Content Warning

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

He hoped he would have the strength to do what was right. He’d finally finished the blog post he’d been putting off for so long and was now standing by the window of his rented room. Rain streaked the glass, making a mosaic of the street below. He could still feel Their presence, even now. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and counted to ten. The insectile chittering in his head did not diminish, but he did feel a strange sense of security. He had the power to put a stop to Their vile chatter forever.

If only he hadn’t found that book...

It had been tucked away on a secluded shelf at the back of one of the half-dozen grotty second-hand bookshops that infested the little town. The bookshop itself had been out of the way, sandwiched as it was between a closed bank branch and a dry cleaner’s. In hindsight, he supposed it was the sort of place someone would put something if they didn’t want it to be found. That’s the problem with hindsight of course. It’s always too late to be useful.

The shop was off-putting even by the low standards of grotty second-hand bookshops. It was claustrophobic, with bookcases far too close together, filled with tatty, dog-eared specimens that bore only a passing resemblance to books. It reminded him of a rabbit warren more than anything else. And then there was the smell. It was that kind of smell that only comes with a concentration of old things in a confined space, fetid and dry.

It was only a passing whim that led him into the shop in the first place. He browsed under the suspicious gaze of the shop’s only other occupant: the mousey-faced owner, who stood behind the till peering over her old-fashioned eyeglasses with a look of deep distrust. Every part of him was telling him to leave, go find somewhere to have lunch, or even just a slightly less unpleasant bookshop. But the way the austere old woman craned her neck about to watch him, like a particularly haggard vulture sizing up a potential meal, irked him. He dawdled even longer, doubling back on himself, wandering into the darkest corner at the back the shop, and making noises under his breath that he hoped would suggest he was thinking of buying something but considering his options very carefully.

The beady-eyed old lady snapped something that he only barely caught. Clearly his act had worked too well and he had worn her patience thin. He regretted winding her up, half-scared she was actually going to plunge her beak into him, and unthinkingly grabbed the nearest book. Avoiding making eye contact, he dumped some coins on the counter, not even bothering to check if it was the right amount, and fled. Safe on the pavement outside, he muttered under his breath a curse against the owners of all grotty second-hand bookshops.

The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully, and truth be told, he’d forgotten the incident by the time he returned to the B&B that evening. Hurrying up to his room to empty his satchel and change for dinner, he was actually surprised to discover the book he’d hurriedly picked up was still there. It had definitely seen better days – the leathery cover was peeling and looked almost decayed, the pages inside were so yellow he’d have sworn they’d been dipped in coffee, and perhaps weirdest of all was the fact that it was entirely handwritten! His curiosity getting the best of him, he settled down in an armchair and read by lamplight long into the night.

He must have dozed off in the chair at some point, because he was woken by sunlight streaming into his room the next morning. Drool had dried on his cheek and he had an awful crick in his neck. The book was still open on his lap, a particularly tasteful double-page spread of illustrations that looked like they’d been cribbed from Hieronymus Bosch. Even in daylight, there was something about the figures in the picture that unsettled him. For one thing, he couldn’t quite tell what they were meant to be. Some bizarre amalgam of insect, plant and – strangely – something vaguely humanoid. He would have dismissed the whole thing out of hand as the work of an artist with an overactive imagination, but the weird figures seemed a little too vividly rendered to be purely imaginary. But that was ridiculous, obviously.

One hearty breakfast later, though, and he’d completely put the pictures out of his mind. The weather was unusually sunny and warm for the time of year, and he had a travel blog to write.

The little tourist trap town basked in early autumn sunlight. He took an idle stroll around the place, making sure to avoid the bookshops, and found that he was struggling to think of anything to put in the blog post that wouldn’t seem like he was taking the mick. It was quaint to the point of parody.

Returning to the B&B once more, he spent about an hour staring at a blank Word document before grumpily admitting defeat and sticking on a podcast.

Hours later, he awoke violently from a troubled sleep. Bleary eyed, he jotted down some half-formed sentences in a memo on his phone, trying to capture the already-receding images he’d dreamt. In the morning, he tried to piece together what he remembered from the fragmentary notes he’d made. Something about finding himself wandering about a deserted city that brooded beneath a dirty red sky, lit by some unearthly glow even when leaden clouds obscured the sun overhead. It seemed familiar to him, and it was only upon reflection reading his notes back that he realised the city had a nearly identical layout to the town he was visiting.

Normally not one to be troubled by a bad dream, he nevertheless did not feel like venturing out that day. Instead, he stayed in, downing one coffee after another, and obsessively rereading the slender volume he’d picked up two days before. Perhaps there would be some clue in there? Some illustration he’d glimpsed before falling asleep, some half-remembered description that had triggered the nightmare.

That night, he dreamt about the city again. Only this time, it wasn’t deserted. They were waiting for him there. The things from the illustrations. And as unnerving as the pictures of them had been, seeing Them move was quite something else. Their spindling limbs bent and extended strangely when they walked, in ways that somehow suggested more than the conventional three dimensions (an idea which occurred to him immediately as if it was obvious, in the way that revelations in dreams always do).

And then there were the noises the things Themselves made. As the dream progressed, he realised They were trying to talk to him.

He woke in a cold sweat. The room was dark and strange. The light was all wrong. He ran for the window, and flung open the curtains. The sky outside was red and partially obscured by leaden clouds. He screamed, but all that came out was a harsh whispery noise. A bang and a crash behind him, and he spun round, knowing as he did so that They had broken out of his dream, had broken into the real world, knew what they’d done to the sky and knew what they were going to do to him –

The B&B’s owner shook him awake. He’d been screaming the whole place down. He could hear a child crying through the walls – apparently his yells had woken the family next door, and their baby was not pleased. He apologised profusely, still panicky and half-awake, and bleated out some made up excuse about having night terrors. The B&B’s owner didn’t seem totally convinced but, thankfully, decided not to press the issue.

Reluctantly, he went to the small GP’s surgery in town. Once in the doctor’s room, his troubling visions came spilling out in a torrent of abstract terror and supernatural menace. The doctor listened patiently, inclining her head and managing to look completely unfazed. Once he was done, she prescribed him some sleeping pills, ascribing his nightmares to stress – perhaps stress related to his still-unwritten blog post. He nodded, dumbly, even though she obviously had no idea. He picked up his pills from the surgery’s dispensary and meekly shuffled out onto the street. He looked up and down, half-expecting to glimpse one of Them. Everything seemed normal, but he wasn’t even sure what normal was any more. A peculiar determination gripped him. He knew what he had to do.

The cleaning lady jumped up, startled, when he burst back into his room. He chucked the sleeping pills into the waste paper basket she’d just emptied and started tearing through his satchel. The book wasn’t there. He checked the desk. Empty. His pulse thrumming in his ears, he rounded on the cleaner, accusing her of stealing the book, knowing even as he made the accusation that it was completely insane. A new thought occurred to him, and he sprinted out of the B&B, with the cleaner’s indignant retorts still ringing in his ears.

The bookshop was gone, of course. He stood dumbfounded on the pavement, staring at the brick wall between the closed-down bank and the dry cleaner’s. The bricks were old and weatherworn, discoloured from years of graffiti being applied and scrubbed off. There was no way a shop could have been here, and yet he would have sworn blind this is where he bought the book from.

He slunk back to the B&B, and all he could hear was the chittering and slavering of nightmarish creatures.

The blog post took only a few minutes to write, which surprised him. He read it back, reassuring himself that he’d covered everything, left nothing to chance. People had to know what was going on, what dark secret slumbered at the heart of this far-too-picturesque little town. People had to know about Them. Sure, he might get dismissed as a nut, or a crank, but what else could he do?

He stood up from the laptop, watching the little progress bar at the bottom of the screen as it posted it to the blog. The skittering of inhuman limbs and writhing of leathery carapaces got louder and louder. They were trying to break through, just as he knew they would. Outside, clouds obscured the sun and rain streaked down the windows, changing the geometry of the buildings, showing their true forms. It was already happening, whatever it was. Had he been too late?

A hand gripped his shoulder, cold, clammy. With one last spasmodic burst of energy, he leapt for the window. The chattering of those infernal voices reached a horrific crescendo, and fell silent. And in the street outside, for a short time, it rained blood.

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