The promotion was more bitter than it was sweet, of course.
There’s no way to actually celebrate the taking of your dream job when the woman who had it before you was the closest thing you had to the wizened half-mad old crone you secretly wished your own grandmothers were like. In point of fact, Granny James did DIY videos for weekly crochet patterns and Grandma Nichols bred rabbits for adoption. Sasha loved them both, but would it have killed them to have a little edge to them? A little wink of back-in-my-day-I-got-up-to-some-kind-of-hell-let-me-tell-you?
Gertrude Robinson had been a woman who seemed made entirely of iron. Poison-coated, petrol-dipped iron. There’d been no standing in a room with her without feeling like you were standing beside a resting python that was deciding whether or not it was peckish enough to swallow you. Yet this had never been a bad thing, Sasha thought. Even with her admittedly lunatic style of ‘organizing’ the Archives, the old woman had been the sharpest mind in the whole Institute. Dementia was a joke that would never deliver its punchline to her. In morbid moments, Sasha had imagined Gertrude laying in her deathbed and still making recordings, still tapping notes on her laptop. She’d not die until every t was crossed and everything was in order for her departure. Probably would have picked out her own coffin.
If she’d ever had the chance.
But no. No, whatever had happened to Gertrude—yes, right, technically missing, not technically declared a homicide, but how else do you explain Elias walking in on a desk covered in the woman’s blood? The world’s worst papercut?—Sasha doubted such a quiet end was a possibility anymore. She wasn’t ashamed to admit she’d broken down in the ladies’ room not six minutes after Elias had called her into the office some weeks after and gently laid the promotion to head archivist in her lap.
“She always wanted it to be you,” he’d said, mustering a tiny smile. “And I can see why. It need not be immediate, but…” Elias had slid the key to Gertrude’s—to Sasha’s—office across the desk. His smile had snuffed out into a frowning paternal line. “I can’t think of anyone better to pick up where she left off.”
Sasha had said her thank yous and there had been much maudlin patter about Gertrude’s vanishing and what the odds really were of her just miraculously turning up, and wouldn’t it be so nice if Sasha was merely keeping her chair warm, ha ha. That chat had ended with Elias giving her the rest of the day off. Cut to Sasha, shut in the toilet, the fist that held her office key ground hard against her lips as she huffed and snuffled like a child. All the while, feeling so much like some Other was looking down at her, recording her weakness in some secret ledger.
She almost hoped it was Gertrude’s sharp gaze, the woman clicking her tongue over such sentimental nonsense.
Only it didn’t feel like Gertrude. Not at all.
In bed that night, she had dreamt of a strange, endless staring contest. She had been sat in the head archivist’s chair, trying to hold her eyes open to match her visitor. A humanoid shape with too many lidless Eyes to her measly two. She knew—just Knew—that if she closed her eyes, if she lost the contest, something horrible would happen. So she had stared and stared and stared as long as she could. Until her eyes burned and dried in their sockets. The visitor had no such issue. Near the dream’s end, she felt herself on the brink of losing. Her eyes couldn’t take it anymore, but she could not risk losing Sight of the thing across from her.
And so, when her eyes finally closed in defeat, she opened a new Eye in her temple.
Sasha had awoken in a puddle of sweat. Still feeling like something was staring down at her. Through her.
Her first day back was spent on logistical bits. First thing, she asked Tim if he’d be interested in joining the archival staff. After striking the hammiest possible pose of imperious indecision, he decided, yes, he would grace the archives with himself.
“Like you even had to ask, boss.”
“Still Sasha, Tim.”
“Sorry, you’re already fired.”
Martin was happy enough with the change in position.
“I mean, it was kind of inevitable, right?” he’d half-laughed, fumbling with his mug. “Credentials aside, she’d want it to be you. I think you were the only person here Ms. Robinson didn’t scare the hell out of. Or perhaps that was just me.” Sasha had shaken her head.
“Even for a stone cold bitch, she wasn’t that bad.”
“Oh no, yeah,” Tim said, looking up from his rearranging of office supplies and tabletop toys at Sasha’s old desk. “She definitely was. Pretty sure I lost a year of life every time I made eye contact with her. Ah, you know. In a good way. Anyway, Martin’s right. Can’t think of anyone else in the Institute who could step in for her.”
The votes of confidence had been good. The bear hug Martin had offered a moment after was better. The moment where they’d all nearly toppled over when Tim double bear-hugged them both and actually got them both an inch off the floor, squawking in laughing panic, was best. With all that out of the way, Sasha James, head archivist, had finally sat down in her old-new office and got to work.
Mostly. The first part had gone to mentally blinding herself to the fact that Elias had brought in a new ink blotter for the desk. The old one had been collected during the police visit. It had thankfully collected the bulk of Gertrude’s…
God, she could still see a few maroon drops on the wood. She covered the largest of them with her mug’s coaster. Sasha imagined the old woman’s voice as hard as she could: Get to work, dear. Be squeamish on your own time. So she worked.
No statements that first day, though. Whether through the police’s fumbling or Gertrude’s own erratic organizational skills—Sasha had quietly assumed she was one of those ‘organized chaos’ types, with what looked like a mess to everyone else being in perfect order to her—there was a lot of digging, gathering, and categorizing to slough through before she even got to touch the recorder. The work was mind-numbing, sweaty, dusty, and nearly maddening in its semi-endlessness. Sasha was glad of it. Mundanity was good. Distracting.
Elias had popped down to see her that afternoon, doing his best to pretend he was just a boss checking in. But there was a more vivid, fever-shine of concern—or something like it—to his grey eyes. A curiosity that seemed to be waiting for her to…what? Crack up into tears? Wail at him that no, no, she couldn’t do this, couldn’t bear the emotional weight of it all..!
She’d smiled and told him, “Wish I could say I was already getting into the statements, but—,” she nodded at the detritus of boxes, stacks, and, yes, tubs, of misfiled statements, “—right now I’m just trying to get it all to a place where I can start cataloging things properly. I mean, not to say her way was improper, I’m sure it made sense to her, but—,”
“Organized chaos,” Elias had hummed. A smile of infinite, long-suffering familiarity stretched on him. “That was certainly Gertrude. Much as I was in awe of her half the time, I think I would have lost my mind trying to untangle a fraction of her methods. Thankfully, I have you and your mind to do that now. Still.” His smile had brightened into something new. Not a reminiscing thing reserved for the past, but something for her, here in the present. His eyes flashed out at her, lambent and soft, and Sasha almost swore she felt eyes on the back of her head as well as her face when he said, “I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
A different flavor of bittersweet struck her. The words, the tone. It was pitch-perfect to how her dad had sounded, once upon a time. Back when Sasha was an even more constant ball of pinwheeling obsession and was prone to latching onto a new interest that swallowed up all her energy and focus every other month. Until the next new interest struck and the cycle repeated. Always, always, Mr. Alexander James would smile and nod at her latest fixation, always telling her that whatever hobby or subject she was locked onto, he would do whatever he could to help.
Right to the end.
A sore lump tried to move up her throat and she twisted it around until it became a laugh.
“Kind of misses the point of me being the archivist. I can handle this, Elias, really. But thank you.”
“More than welcome. Really though, do let me know if—,”
“I’m fine. Go schedule something, go on.” Elias had put up his hands in grinning surrender and retreated. The rest of the day went smoothly. The next day, what she considered her true first day, was when she started using the recorder.
Not Gertrude’s, she noticed. Probably also snapped up by the police. This one was a similar enough model, Sasha assumed. Just as old, just as clunky, just as weirdly antiquated as the whole archival process seemed to be within the Magnus Institute. It seemed to stare at her through the spools of the cassette. But then, she’d been feeling stared at for a while now. Nerves, she supposed. As if some unseen supervisor now had its eye perpetually fastened to her every move, invisible pen poised over an invisible clipboard, waiting to see her soil Gertrude Robinson’s legacy.
Well. Too bad. She was going to do right by her. Better than, actually. So there.
“Testing, testing, one, two, three, sounds good enough to me. Right.” She played it back, heard the sound come in clear, then rewound to the start. “Statement of Nathan Watts, regarding an encounter on Old Fish Market Close, Edinburgh. Original statement given April 22nd 2012. Audio recording by Sasha James, Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute, London. Beginning statement:
“This all happened a couple of years ago…”
If she’d had an audience, Sasha would have told them to skip the next handful of weeks. Eerie stories, creepier follow-ups, and a refusal of that bizarre, scrutinized feeling to give up and leave the back of her head. She was doing a good job. Perhaps not to Gertrude Robinson’s level, not yet, but she was making headway. Conventional headway, at least. The archive was a behemoth of disorienting mess, but, little by little, Sasha felt she was chipping at it, straightening lines and chronicling statements by subject and year with sleek ease.
Even Rosie, who usually spent her time cooped up behind the receptionist desk scribbling memorandums and appointments, had taken one look at Sasha’s progress on a stroll through and beamed.
“I liked Gertrude well enough, you know. Bit prickly to deal with, like an old schoolteacher I had. She was alright. But the way she kept this place made my OCD bug just, you know, crazy. I’d get hives just thinking about having to dig something out of here. But this?” She’d gestured at the slowly-growing dent in the mayhem of papers and overfilled filing cabinets that was now standing proud, clean, and labeled at the edges. The hand she waved with was marked by her namesake—a bright, pink, thorn-jagged rose. There was a twin to it on her opposite hand and a third up at her throat. One tiny rosebud bloomed under one eye like a beauty mark. This, despite her living in cardigans, sweaters, and dresses so modest it would make both Sasha’s grandmothers look like harlots. A pink paradox, was Rosie. “Someone may actually be able to find what they’re looking for without a guide map.”
Sasha had accepted the compliment graciously, coolly. She had waited until Rosie was around the corner to spend the next five minutes spinning giddily in her office chair. Progress! Noticeable progress! Suck on that, omnipresent feeling of judgment! All was weird, but well.
And then she'd come to Carlos Vittery’s statement. It had been…
Well, if she was being honest, she felt like a hundred nasty little arachnids were scurrying on her as she read it. Brusque as Mr. Vittery’s writing style was, he certainly knew how to make a creepy, crawly impression on the reader. Plenty of the statement givers did, really—or perhaps Sasha just had a too-empathetic imagination; she always had liked scaring herself with a good, awful horror story—but Vittery’s tale of the spectral, vengeful spider mother was especially unpleasant. Doubly especially when considering just how the man died. There had been little to no sympathy from the boys.
Tim had outright laughed. Not mocking, but in flat disbelief.
“Sasha, seriously? Out of all the weird, freaky, haunted house crap you’ve eaten up, the one with a spider is the one that gets to you?”
“It wasn’t just a spider—,”
“Uh-huh. Either it was a ghost spider that showed up three times, or!” Here Tim had assumed a pose of parodied conspiracy, hands steepled, eyes shifty. “A whole network of kamikaze spiders plotting against him. Maybe the few baby spiders who escaped the carnage grew up, tracked him down, and…bam!” From his steepled hands, something black and squiggly shot out at Sasha. She squawked and flailed and swatted the thing off her shirt. It was one of those gel-rubber toys from a coin machine, a cartoon hand attached to a noodle arm.
“I am going to first kill, and then fire you!”
Tim had taken laughing refuge underneath his desk as she snapped the hand back and forth, swatting him about the head and shoulders. Martin had walked in on her taking the paper airplanes and paper balls from Tim’s wastebasket and pelting him, the man now cackling so hard he could barely breathe. He had paused mid-step, the tea mugs steaming on the tray in his hands, eyes ticking between the both of them.
“Hey,” from Sasha.
“Hi, Martin,” from Tim, one hand waving cautiously outside the desk’s shelter. Sasha shot another paper ball at it.
“Uh, hey,” Martin managed, slowly sidling into the room. “If you’re busy I can just go ahead and leave these on the desks?”
Sasha had told him no, no, it was fine, Tim was just getting his just desserts. Tim had told him no, no, it was fine, Sasha was just mad that she’d finally hit a statement just too spooky for her to handle. And so Martin had asked what statement that could possibly be. Sasha had told him. Martin had lit up like a Christmas tree.
“Oh! That one? I’ll admit, I feel bad for Mr. Vittery, but not accounting for creepy maybe-undead monster spiders, well, actual spiders aren’t that bad. Quite remarkable, really, extremely important to have them around. Do you know how many more bugs we’d have in the world if spiders just disappeared? Because, you know, your average spider, not accounting for species or genus or whatever, they take care of about 2,000 bugs a year. Take all them away, and we’re not just crawling with a jillion other, worse insects, but the damage to the ecosystem, to agriculture, would do us all in. Besides, I think some of them—you know, the tarantulas, even some of the huntsmans, the fuzzy ones, you know—they’re awfully cute…”
By this point Sasha had laid her head in her hands and Tim was nodding sagely.
“See, Sasha? You’re buying into the anti-spider propaganda. We should get a terrarium in here, get a bunch of tarantulas in the archive, have some mascots.” At this, Martin perked up even more.
“Ooh, could we? Is that allowed?”
In answer, Sasha had groaned. Then sighed.
“Going back to the thing with Vittery, I honestly don’t know what made that one so bad. I mean, I’m no more or less anti-spider than most people—sorry, Martin—but something about it just felt…” She looked for a word. “I don’t know, unfinished? Like, we’re dealing with all this,” she donned Tim’s accent and made it as bad as she could, “‘haunted house crap,’ but most of them seem capped somehow. Cold case-ish. Done. I mean, not counting any to do with,” audible grimace goes here, “Jane Prentiss. Or the thing asking for cigarettes in Fish Market Close, but there hasn’t been any similar stuff like it turning up here or in the news.
“But this one? The guy’s found dead, sleeved in a giant spider web. That implies that, whether it was the work of one, quote, ghost spider, unquote, or some weird spider mafia hit, or whatever, there’s something still there. Maybe waiting for the next person to move in, or…I don’t know. It just—,”
“Heebies your jeebies?”
“Tim, you’re now double fired.”
He and Sasha had laughed. Martin had offered a chuckle, but gone oddly quiet. Pensive, Sasha would think later. Or maybe that would just be her guilt gnawing, telling her she should have, could have known what he was planning to do. Just for her stupid peace of mind.
She should have known something was wrong when he didn’t show up for a week and a half, with nothing but a few bland texts to show for it.
Stomach problems. Could be a parasite.
Not a single reply when Sasha tried to call or text back.
Coincidentally, the day she had picked up the statement regarding Father Burrough’s demonic possession and subsequent crimes—gruesome story, saddest ending, in her opinion—Sasha had determined to go out to Martin in person. If he was so bad that he was down for two weeks, there was a chance it was bad enough that he needed an actual doctor.
Then Martin had burst through her door, scaring Sasha’s heart all the way up her throat. Tim wasn’t there to hear, as he was in the breakroom unintentionally breaking some fresh interns’ hearts. He could be given the details later.
For now, Martin had a statement to make. Regarding:
“Jane Prentiss. Martin, you’re absolutely sure?”
Martin had made a noise that wanted to be a laugh but was mostly a breathless yelp. His eyes were bloodshot and shadowed in a way Sasha hadn’t thought was possible outside of caricatures of insomniacs.
“Oh, I am very, very sure. God, I’ve never been so scared. Ha, still am, if we’re being honest, but. Yeah. Yeah, it was her. Her and…” Martin frowned. He gnawed his lip and the round brow scrunched down.
“My—my neighbor. I guess. I-I don’t know what he did, or how he did it, or—or anything, really, but I know he did something. He, uh, he didn’t answer when I knocked on his door, after it was over. Don’t know if that’s because he shut himself back in or because he ran off, or what. But it was him.”
Alarm bells rang in Sasha’s head. They rang with a specific name—Gerard Keay. A veritable gothic Houdini who could torch Leitners, slay monsters, and duck back out of reach before anyone could so much as give him a thank-you note, let alone get him to sit down for an interview. Hell, a seminar would be nice. How to Deal with Bogeymen in Your Area, by guest speaker, Gerard Keay. Segment 1: Burn the Leitners. Burn all of it. Please, for fuck’s sake, burn the eldritch goddamn souvenirs, what is wrong with you artefact-hoarding idiots?
But perhaps that was just her wishful thinking.
Aloud, she asked, “What’d this neighbor look like?”
“Oh, uh…” Sasha watched as Martin’s frazzled look abruptly burned off. In its place was an expression stuck somewhere between panic and utter, giddy mush. “He looked—er, looks, uh. Nice.”
“Yeah.” His voice cracked trying to leave him and his line of sight landed on anything other than Sasha’s gaze.
She thought back to photos she’d seen of Gerard Keay. Tall, tattooed, and with a black dye job that looked like it had been applied by his own hand. Literally. As if he’d just squirted the chemical glop in a pair of gloves and started slathering. He didn’t look bad, she guessed, but hardly seemed like Martin’s type to melt over. And she did know his type, having idly snooped through his computer on the pretense of checking on his follow-up research for one of the more obviously false stories.
More than twenty of his bookmarks were dedicated to Dev Patel fan sites and news stories. Which likely meant…
“Be a bit more specific?” Sasha asked, bracing.
“Um, about average height. Brunet with some early grey at the temples, sort of, you know, distinguished-looking. Darkish skin, couldn’t tell you an exact race, but quite striking eyes. Kind of a deep olive, jungle color. On the lean side. Very sharp structure in the face,” a giggle escaped, despite his best efforts, “cheekbones you could cut yourself on. Really interesting voice, too, now that I think about it. His accent is so—so out-of-place, so antiquated, I guess—but that really is just how he talks. I swear, the man could do audiobooks and make a fortune. Not really a Vincent Price, but in the same genre, you know? And he—,”
“What’s his name?”
“Oh! Uh, actually, I never learned it. I told him mine, but I guess I never…”
“It’s fine. I’m sure we can talk with him later. You know,” Sasha gestured at the waiting recorder, “after. If you still want to make a statement?”
“Okay.” She cleared her throat and swept her hopes of a chat with Gerard Keay out of her mind. Along with the eye boring into her head like a phantom drill. “Statement of Martin Blackwood, archival assistant at the Magnus Institute, London, regarding a close encounter with Jane Prentiss and a currently anonymous civilian. Recorded direct from Mr. Blackwood, May 30th 2011. Beginning statement.”
Martin took in a steadying breath.
“It started with the Vittery thing. The story about that ghost spider? Well, I got to thinking about how you put it—how it felt less like a closed thing and more like something was waiting to happen to the next person to move in. And I don’t know if it was just that, or just, you know, wanting something solid to bring back and prove that it was alright now. ‘Case closed!’ You know? Well. Ha. Turns out I didn’t even get the chance to confirm it one way or the other. Not before finding her down there. Her and those things.” Here Martin shuddered, his gorge visibly trying not to reach his mouth.
Part of Sasha wanted to break the recording protocol and ask if he still needed a minute.
The rest of Sasha vetoed it. And listened.
“But that’s me getting too far ahead. So. The short of it is, I went to Carlos Vittery’s place…”
And he tells her about breaking in. And about the awful, worm-riddled shape that had once been a woman named Jane Prentiss. And about the lost phone, and the race home, and the terror that had nearly snapped him in half when he realized he’d been followed. And about the towels and the taped cracks and the mundane hell of a diet composed almost entirely of canned peaches.
And then she heard about his neighbor.
“Now, I guess I kind of need to back up a bit. See, this guy next door, I honestly have no clue how long he’s been living in the building. I only started noticing him the last couple months after I bumped into him on the stairs. Literally, neither of us was paying attention and, bam, suddenly I’ve got half my thermos spilled on us, and he’s got his books and papers everywhere, and he’s freaking out, scrambling to save everything from staining, and I feel like such an absolute idiot the whole time. I’m thinking, oh, brilliant, the guy’s probably a professor or something and I’ve got tea all over his morning lecture. Idiot.
“Anyway, I help him scoop everything up, apologizing the whole time while he crams stuff in his bag. I haven’t heard him say anything above a whisper—cursing whispers, but just a whisper. Then I make my next idiot move and accidentally knock his arm while I’m handing over a book. He shouts and rolls up his sleeve. And it strikes me, right, that it’s weird to have long sleeves on now that the sun’s coming out again. But he rolls his sleeve up and now, ha, I don’t just feel like an idiot, but the biggest, clumsiest prick on Earth.
“He’s got something on his arm. Whatever it is, he’s got it wrapped in gauze, but there’s clearly something belling out the forearm. Not like muscle. The guy was a bit of a scarecrow. So whatever’s under there, I’m betting its an ice pack, is for something wrong with his arm. And I’d just whacked it with a book three inches thick. I mean, his eyes are watering just holding it to him. His other sleeve slips and I can see even more gauze. Some kind of accident, I thought. So, yeah. Martin Blackwood, undisputed king of worst-possible-introductions.
“I’m still apologizing, just babbling at that point, and he just keeps waving me off, saying, it’s fine, it’s fine, he’s got it, it’s fine. Barely gets his mouth all the way open to say it. If he weren’t in a hurry I think he might have stuck around to tell me to piss off. Lucky me, I run into him again that night as I’m heading in. He’s fumbling with his bag, standing outside the flat next to mine. And it’s—God, it’s painful watching him dig for his keys while his arm gets squashed between all those books. The bag’s actually tipping him to one side there’s so much in it.
“I go over, ask if I can help. He doesn’t look up. I ask again and he almost jumps. Just completely stunned that I’m talking to him. Then he tells me, whispering again, he’s fine, he’s got it. I try to apologize for the thousandth time, say I hope I didn’t ruin his lesson plan or textbooks and all that. Not a teacher, he tells me. Then he’s got his keys out and the door’s open and he’s ducking inside. Okay, I figure, not a talker, or at least not interested in chatting with the guy who stained half his stuff. But then a couple days pass, and I run into him again when I go to grab the mail. He’s there, just sitting in the lobby with a stack of envelopes in his lap, reading.
“I take my time getting my own mail out, pretending to look over all the bills and junk, but really I’m kind of struck by how he’s looking at his stuff. Not going especially fast or anything, but—but he doesn’t blink. Not once. Not for the whole ten minutes I must’ve been standing there. Just staring, barely even moving except to open another envelope. So it scares the hell out of me when, still not looking away, he whispers:
“‘Watch your hand, Martin.’
“And I don’t get it, until I feel this little tickle on my right hand. I look, and there is this massive cellar spider perched on my knuckles. Now, again, I’m fine with spiders. Fascinated, really. But the fact that I hadn’t even seen this thing, or felt it, or anything, and suddenly it’s just there, well. I, uh, made a not-too-flattering sound which I tried to turn into a laugh. Don’t think I quite made it. Then I took it to the door and just kind of, shook it off. When I turned back my neighbor was still reading. Still hadn’t looked up. I ask how he knows my name.
“‘It’s on your mail,’ he whispers, like it should look like anything other than dots from my distance. The man’s eyesight has to be beyond 20/20. I tell him thanks for spotting my little friend, wouldn’t wanted to have hurt it. That makes him pull a face. He finally tears himself from the papers to look at me. “‘Spiders aren’t anyone’s friend,’” he says. Like, actually says it, not a whisper.
“And, me being me, I’ve got my whole pro-spider speech ready. He listens to the whole thing. Then he asks if I know how many species of spider there are which cannibalize their own mothers. Because he does. Knows all their names too. Ditto for the species where mating leads to the males getting snapped up too, if they don’t offer up a proxy for his lady friend to eat instead. He also knows what each individual form of venomous spider bite does to the human body, and the hunting habits of every type of silk-spinner versus stalk-and-capture, and how to tell a brown recluse from a huntsman at a distance, and on and on, and honestly?
“I don’t even try to stop him. I just sit there and listen, maybe throw in a little factoid of my own, which spins him off into another ten minutes’ worth of talk, and before either of us know it the afternoon is settling down into evening and we’ve been there three hours, debating the merits of arachnids. When I point it out, he checks the time, checks the windows, and mumbles an apology. He scratches his arms while he does. I can tell the lumps he’s wrapped up under there are bigger. Bigger ice packs. Then he starts scratching at his cheek. I thought it was just him blushing at the time, but now that I think of it, I think it may have been redness from some kind of irritation. He had very cracked hands. One of his knuckles was bleeding. Skin issue, I thought.
“Anyway, he runs off after that. That’s how the next couple months go whenever I bump into him. And I, uh, may have been intentionally bumping. A little. He was, uh… He seemed interesting, you know? Odd, but interesting. I was always happy to run into him. Sometimes he’d be all hush and whispers, barely three words out of him. Other times he’d click into some sprawling talk about, hell, I could never guess. Sometimes it was about the science behind terminal velocity, other times it was about how the most extreme of contortionists have a condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, EDS. I once spent an hour just listening to him discuss the culinary rules regarding how rare protein can be eaten before it’s unsafe to consume.
“I still never got his name. I invited him over to, heh, ‘my side of our wall,’ God, I don’t know how many times. Just, just to have one of our talks somewhere besides the lobby or a hallway. He never accepted. He never invited me to his side either. Kind of a diet recluse. And he still had that gauze on. It was on more than his arms the last time I saw him. I caught flashes of it on his calves too, when a pantleg rode up. And he had these two huge bandages on both his cheeks. Cold patches, he said. Never said for what. The last time I saw him in person, he didn’t even bother to whisper. Just ducked into his flat without a word.
“I couldn’t blame him. He was swollen up by then. I couldn’t pretend it was all ice packs, seeing him like that. His face, his arms, his legs. Even—I-I think there was some gauze peeking out from under his shirt too by then. Didn’t see him at all after that. I wanted to do something, of course, see if he didn’t need real medical help, but he never answered when I knocked.
“Fast forward to Jane Prentiss and company camping outside my door. To today. Now, this whole time, I never heard anything out in the hall besides her and those worms. No doors, no footsteps, nothing. But I figure, my neighbor, he has to have gone out at some point, right? He always went to get his mail, to go to work, whatever that was. At least he’d need groceries. And I’d not heard a single sound from next door. Never had. But, with the current situation, I only had one working theory, and that theory was: my neighbor was dead.
“Either he had gone out and come back after Prentiss turned up, and he was dead. Or he was held up in his flat, no idea there were man-eating worms to worry about crawling under the door, and he was dead. I still knocked on the wall a few times during my lockdown. Never heard a knock back. No voice telling me to keep it down. Nothing.
“So when I heard crying coming from next door, I felt my stomach fall through my feet.
“It was him. My neighbor, just melting down, weeping, bawling, right up next to our wall. Once I’m done being shocked that he’s even alive, I start knocking and shouting at the plaster. The crying stops. I hear nothing for a minute, then his voice.
“He doesn’t sound right. I don’t just mean he was muffled by the wall. He sounded like he was talking through a mouthful of cotton. Didn’t mean anything to me then; I just knew someone else was there—someone could hear, someone could call for help. The police or the Institute or an army of exterminators. So I call back to him. Tell him yes, it’s Martin, I need his help, I can’t use my phone, the lights are dead, there’s some crazy woman outside my door, all that. I don’t mention the worms yet because, ha, I still knew exactly how insane the concept of a mountain of murderous worms was, even if they were actually at the door, waiting to eat me.
“Another bit of quiet. I heard something like a whine. A pained noise. Then he says:
“I tell him the truth. About ten days. He makes another noise. I couldn’t tell if he was laughing or sobbing. And normally, right, I’d be worried, but right now all I can be is still very much terrified. I ask him again, can he get to his phone and call someone?
“‘No power here either,’ he says. Slow, trying to get the words out around the cotton in his mouth. There’s another sob-laugh. ‘No power anywhere, for anyone, unless it’s taken. That’s how it should be. Is it really power if you didn’t ask for it? Didn’t take it out of all those outstretched hands, but had it sewn into yours? I don’t know. This doesn’t feel like power. It has felt like a lot of things since I got it. Like hunger. Like certainty. Like being strapped to a conveyor belt, waiting to be dropped off the edge into a place I do not want to go.
“‘I tried to not have it. Not use it. Not acknowledge it was there. Like a scab that so badly wants to be scratched, but you don’t, because you’ll only bleed again and grow another anyway. I did try. I am trying. Mother didn’t like it. But she wouldn’t take what she’d given me back. No. That would mean having to return what she took in exchange. Instead, she gave me something new.’ And he laughs again, and this time it sounds like he’s half a second from pure hysterics. He says, ‘She put me on babysitting duty, it seems. And they are so hungry.
“‘They’re starving from the moment they wake, Martin. I told you, didn’t I? About matriphagy?’
“He had. Gave me the dictionary definition that time by the letterboxes: Consumption of the mother by her offspring. He doesn’t wait for me to answer. Honestly, I don’t think I could have said anything if I wanted to. I was too focused on his voice, like I was in a trance. I’d felt a little like that once or twice before, when we had our only slightly weird, relatively enjoyable chats. But now, here I was, completely enraptured by the sound of my neighbor’s mental breakdown while Jane Prentiss was patiently waiting to have her worms turn me into screaming Swiss cheese.
“My neighbor keeps going.
“‘I am no Mother, but I doubt they would be picky. I don’t know how many there are. I don’t know if their first meal would even finish…everything. I wish I could say I knew for a fact it would end this. Disown me from Mother. But that’s not what this is. This is my slapped wrist, my sit-down in the corner. Being grounded. She’s given me an out, though. I can feed them myself, or I can have someone else do it. By the feel of them—God, there's so many of them, there can’t be as many as I think there are, there isn’t room enough in there—it may need more than one someone. Catching up on lost fealty.
“‘I wish I’d never touched that goddamn book.’
“And that’s him done. I just stand there at the wall, letting whatever bizarre audio high I was on cool off. It comes down pretty damn fast when I hear Prentiss knock at the door again. Before I can try and talk to my neighbor again—no idea what I was going to say in response to that surreal mum-issue word salad, but I would’ve talked to a television at that point—he’s talking again. Asking me a question.
“‘Martin,’ he asks, ‘you say the woman outside wants to kill you?’
“I tell him, yeah, that or worse.
“‘You said she had something with her. Something diseased. Alive.’
“For the life of me, I can’t remember what it was I told him before. Animals or sickness or whatever. So I give up. I tell him exactly what’s out there. If I get to think he’s crazy, he can think the same of me. Quiet again. Then:
“‘Worms?’ Not shocked or anything. Just like he’s taking notes on it, clarifying.
“Yeah, I say. Or the world’s biggest maggots. Vicious, biting, burrowing things.
“‘How big?’ he asks. ‘How many?’
“Too big and too many, I tell him. It’s hard to stop and take a census when you’re running and cowering for your life. One more beat of quiet. Then:
“‘Martin? I’m going to try something.’
“I ask him what, trying so hard not to know what I already do.
“‘Taking the kids out to eat.’
“For a moment I don’t hear anything. I knock, I shout, try to hear anything that proves he’s still there in that room. But then I hear his door open. I don’t bother knocking anymore, just start shouting at the top of my lungs, railing at him to get back inside. But the second I hear him, that trance kicks back in, and all I want to do is listen. So I do.
“‘Hello,’ he says. “‘Didn’t expect to meet one of you so soon.’
“The worms’ noise—that kind of horrible, squelchy, wriggling sound—it stops. Just for a second, it stops. When it picks up again, Prentiss speaks. God, she sounded like leprosy must feel.
“‘We didn’t know there were others here in need of our love. Careless of us. Rude.’
“‘That’s fine,’ my neighbor says. Every word sounds like a strain. ‘I’ve been busy with the kids anyway.’ The sound of the worms gets louder somehow. Like, they’re absolutely thrashing now, eager. Prentiss is almost singing when she says:
“‘Oh, we love children. Not as much room in their hearts or any other parts for us, but they are always so, so tender. So welcoming. We would love to meet them.’
“By now, the worms are on the move. I can actually hear them slopping and leaping down that tiny bit of hall between my door and his, and I still can’t get my voice out of my throat, I don’t even move, I’m just sitting there, waiting to hear my cagey, crazy, martyr of a next-door neighbor die under a tide of parasites. But under all that disgusting, squirming noise, I can still hear him. He doesn’t raise his voice, but I can hear it like he’s right there, whispering in my ear.
“‘Not as much as they want to meet you.’
“And then...then he screams. Can’t say I wasn’t expecting it. But the kind of scream was wrong. He was in pain, but he wasn’t being smothered. And there was this—this terrible ripping sound, like thick leather tearing open. And wet sounds. Spattering. Then, and this was the part I didn’t quite believe as it was happening, then Prentiss—
“Prentiss shrieks. The worms shriek. There’s no way for a worm to make any noise other than that slimy, wriggling sound, but they are. They’re shrilling at the top of their impossible little lungs, right along with Prentiss, and I can hear them running. Prentiss ran, at least. The worms surged back with her. Like if something without legs could backpedal, squirming and jumping and sloshing back down the hall.
“Which is when I hear the much quieter sound of scurrying. Like a trillion tiny legs all running at once. It’s such a soft sound compared to Prentiss’ racket, it shouldn’t have felt as loud in my head as it did. But it was. It was as loud as a quiet thing can be, this huge rush of little scuttling things chasing after the worms. Then I hear two knocks at my door. My neighbor speaks through it and he sounds clearer now. Still hurt, but he isn’t talking with a swollen mouth anymore.
“‘Don’t come out until you see the wolf.’
Then he’s gone. I think I hear footsteps, but they’re so light I’m not sure. Twenty minutes later, I see something move out of the corner of my eye and have probably three consecutive heart attacks before I swing my torch at it. In the light, I see a wolf spider posed right there in the middle of the wall. Right where I’d been knocking. Probably because my sanity’s been properly fried down to ashes at that point, I take the hint and peek out the door.
“No worms. No Prentiss. No neighbor. But there’s blood on the floor outside his flat. Also some white smears of what look like webbing. The opaque kind you see on egg sacs. Like I said, I tried his door. It was locked and no one answered.
“The, ah—his blood dripped off down the hall. All the way to the window. It was open. I saw a few red drops trailing down the side of the building. I…
“I live three stories up. I looked for him down there. All I found was a little spider balanced on a trash bin lid. Eating something that was still squirming.
“Then I ran here.”
Martin sucked in a very long, very unsteady breath and let it drop out of him. Sasha waited another second for good measure before clearing her throat.
“End of statement.” She almost switched off the recorder, the better to pick it up again directly after with follow-up information. It was what Gertrude would do, she was sure. But she was not Gertrude, nor was she here to judge Sasha for stopping short of the off button and flinging the archival decorum directly into the stratosphere. “Okay, no, seriously—seriously, I want to be clear on what you’re implying here—this guy was full of spiders!?”
Her sane reaction seemed to snap Martin out of whatever storytelling spell he’d been under, allowing him to have his own likewise rational response.
“Yes! Yes, he was! No idea why I was tapdancing around it, like I wasn’t thinking it the whole time, but yeah! Just—just—packed full of baby spiders that—,” Martin ran his hand through his hair, once, twice. “That somehow scared the hell out of Jane Prentiss and her friends. He actually chased them out of the building. Or, no, that’s the wrong word. I mean, if that blood outside the window means what I think it does, I guess he, ah—,”
“Ambush,” Sasha offered.
“He ambushed her. If he paused long enough to talk with you, and he was in bad shape after…after they…”
“Right. Well, he wouldn’t catch up to her on legs that’d blown out from,” a not-very-aloof sound turned sickly in her throat, “from that. So he waited at the window. He had to know she’d go squirming downstairs, come out the back with the spider tide herding them out. And when he saw her, he, you know. Made like a huntsman. At least, that’s what the scene suggests.”
“Oh. That,” Sasha kicked herself as she watched Martin’s edges turn green, “that makes sense. Y-You know, if he’s—if he’s some kind of—,”
“I wasn’t going to say it.” He made a valiant attempt at a laugh. “Almost sounds silly out loud, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Almost. Steer, steer, steer. “Oh, meant to ask. You say you lost your phone in the cellar, right?”
“What? Yeah, I dropped it fleeing from death-by-worm. I suppose I never get to laugh at people in horror movies again. Uh, why do you ask?”
“Because I was getting texts from you while you were gone. Stuff about being sick, about having a parasite. Never got any replies when I tried to contact ‘you.’ Whatever Prentiss is, she’s still got the human capacity for TV villain wordplay. Surprised she didn’t send a wink emoji. So, uh, may want to cancel your service.”
Martin huffed and Sasha was happy to hear the genuine aggravation in it. Annoyance wasn’t the best feeling, but it beat out several others.
“Figures. The bug woman threatens my life for a week and change, and she wastes all my data while she’s at it.” Martin sighed and ground the dark pouches under his eyes with both hands. “Don’t even know why I’m surprised—,”
Sasha’s phone chimed. Without her even having to look, they knew who it was.
The mood, which had barely gotten a single step higher, plummeted back through the floor.
Sasha checked her phone.
“It’s from you.”
“Of course. What am ‘I’ saying?”
“It says…” Sasha read it and felt her brow scrunch in confusion. “Wait.”
“It says ‘wait?’”
“No, no, I mean—I don’t think it’s her. Listen.”
Sasha didn’t know why she didn’t just lay the phone on the desk between them. Nor why she still hadn’t switched off the recorder. All she knew was that something about the message tugged at her tongue. She read aloud:
“They’re gone. I will be too before you get back. I’ll leave the phone in your flat; tape on the windows is no safeguard against breaking and entering, Martin. Since you’re reading too, Sasha, I suppose it’s best I get this out of the way. You are in danger. Immediate danger. Lethal if you’re lucky, but I am living proof that there are worse possibilities. Anyone involved with the Archives of the Magnus Institute will be targets, but you most of all, Sasha James.”
Sasha blinked. Okay, one, where the hell had the posh-toff accent come from? Second:
“How the hell does he know I’m here? How does he know my name? Martin, did you—?”
“No! No, I never got a chance to talk about work with him, I just—,”
Another text popped up. Sasha read, and the posh-toff returned:
“There is no perfectly safe way to tell you what I need to tell you. He can See what you see, Hear what you hear, Know what you know. Martin, lock the door now and block it with whatever you can spare. Now!” Sasha repressed a real shudder that time. “Alright, this is not funny—,”
“SASHA, MARTIN, LOCK AND BLOCK THE GODDAMN DOOR.”
They looked at each other. Then at the door. Martin sprang up, locked it, and put his chair against the knob. Sasha moved the chair aside and shoved one of the filing cabinets in front of it. Then put the chair against that.
“That should be enough for now. He should be-.” Sasha blinked. Stared at the screen.
“What?” Martin nearly squawked. “Should be what? Who are we supposed to be hiding from?”
“I-I don’t know, the text just stops there—,”
The phone on Sasha’s desk rang.
“There he is. Don’t pick up. It’ll take him a while to get from the top floor down to your Archives. You read faster than I do, Sasha, and I’ve had this bit saved in my drafts, so you should have time. Your dear old boss is going to find more than the expected number of obstacles waiting for him en route from there to you. If you can hear her, ‘Elias,’ and you can, I’ll say it now: if there’s one thing I picked up from Mother that I feel no shame or horror in, it is the simple pleasure of watching some presumptuous prick eating shit after he meets one of my tripwires.
“Back to you two. Just a moment.”
Sasha and Martin exchanged another, even more potent look.
“Elias?” asked Sasha.
“How are you doing such a good impression of him?” asked Martin.
The next text that came through was large. So were the ones that followed. As one, Sasha and Martin migrated to the space behind her desk. Sasha read:
“I will try to make this as helpful to you as possible, Sasha. Put as much meat on it as I can, as your type of Knowledge goes. You’ll need the energy soon. Here goes.
“Statement of Jonathan Sims, regarding his life, your lives, and the supernatural hazards therein. Statement given May 30th 2011. Statement begins.
“You are all in danger. The world is in danger. There is a huge net cast around it, and it is pulling tighter, and once that net pulls flush, the entirety of humankind will be plunged into an endless, implacable nightmare of monsters and evil impossibilities made solid.
“I am part of that danger. I am doing my best not to be, but there is only so much the Web allows me to predict with me being such a contrary new addition to the family. After my encounter with Jane Prentiss, I have apparently satisfied Mother enough to be taken out of ‘timeout.’ My intuition is coming in clearer again. Likewise for the flow of intel from my many, scuttling, uninvited informants. It makes me uncomfortable to refer to them the way Mother wants me to. ‘Cousins.’ ‘Friends.’ Ha. Even after all these years, acclimation has not burned out my arachnophobia.
“If anything, I am more terrified of these things that say they love me than I ever was before I met the book that damned me. A toddler’s book, if you can believe it: ‘A Guest for Mr. Spider.’ Perhaps I’ll be allowed to scribble out a proper statement on it someday. Perhaps not. I don’t think your Eyes are sharp enough yet to See me, even in your own stronghold. Mother tells me that if I feed her and myself like a good boy, I will grow strong enough to puppeteer one of your staff into just walking a sheet of stationery out to me, let me write, then take it back in without them ever knowing they did it. Mother tells me I could make others do much more than that. Anything, really.
“She tells me I will make them do things. I will, because it is Her will, and it is key to the Design. I can’t see all the parts of that Design clearly yet, but I can see their outline. And I don’t like it. If we’re being honest, I am afraid past the point of description. Not just because I can see this ‘preview’ and feel such blinding horror at the events to come, the great Changes that She’s planned for me. But because I can see myself coming to each of those gruesome thresholds, picture of the dutiful son, and strolling across them without stopping.
“And in those futures, I am not afraid.
“I am so, so afraid of the point when the fear stops. Because that will mean I am finished being what I am now. Martin, I know you recall our eight-legged talk in the lobby. Remember that riveting part where I got caught in a ramble about molting? Well, picture that, only make the spider bigger. Make it twice, even three or four times the size of a man. Now fold it up inside a skin that makes no sense at all for such a creature.
“Put it inside a man. A scrawny, frightened man who is now just as terrified of what is waiting to shed him as he is of the scurrying things that shadow him wherever he goes. Really, it would not be so bad if the thing waiting to shed me really was just some unattached monster. Another malformed ‘child’ waiting to hatch out of me. But the monster is me. Or it will be, someday. So Mother has decided, so it shall be.
“Though I know it’s poor taste to speak ill of the dead, I have to say Carlos Vittery got the better deal. It is one thing to be killed by what you fear. It is another thing entirely to be stitched, kicking and screaming, into the absolute center of that horrendous, primordial terror, shoved unwilling into your own, special egg, and left to percolate there in your nightmares, a vision that does not leave your subconscious for your whole childhood, your adolescence, even the first half-step into adulthood. All that time, you dream of your body—child, teenager, man—refusing to listen to you, marching you inside that egg, only coming back to your senses once your ‘kin’ have sewn you in, and knowing you are being wrapped up in your own little silk sleeve to wait until you’re allowed to be born.
“That particular nightmare finally came to me the night after I met with Gertrude Robinson. I still don’t know how she intercepted the Web’s plans. I can’t tell if it’s just Mother playing it safe, not wanting me getting any more ideas, or if She and the shame-faced relatives are still embarrassed that she managed to put a wrinkle in their plotting at all.
“She contacted me through email first. The Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute, which I’d applied to, looking for a job as one of the researchers. We went back and forth for a few days, chatting each other up about dusty old topics and arcane literature that no one else wanted to suffer through. Or so I assumed. Even now, I can’t say how much of the woman I ‘knew’ was actually her and not a performance. I do know that one of her initial plans, the moment she caught wind of my position within the Web, was to kill me. Nothing fancy. I was only human at the time, marked or not, and a simple bullet would’ve done it. Some poison in the coffee we would eventually share at the little bistro by the university. A fire in my flat.
“I know this, because, as you’ll recall, Sasha, she had a habit of talking to herself. Quote unquote. She always had an audience. Eyes staring at the back of her head, yes, but the Web as well. Spiders are nearly everywhere, only just short of omniscient. Which is fine for them. Their lot—I guess I have to say my lot—lean more towards looking to the future than ogling the present. But you need the latter to construct the former. So Mother did hear her first draft plan for dealing with me.
“But, just as quick, Gertrude dismissed it. She knew exactly how dangerous it was to get in the way of the Web. Actively threatening what she somehow Knew was a key piece of Mother’s Design was a sure way to see all manner of repercussions come crashing down on her. She had to do as the Spider did. She had to be subtle.
“I want to give you more detail than this. I want to tell you who exactly she went to for help in getting certain scholarly and academic connections, and where you could find them, and how to find them, but my hand is cramping just trying to type out the name. I think I can see a hazy image of you meeting them, but it’s murky. So I will only tell you that Gertrude Robinson met me for coffee, we had a lovely chat, and she told me that, much as she’d love to see me on the Institute’s staff, she just so happened to know of a more lucrative opening at a library I may have heard of, and that the head librarian there would be delighted to see me for an interview.
“I told her thank you, but my heart was really in research. Discovering, chronicling, the whole nosy nerd dream. Then she mentioned the library’s name and I almost inhaled my coffee. We stopped by the same day. I had tried to tell her no, it could wait, I wasn’t dressed for it, I didn’t have a resumé on me, it was too fast. And then she turned to me. Her Eyes were so bright.
“She said: ‘You are ready, Jon. You have great things waiting for you. I Know it.’ And I believed her. And I went with her to that monolith of a library, and an hour later, I was hired. That night, I was born. Same for the next night. And the next night. And every night after.
“Every time I give in to sleep, I am born. It makes me miss the egg.
“The Web was enraged at the start. Livid that anyone or anything would dare to move one of its puppets out of position. Even more frustrated when Elias Bouchard, if that is what he wants to be called, promptly dumped you into the role of Archivist, Sasha, following Gertrude’s ‘disappearance.’ The Web had dealt with unexpected snarls in the Design before, but to have two obstructions in a row was enough to put Mother in a wicked temper.
“Until, in the midst of Her planning to right the wrongs Gertrude Robinson committed, She realized what had actually happened. She had been stopped short of making a mistake. You see, I was supposed to get that job at the Magnus Institute. I was supposed to be dangled like bait in front of ‘Elias Bouchard,’ the Web still clinging to me like an invitation to get his scheme rolling. Given the chance, I get the impression he’d have happily walked me at gunpoint down to your Archives, forced me into Gertrude’s chair, and threatened to put as many holes in me as he needed to until I signed a contract and was properly declared the Archivist. His Archivist.
“But that didn’t happen. What happened was, he donned one of a hundred acts he’s mastered in a long, long, long life, and put a fatherly hand on your back, Sasha, guiding you neatly into your predecessor’s role. The role which served her almost as much as she served it. Which put her in the paths of inhuman entities of such incalculable malice and power that it would shut down most human minds just to conceive of them being real, breathing things in our world.
“Gertrude scared a lot of them right back, I found out later. The Web wanted me to know just how formidable a foe she was, the better to forgive the fumble of my employment. That, and to share in the laughter at how her intended triumph against Mother turned out to be her biggest miscalculation. I didn’t laugh at first because I was busy being afraid and confused and strung up like a marionette in a warehouse absolutely choked with spiderwebs and their crawling tenants.
“I didn’t laugh even harder when my hostess, Annabelle Cane—you’ll find more than one statement with her silky fingerprints on it—explained that Gertrude had actually helped Mother avoid taking a much longer, clunkier route towards Her end goal than She needed to. Why bother outsourcing to a second rate schemer when Mother could do it Herself? Yes, playing puppet master is part of the game, letting others get their hands dirty. But with a project like this—like me—did She really want to trust Bouchard’s half-competent plots and counter-plots to get the job done?
“Much as he can See, he is not wholly omniscient, and errors would occur as naturally as colds in his own grand plan. A plan which Mother had only considered catering to because it lined up nicely with what She wanted. But again, Annabelle asked me, why settle? Why not have the Spider lead from the get-go? Why not take the eight-hands-on approach and pull my strings Herself, rather than use some smug, cackling go-between sitting idle at his desk?
“I remember telling her, yes, of course, it made perfect sense. And when Annabelle asked if I was as happy as she and Mother were to have me joining the family, I smiled and told her yes, I was delighted. Even while I wept. While spiders of so many sizes, my new, ever-constant friends, crawled curiously in and out of my open mouth. While we were surrounded by the dry, hollowed corpses of what I knew were Annabelle’s prior dinner guests.
“She hugged me. The strings on me said I should hug her back. So I did.
“I am an only child and an orphan. I wonder now if that may have been orchestrated. How much was accident? How much was prior planning to make me feel, for that instant and every other ‘family reunion’ I have found myself snared in, so happy? So loved? Even if I was originally intended for the Eye, I know now the Web also intended for me to be progressively alienated by my ‘normal’ peers and haphazardly ‘encouraged’ by fellow monsters. Prepping me. I wonder.
“I came back to myself in my flat, which was already starting to get very sticky. My new roommates were settling in. Some were wider than me from leg to leg. It didn’t matter where I moved or how often. Within a day, my friends were there for me.
“How do I describe the time that passed between my adoption and the present? I ask that honestly, because my hand continues to betray me every time I try to get too specific. There are clues buried in the details, I take it, so I’m testing to see what it is Mother allows. What can I say? Let’s find out.
“One, I am legally dead. Seemed neater than trying to maintain an ordinary life in my new situation. Ask the police about my case, and most of them will tell you it was a weird one, but there was a body, and it surely must have been mine. No teeth to check dental records, but the skin was all me. Ask for the opinion of officers in Section 13, and they will either clam up, tell you to piss off, or, if you ask for Hussain and Tonner, they might have an off-the-record theory to do with why my skin seemed so ill-fitted to the flesh inside, and what that has to do with the disappearance of Mr. Gregor Jameson. Look him up. If you believe even half of what he was accused of, you won’t shed a tear. And he did much more than what was listed in court. I know, because I followed him to where he’d buried the rest.
“It was my first molt. Messy. Took me days to properly contort myself back to normal. Not much different from how spiders mimic ants. Fold the right pieces, bow here, bend there, pray like hell you can will your skin and hair back the way it was. Yes, messy. But it did the trick.
“Two, with apologies to Tim’s favorite joke, I am the actual best cat burglar in all of Bromley. London in general. Really, the whole southern third of the UK. I don’t even break in half the time. Just walk right inside, get what I need, and head out. While the very malnourished optimist in me wants to believe it’s just an effect of the Web—it’s extremely rare for anyone to notice I’m in a room with them if I don’t actively try to be noticed; Martin’s connection to the Eye probably had a hand in our bumping each other that day, and him being able to catch sight of me after—but I think it really may just be as easy as having some premature grey, resting professor-face, and an affinity for tweed. Makes a man look like a universal harried bookworm-curator-librarian-academic. Just the type of person you expect to work in one of the many fine, scholarly old buildings I’ve robbed of texts and artefacts alike.
“Three, it’s for a good cause. Much as the Mother may have gifted me with intuition bordering on precognition, I do have to get my legwork in. And, since my ‘friends’ do not take please-God-shut-up-stay-out-of-my-head-leave-me-alone for an answer, I may as well use them to help map the layouts of certain places, and to spy on certain ex-human parties. Of which there are far, far too many. And not just for the Spider or the Eye. God, no.
“I want to tell you more about this. About what these Extra Important Evil Capitalized Forces are, but my hand says no. Let me just say: fourteen. Fourteen to Look out for.
“I’ve been doing more than looking. Mother demands a certain amount of proactive work in tribute to Her. Manipulation and paranoia and plain old creepy crawly scares help make Her tick and so helps me tick. Failure to offer up any of these tithes for too long results in very severe consequences, as you saw, Martin. The reason I had that little cold turkey stint in the first place was due to a meal gone wrong.
“I’d been targeting others like me, you see. Not under the Web’s umbrella, but other patrons and matrons. The ones who targeted humans exclusively. Setting things up so one who was naturally opposed to the other would cross paths and tear into each other before any more human victims could pile up. I watched them do it. I always watched. And I always felt relatively alright after. They were monsters, I told myself. Sadists of different flavors, but all of them out to torture and slay people. I never got into the fray myself. At most I would nudge the more fear-frozen almost-victims into breaking paralysis and getting out of there. Almost puppeteering, but not quite there.
“Then Grifter’s Bone happened. You may not have heard of it yet, but I’m sure there’s something on them in your statements. It’s a band with a few grisly urban legends around it, none of them quite true. Bloodshed is involved. Often massacres. Apparitions. Violence of every kind. It was something I should have foreseen or caught wind of or just had a feeling about. But I didn’t.
“Not until I was there, in that empty bar, waiting to see my latest two opponents come to rip into each other over another weeping, pleading bit of property. Considering just who these players were, it would be easy to assume that their specific influences had a hand in hampering my perception. While I cannot name them for you, I think I can describe them.
“One was an entity whose essence is that of deceitful perception. The inability to trust your mind or others’ minds or that anything around you is real. Walking, talking madness with a laugh like a headache.
“The other was an entity who radiated pure, undiluted wrongness. A thing of suspicion, disguise, the pantomime of a human that’s too uncanny to pull it off. The disquiet of simply not knowing what you’re looking at, but understanding that it is Wrong and means you harm.
“Really, I’d have thought the two parties would’ve gotten along. But, to quote a girl I loved, ‘There is only one thing more insufferable than theater kids and that is enemy theater kids.’ I suppose that was what it came down to. Then there was the victim in question. He was rattling like a leaf between the two of them, reminding me a great deal of how I’d been in my orientation with Annabelle before Mother switched the dopamine on. He was caught between one entity’s door into a labyrinth of madness, and the other’s promise that he would be so much happier as a thing of plastic and ball joints.
“I was so focused on the three of them, I didn’t notice the band setting up onstage. None of us did. Not until the music began to play. All four of us, two monsters, a man, and the voyeur in-between, our heads snapped up as we heard them play. It was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard. For those few notes I got to listen to before I blacked out.
“When I came back to myself, the song was over. In front of me, the thing made of congealed insanity was no longer laughing, not even in anger. All I saw was its long, curling, mangled legs limping into its door, bleeding colors that didn’t exist in oozing clouds. The door shut behind it and disappeared. To the other side, I saw what was left of the uncanny thing. Its rosy doll face and the plastic body of too many parts had been shredded to filaments.
“The man I was planning to sneak out from under them was in my hands. All of them. A piece of him hung from every fist. They were already the consistency of jerky. I didn’t have to guess why, considering the copper taste in my mouth; its sharp new additions were still wet with venom. His dried head was still looking up at me from where it had fallen off the brittle stalk of his neck. I screamed.
“Onstage, Grifter’s Bone was packing up their instruments. Their lead, Alfred Grifter, smiled at me.
“‘You’ve got some real pipes on you,’ he said. ‘Haven’t had a vocalist in ages. Interested?’
“I ran. Even like I was, I ran, putting all my strength into not being seen. In my flat, I crunched myself down the fastest I ever had, got in the shower, and scoured myself. Paused to vomit in the toilet. Back in the shower. Didn’t come out until the hot water stopped. Threw up one more time for good measure, but it was all just liquid. My meals are always liquid these days.
“I still can’t tell if it was my own hubris that blinded me or if it was rotten luck or if it was Her. As if She wanted to see how I’d fare against an unexpected element if I had my senses dulled. Was She proud that I’d come out on top? Disappointed at my backpedaling into frail, human squeamishness? I didn’t know or care. I was already on strike. No more tricks, no more pitting X pawn against Y, not so much as a spider dropped on someone’s lunch. Just me, myself, and a little light museum theft.
“And, well. You know how that went.
“But before I started my stint as an incubator, I did manage to get a little more work done on my side project. Namely, you all, and the erudite, esoteric death trap that is the Magnus Institute. See, when Mother made the decision to scrap the Archives out of her plan, She tied off the corner of the Design it was woven into and plucked it out to make room for the new arrangement with me.
“But the threads she’d already put in place were still there, setting things in motion. Left alone, there was every chance those threads would still draw a big fat bullseye on the Archivist’s head, along with anyone too close.
“I’ve been trying my best to undo them before they could get to you. I got a pretty clear glimpse of something like Prentiss or another offshoot of her patron trying to make a move. To start a
“Damn. Can’t type it. Planning to attack you and also attempt to do A Much Worse Thing while she/they/it was at it. Today pretty well nixed that. I saw the thread unravel to nothing once me and the kids finished the Hive off. There were others making plans before her, though.
“Like the pair of delivery men who were not men and a table holding something inside that would go after Rosie, your receptionist. I’m still not sure what. All I could see down the line was an image of Rosie as she is now, a huge flash of pain, and then Rosie being different. Wrong. Her tattoos were gone and her face wasn’t hers and nobody noticed until it was too late, and the Archivist—once me, never me, now you, Sasha—made exactly the wrong move trying to destroy the imposter.
“It goes—or would go—very bad after that.
“The delivery un-men were easy. I honestly think they were sharing a single brain between the two of them. They couldn’t resist a frantic, gangly stranger waving them down in the rain. The rain that makes their cargo croon and ache for company. I babbled something panicky about being lost, how something had attacked my car and taken me off the road, I’d been running in the woods for hours, please, please, help.
“Note for the future, if you ever want to sucker one of these predators, make them believe that you’re on the run from another bogeyman and that you believe they’re human, that they can help. With few exceptions, they’ll usually play Good Samaritan just long enough to get you out of reach of the competition, the better to soak up the fear from you realizing, oh no, you’ve run into another monster!
“They let me into the back of their van. There was a coffin in there, which was singing. And the table which was still wrapped in the Web’s thick, forgotten threads. I open the coffin, just like they expected, waiting for me to follow the song down into its crushing dark. But there was no catching me off-guard like that twice. When I opened it, I did give the stairs inside a look—they went down even further than I'd guessed. Then I pulled something out of my raincoat.
“One of my sticky-fingered souvenirs, a scroll of very unpleasant origins. The kind of thing you might tuck in a safe and bury in concrete before putting it in artefact storage.
“The scroll was crafted, like many of the world’s most powerful written works, by a thing still alive under the earth in Alexandria, likely still writing, its pen dripping with the jelly of stolen eyes. My scroll was a piece that translated roughly to, ‘Under Scrutiny.’ I snapped it open so that the text faced out at them. So that it Saw them. I kept my eyes shut long after the screaming was done. I can assume it started with their eyes, and just kept pulling until their whole, hideous lives were there on the scroll, printed in a language that had died millennia ago. Their lives, and everything else.
“The coffin was still singing. Still wanting company. It took some doing to oblige it, hefting the thing up on top of the table with the open side facing the table’s pattern. A pattern imbued with the Web’s strongest silk.
“It was trickier still to actually touch it with my bare hand and unbind the doppelganger locked inside. The thing was not happy at what it was being ‘released’ into. Whatever limbo the table trapped it in, the coffin promised an even snugger eternity. It actually managed to stick one of its horrible, lineless arms out and snag my hand. Would’ve broken every finger and done much worse if I hadn’t slammed the scroll down on its skin.
“It was made of the same uncanniness as the un-men, and direct contact with the Scrutiny was just as vile as if it were being Seen. It lurched back, falling up into the coffin. The coffin shut itself with a snap, flipping itself off the table and landing like a tick on its back, sated. Another thread choking the Institute frayed away.
“But not the biggest one. I could shear off a hundred little strings tied around that building, and it wouldn’t make even a fraction of a difference compared to taking out the noose that is the thing calling himself Elias Bouchard. Let’s see how much I’m allowed to say.
“He is a murderer. No, not just her, Sasha, but several more. Some from negligence; sacrifices to his own idle curiosity to See how the fiends stalking his ‘friends’ would end them.
“Others as a sacrifice to the altar of himself. Look up pictures of Elias Bouchard as a young man, and I think you’ll notice those deep brown eyes simply don’t match up with that steely grey of today. Nor did James Wright’s baby blues quite line up while his body was alive. Yes, I do say ‘body’ for a reason. Elias Bouchard is not alive. He died the day James Wright’s body did.
“The day Jonah Magnus handed himself his own keys to the top office for the second time in three centuries.
“And now that you know this, he Knows you know it. He can See through any eye, real or symbolic, pick through any mind, inflict any trauma on you as if you were reliving it in the present. He Knows how your father died, and how to bludgeon you with it, Sasha. He Knows how to inflict the mere existence of your mother on you, Martin. He Knows how to do much worse.
“But the mind games are a smokescreen. I’m sure he will try to spin you the same half-truth he gave to Gertrude when she started Eyeing him, thinking of how to dispose of ‘James Wright.’ He will say he is the beating heart of the Institute, that your contracts have bound you to him as much as the Eye, and to kill him is to kill everyone who works in its walls, delivering fresh meals of recorded terror up to your Unblinking god.
“When I look ahead, I cannot tell how much of that is true. I do know that the destruction of any form of Knowledge—a burnt book, a shredded statement—hurts those closest to the Eye. Jonah and the Archivist, whoever that may be. Hurts, but does not kill. I’ve no clue what would happen if the whole Institute was blown to bits—Gertrude was planning to try before Jonah ventilated her—but if there is any truth to his supposed dead man’s switch?
“Who said he had to die to be taken off the board?
“That comes later, though. By now, if I’ve timed this right, he’s probably just finished dealing with the scalding pot of water Rosie accidentally dumped on his tailored crotch while she was en route back to the breakroom. Trouble with the sink, you know, had to go all the way to another level and was right in the way when the boss ran sprinting into her. Plus, that pratfall that cracked him headfirst against the copy machine; untied shoelace. Also, that unfortunate incident with Thomas’ new little cactus on the corner of his desk. Ouch.
“Okay, exposition is almost over. Get something heavy and start smashing in the shelves and plaster against what looks like the exterior wall. Run as soon as the hole is big enough.
“Jonah will be armed. He has gotten away with worse than a couple missing employees. Do not stop to listen to any excuses he makes, and the moment you start to feel tears burn in your eyes, that means you run faster. He will use your pain against you, to slow you down just enough so he can take aim. Don’t give him the chance. And Sasha?
“You don’t have to put down the recorder, but you may want a new tape. Statement ends.”
Sasha saw no more text beneath this and allowed herself to breathe. Then realized what was in her other hand.
“When did I pick this up?” she asked, more towards the recorder than Martin. Martin glanced between her, the phone, back again.
“I don’t know. I-I do not—God, what is this? What the hell is going on? My neighbor’s possessed by monster spiders and he’s telling us there’s a giant monster conspiracy and Elias is—is—,”
“Jonah Magnus. The founder. The one who killed—,” Sasha found her hands were shaking. To pretend they weren’t, she made them busy, stuffing her phone in her pocket and scrambling to jam a new tape into the recorder. They trembled anyway. From fear or hurt or hate, she couldn’t tell. Because suddenly, somehow she Knew.
Not just because he had been the one to find Gertrude’s bloody desk. Not just because of Jonathan Sims’ statement, which felt—tasted?—true in her mouth and her mind. No, something had clicked in her skull as bluntly as the button on her recorder.
Announcement: Gertrude Robinson was murdered by Jonah Magnus.
Supplement: Gertrude Robinson had given Sasha James a voucher for a high-priced dinner the night she died. Something to take whatever lucky young man or lady out with. In fact, take the whole day. Don’t question it, Sasha, she’s sure whatever brain fever’s got her shall pass before she can blink. Go on.
Supplement: Gertrude Robinson knew Jonah Magnus would Know if she made too much of an effort to get everyone out. So she sent away the one she thought would be least surprising to have a doting moment with.
Supplement: Even after the police had come and gone, the blood wiped up, the floor cleaned, the room stinking of sanitizing chemicals, Sasha James had still smelled a whiff of petrol.
Supplement: Jonah Magnus had to be quick with the corpse. How could he have disposed of it without anyone noticing?
Sasha looked at the exterior wall. She set the recorder down long enough to pick up the desk lamp. A thousand miles away, on the other side of the seething, raging blood tide in her ears, she heard Martin.
“Sasha, are we seriously doing this—?”
Smash, crash, bash went the cheap shelves and the wall behind them. Plaster toppled. Darkness squatted on the other side, far and hollow. A tunnel. Perhaps there was a secret hinge somewhere, but she did not magically Know where. She continued smashing.
“Martin, use that metal bust up there,” she said, nodding blindly toward the likeness of some dustily distinguished bald man on another shelf.
“This is—this is—,” Martin raked both hands through his hair, almost more indignant than panicked. “Christ, I just finished avoiding being eaten alive by demonic worms, what the hell is happening? How is any of this happening!?”
Sasha might have said something if not for the sound of the doorknob. They both froze as the knob click-click-clicked.
Elias Bouchard’s voice came to them around the blockade of the filing cabinet. It sounded calm, but he was clearly winded. Wincing.
“Sasha. Martin. Open the door.” A pant, a steadying breath. Sudden, thickly-glazed concern. “I just want to talk.” Click-click. A jingle of keys.
“Martin,” Sasha hissed. Martin was already taking the bust in both hands. They attacked the wall with new vigor. Behind them the door unlocked and banged hard against the filing cabinet.
“Move this out of the way,” said Elias—
“Move this and we’ll just talk, alright? That’s all.” The door was shoved again. The filing cabinet screeched a few inches in, the chair screeching with it. “Sasha?” Pitch-perfect again. Her eyes were burning. “Sasha, not half of what you read was true. I do have some abilities beyond what’s natural, perhaps, but the rest is all lies. I just want to keep an Eye on everyone, make sure no one falls into the kind of trouble we spend all day Archiving. This place was built to gather Knowledge on the horrors in the dark, to battle them. To help.”
His voice. Her father’s voice croaking at her out of the dark.
“I’ll do whatever I can to—,”
Sasha brought the lamp down one more time, hard as she could. The rest of the wall crumbled away. On the other side, the tunnel unrolled into a quiet gloom. Sasha grabbed the recorder, turned on her phone’s torch, and sprinted ahead with Martin on her heels. The door slammed so hard against the filing cabinet it nearly toppled. Though it stayed upright, it gave just enough room to let a man squeeze through.
“Sasha, Martin! Get back here! Sasha!”
But he was already fading behind them. There was a briefly amusing sound of someone tripping painfully over a chair. Then footfalls. Following their tiny light.
“I have to turn it off,” Sasha whispered. “I have to, he’ll see us.”
“Then what do we do?” Martin panted. “We’re blind in here! Look how many turns there are!” Sasha had seen. There were turns and twists waiting in too many routes, making her think unpleasantly of intestines. The Institute’s bowels.
“Better blind than spotted. We just have to—,” Sasha wasn’t sure what she’d been about to say. The torch had swung over something and snagged her eyes. “Wait.”
“Wait?” The word left Martin like rust.
“No, I mean—look.” Martin looked and saw what she had.
A cellar spider dangled on a thread directly in front of the tunnel furthest to their left. Two front legs twitched and waved, almost pointing behind it.
“Do you think it’s..?”
“Are we really going to..?”
The footfalls were closer.
“Yeah. Keep your hand on me.”
“Could just put the recorder down.”
“I think we need it. We will need it. Come on.”
Sasha pressed the phone’s light into her chest to douse it, and then they were ducking blindly down the tunnel. Martin felt the way ahead of them. Some minutes later they heard Jonah Magnus curse and sputter as he walked into something sticky. Under better circumstances, perhaps the two of them would’ve laughed. They kept going.
“Hold on,” Sasha whispered. She turned the phone so that it flashed out again. Another scatter of turns and doors. Another spider dangled, pointing them toward the center. Rinse and repeat.
“Shouldn’t we just find a door? Shut ourselves in?”
“And just cross our fingers that he isn’t waiting outside when we try to leave? That he doesn’t shoot through it?”
“I’m just saying. …Here?”
“Just a second.” Another torch flash. This one revealed that they’d stopped just short of running into a T where the corridor split in two. They were almost nose-to-wood with one of the doors. A house spider was perched on the doorknob. “Oh.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She doused the light again. Waited. “So? You going to open it, or am I?”
“Rhetorical question.” Purposefully switching off the part of the brain that prevents people from making bad decisions, Sasha reached forward in the dark. When she found the knob, nothing eight-legged was still on it. Click. Creak. She turned the light in.
The phone almost fell out of her hand.
“Oh,” from Martin, somewhere on another planet. “Oh, Christ, this is really real. He really… Oh, God.”
Sasha could think of nothing to say.
Gertrude Robinson sat propped in a chair, her eyeless, rotted sockets staring back at her. Three bullet holes gaped in her chest, the bloodstains now so much brown crust on her blouse.
Not a door. Not a recorder.
“Turn around. Slowly.”
Sasha and Martin turned. She did not bother dousing the light. No point.
Elias Bouchard, who had been James Wright, who was always Jonah Magnus, stood behind them. His grey eyes were too, too bright in the dark. The phone’s small light polished the barrel of an impeccably maintained handgun. It was not pointed at either of their heads. Yet.
“Despite what your new pen pal implied, I have no desire to kill you. Nor to hurt you. It would be a waste to do either over a little…misunderstanding.”
“You murdered her,” Sasha breathed. “You killed her with that gun.”
“Do you know this for a fact, Sasha? Or are you just jumping to the conclusions Mr. Sims wanted you to?”
“I Know it, Jonah.” It was true. She didn’t know how, but she Knew it was true. Jonah raised a silver brow at her.
“Goodness. You really do, don’t you?” A smile curled. Sickly proud. Paternal. “I do believe you’ve beat Gertrude’s record. Took her twice as long to start Knowing.”
“You—,” Sasha felt her hands tighten on phone and recorder respectively. The latter was a weighty thing and would crack so nicely on the bastard’s teeth—
“Ah-ah.” The gun swung to aim directly between Martin’s eyes. Martin made a small noise at the sight of it. “Just because I don’t want to make a mess, does not mean I’m above it. Sometimes there’s no avoiding getting your hands dirty in this business. Gertrude understood that too.”
“You do not get to say her name, you evil shit.”
“Sasha, please, that’s such a soap opera line. Look. ‘Gertrude Robinson, Gertrude Robinson, Gertrude Robinson.’ See? Nothing happened. You have, wisely, withheld your urge to break my jaw with your handy recorder, and Gertrude’s ghost hasn’t crawled out of a mirror to exact bloody vengeance. Now. Let’s all step back from this, shall we? Deep breaths. I really do just want to explain.
“First off, yes, Sasha, I killed her. I had to. Or are you conveniently ignoring the part about her planning to blow the whole Institute to atoms with so many of its employees still inside?”
“No more than you’re ignoring the bit about you being a body-snatching, repeat murderer.”
“You Know that for a fact too?”
“Liar. But I’ll save you the strain. Yes, I am. I've existed for quite a long time in a world where there is no such thing as a perfectly ethical choice, I’m afraid. There are rarely even ‘right’ choices. Just the ones that minimize damage. The patron I serve—that we serve—is perhaps the most comparatively benign of them all. The Eye, the Ceaseless Watcher, the Beholding. Knowledge and Discovery embodied. Though I will admit it has the same unpleasant preferences as its neighbors. Yet, without the Institute and its Archivist, the world would have ended several times over by now.
“Before Gertrude cracked up, she was one of the best. To be the best, she had to sacrifice as many people as I did. Have you ever asked yourself why the archival assistant position had such a high turnover rate? The luckiest ones only had to die. Gertrude fed them to the darkness whenever she had to, to keep the Earth safe from things that would curdle your brain to conceptualize them, and never hesitated. She might still be here today if the work hadn’t finally begun to eat at her.
“The role of Archivist engenders suspicion, Sasha. Paranoia. Obsession. Combine that with her already suspecting the nature of my life, or lives, if you like, and generally grudging relationship with her title, and, well.
“I blame myself for not catching onto her deterioration until it was too late. For her, anyway. Got to her just before she could blow the Magnus Institute and its people into cinders. She was so sure that we were a threat. That we who merely Learn and Observe even slightly compared to the things which mangle and menace humanity outright. We serve an inhuman master, and that was enough for her.
“I do wish I hadn’t needed to do it. I wish I still had her alive, as she was before she took that leap off the deep end. But no, Sasha. I do not regret it. I could not let her destroy this place or its people. Can you understand that?”
“Sure I can. The same way I can understand you’ll murder us both if you decide we’re not worth the risk.”
“Two people versus the lives of everyone else on the planet. Fairly basic math, isn’t it? But, and I know I’m a broken record here, I do not want to hurt you. I want you to understand that while I am by no means a pinnacle of heroism, I am not wholly a villain. I am just a man who was given an opportunity to fortify the paper-thin barrier between us and the pantheon of sentient evil that would turn the world into a place that would make the biblical Hell look like a vacation. So I took that opportunity and the ugly price tag it came with, and have been paying it for three hundred years.
“I am not asking for forgiveness. I’m asking for your help, but this time actually comprehending what it is you’re doing for the world. Creatures that only half-remember what it was to be human are planning to call down their own, far crueler gods, and if we do not stop them, death will be like a sweet dream compared to what follows. So, please. Please, both of you.” The grey eyes were lanterns now and Sasha could feel them moving like feelers through the folds of her brain, turning things over, searching, hunting. “I just want to Know you’re with me.”
“You already Know a lot of things, it seems like. Can See right through us, literally.”
“Knowledge is power,” Jonah shrugged without moving the gun. “We need all of it we can get.”
“Right. So I’ve got to ask, Mr. Savior of the Earth,” and something turns over in her throat, lacing her voice with something that is not quite static, “why didn’t you help Martin when you Saw Jane Prentiss was outside his door?”
“What?” from Martin. His eyes finally tore away from the gun to glare head-on at Jonah. “You… You did, didn’t you? You had a direct feed to my senses the whole time and you just—just—,”
“Left you to die, Martin. Just to See how it would happen. How exactly did that factor into your big world-saving campaign, Jonah? I’m sure you could bullshit another speech for us if you really tried.”
Jonah sighed. The universal cry of managerial irritation.
“I’m sure I could. But my arm is getting tired and I can tell we’re all low on patience. So how about this instead?” A tight, too-toothy smile grew. Sasha wasn’t surprised to see how much more natural it looked on him. “I give you three seconds to decide whether you want to get with the program and accept the necessity of you doing your jobs, or, you do what you assume is the upright, pristinely moral thing to do, and die down here. I’ll Know if you lie. So. Count of three. One. Two. Th—,”
Something happened then. Sasha couldn’t tell what. All she could register was a sudden, deafening sound of stone clenching like a fist. She hadn’t thought such a sound existed until it was drilling into her ears. Martin and Jonah jolted at the noise with her. At least for the second it took before the walls abruptly surged out of formation and trapped Jonah Magnus inside a box of stonework.
“Good Lord, but I am sick of that man.” Sasha and Martin whirled around with a shout. “Ah, hello. Sorry for the scare. I couldn’t help overhearing the monologue. I understand you’ve stumbled onto, ah, ‘Elias’’ assorted dark secrets?”
“Uh, y-yeah? Yeah, looks like it,” from Martin. At the rate this day was going, Sasha thought his voice might regress entirely to a pre-pubescent falsetto. “Uh, who’re you? Sir?”
The old man made an uncomfortable noise and toyed with his beard. His other hand balanced a heavy old book.
“I’m not going to do myself any favors telling you the truth, but I guess there’s no helping it. I am Jurgen Leitner. Yes, that one.”
“The one with the giant library full of evil books.”
“The same. In my defense, it was never to use them for anything grisly. Really, I didn’t want them used at all. I just wanted them out of reach. In permanent storage, like your assortment of artefacts. But I was counting on keeping out human thieves. Inhuman ones, well…”
Sasha abruptly Knew. She couldn’t tell if she liked this sudden Knowing, but it was there, so she may as well use it.
“Your library got ransacked by monsters who tossed them all to the wind anyway. Things like Prentiss. Or,” she threw a glower at the closed off space where Jonah was caged, “him.”
“Or like our Mr. Sims, yes. I did hear that name, didn’t I? You two spoke with Jonathan Sims?”
“I did,” Martin said. “He sent both of us a hell of a long note before telling us to run down here. I-I think he was guiding us?”
“Well, if he was marked by the Web like Gertrude believed, I suppose it’s altered him enough to make such a thing possible.” Jurgen sighed. “I don’t doubt she was right in steering his course away from the Archivist’s title, but I regret that I didn’t press my opinion harder. I’d hoped she might at least nudge him toward another patron to secure its hold on him and weaken the Web’s direct influence. Any patron would have been better than to let the Mother of Puppets gain another proper avatar."
“An avatar. The way you and Gertrude are the Archivist for the Eye, other Fears have their soldiers. Those who act as a Fear’s agents in the world because the Fears themselves cannot exist tangibly here. …How much do you know, Sasha? Didn’t you get any of Gertrude’s notes? Her tapes?”
“No.” Another flash of Knowing, another boiling surge of hate. “He took them. After he brought her down here.”
“You Know that? Already?”
“I…yes. Yeah, I’m, uh. Knowing a lot, right now. What does that mean? Is that good or bad?”
“It means you’ve not just been recording statements. You’ve been—how did Gertrude put it?—‘digesting’ them quicker than she did, at least at the start. She put on a skeptic front in the beginning, but over time she started accepting things wholly. Cleaning her metaphorical plate rather than nibbling, I suppose. I take it you’re a bit more credulous about all this paranormal flotsam than she w—,”
“Okay!” Martin nearly shouted. “Okay, yes, another round of dialogue! Excellent! I can make us all tea and we can have a good long chat!” He gestured at the walls that had become a box. “After we deal with the homicidal elephant in the room! How do we get past him once you put the walls back or—or whatever you do?”
“How did you do the whole next-level feng shui thing, anyway?”
“Oh, just this.” Jurgen patted his book. “A little something to keep things dizzy down here, in case someone like your dear CEO came sniffing. As to your question of how we get around him, I just have to read the right passage,” he looked to the pages, “and fold the walls enough that he gets pinned and we have a gap to—,” The old man’s face bleached. Then he clapped the open book against his chest with a curse.
“He’s Blind to this place aboveground, but now that he's in here he can Squint. I think he may have used me to—,”
On cue, the walls groaned again. Before they even turned to run, enough of a gap had opened that a wink of metal could shine through. The bullet tore through Jurgen’s left forearm. He screamed, dropping the book.
“I’ve come to an executive decision,” Jonah grated out, firing two more rounds at Sasha and Martin’s feet. “You are going to die here. And trust me,” his Eyes blazed like hideous grey suns, “it will only be after you’ve begged for it.”
Sasha understood why an instant later. She Saw what he wanted her to See, was standing trapped in that moment that would surge up and back to her in pulses as the years went by.
Sasha James, fixated. Sasha James, sponging up new hobbies. Sasha James, in her own world of academia and artefacts and arcana.
Sasha James, so blinded by her own whims that she didn’t notice how slow her father was becoming. Didn’t take note of the red flags as they piled up in flaring, glaring crimson. Not until she came home from school one day and saw—really saw—how grey he’d gone in the face. The horrible, bleary tint of his eyes. He’d smiled at her like he always did, always glad she was home, but there was so much agony he was fighting to make that simple expression happen.
He had asked her something about her latest diversion. Something to do with Egypt or Babylonia or suchlike. Something with lots of mythology and ancient knick-knacks of supposed power involved. She had said something back, inane as ever, self-absorbed as ever, as if by sticking to the old script nothing would be wrong. And then he’d said what he always said:
“Sounds interesting,” his smile, so real, so bright, so awful, “I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
And then he fell off the couch. Not dead, not yet. He would hold on all the way to the hospital and another twenty minutes after that. But those were his last words to her. His very last breath of consciousness wasted on telling his little girl he wanted to help with whatever was distracting her that week. No monsters, no ghosts, no bogeymen. Just a plain old aneurysm. Stupid, blind evil at its most mundane.
Only in this version of the memory, Alexander James stood back up. Blood oozed from every orifice in his head. He was still smiling.
“Well, Sasha? What can I do for you? What can dear old Dad help you with this time? Something from the workshop? Another diorama of little gods and goddesses for you to get bored of and jam in the closet? Another runaround of the museums, doesn’t matter how far away, how much of my free time it eats, just so you can go take some photos to forget about a week later. I’ll do it. Oh, or maybe you need even more eerie books and intellectual clutter to gather dust in your room, what’s another quarter of a paycheck compared to your insipid, flighty little fixation of the minute?
“I was only dying, after all. Sure, you asked once, maybe twice if I was feeling alright, Dad, are you sure, Dad? All I had to do was nod and say I was under the weather, just getting old, just one of those things. And you let it slide right off your preoccupied mind. Not that it matters.
“Because I’m still here for you, Sasha. Even like this.”
Alexander James’ grin stretched wider, splitting the greyed flesh. The meat of him began to putrefy as tiny white things wriggled in and out. He was coming toward her. She couldn’t move.
“Isn’t it wonderful, Sasha? Our little daddy-daughter team, together again, always, and forever.” His hand reached for her face. She still couldn’t move. “It’s not as bad as it looks, honest.” The decayed pulp of his palm smoothed back her hair the way he had when she was small. Maggots fell down her brow. “You won’t feel a thing after the rot sets in.”
She was going to scream. She was going to open her mouth and scream until her lungs collapsed and her mind cracked in half and the thing that had been her father wrenched her head off like a bottle cap and she would still be screaming—
And then there was a tiny tickling on her ear. Like something light as tissue was crawling over the shell of it. A voice whispered, and though she had never heard it before, she Knew who spoke. Posh-toff accent and all.
“You can See through this, Sasha. You can See through him. Look. Look.”
Her father was not there, nor was his rancid imposter. A far more rancid thing was standing in his place, just where the figment had stood, his overpriced cologne pungent and his hand on her head, beaming gleefully over his work. A thought came to her and it crackled with static.
I. See. You.
Jonah had a millisecond to look confused before Sasha’s forehead was bashing his nose in with a melodic, wet crack. The noise he made as a result was even better. Then she was on him like a cat, grappling with the hand that held the gun.
He wore a heavy ring on the other hand, emeralds shaped into an eye, and it made an even louder crack as the fist of it connected with her cheek. She got him back with the corner of the tape recorder. As they grappled and hit and clawed, a background of whimpers and keening reached Sasha’s ears. Martin was on his knees, weeping and spasming with grief. Jurgen was bent double on the floor, pleading with the ghosts of his assistants for mercy, for forgiveness, he was sorry, so sorry for it all.
“Martin! Jurgen!” she got out before Jonah’s hands closed around her throat.
One of her blows with the recorder had smashed his hand, making him drop and lose the gun in the dark, and so he was improvising. He wasn’t strong enough to snap her neck, but he was on top of her, and his thumbs were pinching her windpipe shut with an accuracy that suggested thorough practice. Her chest burned worse than her Eyes. She brought the tape recorder up again to catch him in the jaw, but he spared one hand to catch her wrist and wrench it. The recorder fell to the floor. Sasha should have yelped, but the sound was trapped on the wrong end of her throat.
See, she wanted to say. Please, Martin, Jurgen, you have to See through it…
But she couldn’t tell them so. No more than she could pry the crushing weight off her neck or tear her gaze away from the hideous, giddy grey Eyes drinking in the Sight of her dying.
Not a door. Not a gun.
“Hello, Jonah,” said the tape recorder. “I am making this tape and leaving it where she’ll find it, in a stack with all the other blanks. I admit I’m recording this a fair way ahead of the game, and I apologize if I’ve mis-guessed a few details, but my intuition tells me things should line up well enough. That said, I’d like to take this moment to say, on behalf of Mother, thank you for your service. You’ve been a dutiful puppet and a decent enough liaison with our mutual friend, the Eye, for many years. But you are not the only avatar with that pedigree, and, if you’ll forgive me interpreting Mother’s extremely vivid opinion, you’re a bit of a headache.
“I believe Annabelle likened it to being a master painter forced to nod and smile at a three-year-old who thinks smearing his feces on the wall is on the same level as their work. But that’s not what this is about.
“This is about gratitude and goodbyes. Gratitude both for your prior service, and for a frankly heartwarming donation on your part. Really, if She was here, all eight of Her eyes would be misty at your parting gifts. I assume She feels rather bashful now, not getting you a plaque, setting up a party. Though that would hardly measure up to the value of all the trinkets you’ve given us.
“Well. I say ‘give.’ More accurate to say, ‘left unguarded.’ Did you count all the keys on your ring before you came running down to the Archives, Jonah? Do you even bother to pick through Rosie’s rosy mind anymore, blandly pleasant thing that it is? If you had, I honestly wonder whether or not you would’ve seen any memory in her of lifting that key. But again, I suspect you didn’t bother.
“No more than you bothered with any of the staff aboveground in your race to desperately re-indoctrinate your second rebel Archivist in a row. They’ve been quite busy up there, Jonah. See for yourself.”
As the voice of Jonathan Sims floated out, Sasha had found herself growing calmer. Jonah’s grip had lightened just enough that she could take a few stealthy gasps in. Jonah didn’t seem to notice, his Eyes having locked immediately on the recorder once it began to play. Now his head canted up, glaring at the ceiling. His face went shock-slack.
“No. No, no, no, they can’t—,”
“I know what you’re thinking,” came the pre-recorded sigh, “No, no, no, they can’t do that! But they can and they are. Teamwork makes the dream work and all that. Easier than you’d think to empty out the artefact treasure trove and start making kindling of the Archives at the same time. You’ve got some real multitaskers onboard, Jonah. You should be proud.
“And, because I think some chats really deserve to happen face-to-face, I’m heading down to meet you in person. Not the 'you' who is no doubt menacing Sasha, Martin, perhaps even Jurgen in the tunnels. No, I’m visiting with the rest of you, Jonah. Can you See me down there? You may have to Squint.
“Just how important is it for your first carcass to stay put? To stay intact? You’re quite dry, so I wouldn’t bother with a meal, but I think your head would make a lovely mantelpiece. Perhaps a vase...”
If there was more, Jonah wouldn’t get to hear it. His hands had gone too limp to keep up the pressure. Sasha brought up both her hands in one last jolt of energy and clapped them to either side of Jonah’s head. Her thumbnails aimed for the Eyes. He barely wrangled her arms away before she could pierce them, though she managed to drag two bleeding lines down from his lower eyelids. He hissed through locked teeth.
“God, damn it!” Jonah glared down at her, his Eyes blazing like silver fire. His hands crunched as tight at they could around her arms, grinding bone. “You! You and your goddamn friend from the Web! Do you have any idea what you’ve done!? What you’ve cost!?”
“What do you See?” Sasha rasped. “Tell me what you See.”
“I See a corpse waiting to happen.”
“Wasn’t asking you.”
At this cue, Martin collided with Jonah like a freight train in a sweater. Jurgen followed after. Sasha would have joined the pile—between Martin and Jurgen, they had him flat against the floor and she wanted very badly to stomp her full weight down between his legs—but sudden, searing pain lanced through her skull. A sinus headache turned up by a hundred. Martin and Jurgen yowled with her, reeling back to clutch their brows.
It left Jonah just enough time to flail up and find, on his first, obscenely lucky grab at the floor, his gun.
“I’m done. I am done, I am done, I am fucking done.”
They were all standing now, all in a row in front of the muzzle.
“Sasha,” he panted. “I’m afraid I have to let you go.”
The black eye of the gun leveled between her eyes. For reasons she couldn’t guess, Sasha wasn’t bothered by it. Couldn’t be bothered to register anything other than the silence coming out of the tape recorder. There had been a lull of minutes between now and the word ‘vase.’
Then, in a whisper so low she couldn’t account for how she heard it, three words scurried from it and directly into her ear. She Knew the same had crawled into Martin’s.
“Watch your hand.”
Something tickled along her knuckles. Along his knuckles.
Perched on the back of her hand was the biggest black widow spider she’d ever seen. A brown recluse waited on Martin’s, even bigger. In a moment of comic absurdity, all the titanic levels of terror and certain death at the hand of their employer was forgotten as Sasha and Martin simultaneously shrieked and flicked their hands forward as hard as they could.
With even greater comedic alignment, the widow and the recluse defied all manner of probability, and landed on Jonah Magnus’ face. An eyeball apiece.
Jonah Magnus proceeded to shrill at a volume even most dogs couldn’t hear. He danced and flailed and swatted at his face. The spiders fell away into the gloom, but the damage was done. Sasha didn’t have to Know to know there had been something special about them. Something in their venom to account for just how rapidly disgusting the man’s eyes were becoming. Not that he would be able to tell.
Because she did Know that he was blind.
“No!” Jonah told them, the air, the spiders. “No! You bitch! You eight-legged, double-crossing BITCH—!”
A shot fired. Another. Sasha lurched one way, Martin another, Jurgen a third. Sasha had almost moved too slow, having been snared by one last distraction.
A silhouette creeping out of the murk behind Jonah. Mute, slow, and with not a footstep to be heard. He was on the lean side and moved on too many legs. One of too many arms lifted silently into the air, long and thin and over-jointed. Sasha remained hypnotized by the Sight of it and couldn’t hear Jurgen telling her to move, couldn’t feel Martin tugging her arm, come on, snap out of it, come on..!
Jonah roared and swung the gun in their direction.
The arm swung down.
Not a door, not a recorder, and certainly not a gun.
No, that was the sound of a pipe meeting the back of Jonah’s skull. Followed by a sudden, dizzy spin and stumble to the ground. Before he could even think to lift the gun again, Tim Stoker had torn it out of his hand, chucked it aside, and proceeded to swing the pipe down on Jonah’s knee. His arm, his ribs, his other knee. Tim then socked his knee in Jonah’s sternum, and proceeded to reintroduce Jonah’s head to his fist until he, Jonah, was unconscious.
Tim crouched there, his fist still poised to hit, the knuckles gone pink with blood. He didn’t move.
“Tim?” Martin tried. No answer.
“…Jonathan.” Sasha said.
“Jon,” Tim said in an accent that wasn’t his. “I would have liked my friends to call me Jon.” Tim turned his face up as his arm lowered. His eyes were fogged over. Gauze-colored. He blinked once, slowly, and the fog burned off. “He was going to kill you,” Tim said. His accent, but mechanical.
He blinked again, faster. The fog was gone. A sudden, panicked light turned on in his face.
“Jesus, he was going to kill you! Sasha!” He came barreling at her, stopped short so fast he almost fell, nudged the gun a long way away from Jonah’s body, and continued barreling until he had her safely sandwiched between his hands. “Sasha, what the hell happened—oh. Oh, God, your face, your neck, what the fuck did he—,”
“Long story,” Sasha cut in. “We’ll talk later. Can you and Jurgen drag him back upstairs? Martin and I can get his legs.”
“Who?” He looked where Sasha pointed. Jurgen waved. “Who the hell—Martin? Martin. Please explain this.”
“Honestly,” Martin sighed, laughed, or wheezed, “I am barely any more in the loop than you. Come on. I want to just be out of here already. It has been…a very, very long day.”
So they took the clip out of the gun, gathered up a limb apiece, and carried Jonah Magnus up to the Archives. Martin had barely brought up the question of how they’d come anywhere close to explaining things to the police, when they found a present waiting for them at the hole they’d all come through.
“Is that my phone?” Tim asked no one in particular.
It was. The phone dangled from an elaborate web that filled a third of the entrance. Waiting on it was a video recording of ‘Elias Bouchard’ openly threatening and attempting to murder his unarmed employees and an old man in cold blood, just after confessing to Gertrude Robinson’s murder. The perspective suggested it had been filmed from a high corner of the tunnels.
“Okay. Now can we talk about what the hell is going on?”
Rosie chose that moment to barrel into the office, shouting something about how the artefact storage had been cleaned out, they’d been robbed, and there was a fire in the Archives, we’re putting it out, but a lot was happening and, uh, hey, why was Elias beaten to a pulp? What was wrong with his eyes? Sasha what happened to you? Should she call an ambulance?
“Yes, but call the police first.”
“How about now? Is now a good time for explaining things? Now? Sasha?”
The message on Sasha’s phone was shared. Tim aged ten years in thirty minutes. Later, after the competing lights of ambulance, fire department, and police cars had come, after the question-and-answer round with investigators, after the video was handed over, after ‘Elias’ demanded his lawyer and refused surgery for his eyes, after the station-wide shock of Jurgen Leitner’s identity, after, after, after, the day finally ended.
Sasha, Martin, and Jurgen took turns sharing their parts of the narration over a pub table where nobody really had any appetite. Tim had aged another thirty years by then.
“So he—was this, this Jonny Spidersims guy, possessing me down there? Possessing the whole staff?”
“Not sure,” Sasha said, and found herself suddenly frustrated at not just Knowing. “You read it. He implied it was something he would have to do eventually, but it sounded like it wasn’t something he’d had real practice at.”
“If he wasn’t lying.”
“Yeah. That would actually be the more comforting answer, honestly. Because the answer that feels both plausible and much, much worse, is that he wasn’t working alone.”
“That woman he mentioned,” Martin said. “The one who ‘welcomed him to the family.’ Annabelle Keen?”
“Cane. Annabelle Cane. Yeah. Could’ve been her. Could be others. I don’t know.” But she wanted to. Yes, she really did want to Know.
“Cheery thought, isn’t it?” Jurgen told his sweating, undrunk stein. “Spiders are hiders, as Gertrude once said.”
“What did you and Gertrude do exactly? Save the world?”
“We certainly liked to think so. She did, anyway. But that’s an even longer story and I doubt they’d keep this place open long enough for me to spill it all at once. I will, in time.”
“Why not now?” Sasha asked.
“Because I am tired, and old, and I haven’t been aboveground in ages. I’ll tell all I can, Ms. James. Though I doubt much of it will be anything you won’t regret hearing.”
“Better to Know than get hit with another fun surprise like today. …Martin? You okay?”
“Hm? No, yeah, yes. I am. More or less. I’m just—I can’t help thinking about him.”
“Jonahlias Bouchnus?” Tim asked.
“No. Jon.” Martin stared into his cold plate of chips. “Just wondering how much of all this was really him and how much was an act and how much he just didn’t get a say in.”
“You know, provided it wasn’t all an act, start to finish,” Tim said, and ate a tepid bite of burger. “The way you make this guy and the Web sound, their whole deal is being manipulative, pulling strings. And also some spiders thrown in for pizazz, because why not? Could be he was playing you the moment you bumped into him. Or he bumped into you.”
Martin opened his mouth to say something, then didn’t. A vaguely affirmative noise hummed out of him. Sasha touched his arm.
Her phone chimed. Everyone froze.
“This shit day really doesn’t want to end, does it?” Tim asked, glaring daggers at the device.
“Could just be a scam caller…” Sasha offered, Knowing better.
The texts were not from 'Martin,' but from a number made entirely of zeroes. She read:
“That’s the Institute dealt a fairly savage blow. Not Jonah’s arrest and impending lockup, but his eyes. The reason he’s had to swap bodies all this time is the Eye’s refusal to give him the same adaptive healing it gives its Archivists. You’ll notice your wounds will heal up far quicker than they should, Sasha. One of a few small perks that don’t quite outweigh the shackles of the role.
“Now that Jonah is blinded, he is stuck. He has been excommunicated from his powers of clairvoyance and metaphysical mental abuse. He cannot even risk surgery or having the eyes removed, as they are the only thing keeping him anchored in his stolen body. If those go, he goes. More importantly, anything could come for his throat now, and end him, and the fact of his removal from the Beholding’s graces means there’s not one staff member who will feel anything when he dies.
“Which may come sooner rather than later if Detective Tonner gets him alone. But I’m sidetracking. The point is, we have kicked over the Magnus Anthill. We, as in you all and I. We, as in me and my ‘kin’ have looted every valuable bauble and book from it. Where they’ve all gone, I don’t know. I’ve been allowed a few souvenirs for my trouble, but the bulk of it has vanished, spirited out of sight and mind by the entities I must call my siblings.
“Tim, if you are disturbed by the trance you don’t remember, I can tell you from experience: being in a trance and knowing you have no control is a far more visceral thing. I have to say, though, I am almost as glad at yours and Jurgen’s suspicion of me as I am at Martin's stance. Even a sliver’s worth of faith is something. Everything.
“That said, from here on out, I don’t know how much you can trust me. After today, after how horribly pleased the Mother was with me, I can feel more power than ever pulsing under my skin. More power means less of me that is human and more of me that is Spider. The more Spider there is, the less you can believe anything I might tell you in the future. Which is unfortunate.
“Martin, if this is the last time I risk communication with anyone as myself, I need to say thank you. Thank you for listening, for talking, for trying. I have not had a social experience as benevolent as the one I shared with you, however fleeting, and I doubt I will again. Thank you.
“I wish I could say I had more time to be this much of me. I wish I could have met you all, really known you. I wish Gertrude would have just let me go waltzing into the Institute to get put on the Archivist’s altar after all, just to have been in a position where I could pretend to be human a little while longer. Sasha, that’s a distinction you’ll have to grapple with sooner than expected.
“Especially if or when you meet me face-to-face. Because you might. And I may not be me anymore by then. Depending on how the Design plays out, Mother may take back her assurance that you and your fellows are of no concern, and so in no danger from Her. That I can ‘play with my toys all I like’ so long as I keep them out of the way of Her tread. Perhaps that was a lie. Perhaps this has all been some elaborate domino effect to sour your status as Archivist. Perhaps She is saving you for something else.
“Mother loves the word ‘perhaps.’
“My point is
“My point is, I like you. All of you. I hadn’t planned on that. You were just the people I had to work with in the Archives to get Jonah Magnus torn off his little pissant throne. But you were also the only collection of people I had in my life that weren’t monsters or fearful faces. You were real to me. You still are. Which makes what I’m about to ask of you rather bittersweet.
“I need you to stop me. Keep me from becoming whatever it is I’m being sculpted into. The Mother has plans for me that I can’t
“I can’t t
“It’s bad. I am essential to it, and right now, I am clinging to my horror of what She will use me for. I’m doing all I can to stay afraid, to hate, to bury myself in research and experiences among the avatars of other Fears, as if my own meager patterns and the right clues might somehow spoil Her work. But I know She and all my brothers and sisters are laughing as I try.
“I am afraid. I must stay afraid for as long as I can, because once I’m not?
“I will still know you are a threat. Because the me I was—I am—has laid a path for you to become one. And no matter how improved your Sight may be by then, I guarantee you will not Know I’m pulling your strings until it’s too late.
“Stop me before that happens. Or don’t. With Jonah out of the picture, you have a window of opportunity to shed the title of Archivist. Jurgen certainly has some horror stories to give you on why that’s wise. You could live a normal life, Sasha. For a while.
“But left alone, I will do as Mother intends me to do. And normal will die a long, shrieking death. I am sorry, Sasha. Martin. Tim.
“Jurgen, I am still more than slightly pissed that you didn’t just set the goddamn books on fire the moment you acquired them. Hoarder.
“I think I should stop now. I may pour out another filibuster if I’m not careful. So I’ll end by saying this:
“Archivist, if you are the Archivist, I ask you as a friend: kill me. Please, please kill me while there’s still a chance.
The table was first deathly quiet, then incredibly loud. Sasha made the appropriate responses and exclamations required of her. But still the phone stayed in her hand.
In her dreams that night, she had another staring contest. The format had changed.
On one side of the table sat a sad man with eight eyes and cobweb hair. His Mother was beside him, sometimes a woman idly knitting, sometimes a looming terror of legs and venom. Both Her faces were smug in their preparation.
On Sasha’s side, a thing made entirely of Eyes peered back. It was all Knowledge, but no Understanding. That was why she was on the team.
The man across from her smiled, ever so slightly, as her own Eyes snapped open and Stared him down to nothing.