NOTHUS IS RELEASING SEPTEMBER 15 AND WE WANT YOU TO GET EXCITED! TAKE A LOOK AT THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS RIGHT NOW.
Winter came early that year. It started where it always did, in the mountains, when an old, gray wind turned veils of rain into sleet during the waning hours of a day no one would remember. Those mountains, mapped and measured by men who thought they knew them, stood ceremonial over the Bensalem valley, like veterans of an ancient war. Ruffles of stratus clouds rolled in from the west, smothering the dull rind of a moon and casting the craggy face of Old Rag in shadow.
The winter wind, testing its strength after a long summer’s nap, whipped down the ridgeline through a palisade of trees. It bristled branches that quartered cardinals and tanagers in the summer but had since been surrendered to little, black cawing things and other mongrels of the sky. Clumps of leaves, fat with rain, washed out the mountain trails and suffocated the cold, hard ground. But never needing a trail to guide it, the wind rolled downhill and spread itself through a rookery of sickly and weather-beaten houses in the valley.
One could look at those houses during the day and confuse an economy of effort with the crippling, collective depression that tightened its death grip on the town year after year, tragedy after tragedy, secret after secret. One could study the ruddy faces of its slumbering residents and discern upon them traces of Bensalem’s original sin, a sin passed down through generations, a sin even further compromising the town’s existence in an Appalachian wasteland.
Like the knock of some angry, dead-handed reaper, the wind clattered the shutters of a narrow, three-story Victorian, once white but now green with age. It seeped in through the bedroom window, fluttered past musty sashes, and hardened the skin of the house’s sole occupant. Sheriff Duke Quinlan, once tightly bolted together, sat now as a mere filament of a man on the side of his deathbed.
In the night, Duke’s subconscious had once again unshackled itself from its host and traversed down a mountain of its own. Only this mountain was not some slab jutting up into an earthly sky, rather the slope of the old man’s soul. That id of his, the zealot for impenetrable truth, would in dreams climb down the mountain and wade around in the muck of his heart.
Deep down in that muck, a seed of shame had been planted four decades ago when he turned a blind eye to the sadistic transformation of a boy—now known as the Sentinel—who was sentenced to face the evil alone for as long as his mutated body could hold out. Duke buried the truth about the boy, upholding the conspiracy the Order demanded of him.
It was easy at first, patching together an affable life of military service, community leadership, and familial joy. But the years, like the rain, washed the varnish off the old man and crept into the seams of his mental scaffolds. His strength failed, his time passed, and the seed grew into a thick and wild growth until it suffocated his mind and his body from the inside. Because through it all, the boy was still out there.
Duke studied the chrome barrel of the shotgun in his hand and exhaled.
He dared not look upon the figure cloaked in shadow in the back corner of the bedroom. It stood wheezing and dripping, emitting sounds of suffering, while Duke whimpered and kept his eyes on the gun.
Hank Teakle’s apparition had become a regular fixture in recent months. He would be there one second, gone the next, but always in a particular corner and only ever in the dead of night. Even though Duke never saw Hank’s body after the Nothus Noctis tore it open last summer, he knew it was his old friend who had come back to haunt him. The posture gave it away—shoulders broad, back straight, signature overalls torn to strings and tassels.
Duke tried not to look, tried not to gaze into the gaping hole in the middle of Hank’s chest—a perfect rectangle of meat and bone cut out with near-surgical precision—tried not to notice drops of blood and chunks of intestine plopping on the hardwood floor. He averted his eyes from Hank’s elongated fingers, like spiders, long mangled things scraping the floor and casting spindly shadows on the wall.
And then, for a fraction of a second, the room and the world went dead, and Hank appeared at the foot of the bed. The shock of his sudden teleportation sent a current of ice water surging past the valves of Duke’s limping heart.
Hank had no face as he stood inches over Duke. His head was just a smooth and hairless orb of flesh glowing blue from fragmented moonlight. Despite his lack of facial features, he somehow fired whispery missives at the broken old man in the bed.
“Coward,” “Shame,” and tonight, simply, “Do it.”
Duke’s trembling hands kept a poor grip on the gun. They shook so badly it took three attempts to snatch the sealed envelope beside him and place it on the nightstand, out of the blast radius.
His hand gripped the handle backwards, and the barrel of the shotgun chattered against his teeth. He wrapped his lips around the chrome and clenched his eyes closed, spilling the remaining tears in them down his sunken cheeks. Before he pulled the trigger, he let out a scream as a second figure appeared, this one only in his mind and showing its face clearly. It was something in the neighborhood of a man. Maybe an entity that had been one long ago, or a thing poorly attempting to mask a more sinister nature. Its face was all black, its eyes all white. Above small horns levitated a faint ring of light over a shimmering black head.
He squeezed the trigger. A bang rifled through the house and spilled into the valley, and the contents of his cranium spray-painted the wallpaper in a bubbling maroon stew. Two drops of blood landed on the envelope—one in the top left corner, and one in the crook of the “C” of the only word written on its front:
Skylar McNamara’s blue eyes burst open when the shot rang out.
“Ram?” she whispered.
Shadows of snowflakes streaming through the window pulled her gaze away from the blankness of the ceiling and out into the stone-cold night. She blinked twice, rolled her head across the pillow to regard a still-snoring Ramsey Matopher, and slipped her legs out from under clouds of comforter. As she approached one of the windows of the third-floor apartment Ram shared with his parents, the chill of the tile pricked the bottoms of her bare feet, and she shivered as the young winter air lashed itself around her forearms.
Outside, all existed as it should. Peaceful, calm, dead. White. Her car, along with everything else in sight across the valley, had accumulated a delicate layer of snow. Maple trees in the New Colonial Heights courtyard, once beaming as lush green beacons in summer and golden-brown treasures in autumn, now stood as twiggy mirages, half blanked out by snow, half exposed in the nakedness of their dormancy. Tattered white rags covered the faces and tops of the looming Blue Ridge Mountains.
As if somehow compelled, Skylar steered her eyes up to the blue floor of the night, where millions of flakes poured out of a moonless sky. The wintry scene outside morphed into a fog as Skylar’s exhales piled up on the glass. She shivered again and slipped back into bed.
“You okay?” Ram whispered, rolling over to face her. He pawed away strands of his long, black hair.
His glassy brown eyes met hers. He pulled a warm hand, a great mitt of a thing, from under the comforter and placed it on the back of her neck.
“You’re freezing,” he said.
“Did you hear that sound just now?”
“No. What sound?”
“I don’t know. It was a loud bang.”
“Just felt you get up.”
Skylar sighed and wrapped both hands around his forearm.
“Sheesh, Sky, you’re freezing.”
“It’s cold, dumbass.”
Ram smiled. “Which one do you have tomorrow? AP Chem?”
“That’ll be fun.”
“It’s snowing,” she whispered.
Skylar closed her eyes, and only after the temperature of Ram’s forearm and her hands reached equilibrium did she open them again. Ram was still gazing at her, still smiling.
“I should go. My mom’s gonna kill me.”
Ellen Dreyer stared in silence out her bedroom window as the night sank into its deepest state of darkness, of cold. Snow poured through her sight line and blanketed a patch of grass in the meadow her eyes had been fixed upon, a patch that had turned permanently brown in the wake of her killing of Jane Harcourt. Staring at it conjured thoughts from that early morning in July.
The crude disposal of her son, Caleb, at Jane’s hands.
The burlap sack they found him in.
The twine around his wrists and ankles.
The flutter of his eyelids.
The faint pulse. The joy!
The fear in Aaron’s eyes when he saw Jane waiting for them.
The white-hot urge to pull the trigger.
The boom of the shot.
The ropes of blood spewing from the stump of Jane’s neck.
The chilling finality of it all, and the unequivocal conviction that there was no other solution.
Caleb Dreyer got his mother back that day, but Mark Harcourt—the Sentinel—lost his.
She touched a soft hand to her chest.
A creak in the hardwood snapped her eyes to the opposite side of the bedroom. Caleb stood in the doorway with a thumb in his mouth. Wind hissed through the house.
“Come here, baby,” she whispered, beckoning him with an outstretched hand. “He’ll be out soon.”
The Elders called it the Black Door. The Black Door of the Bastard.
The wind curled through the outer reaches of the forest, where animals denned and birds nested, where life lived, and onward through an empty glade, where an old folding chair had frozen to the dirt and an overturned camping lantern sat dead. No sound whatsoever manifested in the glade. Even the branches stayed silent as they scraped against each other in the wind.
Snow fell thicker and faster by the time the wind reached the heart of the forest, where the pines seemed somehow darker than those on the perimeter. Their blackness could have been due to the lack of light and life since sunlight struggled to penetrate the canopy of branches overhead, and no creature dared enter this ground. Or perhaps it was the cold, as the heart of the forest was always inexplicably colder than the climate might suggest, even in the heat of the summer. Or maybe, if certain elements of the natural order could be suspended, the pines in the heart of Bensalem had turned black from bearing witness to things no man, no animal, no insect, even no tree, ever should. Maybe their light had bled out over the course of centuries as they stood like silent prisoners shackled to a patch of earth mercilessly desecrated by both man and cosmic beast.
The trees here were so black on such a night, it would have been nearly impossible to ascertain the contours of an odd structure set conspicuously among them. But there, on a muddy patch of terrain under their boughs, stood a sprawling, tent-like articulation constructed from thousands of branches and sticks and twigs, all jutting up from the ground and leaning against each other at the top to form a kind of thatched and gnarled alcove. And if there were a shade of black so dark it sucked the very light out of even this dimmest of places, that unimaginable blackness formed the rough shape of an entrance—to somewhere, to something—in the middle of the structure.
Deep within that door, under layers of bedrock, a subterranean dimension existed beneath the forest. So secluded and unknown was this dimension, no mortal woman or man had navigated its passageways, explored its earthen rooms, or ever directly colluded with the things that lived there.
The Elders had known only vaguely of its inhabitants and their activities. They knew it was where the Nothus Noctis—the Night Bastard—lay in wait during the day and emerged from during the night. They knew the Sentinel, the unwilling martyr of their cause and protector of Bensalem, dwelt on the opposite side, hiding from the Nothus at day and emerging from the Earth itself at night to engage the Nothus when it sought to feed. But while the Elders had done well to wield tools of alchemy and occultism to understand this realm, there was much they did not know. They did not know of one such room, an innermost sanctum, where the Nothus at this very moment stood.
Its eyes, burning with a crimson fire, peered out over a bony and animalistic snout at the mess of its spindly fingers wrapped around what appeared to be a human body laid upon an altar. Those fingers, long enough to stretch twice across the chest cavity they had hollowed out four months ago, had penetrated a viscous membrane encasing the body.
The Nothus stood this way for hours, with one set of fingers clutched around some human remnant, earthly or otherwise, while its other set twitched in a manic pattern that, through the power of its dark entity, channeled the image of Hank Teakle into Duke Quinlan’s bedroom.
And in the back corner of the room, behind dozens of these podded bodies and membranes and altars, another thing crouched in the darkness. Its ghostly white eyes watched the Nothus with a penetrating clarity.
The snow tapered off as an auburn dawn saturated the eastern sky, and the residents of Bensalem prepared to confront another day. A scourge of incandescent light, refracted and amplified off the ivory earth, poured over the open hands of Cheryl McNamara as she sat on the edge of her bed. Her steel-gray eyes traced the cracks in her palms before the alarm clock moaned in rhythmic agony.
“You gonna get that?” her husband, Rick, said, his voice muffled by the pillow over his face.
Cheryl rose, turned off the alarm clock, and shuffled over to the window facing the street. The houses and cars on Masons Street looked like dunes bulging from a rocky, white beach. On any other day, Cheryl would have been struck by their ugliness, their rust, their browns and yellows, their staleness. But today, their roofs glistened in a spotless white sheen. All except one.
“Goddammit,” Cheryl said, as her gaze locked onto Skylar’s naked blue hatchback in the driveway and the trail of snow-less tire marks behind it.
Rick snaked his hands around her slight waist and rested his chin on her shoulder. “The vanguard of winter.”
“The first snow.”
Cheryl planted her palms on the windowsill, pulling them both closer. “Look at that.”
“I see it. Very beautiful.”
Cheryl whipped her neck around to face him, bringing the tip of her nose to within an inch of her husband’s chin. “Rick. What’s wrong with that picture?”
“Ah,” Rick said. “Maybe she ran out to buy some flowers.”
Cheryl nudged an elbow into Rick’s pot belly. “Be more than you give me.”
“Want me to talk to her?”
“Lord knows, she won’t listen to me. She’s your daughter too.” Cheryl yawned as she walked back to the nightstand, grabbed her flip phone, and sat back down on the bed. “I don’t mind the dating. I mind the sleepovers.”
“Ram’s a good boy.”
“He’s a great boy. But he’s got a pecker, and Skylar’s…Skylar.”
“Heard he just got promoted at WLC.” Rick ran a comb through his head of salt and pepper hair. “Helluva good job for an eighteen-year-old. Most grown men in this town can’t keep a job for two weeks, and here he is, managing most of ’em. You know, they got a second crew goin’ now?” His belt buckle jingled in the vapid silence of the bedroom, as if enthusiastically answering Rick’s question in Cheryl’s stead. He turned around with only one pant leg on. “Bug?”
Cheryl sat in a trance on the bed, her eyes glued to the wall and the top of her flip phone glued to her ear. He watched her as he struggled with the other pant leg.
“Bug, you okay?”
He finished dressing while she remained nearly catatonic, moving only to press the necessary buttons on her phone to replay the message. After four cycles of listening and replaying, Cheryl dialed the last person to call her.
“Mornin’, Sheriff,” she said into the phone. “I got your message. I’ll swing by before I head to the station. I’ll let Brady know. Gimme a holler if you get this.”
“Something’s wrong with Duke. He left me a voicemail in the middle of the night, and he sounded…distressed.”
She threw on her brown and khaki Bensalem Sheriff’s Department uniform and pecked him on the cheek on her way out of the bedroom. The curiosity of Skylar’s closed door halted her haste. She leaned her ear to the door and slowly twisted the knob. A tuft of neon-green hair sprouting from a mountain of blankets and pillows served as the evidence she needed to prove her daughter’s presence. Cheryl sighed, careful not to do so audibly, and closed the door behind her.
Snow crunching under her patrol car’s tires served as welcome harmony to the strained chug of the motor. She waved dryly to the several parka-clad neighbors already out shoveling their driveways, and she placed a call to Derek Brady to let him know she’d be late in relieving him. For a moment, she let her mind drift from the stress of Duke’s message and even smiled upon gazing at the snow-covered Christmas decorations perched on the patios of the stores still in business on Main Street, but she made certain to look away when passing M&J Fine Gifts.
She pressed the accelerator as she approached the snowy grade leading up to Duke’s street. His Victorian stood among several of the town’s oldest homes, embedded in overgrowth thriving beneath a latticework of oak branches scraping the sky.
Cheryl parked some distance from the house. It loomed in a solemn repose before her, like some wood-paneled ziggurat that belonged in neither the time nor place in which it existed. The air’s chill stung her face as she stepped out, and she yanked the zipper of her leather jacket as high as it could go.
She laid a hand on the butt of her service weapon as she scanned the property. Skiffs of snow half covered two green shutters lying in the front yard, and shards of ice winked in the sunlight around them. His patrol car and his SUV sat snow-covered in a driveway area beside the house. She didn’t move her feet, but she took a long glare over each shoulder before calling Duke again, and again receiving no answer. She unclipped the radio from her belt.
“611 to dispatch,” she said.
“Mornin’, deputy,” Brady said.
“I’m up here at Duke’s. Little bit of a mess outside. No signs of forced entry. Both cars are here, and neither one of ’em moved since last night. He call in? Over.”
“Nothin’. Quiet as a church mouse here. Over.”
She glanced over her shoulders again, and then squinted at the broken shutter hinges on either side of Duke’s bedroom window. Standing on the porch, she called Duke for the last time and flipped her phone down when she got voicemail. Three times she knocked and called his name. No one, and no thing, answered. She grasped the glass doorknob in its rusted-out casing, and her gloved hand nearly slipped off from the ease at which it twisted open.
The musk of old wood and mildew flooded her nostrils. She scanned the foyer, the living room, the dining room. Every object in view had a sort of white varnish, and she couldn’t tell if it was glare from the snow outside or a layer of dust that had been accumulating for years. Furniture, bookshelves, shoes in the foyer—it all seemed to be trending toward the same shade of off-white, calcifying into one giant, collective fossil.
“Duke? You here?” Her voice echoed through the halls.
The floorboards wretched under her boots, their agony amplified by the house’s silence. As she ascended the stairs, the smell of age was altogether replaced by the coppery stench of blood. She stopped midway.
“Duke, can you hear me? It’s Mac,” she said while unholstering her service weapon. At the top of the stairs, an ambiguous brown blotch on the hardwood floor pulled her attention to the closed door on the right side of the hallway.
“Duke?” she whispered, somehow sensing it would be the last time she’d call out to him.
Cheryl opened the door and gasped at the half-shorn-off head of her boss and mentor. Now, former.
He sat on the edge of the bed. Feet on the ground, hands by his sides, head against the wall, jaw gone completely and replaced by a waterfall of blood spilling all the way into his lap like a long, red beard. His lifeless eyes—staring dead ahead, staring right at Deputy Cheryl McNamara—and his tongue hanging loose from a jawless skull had turned his face into something resembling an odd grin. “What’s so funny?” it seemed to ask.
With one hand now holding a handkerchief over her nose and mouth, she darted her service weapon through the corners of the room, and she yanked open the closet door to clear it. She holstered her weapon and drew the radio.
“611 to dispatch. We’re gonna need EMT and crime tech.”
“Uh oh,” Brady said. “At Duke’s?”
“No, he’s dead. Send ’em now. I’ll call you later. Over.”
Cheryl stared at the halo of blood on the wallpaper behind his head. She looked at his hands, old and dead, looked at the shotgun, still by his side, still somehow pointing at him. Then, she saw the note on the nightstand.
Skylar left the chem lab, messenger bag slung sloppily over her shoulder and three-ring binder under crossed arms, and paced down the locker-lined corridor of West Hamilton High. The hallway teemed with adolescent life. Girls gaggled in doorways, packs of boys howled and guffawed, and couples held hands in proclamation of their nascent relationships. Skylar’s only company was the squelch of her Dr. Martens and the daydream of another evening with Ram. She was the only one of her small handful of friends—who also dressed in all black and smoked pot and listened to hardcore punk—who took AP Chem right before AP Lit, so she walked alone between them.
The squelch slowly faded against a rising tide of voices in a crowded corner. Skylar opened her binder to ignore them, but not a second after she began sifting through its contents did it plummet from her hands and her right shoulder rocked back from blunt force.
“Hey, piglet,” a boy’s voice said from close range.
A few kids in the corner stared at her as loose paper from the binder bloomed around her feet. She wheeled around to a stone-faced boy inches away from her.
“The fuck?” she said.
The boy peered down at her, bloodshot eyes behind an overly pronounced brow. He put his hands on her shoulders. She jerked one free, but he grabbed the sleeve of her black hoodie.
“The fuck are you doing?” she said.
“Get the fuck off of me, Justin. You’re fucked up.”
He grabbed her shoulders again, tighter. “Fuck you and your pig ass brother.”
“What? What did Lenny do?”
“Your mom gave me a fucking DUI on Friday. I wasn’t even drunk. I’m probably gonna do time for that shit.”
“You’re fucking drunk right now. I can smell it.”
“Fuck your mom and fuck your family. You’re a pig, just like your mom. You little piglet ass sh—”
Skylar slammed the binder into his chest hard enough to break free. She spun around and escaped through a handful of gawkers.
“God fucking dammit,” she whispered under her breath.
Her heart rate didn’t slow down until twenty minutes into the AP Lit mid-term.
Cheryl directed two EMTs as they wheeled a stretcher past her and through Duke’s front door. The boot treads they left in the snow were already pooling with the water, and a cue ball of a sun hung high in the cloud-speckled sky. She rose from her seated position on the porch steps after melted snow had saturated her bottoms enough to annoy her. The emotionless sounds of the corpse cleanup process—clips, zips, thunks—wafted down through the drafty old windowpanes while a woodpecker tapped diligently some nameless distance away.
She called Brady.
“Hey, what’s up?” he said, his eagerness palatable.
“Shotgun blast to the mouth.”
“Mother of God. No way. Self-inflicted?”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”
Cheryl paused and pulled her gaze toward the general direction of the woodpecker, its tapping closer than a moment ago.
“You know, we both saw it, didn’t we?” Brady said. “Somethin’ wasn’t right with him. Ever since that shit went down last summer.”
“You’re tellin’ me.”
“He took it hard. I don’t know if it was cause it all happened while he was gone, or…I dunno, maybe it was all too personal for him. Hell, maybe just too old for it. Somethin’. He just wasn’t the same after that, was he?”
“And I don’t think it helped that we never quite saw eye to eye on how it was handled either. We never really got past it, hate to say.”
The muffled racket of toddlers filled the empty space of Brady’s pause. “Well,” he said and paused again, “I’m…I’m sorry, Deputy.”
“Heck. Don’t be pityin’ me. This is gonna hit all of us. In fact, can you do me a favor and tell the rest of the squad? And can you call Sperryville and Martinsville? Just a courtesy, nothin’ formal. Just rather they hear it from one of us.”
“Of course. You got it, Sheriff.”
“Hey now. None of that.”
“You’re in charge ’til someone tells me you ain’t.”
She sighed. “We’ll just have to see.”
“I’ll make those calls. You headin’ to the station? Monica’s there.”
“I am. Boy. Helluva thing to come back to fresh off maternity leave, huh?”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“Guess I’ll tell her when I get there, so cross her off your list.”
“You got it.”
“Thanks, Derek. Out here.”
The thuds of heavy footsteps on stairs caused her to postpone her second phone call. Both EMTs—one male, one female, both much younger and taller than she—nodded curtly as they wheeled the stretcher past her. Duke’s obsidian body bag shone in the mid-morning light. It looked like the deflated chrysalis of some giant and terrible stillborn moth, now being ceremoniously ushered off to an unhallowed ground where such things lie.
“All good up there?” Cheryl said to the EMTs.
“Yeah, all good,” the young woman said.
“Kinda nasty,” added the young man.
Cheryl shook her head.
She waited until the EMTs were well past earshot before calling her husband.
“Well, hey there, bug,” Rick said.
“Hey. So, I’m still at Duke’s.”
“He’s dead, Rick.”
“Yeah. I, uh…”
“Oh boy. You okay?”
“I…Yeah. I just came in, and the door was unlocked, and I just found him in his room.”
“He shot himself with that old shotgun.”
“Oh, dear Lord! Really?”
“His...” Cheryl winced and sat back down on the porch. She grasped her temples with her other hand. “His jaw was…His jaw was—”
“Hey, let me come get you. I can be there in about twenty minutes. Can I come get you?”
“He left a note on the nightstand with my name on it. He called me in the middle of the night and told me to stop by. Rick, he wanted me to be the one that found him. I’m terrified to open it.”
“Okay, stay put. I’ll come. Stay at Duke’s. Or you want me to—”
“No, no. Don’t come get me. I have to deal with this.”
“You have to take care of yourself. This isn’t like last summer. This is Duke, for Christ sake.”
“No, I…I need to deal with this.”
“Bug, you need to take care of yourself. You were a wreck for months after Hank and Jane, and you’re only now just healin’.”
“Well, I’m basically in charge right now. I need to be strong, and I need to show them—”
“Why don’t you let the team handle this one? Why don’t you come home?”
“I don’t know, baby. I need to…I need to call VSP.”
“Oh, my sweet Cheryl.”
“I’ll call you in a little bit, okay?”
“Let me call you, how about that?”
“Okay. You talk to Skylar?”
“Yeah. She’s good. We’re good. Home when? Around seven?”
“Yeah, should be.”
“Okay. I love you. You’ll get through this. You’re gonna be just fine. Okay?”
Cheryl sighed. “We’ll see. I love you too.”
She put the phone down on the step next to her, and she let her head sink into her hands. The woodpecker tapped on.
Much to the dismay of shopkeepers longing for something festive and children hoping to frolic outside after school, the snow had completely evaporated by the early afternoon. Not long for Bensalem was the catharsis of a thing new and beautiful, a hint of winteresque purification after a summer of sweltering pain. Instead, the town found itself in a place it knew so well, trudging through muddy brown muck under drizzling slate-colored skies, weather just warm enough to keep the world wet but still cold enough to chill bones.
Cheryl and her flip phone withstood an onslaught of calls throughout the day—Virginia State Police, the coroner’s office, other sheriffs offering condolences, friends of Duke’s who wanted just to talk. She became the funnel and the focal point of Duke’s suicide, and the jarring memories of her week from hell four months ago crept out of their caves, attempting to breach the mental barriers she’d constructed to keep them out.
When she told Deputy Monica Nelson the news about Duke, Cheryl saw the same fear she’d seen in her young officers’ eyes when they marched up the hill at Hank’s Horse Farm together. And she couldn’t shake the comparison of Duke’s mangled skull to that of Jane Harcourt’s, who she found splattered all over the meadow by Wickham Road after the Dreyers had exacted their revenge upon her.
That memory picked open the scab of her frustration that she and Duke had let Aaron take the fall for Jane’s murder, when it was clear as day Ellen was the one who pulled the trigger. And the gnawing, seething anxiety that besieged her when Caleb went missing crawled over every inch of her skin when calls from every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the state of Virginia poured in. This time, of course, Duke wouldn’t be back from a vacation in a few days to help. One by one, the memories returned, and one by one, she tried to beat them back, banishing them to the dark corners of her mind where things only became real if light was shed upon them.
But even though these memories brought her pain and discomfort, they existed in the material world, the realm of the rational. They were mere physical symptoms of a more potent but unknowable problem. It was this problem—the real problem—that she had procrastinated to solve even after vowing she would. So, when gray skies finally faded to night and Cheryl sped past black blobs of trees and lamp lit houses on the way home, she thought not of simple matters like skulls or corpses or murder charges knocked down to manslaughter. She thought about what Duke said, about what Aaron said, about why Jane took Caleb, and rituals in which boys were forged into beasts. She thought about what little she knew of something Duke called “the Order” and the fantastic notion that it served to protect—by the most dastardly means necessary—the town of Bensalem from some demon of Hell or otherwise diabolical origin. These were matters her mental defenses simply could not withstand, and now, they were battering their way back in.
It had been dark for some time when she finally arrived home. Light from the porch lamps lay in stains on the front yard as she peeled off her mud-caked boots and tossed them aside before entering. Rick was waiting, and he threw his arms around her before she could even close the door. She left it open and gripped him back.
“I’m so sorry,” Rick said, his lips pressed against Cheryl’s neck. “I’m so sorry, bug.”
She released him and pecked him on the lips. “How are you guys?”
“We’re okay. We’re doing okay. How are you?”
Cheryl marched past him up the stairs, where the din of rock music echoed through the hallway. She knocked on Skylar’s door, more of a warning than a proposal, and opened it. Skylar lay on her stomach on the bed with her feet in the air, reading something.
“Turn that down, please?” Cheryl said, leaning on the doorknob.
Skylar rolled her eyes and, only after great effort, slinked off the bed and turned off the music.
“Where were you last night?” Cheryl asked.
“At Ram’s?” Skylar said, implying her mother’s question was a stupid one.
“What did I tell you about sleepovers?”
Skylar stared back blankly.
“Skylar, what did I tell you? You are seventeen years old. You do not sleep—”
“He’s seventeen too. We’re not having sex, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Cheryl pointed at Skylar with her other hand. “You’re grounded.”
The look of complacency on Skylar’s face transformed to one of instant shock. “Mom!”
“No Ram for one week. No—”
“Bullshit, no Ram for one week!”
“No Ram for one week. No friends for one week. Give me your keys.”
As if prepping for an impending apocalypse, Skylar threw her keys, her books, and some spare clothes into her shoulder bag. Red blotches broke out on her neck.
“Skylar! Don’t you dare!”
“Fuck this,” Skylar said under her breath as she brushed past her mother, stomped down the stairs, and slammed the door behind her.
Cheryl watched from the window as her daughter peeled out of the driveway and sped off westward—west toward Ram’s.
Rick rushed up the stairs and was out of breath by the time he arrived. “The hell was that about?” he said.
“I just don’t want her sleeping there,” Cheryl said, her back still to him.
“Well, where you think you just sent her runnin’ off to?”
Cheryl said nothing, only rested her forehead on the cold glass. Rick plucked the ranger-style police hat squished between her head and the window, took her head in his hands, and gently brushed his fingers through her hair.
Skylar practically strangled the steering wheel. Her freshly painted turquoise fingernails dug divots into its plastic, and her locked arms pressed the frame hard into its column. The chalky sound of molars grinding in her head joined the thrashier percussion of Minor Threat blasting from the car’s blown-out speakers, an unintended modification her brother Lenny had made to the vehicle well before it fell into her hands.
At one point, Skylar screamed. She smacked the steering wheel with her palm so hard it hurt, and she choked out breaths as mascara-stained tears rolled down her cheeks.
The temperature outside dropped as she sped down State Road 639. Damp blades of grass and dead leaves began to grow icy exoskeletons. Melted snow that had pooled in animal tracks began to freeze. And while Skylar’s rage grew hotter, the rage of another, quite close to her at this very moment, grew much colder.
Maurice Bacon’s rage was not built on a foundation of teenage angst. It couldn’t have been, since his teenage years were stolen from him. His rage was a weapon, built from much older, stronger stuff.
It was forged when he was taken as a boy, without his knowing and very much against his will. The ritual shackled his young body in alchemical chains, and it exiled him to subsist, all alone, deep underground in the forest. For twenty years, he dwelt there, his armor growing around him, his nemesis rising each night to find food, and his sole task was to seek it out and use his weaponized body to stop it. All for the sake of protecting a town that soon forgot him.
His rage was then tempered into something sharp when he was finally relieved from his duty by the Order. He was gawked at and shunned by Bensalem’s townsfolk and what was left of his family, all of whom were told he had simply gone missing to keep the secrets of the Sentinel and Nothus intact. What was that scar on his forehead? And something was wrong with his jaw; it didn’t work the same after being broken during the ritual and left unhealed for two decades. It would click loudly, drop out of its socket, and he’d pop it back in with his hand. Sometimes, he’d have to hold it in place when he ate. He walked with a jarring stiffness, as if his limbs had been welded into rigid poles. Little did people know that for a time, they were. Worst of all, the alchemy had altered his brain. He still had the vocabulary of a five-year-old, he never learned to exercise judgment, and the idea of joining a functioning society soon became impossible.
But it was not until recently that his rage, forged and tempered by the fires of exile both underground and above it, became unleashed. It happened when Jane Harcourt, the cleric of the Order’s Bensalem chapter, whose own son had relieved Maurice’s Sentinel duties, died four months ago. Jane took him in when he wanted shelter, fed him when he was hungry, even made him a member of their chapter to give him something to belong to. Only Jane provided these things to Maurice Bacon because only Jane understood. Maybe a part of her compassion was to offset the guilt of allowing her son to succumb to the same fate. Maybe it was her disdain of the Order’s leadership, who constantly questioned her “old ways.”
Regardless of how or why, Jane had become the single stabilizing force in the ex-Sentinel’s fractured life, and without her, little remained to tether him. The Order’s Bensalem chapter, its members advancing in age and its membership dwindling even before Jane’s death, had effectively disbanded. Those remaining lacked the energy or alchemical skills to maintain the cycle of the Sentinels the way Jane did. It would be well enough to let the Order’s leadership right the ship in their own way and on their timeline.
Alone, Maurice persisted. His faith grew more zealous, more unhinged, and in brief and infrequent moments of mental clarity, he lamented how he had become what his old friend, Jane Harcourt, feared most.
He stood barefoot on the frosty earth of the glade, a lone acolyte folded between layers of the forest’s shadow. Maurice donned Jane’s brown cleric’s robe. Faint whiffs of her dried blood floated into his nostrils, and he smiled, knowing he was consuming some fleeting part of her. He stood this way for hours, simply waiting, a skill he had grand-mastered over the last sixty years. The glade was soundless, as the forest’s more natural inhabitants had learned long ago not to go anywhere near it. Even the wind was still. Maurice just stood there, quiet and freezing.
The encounter began when his right index finger started waving, slowly and methodically at first, as if tapping an invisible keyboard. After several minutes, its pace accelerated to a twitching, the knuckle rocketing back and forth in its socket. His smile widened, feeling his master approaching.
Maurice’s ring finger started to move, then the pinky on his other hand, then both of his thumbs. Over the course of a good hour, each of his fingers became alive, moving at velocities unsustainable by human muscle alone. It was also during this time his eyes, set deep in a scraggly bearded and weather-worn face, faded from pale blue to completely white.
He gasped in wonder when two faint red lights appeared in the distance.
The Nothus’s eyes splintered in the cold winter night, like two bloodstained orbs, the sheer mystery of their presence deterring the advance of any creature cursed enough to notice them.
Maurice whispered, “The kingdom, and the power, and the gl—”
The Nothus’s rapid and sudden movement shocked Maurice back into silence. Its eyes dropped into the ambiguousness of the forest floor and within seconds re-appeared as two raging lamps of fire above him. Maurice craned his neck to meet the gaze of the Nothus as it stood towering over him. The light from its eyes coated its snout and its sprawling antlers in a soft vermillion glow. The glow did not, however, reach the Nothus’s fingers, those sharp and hellish hooks of death that had butchered so many over the centuries, as they, too, twitched in rapid succession. Maurice and the Nothus faced each other, one looking up and one looking down, white eyes gazing into red.
And then it stopped.
The Nothus was suddenly gone. The forest was black. Maurice was alone, his eyes and his fingers as they were when he arrived.
“Yes. Yes, my king,” Maurice said, grinning. “I will find it. Your will be done. I will find it for you. Your will be done. Your will be done.”