Happy Halloween

The day has come. The time is here.

Tis the night—the night
Of the grave’s delight,
And the warlocks are at their play;
Ye think that without,
The wild winds shout,
But no, it is they—it is they!

― Arthur Cleveland Coxe, Halloween: A Romaunt

I hope you all have a happy and joyous Halloween. And here is my treat for you: my story, “Nemesis”, from my collection, The Fiddle is the Devil’s Instrument and Other Forbidden Knowledge. Enjoy.

Nemesis

I must write quickly. The candle is dying even now and I can hear them waiting, just beyond the circle of the light.

The coming of Nemesis was a cause for celebration. Since men first looked to the sky and understood it, we had wondered if there was a world beyond the ones we know. Something to account for the wobble in Neptune’s orbit. An answer to what titanic love affair had left Uranus to roll forever on its side. A Planet X, a Niburu, a Yuggoth. Yet in the end, it was not a planet that haunted the edge of the solar system, but a star. A dark, dead star. Black as the void and almost as hard to see.

It was a chance scan by an infrared camera on Voyager III that found it. The experts, of course, didn’t call it by any of the names the ancients had known. To them, it was Tyche, not an enemy to be cursed but a friend to be welcomed. And so, when I taught my 11th grade science class about its coming, I told them they had nothing to fear.

The black dwarf’s orbit took it deep into space, far beyond even tiny Pluto, and for thousands of years it remained but a myth. But now it was coming. A great, dark mass in the sky, one that would blot out the stars until, in an event not seen since the plains of Giza were thick with verdant foliage and echoed with rushing streams, Tyche would blot out the sun as well…

And we would celebrate, the world all over. Muslim and Jew, Christian and Atheist, every race and every people, united by an event so stupendous, so rare, that it might never come again. Not, at least, while mankind still exercised dominion over the earth.

Scientists couldn’t even say how long this before-unimagined eclipse would last. Only that it would cover the sun completely for at least a few hours, maybe as long as a day.

And so events were planned. Twilight festivals to embrace the coming dark. We walked into that stygian night with arms wide open. We came to embrace the void. We did not fear the dark, not this time, not anymore.

What madness took hold of us? What fiendish power corrupted our minds? I suppose we will never know, though I have my suppositions. I will always believe that that black orb cast down more than darkness on the surface of the earth, even before they came.

Were there some who dissented? I’m sure there were many. But there was only one in our town. One man who did not fall under Tyche’s sway. Only one who called what was coming by its own name.

I knew Bill Atwood for nearly a decade. That he taught astronomy and physics at the local college belied his immense stature in the world of academia. At least, the stature he had once maintained. Before he came to our little town in the shadow of the Rockies, he had been a professor of some renown at a prestigious school back East. A scandal had led to his fall from grace and departure from Massachusetts, something about bizarre and controversial views that did not comport with the standard model of the universe or the accepted story of human history, views that he was not shy about sharing. I had heard the end came when his obsession turned to violence and he assaulted the Dean of Sciences at his former employer. That incident had led to his journey west, led him to a place where a struggling college was willing to look the other way in order to hire a man of his expertise. And yet, despite his reputation, I had never personally heard Professor Atwood express any unorthodox views. Not until the coming of Nemesis.

For that is its name, Nemesis. Atwood told me as much. Atwood knew the truth. If only we had listened. But what difference would it have made? Who can stand in the face of such darkness?

I saw him that day, the last day I guess anyone saw him. He was coming out of the grocery store, his cart loaded down with canned food, bottled water, candles. These weren’t supplies for holding a celebration, but for surviving a siege.

“Bill?” I said, and I was unable to mask the concern in my voice. When he looked up at me, in his eyes I saw a desperate man. He grasped my arm.

“Howard,” he said. He was agitated. Nervous. Afraid. But more than that. He was terrified. “You’ve always been kind to me. Now I’m going to return the favor. Get out while you can. Find a place to hide.”

“Professor,” I said, “I’m afraid I don’t understand. The festival…”

“This is no time to celebrate!” he almost screamed. I glanced around nervously to see if others were watching. They were, and without approval. “Don’t you understand? It’s all been written. It’s all been predicted. They are coming. I tried to warn the others, but they wouldn’t listen. Not that it matters…” His speech trailed off, his eyes following. “There’s nothing that can stop them. Not then. And not now.

“I have a storm shelter,” he said, looking back up at me. “It’s not much, but it might be enough. You can come with me. There is plenty of room.”

“Thank you, but that’s alright, Professor,” I said, trying to humor him. Trying to be kind. He reached into his basket and pulled out a votive candle. “Take it,” he said. “A guard against the night.”

“No, Professor, I can’t…”

“Take it! In the end it probably won’t matter. But maybe it will buy you enough time.” He gestured at me with the glass-encased candle, and this time I didn’t protest. He nodded to me once more, and then he was gone, leaving me standing at the entrance of the Save ‘n Shop, candle in hand.

I write by that candle now, though I know not for how much longer it will last. Just as I do not know for how long the darkness will hold sway. Too long, no doubt.

The day of the festival was as clear and bright as any I could remember. A perfect blue sky spread above us, unblemished, but for the dark circle of night that seemed to grow larger with every second.

It rolled through the void toward us, blocking out the sky with its great, dark mass. I stood at the base of College Hill while many more waited on its crown, staring up at that coming darkness.

“It’s so awesome!” a little boy squealed.

“Yeah, it sure is,” a man, his father I assumed, said in answer, cheerfully. And yet, the smallest doubt had crept into his voice. I felt it, too. For the first time, I wondered. But still I stood there, gazing up into the circle of night that slowly devoured the sky.

It was noon when it reached the sun, which sat upon its throne at the apex of the blue dome above us, bathing us in its light as it had since when the earth was devoid of life. We gazed up as the edge of that flat circle of light clashed with the darkness of another. We watched as that greater darkness covered the lesser light. Watched as the sun vanished behind an impenetrable shroud.

A shadow fell over us all. It crept over the town, fingers of night wrapping around homes and stores and schools. It marched up the hill, gaining strength as our star’s power diminished. I stared at the sun, a fading disk that no doubt seared the edge of my retina. But I could not look away, any more than a man can look away as the love of his life drives off into the distance, never to be seen again.

I had to experience this, even if I didn’t understand. I had to watch, even if I didn’t see. I had to bear witness as the first chapter of Genesis was undone. As the second darkness fell upon the surface of the earth. As God said, “Let there be night.” But not God. Something else. Something else entirely.

The end began with a sound. Though that’s not really the right word. It was more like a buzzing, something that was felt more than heard. A low, inaudible murmur, just beyond the range of man’s hearing.

But then there was something that we did hear. A cry, a wail, a piteous howling, more desperate than any I’d ever heard before. It was the dogs, you see. It was as if every dog in town was suddenly struck by such pain or sorrow that they could not bear it but by calling out to the world in the only way they knew how.

The sound unsettled the children. It unsettled the adults, too, but they tried to keep a brave face. Reassurances were given. Soothing words spoken that, to my ears at least, lacked conviction.

It was after the howl of the dogs had ceased that we first saw it. The night was dark, and Nemesis was darker. And yet as that black mass hung in the sky, I began to believe that I could make out something curling off of the dead star’s surface. Smoke-like tendrils seemed to reach toward us. Tentacles of swirling mist drifted down from the beyond and spread across the sky. The noonday stars that had seemingly winked into existence as the sun’s rays faded were extinguished. And then something even stranger happened. The lights of the city— the street lamps, the storefronts, even the white Christmas bulbs that decorated the stage on College Hill—began to flicker and fade until, one by one, they all went out. The darkness that had covered the sky now covered the earth.

Panic was in the air. The voice of the crowd gibbered and murmured as fear spread through us all. And yet still we clung to the belief that this was nothing unusual, and that even if it was, it too would pass in good time. That belief was broken when we heard the first scream.

It seemed to fall down from the summit above to those of us who could get no closer than the base of College Hill. It was on that summit that the breath of Nemesis now alighted, where, as impossible as it seemed, the shimmering tendrils of darkness that drifted down from it now touched. I suppose when we heard the first cry that it should have snapped nerves already on edge, should have sent us screaming into the night. Instead it froze us in place and caused all of us to glance toward our neighbors for assurances, even as they were hidden from our view.

It was a scream like a whistle on a freight train passing through a town at rush hour. It never really stopped, only took a breath to reload. It seemed to grow closer, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw a man running toward us. He was the one screaming. The sound of it curved along the Doppler Effect as he ran to me and past me, his wail carrying into the night. Then there was movement. You could sense it as much as see it. The crowd at the top of the hill was frothing, bulging and contracting, pushing against itself, spilling down the slope.

What was one scream became a thousand.

The people around me began to run, picking up their children and going. But in the darkness they could not see. Many fell, never to rise again, crushed beneath the boots and heels and tennis shoes of their neighbors. I could not move, paralyzed by fear and wonder and even curiosity. I stood there as the wave of terrified men and women and children broke around me, surging down the hill and into town, fleeing without direction or thought, knowing, like a herd of hunted prey, that they must escape, must get away. I don’t know why I stayed. Perhaps because I sensed that something was coming, something I needed to see.

And see it I did, though I can’t say even now exactly what it was. At first I saw only the carnage it wrought, as one might look upon a tree snapped by the wind. Bodies were ripped asunder before me, torn or sliced or twisted apart as if by impossibly powerful and unseen hands. I staggered back, until finally I was sprinting full speed after those who’d gone before.

It was only when I chanced a glance over a shoulder that I saw one, and only then in the corner of my eye (I wonder now if we can see them otherwise, if perhaps to look upon them fully would break something in the mind). It was madness made reality, shadow given form, something made of nothing.

A thing that walked when it should have crawled.

How to describe what shouldn’t exist in a sane world? Even to try is to struggle against our rational boundaries. It was a creature made of sharp and impossible angles, a being of form unknown to man even in the worst nightmares of the insane. I watched as its scythe-like arms sliced through body and bone, as its titanic empty maw devoured the living and the dead. And it was not just one. It was legion.

I ran on, but there was no escaping the things that came from the sky, no escaping Nemesis as it poured out its hate.

I fled as my friends and neighbors were consumed by a dark fire that covered all. Somehow I found my way, stumbling through empty alleys and naked corridors, back here, to my home, to my study, to what may be the final source of light in all the world. The flickering flame of a candle, all that’s left to hold back the night.

I know my time is short. As I’ve written this, the shrieks and screams and pleas for help and mercy that filled the streets beyond my door have fallen silent. And now they have come for me. They wait, just beyond the circle of the light, swirling, snarling, hating. Thirsting for my blood, my pain, my death. They creep forward as the light retreats, and my candle is all but gone. I will write until I can write no more. I hope that others survived this. I pray that someone will live to see a new day, that they will find this testament of one who did not believe.

But if not, then if some other creature should come upon it and decipher the meaning of it, they will know that not all stars give life, and that not all life is meant to walk within the light.

The candle flutters. I can sense them now. Hear them. I can feel their claws upon my back, taste the hate upon their breath, hear their frenzy for my doom.

The light is fai     

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