins pulled away suddenly.
Carter looked up. Mrs Waite was standing in the doorframe, her face set in harsh lines. “Get out,” she spat, “both of you.”
The twins hastily got to their feet and maneuvered deftly around her and out of the room.
Once they were gone, she smiled at Carter. “Are you feeling better?”
Carter stared down at the pilling bedsheet. “You called me the chosen one. What have I been chosen for? What are you going to do to me?” he asked abruptly.
Mrs Waite regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. “What did you see in the church?”
Carter felt dizzy, as if the visions were returning. The back of his neck was tingling. “I—Fire. Bloodshed. It was dawn and there were these things in the sky—”
“Dawn,” Mrs Waite said, her voice predatory and unlike herself. Carter shivered again.
“Do you know what you are?” she asked.
“No,” Carter replied. Yes, he thought.
“Your mother knew. Before any of us even suspected, your mother knew.” She shook her head. “What you saw in the church is exactly what your mother’s research and predictions were for.
“For thousands upon thousands upon thousands of years, this world’s true masters have been dormant, in the darkest reaches of the cosmos and their high priest has lain dead at the bottom of the oceans. But now the stars are right, and it is time for their return—”
“You’re mad!” But her words resonated sharply within him.
“They will come to remake the world in their image, to burn the chaff from their creation.”
“Everyone is going to die!” he cried.
Mrs Waite shook her head. “Oh, no. As their loyal followers, we will be spared and ascend to glory at their feet.”
“You’re mad,” he repeated, but the fight was gone from his words. It was hard to argue with something that he knew deep within himself to be true.
Mrs Waite passed a hand over his brow and adjusted his shirt collar. “Don’t worry. It will be time soon. We will come for you.”
He’d been dreaming of water, of a great endless sea, unnaturally still and silent but for the echoes of a grotesque, alien song that hung in the air like a foul scent. It had been a triumphant noise, and Carter had been paddling in the water, trying to find the source.
He awoke in blurry confusion when the door to his room was opened. He was still tied to the bed and the room was in complete darkness save for a sliver of light at the door
“Carter?” It was Lavinia’s voice, barely above a whisper.
He tried to reply but he was still too sleep addled to make any real words.
The door opened further and Lavinia entered the room, shutting the door quietly behind her. She held a storm lantern, which she set down on the nightstand before she began to work at his bonds.
In the lamplight he could see she had been crying.
“What are you doing?”
Lavvie froze, and dropped her hands to the bedspread to stare at him. “Keep your voice down,” she whispered. “I’m trying to help you.”
“You can’t stay. You can’t. It’s happening tomorrow and you need to be gone before moonrise.”
She wiped frantically at her eyes. “You need to leave.” Her breath hitched as she spoke. “It was never supposed to be you. It should have been Henry.” She reached up and started again on his bonds.
Carter jerked away from her touch. “Don’t.” He couldn’t keep a pleading note from his voice.
Lavinia looked dumbstruck. “You can’t be serious, Carter, don’t you know—”
Don’t, he thought, you can’t. Please, you can’t.
“Don’t,” he repeated, and it took a concerted effort to keep his voice from shaking. “Don’t bother. It doesn’t matter. Nothing will happen. Nothing. Nothing.”
He closed his eyes tight, plunging himself back into darkness. “Don’t. Please. You need to leave, Lavvie. You need to go and pretend this never happened.”
There was a long, long moment of silence and he was terrified that she would not leave, that he hadn’t been able to convince her. And then he heard the rustle of fabric as she rose to her feet. She set a hand on his shoulder, and Carter felt a charge go through him, like a full-body shudder.
Lavinia withdrew her hand with a start. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
He heard the door open once more, and then close, and he knew he was alone.
Carter kept his eyes closed and counted under his breath until he fell back asleep.
Carter knelt in the cool, damp sand. It clung in spots to the fabric of his trousers. He shivered, but not from the chill. The rising tide lapped only a few inches away from his knees. He had spent the last hour watching its slow progress up the beach.
His feet were numb, and his wrists were growing sore from the manacles that held them together behind his back. He tried to shift his weight, but he was limited due to his position. He was worried that due to the awkwardness, he’d end up toppling over if he tried. He had long ago stopped struggling.
They’d brought him out here in the dead of night. He’d watched the moon rise, and was now waiting for the sun follow it. The sky had lightened to a greyish-blue, with a soft pink haze around the sliver of sun visible over the horizon. Reflected in the still waters of the ocean, it looked like a malevolent red eye, opening slowly. Carter kept his gaze fixed on the sky, the sand, the dark cloaked shapes surrounding him, on anything but the sun. He felt as though it were watching him, and judging.
Carter turned his face to his shoulder, and stared at the rows upon rows of cloaked figures standing behind him. He still felt dizzy at the sheer number of them; even with the world in the state it was, he’d never thought a doomsday cult could grow to such a size.
The one closest to him—he’d recognise Lavinia even under the yards of black fabric—took a half-step towards him. He looked at her; he could almost see her face under the hood. Henry stepped up beside her; the sleeve of his cloak trembled. Carter couldn’t tell if he’d moved his arm or if it was just the breeze.
“Carter,” she whispered, hesitantly.
Henry’s hands twitched in his sleeves. Carter watched him intently, but he made no further moves. Carter wished he could see Henry’s face; he very much wanted to see what was going on in that twisted mind of his.
“It’s already dawn,” Carter said, in a voice meant to carry. “Look, you can see the sun.”
Lavvie tensed and deliberately turned away from him. She stared at the horizon, her shoulders still tight.
“Nothing,” he continued, “is going to happen. Nothing.”
Their cloaks flapped heavily in the breeze. Carter ducked his head; it was getting colder. The thin cotton shirt he’d been wearing for the past few days was damp with sweat and sea spray. He gave himself a swift, violent shake, like a dog, and wished they’d left him his jacket.
He raised his voice. “Can’t you see? It’s dawn. Nothing has happened; nothing is going to happen. You were wrong.”
But try as he might, he just couldn’t muster the conviction needed for his words to ring true. He knew that his protests sounded as hollow to them as they did to him, because he knew, in his heart, in his bones, that everything they’d told him was true. He was one of them, as much as he might want to deny it. Carter thought of his mother and scowled. Blood will out, indeed.
He could feel the pull of the Beast as well as any of them. It was awake, and it was coming.
The sun had crested the horizon. Henry stepped forward into the water; it just reached Carter’s knees. He raised his hands in the air, and the sleeves of his cloak slid down to expose his pale, bare arms. Head thrown back, he began to chant.
He made noises a human mouth should not have been able to make, strange, wrong and utterly alien. There was a slow, pulsing rhythm to it, almost hypnotic. Though Carter couldn’t understand what was being said, the meaning itself was clear enough. They were calling for the Beast, calling its name. Carter bent his head and hunched up his shoulder, wishing he could block out the sounds.
A wave crashed dramatically against the shore.
The closest to the water, Carter received the brunt of it. He was soaked from the neck down. He sputtered, and shook his hair out of his face. The cultists standing near him staggered back, shaking out their waterlogged robes, plastered to their legs by the water.
Henry paused in his chanting, with a deep intake of breath. Carter balled his hands into fists and hated himself for almost crying out for Henry to continue.
When Henry began again, he was not alone. Hundreds of voices, in near-perfect unison, rang out across the beach as the rest of the cultists joined in. Carter bent his head to his chest and bit his lip. It took all his willpower to keep himself from joining them as well.
The terrible sounds, the language of a time long past, grew clearer with every repetition of the chant, and it wasn’t long before Carter started to recognize individual words. Not soon after did he realize he could understand what was being said as clearly as if they’d been speaking English.
Their voices became one with the roars of the surf, and then grew louder, drowning it out until the water was just another sound in the chorus.
Carter stared down at the murky water he was kneeling in and watched the rippling patterns made by the water dripping off his face. When they called out the Beast’s name, he whispered it under his breath. He felt dizzy and feverish, his vision blurry. He clenched his eyes shut and waited for it to pass.
When he opened them again, the water had grown noticeably darker. The shadows he cast had turned an odd colour. Carter looked up at the sky—
—And cried out.
“No,” he moaned. He was trembling; a tightness in his throat made breathing almost impossible. He felt as though someone had taken him and tipped him upside down.
The sky had gone blood red, and the sun burned black as it rose above the horizon. A part of him, dark and deeply buried, saw this and rejoiced.
It was time.
A few miles out from shore, the sea began to churn like a pot aboil. The wind whipped at Carter’s hair. He heard Lavinia scream and saw her stumble into Henry’s arms, clutching to him like a lamprey.
The salt water spray stung his eyes, but Carter could not avert his gaze from the dark, roiling waters of the ocean. He held his breath, heart aswell with anticipation. Henry cried something out, but his words were lost in the maelstrom.
“Hurry,” Carter whispered, “hurry, please hurry. I can’t wait any longer—”
He could see a shape at the centre of the storm, a dark writhing thing rising from the choppy waters. There was a scream of metal and stone, the sound of the world moving unnaturally, the miscarriage from its deepness of something horrific.
A great city rose from the ocean, ancient and alien. Its gunmetal grey surface shone strangely in the light of the black sun. Carter did not dare look at any spot for too long; its insectile architecture and unnatural angles made him feel ill. Water fell in great torrents from its unnatural planes.
Behind him, someone screamed. Carter whipped his head around and saw a woman he didn’t know squirming in the sand, clutching her head in pain. The cultists steadfastly ignored her. Carter gritted his teeth and turned his attentions back to the great structure unfolding before him.
Carter squinted and looked closer. He could see a dark shape emerging from the city’s centre, approaching them. It was still an indistinct blob in the distance, but Carter did not need for it to grow closer to know what—and who—it was.
He closed his eyes, but its face was burned in his memories, in his bones. It was the face he had seen in his dreams, his nightmares, his fantasies.
A crystalline bridge grew slowly from the city to the shore. It was narrow and angular like a knife-edge, and Carter stared, barely able to breathe as the Beast stepped lightly along its length to the sand.
Carter could not take his eyes off it. In its own terrible way, the creature was—beautiful. The Beast had the face of an angel. Almost. Its eyes were clear and wide, the colour of the harvest moon, and its features were proudly aristocratic—but at the corners of its delicate mouth quivered small clusters of vestigial tentacles. It wore only a loincloth of rough leather, and intricately decorated copper bands adorned its upper arms. It had skin like emeralds in darkness, glinting in the strange light like snakeskin. Carter longed to touch it, to trace out the patterns made by the light.
The Beast’s long, black hair swayed in the breeze, catching on the spines along its atrophied wings, as it surveyed the beach and its rows of followers. A great hush had swept the crowd and to a man all dropped to their knees. Even the screaming woman had gone silent, though the howling wind still seemed to carry her ululations. Carter bit his lip. What were they waiting for?
Henry chose that moment to speak. He threw his hood back and raised his head to expose the long, pale line of his throat. “We—” his voice faltered. “We bring you a sacrifice as you once bid us, so long ago.”
The Beast moved like lightning. Claws and teeth flashing red in the black light, it tore open Henry’s throat and began to feast.
Carter clenched his eyes shut and bent his head. He bit his lip to keep himself from being sick; he hadn’t looked away in time. He knew he would never be able to forget the sight of of his cousin being eaten alive, of the beatific expression on Henry’s face as a great spray of blood jutted from his neck.
He whimpered in the darkness behind his own eyelids. Carter could hear them, could hear as that thing devoured them, one by one.
Inhumanly long fingers stroked his hair, combing it this way and that. The Beast’s claws nicked his scalp in places, but Carter could barely feel it. He didn’t dare open his eyes. Carter knew he would not die at the Beast’s hands as the others had; it had… different plans for him.
Carter whimpered; the Beast cupped his chin, carefully keeping its claws from digging into Carter’s skin. His breath coming in sharp bursts, Carter opened his eyes slowly. The Beast was regarding him, its expression completely blank. It was as if it wore this shape as a shell and wasn’t quite sure how it worked.
He stared at the square pupils in its yellow eyes, and the Beast looked at him, head cocked to the side like a dog. And then it moved suddenly close to him, like a striking snake. The feelers by its mouth tickled at his neck as it sniffed at him. Carter bit at his lip. The touch was alien but not unwelcome.
Its long hair hung down in front of Carter’s face, smelling of scented oils and spices. Carter closed his eyes. It pressed a long finger against Carter’s shoulder, and then moved it, dragging firmly across his skin to his clavicle.
The Beast pulled away from Carter’s neck and straightened. Carter stared up at it, a protest forming on his lips. It circled him slowly, once, and then a second time, stopping once it was behind him. It touched his hair again. Carter bent his head. He could feel a flush rise to his cheeks.
The sun was behind them. Carter could see the shadow the Beast cast on the wet sand. It bent closer to his manacles and lifted a finger to—
Sharp burning pain flared through Carter’s wrists. He toppled to the ground and scrambled away from the Beast—and it wasn’t until he was a few feet away that he realised that his hands had been freed. He collapsed to the ground, and rolled over onto his back, examining his wrists. There were bands of red welts just below his hands, but they barely hurt at all. Carter took a deep breath and looked up at the Beast.
It stepped closer, and touched his shirt again. Hesitantly, Carter reached up and stroked the skin on the back of its hand. It looked down and then back at Carter. Its gaze had hardened to diamond sharpness, and Carter almost recoiled. Until this moment, all he had seen of the Beast was the shell it wore to walk amongst mortals. Now he was finally looking at a fragment of its immortal essence.
The Beast drew himself away from Carter and rose to its full heights. It spread its wings out and held out its hand as if to help Carter to his feet. Carter, feeling as though he was watching this all happen at a remove, reached out and curled his hand around the Beast’s—
—and the world shattered and refracted and folded around him like a paper flower—
—and suddenly Carter was elsewhere.
He was in what looked like a throne room. Everything was black glass, from the floors to the dais, to the great awful throne that dominated the room; it almost seemed to ripple and reform unless Carter stared directly at it. The walls of the throne room, however, were not solid, but were made up of the haphazard crisscrossing of great obsidian spikes and pillars. He could see the blood red sky through the large triangular gaps where the spikes did not completely overlap.
This was the Beast’s throne room, high atop the Beast’s city. The sounds of waves crashing far below was barely audible, but otherwise the city was oppressively silent.
Carter, who had found himself to the left of the dais, stumbled backwards and collapsed into a heap of not uncomfortable triangular cushions, each about the size of his torso and a shade of grey just a touch paler than the colour of the floor. The fabric felt strangely warm to the touch, and the cushions appeared to be filled with some sort of dry grain.
A cool sea breeze swept through the room, and raised goose pimples all over his skin—
Carter looked down.
His clothes were gone.
In their place he had only a gauzy scarf wrapped around his waist and knotted over his left hip. It was barely wide enough to provide any sort of modesty, though he did tug it down to cover as much as possible. There were copper bands on his upper arms, similar to the ones the Beast had worn but wider and more ornate. Around his neck sat a heavy bronze torc with fish-head terminals stained with verdigris. The weight of it was comforting.
His feet were bare, but around each ankle was a narrow metal chain strung with tiny bells. They made a delicate silvery noise that was almost inaudible over the sounds of the sea.
His face felt strangely heavy. Carter sat up awkwardly, knelt at the edge of the cushions and peered at his reflection in the floor. He almost didn’t recognise himself. His mouth had been painted the same deep red as the sky and a thick soot-black stripe had been drawn over his eyes. His head had been roughly shaved. And a symbol—that he knew now was the Beast’s symbol, a diagonal line with five branches, that he recognised from his mother’s book and from the monstrous church in Almsbury—had been tattooed in blue ink above his brow.
Carter stared down at his reflection and brought a finger to the corner of his mouth. It came away with a spot of red stain on it. As they’d said, he was the sacrifice. He remembered what Lavinia had said, at his first dinner in Almsbury what felt like an age ago, on the importance of presentation. Carter imagined it must be easier to eat something that was pretty.
A bubble of hysterical laughter rose in his throat.
The throne room was suddenly filled with a deafening, nauseating hum, and Carter crumpled into the cushions like a broken doll. A great pressure weighed down on him and his gorge rose sharply.
When at last the sound abated, Carter sat up gingerly—and for an instant he forgot how to breathe.
The Beast was seated in its throne, and it was regarding Carter with its bright yellow eyes. Its legs were crossed demurely at the ankle, and it wore a great crown of bones and twisted gold that fanned around its head like a halo.
The feelers bracketing the Beast’s mouth quivered when Carter met its gaze. His mouth went dry, and the scarf around his waist felt far too tight..
Carter wanted to prostrate himself before it.
Carter wanted to crawl across the floor and kiss its feet.
Carter wanted to sprawl back in the mass of cushions and beg the Beast to come to him.
The choice was made for him when the Beast rose from its throne and took a step towards Carter. Its leather loincloth had been replaced with a long skirt made of strips of dark hide held in place with a wide gold belt that hung low on the Beast’s hips. Attached to the belt was a codpiece made to look like a face, with too many eyes and a mass of tentacles where its mouth should be. The Beast’s wrists and ankles were heavy with bracelets, but when it moved they didn’t make a sound.
Its lips were midnight black and a narrow stripe of gold paint ran down its forehead to the tip of its nose.
Carter stayed on his knees. He spread his arms wide and bent his head, but still stared up at the Beast through the veil of his lashes.
It approached his slowly, and every footfall resonated down Carter’s body, from the crown of his head all the way to his cock. The high slits in the skirt bared the Beast’s legs with every step it took, the long strips of fabric trailing behind it like a train.
He whimpered when its clawed fingers stroked his shorn scalp. They slid along his jaw and under his chin, tilting his head up so he had no choice but to meet the Beast’s gaze. He stared into its fathomless gold eyes, his heart hammering in his chest. A desperate noise escape his mouth. He’d waited so long, and he wasn’t sure how much more he could stand.
Wings spread, the Beast unknotted its belt and let its long skirt drop to the ground. Carter broke from the Beast’s gaze and stared between its legs. The Beast’s cock was enormous, bigger than any Carter had ever seen. It was the same uniform green as the rest of the Beast’s skin, smooth and tapered to a point that bobbed just in front of Carter’s mouth. He’d never seen anything so beautiful, and the sight of it made him desperately hard.
Carter swallowed and parted his lips. He leaned forward, but before he could take the Beast’s cock in his mouth, it burst into parts, unfurling into a writhing mass of tentacles that engulfed Carter’s mouth.
The tentacles slid down his throat, up his nose, and girdled his face and neck, slick and cool on his skin. They tightened, and for a moment Carter panicked. He tried to claw them off, but his fingers couldn’t find any purchase and slid right off. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t—
The Beast’s hands cradled the back of his head. The tentacles in his mouth began sliding up and down, forcing his jaw to open wider as they plunged deeper inside him. And Carter no longer cared that he couldn’t breathe. The tentacles were muscular and meaty, and tasted of hedonism and power and the sea. He felt some of the smaller tentacles creep into his ears, and he wallowed in the sensation of being filled by the Beast, of letting it fuck his face. His skin felt hot where the tentacles touched him. He was deliciously light-headed.
He was so close, he was so hard…
And then the tentacles withdrew.
Carter sagged back and drew in a deep, shuddering breath. He stared at the writhing tentacles as they undulated like sea grass. He wanted to plunge his face back into them, to drown in the Beast’s embrace. He tore his gaze away and looked up at the Beast’s face. “Please,” he said, his voice barely more than a sob.
The Beast did not smile, but its mouth feelers quivered. Carter fiercely wanted to kiss it, to know how its alien mouth would feel against his.
The Beast’s hand fell upon his face and traced a path through the slick the tentacles had left on his skin. Carter straightened his back, emboldened by the touch. When the Beast’s hand passed by his mouth, he kissed it, leaving a red mark on its green skin.
The Beast’s hand lingered on his face for a moment and then dropped to his chest. With a sharp shove, Carter was on his back. The Beast loomed above him, head cocked to one side, and stared down at Carter like a general surveying a map of conquered territory.
Carter drew in a shuddering breath, and without looking away from the Beast’s eyes, groped for the knot holding the scarf cinched around his waist. He undid it with a slow tug and pulled the scarf out from under him. It caught on a breeze gusting through the throne room and flitted out to the sea.
His erection jutted up between them, proud and red and hot. Carter breathed through his mouth to steady himself.
The Beast nudged his knees apart and gracefully knelt between Carter’s legs. It set its hands on Carter’s thighs, its sharp claws nicking at his skin. Carter shivered and let his head fall back. He pressed his legs up against the Beast’s flanks and let them slide up its strangely smooth skin. The Beast’s grip tightened on his legs.
It braced itself on Carter’s thighs and leaned forward. Carter whimpered in delight as he felt the first tentacle curl around the base of his cock. Its cool, feather-light touch was joined by another and another until his cock was engulfed in a mass of tentacles that began creeping up his abdomen and around his thighs.
The tentacles tightened, and Carter tensed and came suddenly in a burst of pleasure, as quick as a teenager.
He flushed and sagged into the pillows, his limbs limp. But the Beast didn’t release him. It continued to stroke his now-flaccid cock, the tentacles venturing further and further up his body.
Carter raised his head to look at the Beast. “Sorry,” he mouthed. He could still feel the heat of his shame at his quick release on his face.
The Beast moved its hands from Carter’s legs to the floor, bracketing his chest, and bent forward. Its long hair tickled where it brushed Carter’s stomach. The Beast placed a soft kiss just below Carter’s collarbone, leaving a dark lip print on his pale skin. .
The Beast left another kiss on the opposite side, and this time let its feelers dance on Carter’s skin, leaving curlicues of slick around the mark.
“Oh,” Carter breathed, “oh.”
The Beast continued adorning Carter’s chest, and Carter let out a noise of pleasure with every gentle touch. They were as much signs of the Beast claiming him as the symbol tattooed on his forehead, and with every kiss Carter felt his pulse increase, felt his cock throbbing to life within the swirling knot of tentacles.
When the Beast kissed him for the last time, on the swell of Carter’s Adam’s apple, Carter’s orgasm burst from him like a song.
He threw his arms around the Beast’s waist and clung to it as its tentacles milked the last of the orgasm from him. The Beast’s skin was cool against his clammy flesh. Carter slid his fingers along the column of spines down the Beast’s back.
The Beast met his eyes. Carter, feeling heady and emboldened by the force of his orgasm, leaned up and kissed the Beast on the mouth. It returned the embrace, its feelers leaving slick hot lines on Carter’s skin.
When the Beast opened its mouth, Carter could have come right then and there.
The Beast’s furcated tongue plunged into Carter, its many tips exploring the geography of his mouth. Carter sucked on the Beast’s tongue, willing it to go deeper, to slip down his throat and fill him completely.
He gasped into the Beast’s mouth as he felt a narrow tentacle slide down into his cock and wriggle deep within him. Carter clutched at the Beast like a blind man, all he could focus on was the sensation of that tentacle inside his cock, of being utterly penetrated, of the sweet burning he felt grow deep within him.
The Beast broke the kiss, and Carter immediately latched onto its neck, leaving a smear of red below its jawline.
The tentacle within his cock began to move like a metronome, back and forth, back and forth, until Carter was filled with an inescapable pressure that he was scared he was never going to be able to release, that grew and grew and grew.
And then with a whisper, the tentacle pulled out.
Carter came like a geyser within the Beast. His howl echoed through the throne room and his fingers pulled at the Beast’s hair.
He fell limply into the pillows, and the Beast disengaged itself and sat up. It withdrew its tentacles completely, and Carter was too worn out to make more than a disappointed noise. This wasn’t right. It wasn’t over yet. It couldn’t be.
Carter stared up at the Beast’s beautiful, placid face and almost wished he could know what it was thinking. Its hair was disheveled, its crown askew, and it had smears of Carter’s red lip colour by its mouth and down its neck. Carter lifted a trembling arm, and the Beast batted it away easily.
And then it took Carter by the hips and flipped him onto his stomach. Carter felt as though his body were made of clay and he laid there as the Beast moved his limbs, positioning him just so: arms folded in front of his head, knees pushed apart, and his ass lifted high up in the air. Prostrating himself away from the Beast.
He heard the movements of the Beast as it shifted its weight on the cushions. It slid its hands down Carter’s buttocks, its claws drawing needle-sharp lines of pain along his skin. Carter whimpered and thrust backwards, the pain drawing his attention like a laser. The Beast raised the globes of Carter’s ass and separated them, and—
Carter hadn’t thought he had any more orgasms in him, but he was wrong.
If he hadn’t been so wrung dry, he would have come the instant the Beast slid its tongue into his ass.
He clung to the cushions as waves of pleasure swept through him with every stroke, each more intense than the last, as the tips of its tongue plunged deep inside him. He felt as though he were drowning, and he never wanted to breathe air again.
The Beast took its time, letting the pressure build within Carter with every careful lick, until he was on the very precipice.
When it pulled away, Carter howled in frustration.
A cool breeze swept through as Carter’s cries echoed in the throne room, bringing with it the scent of the sea.
And then the Beast was inside him, and Carter spurted his final orgasm all over the fine grey cushions covering the floor.
The Beast had only begun. It dug its claws into Carter’s side and began furiously pistoning its hips as it drove itself deeper and deeper into Carter.
Carter could feel its tendrils working their way further inside him. The slick and burn of the tentacles as they stretched him open was replaced with something rigid that thrust deep within him. It slid in and out, and would have been painful if Carter weren’t already prepared. He was still so drunk on pleasure that the repeating motion was almost hypnotic.
The Beast froze, and then shuddered, and Carter felt a swell of fluid fill him. He slid off the Beast and collapsed on his side on the cushions, barely able to move. Carter felt a sudden twinge in his abdomen. He set a hand on his belly and froze. It was swollen and hot, and he would have sworn he felt something pulse beneath his hand.
He raised himself up on his arms and looked over at the Beast. It had removed its crown and the rest of its jewelry, and was looking up at the sky as if in search of something.
And then Carter saw its eyes. And he couldn’t breathe. The frightening, knowing look he’d seen in the Beast’s eyes for only a few moments at a time had returned.
The Beast looked like a man who had risen from a very long sleep, rested and finally, fully awake.
It rose gracefully to its feet, and Carter could do nothing but watch it. The Beast lifted its arms high above its head, tossed out its hair—and spoke.
Its voice was like an avalanche. The world shook.
Carter looked up through the holes in the throne room’s walls.
The sky… the sky was being rendered apart, torn by something great and dark hanging in the sky above them. Carter could see into the rifts, and saw colours no human mind should be able to understand, shapes that were not geometrically possible.
Things were emerging from the holes in the sky.
The Old Ones had returned to Earth.
Carter looked upon them and knew madness.