Tracy lay face down on the floor of the diner, turned towards the door that went to the kitchen. Probably tried to run, but was unsuccessful. There was blood pooling under her body, staining her waitress’ apron red and making her dropped notebook soggy with blood. She would never deliver those notes to the kitchen anymore.
The door was open enough to see the state of the kitchen. It was a gruesome mess, food, blood and broken cookware strewn everywhere. One could see the body of the cook slumped next to the oven, which was an old, rusty monstrosity covered in old stains and fresh blood, with a hose still hooked to a huge propane tank beside it. There was a gash on the propane tank, as if it had been slashed by a grizzly bear, and the smell of gas spilling from the kitchen almost masked the smell of blood. Almost.
The rest of the diner didn’t fare much better. There were three other corpses sprawled on tables or on the floor, none of them moving. One was being attended to by one of the Grandmaster’s servants, the girl with bangles on her arms. She was crouched and fiddled with the body until she was satisfied with the outcome and got up, still smiling serenely. She seemed at peace.
Tracy, the waitress, did not look at peace. Her final look was one of shock. Or maybe not so final, if the growths on her body were a sign of things to come. They grew on top of her wounds, like weeds on fresh soil, growing fast with their alien tenacity. She could not have been dead for more than half an hour and already it was spreading at an alarming rate. I knew that soon she would be getting up again, and joining her attackers in new fellowship.
Would she still be curious and prying? And embarrassed of her own curiosity? Would she still have the same smile, bursting with energy?
“Ah, the two followers of the Yellow Sign return!” Said the Grandmaster, walking from the entrance of the diner and greeting us reverently with outstretched hands. His bony claws were covered in blood, up to the elbows. “Have you finally decided…?”
“Shut the fuck up, you eldritch turd!” I interrupted, getting up with a burst of motion and marching at him, trembling with fury. “If I have to hear one more of your fucking smarmy speeches I’m gonna… Fuck! Just, just shut UP!”
The Grandmaster deflated at my tone, taking a step back as I continued.
“You arrogant FUCK! Attacking a place full of people without even having the common fucking decency of waiting for us to leave! And for what?! To turn them into fodder for your new fucking cult?”
“They will be saved! When the world ends, they will be spared!” Said the Grandmaster, raising his hands defensively.
“And we all agree with our Master,” added his female follower, coming to her master’s side standing protectively in front of him. “Because we owe him one, and we’re lucky to have a chance to live. We just want to spread this chance to the others! Is that so bad?”
I glared at the follower, then back at the Grandmaster. Without turning my head, I raised my voice and asked, “Hey, Suzy! Are these guys completely, 100% themselves or not? No cryptic bullshit! Just explain to me, why is it that suddenly two normal people are suddenly ok with killing and infecting people with an alien virus for the sake of their new religion?”
I hear Suzy snigger. “Well, they’re not lying when saying their personalities and memories are still mostly the same. But… Yeah. There were changes. They were made loyal to their new savior, biologically as well as psychologically. For them, to love the Grandmaster and their fellow kin is as natural a process as breathing air. And about as hard to stop doing, I imagine.”
“To promote harmony and understanding!” Pleaded the Grandmaster, frantically. “To prevent the newly converted from harming each other or ruining our plans! But they are still saved…!”
“Oh, of course! Of - fucking- course!” I shouted, interrupting him again. “You couldn’t be content with leading a bunch of poor fools to their deaths, now you need a new cult to order around and feel so special! Of course! And why not, now that you have all that power in your hands?!”
The Grandmaster seemed to change his demeanor, leaning forward subtly and tensing his arms and hands. His follower beside him glared at me and I heard steps coming from the kitchen, blocking our other exit. Surrounding us.
“You do not have to agree with my methods,” he spoke stiffly, in a bad attempt at sounding diplomatic, “but you do not have any say or power over me and my new brethren. So, please, leave and...”
He was interrupted again, not by words, but by laughter. I laughed my ass off for a full minute there, clutching at my sides and wheezing between howls of laughter. Whenever he tried to interject I laughed even harder, forcing him to stop. It was a long process before I eventually my sides were hurting so much I had to stop.
“No power over you? You really think so?” I barked a short laugh, leering at the Grandmaster. “Buddy, you’re fucked! You’re so fucked you don’t even know how fucked you are! Hey, Hastur! Fuck him up for me, will ya?”
“... No,” replied Hastur in a mild tone. It took a few seconds for me to even register that was all the response I was getting from her.
“Wait, what? Why not? Are you afraid of this piece of shit? You can totally kick his alien-looking ass, I know it!” I turned my head and pleaded at her, but she looked as calm and unconcerned as ever.
“I can, indeed, kick his alien-looking ass without spending much effort,” agreed Suzy with a lazy shrug. “But... Well, the problem is that he's not a regular ole human anymore. He’s one of Shub-Niggurath’s children now.”
“So?” I asked, as the triumphant glee I just felt sank deep in the pit of my stomach. I did not feel like laughing anymore.
“So, if I hurt even one of her children I’ll never hear the end of it! Ugh!” She rolled her eyes with an exasperated expression. “Have you ever had to deal with a helicopter mommy when her kid is hurt? ‘Oh how could you!’ this and ‘my sweet baby’ that… She has thousands of children! Literally thousands, across the universe! So you’d think she would be fine with us killing one or two off, but nooo! If I kill this guy now I’ll NEVER hear the end of it! She’ll nag and whine until the cows come home and Cthulhu rises from the depths… And there’s not enough booze in my office! Hell, I don’t even have an office! Anyways, count me out of this one!”
I looked at her like a deer at the headlights. Of a monster truck. And then looked back at the Grandmaster. The silence that followed was, in a word, tense. If I could use two words instead, they would be oh shit…
“So...” Spoke the Grandmaster at last, his voice now full of menace. “It seems it is you who have misjudged your own power. I have been blessed by my goddess, she protects me, even now! You, on the other hand, are still human. Only human. How… pathetic.”
I took a step back as well as a deep breath. But no time to back down, not here and not now. Not in front of this guy.
I did not dare take my eyes off the Grandmaster and his… No, not followers. ‘Slaves’ would be a better word. So instead I turned my head slightly and asked her, “hey Suzy! If I kill this guy will the eldritch soccer mom come after me too?”
“Oh, you? Nah, no way.” She gave a dismissive handwave. “She gets mad when someone like me bullies her sweeties. But you? It’s like a human dying from a bee sting, more of a freak accident than something to swear revenge on.”
I tensed when she said those words, glancing quickly at the counter close to me. Pencils, plates, bits of food, a cheap cigarette lighter, a butter knife that was too small and too dull… There! A sharp kitchen knife lying on the floor close to me. I dove down to grab it, arming myself, but when I got up again, the Grandmaster had already jumped on the counter, inches away from me.
“Something like you? Kill me?” He said, staring at me with his eyeless face covered in bony and fibrous growths. “A freak accident, indeed.”
I barely had the time to attempt a quick slash as I took a step back, but the creature grabbed my arm mid-swing with barely any effort, and crushed my wrist until the bone snapped and I howled in pain, with as little effort as before. Blood seeped from between his fingers, along with bits of my pulped flesh.
“Do not fret,” said the Grandmaster, raising his voice to be heard over my screams of pain. “You can still join me after you become one of us.”
His other claw raked through my face, blinding me as I felt my own blood spurt and cover my face and torso. It was warm, as it soaked my shirt and ran down my neck, and pain flared on my head…
… And faded. I blinked away the blood and confusedly realized that I was not hurting as much as it felt I should. In fact, I felt fine. My arm, previously crushed, didn’t hurt either and when I pulled away it came free, completely unwounded although slick with blood. The Grandmaster seemed stunned, and for once, at loss for words.
“Ah, I feel like I should explain,” said Suzy, as nonchalant as ever. She sat on the bar counter a few feet away from us and idly kicked with her feet as she continued. “I said I wouldn’t kill you or hurt you, and I mean it. Shubbie is gonna annoy the crap out of me otherwise. But don’t confuse that with me sitting on my pretty ass and doing nothing.”
She simpered at that line, a bit too theatrically, but her eyes betrayed her. They were cold and merciless. “Cody’s my follower,” she said. “And I will not see him harmed.”
In the brief moment of silence that followed I lunged and tried to stab him with the kitchen knife again, grasping at this opportunity with a frantic, last-ditch effort. The knife barely sunk an inch on his head before stopping, stuck, as if it had struck a thick plank of solid wood. Barely a trickle of black sludge oozed from the cut, and the Grandmaster did not respond to my attack. He did not even flinch.
With a similar lack of emotion he raised his right fist and brought it down on my head like a hammer. I felt the impact, so strong my vision darkened and I heard the sound of my own skull cracking open, covering my shoulders with gore. Then I blinked, opened my eyes again and my head was fine. I was now covered in blood, enough I should not have been alive, but I never felt better. Not even a headache.
“It appears… We are at an impasse,” spoke the Grandmaster softly. The knife remained embedded on his head, which tilted towards Suzy. “Is it true then? Are you truly the one they call the King in Yellow?”
“No need to be formal, Suzy is fine by me,” she replied, smiling wider. There was an awkward silence, as the Grandmaster struggled to reply.
“I apologize for this misunderstanding,” he said at last, grabbing my arms with his lightning-fast claws before I could react. I struggled, but it was useless. His strength was far above my own.
“I return your follower to you, and promise not to harm him any further,” he spoke, his tone much humbler than before. “If I have given offense, then I will do all I can to make amends. I do not wish for us to become enemies.”
“Meh.” Suzy shrugged. “No harm done, so don’t worry about it.”
“I am glad to hear that,” spoke the Grandmaster, bowing his head. “And, if I could convince you to take him to another place, where he would not hurt himself or disturb what I am trying to do… I do not mean to impose, of course, but I could repay the favor in some way… You need only ask.”
Suzy laughed at that, as if he had said something funny. “Nah, it’s ok. We were about to leave anyways.”
“I am happy to hear that. It is a wise decision, that - ”
“Fuck that!” I shouted, interrupting their conversation. “Look, I’m not leaving this place! I changed my mind, I’m not resting until this fucker gets his payback!”
“Amazing how he can still be so… Spirited.” Commented the Grandmaster, lifting me up by my arms and inspecting me. “And he thinks he can influence you?”
“We are very close,” she replied with visible self-satisfaction. “Isn’t he a darling?”
“Stop talking about me like I’m not in the fucking room!” I shouted, struggling against his grasp. “And let go of me, you piece of -”
He opened his claws and unceremoniously let me drop on the floor. I let out a yelp as I landed, then gingerly got up and rubbed the part of my butt that was sore from where it hit the ground. I glared at the Grandmaster, but it’s hard to look intimidating with a bruised ass.
“You are completely powerless, and the only reason you are not dead is because your god - or goddess - wills it.” He gestured meaningfully at Suzy, who bowed her head in acknowledgement. “But you have no power to hurt me, it is useless to even try. Leave. You have no power to accomplish anything else.”
“Funny, how you’re bragging about all the power you have” I scoffed. “When not even three days ago you were a normal human being. Just like I am right now. All that separates you and me is a stupid little ritual… Oh, and a bunch of sacrifices. Let’s not forget THAT little detail, hmm?”
The Grandmaster withdrew, and hesitated before speaking. “If… You are considering ascending like I have...”
“I spent the WHOLE last fucking week!” I exploded. “The whole. Fucking. Week! Trying to steel myself. Telling myself I had to be stronger. Had to be less soft. Worry less about morals, and compassion. The whole fucking week! Telling myself there was no other way, that I HAD to become more like you in order to save the world! Hah! Can you believe that? Guilting myself over the people that are going to die if I do nothing… But FUCK it! I’ve made my choice now! If becoming a monster like you is what it takes to save the world, then let it die! I prefer seeing the world be destroyed then having it be inherited by assholes like you, building yourself as a god on top of the corpses of those sacrificed for your sake! And I’d rather die than become like you!”
“You don’t have what it takes,” said the Grandmaster, visibly calming down. He was back in control. “The willpower to do what is necessary to save the world. I have, on the other hand. And I can save people. What can you do?”
“I can stop pieces of shit like you,” I spat back at him, without flinching, without a weapon, and my butt still sore from the fall.
“Empty words, from a weak man,” replied the Grandmaster, disdainfully. “You can do NOTHING.”
I said nothing, glaring at the creature in front of me, without eyes or face, yet showing so much smug disdain for such things as compassion and basic, fucking, decency. Thinking himself above these things, above the judgement of others.
“Hey, Suzy,” I shouted again at her without turning my head. Still staring intently at the Grandmaster. “You said you won’t let me come to harm, right? That I’m yours and that’s it?”
“More or less, yes,” said Suzy, with a small smile. “Ya know… For a given value of ‘harm’.”
“Good enough,” I said, quickly snatching the crappy plastic cigarette lighter that was forgotten on the counter. I flicked it, praying that it would work the first time, and it did. The little flame lit up, and I smiled back at the Grandmaster, a little more wide and manic than my usual grin.
“Let’s see how empty these words are!” I said. He lunged at me, but it was too late. With a flick of my wrist I sent the lighter behind me into the kitchen, next to the oven and the gas canister, which was still leaking and permeating the diner slowly with cooking gas.
The explosion was more felt than heard. A burst of hot air, knocking me off my feet and throwing me against the counter. A sensation of intense pressure, enveloping me. And then… Darkness.
It was like waking up after drinking too much. Opening your eyes, feeling your head fuzzy and full of fog, as you duly try to remember where you are. Then the memory hits you, and you scramble to get up. When I did so, rubble and rocks were scattered away from me as I lifted my head and frantically looked around.
The destruction was illuminated by the parts of the diner that were still on fire, as well as by the distant lights of the city and the night sky. The ceiling was mostly gone, as well as half of the walls, which were burnt and broken revealing pieces of the construction metal mesh emerging from the concrete. There were no signs of life.
“For someone who’s super grumpy with everything I do, you really put a lot of trust in me, don’t you?” Said a feminine voice behind me. “Really though, I’m honored! It’s not every day that someone stakes their lives on my words.”
“More of a gamble, really...” I muttered while rubbing my head, which was so covered with dust that my motions created a small grey cloud that made me cough. Another thought came rushing to me. “Wait! The Grandmaster! Where is he?!”
I scanned my surroundings again, but there was too much destruction and debris covering everything. I didn’t even know in what state his corpse would be like.
“He fled,” said Suzy. “His followers are all dead, and you wounded him too. Despite his boasting, he is not yet untouchable. But he still clings to life, and to the hope of becoming a god one day.”
“Yeah, we’re not letting that happen,” I groaned, trying to get up despite all the rubble covering me. There was something heavier on one of my legs and despite my struggling it wouldn’t budge. I was trapped. “Umm, a little help here?” I pleaded.
“No,” she replied casually, taking a few more steps amid the rubble and entering my field of vision. She was, of course, unharmed. There wasn’t even any dust on her yellow hoodie. I stopped struggling to get out and looked at her.
“What do you mean, ‘no’?”
She turned and smiled at me silently for a moment, her eyes almost orange from the light of the fires surrounding us.
“I’m disappointed in you, Cody. To refuse completely any chance of ascending? To embrace your own weakness so thoroughly? That’s a step back. Towards powerlessness and passivity as the world burns around you.”
“More like a step towards being a decent, fucking person!” I scoffed, tugging at my leg again, to no avail.
“Morality is useless without power,” she replied, walking closer as she spoke. “Not only is morality a personal, insubstantial thing, but you cannot even enforce it without the strength to back it up. Yet to refuse this strength, just because of a little mass murder? You wallow in your own weakness? Take pride in it?” She tutted in a mocking tone, like a disappointed teacher.
“Still managed to kick his ass, didn’t I?” I muttered, looking for something I could use for leverage to free me from the debris.
She smiled at that. “True,” she said. “Alright then, let’s make a bet. If you are so certain you can do alright without any power of your own, let’s see how you do without my help. I will still keep you safe from all harm. Don’t worry, I’m not that mean.” She winked. “But no helping with your little revenge quest anymore. Not even with friendly advice. If you can still defeat the wounded Grandmaster with only your own strength, I will have been proven wrong. And I will never refuse anything you ask of me ever again, if it’s within my power.”
I narrowed my eyes. “And if I can’t defeat him on my own?”
“Then I get the greatest prize of all,” she said, smiling wider. “The chance to say ‘Ha ha! I was right!’ Out loud. In your face.”
“Great...” I grumbled, reaching for a broken pipe that was almost out of reach. After testing its sturdiness, I leveraged it against a rock and pulled as hard as I could, trying to dislodge my foot.
“Remember,” added Suzy. “If you need my help, all you have to do is ask nicely! And admit I am right, of course.” She smiled sweetly.
With a final grunt of effort I managed to lift the debris enough to pull my leg out. I was panting from the effort and the dust made me cough again, but I still smiled afterwards. “No thanks,” I told her. “I’m doing alright.”
At that moment I heard the sirens approaching. I got up and saw a police car screeching to a halt right in front of the remains of the diner. From the car jumped out a middle-aged policeman and another, younger deputy. They took a few steps to the diner and then looked around, in shocked disbelief.
“What the hell happened here?” Asked the older policeman, eyes wide with fear. “And what are YOU doing here?” He added, accusation now creeping in his voice.
Suzy looked at me with a polite smile, but said nothing.
“Uhh… I can explain everything,” I said.
I couldn’t explain everything.