He was of average height, with naturally tanned skin and short black hair. He wore dark, thin-framed glasses and an argyle sweater, which helped give him an intellectual impression. As he let Pepper in, Deni DeMarco said, “Just so you know, I don’t keep these books in the library.”

     “Well that’s great,” Pepper griped. She leaned against the entryway, gazing up at the chandelier that lit the foyer. “So I came all the way out here for nothing?”

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

     Pepper entered, peering around at the room. It was pretty much the same as it was two years ago–same furniture, same carpet, even the same paint job. “If you’re going to show me anyway,” asked Pepper, “then why bother pointing it 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 unlike him.

     “Fine,” Pepper said. She knew she wasn’t bothering him. He never got many visitors, but Deni never shied away from them, especially not her. She wondered what was bothering him.

     The study was the first door at the top of the stairs, right where it had been two years prior. However, while the rest of the house was untouched since her last visit, the study had apparently been renovated–the door frame was now reinforced, and he’d replaced the weathered mahogany door with a thick, solid steel, braced by metal strips to resist force. The simple keyhole lock had been replaced with a computerized keypad and 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. Outside of his hobby, however, he was a bit of a spendthrift, saving his money for conventions and trips that would net him his next book.

     Pepper shrugged. “I get it. They’re old, and probably worth more money than I have in my trust fund.”

     “Yeah,” Deni said, “but so are most of my books. 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. “They’re priceless, but there’s no market for books like this. Even people like me don’t usually keep them for long.” He flashed her a false smile and opened the door.

     He led her to a small shelf, filled with four volumes of books, each with a strange symbol drawn on the binding. To her surprise, a second symbol had since been painted on each binder. Although this would ruin the books’ value–something Deni would never do–it was the symbol itself that caught her attention. That’s the sun wheel that Twister 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 uncomfortable. “Something wrong?”

     “Do you feel it?” he asked.

     “Feel what?”

     “It’ll get worse as you read.” He paused. “I’ll stay if you want me to.”

     “I’m not a child anymore, Deni,” Pepper said. “A few disturbing images aren’t going to hurt me.”

     “Okay,” he replied. He took a few steps toward the door and paused. “I heard about your mom,” he said. “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.”

     “You’re fine,” Pepper said. “It’s not like she’d care if you didn’t show up.”

     “That’s not….” Deni stopped mid sentence. He looked guilt-ridden. “My intercom’s on the desk if you change your mind.” Then he left.

     Pepper studied the symbols on the binders, looking for the cross. Once she found it, she pulled the volume out and carried it over to Deni’s desk, taking a seat in the chair. To her shock, the first page was in modern English, although the musty scent and aged ink told her it had to be very old. That’s impossible, she thought, but she quickly shrugged it off and started to read.

     In the early days of the Universe, They emerged from beyond the chaos, predating existence and extending beyond its end. Born from the Great Mother who Encircles the Earth, they are the gods of our world; our creators, our farmers and our harvesters. Though they are many, there are none more treacherous than Dheania, who delights in our suffering far more than any other.

     Her true name is lost to the ravages of time, as she is older than the tongues of man; she sits unbridled at the edge of creation, devouring without end, consuming all she sees. She is the Pale Beast, the White Horror of the Waxing Moon, and the One Who Holds Hell Inside Her; she is the Goddess of Fear, and life’s twilight is her domain.

     Pepper frowned. She hated cryptic writing like this–it was meant to give the text an air of mystery, to entice gullible readers into believing the garbage it conveyed. But this felt different. As she read these first few lines, something stirred deep inside her, something primal, unnerving and to her, completely alien.

     She takes the form of a predator, fat and ugly beyond measure, with each of her heads bearing a maw bordered by a blackened moon. The dexter head holds fangs that hang like daggers, and they are taller in height than two men. To a 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 unsettling memory stirred inside her, but she forced herself to put it out of her mind and she continued.

     But this is only one of her many forms. If she so chooses, she can take any appearance and any size; she can be smaller than the tip of a pin, or larger than the Earth itself. She has been seen as a leaner, muscular beast with one head, three eyes and a fourth in her throat; she has been seen in the visage of a woman in silver garb, and she is the Lady in White that lures her prey towards their final breath.

     Holy fuck, Pepper thought. She gulped, an attempt to sooth her now sore throat. This didn’t seem as incomprehensible as it should have–most bodies are largely empty space after all, and if that empty space were gone, the entirety of humanity would fit into a sugar cube. What bothered her about it was the implication that, unlike a person, this Dheania could change size in that way freely and without consequence. She could be in the room without you ever knowing it. She could get inside you….

     An odd feeling began to creep over her. It was as if she was reading something old and forbidden, a secret kept from man for countless eons; it was a feeling she shouldn’t have, one she couldn’t explain. She knew it wasn’t a psychological response–she had never felt guilt–but despite that she felt terrible about what she was doing. She began to wonder if this was the reason behind Deni’s new-found superstition.

     But that was magical thinking. Curses and gods were the ignorant man’s explanation for things he didn’t understand. There was no magic, no hexes, no devils or demons. Everything that existed had an explanation rooted in reason.

     Still, she felt her anxiety slowly shifting toward terror. She felt as if something sinister were watching her closely, stalking her from somewhere nearby. It was not rational. She was smarter than that. She wondered once again if these feelings were what had driven Deni to lock these books away so tightly, and if so, how bad would they have had to have been before he chose to do so?

     After attempting to regain her focus, she continued reading, forcing her body to remain in her seat.

     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.

     The ones that came before. Was Earth not the first world these “gods” created? And what did the writers 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.

     It was a drawing of the Beast from her aunt’s nightmares. However, this drawing seemed far more grotesque than the copy Twister had sent–the Beast was laying on a massively swollen belly, each mouth opened as wide as possible, with crimson tongues dangling from each jaw. The eyes were almost blank, save for the tiny dot that was the pupil. The blood-red gums and yellowed fangs were accentuated by the use of vivid ink–something that the old parchment failed to convey–and they starkly contrasted the pale, off-white pallor of creature’s tousled coat.

     Something more was wrong about that drawing–something that she couldn’t explain. It was more than a visceral reaction–it was almost primordial, a feeling of dread that was welling up deep from within her. Once again she found herself thinking about hexes and magic, about Deni’s uncharacteristic behavior. Still, she refused to accept these thoughts, even though she couldn’t explain her experience any other way.

     The next page contained a detailed 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 before. Those who are marked with it will suffer eternally upon their deaths. Their willingness or guilt matters not; even being forced to bear the mark is enough to suffer that fate.

     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. But this god not only condemned those who were marked against their will to eternal suffering, but didn’t even consider their deeds. 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 a deity.

     Those who fall within favor of Dheania may be granted respite, if only 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 tongues, offering their souls to the Lady in White, and when Dheania stood before him in silver garb he swore his everlasting obedience.

     “The fuck?” she said aloud. 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 over two thousand years old.

     For once 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. Such vague language couldn’t possibly span the entirety of a book that size, 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, there would be no way that she could last the entire tome.

     In fact, she’d had enough.

     Pepper pressed the button on the intercom. “Thank you Deni,” she said. “It was very helpful.” She noticed that her voice was shaky; truth be told, she wasn’t even surprised at this point.

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

     Five minutes? It seemed like it had been hours. “Yes, Deni,” she said. “I think I’ve had quite enough of this fairy tale.”

     “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.

     Pepper stared back at Deni’s house for a moment, trying to make sense of what she’d read. Finally, she put her phone down and shook her head. “What have you gotten yourself into?”