I told myself I needed to become stronger. To become hardened and ready to make the necessary sacrifices, if I am to save the world. I need to stop shrinking away from the monsters hiding in the darkness, stop whimpering and cowering whenever faced with them. I need to learn to face the monsters. Look them in the eye without flinching and learn what I can, fight those who mean me harm, and become stronger.
I must do this, I told myself, for the sake of saving the world. Over and over, like a mantra, I had repeated these words for the past week, up to this moment. For the sake of saving the world, I would watch and do nothing.
Now, as I stood on a forest clearing at the top of a hill, with the wind blowing softly as it chilled me to the bone, the mantra was all that kept me from breaking down. The night sky yawned over me, covered with so many stars. You couldn’t see so many from the city, but we were closer to a small town, and had taken an hour’s drive away to this place, supposedly holy to their patron goddess.
Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat In the Woods with a Thousand Young, was probably getting ready for her next living human beings buffet, I thought ruefully and bit on my tongue before saying something I shouldn’t. For the sake of saving the world.
Her buffet was now getting busy taking their places on the clearing. Some talked quietly in small groups, private conversations in a more reserved tone than usual. Others preferred to be alone during their final moments, including to my surprise, Amanda. She was normally talking non-stop, always lively and full of energy as she brought something to your attention, told you her opinions on the most wide variety of subjects and questioned you mercilessly if given the opportunity. But tonight she sat in the lawn chair she had brought herself and said nothing. Did not even look at any of her companions, but sat there with a blank stare, half-muttering to herself. She was not the only one with this reaction, and the others, after a few brief words, respected their need for privacy in their final hours.
She approached me, hair covering most of her face as she kept her stare firmly on the ground as she walked up to me. She glanced up with a small smile and then looked down again. The waitress of the diner that I had chatted with, that night. We hadn’t talked much since, and I was almost grateful for that.Of all deaths that would happen tonight, hers pained the most. I knew her best, and the more I knew, the more it hurt to say goodbye.
I suppose, in circumstances like these, ignorance is bliss.
“I guess this is it,” she said, looking down at her feet as she said it.
“I guess it is,” I replied. The silence that followed was as awkward as our first words, each waiting for the other to speak.
“I know you don’t like this,” she whispered to me at last. “But please, don’t be sad, ok? I chose this. This is what I want. And I want to go happily, without regrets. And without leaving sad people behind me.”
I shrugged. “Can’t help how I feel,” I said.
She hesitated, then spoke again. “Then… Thank you.”
“For what?” I asked.
“For caring about me,” she said back.
“I… I didn’t do anything for you. I don’t even know your name,” I replied, stopping myself before I said anymore. This was already dangerously close to too much. I had to shut up. For the sake of saving the world.
“Lisa,” she said. “Don’t bother with my last name. Just Lisa’s fine.”
“Oh, right. Lisa,” I said, looking sheepishly at her. Then I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself down. “Alright, I’ll remember that. I’ll carry your name on, past tonight. I’ll remember it.”
“So long as it’s a good memory,” she replied, scuffing the ground with her left shoe as she awkwardly avoided my gaze.
I opened my mouth to reply, to reassure her, but it felt false. Trite. What words do you say to someone who is about to die?
“My brothers and sisters,” spoke the Grandmaster, walking to the center and raising his hands to the sky, his expression somber. He was wearing a black suit with a black tie, as if dressed for a funeral. Everyone turned to face him, and hushed conversations grew silent in a heartbeat.
“I cannot thank you enough for your efforts the past few months,” he continued, his voice calm and measured. Deliberate. “For bringing hope to those who suffer on their final days, the poor and the sick of this dying world. You all brought them light, before the end. For comforting each other and giving us all courage to make it here. And for the selflessness… And the willingness to sacrifice yourselves for the future of our world. There can be no greater cause to give your lives to. And yet...”
At this point he stopped, hesitated and wringed his hands nervously, breaking the mask of calm he had been wearing previously.
“Yet I feel the cost is too high. Tonight the greatest people I’ve known will be taken from this world, and I will be left behind, with only my duty to help the others. To guide and save them, however I can. Or to watch them die if I fail. It is a terrible burden… And I do not wish it upon anyone here. I don’t want it for myself.”
Another moment of hesitation. Then the Grandmaster seemed to steel himself, regaining his courage.
‘But still, someone has to!” He announced. “Someone has to make the hard decisions, and walk the path that entails! And... After all I’ve asked of you, I cannot bring myself to push this burden onto anyone else. No, this will be mine to bear. And I owe it, for the sake of your sacrifices, to make the best of it. I promise you, the future I will bring forth will be grander and more beautiful than anything you could imagine. I owe you nothing less.”
There was no applause, no cheers this time. But all listening grew calm and resolved, Some took a deep breath. Lisa ventured a smile, in equal parts painful and joyful. She seemed to accept her fate then.
So that is what you spoke to someone who is about to die. I made a face and walked back close to Suzy. Somehow in all this madness she is the one I could rely on. I could not bear to attach myself any more to the others. She grinned at me, hands firmly inside the pockets of her yellow hoodie, but said nothing.
Everyone took their place in a circle without speaking a word. Even the noise of the crickets and birds from the woods surrounding us seemed to grow silent. The air was thick with anxious anticipation, and I could taste metal in my own mouth as I swallowed nervously.
And that is when she came.
With a sibling song, made from no instrument or vocal cord I knew, yet it spoke to me so deeply I was awestruck when I heard it, and almost moved to tears. And from the sky - no, from the stars themselves - came long, winding tendrils or tentacles, impossibly long, stretching cosmic distances in ways I could not comprehend. They reached down to our miserable little clearing in the woods and each opened its maw, revealing a hungry dark interior that sucked the air as it reached towards its targets, the people in the circle.
As the delicious singing continued, the members of the cult, one by one, walked to the tentacle mouths without looking back, calm to the last one, swallowed whole. I saw Claire and Adams, the faithful couple, walk towards one of the hungry mouths while holding their hands, together at the end. Until another mouth, impatient, grabbed the husband and pulled him away, swallowing him up the tube and separating him from his wife who was devoured soon after. But it did not feel ugly or grim to see these people be swallowed whole. Indeed it felt right. To feed something as beautiful and wise as this glorious creature, singing from beyond the stars, indeed I suddenly regretted that I could not go with them. I regretted that I had missed this opportunity to give my life for Shub-Niggurath, and all her…
I was grabbed suddenly by Suzy, who pulled her close to me, and the singing stopped. No, it was there, but barely audible, and I realized with a sickened shudder what my thoughts had been only a few moments ago. Thoughts which were not my own.
“Back off, bitch,” said Suzy, grinning at the tentacles stretching into the night sky. “This one’s MINE!”
I wrapped my arms around Suzy, clinging to her. Terrified that, if I were to let go the singing would resume. The dreadful singing that called to me, bringing with it such terrible joy that was the death of all reason. The death of the mind. I hugged Suzy as tightly as I could, wrapping my arms around her slim waist as I closed my eyes and refused to let go.
Even the fake heartbeat of the King in Yellow, to me, seemed better that the inhuman call of Shub-Niggurath, that abomination that hungrily devoured the remaining cultists. I prayed that it would end and I hugged Suzy even tighter, so much I feared her ribs would break. She seemed frail, as I suddenly held her. Too frail.
It was over. There was no denouement, no brief sound of the tentacles fading into the distance. It was as if, suddenly, the creature had never been here. There was no blood on the grass, not even a shoe or a fallen knick-knack. Of the people that previously crowded the clearing only three now stood - of the rest there was no trace. I realized I was still clinging firmly to Suzy and broke away, out of fear as much as self-consciousness, and glanced at the other survivor, the Grandmaster of the cult.
He was looking at the sky, increasingly confused and thoroughly human.
“I… I don’t understand,” he said, looking down to us briefly. “She… She was supposed to ascend me into greatness...”
The remaining abomination, Suzy, chuckled to herself. “She sometimes forgets to pay her followers. It happens.”
The Grandmaster shot Suzy a look of abject terror and desperation, so unlike his previous calm. In response Suzy sighed before walking to the center of the clearing and taking her hands out of her pockets and cupping them around her mouth.
“Oi! Shubby! You’re forgetting something!”
Another tentacle descended from the stars, this time unaccompanied by singing, and it only briefly opened its maw before spitting a gob of glowing fluid at the Grandmaster, who yelped in surprise as he fell with the force of the impact. The tentacle spat another gob at him, almost as an afterthought, before quickly vanishing from existence.
In the silence that followed, the sound of crickets and other night animals slowly returned to the forest. No other announcements or changes were made.
“No fucking way… Is that it?” I asked, my voice trembling slightly.
“Shubby is… A simple creature,” explained Suzy, turning back towards me. “Not a great conversationalist. But at least she did her part of the bargain. After a little prodding.” She rolled her eyes mockingly after saying that.
“So is this it? Is the grandmaster…?” I let the question hanging in the air, unable to complete it.
“Let’s go check,” said Suzy, walking up to the slumped body of the Grandmaster and peering down curiously at him. After a moment of hesitation I followed her.
The Grandmaster was slumped on the grass, half of his suit melted off showing… Something underneath. A multitude of growths that spread over his body, covering his eyes and most of his face, as well as a good portion of his flesh. The growths seemed fleshy in parts, ending in rounded bulbs, while others were hardened protrusions that resembled coral growth, and others yet reminded me of fungus or some kind of plant taking root over his flesh. I felt my stomach heave and steeled myself to keep its contents inside, taking deep breaths. What lied down on the ground had the rough shape of a person, but formed of mismatched and misshapen tissue, bone and material I could not even name. A hodgepodge creature. There was no recognisable biology on what was spreading over his body, it was something alien which the conscious mind revolted at comprehending.
Without warning the creature that had been the Grandmaster sat up, without even drawing breath beforehand. I took a step back, startled, but Suzy remained in place. The creature surveyed its surroundings for a moment with its eyeless face, before opening an orifice on the lower half of its face, revealing an inhuman inside devoid of teeth or tongue.
“I’m SO hungry right now,” said the Grandmaster, his voice still strangely similar to normal, despite the rest of his appearance..
Ten minutes later we were still in the middle of the woods, talking with the Grandmaster as he feasted on the carcass of a deer he had hunted by himself. He hadn’t even bothered using a gun, instead asking us for five minutes before stalking into the woods and returning with a bloodstained deer carcass in his arms… Or whatever he had in the place of arms.
“So, how does it feel to be a weird-looking mutant?” I asked casually, sitting on a rock next to him as he ate.
“Fledgling god,” corrected Suzy, in equally casual tone. The difference between us is that my calm was obviously forced, a mask. Hers was absolutely confident.
“I feel stronger and more aware than before,” he spoke in between mouthfuls of raw meat, which he chewed with gusto, somehow, blood dripping down what would be its chin. “I also see more and understand… Yes, I understand so much. My eyes are now open, the eyes within. And I have so much to learn. So much to… Explore.”
“What about your personality?” I asked, squinting at the creature. One thing was for certain, the Grandmaster was no longer human.
“My memories are still here,” he replied. “It’s hard to say with certainty, but… I still feel like myself. No changes there.” He seemed satisfied with his own answer and took another healthy bite of raw deer that caused a bit of blood to spray out, to my dismay.
“How can we know for certain that it’s still you?” I asked, cautious, still trying valiantly to hold onto my lunch. He continued chewing while pondering my question.
“Are you still the same person you were two weeks ago? Or two years ago?” He shrugged, an odd movement that put one of his shoulders covered in round growths higher than the other. “A question for the philosophers. I have changed, but I am still me.”
“I remember saying something similar, on occasion,” added Suzy, smiling at me. “Change is inevitable, Cody.”
The Grandmaster turned to face Suzy, despite the lack of anything resembling eyes, and pondered for another moment, chewing.
“When I said I can see more and understand more, that also means I can see there is something inside you, behind your mask, Suzy… Tch. If that ridiculous name is really yours..”
Suzy only smiled sweetly at him. “I quite like that name,” she replied.
The new Grandmaster seemed to actually shrink back slightly at this. “ I warn you,” he growled. “I am no easy prey anymore. I am now one of the children of Shub-Niggurath, and if you...”
“Yeah, I know. Don’t worry about it,” replied Suzy with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Not planning on getting in your way. This whole trip here’s just a lesson for my student.”
Both of them focused on me.
“Very educational. Learning tons,” I deadpanned, trying not to look too intently at the Grandmaster or his meal.
“The death of my followers and my personal journey. My sacrifices, all being used as some kind of BLOODY field trip?” He hissed, and it was my turn to flinch back. There was something eerie about the way he moved and spoke, it unnerved me. But I gathered my courage and stared back at him.
“Was it worth it?” I asked. My question immediately put out the fire in the conversation, plunging both of us into a somber mood. The Grandmaster hesitated before finally replying.
“I will make it all worthwhile.”
“How?” I asked again, a note of anxiety creeping into my voice. I wanted to hear his answer more than anything right now, the one question burning in my mind. The way to save people from this oncoming doom, truly save them and make a difference, instead of dooming them to a terrible life or ignoring the world for the sake of my own survival. The one burning question that refused to be answered. Despite Suzy’s best efforts. Or because of them.
“I have a plan. I will tell you later,” replied the Grandmaster, getting up from his crouch still carrying the half-eaten carcass with his hands. “For now I think it’s time we part ways. I need to think. Alone.”
I could barely suppress my irritation as I asked him, “any reason why we can’t do this now? Why stretch out the suspense?”
“No offense, but I don’t trust either of you and your secrets,” said the Grandmaster, calmly walking away into the woods now, without even looking back. “But I guarantee one thing, their sacrifice will NOT be in vain. We can meet here tomorrow evening, same place. I will share my plan with you then.”
The misshapen creature that once was the Grandmaster walked calmly into the woods, blood trailing from the carcass on its hands. There it crouched and, after a tense moment, jumped in an explosion of movement, quickly vanishing into the darkness. The trail of blood, visible in the moonlight, vanished at the spot where he had jumped.
“So, this is what you wanted to show me? After all this buildup, is turning into a gross monster how we save mankind?” I asked at Suzy in a bitter tone.
“Great things can have small beginnings,” she replied.
“Spare me, I’ve had enough cryptic nonsense for one day,” I spat, getting up from the rock I was sitting on to pace further. I stepped on something and noticed, with a delayed reaction, that it was a piece of meat from the deer that had fallen on the ground, and now stained the bottom of my shoe with blood. My stomach, further unsettled, finally gave up on its battle and heaved its contents out, where I threw up on the fresh grass of the forest, holding onto a tree for support.
“Let me put it in simple terms for you then,” said Suzy while I was too busy being sick to argue back. “Now that he has ascended, the Grandmaster has the power to change the world. Given enough time, in the right circumstances, he might even gain as much power as to rival me.”
“And all that power in exchange only for a bunch of people’s lives. Hardly two dozen. What a great deal,” I muttered sarcastically in between gulping for air.
“Is that what’s on your mind?” Asked the Queen in Yellow. I held onto the tree for support, but it wasn’t only my recent bout of vomiting that made me feel like I was about to fall over.
“I don’t think I can do it,” I muttered, quiet, more to myself than anyone. “After what I’ve seen tonight… No. No, I can’t do it. I can’t sacrifice people for my own sake. Not like that. Even if it means saving people… I can’t do that.”
I told myself I would become stronger, for the sake of saving the world, but now that resolve was gone. Puked out, along with my dinner.
“It’s your choice, Cody,” said Suzy, calm as ever. “Does that mean you are ready to stand by and watch the world die?”
I took a deep breath, my eyes fixed on the ground stained with vomit and blood, but no other trace that a large group of people once stood on this clearing, waiting to die. But no matter how hard I thought, there was no good answer to her question.