The man with the terrible eyes is waiting in line.
Around him, the smell in the air is slightly oily, slightly savory, and it makes his mouth water. The joint-- this place was too much of a dive to be called a proper restaurant, one of those places only the locals and the curious ever found-- is larger than he'd expected from the outside storefront. Leading into the room was a singular, long display case filled to the brim with trays featuring what felt like every vaguely Asian food he knew of and a hundred more that he did not. In the very back, the display broke into a counter with a register, and beside that was another display, this one glass all the way to the ceiling, with the window framed by hanging meats-- entire hens plucked and fried, rabbits, and other things he couldn't easily identify or read the label for.
Off to the side, across from the long display, are tables and chairs. Despite the long line, only a couple people have sat down to eat. Like him, most are there to order then leave. Through the ground-to-ceiling windows, he can see Dog outside, snuffling around the bushes, looking like a living shadow against the green.
A small smile plays at his lips, and he breathes in deeply, taking in the fragrance of fried foods.
For the past three days, Alan Jacob Campbell, the man with the terrible eyes, has been craving Chinese.
Once upon a time, back what feels like a million years but is in actuality only a few long months, he would go to the Chinese take-out place by his work-provided house. The place had closed down eventually, and he’d never been able to find another as good. Whether the other places were really that bad, or if he was just biased, he was never certain.
It’s a strange part of his life to be nostalgic for, but here he is.
Eventually, it’s his turn. He walks down the display and points at the different foods he'd like to buy and try. The woman behind the counter deftly snaps up the dishes with her tongs and stacks them into carry-out boxes. When he reaches the register, the other woman there sweeps the boxes into a bag in swift, practiced movements, spits out the price, and, almost as an afterthought, types the items into the register. The machine beeps and flashes the total she had already spoken.
He peels out a few bills from his pocket and hands them over. The woman takes them without really looking and, as one hand opens the till, smacks the bills in, and counts out the change, her other hand independently reaches off to the side and comes back with a small bag of fortune cookies, which she drops into his bag.
“Thank you, have a nice day, next.”
He, like the majority of others before him, takes his food and leaves.
* * * * *
Outside, the sun is shining. There’s a cool breeze, but not too cool. Dog appears from the bushes and walks alongside him down the sidewalk.
The town he’s in now has a name, but he doesn’t know it. It’s on the larger side of what he's gotten used to, with more traffic and more people and just more. On the one hand, he knows he'll be a little harder to find. He'll have an easier time blending in to the crowd. On the other hand, he's never been good at dealing with people, and having so many of them suddenly around is putting him on edge.
Lucky for him, even with the larger population, this is one of those cities that sprawled out, rather than up, and so even in the middle of the day, there’s not much foot traffic; everybody here drives a car.
It's a short walk, with Dog in the lead, before he arrives at the park. The park isn’t much; less grass and more scrub. A trail, but no pavement. Trees, but with few leaves and not much shade. But there is a bench, and that’s really all he needs. He and Dog make a beeline for it and settle down for lunch.
With an almost ceremonial air, he unpacks the bag, taking out and carefully placing the boxes on the bench in a loose grid.
The first container he opens is the one that's supposed to have a pork bun in it. At first, he's pleased by unusually large size, but when he bites into it, he finds that instead of barbecued pork, it has chicken, a strange sauce, and what looks to be an entire boiled egg. He frowns and offers it to dog, who downs the entire thing in one snap of his jaws.
Eventually, he's full. Most of the containers still have something left in them. The ones that don't, he tosses. Despite not being hungry, he cracks open one of the cookies on a whim. Half, he gives to dog, and the other half, he pops into his mouth.
The scrap of paper reads:
Fortune will find you in the oddest of places.
He checks the back for numbers. He’s never really understood what the numbers were supposed to signify, but someone had impressed upon him as a child that the numbers were somehow lucky. Instead, though, he now finds another fortune. The words read,
You should have checked the order before leaving the restaurant.
He freezes. For a brief, eternal moment, the world seems entirely still. Then, slowly, he crumples the paper and shoves it in his jacket pocket. Without a word, he tidies up the bench, tossing away anything that needs tossing and picking up anything he can use or eat later.
Before heading back to the motel that has served and will serve as home for the next few days, he decides to swing by the nearest ATM. The downside to being in a larger town is that the motels here, even the smallest, dirtiest ones, are getting pricey, and he wants to pay for the next couple days in advance.
“We need cash,” he tells Dog. “Is there any place nearby?”
Once upon a time, he might have thought it odd to speak to Dog this way. That time has long since passed. Once upon a time, he might have also thought it odd that Dog would softly boof in what was obviously a response, and then stride ahead, acting as though he knew where to go.
For now, Alan tucks his free hand into his jacket pocket and follows after.
In the time they’ve been on the road together, Dog has learned what makes for a perfect ATM to hit. The one he leads them to is inside of a strip mall, outside of a bank, built into the wall. It is behind a pillar, blocking it from immediate view of some of the parking lot, and there is no line. The only people around are on the far side of the strip mall, bustling around the Home Depot at the end, and while there’s undoubtedly a security camera somewhere nearby, he doesn't care; so far he's managed to avoid confrontations about his ATM exploits, and if any bank is looking for him, well, he's been hunted by worse.
He sets the bag of leftovers down onto the sidewalk and places his palms on the ATM screen, willing a flicker of power into his hands. He feels his palms grow hot, and it’s as though his blood is singing with fire. The edges of his vision go white, and somewhere, some part of him is aware of the smell of smoke and heated plastic.
The machine spits out several hundred dollars in twenties, and he grits his teeth to smother the laughter bubbling up inside him. He wants to hold on, to keep letting the electricity flow through him and screw up whatever mechanisms it was screwing up, to keep going until the entire machine was just a slab of molten plastic and glass melted into the wall, to keep going even then until he’d tapped the city’s power grid and sent the whole place into darkness--
But he pulls away.
The twenties flutter in the light breeze. Most are by his feet, some have been blown father away, down the sidewalk or into the gutter. Still trembling slightly from the adrenaline rush, Alan bends down and starts plucking the bills up off the pavement, then stuffs them gracelessly into his pockets. Off to the side, Dog helpfully snaps at some that are carried by the wind. He misses entirely, and gives Alan a confused doggy head-tilt. The two hurry around the area, catching money together as though it were a game.
Soon, there’s only one bill left that he can see, and it’s made its way beneath a car parked on the street. He crouches down to pick it up.
Beside the bill is a packaged fortune cookie.
He frowns and scoops both up. The bill he shoves into his pocket with the others, but the cookie, he tears open.
The world is cracked and leaking light. Be mindful not to step in it. says the front.
The bank's silent alarm went off. Cops will be here in ten minutes. You should leave. says the back.
“Agreed,” he says out loud. He stuffs the fortune into the inner pocket of his jacket and goes to grab the bag of leftovers. As he does, a police patrol car pulls up alongside the ATM. Two officers step out of the vehicle and head for the bank's entrance.
Quickly, he turns and walks down the street, breaking into a jog once he's turned the corner. Dog appears at his side a moment later, seemingly out of thin air. In his mouth is a fortune cookie.
He stops running-- it occurs to him that him running away would look far more guilty than him waking, anyway-- and holds his hand out by Dog's mouth.
"Drop it," he says.
Dog obeys, and Alan cracks open the cookie.
My bad, it says. The back is blank.
The walk back to the motel is a blur. The next thing he's aware of is crossing the parking lot towards his room, which is the one farthest from the offices and open to the back lot. Dog is sitting by the room door, looking innocent. Alan does not question how Dog got there before he did when, just a moment before, they had been walking together.
With a sigh, he rests his head against the door and feels his pockets for the key card. He turns up nothing but cash and crumpled fortunes. He’s struck by a tired disappointment, and looks to see if the card fell on the ground.
Behind him, on the pavement, is a fortune cookie. Hesitantly, he takes it and breaks apart the beige shell. The paper inside reads:
You dropped it on the way over. In the parking lot.
"Dog," he says, eyes on the paper. "Stay. Guard the food. No snacking."
Dog huffs in disappointed acknowledgement and sits heavily on the floor. He pointedly looks away from the bag of leftovers, as though to prevent temptation.
Alan backtracks his way through the parking lot, and finds the key-card in the gutter, along with a twenty dollar bill that must have fallen out with it. He snatches both up and returns to the motel room. He lets himself and Dog in without a word.
Slowly, almost theatrically, as though trying to prove to the cookies that he’s in control, he carefully places all the carry out boxes in the room’s mini fridge. After a moment of consideration, he takes back a box and spoons some of rice out onto a paper plate, then leaves the plate under the bed.
When that’s done, and there’s nothing left to distract him, he sighs and forces himself to confront the cookies.
He sits on the bed, and places the cluster of cookies in front of him. There are only a few left. Whatever weirdness is going on, he thinks, will be over soon.
So what was the harm?
All the same, it takes him several minutes and a deep breath before he can bring himself to open the next cookie.
The shell crumbles in his hands, and he distantly regrets that; he'll have to shake the blankets out or else sleep in a crumby bed.
The paper reads,
You shouldn't waste good fortune.
"This is insane," he says to nobody.
He glances over and see’s Dog sitting there, watching him. It takes a moment for his eyes to pick up that Dog’s pitch-black fur is host to at least a hundred small, equally black beetles, beetles he can only tell are there because of the way their carapaces are glinting in the lamp light. Like Dog, the beetles appear to be watching him-- though he cannot say how he knows this.
"Well, not for us, I mean," he says. "But for other people. This probably counts as insane."
He checks the back of the fortune.
Help help, I'm trapped inside a fortune cookie factory.
He scowls and crumples the paper.
“Are you going to take this seriously or not?” he says to the remaining cookies.
He opens one.
Little creatures burrow in the sky, letting in starlight from the other side. says the front. He reads it aloud to Dog and the beetles who listen politely.
“See?” he says, feeling strangely lightheaded. “That’s the kind of cryptic stuff we’re here for, right?”
He turns the paper over and reads the back.
5318008 it says.
He blinks, confused for a moment as to why this one should have lucky numbers. Then he turns the paper upside down and scowls.
He cracks open another.
Do not fear the monsters that join our world. Fear the thing they have fled.
Have mercy on the flies on the paper, for their only crime was to exist in a world that despised them.
Part of him doesn't want to open the last cookie and end this strange, one-sided conversation. The rest of him, however, is bone-tired and wants this patch of weirdness to end. He rips open the plastic and crumbles the last cookie.
Your eyes are lovely. It’s a shame you cannot see them.
There are no numbers or words on the back, only a crude drawing of an eye.
"Well," he says to Dog and the beetles. "I guess that's that."
Dog wuffs in what he hopes is agreement, and Alan realizes that he's just crumbled a bunch of fortune cookies where he was going to sleep that night. He groans internally and starts brushing the largest crumbs onto the carpet where Dog can easily lap them up. A moment later, a troupe of beetles have joined him on the bed, led by Bugsy. Like goats on a field of grass, they comb through the coverlet, devouring the crumbs he's left behind.
"Oh, thanks guys," he says, sitting back to give them space. "Have at it."
Bugsy-- he can always tell Bugsy from the rest, these days-- stops in front of him and makes that odd almost-bow motion he’s become familiar with. Alan inclines his head politely back at him-- it was hard to think of Bugsy as anything but a him. For a small, wordless bug, he seemed to have such personality. Occasionally there were problems, but for the most part, Bugsy and crew were good people.
The rest of the evening is spent reading a battered paperback whose content does not match the cover. He’d bought it from a used bookshop a town or two ago, and the blurb on the back and spaceship on the cover both promised that it was supposed to be a science fiction novel. And, when he had begun reading it, it was a science fiction novel. People on a ship in space, travelling worlds.
However, a day or two before, it had turned into a historical fantasy in someplace similar to Ancient Rome, but with magic. This was disappointing, but not altogether unfamiliar. Once upon a time, any book that stayed under the same roof as him for an extended period of time turned into something else entirely. Considering the dull technical manuals and outdated history books he normally wound up with when he tried to read, he was fine with the fantasy.
He had been looking forward to finding out what happened on the spaceship, though.
* * * * *
It’s about one AM when he wakes up.
There’s a frazzled moment of confusion where he doesn’t know where he’s at, or why there’s a heavy weight against him, why there’s a tickling sensation along his scalp and neck, why his arm is cold.
But he blinks away the last remnants of his sleep -- something about a city?-- and finds himself in his usual sleeping position: on his belly, crushed slightly on his side by Dog, beetles crawling everywhere.
He groans, and the sound is muffled by the pillow. Still half-asleep, he pushes himself out of bed, barely conscious enough to try not to squash anybody, and shambles towards the bathroom. The beetles, having by now grown accustomed to him, know to move out of the way. The ones still on his person scurry down his arms and torso and jump off onto passing surfaces-- from his hand to the bedframe when he tries to balance, from his shirt to the coverlet when he sits up, and so on. By the time he gets to the room’s adjacent bathroom, he’s bug-free.
Sitting on top of the toilet tank is a packaged fortune cookie.
He blinks and rubs his eyes, half-hoping that it’ll be gone when he’s done.
“How the hell you’d get in here,” he says. But his heart isn’t in it. He knew it had been too easy.
He tears off the packaging and opens the cookie.
You will attract attention of those in power.
“Really?” he mutters. “Come in here to tell me that? Tell me something I don’t know.”
He flips the fortune over.
EXTREME BAD LUCK!!! DANGER!!
The creeping sensation returns, stronger than before. The hairs on the back of his neck rise, and he feels the third eye there trying to open against the bandaid.
He rushes out of the bathroom and finds Dog on the floor, stiff legged and snarling at the minifridge.
“What is it?” Alan half-whispers. “Dog? What--”
The fridge door bursts open in a rush of inky, black tendrils. The tendrils shoot out from the fridge, and dog is barely swift enough to leap out of the way. The tendrils hit the wall and splash outward like liquid in all directions. They latch on to the furniture and start swinging things around and tossing them aside, as though searching blindly.
From the fridge, more and more tendrils are pouring out.
Alan cries out and, without thinking, hurls bolts of lightning at the fridge.
The lights in the motel room flicker, and, as one, all of the tendrils freeze. Then, they all turn towards him, looking for the world like a flock of snakes. They hang in the air, motionless, but their ends are facing him, and he feels as though he is standing in front of an audience.
Tendrils are still coming from the fridge. The closer to the opening they are, the more they appear to be a solid stream, as opposed to separate entities. He watches in guarded fascination as the liquid-like darkness at the root of the tendrils stretches and writhes.
Slowly, a head emerges from the darkness there. It’s not clearly defined, and looks more like a person’s head beneath some kind of thin, airtight sheet. Its mouth is open, as though it is screaming, and it turns in the blackness, as though struggling to stay above the surface.
Then its eyes open.
Alan falls to the ground screaming. There is a noise in his head he has not heard for a long time. There is a thousand-dagger pain in his skull that he has not felt in ages, but he recognizes both. As quickly as he can, he staggers to his feet. Dog is at his side, still growling at the creature from the fridge, but bracing against him.
Electricity crackles in his hands, and the creature watches him.
It is a head, a humanoid head, complete with eyes, nose-hole (though no nose) and mouth. There is no neck, no torso, not body at all, just hundreds upon hundreds of snake-like tendrils sprouting from it, feeling their way around the room, writhing beneath it, holding it in the air.
“You’re from Iotech,” he says.
The mouth opens, and the creature hisses.
“You followed me?” he says. “How’d you get into the fridge like that?”
He feels suddenly ill. Oh God, he thinks. I didn’t eat any of it, did I? He would have noticed if any of his food was Void-contaminated, right?
The creature’s mouth stretches wide-- far too wide for normal human jaws. Inside, as the outside, is pure blackness.
“Essscape,” it rasps.
“I figured,” he says. “Why are you here?”
The mouth splits open into a wide, toothy smile.
He doesn’t let it finish. He hurls another bolt of lightning at it, hitting it squarely in the face. The creature is knocked back, but its hundreds of arms keep it steady. Dozens of its tendrils shoot forward, heading straight for him, and he shouts and throws himself over the bed, flipping it up in a makeshift shield. Dog howls and lunges at the creature, snapping off its limbs left and right.
“Bugsy!” Alan calls, peering over the edge of the bed and firing off another bolt. “I don’t know if this is your kinda thing, but--!”
The bed is lifted up by several dozen black tendrils. At first, he’s afraid the creature will smash him with it, but instead it chucks the bed out the window. Or rather, it tries to. Glass shatters. Plaster explodes. Wood splinters. He has no idea how much force it actually takes to destroy a wall, but the creature has gotten the job done, and where once a small window had been now is a hole in the wall through which the motel parking lot is now clearly visible.
While he stares at the place where the wall used to be, several whip-like tendrils wrap themselves around his stomach. He yelps out and attempts to pull them off, his hands still sparking with electricity. The creature howls in anger and pain, and he feels the scream burn through his mind as much as his ears, and he finds himself joining in its howl.
The creature hurls him away. The world spins as he sails through the open wall, and he hits the pavement with a roll. It happens in an instant, but time seems to slow, and when it’s over, he’s already struggling to his knees, not quite able to balance yet. His arms and hands are a network of torn skin and road burn, and though he doesn’t feel it yet, he suspects his legs are in no better condition through the thin material of his pajama bottoms.
The air is filled with snarls and howls as Dog and the monster battle, and he sees the lights inside the room flicker, as though threatening to turn off altogether-- though maybe that’s just his head. Sparks dance across his vision, and standing seems too complicated a feat to muster.
Just as he’s contemplating how, exactly, he’s supposed to move, the wall just beside the hole blossoms outward in a hail of splinters and chunks of drywall. Dog flies through the air at an awkward angle and, for the briefest moment, it looks as though he will slam into the only unlucky car parked anywhere near their room, but he does not.
Instead, Dog simply sinks into the hood of the car where he ought to have hit until he is gone, leaving nothing but a roughly Dog-sized shadow. The shadow slinks downwards, reaching the pavement, and Dog charges out of it, leaping out of the ground and charging back into the room.
“Good boy,” he mumbles, finding his feet.
Absently, he feels his pajama pants and finds a cookie in his pocket.
It’s been crushed by the impact, and the package is already torn open. He pours out the crumbs and reads the paper.
You should run.
“Good idea, cookie,” he says.
Running, though, is out of the question. He tries and nearly falls from the sudden weakness in his legs. So he limps across the parking lot, hoping to reach the street light he sees in the distance. The lot stretches on endlessly in front of him in a strange tunnel vision wherein the only thing he can really see is the light. At one point, he glances down and distantly notices that he’s leaving a trail of blood droplets.
Aw jeez, he thinks. I hope I don’t have to go to the hospital again. . .
Hospitals were the worst. They stank like chemicals and made his eyes hurt, and he could swear that sickness has a sound sometimes, and Dog didn’t like them--
His already scattered thoughts are interrupted when something tugs sharply at his ankle and he finds himself falling forward. Up ahead, the creature in its many-armed glory is standing in the hole in the wall, giving triumphant shrieks as it pulls him in.
He twists and turns wildly, looking for anything that might help. To the left and a ways down, nestled in a clearing in the shrubbery by the far side of the building, is a beige metal box he recognizes as an electrical enclosure.
Oh, he thinks. That’ll work.
Even as the creature is pulling him back into the room, he starts trying to crawl towards the enclosure, scrabbling desperately over the pavement. Just as he starts to change trajectory and veer to the left, the creature redoubles its efforts and yanks him almost past the enclosure.
Electricity spills from his fingers, and with a snarl he grabs the black vines binding his legs, but the creature appears to have grown accustomed to that trick. Though it continues to screech in anger and pain, it keeps hold of him and continues to drag him across the pavement. Up ahead, he can see the creature through the broken plaster. Its jaw has stretched elastically down, almost to the floor, giving him a clear view of the creature’s throat, which is lined all around and all the way down with distinct white teeth.
He stops trying to tear the creature off him and focuses again on trying to reach the electrical enclosure. It’s coming up, and if he only had a little more give--
The creature screeches and, for a moment, its grip relaxes. He wriggles out, springing into the closest thing to a run he can manage once his feet are beneath him. He doesn’t risk a look back and what’s gotten the creature until he’s halfway to the enclosure.
Because of the flailing arms, the poor light, and the dark coloring of the creature itself, it’s hard to see exactly what’s happening to it. But as it whips its tendrils around, hurling furniture and smashing anything within reach, he swears he sees small, black specks being tossed aside by the force, and more black specks throwing themselves onto the creature’s body.
He grins, makes a mental note to buy Bugsy and crew a pizza later, and limps towards the enclosure.
The creature behind him unleashes another roar, this one loud enough to set off the car alarm of the only car parked nearby. He casts a quick glance behind him, then picks up the speed; the creature has apparently decided it would rather grab him than stop the beetles from attacking it.
With a sudden burst of speed, he rushes towards the enclosure, desperately trying to ignore the pain shooting up his leg, to ignore the odd weak feeling in his right ankle that threatens to send him toppling to the ground.
He reaches the metal container moments before the tendrils reach him, but it’s enough time. As if on instinct, he summons the electricity from the circuitry hidden safely inside the box. For a split second, he feels the electricity in the switches and wires within, feels them going down into the ground and spreading out across the area, networking the entire building like a well organized nervous system. And further on, if he follows them, he can feel them leading underground to the city grid--
And he pulls.
He yanks the power out the way someone strips off a bandaid: determined, braced for pain, and as quickly as possible. He doesn't get all of it, of course, but in the span of seconds, he’s stolen enough power to shut down the block. The sole light on in the motel office across the lot shuts off. Streetlights go black. His blood screams with fire, and he lets out a giddy cackle, even as the tendrils creep up on him and wrap, once again, around his torso. He doesn’t kick or struggle and releases the metal box, allowing the void creature to draw him in. It carries him the short distance back to the room, and he twists himself to see the creature more clearly.
It has shambled its way through the hole in the room. Its smooth, liquid-looking skin glistens in the weak light of the moon, and it’s many teeth rotate within its gaping maw like some kind of strange, cylindrical saw. Even as it stands there waiting for him, he sees that blackness of a different shape and texture, small dark splotches that interrupt the light reflected on the creature, still swarm its face and tendril roots.
He has no idea where Dog is.
As he passes the jagged threshold of broken wall, the creature lifts him higher off the ground, almost up to the ceiling, as though it intends to drop him directly into its mouth. He lets it.
Once it’s within arm’s reach, he holds out his hands to it, reaching out until he’s touching the creature’s face. The moment his fingertips make contact with its oily skin, skin that, now that he’s paying attention, has the same texture as dish soap, he releases every ounce of energy he has directly into the creature’s skull.
It howls in pain. He feels whatever passes for muscle inside the tendrils around him stiffen in pain. They tighten around him hard enough to make breathing difficult, though not impossible. He wheezes and persists, flooding it with electricity. He imagines himself injecting the electricity into the creature, letting it feel the same singing fire in its veins that he has in his. But while the fire makes him alive, it burns the creature from the inside out.
It thrashes wildly, rolling and slamming itself against the remaining walls, hurling itself from one end of the room to the other, but it never lets him go. He had forgotten how determined they were when it came to eating him. He’s tossed and turned with the creature’s thrashing, but by either fluke or some effort on the part of the creature, he’s held in the air and spared from most of the impact.
Eventually, it ends.
With a final, gasping cry, the creature falls. Alan is dropped to the floor in a cascade of tendrils. They flop and twitch over him and on the ground all around him, and it’s a struggle to dig his way out from beneath it all. When he finally manages to free himself, dragging himself forward on his hands and knees, he finds a clear place on the ground and allows himself to collapse.
His ankle is killing him.
A few moments pass. He wonders briefly if the creature will disintegrate. They used to do that, once upon a time. He wonders when the police will be here, and what they’ll say. He wonders where Dog is.
He rolls onto his back, sending shoots of fire up his leg. His head is pounding.
The creature’s body hasn’t moved. Or it has moved with the occasional spasmodic twitching, but it hasn’t gone anywhere. This one, like the last couple, have become too solid. Too real. He ought to be concerned about that, but his side and ankle hurt too much to think about.
Let someone else worry about this for once, he thinks, feeling uncharitable. He’d like to see some police officer trying to explain it. Some night crew janitor trying to clean it up.
The ceiling above him is in almost as bad condition as the wall. There are deep gashes and cracks where the creature had struck out at it, and in places he can see the wooden frames and patches of insulation.
He wonders where the hotel manager is. Where security is. Or that spotty-faced kid at the front desk who’d signed him in yesterday. He’d wiped out the power, so maybe the cops hadn’t been called yet, but surely someone close by would have noticed the exploding wall. . .
Unless the creature paid them a visit first.
The thought sickens him, and he pushes it away. No, they were fine. Probably out on break. Maybe using the toilet. They were fine.
He rolls over to his side, and pain from his ankle goes searing up to his knee in a solid stripe of agony. He doesn’t know if it’s broken or sprained, but it’s going to be a hassle for the foreseeable future.
A damp, black bulb attached to a larger, furrier face suddenly floods his vision. Dog noses his face, making concerned dog noises. Though it sends fire up his shoulder, he reaches out and scratches Dog’s head.
“Good boy,” he wheezes. ”Did the bad guy beat you up too?”
Then, he adds, “I’m getting too old for this.”
He’s forgotten how old he is-- 26? 28? Good lord, is he thirty? When is his birthday? The information was probably written down in some Iotech lab somewhere-- but whatever the case, it is entirely Too Old For This.
Dog whines and gives a little half-bark of urgency. The sound of it snaps him out of his stare and urges him to his feet, or at least back onto one foot. Something was up.
“What is it?” he says quietly, hand against Dog for balance, trying not to put any weight on his hurt ankle. “Is it back?”
Dog leaves him and trots ahead. He stands in the center of the floor, in a rare clean space amidst the rubble. There, bows his head, looking down in front of his.
Alan blinks. There’s a fortune cookie there, between Dog’s front paws. He doesn’t know how he didn’t see it before.
Slowly, he limps his way over, careful not to step or stumble on any of the creature’s arms.
“Dog,” he says. “Are you going to eat that thing?” he gestures to the creature.
Dog wuffs and whines.
“Right. This first.”
With some effort and a pained grunt, he bends over and takes the cookie. He opens the packaging.
They're coming says the fortune. The back is blank.
"Who?" he says.
He scans the room, looking for another cookie. He finds it on the floor in the corner, near the bathroom door, and picks it up with a frown. This cookie is partially crumbled inside the package-- the first one he's seen that isn't in pristine condition.
They're coming, it says again. This time, there are splotches of black ink on the paper. On the back, there are only fingerprint smudges of ink.
“Who’s coming?” he says to the room. He looks at the ceiling. “Who?”
He steps forward and a cookie crunches underfoot. He crouches down, muscles protesting, and picks up the scrap of paper in the remains.
The world falters for a moment, as if he had blinked, though he's certain he hasn't. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a shifting darkness. He looks up.
There are shadows on the walls.
Tall and still silhouettes of standing figures surround him, strong and dark despite the bedside lamp.
For a moment, he doesn’t know what to do. The idea of speaking to them flits by, but the second it does, the thought is obliterated by a sudden and intense pain in his head. He howls in pain and falls to his knees, bombarded by a psychic assault he cannot stop. The lights flash on and off, though maybe it’s him, maybe it’s in his head, he does not know. All he knows is the intense, burning pain in his skull and the more intense feeling of anger within him.
It is not his anger. It is foreign and slimy, and it seeps into his mind like cold fire. He imagines it like black oil soaking into him through the back of his head, coming out of his ears and nose.
There is a shadow figure in front of him. He sees the base of its shadow, where legs should be, but where only solid darkness is, as though it were wearing long, obscuring clothes. He looks up into where the shadow’s head should be, where its eyes should be, and there is an eternal moment of silence and pain. The depth of the shadow is infinite, and full to the brim with nothing, a nothing so weighty and thick, he feels like it ought to be overflowing, spilling void onto the floor.
Then, the lights stop flashing.
The shadows are gone.
He’s on the ground, on his knees, hunched over, but upright, hugging himself. When he touches his face, he finds warm, wet blood trickling from his nose.
In front of him, resting on the carpet, is a packaged fortune cookie. He stares at it for a long minute before reaching out for it. The plastic tears off easily, and he crumbles the cookie on the floor. The fortune paper is almost entirely black, and the only jagged sections of whiteness spell out the words,
LET US GO