While my co-workers were engaged in battle with The Old One’s minions, while I was decoding my final clue and putting in motion my plan to snare The Old One, Noor was trapped in the shadowy dimension that was The Old One’s refuge.
This is what she told me.
Gnarled, rotting fingers as thick as tree branches wrapped around her waist. They were cold, she said. Cold like a corpse, but blood ran through them. She felt it pulsing, nestled against The Old One’s bulk. Buried in his clammy folds. It smelled like dirt, she said.
The Old One was a Leviathan, a mountainous mass of grey-green flesh with flaccid tentacles like those of a jellyfish. Giant green pustules throbbed. One leaked sickly yellow fluid with the stench of mushrooms.
Though Noor saw no mouth, The Old One spoke to her. Spoke eloquent, flawless Arabic. She didn’t tell me exactly what he said. Just that he recited her deepest fears, the horrors that danced in the back of her mind, barely drowned out by work and prayer and deliberate distractions.
“You know what it said to me,” she said. “Your fears aren’t that different from mine.”
The Old One was in her head. He was draining her, sucking her dry. Absorbing her energy. Absorbing her strength.
Then she started to laugh.
“It was completely ridiculous,” she told me. “I was like the little blonde girl in a stupid movie - kidnapped by a Cthullu ripoff. I dream about death every night. And even in my craziest nightmares, that’s not how I thought I would go.”
She laughed and laughed. The Old One’s fingers tightened.
You don’t feel fear.
She felt his red eyes boring into her. The thing was angry.
“I do feel fear,” she responded. “But I’m not scared of you.”
I could crush you like a bug. I could tear off your pretty little head.
“You could, but you won’t. I’m your collateral. If you were going to kill me, you would've done it already.”
Or maybe I’m saving you for last. Maybe I’ll make you suffer first.
There was a sound like thunder. Noor felt The Old One’s leathery bulk ripple against her. Somewhere in the grey, collapsing mall, glass shattered.
“You think you’re this immense, horrifying behemoth,” Noor said to The Old One. “Well, guess what? You’re not that mysterious. I know a lot of guys just like you.”
Another rumble. Then a series of crashes, wood and concrete breaking apart. Far below her, webs of cracks tore across the moldy tile floor.
“My country is run by guys like you. Overgrown bullies who use fear as a weapon. But secretly, they’re the most scared. They’re nothing but frightened mice with bombs and guns.”
The mall shook. A large piece of the roof fell and, with a bang, crumbled against the ground. Noor felt herself shift. The Old One’s grip on her loosened.
“Even your look isn’t original. I lived in Massachusetts for eight years. I’ve read HP Lovecraft.”
Silence! You’re a piddling little worm. I could chew you up and swallow you.
Another clap of thunder. More shattering glass. The network of cracks on the floor grew, widened, stretched and shot up the walls. Then the cold, pulsing fingers slackened and Noor slipped out of their grasp, and she was rolling over and over, embedded again and again in The Old One’s puttylike, sloping body, until she landed in a thicket of tentacles.
The floor quaked below her tentacle landing pad; falling bits of ceiling tiles crashed and broke apart. She took advantage of The Old One’s momentary distraction to right herself on the still-quivering floor. Then she ran.
She heard the building collapse behind her, windows blasting open, drywall exploding, concrete reduced to dust. She didn’t know how much of it was due to the series of aftershocks, each more violent than the last, and how much was The Old One, propelling himself on the tentacle grove at his base, bulldozing everything in his path.
It reminded her of home.
She rounded the curve; entered the wide open, empty food court. The moldy ghost town that would have been the food court. And she froze.
Through the tall, cracked plate glass windows, Noor looked into the Void. She tried to describe it to me, and I’m pretty sure she failed. There were colors. Colors like she’d never seen, like no human could perceive with our human eyes in our own dimension. Impossible shapes. Impossible patterns. The only experience even passingly similar in our world, she said, is that of the images dancing behind closed eyelids just before drifting off to sleep.
The floor convulsed. The Old One was there. She looked up into the red lantern eyes that shined like beacons, far above. She saw anger in them. But she also recognized fear.
I’ll kill you. I’ll tear your limbs off. I’ll eat out your heart.
She didn’t fear The Old One. She didn’t fear the Void.
“I put my knife to my wrist every single night and dare myself to press down. If you want to scare me, you’re gonna have to try a little harder.”
You’re nothing. You’re weak. I could show you fear beyond anything you could possibly imagine. If you don’t shut up, I’ll…
Noor laughed and laughed. She laughed until tears ran down her face.
“You’ll what? You’ll kill my family again?”
And the ground caved like quicksand beneath her feet.
I flew through the door of Grandma’s Attic and ran down the hallway, screaming at the top of my lungs. I ran straight to Lady Grace Candles.
“Peppermint! Peppermint! Make the mall smell like peppermint!”
I fiddled with my radio and got to Kevin.
“It’s Damien! Tell everyone to burn peppermint incense! Break out the peppermint syrup, candy canes, whatever! Make everything smell like peppermint!”
“Damien, where the fuck have you been?” Kevin snapped. “And what are you talking about!”
“Just DO IT!”
Peppermint, peppermint, peppermint. Lady Grace had smelled like peppermint for weeks. Within seconds, a crowd hovered at the door.
I held out my candle-filled arms. “Light them! Burn incense! Anything peppermint!”
I’m sure every single one of them thought I’d snapped. They didn’t look great, my co-workers. Karen Naguro had a nasty gash in her left bicep. Avni Ali's hand hung at an uncomfortable angle, and bruises formed up and down her arms. Jordan Ramirez smelled like fish. Yesi Alvarez dripped chunky yellow goo.
But, to their immense credit, they did what I said. Matches and lighters were passed around en mass. Peppermint-scented incense and candles were transported to every corner of the mall. Storage rooms were raided. Candy canes, and peppermint mocha syrup, and candy cane brownie mix, and peppermint bark were squirted on the walls and tossed in the air and scattered like ashes.
The monsters ran like rabbits from a dog.
The Skinwalker whined, shrunk back into coyote form, and played dead. The giant spider dropped from its massive web and skittered under Santa’s overturned sleigh. The Bagienniks, gleefully tearing into an anorexic, faceless man with charred-black skin, screeched and skittered back to the bathrooms.
A pretty, pale girl in a translucent frock tore down the hall, ice-blonde hair streaming behind her, revealing the muscle tissue and naked spine of her skinless back. A large, filthy man with the head of a cow ran in the opposite direction, large wet nostrils flaring. The two collided outside American Apparel.
The air was hazy Peppermint permeated the mall. Even the Bagiennik stink was nulled by the warm, sweet smell of incense. I set another stick to burn by the door leading to the parking structure.
In front of me, the blue-faced witch and the Black-Eyed Kids stopped in their tracks. The two girls began crying, clutched each other, and sank to the ground. Black Annis looked around frantically, then ran for a door in the wall outside JC Penney’s. She pulled open the door, then disappeared behind it. I watched, holding my breath.
“Is it working?” Kevin asked over the radio.
I sniffed the air. “I don’t…”
Seconds later, the blue-skinned hag reappeared, through a crack in the window of Johnny Rockets. She didn’t look threatened anymore. She looked terrified. As though her world were crumbling.
The sound was reminiscent of a tray of champagne flutes spilled to the floor, a china cabinet tipped over, the windows of a skyscraper blown out. Instinctively, I covered my eyes and ducked.
When I uncovered them, there were two figures sprawled between the tables and chairs of the food court, picking themselves off the ground. I left the incense and ran to them.
A woman in a hijab. And a man in a brown monk’s robe. The man was of indeterminate age, of indeterminate race. He had stringy hair and a long beard. A twisted walking stick lay under a chair. His face looked like a wrinkled turnip.
I knew who he was. He was The Old One, in his purest form. Except now, he wasn’t wearing his manic smile. His black eyes burned murderous rage.
In a flash, he’d changed. He’d grown bigger and wider and shed his hair. He was Axel, and he clutched something shiny - a knife. My knife. Noor teetered on her feet, too close. Then his arms were wrapped around her and the knife was at her throat.
“Stay back!” Axel - The Old One - screamed at me and the employees who’d gathered around. “Come any closer, and I kill the girl!”
I stopped. Noor caught my eye. Her hijab was falling off. Waist-length, chocolate-brown hair fell in waves down her back. She jerked her head ever-so-slightly to the left. In response, the Old One clutched her tighter. A small line of blood appeared at her neck where the blade cut in.
I looked over my shoulder. Just outside the glass wall a hundred or more Black Friday shoppers occupied themselves, apparently oblivious to the woman being manhandled not fifty yards in front of them.
I went and tapped on the glass. Like guppies in a bowl, they snapped to attention, hopped to their feet, and crowded around the still-locked sliding doors. A couple mimed tapping watches A few more mouthed questions. Is it time? Are you open yet? Their eyes were narrowed and hungry. I knew that, as soon as those doors opened, they’d destroy anything that got between them and their half-priced widescreen TVs.
“Did you hear me?” The Old One bellowed.
There was a grunt, then series of gasps.
Noor stomped on The Old One’s foot. I turned in time to watch her swivel her torso and, with every ounce of strength in her five-foot-two frame, punch him square in the face.
“Noor!” I screamed.
She dashed towards me. The Old One, black blood trickling from his human nose, started after Noor. Twenty steps from the doors he reached out and grabbed ahold of her long hair. He yanked her head back. She yelped as her legs gave in.
There was a flurry of black fuzz. Then Noor was on the ground and The Old One was screaming.
A dog-sized creature with shaggy black fur had launched itself from a table and landed, claws, first, right on The Old One’s face. Its pointed ears were pressed back against its head. And its majestic black tail - the part of its anatomy graciously returned by me - waved like a flag.
The Old One dropped his knife and pawed at the thing, unsuccessfully trying to throw it off. I ran to Noor. Slowly and, by the looks of it, painfully, she pulled herself upright. I pulled her into my arms. She was trembling. I dragged her to the doors and pressed us both against the large glass panel between them.
The Old One was screaming and stumbling, still trying to dislodge Tailypo’s claws and teeth from his flesh. Tailypo was going at him like the Bagienniks had gone at The Tall Man. As far as I was concerned, the little fucker and I were even.
The other employees took cautious steps towards us, unsure of what to make of the situation.
“Stay back!” I yelled to them.
They did what I said. I pulled out my radio.
“Kevin, it’s Damien! Can you see what’s going on?”
The radio chirped. “No. You’re in a blind spot. What do you want me to do?”
I pulled Noor closer, forced her between me and the glass. I looked at The Old One, still flailing, Tailypo latched to his face like a rabid raccoon. Then I pressed the button to call Kevin back.
“Open the doors.”
The rest of this description is all conjecture. I’ve never, actually, been in a war zone, or a train wreck, or within the blast radius of an exploding building. I don’t know, first hand, what any of those things sound like. But I imagine the experience of a war zone, or a train wreck, or a building crashing to the ground might be somewhat similar to that of pressing yourself against a wall as a hundred bargain-hungry Black Friday shoppers stampede through sets of sliding glass doors on either side.
We heard the loud “CLICK” of the doors unlocking, courtesy of the master switch in the security office. Then stampede they did. They came in like a plague of locusts, smelling of sweat and caffeine, nearly falling over each other as they rushed the entrance to Best Buy, shoving and clawing, jungle eyes locked on aisles of discounts, destroying anything and everything that stood in their way.
Anything and everything, all right. I don’t think they even noticed the security guard, fruitlessly attempting to extract the claws of a hairy black creature from his face. And if they did notice him, they definitely didn’t stop.
They knocked him down. They ran him over. They trampled him like a herd of buffalo trample the gopher unfortunate enough to get under their hooves.
The lights all went out.
Chaos ensued. There were screams, crashes, the sound of a hundred strangers bumping and stepping on each other’s feet. More crashes. A few “what the fuck'”s.
The lights came back on. The disorganized mass of people gaped dumbly, confused, like bees missing a queen. The sudden onset, then offset, of darkness tamed their killer instincts. For a minute, at least. Then they picked up right where they’d left off.
I let go of Noor and we both stood, shell-shocked, as the stragglers filed past us and into the free-for-all of Best Buy. Their screams and curses were audible above the jangly Christmas music still blasting from the speakers.
We looked to where the Old One had fallen. There was nothing left.
Like Kevin had hoped, the Best Buy Black Friday sale saved the mall. Just not in the way we’d thought it would.
Written by NickyXX