He was waiting for me beside my front door. Or maybe I should say it was waiting for me. I momentarily mistook it for a person, and a person who was obviously unwell at that. Its face looked vaguely Asian and its body was tall and gaunt, not much more than skin and bones. The face had a sickly, pale yellowish cast as if long devastated by disease, and its body was so bony and cadaverous it seemed improbable it could even stand upright On second glance, the thing looked diseased but it didn’t look weak.
Lost in my thoughts about Christoph, I hadn’t noticed it until I had already closed the door of the van. Louie stiffened immediately but didn’t make a sound. He knew there wasn’t any need to give a warning, even for someone with senses as dull as mine. There might as well have been a neon sign spelling out “DANGER” around the thing’s withered neck. It was wearing a long black Columbine-type goth trenchcoat and a slouch hat pulled down to partially cover its face. It was one of the most grotesque things I had ever seen. It reminded me of the vampire in the silent film Nosferatu, none of your suave, elegant Bela Lugosi type vampire, but a creature that looked like a walking corpse. It produced in me a visceral feeling, a mix of horror, disgust, and fear. I couldn’t imagine anything worse. Then it spoke.
“You are Mason, yes?” it rasped. Its voice sounded as if it were passing over old and distant bones. The tone was flat and uninflected, but with a definite undercurrent of cruelty and hunger. I didn’t see any advantage in answering it. Besides, every bit of attention I possessed was concentrated on gathering magical energy.
“I am . . . Gaki,” it said, shuffling toward me with one long bony hand outstretched in a parody of friendly welcome. I wasn’t sure if “Gaki” was a name or a description or an emotional state, but I backpedaled as rapidly as I could, keeping as much distance between us as possible. Lou backed up even faster; whatever this was, he wanted no part of it. It closed the gap between us with a herky-jerky motion that was both clumsy and frightening, moving with blinding, flickering speed. None of that Bela Lugosi slow creep toward his victim. One moment it was across the driveway; the next it was standing close enough for me to smell its rancid breath. I had barely seen it move. Its wasted fingers closed around my arm and I could feel a deadly cold seeping in even through my shirt. It pulled me close and I could smell the sour odor of putrescence emanating off it in waves. I gestured with my free hand, using its own corruption against it, coupling it with a wilting trellis of ivy that clung discouragedly to one side of my house.
“Dissolve,” I breathed.
The fingers which were grasping my arm shimmered for a moment and then solidified as the grip on my arm grew even stronger. This was not how it was supposed to go. Those fingers were supposed to dissolve into flat digits the consistency of cooked noodles. It smiled and I could see yellow teeth, long and pointed like a shark’s.
“No, no,” it chuckled, “you cannot affect me.” The smile grew. “But I can affect you.”
It pulled me closer. The body might have been skeleton thin, but it was strong, horribly strong. I tried to twist away, but had about as much success as a five year old in the grip of a strong man. Louie had circled around behind and was edging closer. His tail was tucked tightly between his legs and he looked terrified, something I don’t think I had ever seen before. He suddenly lunged forward and sank his teeth into the thing’s calf. No snarling and growling this time; he was deadly silent. The creature didn’t even flinch. It glanced down dispassionately at the small figure attached to its leg.
“Ifrit!” it hissed, and without letting go of me reached down toward Lou with its impossibly long free arm.
“Louie!” I yelled. “Back off!” This thing would snap his backbone in a second if it got hold of him. Lou let go of his grip and ducked away inches from the grasping fingers.
Once again, the distraction had given me a moment to think. Maybe I couldn’t affect this demon, or whatever the hell it was, but I could affect myself. I noted the accumulation of oil in the driveway where my van lived, sucked out its essence and let it flow into my arm, enhancing it with everything I had. I could feel my arm changing, becoming slick and almost boneless, like a Teflon jellyfish. As the thing bore down, my arm squirted out like a watermelon seed and I was suddenly free.
“Clever,” it said, mockingly. “Crafty. But no use.”
I didn’t waste any time in arguing with it. I stepped back and spoke a binding spell, one of the few prepared pieces of magic I know. If it’s done right, the spell is guaranteed to stop a charging rhino in its tracks, at least temporarily. Either I hadn’t done it right or this thing was truly immune to magic, because it just flashed its horrible grin and continued walking toward me.
The success of the oil slick gave me another idea. If I couldn’t affect it directly, at least I could affect what was around it. It was too bad I didn’t have enough power to bring a tree down on its skull, or cause the earth to open under its feet, but the principle was the same. I glanced up at the roof, recently tarred against the winter rains, and gathered up what was left of my energy. I pressed my hands together as if I was kneading taffy, threw the energy out and down towards the thing’s feet, and made a sort of a squishing sound in the back of my throat. It hurt my vocal chords. My voice was going to be hoarse for a couple of days, assuming of course I survived.
The thing took one more step toward me and a puzzled expression appeared on its face. Its foot sank into the suddenly soft pavement half way to its knee and when it tried to pull out, its other leg sank in nearly as far. The ground beneath its feet had become a morass with a consistency somewhere between warm tar and Turkish taffy. Its strength would now work against it; the more it struggled the further enmeshed it would become, like a mouse in a glue trap. I stepped back to admire my work.
It screeched, making a high pitched noise that hurt my ears. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Louie flinch. It thrashed for a brief moment, then stopped and remained motionless, not attempting to pull either leg free. Unexpectedly, it sat down, then lay on its back and extended its arms to either side like a man caught in quicksand. Grunting with effort, it shockingly managed to pull one leg free. The leg came out with a sucking, slurping sound. I didn’t wait around to see what was going to happen next. I jumped back in the van, yelling at Louie to get himself in gear, and backed out onto the street with tires squealing. As I accelerated away down the street I could see in the rear view mirror that the thing had got its other leg free as well. I wished my van was faster; I didn’t think there was any way the creature could be fast enough to keep up with a motor vehicle, but I had been wrong before a time or two . . .