Deni DeMarco smiled as he looked Pepper in the eye, something only possible due to the step up from the driveway to his door. “Oh hey,” he said. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

     “Yes, it has,” said Pepper. She studied the man before her–the man who now dressed in a near perfect blend of bohemian and business–and took in how much he had changed. Last she had seen him, he’d been clean shaven and bore a standard buzz cut; now, he bore a Van Dyke and had long, shaggy hair. Even his once naturally tanned skin had lightened to an olive cream from a lack of sun, and he had discarded his frameless spectacles for a pair of prescription teashades. “Have a falling out with your razor, did you?”
     Deni chortled. “You could say that. So you wanted to look at the Somnia Arcana?”

     Pepper smiled. “Of course,” she said. “It took me months to track them down for you. I want to know what the fuss was about.”

     Deni’s face went blank. He suddenly looked much older, as if he’d aged a decade the very moment she’d spoken. Although it was clearly the hall’s light, he appeared haggard annd harried; his eyes seemed to darken and she could almost see deep creases forming around his eyes and at the corners of his mouth

     Definitely not the Deni I know, she thought. She knew Deni suffered from bouts of depression, but he was rarely anything but chipper and polite around her. Yet for whatever reason, the very mention of those books seemed to have stripped away his affability, and–as hard as he tried to hide it–had given way to a bizarre impression of a man who was too afraid to show his own fear.

     But just as suddenly as it vanished, Deni’s smile returned. “Of course,” he said, stepping aside to let her in. “Mi casa es su casa.”

     Pepper ascended that step and crossed the threshold, only to be hit with a chill. At first she thought he’d set the air conditioner to arctic, but as she passed under the chandelier she realize that the cold wasn’t a physical cold–it was something intangible, almost spectral. This is probably not a good sign, she thought.

     Deni followed her inside, closing the door behind him. “I don’t keep those books in the library,” he said. She heard several hollow clacks as he locked the door behind her. It was another level added to the oddness of this visit–the neighborhood was hardly crime-ridden, but the number of locks made it seem like he was barricading them inside, as if he thought the entirety of Calusa Shores might converge on his house at any moment and try to ram the door in like an invading barbarian horde.

     “Where do you keep them, then?” Pepper asked. She leaned against a nearby table, gazing up at the flickering chandelier. “Or did I come out here for nothing?”

     “Of course not,” Deni replied. “I keep them in my study.” He motioned for her to follow.

     Pepper gazed around the room. It was pretty much the same as it was two years ago–same furniture, same carpet, even the same paint job–but everything somehow seemed duller, as if she were viewing it through a filter of haze. “If you’re going to show me anyway,” asked Pepper, “then why bother pointing that out?” She struggled to keep up with him.

     He paused for a moment. “You’ll understand when you read them,” he said. Pepper noticed he had a faint scowl on his face.

     It was odd. She knew she wasn’t bothering him. He never got many visitors, but Deni never shied away from them, especially not her. Yet something about her visit was clearly upsetting him.

     The study was the first door at the top of the stairs, right where it had been a year prior. However, while the foyer and hall were untouched since her last visit, the door to the study had been subject to similar renovations as the front door. The frame was now heavily reinforced, and he’d placed the mahogony wood with what appeared to be a solid hunk of steel, braced by thick metal strips that were clearly designed to withstand brute force. The old warded lock had been replaced with a computerized keypad and heavy-duty double bolt.

     It wasn’t like him to go that far with security. Deni was fairly well off, but he kept very little cash in his house and avoided credit cards. Instead, he kept a single debit card on his person, onto which his trust regularly deposited a check every month. Still, she tried to pretend it didn’t bother her. “Pretty tough security. Those books must be priceless.”

     “They are,” Deni said, “but so are most of the books in my library. There’s another reason for this.” Deni punched in a lengthy code and twisted the door handle, but stopped short of opening it. “Don’t worry about damaging them,” he said. “There’s a reason they were so hard to find–there’s just no market for these books.” He flashed her a strained smile and opened the door.

     Without stopping, he led her to a small freestanding shelf in the center of the room. On it were four rather massive volumes, each with a strange symbol embossed onto their bindings. Yet to her surprise, she saw that each binding also held a second, far more recent symbol, one that seemed to have been drawn onto them with an old fountain pen held by very shaky hands. It shocked her that Deni would ruin his books’ value this way–he was also careful to keep each book in his collection in pristine condition. But it wasn’t the apparent vandalism itself that baffled her, but the symbol itself. That’s the sun wheel that Jacob drew, she thought.

     “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “It’s just a charm for protection.”

     Pepper smirked. “You’ve become pretty superstitious, haven’t you?” She reached out to touch one of the books, and felt a sudden chill. Looking back at Deni, she could see he was more uncomfortable than he had been the entire visit “What’s up with–”

     “Do you feel it?” he asked. He had dropped any pretense of affability, and instead had embraced a subdued but serious tone. “I can tell you did. It’ll get worse as you read.” He paused. “I’ll stay if you want me to.”

     “No need,” Pepper said. “A few disturbing images aren’t going to bother me.”

     “Okay,” he replied. He took a few steps toward the door and paused. “I heard about your mom,” he said. “I won’t make it to the funeral, but if you need anything else–anything at all–let me know.”

     “I’m fine,” Pepper said. “The world didn’t end when she died, and it’s not going to bother me if you don’t show up. She hated funerals anyway, and it’s not like she went out of her way to get on your good side.”

     “That’s not….” Deni stopped himself mid-sentence. “My intercom’s on the desk if you change your mind.”

     Pepper watched him as he left, noticing the haste in his footsteps. Very strange, she thought. She put his behavior out of her mind and instead turned back to the books. Using her finger, she traced the old symbols on the binder, looking for the cross. She found it on the third volume, and swiftly pulled it out and laid it down on the desk. It didn’t surprise her to see that the title page was written with antiquated letters; the yellowed pages, the musty smell of the paper and the faded and blurry ink told her it was easily two hundred years old.

In eons past, They appeared–the Gods of this world and of the worlds before. They arrived from worlds afar, spetators and bringers of life and death, the ones who were born beyond the chaos, and who will still be here when our rule of the Earth does end. They were born from the Great Mother, She who Encircles the Earth, and they are our creators and the harvesters of our souls.

     That odd chill returned, this time accompanied by a detached feeling of looming dread. It was subtle but pronounced, as if she had just turned her back on an ancient predator, one that she only had known was there subconsciously, but had not yet noticed her.

Among them there are none more terrible than Dheania. Though her true name is lost to the eons themselves, as she is older than the tongues of man, she has been given many more by us, and all fall short of her nature. She sits unbridled upon the edge of creation, devouring without end, consuming all that she sees. She is the Pale Beast, the Hell-Mouth, the White Horror of the Waxing Moon; she is the Goddess of all Fear, and the twilight of life is her domain.

     Oh Christ, Pepper thought. She despised cryptic writing like this–it was the writing of con men, wannabe gurus who delighted in enticing gullible readers into believing their bullshit. These writings had been around for centuries–the Ars Goetia, the Steganographa, hell, anything written by Aleister Crowley, all books teaming with promises of power and forbidden spells that were pulled right out of the authors’ asses, just because there were always people who would buy that garbage and believe it was the work of actual mystics. For her, it just insulted her intelligence.

     Or not, she thought. Something was welling inside her–something primal, something alien to her. That dread was growing, slowly but noticeably with ever word she read. Whatever was causing it wasn’t the writing itself, but something deeper in the text, something that seemed to be embedded in the very ink itself. Yeah, right, she told herself, and she moved onto the next paragraph.

At most times, she takes the forme of a massive beast, fat and disheveled, and ugly beyond measure. Each of her heads bears a maw lined in flesch as red as blood, with a blackened moon upon it. Within the front of the leftmost head hangs a pair of massive fangs, curved like the scimitars of the east and taller than the height of two men. To a grown man she would be so tall that the oldest trees would not reach her back, and we’d gaze upon her as an ant would an elephant.

     “Elephants and ants,” she said. An old memory stirred inside her–a feeling of nostalgia from her childhood days, when she would listen to her mother sing on weekend nights–but she pushed it out of her mind to focus on the task at hand.

Yet she is not bound to any form, nor to any size; she can be smaller than a needle’s tip, or more massive than the Earth itself. She has been seen as a child in wet rags, as a stripe-less tyger the size of a carriage, as a muscular beast with three eyes and a fourth in her throat, an as the image of a woman in silver garb. At times, she is the Maiden in White.

     Holy fuck, Pepper thought. This didn’t seem as incomprehensible to her as it should have–all matter was largely empty space after all, and if all of that empty space were gone, the entirety of humanity would barely fill the bottom of a teacup. What actually bothered her about it was the implication that, in violation of any and all natural laws, Dheania could change size in that way at will, into any shape she wanted, and that she could do so without any restrictions or consequences. She could be in the room without you ever knowing, she thought. Hell, she good get inside you….

     Another odd feeling crept over her. She felt as if what she had just read was forbidden, as if it were an ancient secret kept from man for countless eons. It was a feeling she shouldn’t have, a feeling that she couldn’t explain. There was nothing overtly threatening about what she was reading, nothing that should convey terror or guilt, especially not for her; yet still she felt these emotions, or at least thought she did, and she felt them so strongly that they were almost a manifestation themselves. It was becoming clear to her why Deni had been so on edge.

     Get over yourself, she thought. She reminded herself that it was nonsense. There were no curses. There were no gods, no spooks, no devils or demons. There was nothing in the night that wasn’t there in the light of day. That was all magical thinking–the ignorant man’s explanation for perfectly normal things he can’t understand. Everything that existed had an explanation rooted in reason and logic.

     But here you are, jumping at shadows like a brat without a nightlight, she thought. She couldn’t deny that she felt terror, like something sinister was now watching her from a distance, stalking her from just out of sight. It wasn’t rational and she knew it, but then again neither was the thing in those pictures. You’ve gotten yourself into one hell of a mess, she thought. But suck it up. No one has ever been killed by a book.

She is the weakest of the Three, but even to lesser gods her power is beyond comprehension. She has ended life many times on this world as well as the ones that came before.

     em>The ones that came before. Was Earth not the first world these “gods” created? And what exactly did this book mean by, “the Three?” As these questions crept into her mind, she gazed down at the large ink drawing at the bottom of the page and shuddered.

     t was a drawing of the Beast from her aunt’s nightmares. However, this drawing seemed far more grotesque than the copy Jacob had sent–the Beast was laying on a massively swollen belly, each head joined at he nape of the neck with their mouths opened as wide as possible. Thick crimson tongues hung from each jaw, sprawling forward across the ground before it. The eyes were almost blank–in a fearsome way–with only a tiny pupil in each, all focused on something small before it, something that she could clearly tell was a person standing before it with its arms outstretched, ready to let himself fall willingly into the middle head’s maw.

     And just like the writing itself, the feelings of disgust and fear she felt about that drawing seemed more prominent than the faded ink could possibly portray. It was a visceral reaction–almost primordial in nature–a feeling of deep, overwhelming dread that she could only guess was hardwired into her mind. Still, she refused to accept it all, even though it was undeniably real, even though she couldn’t begin to explain any of it.

     She turned the page, only to be met with a detailed ink drawing of the symbol on the binder. Beneath it was a description, not incorporated into the main text:

The Fear’s Crucifix, the mark of Dheania, stolen from the Primal that roamed the world of ice and fire. Those who take the mark upon themselves belong to her for eternity, and they will know nothing but pain, and suffering, and unending even in death, both in this life, and in the nightmare that waits us all.

     Pepper cringed. Most religions were kind enough to give you an out from damnation–eternal or not, the worst afterlives were usually reserved for terrible people and unbelievers. But this god not only condemned those who followed her, but it seemed she did so to everyone. She knew there were gods in some myths that were obnoxious or even evil–Greek mythology was rife with rape by the divine–but something so utterly demonic was not the trait of any deity she could recall.

Those who fall in favor of Dheania may be granted respite, if but for a short time. They will no longer have the mind of a man, for such is lost the second they are taken. It was in this manner that she brought forth the bladed man and returned him to the desert between Sarmatia and Donghu. With the weakest of slights he slew his family and cut out their eyes, and their their tongues, and he mounted their bodies on the gate posts, offering their souls to the Maiden in White. And when Dheania stood before him in silver garb he kissed her, and took her hand, and with the foulness of his heart reborne he swore to her his everlasting obedience.

     “The fuck?” She’d heard of the bladed man before–both her aunt and the prophecy mentioned him–but what struck her were the locations. The Sarmatians were an ancient tribe in western Asia, while the Donghu were a nomadic nation in what was now northern China. There was no desert in this region–it was a vast grassland called the steppes–but there was once a nation there that had left little trace in the history books: the Xiongnu Empire, which existed around the time of the Han Dynasty. But if that were the case, then the man who attacked Roderigo would have been more than two thousand years old.

     At that moment the sheer enormity of the book became too daunting. She was only a few pages in, but the writing didn’t seem to have any stops, and those old letters, and that vague language were already driving her up the wall. It couldn’t possibly span the entirety of a book that size–no person could keep up the charade that long–and while she knew rationally that the worst that would happen would be a headache, she couldn’t explain why she felt so terrified. If it continued like this for even another page, there would be no way that she have been able last the entire tome.

     In fact, she’d had enough.

     Pepper pressed the button on the intercom. “Thank you Deni,” she said. “I think I’m done now.” She noticed that her voice was shaky; truth be told, she wasn’t even surprised anymore.

     “Really?” Deni said, sounding more curious than surprised. “It’s only been five minutes.”

     Five minutes? Five fucking minutes? She couldn’t possibly have been reading for such a short time. It had to have been hours–it sure felt like it–and the very thought otherwise made her want to spit into the mic. “Yes, Deni,” she said, forcing herself not to scream at him. “I’d say this was worth the effort. It’s a shame I don’t have a copy.”

     “I’ll be up there in a minute then,” he said.

     “That’s okay. I’ll show myself out.” She didn’t really want to, but she knew that while there was danger ahead, it wouldn’t be found in Deni’s study. Heading down the hall, she removed her cellphone from her pocket and began furiously typing on the keyboard.

     Once outside, Pepper stared back at Deni’s house, trying to make sense of what she’d read. Finally, she put her phone down and shook her head. Pepper, she thought, just what the hell did you get yourself into?

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