“Are you threatening us?” The High priestess interrogated, glaring at me.
“You’re pressing a knife against my throat. Why are YOU asking me that?” I replied. She rolled her eyes at that.
“This is going nowhere… Gwen! Call Maria and check if she is alright!”
The High Priestess’ daughter approached when called. There were others looking or listening to our exchange, but everyone here was a Child of Dagon. I saw a family covering their kids eyes as they hurried away from us, as if they had just walked into an R-rated movie by accident. I guess they were fine with me getting my throat slit so long as the kids didn’t have to see any blood. Because THAT would be wrong.
“I don’t think I have Maria’s phone number. Can I use your cell phone to call her?” Asked Gwen, looking at me with a bored expression.
“Sure, sweetie. It’s in my purse, on the side pocket,” said the said, smiling at her daughter while keeping the knife firmly pressed against my throat. Gwen moved closer and fumbled with the High Priestess’ handbag, rummaging through its contents in increasing frustration.
“This is all a misunderstanding,” I whispered with a nervous smile, but nobody paid attention to me.
“I can’t find it. Are you sure you brought it with you tonight?” She asked, after an awkward silence where I dared not even swallow.
“Of course I did. Made a call not even an hour ago and… Oooh, wait! I think I left it in the main pocket. I connected it to my new charger, I remember now!”
Gwen sighed and rolled her eyes, but dutifully opened a different zipper in the handbag, which she searched before producing a slim, black smartphone connected still to the charger in the purse.
“Alright, be back in a bit,” said the young woman, swiping at the phone screen and looking intently at it while walking away without so much as a second glance at me. Sarah and I looked at each other and I attempted a nervous smile.
“You really don’t want to threaten or hurt me. Trust me,” I told her as gently and non-threateningly as possible. “What would be a terrible idea.”
“Oh?” An eyebrow quirked above her sunglasses. Her face was close enough to see her bulging wide eyes staring from behind the lenses, completely unblinking. “Why so?”
Then, to my horror, I noticed far away and half-hidden in the crowd the Queen in Yellow herself, her yellow hoodie covering half her face in shadow as she stood amid the crowd of families making their way to the shore.
“Because my god might be watching?” I replied as my stomach dropped in mute horror. Suzy gave me a cheerful wave when I noticed her.
The High Priestess cackled when I said that. “Oh, dearie… Please. The Eldritch Gods, Cthulhu, Dagon and the like… They don’t peek at us from above while making a naughty list, you know? These grand and powerful beings, they are so above you and me! So why should the King In Yellow give two shits if one of us insects crawling on the ground worshipping it lives or dies?”
I looked once more at Hastur, chilling by the beach some distance from us. The High Priestess couldn’t see her because she had her back to it, focused only on me, so she didn’t notice when Hastur playfully dragged a finger across her throat in a decapitation gesture. “That’s… A very good question,” I replied, slightly puzzled. “Maybe my god really likes me for some mysterious reason?.”
“You can never know the intentions of the gods, dearie. Don’t even try,” the High Priestess shook her head. “They give great gifts or bring terrible doom, but we never even know which is which until too late.”
Hastur, the Feaster From Afar, started doing the macarena dance at a distance.
“What if my god is a total troll?” I asked Sarah point-blank.
“... What?” She looked back at me, utterly confused. We shared a moment of baffled silence before being rescued by her daughter, Gwen, who came back with her mother’s phone in her hand, her expression still blank as always.
“I called Maria and she says she’s fine. The two just had an argument,” she said, while offering the phone. “Here, you can have this back.”
“Thank you, sweetie,” said Sarah, immediately withdrawing the knife from my throat while putting her phone back in her purse. She beamed at me. “Sorry about that little misunderstanding. I got a little worried, that’s all.”
Her daughter rolled her eyes again, while I traced the small cut on my neck with my fingers. “Holding a knife to someone’s throat counts as a bit more than a ‘little misunderstanding’.”
“Hey! Whose side are you on?” Replied Sarah, looking peeved. Her daughter shrugged.
“Just saying,” she muttered, looking away from her mother.
“No, no, don’t worry!” I replied quickly. “ No hard feelings at all! I am perfectly fine and everything is fine! And I don’t want anything bad happening to you or your people because of what happened here! Nope. I want all of you to have long and happy lives!” I spoke out loud, giving Suzy a pointed look. She lifted her arms in an exaggerated shrug, before vanishing into the crowd the moment mother and daughter looked behind them, trying to figure out what I was staring at so intently.
“Right.” Said Gwen in her best ‘I’m talking to a five-year old’ voice. “I’m glad we got that settled.”
“See?” Said the High Priestess, smiling triumphantly at her daughter. “He’s fine, he’s a strong man! Weird religion, sure, but still a fine man!” She punctuated her praise by giving my butt a playful slap, which elicited a surprised yelp from my part. “Say… Since you don’t have a partner anymore, why don’t you accompany my daughter to the ceremony and meet our family? You’d be doing us all a great favor.”
“Oh come ON, mother -” Protested Gwen, only to be cut off.
“Young lady!” Said Sarah in the clipped tones used universally by parents scolding their children. “It’s the Night of Revisit, one of the most important ceremonies of the year, and you don’t even have a partner! Can you imagine how your grandparents would feel if they saw you completely alone? Not even with child yet? Can’t you at least pretend, for their sake?”
“If it would make your daughter unhappy... ” I muttered, trying to maneuver out of this awkward situation.
“Oh, don’t worry!” Sarah turned to me, smiling brightly. “You’d be doing us a favor if you went with her. And hey,” she approached me and whispered conspiratorially, “if you want to make the fake relationship a real one, it’s not too late. You two can sneak behind one of the stands and...”
“Mom!” Groaned Gwen. “You’re embarrassing me!”
“What? A daughter of Dagon should always be ready! Just saying, no harm in that,” said Sarah, not embarrassed in the slightest by her words, although her daughter had enough embarrassment for the two of them.
“I, umm… Thanks,” was my confused reply.
“I’ll leave you two to meet our family by yourselves,” she said, adding a wink. “Enjoy the night, sweeties.”
And just as quickly as she had appeared, she vanished into the slowly growing crowd of Innsmouth inhabitants, who were making their way to the edge of the ocean in groups. I saw them put their shoes or sandals on the beach and roll up their pant legs or skirts as they walked into the water. The sea was dotted with small candle lanterns attached to poles fixed a few meters into the water, and I now the lanterns had symbols or names written into it. It was a remarkable difference from the horny teenager party that was going on a few hours ago, in this same beach.
Gwen looked at me with the same disdainful stare as when we first met. Clearly our last interactions hadn’t help break the ice. “Sorry,” she said eventually, “but we’re not going together to meet my family. I can’t be bothered to lie to them and, as for the other option…
“Ah, no! I understand perfectly. Of course I didn’t expect us to… Ermm, sneak behind a stand and...” I let my voice trail off.
“Aren’t you the gentleman,” she replied sarcastically, raising one eyebrow. She shook her head and sighed, some tension edging from her body. “Sorry about that, my mother is just getting desperate lately.”
“That’s one way to put it,” I muttered, searching the crowd for the wrinkly old face of the High Priestess. Last thing I needed was to badmouth her as she stood right behind me.
“She’s in denial that the High Priestess of Dagon’s youngest daughter could be a lesbian.”
There was an awkward pause. “Ah,” I said. That shone a very different light in our interactions. “Wait, is that a bad thing?”
“For the cult of Dagon, where having lots of children is considered the greatest blessing one could have?” Gwen smiled, but there was no amusement behind it. “I might as well take up baby-eating as a hobby. Couldn’t make my reputation any worse.”
“Wow. Is it really that bad?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Some of our people accept me, mostly younger ones. But the religious types really don’t, and my mother being the high priestess makes it extra embarrassing for everyone involved.” She grimaced, crossing her arms angrily while glaring at nothing in particular. “And it’s hard to argue against religion when it’s your god that is saving your people from extinction.”
Another awkward pause followed, before she seemed to notice what she had just mentioned. “Oh shit, sorry. I didn’t mean to - Ah… Bring it up. I mean...” She fumbled through her words, trying to take them back somehow. The transformation from her previous sullen sarcasm and her current, mortified babbling made me chuckle.
“It’s ok,” I assured her. “No offense taken. And, as a follower of the Yellow sign and certified religious crazy, I can confidently say to you… Fuck the gods. All of them.”
She seemed relieved and amused by response, grinning. “Huh. You make a surprising amount of sense, for a yellow sign nutcase.”
“Oh no, trust me,” I replied, smiling back. “I’m totally crazy. I can see my goddess wherever I go.”
“Now there’s a scary thought,” said Gwen, with a chuckle.
I looked around me quickly, just to make sure, but I guess by now Hastur had tired of appearing at the worst possible time and there was no sign of him.
Gwen, on the other hand, looked completely different from just a few moments ago, less defensive and a lot more young and vulnerable, looking silently at the sea with all its lanterns and families congregating on the shallow water. She looked wistful, her brows knitted in a frown.
“I’m still not going with you to meet my family,” she said, breaking the silence. “Sorry, but it’s best if I go alone. Don’t want to give them the wrong impression, and this conversation will already be difficult enough as it is.”
“That’s alright,” I nodded at her, not expecting it anyway after our conversation. “Good luck,” I added as she took a few steps towards the water.
She turned and smiled again at me. It was small and sad, but still heartfelt. “You might be crazy, but you’re still a cool guy. Don’t let anyone say otherwise.”
Those were her parting words before she turned and walked away, approaching the shore where the waves licked the sand with its lazy ebb and flow.
I found myself alone again, and surrounded by other people who felt alien to my eyes. Probably because they were.
But it was different this time. I looked closer at the families gathering on the shores, and noticed with a shiver that there were other figures gathering near the lamps, only the came from the sea.
The creatures that emerged from those inky depths were pale and sickly green, covered in scales and with enormous, bulging eyes that reflected on the candlelight without blinking. They had no necks, their heads joining smoothly into their bodies like an eel, and they were larger than the average person, with claws and vestigial fins. One by one they emerged from the water and ambled slowly towards their waiting families, guided by the lanterns each marked with a different family name and symbol. The sea Dagothians meeting the inland ones, old and new, separated by an unspeakable change.
Yet when they met, there was much cheer and celebration. Sons and daughters embraced their parents or told them excitedly about what had happened in their absence, and any children were warmly greeted by the aquatic side of the family, who croaked happily while petting the little ones’ heads, lifting them in their strong arms or even playing with them. I saw a young girl, maybe seven years old, giggling as she ran in knee-deep water, being chased by a lumbering Innsmouth fish-creature who was doing its best to tickle her ribs as she chased her. The creature’s claws looked sharp enough to rip through flesh, but the girl only giggled and jumped when caught by her ancestor, before wriggling and escaping from its grasp to resume the play.
“Look, Dewy! There’s your great-grandpa, Joseph. Remember? The one I showed you in that old photo. Be a good boy and say hi to him!” Said a middle-aged woman near me to a boy hiding behind her and peeking shyly at his ancestor. He wasn’t scared though, just hesitant and shy, making a face when the scaly fish-creature pinched at his cheek, delicate enough to leave nothing but wet marks on his cheeks, which young Dewy wiped with his sleeve.
There was also plenty of gift-giving from both sides, with many human - or perhaps better to say human-looking - members of the family giving their sea counterparts home cooked food, pastries and bottles of wine or rum, which their elders eagerly accepted and ate on the spot, chewing with gusto. Such food was certainly impossible to find where they came from. I could see from afar two men, one of them scaly, the other human-looking, clinking their glasses together in cheer before downing their drink, bringing laughter and croaking from all around them. Some of it, already well on their way to the land of the drunk.
The fish-people of Innsmouth gave back all sorts of gifts salvaged from below the sea. To the children they gave beautiful shells and interesting curiosities, including what looked like a rusty old compass to a teenager who hugged her scaly grandmother excitedly. It would have probably be worth a fortune in a museum. There were also gifts of pearls and precious jewels, even gold. Some of it dirty with grimy and algae, but still gratefully accepted by the ones living on land. Parents of children, especially mothers, received the lion’s share of such expensive gifts, I noticed.
Not all reunions were full of smiles. I could see Gwen off to a side, her body language guarded as she talked with a group of her sea-living family. That conversation was probably awkward for all involved. There was also grumbling and arguing from two families who apparently had a long-standing feud with each other, the fighting echoed in the loud croaking of the fish-elders in each family as they confronted and even wrestled each other. The surrounding families carefully avoided all eye-contact with the troublemakers as they celebrated their own reunions.
But even in their messy and obnoxious worst, they were still eerily relatable. I was reminded of my family, with a pang of nostalgia as I realized I might not see them again. I looked away from it all.
That’s when I noticed, with a jolt of surprise and unease, that Maria was standing a few feet away from me, staring wide-eyed while holding the hands of her two kids. One approaching his teens, blinking at me and then back at his mother curiously, while the younger had not noticed us and reached in vain towards the water, eager to go.
After a brief, terrified pause, Maria broke the spell first. She seemed to reach a decision and, after whispering something to her kids and urging them to go towards the sea, she approached me, alone and terrified out of her mind, but still determined and resolute. I looked down at the ground, uncertain of what to say. What could I say to someone with whom we had shared so much joy and so much pain in a short amount of time?
“I’m sorry,” she said, breaking the awkward silence. “For… For kicking you out like that. I shouldn’t have done that.”
My eyes widened. “No, no! Please, don’t apologize! You don’t have to… You don’t have to grovel and be afraid of me! I… Please. Don’t be afraid of me?” I gave her a pleading look as I spoke. It hurt to see her so terrified of what I might do.
She took a deep breath. “I was afraid. Still am. Your… Situation. It… It really was a nasty - uh, I mean...” She gulped nervously, looking around. “It surprised me, that’s all.” She added, her neutral words contrasting with her sweaty, fearful expression. She was hunched as she talked to me, as if trying to make herself look small.
“I’m sorry,” was my reply. “I wish - I wish things were different. I really do.”
She hesitated, then looked straight as me. “Is there any way for you to… Get out?” She asked.
“No… Sorry,” I said, shaking my head sadly. “I have something that needs to be done.”
“Stopping the end of the world?” She blurted out, frowning. “You mentioned something like that when we were together, but I didn’t think you meant...”
“Yeah...” I said, my voice small and apologetic. “It’s the only thing I can do.”
“You’re her plaything,” she said, not in an accusing voice but with pity. Sadness even.
“It’s not that bad. She took me to a five star hotel once. In Pluto!” I joked, trying to lighten the air.
Maria hugged me tightly, her arms squeezing around my waist. The sudden contact surprised me, as her sweat, her warmth and her scent all hit me at once, making me long for her so much it hurt. It wasn’t even love, really, just that primal need for human contact - for the simple joy of feeling a human being in your arms and sharing a bond with them.
“You have to listen to me,” she whispered in my ear. “Your god, the One Who Must Not Be Named, is not… He’s not a nice god. I’m not sure what it has done to you, but… It’s too dangerous! Spending a lot of time with any of the greater gods is not something we’re supposed to do! Trust me, Cody! Please trust me! This can only end in tears!”
She gave my back a gentle squeeze, then broke off the hug, looking at me with her huge, wet and inhuman eyes that belied her own, distant connection with another ancient god.
“I have to do this...” I replied, so quietly even she, close to me as she was, could barely hear it. She didn’t look convinced.
But finally she nodded, and took a step back along with a deep breath.
“I see. Well… You must have your reasons.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Another awkward silence ensued, although this one was brief.
“I enjoyed our time together, Cody.” she said, cracking a small smile. “Thank you. And… Good luck on your task.”
“I… Thanks. We all have our journeys, right?” I said, smiling back.
She looked at the shore, now full of families greeting and chatting with each other, human and amphibian alike.
“Yeah, I guess we do.” She grabbed my hand one final time and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I won’t forget you,” she whispered.
Then, with a final nod, she turned back and started walking briskly towards the water. In the distance, I could see her kids hanging around a lantern along with a large group of adults and fish-creatures. I could see the family resemblance, well… At least on the half of the group.
“Aww, isn’t that sweet?” Crooned a voice behind me, mocking as always. I couldn’t even bother to turn around or be surprised anymore.
It had been a long night.
“I thought you were going to wait for my call before we went anywhere,” I replied. “This is the second time you show your face while I’m in the middle of something.”
“Nothing wrong with checking up on you,” said Suzy. “Have to make sure you’re alright. Never know when someone might try to threaten you and slit your throat.”
“Jealous?” I asked sarcastically. She laughed.
“What if I told you I was?” She replied, her voice suddenly hartfelt, hurt even. I looked back at her, surprised, only to see her sporting a wide, mocking grin that completely belied her pained voice.
“I’m jealous of Maria,” said Suzy. “This relationship you have with her. It’s… It’s something we two could never share...” her voice was incredibly pained and tender, trembling with emotion and on the verge of crying, which contrasted completely with her gleefully mocking expression. It was uncanny, to hear her voice so mismatch her body language and expression, like an actor lip-synching to another dialogue.
“I want you to love me like you love her,” she continued in her sad voice. “I want to share this bond you both have. Please! I need you, Cody! I need you to insert your penis into one of my infinite number of vaginas, and then move in and out mechanically until...”
“Excuse me,” I interrupted her, “but is there any point to this chat or did you show up just to fuck with me?”
“What, literally?” She asked, eyes twinkling as her voice dropped all emotion and returned to its usual sardonic tone. “Heh, don’t worry, I’m kidding! And, in all honesty, I do have an important piece of information that I thought you should get before deciding anything else.”
“Oh?” I raised an eyebrow at her. “Ok then, dish it out. What’s the next horrifying thing you’re going to tell me.”
She opened her arms and smiled wider. “Congratulations! You’re a father!”
I blinked, quietly processing what she had just told me. Then I hung my head with a sigh. “Of course I am. Of course.” I hesitated, before asking, “the usual way, I suppose?”
“Yep. Nine month from now, give or take, she’ll be giving birth to a little Cody,” said Suzy, smiling calmly as both of us focused our attention on Maria, now mingling with her family. She was too distant to notice us at this point. “Isn’t that heartwarming? A little part of you will go on, even after humanity dies.”
A shiver went down my spine which had nothing to do with the cold of the night air. It was all too easy to imagine a son or daughter being born in this tiny Florida town on the brink of the extinction of my species. It would be raised to worship Dagon and not even knowing of their father except through distant stories. And, when the time was right, it would become a hybrid and join its ancestors in worshipping Dagon from beneath the waves.
“If you wanted, I could spare you,” said Suzy, interrupting my thoughts. I focused back on her.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“If you wish, I can spare you from the end of the world,” she repeated. She was smiling again, but not her usual wolfish grin. It was more subdued, harder to read. She was looking straight at me. “You could stay here. Live with her. Raise a family and become part of the community. Happily ever after. That is an option I am giving you.”
After a moment of hesitation, I looked back at the families enjoying themselves on the shore. Both human and hybrids shared the same excitement of this reunion. They may have been inhuman in ancestry, but their laughter, the way they joked and gestured and shared that excitement of reuniting with their family, it reminded me of my own family reunions, back when I was younger. Of christmases and thanksgivings with too many people, lots of food and drinks, all compressed into a couple of days of celebration, madness and the feeling of togetherness that only a family could create.
“You wondered why I brought you here, when you wanted to find out how to survive the end of the world. Well, here it is,” she gestured at the shore and the Children of Dagon gathered there. “A world after the end of the world.”
I responded, after a moment of silence. “No, I think I’ll pass.”
“Are you sure?” She asked, sarcasm creeping into her voice again. “It’s not too late for us to have a love triangle. I make a great hypotenuse!”
“Absolutely,“ I replied emphatically. There was no way to tell if she was serious or not, but the last thing I needed is for her to tease Maria some more.
“I figured you’d say that.” Suzy’s smile had an edge like the blade of a guillotine. “Let me guess. You need to ‘save all of humanity’ or something like that.”
“This is not about my own survival,” I muttered.
“Of course it isn’t,” she replied, her grin widening maliciously. “It never was.”
Uncertain, I looked back at the shore. I saw Gwen, the High Priestess’ daughter, walking angrily away from her family. I saw Maria greeting others while holding her two children close to her. She kissed the head of her youngest gently. I saw the people that would inherit the world, if humanity was purged.
“They’re not bad people,” I said. “But… I have to do more. There’s more people I need to save.”
“You cannot save them all, Cody,” replied the Queen in Yellow.
“If you think I’m quitting that easily, then you really don’t know me, miss scary yellow sign goddess,” I said back, jamming my hands in my pockets and staring at her defiantly. She looked back with open amusement.
“No, you never know when to give up, do you? Whether surrounded by people trying to kill you in a theater or when trying to save the world... You never give up.” She looked at me judgingly. “Some would call that the essence of heroism.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” I replied. “Just like a superhero.”
“I would rather call it pig-headed stubborn idiocy in the face of reality,” she said, grinning wider.
“I prefer the first suggestion,” I replied, unfazed.
She chuckled, then offered her hand to me. “Onwards to the next option then,” she said. “Take my hand.”
On the shore, families held hands, hugged and shared their lives in a moment of pure human warmth, despite half their number not even looking human. Instead, here I was, grabbing the human-looking hand of an eldritch god. And the next moment, we were not even there.