Isn’t it wonderful to sit out, late at night, and watch the stars?

Of course, you probably haven’t.

Few have, anymore.

The night sky is one of the things modernity has taken away from us, and the ever-lit nature of our lives is not going away. Let’s face it—darkness is frightening and dangerous. But like many such things, it is also beautiful, a windswept wonder spelled out by celestial candles.

After a fleeting glimpse of what few glowing points make it through the humming fluorescent veil, who hasn’t wished they could lay out in an open field away from everything? What a simple pleasure it could be, watching the night sky spin overhead with no distractions save those found in nature and a soft piano tune in mind?

“You understand, the translation will have to be approximate,” Smiths said. “A lot of heiroglyphs is context and inferential.”

“Just read it.” The revolver was argument enough.

“The Aten had no form, no voice, only will. Arising from the darkness of all which exists outside the Maat, the divine order of the cosmos, it first manifested as a weak and guttering spark. Only by associating itself with the bright disc of the sun was the Aten able to attract the notice of mortals, who came to view it as an aspect of their sun god, Ra. In this way, the Aten was first able to whisper into the ears of the chief priest, the Pharaoh. Over a generation, the whispers grew strong enough for the Pharaoh, and by extension his people, to allot the Aten a place in their great pantheon of deities. And when an aged and infirm ruler gave way to a young and impressionable one, the whispers grew ever louder.”

“Keep going.”

“In those days, the Aten was possessed of a great love for those whose belief had allowed it to escape from the darkness of the Duat, the underworld, but also a terrible jealousy. Through the Pharaoh, it insisted that the old gods were to be swept away–the whispers so insistent that the young ruler soon came to be preoccupied with his new religion alone, to the ruin of the nation. The Divinity, which existed in the guise of the many local gods at that time, reacted by withdrawing itself from the land. The Aten was unable to cope with the subsequent widespread famine, plagues, political upheaval, and general chaos, great though its powers had become. With the death of the Pharaoh from illness, the Aten was cast down from its lofty perch, and the light which represented it faded once more as successive rulers ought to erase it from their history.”

Smiths paused. “S-shall I keep going?”

The gun again, flashing in the torchlight. “Please do.”

“Cast once again into darkness, the Aten grew bitter at its fate, and came to resent the mortals on whom it had depended and whom it had once tried to love. It gathered its strength once more, slowly, and resolved to complete what the long-ago Pharaoh had once begun – the sweeping away of the old world for a new. Rather than co-opting, it would create anew. But although its strength returned, the Aten could not set its plan in motion.”

“For it yet needed mankind: its beliefs and its aid.” The words came from the darkness before Smiths could translate them.

Everything seemed to be drained of color by the overcast sky, and there wasn’t a breath of wind. Once Allen had crossed the threshold, it was as if he’d stepped into an old, faded photograph of Barryton–not the real thing.

“As you get closer, there are a few things you’ll have to watch out for,” Carson had said, after his attempts to argue Allen out of the expedition had failed. “The cold’s one; I’ve never been all the way inside, but it’s been down to 40 on the dog days.”

“I’ll pack a parka.” Allen pulled his coat close about him, recalling his flip response; it didn’t seem to help. The thermometer on his wind gauge read 60, but he still felt chilled to the bone.

Carson had said more, of course: “The…silence…is another thing. It’s hard to describe but damn unsettling. You will quite literally be making the only sounds you can hear; there will be nothing else. Sound doesn’t carry well either, so even talking to yourself won’t do much against it. And I wouldn’t recommend drawing attention to yourself, anyway.”

“I thought you said it was deserted,” Allen had said. “Dead.”

“It is, but…there’s still something about that place. I don’t know what you’d call it…a presence, maybe. Like something’s watching you. Not so much as a blade of grass has grown there in decades, but something has kept the others from coming back. You’d best go cautiously and armed.”

Moving throughout the deserted streets as the temperature dropped and the silence grew all the more deafening, Allen came to understand what the old man had been talking about. Despite the fact that all color, motion, and sound seemed to have been sucked out of the world, he didn’t feel lonely.

He felt watched.

His frame was crippled by the poverty of his upbringing: polio in the legs, a touch of rickets in the upper arms, scoliosis due to malnutrition, and a laundry list of other debilitations. Yet his hands were as strong as any there ever were, and his eyesight keen, and those who heard him swore him to be the finest acoustic guitar player who’s ever lived.

In those far-off sticky summer days, he and his band would roam the Delta countryside, playing for whatever paying audiences they could find. The money was never more than a pittance, most of which went to offset the cost of care, wheelchairs, and the demands of nervous musicians afraid to be associated with a man many believed to be cursed. As was the case with many in those days, there were dark whispers that he’d dealt with Old Scratch, trading his physical strength for fiendish skill.

No one can quite agree on his ultimate fate, but all concede that his was a life cut short. Some maintain that he drank himself into an early pauper’s grave somewhere in the New Orleans wards. Other have him drowning when a riverboat capsized, dragging him into the deep buckled into a wheelchair. Darker tales speak of a midnight lynching when he bested a favorite son in a musical duel or when a stillborn and strangely twisted child was born to a local belle.

But his guitar…well, that went to Woody’s, the establishment where he played most of his gigs. It hangs over the stage to this day, still fully strung more than 70 years later. It’s been said that whoever can coax a tune out of it will have some fabulous reward; equally prevalent is the whisper of a terrible fate awaiting anyone unlucky enough to strum those cursed catguts.

Let’s find out, shall we?

“And so we release you, mighty Holaak-Hliqu, that you might rain fire and destruction upon our world!”

“Why is it that these faux-Lovecraftian elder gods always have such loyal cultist minions?” Lia asked. “It doesn’t seem to me that they have a very good benefits package.”

“They get eaten first, and spared the insane ravages of That Which Man Was Not Meant To See,” Jim replied. “Lesser of two evils.”

“But the Elder Gods are always released due to the cultists’ actions,” Lia said. “Why not just leave them sealed in the dark cave of Un’Pro-Noun’Cible? The ersatz Great Old Ones in the movies are never going to return on their own like in the real Lovecraft.”

“Maybe that part got left on the cutting room floor.”

“Or maybe they needed a lot of extras for the rock-jawed hero to blow up real good before the final confrontation. I tell you, it just doesn’t add up.”

Jim shrugged. “Well, the next time we come up against a murderous cult of insanity-worshippers, I’ll point out the contradiction.”

The town was lit with a strange light, the sort that sometimes appears just before a sunset storm. Everything flashed an unhealthy shade of orange, nothing more so than the belfry of the old church.

Even though it’s been all but abandoned when the newer one was built, somehow the sinister twilight had buffed out the cracked and broken facade. It wasn’t a homely visage, or even an imposing one–rather, there was a deep and abiding feel of wrongness about the structure, the exact opposite of what one should feel upon beholding a small-town tabernacle.

Yet Fay had run in there, clear as day, before the light overtook the world, and the belfry had sent clouds of dust through its windows to mark her passage. Who could say what she’d do in her disturbed state?

There was only one way forward: up and after her.

“Why do you think everyone is being so cagey? They’re protecting something.”

Kevin waved his arm, but the fever-addled could manage only a feeble swat.

Fiona continued, never breaking her gaze. “This is bigger than you realize. Maybe bigger than you can realize.”

“You…you’re just a fever dream…” Kevin mumbled weakly.

“Who’s that you’re talking to?” Marcia said in the next room. “You need your rest!”

“No. This place, that’s the fever dream. The tortured hallucinations of something we can’t comprehend.” Fiona approached, hand outstretched. “Come with me.”

“No…no,” moaned Kevin. “I’m not listening anymore. Even my own subconscious won’t give me a straight answer.”

Her stare didn’t waver, but Fiona began to grow agitated. “I’m trying to save you, can’t you understand that? What does the truth matter if you can’t understand it?”

“No…”

Marcia entered the room carrying a stack of hot towels. “These’ll have you right as rain soon enough. Who were you talking to?”

“F-Fiona…”

“Well, you’re in a bad state now, but not so bad as to be talking to the dead.”

“Oh, not the whole world,” the demon said, daintily sawing at its nails with a file. “But for everyone inside the Bijouplex, it’ll be the Book of Revelations. The end part, with the fire and such, not the boring intro.”

“Why tell me this, then?” Irv asked.

“Pure sport. Every few decades my lads do a little bit of Armageddon here or there. You know, to keep our hand in. But it can get a little dull–screams and seared flesh and the like. So every now and then we’ll make things interesting by telling someone about it and watching them scurry about trying to do something.”

Irv was on his feet. “You mean I can’t stop it?”

“Did I say that?”

“Well, can I?”

“Perhaps,” the demon grinned coyly. A whiff of brimstone filled the room as it exhaled. “But you’d best be quick about it. Look Who’s Oinking begins at 5:10, and there won’t be any theater left for the 7:30.”

“I was in a park at sunset, and…it was amazing. This pillar of clouds, towering over everything…lit in orange, purple, and red with the waxing moon above. It was like something from the cover of a fantasy novel, only I was really seeing it,” said Koay. “The clouds moved and shifted as I watched–I think they might have been thunderheads for a far-off rainstorm–so that by the time the last rays of light were fading it looked like an enormous art deco locomotive, steaming on a celestial track. I was breathless, speechless.”

“Very moving,” said Detective Haines. “But I don’t follow.”

“Do you know what? No one else noticed. They were all absorbed in their little worlds, looking down at the path or listening to their clamshells–insulated from the reality around them.”

“Now that I can believe,” said Haines.

“Yes!” Koay continued. She’d grown flushed while speaking. “It made me realize that we’ve stopped seeing things, stopped noticing–if I hadn’t been there, looking up when I was supposed to be looking down, that glorious display might have gone unseen!”

“Meaning what, exactly?” Haines wasn’t quite sure what Koay was getting at, but the light in her eyes gave him pause.

“I guess that’s when I decided that I need to make people wake up. To make them notice.”

“At any cost?” Haines said warily.

“Maybe so…maybe so.”

The “Nature’s Bounty” feast, put on by the Callahan Country Students for a Happy Earth, had generated a lot of leftovers, which they had promptly abandoned to biodegrade. Gaines Park maintenance volunteers had been called in to deal with the issue; Isaac cannily observed that the CCSHE’s reasoning had been sound, and that a biodegredation site away from picnic tabletops was the only missing piece.

Gabe confronted Isaac as he was packing away his gear. “There’s a pile of miscellaneous nuts sitting on top of that flagstone,” he said. “We were supposed to clean them up.”

“It’s a shrine to Aquerna, the Norse goddess of squirrels. She’ll take them if she wants them.”

“You don’t expect me to believe that, do you?” Gabe said.

“Believe what you want. I’m not cleaning it up.”

Defeated, Gabe left Isaac to rake leaves in the vicinity of the “shrine,” which he went about with characteristic sloth and lack of attention to detail. Returning from a long, leisurely stroll to deposit a bunch of leaves in a bag, Isaac noticed that the pile of nuts had disappeared from the flagstone. He also noticed a short brunette girl in the bushes nearby who seemed to be wearing nothing but her birthday suit.

As much as Isaac appreciated the aesthetics of the human form, Callahan County and Gaines Park had strict statutes in place to keep nude sunbathers from the nearby college at bay, and volunteers were often put upon to summon the authorities or chase them down.

“Hey, earth child!” Isaac yelled. “It’s too early, and you’re too pasty, for sunbathing to do anything! Get lost!”

She turned and regarded him with wide eyes.”Hello. I am the Avatar of Aquerna.”

“W-what?” Isaac felt his heart stutter; no one should have known about that save Gabe. “I made that up! It was just empty snarkiness!”

“By invoking the name and attaching it to a site, you designated a site,” the girl said. “By refusing to recant when confronted, you expressed a belief. Ethereal beings need human belief to exist, and a site to manifest. You have provided Aquerna with the first of each in over one thousand years, and her avatar is before you now in gratitude.”