Tabletop RPGs of the 70s and Early 80s

As an old-school gamer, I seldom bother with any of the modern RPGs flooding the market. But last week, for the first time, I found myself making an exception when someone called my attention to a game called Tales from the Loop. It may not come from the ’80s, but it’s set in the ’80s, and made me an instant fan. Here’s a look-back on all the classic RPGs that I either played, or owned, or now wish that I had. Tales from the Loop ranks here as well. It may as well be a classic RPG.

1. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977). 5 stars. Obviously, everything on my list is overshadowed by this one. 95% of my gaming career has been devoted to old-school D&D. The Golden Age, that is, which lasted between ’74-’83. I began playing at the end of the age, in ’81, and up through ’87, by which time the game had become hopelessly commercialized. The influences of the golden period were the pulp fantasies and morally shifty heroes: Conan, Elric, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, characters from the Dying Earth, etc. Despite D&D’s repeated comebacks (especially with the 3rd and 5th editions), it’s never been what it was, and today’s players don’t necessarily esteem it as the ultimate RPG. A google search will turn up lists of “RPGs way better than D&D”, and the reason isn’t hard to see. Pulp fantasy is long out of vogue, and today’s teens don’t have the touchstones that made D&D so great and accessible. And not just pulp fantasy, even Lord of the Rings, which despite Gary Gygax’s protests, had at least some significant influence on his early design. It’s been almost a decade now since Peter Jackson’s films, and Tolkien doesn’t inspire the same levels of awe that it did in previous years. The pulps themselves are a distant memory, and are even deemed offensive in the politically correct era of woke culture. It’s a shame. The best gaming adventures are the old-school D&D modules, and my coming of age years would have been much less inspiring and imaginative without them.

2. Call of Cthulhu (1981). 5 stars. Of all the RPGs I regret never playing, this one looms large. If I could go back and redo my coming-of-age years in only one way, I would be sure to play Call of Cthulhu. And it says something that I feel comfortable ranking it with highest honors outside the top slot, when I’ve never seen it played, let alone play it myself. Back in the day I learned about it through Dragon articles more than anything, and only in the recent decade have I delved thoroughly into the rules and adventure modules. It’s well known that Cthulhu is a horror game that turned D&D’s heroic fantasy on its head, prioritizing investigation over combat, with PCs who are inherently weak: librarians, doctors, professors, amateur detectives, etc. You don’t play Cthulhu to become a powerful knight or wizard, but rather with the dismal expectation that your character will likely go insane, as your character learns about the horrors of the world and the complete irrelevance of humanity. Using the tools that are needed to defeat the horrors (knowledge and magic) will most likely plunge PCs into mental illness. The infamous sanity score has become the game’s hallmark. Horror reduces your sanity points like weapons reduce hit points. PCs acquire phobias, fetishes, obsessions, hallucinations, amnesia, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, and psychosomatic reactions that make them dysfunctional. They can learn magic, but this hardly amounts to a benefit, as magic just immerses them more in the horrors, and makes them panic more, drop things, go catatonic, or experience any number of mental problems. It’s a thoroughly nihilistic game, and the nice thing is that, unlike D&D and Gamma World, it has remained stable and consistent through all the seven editions. While I would surely use the 1st edition if I ever started playing, I have it on good authority that it really doesn’t matter which edition you play.

3. Gamma World (1982). 5 stars. Basically the Dark Ages of Our Future. Growing up in the Reagan era meant ongoing fears of an apocalypse that would turn our globe into a radioactive wasteland. But what raises Gamma World far above other post-apocalyptic fantasies is that its apocalypse takes place in the very far future — the 24th century (2322 AD) — which means that the pre-apocalyptic world is just as futuristic and alien. There are high-tech artifacts like blaster pistols and robots, and cars that fly. The world of the ancients is filled with mystery and wonder, which makes the game a lot like D&D. Most of the pulp fantasies that shaped first-edition D&D were post-apocalyptic (Conan’s Hyperboria, Dying Earth, etc). The worlds of D&D were “fallen” in some way, and Gamma World aligns with this, the only difference being that there are techno-gadgets instead of magic items, and mutant powers instead of spells. But the earth is a global sandbox — just like Greyhawk and Mystara — in which PCs move from one pocket of civilization to another, plundering lost wealth and artifacts. The default start date in this world is 2450 AD, about a century and a half after the nuclear wipe-out. The game is in its 7th edition now, but I won’t touch anything beyond 2nd. The 2nd edition (1982) is the best, perfecting on the first that came out in the ’70s. After these two classics, Gamma World became increasingly commercialized.

4. Tales from the Loop (2017). 4 ½ stars. The only entry on my list which post-dates the ’80s is set in an alternate ’80s world, and it deserves to stand proud in the surrounding company. Tales from the Loop followed the overnight success of Stranger Things and takes direct inspiration from it. In the game you play kids between ages 10 and 15, and solve science-fiction mysteries that involve the Loop, a massive particle accelerator that is nearby the town you live in. The Loop causes aberrations like corruption of the earth’s magnetic field, warping wildlife (even dinosaurs emerge around the Loop), and animating robots in dangerous ways. The rules come with two default locations: the Malaren islands of Sweden, and Boulder City Nevada. But the rules also emphasize that you can set the Loop anywhere you want. I’d use my old hometown of Lyndeborough NH, where I grew up in the late ’70s and early ’80s. A crucial aspect of this game is that adults are absolutely useless when it comes to helping out, so the kid PCs have to do all the leg-work and solve mysteries on their own. Around the mystery solving, there are the normal trials that kids suffer: bullies, school tests, crushes, and heartbreak. It’s such a terrific idea for an RPG, it’s a wonder it took so long for a TV-series inspiration. Best of all, the rules are easy to follow, and flexible enough to cover virtually any situation that comes up in the game. There are eight archetypes (“character classes”): Bookworm, Computer Geek, Hick, Jock, Popular Kid, Rocker, Troublemaker, and Weirdo. Seriously, who among us who came of age in the ’80s doesn’t want to play this? Tales from the Loop recreates an age I miss sorely as I turn 51 at the end of this month. It takes me back to my reckless attitudes and thinking as a kid, and, incredibly, it provides the mechanics for tapping into that heart and drive.

5. Traveller (1977). 4 stars. Even dinosaurs my age tend to forget Traveller. It wasn’t very user-friendly and assumed a significant amount of player knowledge of physics and astronomy. I remember trying to understand the ramifications of zero-g combat, and those weren’t defined anywhere; then also wanting to know what the hell a mass driver was. Without internet forums and google capabilities back then, you were pretty much left to make sense of the rules as you could. Oddly, there was much I loved about that open-ended aspect of the game and ended up playing it a lot with a cousin who preferred space travel to D&D’s wizards and warriors. One thing that struck me was the fact that PCs start out with loads of experience. In most RPGs the characters start at beginner levels, but in Traveller you come out of the military with years of skills under your belt. In most other ways, though, it shares plenty in common with D&D. Both games assume the characters are roguish adventurers “on the make”. The adventures involve shady activities in order to acquire money, and the characters are outsiders (“travellers”) without commitments to local planetary societies. (The Raza crew in the TV series Dark Matter remind me very much of Traveller.) The space world is a lawless frontier where authorities are distant and corrupt. That’s really the same basic framework of old-school D&D. My greatest Traveller memory is the point at which my cousin was finally able to design and purchase his own ship — and then all the mileage he got from it.

6. Middle-Earth Role-Playing (1984). 3 ½ stars. I never played the actual system, but I played the modules all the time by adapting them for D&D. So this one was hard for me to rank. Frankly I don’t like MERP as a gaming system (nor Rolemaster from which it derives), but the campaign modules and adventure modules are top-notch, and I wrote retrospectives of them all (starting with Rangers of the North). When I learned in the ’90s that Tolkien Enterprises finally revoked ICE’s license to produce gaming material for Middle-Earth, I went ape shit. The MERP modules were nothing less than scholarly, as fun to read as to play. They came to dominate my role-playing years in the late ’80s, and I even kept buying them in the ’90s when I wasn’t playing much anymore. I would check in at the local comic store religiously to grab every new release, and I’m glad I did: thanks to the Tolkien-Enterprise fascists, the modules are now collector’s items. It’s a shame, because they’re probably the most academic accessories ever written for any RPG. It’s as if Tolkien himself had taken up D&D and poured his linguistic and cultural scholarship into the hobby. The irony, of course, being that the high fantasy setting of Middle-Earth is on the face of it so at odds with D&D’s pulp fantasy roots. But I never saw a contradiction. Anyway, the MERP rules and gaming system would fall at the bottom of this list, while the adventure modules themselves would place very high; so a ranking of 6 feels about right.

7. Stormbringer (1981). 3 ½ stars. This one’s like Call of Cthulhu. I never played it, and like Cthulhu it’s a Chaosium publication. There are strong literary vibes in the Chaosium RPGs, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve been so turned on to them in recent years. Stormbringer is, as you might expect, set in the world of the Young Kingdoms, the realm from the Elric novels. It deals with a failing empire in conflict with the powers of chaos. The world is plunging into an apocalypse that has been foreseen, but which the PCs are utterly powerless to prevent. It’s a nihilistic game, again like Cthulhu, though in a more overarching abstract way. It does have its problems, and I can understand why it never became as popular as other RPGs, despite the fact that Moorcock’s novels were widely loved. The sorcery rules are very detailed, but it’s all a virtual waste, as PCs will rarely if ever have the chance to use sorcery. Magic in this world is brokered by demons, because humans can’t wield magic on their own. They have to bind and command demons to use power; so for example, to cast a fireball would require summoning a fire elemental and using its powers, or throwing its energy, at a target. And the ability to bind demons and other creatures is extremely rare, if not suicidal. On top of that, and in accordance with the predestination of Elric’s world, players have very little say in what their characters will be like. When they generate the characters, the dice determine their class and race as much as they determine their attributes. But there is a lot to admire in this game, and I wish I’d played it at least once.

8. Top Secret (1981). 3 stars. This is the most realistic RPG I ever played, though that’s perhaps not saying much. The early ’80s was the age of the Roger Moore James Bond films, and Top Secret plays on some of those extravagant plot lines. The PCs are field agents for a governmental agency, and they are assigned missions falling into one of three general categories: assassination (killing), confiscation (stealing), or investigation (spying). One might say loosely that it’s D&D in the modern world, for assassins, thieves, and rangers. The problem is that these character professions aren’t fleshed out too well; the professions mainly determine if the PC receives bonus experience points for succeeding in a mission that pertains to their profession. In other words, a field agent specializing in assassination would get bonus points for carrying out a kill, but that’s not to say that confiscators and investigators can’t assassinate. The game is purely percentile based: 2d10 for everything — attributes, skill checks, and combat. I have fond memories of skyjacking a 747 (I was a confiscation agent), though I botched the job by killing more innocent passengers than was necessary; it didn’t go well for me in the end. Alas, that was the only time I played Top Secret.

9. Star Frontiers (1982). 2 stars. This is the Star Wars of early RPGs, so it’s no surprise I never got around to playing it, given my constant dislike of George Lucas. I owned Star Frontiers, to be sure, and read through the Alpha Dawn rules many times. I even went through phases when I was inspired to play, but ultimately never did. Bubblegum space opera was never my thing. If I wanted outer space and star travel, I had the more solid and gritty approach of Traveller. (A reviewer in Dragon back in the day said that comparing Star Frontiers and Traveller is a bit like comparing Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey; and yes, that comparison is bang-on.) Probably the most compelling thing about Star Frontiers is the Sathar, the worm-like race trying to conquer the galaxy. The Sathar are elusive and seldom appear. They aren’t good at military combat and rely on hypnotic powers to recruit from and corrupt the four player character races: humans (of course), dralasites (giant amoebas with a prankish sense of humor), vrusks (huge insectoids that are team-driven, though not quite hive mind), and yazirians (flying wookies, who are easily enraged and go berserk). They live in an area of the galaxy as part of a multicultural federation that works against the Sathar. There are plenty of old-school gamers who rhapsodize about Star Frontiers. I’m not one of them.

Hopper’s Cabin: The Season 3 Annex

There’s something different about Jim Hopper’s cabin in Stranger Things 3. He uses a curtain to close off the area of his bed, and I had a hard time making sense of this, since his bed is in the large living room area. Here’s a diagram (from Reddit) of the cabin in Stranger Things 2:

Here are some screenshots from season 2 that confirm the above layout.

Eleven sweeping up the mess of her psychic tantrum, and you can see Hopper’s bed adjacent to the bathroom.

The view of the opposite side of the living room area, where we see the back door to the outside and (to the right) the door to El’s bedroom.

A wide shot of the whole living room — bed on the left, outside door on the right.

So when in season 3 Hopper is suddenly using a curtain to give himself privacy, I thought it must be a pretty long curtain that sectioned off at least half of the living room, which I couldn’t visualize for the life of me. Going back and freeze-framing shows that not to be the case. Hopper’s bed has moved in Stranger Things 3 — to an annex that he apparently built between the time of seasons 2 and 3.

You can still see the outside through the window above the TV, but what used to be the back door is no longer a back door, but an opening into a new part of the cabin: an actual bedroom for Hopper that gives him more privacy. On the left we see that what used to be his bed is now just another couch.

So the adjusted map for Stranger Things 3 looks like this:

 

Endless Night (Chapter 9)

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 Nine

                         Endless Night

He woke in the dawn that wasn’t a dawn, the endless night that never changed. His stomach growled, almost its own animal. Food was never a problem; he could eat whenever and wherever. Breakfast, lunch, and supper — all of it was right under him, always.

A screech tore the air. It was a shrieker, close by. He was used to them now, but not entirely. They had blades for teeth, acid for saliva, and more destructive potential than the meanest demo-dogs. If you gave them wide berth, they usually left you alone; if not, you got chewed and dissolved, and were probably better off for it.

He pushed himself up on his hands and knees. It was how he walked now, most of the time; on all fours. The way the Master liked it. He felt the scars of yesterday and days before. Ten, twenty, thirty days… he had lost track of how long he’d been here. One moment was much as the next; one shadow like most.

Salivating, he tore up the ground with fists of iron. The earth was hard, cold and unyielding, but his body was equipped for the task. He grabbed a wad of earth, mangled it like clay, and shoved it into his mouth. His teeth took it hard, but they were made for this work too. His mark was deeper this time; subterranean, and darkly spiritual.

In every practical way, Mike was now a being of the Upside Down: a human frame that had been extended far beyond its limitations, at grievous cost. Mentally he had been pruned; transmuted into something primitive. Resurrection was like nothing preached in churches on the other side.

I shred you for the joy of it.

With that refrain, the Master had brought him back from the dead and claimed him forever. He had held Mike like a pediatric nurse and raked his talons deep. Mike had screamed into the boundless night. For his parents, sister, and friends. He begged his savior to stop, and when the creature obliged, he begged for more punishment. Being marked a second time, in the resurrected state, was a privilege in hell’s palace. It debased Mike entirely, robbed him of speech, and reversed his perception of friends and enemies. The ground made him salivate. He was nourished by pain; required long periods of sleep every other day. His nightmares eroded him. He started to forget his life on the other side, where night wasn’t endless and life too alluring. That old life seemed a dream — a dangerously seductive one. Nightmares were safe. They showed Mike his foundations; what he could rely on. His friends and family (and the girl he wouldn’t think about) had flushed him away. The Master, his savior, was eternally at hand.

I am your mother-father. Bound to you by ties unbreakable. I shred you for the joy of it.

The next fistful of earth had a bonus: a demo-slug. Mike took satisfaction in eating the dog in its infancy. He killed demo-dogs all the time for the Master’s enjoyment, thrown against beasts that were ferocious enough to dismember him, but trained to lose against him at the last minute.

Sustained by earth and gravel, he ate until he was full, and then went back to rest. As always, his stomach hurt for a while after he ate. He remembered when food was different: delicious, cooked, and healthy. But that brought back memories of the people he had eaten it with, and those memories hurt more than his tummy. He pushed the shades away.

Another shrieker let loose. Mike pitied anything wandering close to it. Someday he’d probably be set against a shrieker. The Master needed his entertainment, and was easily bored.

He closed his eyes, curled up on the ground growling, and tried calling Gorn.

 

The worm often came to him, when it wasn’t being used or abused. It liked Mike and comforted him when his nightmares got bad. Gorn’s touch, physical and mental, neutralized Mike’s addiction to pain; pacified him; enabled him to live for short periods without raging in his mind. Mike didn’t think he could survive in the night without Gorn. The worm was his only friend.

But Gorn was sick. He needed comfort too. Mike helped, stroking the worm with telepathic whispers. Gorn purred, wrapping Mike in a massaging tentacle. They cared for each other, and the Master allowed it. Their relationship somehow amused him.

It amused him, perhaps, because Gorn wasn’t long for life. A worm needed its twin to survive and be healthy, and Gorn’s sister had died — slain on the other side of reality by a she-demon. (Mike refused to think of her: to open that door was to fracture the last holdout of his sanity.)

Mike felt himself being gently prodded. He raised his head to see the worm sniffing him over, and embracing him. He let himself be furled in the prodding tentacle, and then he and Gorn rested together in silent communion.

Please don’t die.

The worm moaned softly, stroking him. Mike wondered how he could have ever thought that Gorn smelled bad. His fragrance was redolent of the best aromas he recalled from his previous life: smells he couldn’t recall the precise sensation of, only that they were good. Though maybe that was because his perceptions had been reversed.

He snuggled against the worm’s stomach. I need you.

Gorn cried in pain that was getting worse. He stayed with Mike for a while.

 

Sometime later (a day or two or six or twenty), Mike woke to the sound of hissing around him. Demo-dogs; at least three. He whimpered, wanting to sleep more. The hisses became growls. Mike lashed out with louder growls, and the nearest dog retreated a step. Mike curled up and tried to shut them out. A dog from behind seized his ankle and bit into it savagely. Mike snapped his head around and barked furiously. Then he was being yanked and pulled backwards by a mouthful of teeth. The other two dogs chased after him, snapping at his head.

Mike yapped and snarled. He was dragged fifty feet more, and then his rage exploded. He flipped around on his back, reached up, and seized the demo-dog’s snout that was hauling him. The dog stopped to snap at him. Mike lunged, and then he was up wrapping the dog’s head in a choke hold. The dog yelped and twisted in his grasp. Mike plunged his teeth into the dog’s neck and wrenched the head violently from left to right. He heard bones splinter. Then he finished the job with his hands, crushing the head to a pulp.

The other two dogs paused, wary, and then they pounced. It was no contest. These were demo-dogs, not gorgons, and his mark made Mike a punishing brute. One of them he tore apart right away. The other one got a chunk out of his arm, but that was much to its misfortune. Mike took long minutes to kill it, making sure that it suffered.

He ate the legs of all three dogs, then curled up and slept by the carcasses. A warning to other predators.

 

The day came when Gorn died. On Mike’s seventieth, eightieth, (surely no more than) ninetieth day in the Upside Down. He despaired and sought his own grave, but his mark overruled him. It cared nothing for Mike’s desires, suicidal or otherwise.

Mike tried to cry; it came out as a high anguished howl. And then he ran. Not on all fours, as he usually did, as he was commanded to do, but as he used to, in his previous life on the other side. He ran upright, his legs pumping against the earth, his heart pounding. He ran nowhere especially, for there was nowhere to run in this land where the Master couldn’t find him. Mike didn’t care. He was running away, as far as his powerhouse legs could take him.

He howled as he ran, lamenting Gorn. You were my friend. I needed you.

There was a reply of ugly laughter, and then suddenly Mike was slapped to the ground, his two-legged race aborted. He coughed and caught his breath, not knowing what hit him —

— and then looked up. It was Him, of course. The Master, his eyes blazing in the endless night. Always there, to relish Mike’s fears and supply new ones. The creature’s robe swayed in the mote-filled atmosphere; the skulls around his neck gleamed. He laughed again, and then his unbridled mockery poured through Mike:

Oh, there are new and better friends, coming for you. New toys, new dolls, new rot to chew. They will hate you, ruin you, and do it over again, as true friends do. Look, child, here…

The Illithid stepped aside.

Mike saw his new “friends” and screamed.

And as they leaped on him with slavering jaws, he cried out for his family and friends, his real friends, wanting them back, promising them anything if they would come and take him back home again… home… to Hawkins…

Agony rolled over the land, and cries shook the skies. The Master kept laughing. The night took no notice.

 

THE END

(Previous Chapter: Westering)

Endless Night (Chapter 8)

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 Eight

                              Westering

When she woke the next morning and was told there was no shadow invasion, she went hysterical, insisting it was on the way. Max and Will had to shout over her before she accepted the threat was over.

The fact that she was in a hospital bed convinced her more than anything. She should have been back on the shadow tree getting sapped. Killing Maedred had wiped her out. The Illithid could have easily come back for her. But Maedred’s death is actually what saved her, and saved the world, according to Will. Inquires and arrests were ongoing, but the recorded conversations of two school administrators had divulged the nature of the shadow worms. Their ability to flip across dimensions depended on each other’s existence. By killing one worm, El had stranded the other in the Upside Down. She had “closed the Gate” once again. The shadow invasion died, and with it the Illithid’s dreams.

“It’s over,” said Will. “Really.”

It’s never over, she wanted to yell at him. No matter what she did, it was never good enough. The shadow always came back to Hawkins. Will’s mother had died for it. So had Max’s brother. And now Mike. The three of them in this room had the shared trauma that belied Will’s assurance.

“Where are Lucas and Dustin?” she asked.

“Dustin was here for a few minutes,” said Max.

“Not Lucas?”

Max lips went tight, and she shook her head.

No explanation necessary. Lucas blamed her for Mike’s death. He had been right about her from the start. She was the monster, and Hawkins kept suffering for it. The town needed to heal, and needed her gone. It was just as well she was moving out west.

The aftermath of these events was the worst ever. The high school was shut down for a month; the police station moved to City Hall. The tabloids screamed terrorism, and residents armed themselves. Hunting & Camping sold more firearms in a week than it normally did in a year. The mass murder of students, teachers, and police signaled an act of war. Someone, or some group of people, had a far-reaching grudge against the town of Hawkins.

Other residents just wanted out. Owning a gun meant nothing when the town was this compromised. The police were defenseless, the school system run by rapist killers. Houses went up for sale, at low price. Some sellers moved before they got any offers. Vijay Agarwal’s parents were gone in days. They were filthy rich anyway.

Susan Mayfield wasn’t rich, but she wasted no time moving straight back to California. When she had divorced Neil Hargrove after Billy’s death, he had magnanimously “given” her their house on Cherry Street, sparing them the legal mud-slinging. Now it was clear that she ended up with the shit end of the stick. The house would probably sell at half market value. Neil was the one who deserved this inequity. He deserved Hawkins. Like his shitty son who died here. No matter. Susan was ditching town anyway.

Max rebelled. She wasn’t leaving her best friend and boyfriend. The danger was over. The feds were keeping a close eye on Hawkins. Her mother needed to “bitch up and grow a pair”. Susan Mayfield, for the first time in her life, smacked her daughter in the jaw. She would decide who was bitch and who was boss. They were leaving by the end of the week; they should have never moved out here. If Max didn’t like it, she could think of the body count; and how close she had come to being among that number.

So many dead, and bodies still missing: Michael Wheeler, Josie Barrett, Ron Seward, Katie Martin, Harry Graves, Samantha Bacon, Jack Grist, Laura Black, Daniel Latimer, Madison Wilder, and Seth Manor. And three teachers: Richard Rice, Gail Clements, and Percy Dowd. The fate of the administrators, on the other hand, was writ in blood. Deputy Headmaster James Carol had been shot six times in his office and left hanging by his feet. Headmaster Reece Ogden was shot by the same gun; once, by himself. The feds found him with three others in his office: the nude, tied-up corpses of Alex Heft, Liam Hendrickson, and Ross Whitaker. The headmaster had shot them before taking his life, putting a bullet up each and every one of their anuses; they had died slowly from blood loss and internal wounds. The feds found two bombs in Ogden’s desk; the same models that blew up the police station. The headmaster’s suicide note was even more incendiary: I skull-fucked every one of those miserable boys. And I sodomized the girls. You’ll never find their bodies. And if you did you wouldn’t recognize them.

You couldn’t blame Susan Mayfield and others who wanted out. Hawkins needed martial law.

Who Ogden worked for, or been allied with, was anyone’s guess. The feds found a tape in his deputy’s office: conversations between him and Ogden that went on about strange things: shadows, giant worms, and some “master” with terrifying powers and ambitions. Deputy Carol may have been a double agent, working both for and against his boss and the mysterious master. The information on the tape was suppressed, though on the orders of Sam Owens, some of it was shared with the “problem boys” — William Byers, Lucas Sinclair, and Dustin Henderson — who seemed to be involved neck-deep in these matters every year.

But as far as most people were concerned, it was Starcourt all over again: the terrorists were either commie invaders or Satanists. This time they had raped and mutilated people, and dumped them somewhere remote. Search parties ranged everywhere: as far north as Marion, west as Kokomo, south as Anderson; east as Muncie. Still no bodies; no closure for the victims’ families.

Mike Wheeler’s friends — the “problem boys”, plus two girls overlooked by the feds — knew the truth of it. Ogden may have played the role of a terrorist, and he was certainly a rapist, but he was an utter tool. The real terrorist of Hawkins was an alien who could smack down the Devil. Most of the missing people were now mindless brutes with too many arms, and they were far away in a dark world.

Including the one that had swiped Mike’s corpse.

They thought it had disappeared but it was hiding in the tree, and when El left the hilltop it was emboldened to act. It leaped down taking them all by surprise, snatched Mike out of Will’s arms, and dashed off. Lucas had led a furious chase which they abandoned right away. They couldn’t see in the dark, and the thrall ran fast; much faster than the Illithid. There was no way to catch it. It had probably caught up with the Illithid and escaped to the Upside Down. By now Mike’s body had been eaten, digested, and voided; it was fertilizing the shadow side.

No one, not even Eleven, ever discovered that Mike Wheeler had a direct hand in destroying the police station. His friends would never know that his suicidal lunge was born of shame as much as a shattered heart. Nor did anyone learn that he had been gang-raped. His violators were all dead. Mike would never speak of these things years later, in his second life with El. They hurt too much to acknowledge.

Jim Hopper returned from his vacation spewing wrath. He had been notified of the station bombing right away, and flown back to Hawkins a day earlier than planned. The explosion had reduced the Hawkins police force from 36 to 28, and had also killed three civilians. Of the eight dead personnel, five had been officers. One of them was Phil Callahan. Hopper didn’t take that well. For all his lashing out at the poor sob, Hopper had been fond of the man; they had worked closely for years. Officer Powell was devastated. Callahan had been his best friend.

That was bad enough for him to deal with. The death of the teenagers, especially Mike Wheeler, left him stunned and reeling. El didn’t hold back. She gave an uncensored account of all that had happened, including her honeymoon at Mike’s. Hopper couldn’t believe what she told him. He had thought she was virgin and would remain so until her twenties. Her voice slashed the air, silencing him. She outlined everything: the Illithid’s plot, the shadow worms, her horrible breakup (thanks to him), her kidnapping, her captivity on the tree, her rescue by Mike, and his suicidal sacrifice. When her father tried asking questions, she ran over him. By the time she was done, he had no questions.

Hopper hated himself then. For being away when needed, and for the way he had always treated Mike. He groped his way towards an apology, wanting nothing more at that moment than atonement. She shut him down again, and made clear where they stood with each other.

“Don’t ever talk to me about him.” Her eyes were guillotines. “You don’t speak his name to me. Ever again. If you do, you’ll never see me again. Understand?”

He looked at her for a long time. “Yes,” he said, across a new chasm of their relationship. “I understand.” She knew he would have done anything at that moment to undo Mike Wheeler’s death.

She looked away from him. “Don’t cook for me tonight. I’ll make my own dinner and eat after you.” And I’ll eat all the damn Eggos I want.

That’s how it went for the rest of the week, and all through February.

She wouldn’t have made it if not for Will. He spent time with her, bonding in trauma. He could more than relate: Mike was his loss too, and he was still grieving his mother. Will was her only remaining friend to speak of. Max had left Hawkins by the end of January. They had been best friends, and her absence struck El like a physical blow. She hadn’t realized how much she cherished Max until she was gone.

Lucas went into hibernation on Maple Street. He treated El much as she treated her father: like she wasn’t there. He too had been shattered by the loss of a best friend and girlfriend — the same two people El had lost. He blamed her and felt guilty for it. He was avoiding her to avoid his feelings.

Dustin castigated Lucas, but only once. Lucas didn’t mess around: the subject of El was off limits. Dustin knew better than to push it. He visited El a couple of times, and apologized to her for Lucas’ behavior, but he felt awkward about the mess. He too faded away.

It was too much: Mike, Max, Lucas, and Dustin, all suddenly gone from her life. And her father, who may as well have been. William Byers was her unconditional salvation for six weeks. She needed it after the funeral.

 

It was held on February 2: closed coffin, no body. El had despised these solemn affairs since the ceremony for Joyce Byers, and after the events of Mike’s funeral, it would be decades before she attended another.

She came alone in a taxi. No one else to drive her. She had forbidden her father to attend, and Lucas certainly wouldn’t pick her up.

The parlor room was the Snow Ball inverted. She walked in dressed for the occasion, all alone, and here for Mike; this was for him. But everything was black in place of the white and ice-blue. The music was dreadfully somber; organ music. Faces were stern, and no one was dancing. People should dance at funerals. The dead should be remembered with joy.

“Hey, El.”

She turned and saw a preppy looking kid in a suit and tie. “Hi Will.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “Did you come with Hopper?”

“No,” she said curtly.

“Oh,” he said. “Well, I’d ask you to join us, but, you know, Lucas…”

She saw Lucas and Dustin over at a table. Dustin waved to her. Lucas looked in another direction.

“Don’t let me keep you,” she said.

“No, fuck that,” he said angrily. “I’m going to hang with you.”

She couldn’t believe William Byers had just used the f-word. She smiled gratefully, and he kept her company until the service began. He was returning a favor. At his mother’s funeral two summers ago he had broken down badly, in the middle of the service, and El had stayed by his side the whole way through. She didn’t want to make a scene like that today, but she had no illusions. This was Mike. She was avoiding the coffin area up front. The coffin itself was empty, but there were photos of Mike on display, and if she saw them up close, it would be over.

Then Dustin was at her side. “Hey,” he said, hugging her. “Sorry I didn’t come over sooner.”

She told him it was okay.

“Making any speeches?” he asked.

She was definitely not making any speeches. She couldn’t speak in front of crowds, let alone eulogize her boyfriend.

“Me neither,” he said. “But Lucas is. And don’t worry, he’ll come around.”

I doubt it. Lucas would never speak to her again.

Almost predictably, Karen Wheeler showed up late and drunk, supported by Ted. Nancy was behind them with little Holly. El’s heart lit up. Nancy must have flown back from college over the week-end. She’d be returning tomorrow, to get back to her classes.

As soon as Nancy saw El, she reached out to embrace her. She began crying, and El couldn’t hold back. This was the way of things at funerals. A taut energy leaped from one person to the next, turning over pain and venting sorrow. It was happening to others in the room. The process was therapeutic for some, but El wasn’t comfortable with public shows of grief. She thought it a vulgar way to honor someone’s memory.

But she was glad for any excuse to see Nancy again. They talked for a few minutes, and then the service began. She got through it better than expected. For all her dislike of these ceremonies, they brought out the best in some. The eulogies were well delivered and warmly received. Ted, surprisingly, did his son fair justice, and Nancy was simply perfect, moving people without melodrama. Then Lucas stood to eulogize his best friend, and brought the house down. It was the best of the service; El had to give him that. Lucas Sinclair was a true friend.

In other people, death brought out the worst. When the service was over, El noticed Karen Wheeler eying her, and braced herself as the woman stumbled across the floor, clearly intent on having words.

“Mrs. Wheeler,” she began, having no idea what to say.

Karen Wheeler cut her off. “I knew this would happen.” Her speech was slurred but venomous. “I knew it when Michael brought you into my home to use as his whore. This… this is what we have now. Are you satisfied?”

El’s heart was hammering. She had no hope of appeasing Mrs. Wheeler, or saying anything that could diffuse the situation.

“What kind of hero –” Karen Wheeler spat the word — “are you? You threw him off a cliff, and then he died for you! He died for you, you bitch! You useless hateful bitch!”

Everyone had stopped talking. They stared at Karen Wheeler, shocked by her vitriol. El remained still and silent. She could neither reply nor walk off. Either option would draw twice the amount of ire.

Karen Wheeler repeated herself: “You useless hateful –”

“Mom, stop it!”

El looked and saw Nancy behind dozens of people, over by the buffet table. El felt numb, like she was in a surreal nightmare.

Karen Wheeler either didn’t hear her daughter or ignored her. She swore at El again, and reached for her arm. The arm she had squeezed by the dishwasher. El stepped back just in time.

Nancy pushed through everyone to get to her mother, and grabbed hold of her. At first Karen Wheeler looked like she would desist. Then she yelled and pushed Nancy away — or tried. She ended up pushing herself backwards and fell down, dropping her glass of rum. El dimly wondered where Mr. Wheeler was. Probably in the bathroom, getting drunk in private.

“Mom!” shouted Nancy. “I said stop!”

Her mother wasn’t stopping. She grabbed her now-empty glass, managed to stand up, drew back her arm, and to horrified gasps threw the glass straight at El’s head.

It missed by a mile. And slammed into the forehead of one of Karen’s own neighbors: David Sadoski, a 77-year old banker. The poor sod went down like a sack of cement. People screamed and rushed to help the man. The parlor room erupted into chaos. Holly was crying hysterically. Finally Ted Wheeler revealed himself, pushing through and trying his best to restrain his wife. With Nancy he began dragging her out of the funeral home. Karen Wheeler screamed at the top of a drunkard’s lungs, calling El vile things; words she had never heard before.

She shouldn’t have come here.

To her left she saw Mike’s friends standing together: Will full of outrage. Dustin equally appalled. And then Lucas, rigid as stone, his face a wall of judgment — angry like his friends, but at her, not Mrs. Wheeler. El wanted to die. She could read the accusation on Lucas’ face: Couldn’t even use your powers to stop that glass, could you?

No, she couldn’t have. Not because she wasn’t supposed to show her nature publicly, but because she had frozen, thinking she, not someone else, would be hit by the glass, and frankly, in that moment, not giving a damn.

She took some relief in the absence of her father. He would have shown down Karen Wheeler in an all-out Battle of the Parents. El wouldn’t have that. This was on her.

 

February passed under two blizzards. Hopper announced his resignation and move to Oregon the day after Mike’s funeral. He wasn’t waiting for March to go public. With the police short-staffed, they needed time to search for a new chief.

Karen Wheeler barely avoided criminal charges. David Sadoski had been hospitalized thanks to her fast pitch, but he decided to let it slide. She displayed her gratitude by denouncing him as a banking thief while standing in his driveway. The Sadoski family had to call the police, and the officers walked her back home two blocks down.

During this time, El hunkered in isolation, barely speaking to her father, coming up for air only when Will visited. Usually his Aunt Ruth drove him over to the cabin, and when he was ready to go, Hopper took him home. The first half of March was the same routine, though El finally stopped silent-treating her father. He had paid the piper; his penance was over. They started eating together again.

It was St. Patrick’s Day when Lucas came calling. When she heard his Mazda pull up, she was outside and flying off the porch before he stopped the engine.

He got out and faced her. His face wore a look of remorseful appeal.

She kept hers noncommittal. Inside she desperately wanted amends, but her defenses were entrenched.

He walked closer. “Still a lot of snow in these woods,” he said.

She nodded. They stared unsure of one another, and then suddenly they were embracing. She clung to him crying as he apologized.

“There’s no excuse, El,” he said. “You needed friends, and I was an asshole.”

She wiped her cheeks. “I had Will. And Dustin, sort of. When he remembered me.”

“You should have had me too,” he said. “I’m sorry. Really sorry. Can I come in?”

“Of course.”

 

Hopper was still at work, and so they had the cabin to themselves for two or three hours.

“I really didn’t think you’d speak to me again,” she said, handing him a Coke. It was Classic, but he took it anyway.

“Me neither,” he said, sipping the soda and making a face. “I mean, I hate to say it, because it’s unfair to you. I resented Mike’s death — I still do — and I needed to blame someone. Besides shadow monsters. Something happened last week, and I realized I don’t want to do that anymore.”

“What happened?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s kind of silly.”

“Lucas, tell me.”

“It was the new U2 album,” he said.

“What?”

“I was listening to the new U2 album,” he said. “It came out last week. Mike couldn’t wait for it.”

“Oh.” She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear about music that Mike liked. There was a certain tape she still hadn’t played. “I’m not sure I can listen to that.”

He shook his head. “That’s not why I’m mentioning it. Just answering your question. The album is amazing. Every song is a masterpiece. And there’s this one song, the first one. It’s basically about getting away from everything — towns, cities where so much bad happens. Going to a place, maybe like heaven, or a place in the country not many people know about. Where it all doesn’t matter: where the streets have no name.”

She thought heaven was too good to be true, and had always distrusted the idea. But what he described reminded her of…

“Beaches,” she said.

He looked surprised. “Beaches? Well, maybe. It’s open to interpretation.”

Ever since entering Billy Hargrove’s memories two summers ago, El had been obsessed with the idea of beaches; dreamed of them. Max had shown her pictures near her old home in Cailfornia. And her father had told her there was a city in Oregon called Seaside, less than a two hour drive from the town they were moving to. People took vacations in Seaside, and stayed in resorts along the beach. She wanted to see Seaside, more than anything.

“And this song — ‘The Streets Without Name’ — made you want to stop blaming me?”

“It was the whole album,” said Lucas. “I’ve never heard music this deep. I mean, I’m not religious; I don’t like that stuff. But listening to the album over and over… it sounds stupid, but it makes you want to be a better person. It made me want to be better.”

“Better how?”

“I’m tired of being angry, El. Especially at you. I feel shitty when I’m angry all the time. I’ve felt shitty for the last seven weeks. I can’t do it anymore.”

“So I still deserve the blame. You just don’t like what blaming does to you.”

“No, you don’t deserve it. But tell me — and I’m not accusing you — why didn’t you just tell Mike you were moving to Oregon? He thought you hated him.”

“Because he would have blamed Hopper for taking me away, and then turned the whole thing into a three-month war. I know I was stupid. I should have just told the truth.”

“Well, yeah,” said Lucas. “You don’t worry about shielding parents. They’re adults. It’s their job to handle shit.”

“Believe me, I wish I could do that night over again,” she said.

They sat in silence for a while. Lucas hadn’t touched his Classic Coke beyond two sips.

“Did Will tell you about the tree?” she asked.

He nodded grimly. “Yeah.”

Hopper had gone out to the hill armed with gasoline. It was the day he flew back from Oregon, late at night, and she insisted on coming with him. It was personal for her; the tree had gotten inside her, like the Mind Flayer had gotten inside Will. She watched the tree burn to the ground — a half measure that was hardly satisfying. The plant was still alive on the shadow side. It was there she had been violated.

“I knew there was something about that thing,” said Lucas. “We heard your voice coming from, like, inside the branches, but it sounded so far away. And Max started using her knife…” He shook his head. “Stupid.”

“Do you miss Max?” she asked, changing the subject.

He shifted in his seat. “I can’t believe how much I miss her. She was out of town before I knew it. It hit me hard.” He paused. “We… saw each other the night before she left.” He left it hanging.

She got it. “Good for you.” Happy for him. And her.

“But I miss Mike more,” he said. “I knew him since we were six.”

I know. “I think about both of you every Friday night.” She was talking about Miami Vice, of course.

“Oh my God!” he said, sitting up. “Did you see it last week?”

“Yes.”

“Great episode. Definitely the best one for Tubbs this season.” In “Red Tape”, Tubbs had gotten so fed up over cops walking into booby traps every other warrant, that he threw his badge in Castillo’s face. Detective Ricardo Tubbs had quit Miami Vice, joined the bad guys, and it wasn’t clear until late in the episode what game he was really playing.

“I liked Theresa,” she said.

“Who? Oh, yeah. That one was okay. She was depressing.” In the mid-February episode, Crockett’s girlfriend turned out to be a junkie, and did bad things to supply her habit. Not least in sabotaging the police, through her close relationship to Crockett.

“He loved her,” said El simply. “He stood by her no matter what.” Like Mike always did for me.

They sat for a while without talking, knowing the other was thinking the same thing. That Mike would have loved the rest of Miami Vice season 3, loved the new U2 album, loved to be able to sit here with both of them, and talk each other’s faces off until late in the evening.

The whole thing hurt. It really hurt.

 

The final day came in April. She and her father were packed and ready; boxes had been shipped. Tomorrow the cabin would be in new hands. Hopper had found a hunter willing to pay a good amount for it.

It was a bad night for her; the last time she would sleep in her bed. She had been crying all day, and her head felt split down the middle. She lay there sleepless, until, drawn by some inner compulsion, she sat up and turned on her lamp. She looked across the room at the desk they were leaving behind. There was a new one waiting for her in Newberg. Hopper had seen to it over his vacation.

Out of bed and crossing the room; opening the top drawer. It was still there. She had put off deciding whether to leave it here, throw it in the trash, or take it with her out west.

Her hands trembled as she took the tape mix Mike had made for her. She had held it a few times, but was never able to play it. She kept seeing him smash his copy while shouting horrible things at her. You’re a shitty person! A lousy, shitty person! His pencil swirls decorated the cover, almost hypnotizing.

She took her walkman out of the suitcase and slid in the tape. Returned to bed. Put her kleenex box in easy reach. Leaned back and pushed play.

As the mix spooled, she relived moments with Mike; moments that he had intended to summon with these special songs. A Flock of Seagulls sang about falling in love, and she was twelve again, being kissed by him for the first time… Clan of Xymox lamented the pain of separation, and she was thirteen, stalking him in the Void, calling his name, trying to touch him, anything to let him know she was alive… The Police celebrated that stalker’s romance, and they were reunited, dancing in a hall of white and ice-blue… The Who raged about teenage wastelands, and she was fourteen, shopping with Max for her romper, dumping Mike in public… The Cure made her feel bad about that breakup, and she was sharing M&Ms with him… Thinkman sang about friendship at the end of adventures, and she was reunited with him yet again, after the mall tragedy and losing her powers, promising she would never, never dump him as long as she lived…

The play button popped up as the first side ended. She grabbed what must have been her twentieth kleenex. Her promises mocked her. Catharsis was the same thing as masochism. She ejected the tape and flipped it over.

On side B she didn’t get past the first song. Whatever point in their relationship Mike was referencing with the Depeche Mode song was lost on her. It brought her to their last days — their honeymoon, in his house, under his roof, where their bodies and souls came together, as one, here in this house

That song, an apogee of poetic intimacy, is what finally buried her. She listened to it sobbing, and then, exhausted by too much grief, she fell into dreams. Dreams of beaches and waters that softened good-byes. Where lost friends, dead or alive, rose from the depths and came ashore, if only to hold her briefly, and tell her she was okay, really okay, before dissolving into droplets and rolling away.

 

Their plane left on schedule. It was her first flight, and she would forever associate airports with loss and new beginnings. She was glad it was a weekday. If not for school, the boys would have come to say good-bye, and she couldn’t handle any more of that. The past two months had been a prolonged series of good-byes: deaths, eulogies, and reconciliations.

Her father gave her the window seat, and when the jet started down the runway, she thought of the worms. God, this thing is even faster. She had been half-stoned on tranquilizer when she rode Maedred, and climbing out of untold abuse when she rode Gorn, but she would never forget those terrifying hurtles through the air. As the jet accelerated, she almost expected it to flip into the Upside Down. Instead, she felt the ground give way — saw it happen out the window — and then the plane was in the air, closing the miles between Indiana and Oregon.

“Something else, huh?”

“Yeah,” she said. At that moment her love for Hopper was plain and uncomplicated — exactly how she wanted her new life to be. Knowing it would never be that easy.

And as they flew west, Jane Hopper, who had been known all her life as a number, finally said good-bye to Hawkins. To a past that had defined her too brutally. And to Mike Wheeler, whose death she accepted for what it was, and her own role in what killed him. I’ll remember you every day. I promise.

To do otherwise would deny her need to breathe.

 

Next Chapter: Endless Night

(Previous Chapter: The Hill of Evermore)

The Door No One Remembers in Mike’s Basement

One of my proof-readers caught an error in chapter 3 of my novel Endless Night. The kids are in Mike’s basement getting slaughtered in a ruthless D&D campaign, something happens which makes them want to leave the house as fast as possible, but it may be too dangerous to go up the stairs into the kitchen. My reader pointed out that there is a door in Mike’s basement that leads directly outside, so why didn’t they just use that?

Now, I have seen each season of Stranger Things series many times, and I was never aware of an outside door in Mike’s basement. I’ve spoken to others who also didn’t recall such a door. So I got on Netflix and breezed through some of the episodes, and sure enough — once you look for it — it stands out rather obviously. The door to the outside is close to the D&D table, and right next to the desk-table that was turned into El’s hideaway fort.

I took screenshots and drew up a map of the Wheeler basement as follows. It turned out to be a worthy exercise. There are other things about Mike’s basement I wasn’t aware until I looked carefully, like the tool area behind the staircase.

(So here’s my question: given this door, why do the kids never use the damn thing throughout seasons 1-3? Do they just like the exercise of climbing the stairs and going out the front door, when they need to leave the house?)

These the screen shots. Click on each to enlarge.

The first scene of the series puts the matter beyond doubt: the outside door is right there, close to the D&D table. To its right is the desk that Mike will soon be turning into El’s hideaway fort. The poster of The Thing (behind Will’s head) is still there in season 3.

Another shot of the same scene, with the staircase visible.

 

Same scene, showing the open bathroom behind Mike, which puts the bathroom opposite the wall that has the poster of The Thing.

Same scene again, and a very helpful angle that shows the tool area of the basement behind the staircase. There is a work table on the far side, and a small desk on the side closer to the gaming table. Note: there is no telephone on the pillar behind Mike, but there will be by the time of season 3.

The couch and food table are the first things you see in the basement when coming down the stairs.

As Mike tucks in El, the outside door is plainly visible to his left.

The couch area. By season 3, there will be a TV to Mike’s left, on top of the area where the green blankets are sitting.

Same scene after Mike leaves for school.

The couch view of El’s fort and the door to the outside.

Another shot of the outside door, a bit hard to see, but clearly there.

This view of the door makes clear that it goes to the outside. It’s clearly outside lighting, especially from the window above El’s fort.

View of the tool area and work table behind Dustin.

The boys are at the D&D table, and Dustin is sitting where Mike sat during their campaign. The open bathroom is now behind him.

Another shot of the couch area.

The clearest shot of the outside door in season 1, as Dustin prepares to school Mike and Lucas on the nature of magnets.

The epilogue scene, wrapping up the D&D game. As in the opening scene, except you can see behind Mike that he has kept El’s fort intact, even though she’s presumed lost or dead.

In season 2 we hardly see any of the Wheeler basement, except for a scene like this, where Mike is being forced to throw out his toys as punishment for raising hell in school, and…

…this one, as he looks over to the fort he has kept intact for a whole year, as he pines for El and tries calling her on his walkie-talkie every night.

Into season 3, with a hugely grown Mike, and a TV now in the couch area.

And also a phone on the pillar at the bottom of the stairs. The fort is gone now, and it’s just a desk-table again. The Thing poster is still behind the D&D table.

There are much clearer shots of the basement windows in season 3.

The clearest shot of the outside door in season 3, as Will prepares for a campaign that Mike and Lucas have no interest in…

…but which they are going to play, and have their sleep cut short for it.

Another shot of the couch area, and the tiger poster.

El no longer has a fort to call home, but that TV is very useful.

Another view of the basement from the bottom stair.

Mike is talking to Lucas who is on the couch. Behind him to the left is the bathroom door, next to the washer and dryer…

…which comes in this close-up shot.

Endless Night (Chapter 7)

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:

El.

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. This has to be done now. 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. I’m not.

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. You tore out my heart! Why would you do that to me? 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. “I — wode — rode — a worm — too.” 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.”

“Yeah?”

“They’re in the tree.”

“What?”

“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.

“Mike!”

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.

What –?

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 —

Gorn.

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.

El yelled back at her, taunting: “That’s right! He fucked my brains out!” And with that 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 any more; 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)

Endless Night (Chapter 6)

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 Six

                           Shadow Side

Mike didn’t flinch as Liam’s fist struck. Didn’t drop his eyes. One of which was already turning purple. He didn’t budge in the chair. He was a slave to the mark imprinted in his flesh.

“Looking nice, Wheeler!” laughed Seth. Alex and Ross laughed too. They were taking turns with Mike. On this Saturday, Mr. Rice’s history classroom had been transformed into a torture pen. Mike had been right. Hawkins High was under management of the shadow.

Liam readied for another swing. If Mike were his own master he would have beaten them all into flayed soup. Murdered them, and damn the consequences. He had nothing to live for anymore. El had rejected him, and the Illithid had made him a tool. A mighty tool. He was stronger than the Hulk — and certainly stronger than any of these fools.

But he couldn’t strike back. Seth and his stooges had protected status. They served the Illithid, and Mike’s mark was absolute.

It had taken twenty-four hours to bring him under full control. Throughout Friday he had been delirious; in a state of transition, hardly knowing what was real. He knew that El had spurned him. That his friends were with him in Nancy’s room, and he needed to tell them something — something dreadful that happened to him — but either couldn’t piece it together or find the words. El he recalled with crystal clarity, and for her perfidy he had no words.

By midnight he was a new being, commanded inside by an unbending will. He woke next to Will, and remembered everything. The Illithid. His Master and God. And remembered what God required of him. He could not do this thing. He had no choice. His freedom was in the past. He wanted to stay in bed with Will — wanted his other friends too — but his geas ruled him. He had to go.

So he had risen from bed, kissed Will’s forehead, and left Nancy’s room. In the cold chaos of his bedroom he changed into layers of warm clothes. Downstairs he put on a coat, gloves and a ski mask. Meteorologists had pledged a weekend of frostbite. It was already that bad when he stepped outside. He turned and looked up at his bedroom window a final time, and his heart broke. He wanted his childhood back, when his family was fun and Hawkins a normal town. He wanted El. Then he turned and crossed the lawn. He would never again sleep in his home on Maple Street.

There was a vehicle waiting for him, a block down the road. Mike knew who it was. Straining vainly against new compulsions, he walked toward his fate. Seth Manor’s car was a deep green Pontiac trans am; a year old but looking six or seven; purchased by Seth’s father, to which his son had shown his gratitude by abusing every inch of it.

Mike saw that Seth was in the driver’s seat and Liam Hendrickson rode shotgun. In the back were Alex Heft and Ross Whitaker. Mike grit his teeth. His mark was clear: these were his new friends, and Seth Manor’s word, in the absence of a higher authority, was law.

Seth rolled down the driver’s seat window. His smile promised leagues of hurt. “Get in back Wheeler. Make yourself comfy.”

Mike wanted to crush Seth’s skull and saw himself doing it. Then he got into the car, sandwiched himself between Alex and Ross, and allowed himself to be driven to the school.

The beatings had begun almost immediately. Seth and the others brought Mike to Mr. Rice’s classroom, turned down the window blinds, and begun working him over. To test their hold on him, but also, Mike was sure, in calculated revenge. Mike had humiliated them too often, and his self-appointment as Vijay Agarwal’s savior had been the last straw.

It was Mike who needed a savior now. Mike, who had the strength of a bull, but could do nothing against the constraints of his mark. And his mark was clear: these four sadists were servants of the Illithid. He could neither defy nor harm them.

Their control over him seemed complete. Yet they worked to demonstrate his helplessness beyond a shadow of a doubt; that any hope he held out for himself was illusion.

So they spent hours — the entirety of Saturday — commanding him; degrading him. When Liam told him to jump, Mike stood from the chair and leaped into the air. When Alex told him to stand on the desk and pull his pants down, Mike obliged without hesitation. When Ross told him to piss on the floor, Mike did so. When Seth told him to come down off the chair and stand before him, Mike obeyed as if Seth were God on High. His reward was Seth’s fist in his face. Before he was marked, he would have been out cold on the floor from a punch that strong. With the Illithid’s essence in his blood, he stumbled back a step, but otherwise stayed on his feet. Seth then used pliers to tear off Mike’s right pinkie fingernail. Pain filled Mike’s every sensation. He looked detached as his body was put through every form of abuse conceivable to sadistic bullies. In his mind he railed against his captors.

They brought in what they called a thrall: a black creature that walked on two legs and four arms. Told him it used to be Mr. Rice, and with horror Mike could discern the face of his history teacher, shifting beneath the demonic visage. The thrall grabbed Mike with one of its arms, jump-spun 360 degrees, and threw him across the classroom as if it were an Olympic discus thrower. Mike’s body crashed into the far wall and battered against the floor. It was impossible anyone could endure this much pain and stay conscious. But Mike wasn’t anyone, nor entirely human. The thrall leaped after him and pounced, sinking its teeth into his back. Mike’s whole inner being cried out, stop, stop, stop… but he remained compliant. Seth and the others cheered the thrall on.

Hope had no relevance under these conditions. His mark left no room for choice. Mike was an instrument and nothing more: an organic extension of a psychic power. The Illithid wanted him, because it wanted Eleven; to co-opt her powers, and use them to destroy the world. The Illithid was monstrous enough. With El’s powers it could level cities like a nuclear bomb. And in retaliation for all she had done against the shadow world, it would enslave her boyfriend; use him against his own people; degrade him to the level of shit and scum.

When they got bored with the thrall, Seth dismissed it, and it left the room. For a moment Mike thought they were through. Then he saw Seth smiling like a dead promise. He grabbed Mike and threw him face down on the floor. Chuckling, he got on top of Mike and straddled him.

No.

“I’m going to take care of you now, Wheeler,” said Seth.

The other three laughed.

Seth began pulling down Mike’s pants.

In his mind Mike was already moving. He threw Seth off his back and leaped to his feet in a fury. Grabbed Seth, squeezed him, crunched every bone in his arm. Swung his other hand, a closed fist, into Seth’s teeth. Lashed out with a kick, shattering his ribs. Seth slumped in Mike’s hands, his cowardice and sadism turned to useless dead meat.

Mike did it; he did it. No one could stop his superhuman strength. No matter how much it cost, no matter what mental barrier had to be overcome, Mike did it. Seth hung lifeless in his fists, and Mike was free again. Free to walk out of the school, find his friends, and go after the Illithid —

But of course he didn’t do it. The whole idea was a mirage. As Seth positioned himself, Mike couldn’t move in any way that would threaten Seth’s person. Nor he could he squirm or evade, or say or do anything that would have thwarted Seth’s purpose. Seth had been given ultimate status. He was a proxy of the Illithid. Mike was subject to his every cruel whim.

“Relax, faggot,” panted Seth. He rubbed his hands over Mike’s buttocks, savoring the feel, and pried them open. He wedged his fingers up Mike’s anus, digging deep.

Mike raged inside his head, straining for some avenue of recourse, anything to do against this violation — but his mark was unyielding.

Seth worked his fingers, hard. “Don’t you dare shit on me, Wheeler. And don’t scream either. Any shit or noise from you, and I’ll fuck you with a gas pump.” Seth removed his hand, and Mike felt him shift on his back. And then suddenly something mammoth was inside him.

Mike screamed so loud that he thought his mark had finally failed to constrain him. But it was all inside his mind. Outwardly he remained obedient and silent, though nothing could stop his tears. He had never been degraded like this on top of so much pain. A locomotive had burst his rectum and rammed up his lower back. The locomotive drew back — and tore through him again. And again, and over again. Seth was going to make this last.

Alex was roaring approval, and Liam and Ross too. It wasn’t everyday they got to see someone raped so agreeably.

Seth grabbed the back of Mike’s hair and pulled his head up as he kept pounding. “Do you like that, faggot?… Is it good?… It’s good on my end… What did you say to me this week… about breaking my hands?” His thrusts quickened into brutal slashes. Mike was bleeding horribly. His hot tears flooded the floor as Seth kept on with mounting fury. “What did you say to me, you faggot?”

“Break his hand, Seth!” yelled Liam. “Break his fucking hand!”

“Yeah!” said Alex. “Do it!”

Seth let go of Mike’s hair and grabbed one of his hands, preparing to break his fingers. Then he let go abruptly, as his whole body shuddered. “Oh fuck,” he gasped. “I’m cumming — I’m cumming right into you, Wheeler. Shit!”

As Seth found release, the others cheered like it was a Super Bowl touchdown. Seth lay on top of Mike, catching his breath, and then stood, pulling his pants up. He looked down at Mike satisfied. “Who’s next?”

Alex was next. He was fat, smelled like he hadn’t showered in days, and packed even more meat than Seth. He slobbered over Mike as he raped him mercilessly.

Inside his mind, Mike crawled into a space where no one could find or touch him. He was in complete shock: violated and traumatized beyond what most teenagers could endure. But his mark cared nothing for his traumas. It kept him functioning as required. Mike was raped and raped, and he took it with immobile acquiescence. Only his eyes showed the immense hurt.

When Alex finished, it was Liam’s turn, and as he worked Mike over, he also broke his left wrist for the fun of it. If not for the stimulant of his mark, Mike would have blacked out at that point. He hardly felt what was happening anymore. The next thing he knew, Ross was on top of him, and then, at the end of some eternity, it was over.

He heard Seth say: “We’re done. And the bomb should be ready by now. Go tell the deputy.”

On some level Mike registered the three stooges leaving the classroom. His body felt numb; staggered by what it had been subjected to. Involuntarily he threw up on the floor. Seth laughed and told him to get up. Mike obeyed, his vision blurred from tears and shock.

As he stood, his posterior rebelled; it needed surgery. His wrist was a bonfire of pain; it needed a cast. Outwardly he ignored the agony; inwardly he prayed for death. Seth sat at a desk to wait for Mr. Carol. He looked at Mike and gloated. “You’ve got a sweet ass, Wheeler, I’ll give you that. I haven’t cum like that in months. Get ready for the bomb. We’re going on a demolitions mission.”

Mike was already recovering and processing everything as if freshly woken. He wasn’t suppressing his traumas, for that was impossible. His mark simply enabled him (required him) to function at full capacity irrespective of his pain. He was literally living in hell. He had the distinct impression that it was time — time for whatever Ogden and Carol wanted him for. In ten minutes he heard strong footsteps outside the hallway.

Mr. Carol entered the classroom, looking like steel. He walked over to the teachers desk and sat down, looking back and forth between Seth and Mike. He didn’t speak for a long time. Seth coughed nervously.

Finally the deputy spoke. “Everything fine?”

“Yes, sir,” said Seth. “We tested him thoroughly.”

“I’m sure you enjoyed it.” Mr. Carol looked at Mike. “We have a problem for you to fix. The police are getting pesky. They’ve been snooping around the school and other places too.”

Mike didn’t say anything. A problem for you to fix. They were obviously working for the Illithid. He knew the creature wanted El; had known that since being marked on Thursday night. It wanted to devour her, and ingest her powers to become invincible. The creature had communicated this to him, precisely so that he would despair.

“Gorn is waiting outside,” the deputy continued, “I believe you’ve met already. Big, always hungry, likes to eat the ground. He’s a shadow worm. He carried you on his back.” The deputy tilted his head. “Sunday night, I believe?”

Fear lanced through Mike. Yes. No. I saw the worm. I didn’t ride it. That was a dream.

“Actually” — Carol fixed his gaze on Mike — “you two have bonded in a way you don’t even realize. You’ll depart on your mission as soon as you’ve said hello to Gorn, and allowed him to warm up to you.”

Warm up? Outwardly he was calm but inside himself Mike trembled.

The deputy continued. “I intend you to destroy the Hawkins Police Station. That’s where you and Seth are going. You’ll do as Seth instructs. It’s what Mr. Ogden wants.”

At first Mike didn’t credit what Carol was saying. Destroy the police station? It was outrageous. He wouldn’t do such a thing.

Seth spoke up. “Mr. Carol, I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. Wheeler is dangerous like this. He has superhuman strength. We tested his obedience, sure… but everyone has a breaking point.”

The deputy rumbled: “Mr. Wheeler is completely powerless over you, Mr. Manor. If everything you’ve done to him today hasn’t convinced you of that, then you’re as stupid as your grades indicate.”

Seth flushed. “All I’m saying, sir, is that he’s a slippery piece of shit.”

Mike tried to understand what he was being tasked with. “Why…?” He faltered as his voice broke. He had been raped and broken and was standing purely on eldritch energies. His feet felt like rubber. “Why… do you want the police station blown up? Is that what the Illithid wants?”

“Ah,” said the deputy, looking at Mike intently. “The police are suddenly a problem for us. Thanks to your friends. The Master needs them dealt with. You call him the ‘Ill-uh-thid’?”

Mike was jolted. His friends? Was Carol talking about Lucas and Dustin? Will? Max? “Which… friends? What did they do?”

The deputy’s mouth twisted; he may have been smiling. “Lucas Sinclair. Dustin Henderson. Max Mayfield. Will Byers. They were looking for someone on your behalf” — Mike’s insides rocked again — “and ended up at the home of Sheriff Hopper. They didn’t like what they found there. They guessed that the chief’s cabin was broken into, and that Mr. Ogden and I were behind this break-in. They guessed rightly: I had sent Mr. Manor with two of his friends. Your friends went to the police. The police came here this morning and searched the school. We barely kept them from finding you. Now the area around Hopper’s cabin is being searched, including the hill. That’s not good. We need — how shall I put it? — a diversion. Your friends, Mr. Wheeler, have made things difficult for us. They are, to be honest, a pain in the ass.”

“Leave them alone,” said Mike. Some of this made no sense to him. He had no idea what “the hill” referred to. He just wanted his friends safe.

Calmly, as if the details had no special meaning, Mr. Carol added, “Jane Hopper has also been put in her proper place. Eleven, I believe you call her. Tends to live in obscurity. A bit of a problem. Mr. Manor and his friends captured her at the cabin. She is now caged and — be assured — unable to do anything about it.”

Mike’s whole inner being crashed. No! El!

“She’s entirely powerless, Mr. Wheeler. You need to understand that.”

Tears came unrestrained. Mike suddenly didn’t care about anything else. He just wanted El. She had destroyed him two nights ago, and he no longer cared. He needed her — needed to save her.

“Deputy.” Seth looked like he was about to vomit. “That girl is a far worse threat than Wheeler. She should be killed at once.”

Mr. Carol looked mildly irritated. “I never mistook you for having a brain, Mr. Manor.” He spoke to Seth but kept looking at Mike. “Killing her would defeat the whole reason for everything we’re doing here. The Master needs her alive for his ascendancy. As you’ve been told many times. So keep quiet.”

“Yes sir,” mumbled Seth.

Without shifting his posture or tone, the deputy said, “Go outside, Mr. Manor. I’ve had all I can stomach from you today. Wait by Gorn. I want to talk to Mr. Wheeler for a few minutes. I’ll bring him to you when I’m done.”

Seth got up and left. Mike watched him go, vowing to kill Seth with his bare hands. He still felt the locomotive up inside him. The feel of Seth ripping through him would never go away. If he had raped Eleven —

The door closed behind Seth, and the deputy studied Mike, saying nothing.

“You…” Mike could hardly get out what he wanted to say. His voice felt foreign, like something he didn’t own anymore. “You were always nice before. What happened? Are you under control, like me?”

“Tell me the truth, Mr. Wheeler,” Carol replied as if he weren’t changing the subject. “How do you feel about Gorn?”

Mike remembered the worm’s maw, and the abysmal stench that had nearly killed him on Sunday night. He said nothing. His feelings for the worm wouldn’t make a shred of difference to whatever he would be required to do.

“They exist in pairs,” said Carol. “Twins from the same egg. A male and female. Gorn is the male. The shadow creature — the ‘Ill-uh-thid’, as you call it — usually rides the female. Her name is Maedred.”

Mike’s stomach rolled. There were two of those things? “I was never on the worm’s back in the Upside Down,” he said. That had to have been a dream or physic projection. “There’s no Gate to the shadow world anymore.”

“None is necessary,” said Carol. “The worms can flip between our world and the shadow. It’s innate to their biology. They’re born with the ability. And they can take whoever rides on their backs. It took you there, for a little ride.”

Mike accepted the explanation. It explained how the Illithid was in their world. It hadn’t found a Gate. It had ridden a worm.

“The worms need to accelerate to a high speed in order to flip across dimensions — at least 160 miles an hour — and to burn at that speed for at least thirty seconds before flipping.”

He remembered the ride: held by one of the worm’s tentacles, and yet feeling like he was falling off, as he hurtled through the night sky.

“Fascinating beasts, really,” said Carol. “As twins they depend on each other’s existence for their powers. If one of them dies, the other loses the ability to flip across dimensions. Their biochemistries are somehow synced with one another.”

They’re hideous. Mike shuddered remembering. Their breath could kill if you got a direct whiff.

“And they have to be kept apart. If they come within a football field’s length of each other, they’ll be aroused and mate for hours, and kill anyone in sight. It’s a loud and destructive affair. Anyway. After you and Seth destroy the police station, you’ll be using Gorn to take a little trip to the Upside Down.”

Because he was full to the teeth with fear and isolation, Mike didn’t flinch. He told the deputy he was crazy.

The deputy sighed. “Maybe I am. Almost certainly I am.” Without transition he answered Mike’s earlier question. “No, Mr. Wheeler, I’m not under control like you. Just the opposite in fact. And I apologize for all the pain and indignity you’ve suffered in this room. I would have minimized your torments — and certainly that despicable gang rape — but Ogden was here all day, looking in on you. It had to be completely real and convincing. I’m not proud of what I’ve made myself.”

Mike was confused; he didn’t follow this. I would have minimized your torments…?

Carol kicked his feet up on the desk. “Mike,” he said distinctly, using his first name for the first time ever. “I’m giving you new orders.”

Mike blinked. New orders?

“I can’t countermand the orders already given. They come from Ogden, and he supersedes me. But I can give new ones, and you’ll be required to do them, as long as they’re not overridden by Ogden or that awful creature. The thing you call the Illithid.”

A fire storm of panic had hold of Mike. The deputy was playing some kind of deep game. And something in his manner told Mike that what he was about to hear was crucial, the crux of the whole situation.

“That creature has committed a crime against you.” As he spoke, his tone reminded Mike of the man he knew for the past year and a half at Hawkins High — the tone of a man of integrity, who cared for people, and couldn’t begin to express how much he loathed the pain he had inflicted on students this past week. “It’s reduced you to something less than human. You’re practically a machine-animal, bereft of choice. I share responsibility for all the abuse we’ve inflicted on you, and I apologize to you. There’s really no excuse for me letting those boys do what they did to you, except that I don’t know what else to do.”

Involuntarily, tears filled Mike’s eyes again. There was no guile in the deputy. He sounded sincere.

“Everything I’ve done this past week,” continued Carol. “I needed the headmaster’s complete trust. In order to make this work, now. That Illithid creature has to be stopped. If he isn’t stopped, it’s the end of the world. Again, I can’t override your mission against the police station. But this is what I want you to do afterwards.” He leaned forward and explained.

Mike went on breathing. It was the only response available as he was fed new orders — orders that would probably get him and the deputy headmaster killed. Occasionally he blinked. And inside, he allowed himself a dim ray of hope.

When he was finished outlining everything, Mr. Carol stood up and told Mike to follow him outside to join Seth and Gorn.

 

Seth would get a rude surprise, and Mike took some satisfaction in that. But for now he was consumed by the task in front of him, and minimizing the fallout. He saw no way of doing it. There was a police building to destroy, with innocent staff inside. He couldn’t stop the outcome any more than Mr. Carol could.

It was an easy mission; absurdly easy. He and Seth had only to get on top of the police station, find a vent shaft, drop a bomb down it, and then fly away.

Easy as dessert, but hard as venom to swallow. Mike would be a mass murderer, even if he was an instrument of his captors. He’d never live with himself.

He and Seth had flown from the school to police headquarters, covering less than half a mile in thirty seconds on Gorn’s back. The worm had deposited them on top of the building, and then risen to circle them high in the air out of sight. Seth carried the bomb and relay switch. Mike carried the insurance of success. Only a marked soul could command Gorn and guard Seth with the efficiency of a Navy Seal.

“Let’s do it,” said Seth, moving across the roof. Mike followed him. They both had flashlights strapped on their foreheads, over their ski masks. Seth looked like an amateur thug. So did Mike. But Mike was a brutal killing machine.

As Seth moved ahead of him, Mike tried for the hundredth time to break his inner prison — to abort the mission and make a citizen’s arrest of Seth, or better yet, kill him with his bare hands. It was insufferable that he had to accept Seth, who had punched him through the black hole of rape; to work with him, and trust him. And once more Mike had the dislocated sense of being more than one person; of existing in separate realities. One part of him lunged at Seth, and used his inhuman strength to pound him to a pulp. The other part of him watched the struggle as if it were purely of abstract interest, while inside his skull he howled. He would not, would not, help kill innocent people.

He wanted El.

But the Illithid and its proxies had issued their wills, and Mike obeyed. He followed Seth, looking for any openings or shafts.

It wasn’t long until they found one. At Seth’s command Mike ripped out the plate of grated steel and tossed it aside. They both peered down a vent shaft that went to the level of the ground.

“Perfect,” said Seth. “Call Gorn.”

Gorn had bonded with Mike, and that bond had established a telepathic link. Mike called Gorn in his mind. We’re ready.

As the beast descended out of the air, Seth removed the bomb from his sack and dropped it down the vent shaft. Mike swore. He didn’t know anything about explosives. Mr. Carol had said this bomb wasn’t volatile and shouldn’t explode without the detonator, but Mike didn’t trust any bomb that was dropped or thrown around. They got back on Gorn. The worm buckled them in with separate tentacles and waited for Mike’s instruction.

Fly soft.

Gorn lifted from the building and glided west, purring at Mike’s telepathic strokes. As before, Seth held onto Mike’s waist, while Mike clung to one of the worm’s tusk-like protrusions on its back. They were held firm by the tentacles, but that offered little peace of mind when Gorn tilted sideways to turn, and plummeted without warning.

When they were at a safe distance, Gorn landed on the nearest roof; some corporation building. Seth took the detonator from his pack, and Mike braced himself, closing his eyes.

“Wheeler,” said Seth. Mike could hear him smiling. “Hey. Faggot. Look at me.”

Mike opened his eyes and looked over his shoulder. Seth pressed the relay device into his hand. Mike’s stomach rebelled. No. I won’t.

“Do it, Wheeler. Blow those cops to hell.”

Compelled to obey, Mike took the device and flicked the switch.

Seconds later a blast tore the heart out of the Hawkins Police Station.

Even at a distance of a thousand feet the explosion was deafening. A maelstrom of rock ripped the air, surely killing anyone who happened to be near the station. Seth shouted in fierce triumph. He clapped Mike on the back as if they were best buddies. Mike saw himself throwing Seth off the roof.

Within seconds he heard noises of all kinds: wails of structural damage, distant cries for help, sirens. Seth was in ecstasy. Mike saw red lights flashing on the streets below. Ambulances racing in the night, from the hospital to the police station.

“Nice work,” said Seth, satisfied. “Now get us to the hill.”

My pleasure, thought Mike, ready at last to see if Mr. Carol wasn’t an asshole after all. He told Gorn to fly in the direction of the hill. The worm launched into the air.

“Seth, you piece of shit,” said Mike, hardly daring to hope for this turnabout, “you’d best hang on for your life.” His mark required him to give Seth at least fair warning.

Seth hardly seemed to hear him. “Shut up, faggot. Just do as you’re told.”

Oh, I am. Mike prayed that Carol wasn’t jerking him around. And so will you.

With his arms around Mike’s waist, Seth pawed Mike’s groin with his gloved hand. “Any cops around Hopper’s cabin will be swarming downtown now, thanks to us. But if we do see any close to the hill, you’re gonna kill them all.” Seth continued stroking his balls. “You understand?”

Mike ignored the harassment. Through his telepathic link he communed with Gorn. Faster.

At once Gorn picked up speed, accelerating in the direction of the hill near Hopper’s cabin. Where they were supposed to go, and where the Illithid was waiting. Where they would instead find someone else. On the hill’s other side. The shadow side.

“Whoa!” said Seth, righting himself and letting go of Mike’s groin. “Slow down! We’ll be there in a couple minutes.”

The worm was going 50 mph. Faster than the standard 30, but not nearly fast enough to flip. More, nudged Mike.

Gorn accelerated to 70 mph.

“Hey!” yelled Seth. “What are you doing!”

Carol had been telling the truth. He was now on a course that Seth couldn’t stop him from. Mike’s mark didn’t even require him to answer Seth on this point, or to account for his actions. Not yet, at least. More.

100 mph.

Seth yelled furiously at Mike to stop. Mike ignored the command, relishing his ability to do so, though he feared for his life too. Gorn’s tentacles hardly felt secure. Mike hugged the tusk-like protrusion, Seth gripped his waist, and Gorn hurtled forward in the night sky. Galvanized by new purpose, Mike nudged the worm again.

130 mph.

Without ski masks their faces would have shattered in the icy winds. Seth screamed, ordering Mike to slow the fucking worm down. He slammed his fist into Mike’s side. Mike ignored the pain and continued on the course set out for him. More, faster.

150 mph.

They were well past Hopper’s cabin and the hill by this point, and almost out of Hawkins. Gorn would have to turn and fly back once he flipped —

Do it.

The worm shrieked its satisfaction, pulling above 160 mph, preparing for what it was born to do. Seth clung to Mike, petrified out of his mind. Mike whispered El’s name, praying she was alive.

On the strength of high speed, terror, and desperate appeal, Gorn and his riders vanished from the air; flipped into the Upside Down.

 

She was snared in the branches like spider feed. About ten feet off the ground.

Mike recognized her instantly, despite the untold damage that lined her face. Her eyes were closed; frostbite discolored her cheekbones; her hair straggled as if it were falling out. Since he’d last seen her two nights ago, her beauty had been dismantled by brutality. And yet it hadn’t: she was still beautiful. Mike’s heart ached at the sight of her: Eleven, unconscious, hurt beyond bearing, abused to the verges of madness.

She had been assaulted in her home after leaving him that night — the night she had stabbed him in the heart and in the back (it had felt like both). According to Mr. Carol, Seth and his friends had been waiting for her at the cabin, and Seth had shot her with a tranquilizer. The Illithid had then come to retrieve her. Not to mark her, as it had marked Mike, but to cage her.

“She isn’t susceptible to being marked,” Carol had said. “Her powers protect her from that kind of control.”

“Where did it take her?” asked Mike, panic-stricken.

“To the Tree of Woe,” said Carol. “It’s what I call it. After two days on that tree she’ll be ripe for eating.”

The Tree of Woe. The deputy had plagiarized from the movie Conan the Barbarian, but this tree was worse than a crucifying block. It was a shadow plant, native to the Upside Down that, according to Carol, kept captives unconscious while preparing them to be absorbed: devoured by the Illithid. That preparation was a two-day process: a prolonged nightmare in which the tree injected its sap into victims that altered their biochemistry. El had been altered plenty: she had been on the tree for almost two days. She had only a few hours left of her humanity.

Mike’s mark ruled him, but it placed no restrictions on weeping. Apparently the Illithid had no concept of grief and would never think to prevent it. The sight of what had been done to El sent tears into Mike’s ski mask where they froze. He wanted to leap up, tear her free, and pull the tree out by its cosmic roots.

They lifted their foreheads and played the flashlight beams over the tree and its captive. “Talk to me, Wheeler,” said Seth. He could barely speak through his ski mask. It was colder on the shadow side of Hawkins; much colder than minus 20 degrees. The Illithid’s mark sustained Mike, but Seth’s lips were like rock. He had lost his bluster. He was lucky he hadn’t lost his teeth. If Mike could have done so, he would have smashed them out of Seth’s head. Seth had ambushed El in her home; it was because of him that she was here.

He couldn’t understand how El had survived for an hour like this, let alone forty-three. The tree’s power, or its sap, must have protected its victims from the cold.

Gorn, for his part, was stretched out on the hill, basking in his home atmosphere. Motes twirled and floated in the air. Mike hadn’t seen these motes in over two years, since the underground escapade with the demo-dogs.

They had shot into the Upside Down not far from the hill. The Hill of Evermore is what Mr. Carol had called it; another plagiarism, this time a Led Zeppelin song. “Operation Eleven,” he had said to Mike. “Or Operation Evermore. Think of it however you like.”

Had Carol been implying that this hill was a site of some mythic battle with the shadow world? The Zeppelin song was about that, and it even invoked the Nazgul from The Lord of the Rings. Mike thought of their D&D game three nights ago and shuddered. It was always D&D. Their foul campaigns may as well have conjured all the shadow monsters into existence. The demogorgon. The Mind Flayer. The Illithid. Superstitious bunk… but Mike wasn’t so sure.

What he was sure about was the nature of the tree. Carol had explained that it bridged the Upside Down with the world of humanity. “It’s on both sides of Evermore Hill,” he had said. “But it’s no Gate. You can’t use it to cross between the worlds. Eleven is on the shadow side of Evermore.”

Staring at her now, Mike wondered if there was anyone imprisoned on the tree in his world. That’s where he and Seth were supposed to be right now. To serve the Illithid. The creature was waiting there. It intended to use Evermore as a staging ground for its army.

“Wheeler.” Seth jerked him out of his thoughts. And, as if reading those thoughts: “This isn’t our mission. We’re on the wrong side.”

Mike didn’t take his eyes off El. “Shut up and listen.” His anus was a pulverized wreck; his wrist howled agony. He wanted to kill Seth, not insult him. “We’re getting her out of that tree.” Brutal as impact fire, he added, completely against his will, “Or kill her if we can’t.” Mr. Carol’s orders had been clear: Eleven was to be rescued, but killed if she couldn’t be. She could not, under any circumstances, be co-opted by the Illithid. Saving the world took precedence over saving her life.

“I was never told –”

“Seth, I’ll say this once more. Do as I say, or I’ll kill you and feed you to Gorn.” Mike couldn’t do that of course — Seth had protected status as a servant of the Illithid — but he knew Seth couldn’t be sure of that, since Mike appeared to be acting independently. Seth didn’t know that rescuing El was Mr. Carol’s idea. Hopefully he wouldn’t guess.

Seth knew he was no match for Mike anyway. He was freezing and scared — of the Upside Down, and of being stranded here. He wanted to get back to Evermore in their world, where events were converging. For now he complied and asked Mike what he should do.

“Keep the flashlight on her,” said Mike. “I’ll get her out.”

He had no idea if he could. He grabbed the lowest branch and swung up to her, reaching through leaves that were impossibly wet. He saw that El’s extremities were gripped by the rubbery branches, and that the end of one branch was jabbed into her neck. He looked carefully at the branch, and saw a sliver of wood that was in her like an I.V. injection. His instinct was to pull it out, but worried that it might kill her. However deadly the sliver was, it was also keeping her alive.

He put his hand on her gently. “El?”

Her body didn’t respond, though she was shivering. He wanted to yank her free and hold her, comfort her, bring her back to awareness. His love for her right then was overwhelming in its desperation. Her face wore its beauty like a bruise. He caressed it, and repeated her name. I need you, El. I need you…

He felt his mind stir, a presence behind it, and realized it was her. Communing with him in the Void. Mike… is that you?

El! he said in the black ether. It’s me. I came for you. I’m here. I’m right here.

More stirring. No… you’re not. You’re part of my nightmare. Leave me alone.

No! I am here, El! To rescue you!

I don’t want you here. Get out of my head.

It crushed him all over again. He had been rejected, plundered of his free will, gang-raped, and now rejected a second time. He cried and begged her to let him help her, save her, take her back… and for her to take him back.

Is that… is it really you, Mike?

Yes, he cried. Please believe me. I’m here for you. I love you, El. Why did you screw me?

Mike… how can you be here? You need to leave. You can’t save me. No one can save anyone. They’re coming. All of them.

What do you mean? Who’s coming —

— and suddenly he was hit with a vision, and almost fell out of the tree. It was bad. El was communing with him; vision-sharing. She had done this sort of thing before, with her mother and Billy Hargrove, when she accessed their memories. Now she applied the reverse direction, allowing Mike to see what she had seen, two days ago, when she was captured and brought to the Upside Down.

He saw creatures of the shadow world. Hordes of them; hundreds, and thousands beyond. Old and new ones. Demo-dogs and demogorgons. Tentacled floating creatures that resembled the D&D creatures called aboleth. Plant-like fungi with jaws full of razor-teeth, shrieking abominably. And standing before them all, the creature in charge of the shadow invasion, worse than the Mind Flayer. A real mind flayer: the Illithid. Eight thralls, with two legs and four arms a piece, like the one that had abused him in the classroom. Mike could tell, just barely, who the thralls used to be: Josie Barrett, Ron Seward, Katie Martin, Harry Graves, Samantha Bacon, Laura Black, Daniel Latimer, Madison Wilder. Students from school. No doubt they had all serviced Headmaster Ogden sexually before being upgraded to this higher form of service.

Mike stared at the shadow army, unable to look away, and the Illithid advanced on him. It swept its arms in an arc, and Mike was blasted with a psychic force that sent him falling, falling, as the horde roared —

— and then he did fall. He landed on his back at the trunk of the tree, and the breath went out of him. El. He looked up, and saw her hanging in the tree unchanged. He wanted her connection back. Her voice and her memories. They were all she had left to give him.

 

Next Chapter: The Hill of Evermore

(Previous Chapter: Down for the Count)