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Anteriormente: Agencia de Detectives Hartliss


Me hundo.

Y hundo.

Y hundo.

Y hundo.

Y hundo.

Y hundo.

Y hundo.

Y hundo.

Y hundo.

Y hundo.

Y hundo.

Y hundo.

Y hundo.

Y…

—diablos estoy?

Grito: "¿Hola?"
¿huh?
Nada. Ni siquiera el sonido de mi voz. Al menos, no creo —
¿hola?
— espera. ¿Escuche algo?
¿hay alguien ahi?
No. Solo un vacío blanco interminable, por lo que mis ojos pueden ver. Es como un océano, o tal vez un desierto. No hay textura, ni sonido, ni siquiera el constante golpe de mi propio corazón. Intento mirarme las manos, no puedo verlas, ni siquiera puedo sentirlas. Es como si no estuvieran allí. Intento cerrar los ojos, pero todavía veo blanco.
por favor hábla conmigo.
¿Estoy muerto?
estoy tan solo.
Piensa. Tengo que pensar. Intento engatusar algunos recuerdos, pensar en cómo podría haber terminado en este lugar miserable. Había una habitación, correcto. Una habitación, y una anciana, y su risa sibilante, y luego estaba la granada, y…
estoy tan asustado.
…oh.
por favor di algo.
Correcto.
he estado aqui tanto tiempo.
Mierda.
solo quiero escuchar una voz.
Hubo una explosión y — sin siquiera pensarlo — me zambullí en el velo para escapar. Tan profundo como pude. Más profundo de lo que yo sabía era posible. Y ahora, estoy…
¿tal vez tu tambien estas asutado?
Mierda.
no lo estes.
¿Qué demonios es este lugar? ¿Cuántas capas de profundidad he usado? Me concentro, centrándome, buscando la correa invisible que me conecta con mi mundo. Envuelvo mi conciencia alrededor de él y empiezo a tirar.
espera que estas — no.
Me arrastro fuera de este océano interminable de blanca — pulgada por insoportable pulgada. Siento que presiono contra los límites de este lugar. Siento que estoy presionando a través de ellos…
por favor no te vayas.
…y entonces siento que algo me agarra.
TU PUTA PERRA CÓMO CARAJOS TE ATREVES
Puedo sentir mis extremidades. Mis manos, mis pies, mi cuerpo, todavía no puedo verlos, pero puedo sentirlos. Algo me tiene por el tobillo. Está tratando de tirar de mí hacia abajo, más profundamente en las capas debajo de este. Un nivel por debajo de lo que sea este…vacío.
ESTE ES MI REINO AQUI SOY DIOS
Lo saco con todo lo que tengo. Se siente como un ancla atada a mi pie, mis músculos se contraen cuando un agudo dolor punzante me atraviesa la pantorrilla y la rodilla. Se siente como si lo que sea que este tirando tomara todo el pie con el.
TE SACARE LOS PUTOS OJOS
Si esto significa salir de aquí, puede tener mi pie. Demonios, puede tener toda la maldita pierna. Sostuve mi otra bota y la golpeé, sintiendo que el talón colisionaba con…algo. De repente, mi tobillo se desliza libremente.
AAAUGH MIERDA MIERDA MIERDA
Me dirijo hacia arriba, apretado contra la membrana, presionándola —
por favor no, por favor, lo siento mucho, sere bueno, no te vayas —


— y en un apartamento.

Una alfombra gruesa de felpa marrón cubre el piso. Las paredes son de un horrible color rosa melocotón. El aire es rancio y viejo. Aprieto el pomo de mi 45 y le doy una rápida vuelta a la habitación, buscando algo fuera de lugar. ¿Estoy de vuelta? ¿Es esto Chicago? Mi Chicago?

Todo parece normal: mesa, escritorio, luz del sol entrando por una ventana. Doy un paso hacia la luz.

Afuera, veo una pequeña cafetería en la esquina; más lejos en la distancia, veo un carrito de perros calientes. Veo aceras y postes de luz, escaparates y automóviles…

…pero ni una sola alma

Cuando retrocedo un paso, mi bota se hunde profundamente en esa gruesa alfombra. Miro hacia abajo No es solo marrón; hay vetas de negro, dorado, incluso un ocasional rizo tenue de color cobre rojo. Algo sobre esto me llama la atención. Me agacho para examinar las fibras. Están finas — muy finas. El material es…

Cabello.

Mis ojos se dirigen a esa pared grotescamente rosa. Comienzo a notar las imperfecciones — marcas de viruela, cicatrices…marcas de belleza.

Piel. Está hecho de maldita piel.

Cierro los ojos, agarro esa correa y trepo tan rápido como puedo. Siento como lo atravieso —


— un mundo de carne descompuesta, putrefacta llena del rugido ensordecedor de billones sobre billones de moscas zumbantes, reunidas en un manto negro retorciéndose tan densas que borran el cielo —

— una fábrica abandonada tan inmensa que contiene todo Chicago, contiene todo el cielo, contiene el propio sol

— Chicago, pero ahogado con humo y llamas; el sonido de disparos sonando a lo lejos, con cada puerta en toda la ciudad abierta de par en par —

— un mar de rostros que gritan, todos apretados con tanta fuerza que estallan constantemente en una brillante pulpa rosada y roja, solo para reformarse un instante después —

— y entonces —


— Estoy en lo que parece una habitación de hospital. Solo hay una puerta, y está detrás de mí; acero sólido. Parece el tipo de cosa que usarías para mantener a los monstruos fuera.

Una anciana marchita se para frente a mí, envuelta en una tela oscura.

O tal vez es para mantener a los monstruos dentro.

Apunto mi .45 directamente en su fea cara. "Está bien, señora. Hable". Intento tirar de mi correa, pero no está funcionando. No puedo sentirlo — como si acabara de ser cortado.

Sus ojos brillan con diversión. Algo sale de debajo de su ropa — parece…pelo. Docenas y docenas de mechones de pelo gris, retorciéndose más allá de sus pies y extendiéndose lentamente por el suelo.

Ella chasquea la lengua. "De verdad, ahora. ¿No me reconoces? Después de que pasaste por tantos problemas para encontrarme".

Iga Volodya. Mis ojos se estrechan. "Tu cara es diferente. Además, estoy bastante seguro de que estás muerta".

"Tengo muchas caras. Más que estrellas en el cielo". Ella se ríe para sí misma, luego sonríe. Sus dientes brillan como un plato lleno de cuchillos de carne. "Hoy has visto dos. Quizás — si eres muy inteligente — verás más".

Las alarmas chillan a nuestro alrededor. La habitación está inundada con una luz roja brillante y parpadeante.

"Pero lo suficiente como para recordar. No te traje aquí para charlar. Tenemos asuntos que atender, tú y yo. Sígueme - Te mostraré el camino de regreso a tu preciosa ciudad, Yashenka".

Ella se da vuelta, y nosotros —


— are back in Chicago. The city is in a state of decay. Buildings have come crashing down; cars are flung over to their sides, torn asunder. The streets are covered in rubble.

In the distance, I see the Roanoke Building. It's littered with dozens of human-sized holes, with the contents of each room dangling out like flapping tongues. I feel a dry, scorching wind blowing against my back. A strange force tugs at me — drawing me toward the source of that heat.

Iga Volodya walks ahead, moving with a surreal calm.

I look back. The sky is a horrible shade of tangerine; in the distance — far past the city — there is a bright, burning light. It is toward this light I feel myself being pulled.

I turn to Iga. A newspaper brushes past my ankle; I catch the snippet of a headline before it blows away.

MYSTERIOUS FORCE DRAWS CORPSES TOWARD—

We keep walking. "What the hell is this?"

"Have you ever thought about how many ways the world can end?"

"Is that what this is? The end?"

"It is every end." She looks back to me with that horrible grin. "And do you know why none of them have come to pass?"

I open my mouth to reply, and —


— we're standing in a kitchen. A family of four sits in front of us, preparing to enjoy a warm meal.

But the family isn't right. They aren't people — not anymore. They're made of pink, pulsating flesh; heaps of it, piled into the vague semblance of human beings. Too many arms, too few legs. Bulging mounds of meat that throb with every heartbeat.

The food is the same. Plates full of quivering tumors, spreading their tendrils out across the table. To my left, I think I see the family dog — just a mound of rolling, convulsing muscle. It extends a ribbon-like 'tongue' out to lick at a bowl filled with wriggling, squealing tissue.

Iga Volodya surveys the scene beside me. She looks annoyed.

"Your work?" I ask.

"People always think so. But no — we did not do this."

"'We'?"

She looks to me. "Practitioners of Nälkä. The Children of Ion."

"Sarkites."

She nods. "Like yourself."

I tighten my grip on the .45. "I ain't one of you."

The flesh around us stirs. Although they have no eyes, the family seems to have noticed us. A deep, dark, hateful growl emerges from their bodies. I point my pistol at the biggest one.

"But you are, Yashenka. You see it just as clearly as me. The corruption. The wrongness. And you fight it."

With a horrible, gurgling roar, the family lunge to their feet. I squeeze the trigger, and —


— I'm pointing my gun at a wall. We're back on the city streets. It's night-time; there are people here, running past us and yelling. I glance behind me — we're standing in front of the Chicago Theater. I can hear the sounds of screams coming from inside.

"Again: Do you know why these ends do not come to pass?"

A man in a suit leads a squad of police past us, charging for the theater's doors. They're packing serious heat — and their faces are all business. I turn to the city skyline. It's dark, but I can make out distant fires. The screams aren't just coming from inside the theater. I think I hear them everywhere. All around us.

My eyes drift toward the theater's marquee:

FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY — THE HANGED KING, LIVE ON RADIO

"They do not come because they are ends. Because to end is to cease. And our suffering is not meant to cease. Our suffering is to be eternal."

I turn back to her, lowering my pistol. "You done with the cryptograms, grandma?"

She smiles, exposing those sharpened teeth. "And so we fight fire with fire; corruption with corruption. The universe is sick — and we seek to use that sickness against it."

"Enough. Tell me who —"


" — cut you open. Who's using you to harvest the worms — to help Weiss? Who's — ugh —"

The ground beneath us is a spongy mishmash of colors churned together into a mush-like brown. The smell of sweetness is overpowering; it leaves me doubled over and choking. The earth gives underneath my weight. My left foot sinks down into the loamy soil with a horrible schlrp. A thick, white froth seeps up from around my ankle. That sickening sweet odor intensifies.

Iga looks down at me.

"Someone who perverts our beliefs. Someone you will find. Someone you will stop."

"I don't —" The earth beneath me is slowly sucking me in. My ankles are gone; my calves are sinking. More of that cream gushes out, rising up past my knees. I try to push myself up, but my palms sink down. "I don't — work for you." My eyes focus on the landscape behind her. Rolling hills, plateaus, mountains of mush. I think I see a rock formation poking up somewhere — no, not rocks. That's the top of a steeple —

"You do not work for me, but we are on the same side. The side of the angels. The side of Ikunaan."

Down to my waist, now. I try to move my legs, but the mush just squishes out of the way — and I sink faster. "That's the side that eats babies, right? Just checking. I read your file. You're a goddamn monster." I'm about to drown in a sea of sugary mush and she's Baba Yaga. Pissing her off feels like the right move.

She doesn't seem offended. Instead, she just smiles and reaches down to stroke my cheek with one of her gnarled, wrinkled fingers. "Oh, my dear, dear little Yashenka," she coos. "Of course I'm a monster. What else but a monster could ever hope to defy the stars themselves?"

Down to my shoulders, now. Her cruel hand snaps up and seizes me by the hair, forcing my head back; I open my lips to say something — maybe just to yell — but she spits straight into my mouth. Something wet and awful hits the back of my throat. I feel it burning — everything is burning. I feel like I'm on fire. Her voice rumbles above me, crooning with a hateful, loving snarl.

"Avenge me, Jacob Hartliss. Do it as a favor — from one monster to another."

She whispers into my ear.

The universe dissolves.


The remains of a cramped little tenement room smolder around me. A wispy haze of smoke fills the space; the scent of burnt meat and burning wood is everywhere. The canisters have all shattered, spilling nauseous chemicals and glass shards across the floor. A fresh coat of charred Iga Volodya — with some scorched worm-meat thrown in — decorates the walls.

Sirens wail in the distance.

The wall behind me has all but disintegrated; I step over what's left of the door and into the hall. A family of four — ma, pa, two kids — stand at the other end of the hall, staring at me.

I glance back at the ruin, then look to them. "What?"

They rush back into their apartment, slamming the door behind them.

I make my way down the stairs, out the door, and back into the bustling streets of Chicago. I take a good, long moment to savor the sights and smells of the Windy City — and then I go hunt down the nearest pay-phone.


"So it's not Sarkites." September sounds annoyed.

"I didn't say that." I rub at my neck. My voice is hoarse; I keep having to clear my throat. "Just saying it ain't Iga Volodya."

"You're sure?"

"About as sure as I am about anything. I got a name," I tell her, fishing in my pocket for another stick of gum.

"You already had a name."

"Well, now I got a better one." My fingers tremble a little as I struggle to unwrap the foil, jamming the stick into my mouth. "Wilhelm Reinhardt."

"Doctor Reinhardt?"

"Yeah. You know him?" I stop to chew and give a smile to the flat-foots running by. They're chasing the fire-truck on its way to Volodya's former residence.

"He's a highly respected alienist and physician."

Waitasec — physician. Didn't Weiss bring his personal physician with him to visit the stoolie who pulled that one-day Lazarus act? "He ever work for Weiss?"

"He's a private physician. It's possible, but…" She sounds unconvinced.

"Pull whatever you got on him — send it to my office. Also, I'm gonna need…" I take in a deep breath and steady myself. "I'm gonna need a favor, September. Need you to arrange a meet-and-greet for me."

"With who?"

"Richard Chappell."

The line goes quiet for a little. I let her have that one — hell, I wouldn't know what to say either.

"Are you… uh, are you sure?"

"I don't like it, but yeah. I'm sure."

"Alright. Uh…"

"Call my office tomorrow with the details. I'll be in."


Next: Red Harvest

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