This nine-chapter Stranger Things novel is the long-awaited prequel that takes place before five other stories, which should be read in the following order: The College Years, The New Generation, World’s End, The Witch of Yamhill County and The Black Rose of Newberg. These are all works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series, from which I do not profit. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the stories down.
This prequel serves as an alternate season 4. It assumes the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-3, except that it was Joyce Byers who died in the Battle of Starcourt, while Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven. William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also: Karen Wheeler had an affair with Billy Hargrove before his possession, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer, though she did not become one of the flayed.
Endless Night — Chapter Seven
The Hill of Evermore
Shivering like an invalid, Eleven hung with sap in her veins and waited for the organic convulsion that would end her humanity. Her hallucinations were getting desperate; she was hearing Mike Wheeler now. A fitting torment, given what she had done to him.
On the off-chance it was really him, she had sent him a vision of what she had seen two nights ago: the shadow army in its entirety. So that he knew what was coming. Not that it mattered. She was about to die. No one else could stop the invasion.
Certainly not her friends: Lucas, Max, Dustin, Will, or Vijay. They were on the tree too. The other side of it. Or maybe not. Her nightmares made it hard to tell what was real. In the Void she heard echoes of their cries. So near and far at once.
Mike would have been with them. So he couldn’t really be here, with her on the shadow side.
He couldn’t be here at all. None of her friends were on this hill. Her mind was taunting her as the clock ran out.
The tree kept her alive when she would have otherwise died. From hypothermia if not despair. Her world was cold enough right now. Here in the Upside Down, it may as well have been deep space. Far too cold for a human being to survive dressed as she was, with only a coat, and no gloves or head protection. She was frostbitten on her hands and face, though the tree minimized tissue damage. Sap flowed from a splinter of wood jabbed into her neck, and made her resilient even as it worked against her biology.
The tree preserved her, but it also neutralized her. She was in a delirious sleep and unable to summon her powers. She could access the Void, but the results were confusing. Sometimes she got sounds with no sight; other times what she saw couldn’t be trusted. Her nightmares were constant, and the Void mixed phantoms with reality. She saw her friends in the tree, climbing, shouting for her; Max cutting branches with a knife. Screaming as the tree assaulted them. Bound by limbs, muzzled by leaves. Screaming inside their nightmares, yelling at her, accusing her of abandoning Mike. Then the mutations: Lucas and Max becoming flayed; Dustin turning into a demo-dog; Will’s skin going black; Vijay’s arms turning into snakes. She shut it all down, unable to separate fact from fiction.
The tree was transmuting her; preparing for her consummation. She knew the sap infection was a two-day process. The Illithid had gloatingly explained it to her. That was sometime on Friday morning, hours before sunrise. Now it was close to midnight; Sunday morning. In less than five hours the creature would return for its apotheosis: to ingest her and annihilate the world.
She had been infected like this once before, when a flayed crawler was in her leg. On that July holiday two summers ago. She had been held down by her friends, and cut open by Jonathan Byers until the agony was unbearable. Friends meant well, but on that day she could have killed them all. Throwing them off instead, she had ripped into her leg and forced the alien critter out, screaming so wrathfully that a nearby window shattered. Her powers didn’t come back for six months. It took another six to make her whole.
The Illithid wanted to make her whole — with itself. There was no forcing out the contaminant this time. The sap was in her blood everywhere. She was resigned to consumption. Glamours of Mike wouldn’t fool her.
Yet the delusions persisted. She heard his voice again:
He seemed further away. Not next to her in the tree anymore, but on the ground calling up.
I’m getting you out. This is Gorn. He’s a worm. A shadow creature. He’ll do what I say.
She struggled for clarity in the black ether — and then saw it: a huge tentacle reaching up to impose itself around her, caressing the branches that constrained her. The creature was native to the Upside Down; the tree responded to one of its own. She felt her arms and legs released by the branches. The splinter receded from her neck. As soon as it withdrew, her eyelids began to flutter. Her body, free at last, began falling from the tree. She felt herself caught by the worm and lowered down gently.
Mike spoke: “Give me your mask, Seth.”
Real speech. She was hearing again. Coming back. She couldn’t open her eyes or mouth, but she could feel: the arctic cold hammered her. The tree no longer warded her from the freezing air.
“Fuck you, Wheeler. I’m not losing my face — Hey!” There was a struggle, and lots of swearing from Seth. Then she was being propped up and a wool ski mask pulled over her head. She tried talking again. Her mouth was dead weight.
“El. Can you hear me?”
She shook her head, moaning, and then realized that was wrong. She should have nodded. All her signals were scrambled. There was too much sap in her blood.
“You’re in deep shit, Wheeler. Get us out of here. Now!”
She still couldn’t open her eyes, but she recognized Seth’s voice. He had been one of the guys who ambushed her at home. He had surprised her out of nowhere, and shot her with a tranquilizer.
Mike was apparently ignoring Seth. “El,” he said, holding her close. “Gorn is going to try something. I hope it works. I think it will. I trust him. He does what I say, since I’m marked. But he’s going to have to bite you. It’ll hurt, but it should clean you. Of whatever that tree put inside you. Okay?”
No, she panicked. Don’t bite me. I can’t —
It was as if someone plunged a pair of blunt scissors into the side of her neck. The pain was excruciating, a living claw that raked through her neck and head. Her throat fought to scream, but her mouth stayed locked. She felt a strange contradiction of liquid ice. It poured through her puncture wounds and into her bloodstream. She went immediately into convulsions. Her heels drummed the ground, and spasms racked her body, arching her back into hideous contortions. A cadaverous grin showed through her ski mask. Hisses of breath blew out her nose. The liquid ice scourged her circulatory system, punishing her like purgatory for untold sins. It was too much — way too much.
MIKE, IT’S KILLING ME! STOP IT!
He couldn’t hear her, of course. She wasn’t in the Void anymore. Just screaming in her mind as her body was cleansed by unholy abuse.
“She’s dying. You fucked up.”
“She’s not!” Mike was pleading, doing his best to restrain her. “She’s going to be fine. Gorn said so.”
Gorn’s antidote was killing the patient. Razing her inside; building seizures. The worm’s mucus was purging her, but it was far too virile. The human body wasn’t made for such potency.
“Please. Don’t die, El.”
Her contortions stretched her back into an impossible posture. Tremors shook her muscles. Then, as if moved by Mike’s plea, her body loosened. The seizures began to subside.
“Don’t die,” he repeated, caressing her masked face.
The worst of it was over. She began breathing normally again. There were still problems. Her eyes opened, but they felt like bricks; everything she saw was a blur. She barely made out Mike’s ski mask. Her mouth opened too, but she could only croak. Gorn’s mucus had done its work, but she had a long climb out of the blackness.
“You’re going to make it, El.” Mike was holding her close. “Listen to me. We’re going back. To the same hill in our world. I have no choice. Now that I’ve rescued you, I have to continue my original orders. The Illithid will be there. At the hill.” He whispered the next part in her ear: “You have to kill it.” So Seth wouldn’t hear, presumably. “I’m sorry. I know it’s a hard deal. But I have no choice.“ He resumed loudly: “Gorn has to fly fast to get us out of the Upside Down. He’ll strap you in, and I’ll hold you in front of me. Okay? El? Can you hear me?”
No, not the worm. God, the smell…
She didn’t think Gorn was the worm that had brought her here. Her worm had been a she (the Illithid had referred to it as a “her”) with bad attitude. It had hissed in El’s face, snapped its teeth, and howled in anger when El was placed on its back. If not for the Illithid’s commands, it would have torn her to pieces; if not for the creature’s guardianship, it would have thrown her off its back. Mike’s worm seemed placid by comparison, but El didn’t trust it. Gorn had almost killed Mike on Sunday night with its breath.
“Relax,” said Mike. “I got you.” She felt herself being lifted, and then fastened by a tentacle as Mike settled in behind her. Seth must have been behind Mike. Then there was the unmistakable sensation of soaring, as the worm launched into the air. She remembered some of her flight to the Upside Down. She had been groggy, fading in and out, as the Illithid sat behind holding her. Like Mike was doing now. She remembered the same smell.
Now she was under the sedative of self-recovery. Returning to herself, she swam in memories. They reiterated the essence of who she was. Her life as a lab rat, crushing cans and kittens. Opening the Gate. Escaping an abusive life, and then hiding out with boys. Her new home in the woods, with a real papa she had learned to love. Closing the Gate — a lame piece of self-congratulation. Her most important relationship, destroyed by dishonesty. Mike. She wanted to talk to him, to rewind that horrible fight and start over.
It was her father, of course, who had pulled the strings. She cursed herself for not seeing it. He had done this before. His methods were more circumspect this time, but it was the same game.
As Gorn picked up speed, she spiraled deeper into memory. Down to the phone call that started it. In early December, Hopper had gotten a job offer in Oregon. He would start mid-April as the sheriff of some county out there. For much better pay than he was making in Hawkins. His dead brother had left him his estate in the town of Newberg. Hopper was keeping his transfer secret until March, when he would give his six-week notice.
He was elated. Since the death of Joyce Byers, Hawkins had been for him a cycle of dead-end routine and grim shades. Oregon offered him a new start in life. He felt like he had a chance now.
El felt like an abyss had opened beneath her. Her life would be blown apart.
“I can’t leave Mike,” she had said, not believing her father could do this to her. They were eating dinner. She ignored her plate for the rest of the conversation.
“I know it will be hard, kid.” He devoured his TV dinner like it was gourmet. “But that’s why I’m telling you now. You know, so you can be ready to say good-bye. When the time comes.”
“Are you crazy? I’m never going to be ready.” I love him. What’s wrong with you? “I’m not leaving Hawkins. I won’t leave.”
He looked at her a long time before responding. “Mike can come out to visit us –”
“I have to be with him! We love each other! Why would you decide this without asking me?”
The argument had devolved into platitudes (from him) and remonstrations (from her), until she threw back her chair and stormed from the table.
Spiraling deeper. Later that night, crying in her room. Staring at the ceiling. He, knocking gently, then sitting at the edge of her bed, trying to find the right words. There were none.
“I’m sorry, kid,” he said. “Moving is hard. But this is something I can’t pass up. It’s not just for me. It’s for both of us — you especially. With the salary I’m being offered, I’ll be able to provide for you in a way I can’t do in Hawkins. We’ll have a big house. You won’t have to worry about getting a job. When you become an adult, I can set you up in your own place — I mean, unless you want to keep staying with me. This cabin is nice, but… you know, it’s small.”
“I like this cabin,” she said, wiping her eyes, not looking at him. “My friends aren’t in Oregon.” I’m not leaving him. Ever.
He took a deep breath. “I know. And you’ll hate me even more for what I’m going to say now.” He paused. “About Mike. You handle this however you want, but you may want to consider breaking up with him sooner than later.”
She looked at him then. “Why would I do that?”
“To make the parting easier. When we leave in April. If you keep seeing each other until then, you’ll be miserable when the time comes. Both of you. I know — it’ll be hard no matter what. But consider getting the worst of it over with. Before I give my notice in March. Deal with the heartache now, and get a distance from each other. You know, to sort things out.” He looked around her room. “God, I’m going to miss this place.”
She realized at that moment that life was innately cruel. That happiness was transitory, and could be snatched away in a snap. To make the parting easier. She sure as hell wasn’t breaking up with Mike before Christmas. They had been building to a critical mass, and she wouldn’t rob themselves of it. “Going all the way” was what he called it. Max had referred to it as “making love”, or “having sex” — or “fucking”, as she really preferred — when El consulted her on the matter. She and Mike were planning to “go all the way” on Christmas Eve. They did, and it had been one of her biggest milestones.
When her father announced his Oregon vacation in early January (which wasn’t really a vacation: he was going out to settle the estate and prepare for the move in April, but she was the only one who knew that), she had made her decision. She would make those two weeks count with Mike, and then break up with him shortly after. She saw her error halfway in. Their honeymoon had made the situation worse; far worse. They may as well have married each other. To make the parting easier. By agreeing to Mike’s honeymoon, she had gone out of her way to make the parting an outright betrayal.
Desperate, and trying to salvage anything in the mess, she shifted the breakup date to the period of the honeymoon itself — the night after his home was assaulted. With increased threats from the Upside Down, she reasoned that Mike had bigger worries than romance. Breaking up would hurt him, but at least he would be preoccupied with saving lives; saving his town. It was the path of minimal heartache, surely.
In this too she had been disastrously wrong.
She couldn’t tell him the real reason; wouldn’t say anything about the move to Oregon. For one, Mike would insist on seeing her right up to the middle of April. But worse, he would completely blame her father. He hated Hopper for engineering their break-up up in the summer of ’85, and he would see the migration to Oregon as motivated by malice: to move El out of reach as far as possible. He would declare war on Hopper. Love was a battlefield, but Mike and her father escalated that field to World War III.
Now she saw how foolish even that reasoning had been. By shielding her father, she had made herself the demon. Lacking any clear explanation, Mike was convinced that she simply didn’t love him anymore; that she was tired of him; bored out of her mind. It demolished his sense of self-worth. To make matters worse, she saw (with crystal clarity now) that her father didn’t deserve her protection. He hadn’t changed; he was still trying to break them apart, but this time with a strategy more sly. She had been hoodwinked by his “wisdom”: that breaking up with Mike ASAP would lessen his pain in the long run. Max would have told her how stupid that was. El hated being naive. She would be catching up on life’s simplest lessons at the age of thirty.
Gorn was burning fast, and Mike hugged her against the freezing winds. He and Seth were arguing about something.
Thirty. She wouldn’t live past fifteen. They were going on a suicide mission. She couldn’t fight the Illithid when she was climbing out of paralysis.
But assuming she survived this mess, she was glad to be barren. If the love of parenthood was so manipulative, then she didn’t want children. Maybe she would adopt, but she promised herself that she would never be jealous of a child. Kids deserved to experience love on their own terms.
Gorn screeched and flipped out of the Upside Down. Almost instantly, they were back in their world, bulleting at the same speed. El’s teeth chattered. Her mask and clothes barely sustained her. Her memories kept coming, insistent as the cold.
Mrs. Wheeler, at least, had been direct and honest. You’re rotten, she had said by the dishwasher that night, digging her fingers into El’s arm. Ever since you came out of that lab. You ruined this town and our lives, and you’ll ruin Michael. El couldn’t deny it. She was rotten; as rotten as the tree she had been on for two days. She had ruined Mike. Killed a whole part of him. You’re a shitty person! A lousy, shitty person! Responsible for her actions, she could blame only so much on a joyless father.
Memories made her writhe now, and she shoved them to the periphery. She had earned whatever was about to happen to her on the hill.
Seth was bickering with Mike. He was too far behind in the roaring winds for her to make out everything, but the gist was that Mike was in serious trouble. Apparently he was behaving like a double agent, working for and against the Illithid, but she didn’t understand how, and had hardly grasped the bare bones of what he wanted from her. He had said something about his “orders”; that the Illithid would be waiting for them at the hill; that she had to kill it. Was he delusional? She was half paralyzed.
She budged her eyelids open, and was relieved to see again. The view from this high in the air was staggering. If not for the rotten smell and lethal temperatures, the ride would have been spectacular.
Gorn was slowing down. It looked like he was circling back to the hill that he had flown away from in order to flip.
I rode a worm too. She tried saying it. The words spilled from her mouth clumsily, as if through lips numbed by novocaine.
The hill appeared. It was bathed in a pale light, the source of which seemed to be an orb suspended high in the air. It illuminated the hill in a moonlight equivalent. El could make out the shadow tree at its center, and figures standing near the tree. One was humanoid looking: the Illithid. The others, three of them, looked like black multi-legged beasts.
She tried talking again. To shake off her fear. “I – rode – a – worm – too!” she called behind her. “It was meaner than yours!”
“Maedred?” yelled Mike, shocked. “You rode Maedred?”
“She didn’t tell me her name!” A stab at humor.
“Mr. Carol told me her name! He said she was vicious! Female worms are nasty!” He added in a resentful tone that she barely heard: “Like in other species.”
Mike. She wanted to explain everything, and there was no time.
Gorn set down at the edge of the hill. Mike began helping her off the worm’s back. She saw Seth already on the ground and running across the hilltop to the Illithid.
“He’s saving his ass,” said Mike, lifting her down.
“How?” she asked. God, she could hardly stand.
“By telling the truth. Rescuing you wasn’t his idea, and I gave him no choice.” Mike laughed abruptly. “Be funny if that thing doesn’t believe him.”
“Mike.” She clung to his arm to keep her balance. “I can’t –”
She broke off as a shriek devastated the air. It came from deep in the woods, not far away from the hill.
“Maedred,” said Mike nervously. He looked at Gorn. “Worms can’t be close together, or they fuck each other while killing everything else in sight. Or so I’ve been told.”
Gorn threw up his head and answered his twin with a prolonged howl. It echoed over the forest; a mournful plea that reminded El of the basset hound that lived across from Max’s home.
She ignored Gorn. There was a bigger problem. She looked across the hilltop at the tree, and felt sick. They’re in there. All of them. Captured like I was. Minus the sap transfusion. “Mike.”
“They’re in the tree.”
“Lucas. Max. Will. Dustin. Vijay. We can’t see them from here, but I know they’re in there. Maybe those… things are there to guard them.” From a distance of fifty feet those multi-armed monsters looked hideous.
“Jesus. Listen, El. You have to save them. Kill the Illithid. And the thralls — that’s what they’re called. Now that we’re here, I can’t help you anymore. He put me under his control; it’s everywhere in me. He’ll make me do bad things. He might make me hurt you. And he wants to kill you.”
It wants to eat me, she thought. She didn’t like the way Mike was personalizing the creature by calling it “he”. But eating her now wouldn’t give it the power it craved. She’d been purged. It would probably indeed settle for killing her.
“Can you walk?” he asked.
“Barely,” she retorted. What he expected was crazy. Save everyone. Kill the Illithid. Kill the thralls. She could barely focus without everything spinning.
They advanced across the hilltop, Gorn slithering behind. Mike was right though. No matter how impossible, she had to save her friends; get them out of the tree. She saw Seth talking to the Illithid, and pointing at her and Mike. The creature’s eyes blazed with despite; its aqueous face was whetted to eagerness. The thralls squatted by the tree. Four arms and two legs a piece, but they seemed to use all six as legs.
“You have to kill him,” repeated Mike. His voice sounded frayed. “You might have to kill me. I love you, El. You hate me and I don’t know why. But I love you. Remember that. Please.”
“Mike,” she gasped. That wasn’t fair. This wasn’t fair. “What’s supposed to happen here?”
“He’s launching a shadow invasion. He’s going to use the worm to ferry a whole army from the Upside Down. This hill is his staging ground. He’s going to use me in his army, somehow. Now he’ll probably use me against you.”
She would never kill Mike. By all she held dear — him most of all — never.
They reached the creature that had watched their arrival. It was her first clear look at the Illithid without the haze of tranquilizers. It was six and a half feet tall, with the head of an alien sea creature, and claws that were giant talons. It shed the cold of a thousand freezers. The air here was warmer than the Upside Down’s, but that wasn’t saying much. The -5 degree forecast had devolved into -20. The creature’s presence impacted local weather. She felt she would never be warm again.
Seth stood by like a lapdog, his face shouting misery. He was horribly frostbitten. She realized she was still wearing his mask. The Illithid didn’t seem to care about his suffering.
The tree was about twenty-five feet away, guarded by the three thralls. Its captives were shrouded behind leaves and limbs, but they were definitely there. As in the Upside Down, the foliage was wet and pliant despite the cold. She spotted the blue of Lucas’ coat; a bit of Max’s red hair peeking through; Vijay’s leg; Dustin and Will must have been buried deeper. Her visions hadn’t shown any of them being transformed or injected with sap; only restrained. She had seen Max cutting branches with a knife. The tree would have defended itself. El could only imagine why they had been climbing the tree to begin with. Maybe they heard her crying from it. On the shadow side, she had heard them in her nightmares. The tree was no Gate; it couldn’t be used to travel across the two worlds. But it did bridge them.
There was a long object on the ground near the base of the trunk. She did a double-take when she recognized her father’s shotgun. She had no time to wonder how it got here. The Illithid stepped toward them.
It looked at Mike and spoke: “Prazul ir hext, u’ raza.”
Mike stood rigid like a servant, but El could see pain flooding his eyes.
It lashed out at Mike, barking: “Vorgiz!”
She had no idea what it was saying. When it had spoken to her two nights before, it had used English. She guessed that its special control over Mike gave him fluency in the alien tongue.
Mike turned to her, helpless. “The Master wants me to tell you: Mr. Carol is dead. Ogden shot him. You don’t know him, but he worked at the school. He was pretending to serve the Master but really wasn’t. He’s the one who made me rescue you. So that… so…” Mike was struggling, fighting for words that he wanted to speak, in order to clarify. “So that you would kill the M-m-aster…”
The Illithid growled and seized Mike’s throat. Its talons could have shredded his neck in seconds.
El yelled at the creature to stop. It hurt to yell.
The creature turned slowly. “Demon brat,” it grated. “Speak again, and I’ll remove your uterus.”
It hurt to stand.
“Listen to your fuck-boy,” it continued, still holding Mike. “You were rescued. A dear man, a noble man, lies dead for it. You will return to the tree. For your conversion. My ascendance. Our oneness.”
The creature’s voice scraped her eardrums. She didn’t understand why she had been rescued or who Mr. Carol was or how he related to Mike. All she knew was that she had to kill this evil creature. It would destroy Mike; her friends; the world.
The creature spun suddenly and threw Mike into Seth’s arms. “Ruin him,” it commanded Seth.
Seth grinned. It made his frostbitten face look hideous. Eager for payback, he threw Mike on the ground and tore off his ski mask. He put it over his head, and then proceeded to clobber Mike with his fists.
Furious, El strained to summon her powers. Forces that would pulverize Seth into soup. The effort made her see stars. She was purged and functional, but impossibly fatigued. She pointed her arms at Seth and closed her eyes. She had ruined Mike two nights ago. She wouldn’t see him ruined like this. Kali, she breathed. Help me…
Then suddenly Seth was screaming. She opened her eyes and saw why. Gorn. The worm had lunged forward and taken Seth in its jaws, whipping him back and forth like an abused toy. She heard Seth’s bones snap like brittle sticks. Then, with a wet-sounding gulp, Gorn swallowed Seth whole. The worm belched its satisfaction; its stench rolled over the hilltop. It had all happened in a matter of seconds. El was in shock.
The Illithid was in a towering fury. It sliced the air with scolding commands. The worm didn’t oblige those commands. It curled and hissed, defying its master — clearly determined to protect Mike from any harm.
Its master paused, considering. Then it looked down at Mike. Slowly it raised a claw and uttered words of the deepest eldritch.
No. Mike —
On the ground Mike coughed. His body shuddered. Tremors rippled through him like waves. He rolled on the ground and cried out, as if he were being exorcised of a legion of demons. “Oh my God,” he gasped. His shakes went on and then stopped. He coughed more, and looked up at Eleven. “It’s me, El… I’m back. He let me go.” He began sobbing. “Jesus, he let me go. Help me.”
Above him, the Illithid snarled.
Oh, Mike. She wanted to rush over and comfort him. But she needed to do something of consequence on this hill. Why would the creature return Mike’s self-control?
The answer emerged. Gorn was leaning over Mike, puzzled and distrustful. He sniffed Mike many times. Then the worm pulled back hissing. The Illithid snapped another command. Gorn was brought to heel, chastened at last. The Illithid waved its arm. With a keening wail, Gorn rose into the air and flew off.
He had just been put in the doghouse.
Gorn had apparently liked Mike — liked him so much that he had come to see Mike as his new master. The Illithid had removed Mike’s mark to destroy that outrageous bond. Mike was himself again; completely human. That was the good news. The bad news was that he was humanly traumatized. He couldn’t get up. He cried in a fetal position, suffering from whatever hell he had been put through. El couldn’t imagine what that was. She was terrified of finding out.
“El!” he sobbed. “Help me. Don’t leave me again.”
That did it. With every ounce of will, El smashed through the barrier that had been holding her back. The barrier of fatigue and self-doubt. She could afford neither. She stood straight and threw out her arms, willing the obliteration of the creature that had harmed Mike.
Power exploded from her. It loosed like a riptide, and flooded every inside fraction of the Illithid’s body.
The creature’s reflexes were fast. In milliseconds it diffused her assault with counter-forces. El screamed and blasted again. The Illithid parried a second time.
She didn’t pause for a moment; didn’t give herself a chance to shut down again. Alive with power, she screamed at her adversary, and then feinted, turning at the last moment to the tree. The branches smashed apart, loosing their captives: Lucas, Max, Dustin, Will, and Vijay. With their hands freed, they worked to clear their mouths; they had been gagged to silence by the tree leaves. Without transition El swiveled back to the Illithid. Too late. Its mind blast tore through her head. She fell to the ground clutching her head.
Mike yelled her name, ten feet away. He sounded hysterical. The others called her too, twice that distance in the other direction. Her head felt like it was in a vise.
Dimly, she heard a voice that sounded like Lucas’s: “Grab the gun, Will!” There was commotion over by the tree, and then a lot of screaming. Without seeing, she knew what had happened. The thralls had attacked as soon as her friends climbed to the ground.
Her father’s shotgun fired. Someone (Max?) screamed at Will, telling to him to fire again. El could do nothing to assist. Her head was about to burst like a melon.
Mike was crying on her left. “Leave her alone!” he sobbed. “Leave her alone, you shithead!”
The shotgun spoke again on her right. She heard two horrible screams by the tree. One sounded inhuman. The other sounded very human. Then everyone was babbling a single name: Vijay.
No. Not him. Not that sweet kid.
The shotgun roared again, but El hardly heard. Her brains were about to go everywhere. The pain was too incapacitating for her to marshal a defense. The Illithid feared her and was trying to kill her fast. She screamed and pounded her fists on the ground, and then — by some accident or reflex of self-preservation — touched a space in her mind that gave her what she needed. She smashed aside the Illithid’s hold without even thinking. Drawing breath, she heard another shotgun blast. Someone was crying Vijay’s name. She had to get up.
She could sense the Illithid readying another attack. Ignoring her agony, she stood to confront it. With horror she saw someone else doing the same.
“No, Mike, don’t!”
Mike had forced himself to stand up. Sobbing El’s name, he charged his tormentor and then — No! — leaped through the air, as if to take on the Illithid with his bare hands.
She would replay what happened next for the rest of her life. The freeze-frame of Mike, suspended in the air. The Illithid with its claw extended, as if pondering an insect. Chortling as it weighed amusing alternatives. Deciding in seconds; waving its arm, hurling Mike’s body at the speed of a highway car.
He was dead the instant he hit the trunk. They all knew it. Eleven died in that moment too, or a part of her. The remaining part didn’t falter. She faced her boyfriend’s killer and pulverized it with impact and screams. While over at the tree —
William Byers ignored the threat of the last thrall. He dropped Hopper’s gun and ran towards the trunk. Everyone saw as he cradled Mike’s body and screamed at the gods.
Dustin Henderson picked up the shotgun, not knowing what to do or how to fire it. He aimed it uselessly around the tree area, looking for the last thrall. It seemed to have fled the hilltop.
Lucas Sinclair was holding another corpse: Vijay Agarwal’s. Maxine Mayfield was holding Lucas as he blamed himself for Vijay. The poor kid had no experience with the shadow world, and had underestimated the danger. Trying to protect Max from a thrall, he had taken it on with a huge stick, and died in seconds.
Eleven was peripherally aware of these things as she bored through the Illithid, willing its flesh to levigate. For the first time the creature looked desperate. It tried countering her power, and she swiped its efforts aside with no effort of her own. She had exceeded herself. Killing Mike had been a grievous mistake; the Illithid was about to die.
The creature realized that and ran for its life. Shielding itself with just enough evasive power, it broke off and raced to the edge of the hilltop. El swore and began to chase after it, and then stopped herself. She had to see. For herself.
Beneath the tree, Will couldn’t let go. The others stood over him crying. El knelt beside him and took his hands. He still wouldn’t budge. She spoke softly too him, and then took Mike from his arms.
Dead. No question. The ghostly light bathed Mike Wheeler’s face that was already freezing. She checked his pulse, listened for his breath, went through all the unnecessaries. Finally, she pulled her ski mask above her bleeding nose. I’m sorry. You deserved more and better. Tears spilling, she leaned over and kissed him.
“What do we do El?” asked Dustin, clearing his eyes.
She knew what she had to do. And she had no time to lose. “Stay here,” she said, in a voice that sounded barely hers. It was a voice promising murder. “I’m going after it.”
“El,” said Max. “It’s dark out there.”
“Shouldn’t we stay together?” asked Lucas. “Two of us are dead.”
“I’m going,” she said, cutting off argument. “I have to stop it.” To kill it. “It’ll destroy the world.” It killed Mike. “Stay on the hill. You have light up here. Watch out for the thrall. It’s still around.”
“Thrall?” asked Max.
“She means the six-arm Jack,” said Dustin.
She left them and ran off.
Lucas called after her: “El, wait! You’ll need a flashlight!”
There was no flashlight. When Mike had given her Seth’s mask on the shadow side, Seth had kept his forehead light. And when Seth had taken Mike’s mask in payback, he had also taken Mike’s head light away, for good measure. Both of those lights were now in Gorn’s belly; digesting with Seth.
She had no time for such worries.
She ran through the woods in the black of night. Hate drove her, nothing more. It was all she required. A hate as pure as the Illithid’s. The creature had killed the person she loved most; who had showed her how to live.
Her way ahead was clear, even without light. She had subconsciously accessed the Void to navigate. It was no mean feat considering her recent ordeal. Without her usual supplements — a bandana, white noise, and stationary calm — she was relying on sheer intuition and nerve juice. The desperation of her need pushed her to new limits.
The Void showed the Illithid not far ahead, vanishing over a hill. The ether showed her the woods; more surrounding imagery than she usually got. Vegetation and trees limned in black and white. It was enough to keep up the chase without light. She raced between pines and over uneven ground, inhaling air so cold that it threatened respiratory failure.
She was almost knocked on her feet by what came next: a blast of lightning and thunder. The lightning snapped overhead, flooding the woods and then sweeping it all back into darkness. The thunder shook the trees and earth. This was no natural storm; there was no rain or snow. It was minus 15 or 20 degrees. Precipitation was impossible. Thunder and lightning should have been impossible too.
The winds grew stronger each second. She had to lean into it in order to move forward. In the clouded blackness, lightning flashed again over the treetops, thunder roaring at the same time. The Illithid had to be causing it. But for what purpose? Drama? Scare tactics? Or did the lightning advance some other hazard?
If the creature thought to deter her by smoke and mirrors, it was stupidly mistaken. It would die by her hands no matter what chicanery it threw at her.
And there: up ahead. She saw the Illithid in her mind’s eye, in the Void. With another flash of lightning, she saw it in real space, scuttling ahead, always just over the horizon. Microseconds later, she was back in the black ether. Now she was flipping back and forth, seeing in and out of the Void as if wearing dimensional bifocals.
I’m sorry Mike.
She wasn’t aware she was crying again, until her tears began freezing under and around her ski mask. She felt a black hole in her heart. She would destroy Mike’s killer, and maybe herself afterwards. Her escape from the Hawkins Lab had been from the start a roadmap to this harrowing end; Mike’s end. She had no business going on when he could not.
Wind snapped the pants against her legs — legs that felt like rubber. Gusts ripped at the surrounding pines. Lightning kept bringing everything to life, then snatching it away into darkness. Fighting to keep control, she ran faster, knowing she was falling behind. The Illithid was agile and didn’t seem to tire. Its long robe didn’t impede its speed. It ran and ran, chortling as it did so; she heard echoes of its glee across the gale of the Void.
You won’t laugh for long.
She wouldn’t last for long. Her lungs were on fire. She ignored the pain. Mike deserved more than her best, even if it killed her.
Ahead on her right, she heard a noise like the snapping of branches that didn’t seem to come from the wind. She paused, uncertain. That direction wasn’t the trajectory she had expected. The Illithid had been making its way toward the left. Had it suddenly changed course to throw her off the scent?
Cursing, she went right, and found herself on an incline. The ground sloped to a crest and she raced up. It looked down into a hollow. She half expected to find the whole shadow army waiting for her. She scanned the bottom of the hollow. The Void showed nothing. You won’t hide from me.
She was being foolish. The Illithid wasn’t hiding here; it was probably way ahead of her now in the other direction. And yet —
With a splintering crash, lightning struck somewhere so close that she felt the impact in her knees. The ground of the hollow lit up, and she gaped at what she saw. The bowl was shifting; upheaving.
She strained to see in the Void. It offered less clarity, but it was the same shifting of the earth, seen in vague contours. It looked like the start of an earthquake.
The forest was pure chaos now. Gusts of wind threw limbs and leaves at her in the black night, and with hardly any thinking, she used her powers to throw it all away from her. She watched the shifting in the bowl, expecting nastiness at any moment.
Then lightning split the heavens again, and she saw the truth of it. It wasn’t the ground that was moving. It was —
The worm must have fled here when the Illithid dismissed him in fury. Its maw opened and at once there was the toxic stench, even as the winds tore it away. Those winds were terrible now, snapping limbs from every other tree.
“Gorn!” she shouted. “I need help!”
But of course she couldn’t command Gorn. She wasn’t marked like Mike had been. And with the next blast of lightning she saw that it wasn’t Gorn. The worm had fewer protrusions around its mouth. It was the other one — the mean one, that had brought her to the Upside Down. The Illithid had implied it was female, when it put El on her back.
Don’t upset her, demon brat.
Upset her? El had ignited the worm’s rage not even half-awake. It took nothing to upset this bitch —
Maedred, she remembered. Mike had told her its name. And he too had implied that the female should be avoided at all costs.
As if reading her thoughts, Maedred roared in menopausal fury. She rose to confront Eleven, a gargantuan terror. El held the beast’s gaze without a drop of fear. Fear didn’t exist for her tonight. Maedred would fear her. I’m the demon brat, you bitch. Your boss’s own words. You don’t stand a chance. She kept seeing Mike’s corpse and burned to commit murder.
Maedred lowered her head to El’s level, gliding sideways back and forth, menacingly contemplating her. Then she reared in outrage, towering over El like a titan-sized cobra. With a flash of intuition, El guessed the truth: Maedred smelled the stink of her brother. Gorn had given El the gift of his mucus: the most intimate bond reserved for twins. Maedred had just gone nuclear. There was no mistaking her naked fury. Against the clash of thunder, the worm shrieked — a rage so jealous it was palpable.
That’s right. Your brother fucked my brains out. He may as well have. El could still feel the mucus in her veins; it was all that kept her going. Shouting defiance and reaching within, she unleashed a tsunami of telekinetic rage.
The worm was slammed backwards. She yipped and shook her body like a dog trying to dry itself. El screamed and threw more power, willing Maedred’s flesh to burst. One of the worm’s tentacles did just that; then a second. Maedred screeched. Her injuries were unprecedented. It was an unendurable outrage.
More lightning hit the night. The blasts were growing more frequent, fiercer; accumulating toward something dramatic.
El concentrated on the worm’s head — like Papa’s Coke cans and kittens. But Maedred had mountains of will. She threw off most of El’s power with her innate defenses.
A bolt of lightning struck the ground close by. It burned in the air, impossibly prolonged, for three seconds; then four. Static ripped over El’s skin; she looked to the left, and her heart skipped.
In the core of the blast she saw two pale orbs: the eyes of the Illithid. It had returned to the Upside Down, but it was somehow looking across into this world.
She snapped her attention back to Maedred. The Void showed the worm in full counter-attack mode. El blasted again, disintegrating another tentacle. Maedred roared.
El turned and confronted the Illithid’s eyes. Her nose was a red fountain, frozen beneath her mask. She ignored the blood; ignored her pain and horrendous fatigue. She saw Mike dying, and willed the same fate on his killer, sending all the power she had.
The orbs flared on, unaffected. Her powers hadn’t touched them.
“You piece of shit!” Mike’s favorite insult. She needed to figure this out. If the Illithid was back in the shadow world, then Gorn had taken it there. Gorn had probably spotted its master, or was summoned by it, while flying over this area. Once back in the shadow world, and safe out of Eleven’s reach, it had opened a channel between the dimensions. How it did this was anyone’s guess. Hers was that it had tapped into Gorn’s gating power and the psychic connection to his sister. But the channel was evidently one-way. El was powerless to harm the creature from her end.
The storm created by the Illithid was getting worse. The lightning struck now with horrific frequency, and with lean bolts, pounding everywhere around her at erratic intervals. First on one side, then the other; then behind her left and right. Each blast smoked the ground for long seconds; the space between the bolts swarmed with static. El’s hair crackled. Maedred was hit all over by the lighting — and to her horror El saw that the worm was galvanized by it. Maedred was rejuvenating, from the pain and shock of her lost appendages.
Another shaft of lightning hit and held the ground. The orbs of the Illithid throbbed, and its voice spoke inside her head:
I will have you yet.
She cursed the creature, using foul expressions she had learned from Mike. The creature had killed him and was threatening an inter-dimensional invasion. It was her absolute priority. But Maedred was the immediate threat. And the worm was getting its strength back, while El was weakening. Without rage and adrenaline to hold her up, she’d have collapsed on the forest floor. She was too freshly back from her ordeal on the tree.
The worm lashed out, biting, and El barely avoided having her face torn off. But she couldn’t avoid the deluge of Maedred’s breath. It was like inhaling a cloud of sulphuric gas, skunk scent, and vomit. El stumbled and retched; fell to her knees. She scrambled on all fours away from the area of effect, desperately trying to inhale fresh air. The winds helped; without them, she would have passed out. Her stomach contracted, and she threw up, feeling pins and needles growing out of her.
She wiped her mouth and looked up, unable to understand why the worm hadn’t finished her off and swallowed her whole — like Gorn had done to Seth. Then she understood. The Illithid hadn’t given up on its purpose. It was forbidding Maedred to eat Eleven, because that was for it to do; the creature still wanted invincibility; he needed El subdued, not killed, so it could put her back on the tree. Maedred’s task was to render her powerless. At this point it wouldn’t be hard.
Another long shaft of lightning: the Illithid’s eyes, dripping malevolence. They seemed to strain toward her as she stood up again. The strobe of the lightning was staggering. Its force sent shock waves across El’s skin. She could practically feel the Illithid’s hunger in the depths of the blast.
She faced Maedred for a final time; she was at her end. If she couldn’t do this now, her body would give up. Maedred snapped and coiled, craving devastation.
The lightning had become almost constant, firing the sky and the earth in violent blasts only heartbeats apart. And in the core of each bolt hung the Illithid’s eyes, rapacious and unmistakable. It revitalized its pet with psychic energy and reined in her madness. Maedred yowled, wanting to rake and chew this human apart. Her brother had showered Eleven with intimate favor; the only response was the utmost savagery.
I’m sorry. Even in the heat of her hatred, Eleven empathized with Maedred. Gorn was her love, and El had robbed her of something precious and fundamental. She imagined how she would have felt to learn that Mike had shared fluids (whether from above or below) with another female. Love was life’s ultimate gift, and yet so damaging. She couldn’t blame the worm for her fury, and for doubtlessly hating her master. Maedred wanted to devour this human whore, and she had been robbed of that too.
El gave the worm everything she had: murder and sorrow, hatred and regret, spooled into an annihilative vortex, let loose.
Silver light flared and thunder boomed, accelerating toward a crisis. The Illithid’s eyes were poised for violence in every flash. It saw its pet losing, and more static mounted in the air. The wind gusted like a wail torn from the throat of the night. El screamed, emptying herself of her essence — her life, as it felt. Maedred’s shrieks pulverized the skies, and were heard for miles across Hawkins and beyond. El kept her arms raised and didn’t let up. Blood flowed from her nose, even the corners of her eyes. And with a final thunderous bellow, Maedred began to unravel.
The worm dissolved into strands: dozens, hundreds of strings of purplish flesh. It was a hard thing to watch, and El cried, actually cried, for a creature of the Upside Down. In that moment she saw Maedred as dignified and majestic, like a dragon out of Mike’s stories and games. The head was the last part to dissolve. El, blinking tears, gave a final push… and Maedred died.
At once the storm was cut off. The winds died as the worm did; the air went still and silent. Everything swept into blackness. El couldn’t access the Void anymore; she had fully expended herself. She let herself fall, and the night to claim her.
I tried, Mike.
It wasn’t enough. Now that she was drained, the Illithid would use Gorn to come after her. By morning she would be in the Upside Down again. Back on the tree.
I never stopped loving you.
She faded, praying the cold would kill her before the Illithid came.
Next Chapter: Westering
(Previous Chapter: Shadow Side)