There are secret things and secret places in this world that infringe upon the boundaries that separate it from the Other Side and what lies beyond. Sometimes it’s a place of recurrent atrocity that touches upon some aspect of one of the many underworlds, sometimes it’s an object that resonates with the vibrations of an elemental plane. And sometimes a piece of the Other Side finds itself over here, ripped away by unseen, alien hands and placed for alien reasons in our world. I’ve come to expect these occurrences in small-towns, which in my not inconsiderable experience are magnets for strange events and happenings. I couldn’t be entirely sure why; maybe it has something to do with the sheer, banal concentration of humanity in larger cities that keeps the Other away. But I’ve seen enough in the valley to know if I were a smarter person I would’ve moved the hell out a long time ago.
But I’m not a smart person, and I doubt I could leave the valley even if I wanted to. Not with the way things have been going around Hanford lately. Small town strangeness keeps getting stranger. Ever since the Sleeper debacle and my acquiring of the Libro Nihil it’s been a madhouse, probably not least of which because Devlin Desmund was no longer around to keep the peace between the disparate factions of Others. His death left a power vacuum that Swift and I had been scrambling to fill. Even Uncle Satan had marshaled his people into a misfit militia, working around the clock to keep the less savory Others from boiling over and causing too much havoc. It had worked so far, but we couldn’t keep it up forever. At one point I thought I’d hold down a real job, like normal people do but I should’ve known that was doomed from the start–being anything but normal myself it was probably a bit foolish to even try.
So it was that I found myself with a rare moment to relax after settling a territory dispute between a raucous spirit of decay and a local grocer when Rosa burst into my room, shattering my peace. In my exhaustion, I’d forgotten to arm my defensive wards and charms against entry, and now it seemed I would pay the price.
“Brujo!” She hollered as she did most things. “Get your lazy ass up and get moving, muy malo out there; what do you think you’re doing?”
I blinked, slowly, two or three times and thought perhaps if I wished real hard I would disappear, or maybe she would. But it didn’t happen. Some slinger of cosmic forces I was. Instead she advanced and looked like she was about to take a swing at me. I might have flinched, maybe raised my arms to protect my head, but the blow never came.
“Dammit, brujo,” she said and her voice was quieter, layered with bone-deep exhaustion I couldn’t help but relate to. “There’s something crazy going on at work, I need you to take a look at it.” I heard her feet shuffle back, and quieter than before she said, “Por favor.”
There was a part of me that almost asked her to repeat that last bit, but it was an often times suicidal part and I shoved it back down in its place. Pushing myself up and out of my chair, wincing at the series of creaks and protestations my body let out, I reached over to flick on my desk lamp.
“Something happened at the hotel?” I began putting things in my pockets, my phone, a couple stumps of chalk, and a lighter. Anything to not look at Rosa, standing there in her housekeeper’s uniform, at the dark circles around her eyes that were still fierce and bright, defiant, despite the pall of fear that hung around her. Something had rattled her, something pretty bad. I’d seen her take swings at inhuman monstrosities literally twice her size without hesitating.
“Yeah, something. You got to come see, it’s…” I turned to look at her as her words trailed off, to see her struggling with what to say next. When she continued her tone was clipped, careful, “One of the girls is missing.”
Rosa scowled. “There’s something in one of the rooms. Something weird has been going on in there all week. Maricella, the other housekeeper, she went in there tonight…she never came back out.”
“The room ate her?”
“Ay dios, brujo I don’t know, that’s why I came to you.”
She really looked like she was about to hit me now, out of sheer frustration. My brain hummed. Rosa worked at a real scum dive, a cheap hotel on the east side of town by the freeway that was frequented by criminals and junkies, often used as a meeting and hunting ground for predators of the human and inhuman varieties. The manager, a sick bastard I’d had the displeasure of meeting once, took cash only and held his silence about the goings on at his establishment, and unless there was gunfire and explosions the cops typically steered clear. My first thought was that an Other had gotten sloppy, picked off one of the housekeepers, and would need aggressive persuading to vacate the premises. But, really, who knew?
“Did you check the room?” I asked.
“Not on your life, no.” She crossed herself and shook her head. “There’s something evil in there, brujo. I can feel it. It ain’t right.”
For all that she was a vanilla mortal, Rosa had sharp instincts, and had been exposed to the Other Side on more than one occasion. She knew what she was talking about.
“I’ll check it out. You’ll have to give me a ride, Swift’s out on business. I’ll meet you down at the car, okay?”
She nodded and left the room without another word, leaving me alone with my thoughts for a moment. No rest for the wicked, as the saying went. The town kept getting stranger, and the strange kept getting more dangerous. Something was coming, a storm, a catastrophe; I could only hope to be ready for it when it hit. Before leaving, I opened up the top right drawer of my desk and looked inside with a sigh at the lone object within.
A tiny, pocket bible sized book with a plain, black leather cover and worn out spine, faded with age.
The Libro Nihil.
“All right, you bastard,” I said as I reached down for the book. “Time to get to work.”
The Stardust Motel sat in a dirt lot at the end of a road heading east out of Hanford, and was the last stop in that direction before a wayward traveler found themselves on the north-south bound freeway. Two stories of dilapidated mess, the whole thing looked like it was minutes away from collapsing under its own ponderous weight. Built sometime in the fifties with that era’s taste for angles and curves, and a great big sign in sputtering neon blue hung from its façade, once upon a time it might have been a classy joint. But once upon a time had passed, and the decades since its last renovation were long gone. Now its bright, hopeful blues and whites had faded and become sickly yellows and greys that spoke volumes of the decay that permeated the place, of the rot that lingered around it. There was a curious range of cars in its lot, beaters and pickups and a conspicuous Mercedes parked next to a florist’s delivery van. Rosa and I sat across the street in her little hybrid, watching the place. It was near to sundown and nothing moved, everyone holed away in their rooms for a night of god only knew what.
“That’s Senor Wyzant’s car, the Mercedes he bought right after he said he couldn’t afford to give us raises.” Rosa’s scowl was incendiary. She would have made an amazing mage, had her cosmic cards been aligned right.
“Well I’m probably going to need you to distract him while I go figure out whatever it is that’s going on,” I said and gave myself a final pat down to make sure I had everything I thought I would need. “Which room did you say it was?”
“Two-oh-nine, brujo,” she said and flicked a hand towards the building. “Second floor, by the vending machine.”
“Oh, awesome.” I frowned. “Hey, uh, do you have a dollar?”
“I’m hungry, all right? Didn’t eat before we left.”
She muttered a string of elaborate curses and profanities in Spanish but produced a crumpled bill from a wad of cash in her purse. Not wanting to test my luck, I got out of the car and made a wide circle around the building, approaching it slowly, giving Rosa time to get out and make her way to the lobby at the front and the esteemed Mister Wyzant’s office.
I got that old, familiar itch as soon as my feet touched the gravel of the parking lot. The gnawing of tiny worms behind my eyes. The quiet squeal deep within my grey matter. Something very Other, and very wrong, was afoot. Moving in a shambling crouch and sticking to the deepening shadows, I hid myself behind a bush growing along the side of the building. In a room nearby someone was blasting death metal, the monstrous din muffled by distance and stucco, but it made a disconcerting backdrop to the vibes I was picking up from the building. With a blink and a held breath, I slid my vision across the Other Side, shivering at the sensation of a slender blade working its way between the hemispheres of my brain.
As I opened my eyes and let go my breath I looked up, at the second story, and began considering setting cleansing fire to the building as a reasonable option. Whatever it was in room 209, it was of a magnitude of wrong that I had rarely witnessed outside abstract cosmic forces. And that did not bode well.
That did not bode well at all.
Rays of what could not quite be described as light slid and rolled down the balcony walkway of the second story, greasy fractals that were hard to track, hard to look at for more than a few seconds without sending my primitive monkey brain into a gibbering panic. The door itself was a whorl of chaos, bulging out through the dimensions, something massive pressing up against the barrier between worlds, something stretching the fabric dangerously taut.
“What the hell?” I hissed and shut my vision down, getting back to normal. My eyes burned, and there was an alkaline taste in my mouth like I’d been sucking on a battery. “This isn’t cool. Not cool at all.”
I focused on the thunderous staccato coming from the nearby room and detached myself from the shadows behind the bush, sparing a glance towards the lobby in time to see Rosa talking to a gaunt, pallid man whose bald pate gleamed with sweat under the cheap fluorescents despite the cool of the coming evening. Satisfied she would keep him distracted I made my way to the stairs at the end of the building that led up to the second story. Every step was a quiet agony, as if walking into a searing wind that blistered my mind and tugged at my soul. A mage’s connection with the forces of creation is as much a burden as a blessing; while I can alter the flow of reality and bend it to my whim; those same forces alter me as well. And right now the whole ‘burn it down and consequences be damned’ idea was starting to sound better and better. A magical salvo of cosmic fire from across the street would be taxing, but I had a hard time believing anyone would really miss the Stardust when it was all over.
By the time I got to the landing at the second story I was out of breath, clutching at the guide rail of the stairs with a white-knuckled fist. Room 209 all but called out to me like a siren, monstrous, luring me to an unspeakable demise–if in some bizarre Homeric adaptation sirens were hotel rooms?
But for a change, simple human biology came to the rescue; my stomach growled and clenched, and I doubled over in a vicious hunger spasm.
“Okay,” I muttered and fished the crumpled dollar Rosa had given me out of my pocket. “Okay, maybe I should eat before opening the doorway to unknown horrors most foul.”
There was no telling how long any of the snacks in the vending machine had been there and I didn’t have the time or inclination to care. I had a bad habit of neglecting basic necessities, like eating, and later paying the price for it. Puny flesh bag. Fighting for my life against hideous otherworldly forces–not to mention slinging magic–was taxing, and hunger made a person weak, made them slow. I jammed the bill into the slot in the front of the machine and punched a couple keys corresponding to a large candy bar. Sustenance and sugar, cherish the simple pleasures.
The vending machine clanked and rattled, parts thunking and moving around in a series of spasmodic motions entirely too convoluted and slow for delivering a candy bar to a starving man. At last, the blessed thing dropped and I shoved my hand through the swinging gate at the bottom to catch my prize. I had the wrapper off and half the chocolate concoction stuffed in my mouth in the space between heartbeats, and was choking down the rest in the three steps it took to get from the vending machine to stand at last in front of the faded, battered door to Room 209.
My head pounded, my eyes watered. I beat my chest with a fist and gasped. Protip: don’t inhale food.
“Better,” I wheezed out.
But still my head throbbed and I became aware of warmth in my pocket. The Libro Nihil was waking up, reacting to whatever waited inside. Soon the little book felt like a hot coal pressed against my thigh–it was eager. That wasn’t good.
“Fine, let’s do this.” I stepped forward, reaching for the doorknob, but the door popped open as I did and swung inward on groaning hinges. That was never good, either. “All right, then.”
And like an idiot, I stepped inside.
Whatever it was I had been expecting when I passed over the threshold, a spacious, well-lit room with three-piece furniture set including a large bed that took up most the space and large flat screen TV mounted on the wall was not it. From the outside I figured I would be walking into a festering den of vermin, maybe even get real lucky and find a corpse putrefying in the corner with towers of refuse and unidentifiable stains on the walls and carpet, that kind of thing, not tasteful, pastoral prints on the walls and the lingering smell of lavender.
The whole space was lit by a pale light from a single fixture overhead, muting the shadows in the room and softening the edges of everything, giving it all a–dare I say it–otherworldly ambience.
It didn’t make sense. A symphony of tiny dental drills whined inside my skull and there was a palpable weight, a pressure to the air, a presence I couldn’t identify. I pulled out the Libro Nihil and ran my thumb along its spine. It responded with a tingle not unlike static electricity, the book vibrating in my hand, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was responding to whatever it was that was in the room with me.
Any minute the trap would spring and I would be fighting for my life and sanity against who knew what kind of abomination, I was sure of it. I began scanning the room, taking it all in; I didn’t dare shift across the spectrums to view the Other Side, I didn’t think I was prepared, let alone equipped for what I might see.
“What the hell are you doing, Thomas?” My voice came out sounding hollow and falling away.
I kept looking around, shuffling about with slow half-steps like I was walking through a minefield. All the while I scanned the walls, the TV, the bed. The cover on the bed was a pristine white, pure, a bizarre absence of all color that made it seem brighter than the light above. It was so white that the tiny black box on it appeared like a void in my vision.
I had been looking around for minutes, had swept my gaze over the bed a number of times, and I was certain there had been no fist-sized black box sitting serenely atop the covers of the bed a second ago. I stared at it, blinked, stared more and it was still there as if that was where it had been all along.
“Oh fuck you,” I said to it.
The box, of course, said nothing.
It was small enough to sit comfortably in the palm of my hand, and its sides were perfectly smooth, perfectly flat and reflected no light. It was so dark it almost seemed to be swallowing the light, and from the way it pressed into the mattress it must have weighed far more than it should for its size. The more I looked at it the more the inside of my skull whined and the backs of my eyes felt like ants were gnawing at them. It was definitely the culprit, whatever it was.
The Libro Nihil was shaking like a living thing in my hand and somehow managing to pull at me, like it was trying to get to the box.
“None of that now,” I growled and shoved the book back into my pocket. I barely understood the Libro Nihil, it had only been in my possession for a few months, but what I knew of it was that it was an item of monstrous, alien power and a sentience dwelt within it I couldn’t fathom. It was also the vessel the essences of an untold number of Others it had devoured in the long centuries of its existence.
If the Libro wanted the box–whatever the hell the box was–it probably wasn’t a good idea to let it have it.
“No way around it, then,” I said to the room. I had a bad habit of talking to empty spaces. “Let’s see what you’re all about.”
I shifted across the spectrums like pulling off a bandage, quick and with my teeth clenched together.
It was the sudden and overwhelming vertigo I was least prepared for, and for a few breathless moments I found myself fighting to stay on my feet as the world spun around me like a mad carnival ride. The room was gone, and from the looks of it, so was everything else.
Space surrounded me on all sides, the kind that was filled with stars. Except that it wasn’t. Filled, that is. There was endless darkness broken here and there by a fitful spot of light, like a pinprick in a vast black tapestry behind which a candle guttered feebly. Without thinking of the how or whys–those always came later, in my experience–I gasped as I spun about, wheeling free of gravity. It was the most elaborate, not to mention expansive, glamour I’d ever witnessed let alone experienced. Far, far off in the distance above me something moved and I craned my head to see a roiling disk of not-light, like I had seen in the hallway when I first arrived at the Stardust. It was spinning at a glacial pace, and at its heart lay a spot of darkness deeper than the void in which it spun, so massive I could feel its dread weight and gravity pulling at me. Gas and vapor and dust, the detritus of planets and other bodies hurtled into that cosmic maw.
A black hole, I was looking at a black hole.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” The voice came from right behind me, breath warm against the back of my neck.
I flailed and spun around, trying not to jump out of my skin, trying to raise my defenses and finding that my power felt as far away as the stars that flickered in the distance. It took some doing but I managed to stabilize myself but I finally turned around. For a glamour it felt entirely too much like I was hanging in space.
“It’s no glamour, Thomas,” the woman in front of me said. “You know that, you’re only now pushing past the fear to accept it.”
She was tall, a head and then some taller than myself, and she wore a trailing gown woven of a material the same color as the darkness that surrounded us, the same color as her eyes. Her skin was porcelain white, and it made her eyes seem as deep as the black hole that spun in its ravenous dance. She wasn’t beautiful, not by any stretch, but there was something about the sharp cast of her features, fullness of her pale lips and cheeks, that couldn’t be described as anything but alluring. The hair that framed her head and face and neck was black as well, and I began to pick up on a certain theme.
“That’s right.” Something like the ghost of a smile curled the corners of her mouth.
“Get out of my head.” I scowled and found my hands clenching into fists. “Please.”
One sable brow arched and she nodded. A pressure I hadn’t even been completely aware of lifted, and I found myself able to move more freely, and when I reached for it felt my power as well like a comfortable warmth inside my chest. It wasn’t something I always consciously thought of, my gift, in the way that you never think of your eyes until you’re searching for something you can’t find. With a courage born in no small part from a growing anger, I scrutinize the woman, picking through the layers of reality and magic and gasp as the truth dawns at last: there is no woman, there never was. I’ve been staring at the black hole the entire time. Or, I should say, what I thought was only a black hole. The woman was there for my convenience, something for my feeble, limited mind to process without unhinging.
And the not-woman nods.
She, it, whatever exudes a silent but implacable power, like the seas or the sun or the motion of the planets themselves, a natural, undeniable force and that power is hungry and will not be denied. It is the hunger that devours stars, that slows the dance of galaxies to a crawl and that waits at the end of all things. It is entropy and decay, and I know it; I carry an infinitesimal fragment of it within the Libro Nihil.
“You’re the goddamn Sleeper.” I consider calling for my own power, unleashing the Libro Nihil. And then realize it would be less than pointless. I was only there because the thing that was the Sleeper wanted me to be. In the same moment, my stuttering brain lets loose a thought not borne of fear or anger. “But you’re not asleep.”
Another incline of the head and those black, bottomless eyes stare into mine.
“Not completely, no,” the Sleeper says. “This piece of me is awake while the rest lies dreaming.”
“What do you want?”
“Isn’t it obvious, Thomas? I want to make you a deal.”
I should have just burned down the whole damn hotel.
For what felt like half an eternity the thing that was not a woman stared at me, and I stared back at it. The bottomless eyes and inhuman visage, not to mention the monstrous alien intellect behind the whole façade, made it impossible to tell what it might be thinking.
I had better things to be doing.
“You realize how ridiculous you sound, right?” I asked.
The Sleeper’s puppet frowned and cocked its head to the side that reminded me of a confused dog…
“Seriously,” I continued. I couldn’t afford to slow down. “What the hell could I possibly have to offer you that you couldn’t just take? I thought you Entropics were the all-powerful cosmic abstract types?”
There you go, Thomas. Piss off the alien god of ruin. The puppet face shifted, frown deepening. It twitched. Its mask was beginning to slip.
Never underestimate the power of simple, human audacity.
“Unless, of course,” I steamrolled forward, pulling the Libro Nihil out of my pocket, “you can’t just take it. Can you?”
Something stirred beneath the puppet’s perfect, porcelain skin, rippling and coiling below the surface of its face. I tried not to stare.
“You haven’t even heard what I’m offering,” the puppet spoke, slowly, obviously restraining itself. “I could make you a god.”
I raised a hand, the one holding the Libro Nihil, and shook my head. “That didn’t work out so well for old Henry did it? Thanks but no, if you want whatever bit of yourself is trapped in this book, you’re welcome to try and take it.”
And I waited.
The Sleeper’s puppet fairly shook, and whatever it was that lurked beneath its mask pressed closer to the surface, writhing like a snake pushing to burst free of old skin. As I watched, a hairline crack began to form under one abyssal eye, and fingers of not-light seeped out.
Odds were I was going to get myself killed. But I had to test a theory.
“I will make you know fear, worm. I will make you know pain,” the puppet hissed, hands clenching open and shut at its sides. “You will give me what is mine.”
“Fear? I’m not scared of you.” I shook my head and even barked a short laugh. “Have you even met my roommate? No, sleepy-pants. I’m not giving you anything, and I’m starting to believe you can’t take it. Actually, I’m willing to bet you’re just about powerless to do anything at all right now.”
The puppet’s skin exploded as lances of not-light burst through it in every direction. There was a roar of sound like a million waves crashing onto a million shores. Something like a colossal serpent made of shadows and light filled my vision before all I could make out was a wall of static that consumed my entire being, and every atom of my body felt like it was on fire.
Through the roar of sound came a voice that threatened to split my skull apart.
“I could consume you, Thomas Grey. Worm. I could scatter you upon the void and annihilate everything you hold dear.” The Sleeper boomed inside my head.
I wanted to scream. I think I was screaming, already, and it had consumed my whole body.
Time ceased to exist. There was only the pain and the scream I had become.
Pain was something I had become intimately familiar with over the years, after a lifetime and career of sticking my nose in inhuman affairs; it had become something I was used to experiencing. And even though the Sleeper was introducing me to a whole new level there was a part of my mind that managed to remain functioning through it all, and I felt a familiar vibration humming up my arm and raised my hand.
The Libro Nihil leapt from my outstretched hand and flipped open, pages fluttering rapidly. There was a thunderclap and then I wasn’t alone in my screaming. The tidal roar shifted pitch, became a howl, and I felt myself drop to my feet on what felt a lot like solid ground. Through a fog of pain and a cacophony of inhuman screaming in my skull, vision began to return, and I saw multiple scenes layered atop each other as the spectrums of reality clashed.
Deep within the void of space I saw a monstrous singularity roaring in cosmic fury.
Inside a dingy hotel room in a town in the middle of nowhere I saw a smooth, black box from which a hideous serpent of shadows and light writhed.
“You will live to regret this, worm,” the Sleeper’s voice boomed inside my skull. “You will know despair. I will let you live long enough to see all you know obliterated, before I devour you.”
“Oh fuck you,” I snarled and stepped forward, holding the Libro Nihil out like a pistol. It was like walking into a hurricane.
The hotel room, the whole world, shook and the serpent of shadow and light that was the Sleeper howled as ephemeral, ghostly tendrils lashed out of the Libro Nihil and enveloped it before snapping back and taking it inside the book.
There was a final, horrific cacophony of sound, the death throes of the cosmos, and then everything went dark.
I came to with a gasp, lurching upright and scrabbling at the dark while my heart pounded against the inside of my chest like a terrified animal.
A dim, red light illuminated the area around me and I looked around in confusion. I wasn’t in the hotel room, or floating in space. The red light came from the display of a small clock radio–my clock radio. I blinked and shook my head, ground the heels of my hands into my eyes.
“What?” My mouth was parched and when I took my hands away from my eyes, I took a moment to breathe and calm down, to collect myself. “What?”
I was in my room, my quiet little den of comfortable chaos, in my chair in front of my desk. There was a terrible crick in my neck, and my back was stiff. A second and third look around the room confirmed it for sure: it was definitely my room, definitely my home.
“A dream?” I mumbled to the darkness. “For fuck’s sake.”
Visions of monstrous serpents and dead-eyed porcelain women lurked in my mind, and a voice promising doom still echoed in my mind. Something moved at the corner of my vision and a dry, rasping sound came from nearby. I shuddered and turned to see the Libro Nihil in the middle of my desk, laying open, pages fluttering from a breeze that was coming in from the window behind my desk. I frowned and squinted at it.
“I don’t think I like you,” I said to the little book and reached out to pick it up and my fingertips tingled when I touched it, strange but pleasant. “Yeah…no more reading tonight.”
I opened the top right drawer of the desk and tossed it inside. It landed with a heavy thump, heavier and louder than such a small thing should make but I was too tired, too disturbed to give it thought, and I closed the drawer and rose from my chair.
“Books are evil,” I mumbled and shuffled my way across the warzone of my bedroom to collapse in a heap on my bed.
And when darkness came to take me away, it brought no dreams or nightmares with it, only peaceful oblivion.