by E. L. Skip Knox
Driver fell silent, his shoulders sagging a bit.
“But we’re okay now, right?” John said. “We outran them. You saved me, protected me like you were supposed to do.”
“What time is it, Johnny boy?”
John glanced at the illuminated clock in the dash. “Six-thirty.”
“Half past six in the morning, and where’s the sun, do you suppose?”
John blinked. “Oh hell,” he said.
“Hell on toast,” Driver agreed, and the Roadmaster drove on. How long they drove, John couldn’t say. The clock on the dashboard seemed to tell a different lie every time he looked at it. Weariness dragged at him. He tried to stay awake but his eyelids closed on their own, and he fell asleep. In the desert, under the pale stars, pale creatures scurried.
When the Buick began to slow, John woke up. He didn’t need to ask why; he could see the white, writhing shapes up ahead, maybe two miles. He started to turn.
“No need to look behind,” Driver said. “They’re back there, too.”
The Roadmaster was coasting now, gliding down a long, bare slope. They had climbed into some range of hills, but the desert was still with them.
John exhaled a little. “What do we do?”
“We stop,” Driver said, “then we get out. And then we fight.”
“Don’t let them take you, John.” Driver looked hard at him. “It’s better to die, believe me.”
Death was a remote concept for the young man. He nodded, but it didn’t mean anything. Die? No chance.
On impulse, he reached out with his power and switched on the radio. John Coltrane was playing his alto sax, notes slithering across the octaves while the rhythm section followed a moody, Latin groove and a piano made jangly comments on the side. It wasn’t his kind of music, but it seemed to fit the moment, so he let it play.
The Buick rolled to a stop. The two men got out. They left the car doors open, and John Coltrane’s sax stabbed into the night.
“How do we fight them?” John asked again.
“Damned if I know,” Driver said. They were talking to each other across the wide hood of the car.
“I mean, you got fireballs, or...?”
“Hells with bells, John, I barely got my own balls. Fight any way you know how.”
John peered into the night and shivered. It was cold as a freezer but he couldn’t see his breath. The road sloped up to the next ridge and a light was dawning there, as if the moon were on the rise.
Other lights were scurrying along either side of the road, small lights, like tadpoles swimming through the darkness from the west behind. They swarmed toward the large light, joining it. It was a pale light, with a slightly blue cast to it, like dim lightning. This was no jagged shape, though, but a solid mass of writhing limbs, like giant worms that were reaching and growing.
The shape glided down the hill, picking up its tadpoles as it went. It was bigger than the Roadmaster. Bigger than a house. It moved in a slow, steady way, like a predator sure of its victim. The image of a squid sprang to mind, for in the center of that writhing mass was a dark opening, mouth-like.
Some of the worms reached forward, like tentacles, ten feet, maybe twenty feet long now. He wondered briefly what Driver was doing, but dared not take his eyes off the advancing creature. Sound was compressed and the air felt dead around him, as if some gigantic hand were enclosing him.
The space of three breaths separated him from the monster. Time enough for three thoughts.
The first was that the power in him had never felt so strong.
The second thought was that the old man wasn’t going to make it. He could feel the strength of the monster. He knew without any doubt that this was not from the Underworld, but was some ancient creature, the sort of monster the old legends told about, the legends you laughed at, once you were no longer a child. This one was real. It could consume them both. Intended to. And would grow only stronger. In the space of a single breath, John resolved to die before he would let that happen.
The third thought was that Coltrane was all right, but what he wouldn’t give to have some Chuck Berry playing, just about now.
The tentacles retracted as the monster drew near, then they all splayed out at once. A cloud of tentacles surrounded him and engulfed him. The blue light was all around him and he felt his body seized from every direction. It was cold and cutting, as if he were being diced by a huge machine.
His body was free to move. Those tentacles had no physical aspect, but they had seized upon his own powers directly, through flesh and soul. He’d been grabbed from the inside out.
He lashed out, swinging his fists at nothing and shouting into darkness. He felt his own powers boil up and outward. The monster recoiled a little but returned easily to the attack. He could feel its hunger, its need to consume him. He could even feel the easy confidence. The tentacles reached inside again, a cold sinuosity seeking a weakness in the young man. He could feel them at his mouth and eyes. It felt like drowning.
He stumbled backward, gasping for air, flailing with his arms, but the creature moved with him until he was pressed up against the Roadmaster. The touch of metal steadied him a little. Even as he fought off the incessant probing he reached out, as he had done with the car, looking for a way to take control, to fight back.
He found it. And it terrified him. Inside those glowing tentacles, at a place where they all came together, was a maw incredibly black, incredibly cold, and endlessly deep. Teeth lined the maw and they were moving. Inside that darkness, somewhere, was the thing’s heart, or engine, or whatever was giving it life. Inside that opening, guarded by those shifting rows of teeth, was a way to kill it and a way to die.
It came closer. The tentacles were bad, but he could defend against them. He understood them, now. That oval, hellish black, though, that was all dissolution and chaos and ending. Even looking at it made him feel weak and sick.
He reached out and grabbed at one of the arms. He used his hands, though his hands touched nothing. He tore the tentacle apart, ripping it in two. No ethereal blood sprayed out, but something like a cry came from the creature and it backed away.
For the first time since the attack began, John returned to his physical senses. He saw the sky, utterly black, without a single star. He could smell the dry desert air, yet there was a dampness of swamp and decay. He tasted blood and realized he’d bitten his own lip.
Then he heard the sorcerer’s voice. “You wounded him, John! Keep it up!”
He glanced across the car and saw Driver fighting the creature in a manner much different from his own. The sorcerer had erected a bright yellow shield twice his own height and width. As the creature whipped its tentacles the shield elongated and twisted to meet every attack.
John couldn’t tell if Driver was doing any damage or was simply defending himself. And he had no time to find out, for the monster was at him again.
Once more he attacked with his hands. He leaped at it, clawing and tearing handfuls of ghostly non-flesh from the beast. He could feel it and see it, though the sensations were from the other side. He could feel a numbing cold wherever he grabbed. He clawed huge wounds in the beast, and in places a kind of liquid ectoplasm oozed forth.
The thing’s tentacles were thrashing wildly. One kept pounding against the sorcerer, battering him. John snatched at it and tore at it so wildly a whole section came off. A terrible liquid sprayed everywhere, leaving lines of frost where it touched the ground. For a moment he held the tentacle in his hands. On impulse he threw it into the blackness of the beast’s maw.
After that, he knew what to do. He tore chunks of flesh from the monster and threw them into its mouth. It didn’t seem to care. It showed no pain, no sign of stopping, but the mouth kept working. After a time, no more tentacles waved, for John had dismembered them, leaving only twitching stumps that oozed icy plasma.
And then there was only the mouth. John had torn away all the cold flesh until only the mouth remained, still working its sideways motion. It was visible only as an utter blackness against the nocturnal darkness. The teeth were a black that shimmered. A horrible silence emanated from its maw, as if it also swallowed sound. The sky remained moonless and starless.
The mouth was like the mouth of Death.
John was exhausted. His arms were heavy, his head felt like it was stuffed with cotton. He was feeling the effects of using too much of his power for too long, and it was consuming him. The feeling of hopelessness weighed him down further. The sensible thing to do, he thought, was to lie down and have a long sleep. The world seemed to pull away and he saw things as if from a great distance. Whatever he had been trying to do felt futile now. He couldn’t move, and the mouth moved toward him.
Something stepped past him. He saw the old man, which surprised him because in his daze he had forgotten about the sorcerer.
“Keys are in the car, young warrior,” the old man said. “Take care she don’t get scratched.”
John stood unable to move, staring at Driver, trying to make something, anything, make sense.
Then the sorcerer leaned toward the mouth and elongated. His feet remained on the ground, but his body stretched outward, becoming impossibly long, forming an arc between the car and the infinite mouth, and for an instant he was about twenty feet tall. Then his feet left the ground. He snapped into the blackness like a rubber band, and was gone.
The mouth worked violently as it tried to digest the sorcerer. John staggered, unable to comprehend what he was seeing.
The keys are in the car.
It was that same voice. John’s malaise melted away in an instant. Without thinking, he turned and dove into the car. He slid across the seat, under the steering wheel and turned the key.
The Roadmaster started up smoothly. He slammed the accelerator, unleashing all his power directly into the engine. The tires screamed and smoke poured out. The car bolted forward so quickly that both doors slammed shut simultaneously. He steered directly into the mouth.
Don’t let them take you, he’d said. Better to die.
The Roadmaster slammed into the mouth. The teeth bit into the car along the back fenders, tearing a gaping hole but not slowing the car at all. Two tons of metal drove straight into the blackness of Hell.
There was a blinding light and John covered his eyes. The Roadmaster went out of control. Or stopped. Or rolled. He was never sure.
The light didn’t go away. John lowered his hands slowly, blinking hard.
The light was from the sun, already well above the horizon. He was staring right at it.
The car wasn’t moving. A ringing sound filled John’s ears. He touched the side of his face and saw blood on his fingers, but nothing hurt. He got out and looked around. The desert wore pink and tan as it does every July morning. He turned in a full circle. There was no sign of the creature, but he saw the sorcerer, lying in the road, just behind the car, right between long tire marks.
He ran to the sorcerer’s side and saw he was still breathing.
“Driver,” he said softly, “I’m sorry. Gods but I’m sorry. I never saw you.”
Driver opened one eye. He scanned the sky. “You got it?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
“Put me in the car, Johnny. I’m hurt bad. Not your fault. That thing got me good.”
He picked up the old man and put him in the passenger side. He rolled down all the windows, to let in what air he could, then he got in and started up the Roadmaster again. They pulled out onto the road, which was already starting to shimmer in the heat. He pulled down the sun guard.
“You still going to Chicago?” the sorcerer whispered.
“Be quiet, old man. I’m taking you to a hospital.”
“Do me a favor, would you, John? Go on into Arizona, past Ash Grove. Turn off at 64. The car will find the way from there.”
“You need a doctor, old man.”
“Wouldn’t do any good. I’ll hold out if I can, but I want to die among friends, you know? Not in some damned Steamer hospital. Give me the Arts or nothing at all.” The sorcerer’s skin was gray and he couldn’t speak above a whisper. John felt a resolve take shape inside of him.
“Sure, sure,” John said. “Ash Grove, then Highway 64. Got it. Promise.”
He opened the Roadmaster up as far as he could and drove hard for the Arizona border, watching the old man slip away. John was exhausted, wrung out by the battle. His hands shook and he had to fight off sleep. He had no strength to use the Arts, so he let the car run on Steam. It meant going slower, but using his own power would mean a dead stop. Still, he kept the pedal to the floor, and kept the speedometer crowding 80.
The black road slid away under the tires, cactus and hardpan on both sides. The old man was dead before they reached Ash Grove. Die among friends, the sorcerer had said. John wondered if this counted.
He kept on driving. He turned onto Highway 64 and went north a few miles. Sure enough, the car turned off again, down an oiled dirt road and up to a big ranch with a sign over the entrance: Arts Ranch.
He pulled through the gate and let the Buick roll to a stop. No one was around except for one man standing on the porch of a large one-story house. He was a big man, wearing blue jeans, a dark yellow shirt with a string tie, and a big conical hat with a wide brim. He came out onto the baked earth that served as a yard for the ranch house, peered to see who was driving, then hustled over in a hurry.
John stepped out. “He died on the way,” John said, his voice catching a little. “I drove as fast as I could, but he was hurt. That thing killed him.”
Other people came from the ranch house now. They gathered up the sorcerer and carried him inside, talking in hushed tones. Some were crying. The man with the hat stayed.
“I’m so sorry,” John said, his voice shaking. “I tried to save him.”
“You did what you could,” the man said. “Come on inside. You can rest. Maybe stay a while.” That last came out as a question.
“Maybe I will,” John said quietly.
“What’s your name, kid?”
He didn’t answer right away. He stared back across the top of the Buick, out along the road winding back down to the desert. Someone had to watch the roads. He remembered what the old man had said about names.
“Driver,” he said, looking back to the ranch house. “John Driver.”
Copyright © 2012 by E. L. Skip Knox