Ethan spoke directly into Antonio’s soul on that dark night. “You're a sweet kid, okay?” He confessed “I can tell you're a little butthurt from your assblasting. But I recommend next time trying not to harass and threaten us...” Antonio could only watch, clenching his jaw. “Just let us talk shit about you, you're SoFlo! You think people are gonna stop making fun of you?”
Ethan’s face became a spiderweb of cracks as Antonio smashed his iPad onto the expensive tile floor. Shards of glass skittered to a halt below the brick hearth of his massive fireplace. He cursed under his breath and began cleaning it up. Not like he had anything else to do.
In the next room sat fifteen laptops all hooked up to various web traffic simulators, predicting internet trends. He used an advanced algorithm to download other people’s content as soon as it went viral, adding black bars to the top and bottom with some dumb religious shit in there before auto-posting it onto his Facebook page. His operation had become entirely automatic, for the sole purpose of gaining subscribers. After all, subscribers equaled money.
His only worry these days was hoping nobody would recognize him on the odd chance that he had to step outside. He hated his fans. In fact, he stole that algorithm from a fan whose name was then easily forgotten. But this was different. Ethan’s face laughed at him from the shattered screen. The other shoe had finally dropped. Looking at his simulator outputs, he could feel the veins tensing up along his neck. He was forecasted to lose half of his subscribers in the next six months. And subscribers equaled money. The algorithm did not lie. The red tide was turning. How would he explain this to the man in the book? Perhaps he already knew. Antonio had to fix it.
He stayed up late that night drinking Soju cocktails, writing the best possible response to Ethan that he could come up with. It was horseshit, but it would do. He had to resort to making fun of himself, so he acted like the buffoon the world saw him as. It was his surrender, changing the tone of the argument. Antonio had never learned to argue. He was too busy learning to play chess. But he knew how to charm. And he knew how to lie. And if it came down to it, he knew how to destroy. In the back of his mind, a small voice hoped that it wouldn’t come to that. He uploaded the video and prayed it would silence the criticism.
The video was a disaster. He couldn’t get the book out of his mind while kissing the paid model, and the editing was too sloppy. It was seen by the world as more than just a surrender, but a pathetic leap into some previously undiscovered black hole of shame. His subscriber forecast was now an eighty-five percent loss over the next six months. He would have to go back to working at 7-11. “No,” he thought to himself “Not with everything I’ve accomplished.” Another voice in his head, much louder this time, reminded him that everything Antonio had, he owed it to HIM. And that pact was specific. Nobody could rip it away. He was protected. This Ethan, this foolish man, he would pay. With that, Antonio decided it was time to consult the book.
From his fridge, he grabbed a milk carton filled halfway with Icelandic goat’s blood. It was congealed and smelled of decay, but it would suffice for a council. There was only one more carton left after this. He reminded himself to call his Goat guy, Nils, in the morning. “GUILTY!”
The word suddenly screamed into his head, followed by a piercing white tone. “AH! WHAT THE FUCK!” Antonio cried out, tumbling against the brick hearth of his fireplace. “NOT AGAIN!”
“GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY!”
His fingers gripped at his temples, ready to rip out every nerve, every tendril of noise, when just like that the hot lance slid from his brain and disappeared. He cried there, below his secret entrance. He knew this wasn’t the work of the man in the book, but something else. He was reminded of fluttering bats, a hooded figure staring at him from the shadows. Something that was playing a tug of war with the man in the book.
“And I’m the rope,” Antonio muttered to himself before pressing the hidden button within the fireplace. The brick facade rotated to reveal a dark hallway. Antonio disappeared into the darkness, plotting. “Maybe this rope should have a say in things...” He turned off the OTHER voice in his head, the one warning him about dangerous thoughts.
The hallway ended in a single door. Solid steel bolted into the foundation. A green terminal came to life, placing ominous shadows across Antonio’s face. He pressed his thumb to the terminal and the steel door hissed open. The room beyond was stark white, wide and empty save for a pedestal in the center upon which it sat... The Book.
It’s true name was “The Book of the Dead” and Antonio had found it on a Goodwill shelf back in 2011. He opened it as a joke, but was enraptured by its song. To some, the book only showed the writing of the names of the newly dead. To a select few, who were already dead inside, it read something else entirely. When Antonio opened the Book of the Dead for the first time, he saw directions. The directions were quite specific, down to the phase of the moon, and what kind of goat’s blood to use to call upon HIM. As HE would have no other type of ceremony to convene with mortals. There was a single illustration accompanying these directions, and every page after repeated the same image. Two blood red eyes atop a white smile. Antonio had become very familiar with that smile. It always hit him like the smell of a diseased animal, yet he endured because after all HE had allowed Antonio his empire through the manipulation of the common man.
Antonio opened the book, peering at the pages with the slight fear as always that something new would be printed there. An alteration of the deal. A surprise move on the chessboard. He knew what this book could do to people. And as always, he was relieved to see the same old instructions scrawled sloppily across the page. He knew it was in another long-dead language, but he understood it just fine. The man in the book opened his eyes suddenly. Their understandings were one, and Antonio winced as he finally realized how dangerous that would be this time around. Nonetheless, he began the ritual.
He read a passage from the book, moaning, his tongue swirling in his mouth, his finger rolling across strange glyphs printed on the page as if reading, yet his eyes were rolled back into his head, pointed towards the divine. He brought the milk carton of goat’s blood to his lips and drank deep of the clumping red gelatin. He had done this enough times to realize the importance of putting your goals first and your self-worth second. The oozing glob of blood needed only to lick his stomach acids before being rejected. His eyes rolled back down. He spewed twice as much blood as he’d drank onto the concrete floor, hot and steaming now, bracing himself against the wall with each attack. When it was finally over, he wiped the red spittle from his mouth. The ritual was complete. “Shit,” he muttered, looking at a splotch of blood on his two hundred dollar shirt.
The pool of blood began to boil underneath the steam. The shimmering red gave way to darkness and from within, an arm grasped the ground as if reaching through the floor. The creature revealed its face now, forming from the pool of rejected blood; First two red dots beaming up at Antonio, then the teeth. It was always grinning like someone listening to a joke they already knew. It towered above him. Red pulsating liquid coarsed across its body in streams, bubbling over the exposed muscles and curvatures of its thorned face. Antonio could never figure out whether to call the man in the book a “He” or an “It” -- he had settled for rotating between the two depending on context. Antonio had also learned to swallow his screams when it spoke to him.
“WHAT IS IT.”
He never saw its mouth move, but figured it must. Its voice, nevertheless, sounded as if someone was whispering into each of his ears at different times. He almost thought about his plan, about the rope choosing its own direction, and quickly dropped it to the back of his mind with all the other small voices.
“There’s a problem with the youtube channel,” he stammered in reply. The way it looked at him now worried him, like it was burning a hole through his mind. It was searching him.
“YOU WOULD ASK ME A FAVOR?”
“I need you to destroy another Youtube channel. This guy Ethan. He’s roasting me on the internet and it’s going to ruin everything.”
“AND YOU LET THIS HAPPEN.”
“No! I didn’t do anything! Well, I tried to respond and instead incriminated the shit out of myself but anyone would have done that! You have to help me!”
“NO.” Its body rippled with disdain.
“I thought we had a pact?!” He stammered, pointing at the book.
“THE PACT HAS BEEN FULFILLED. I OWE YOU NOTHING.” It sneered, sending plumes of bloody mist into the air.
“But you need me. You need my channel, to make everyone stupid, right? You need everyone to be stupid so you can ascend?” Antonio knew the room was hermetically sealed and conditioned to 52 degrees, but he was sweating buckets. Even if this thing didn’t have a straight connection to his mind and soul, Antonio’s intentions were written all over his face. He went for the Queen sacrifice. “Just fix this one problem for me, and it’s right back to the way things have been going. I promise. You keep saying yourself how close we are.”
Its grin widened to an impossible length. “AS I SAID, THE PACT HAS BEEN FULFILLED. TONIGHT I ASCEND. BOTHER ME NO MORE HUMAN.” With that, it began to melt back into the puddle of blood. Antonio realized The Blood Man was in no mood to play chess, so he flipped the board.
“Not if I burn this fucking book!” He yelled back, something he’d never done in the presence of the red demon.
The melting ceased. It snapped its eyes towards him. It was no longer grinning. In its eyes, Antonio saw something new and strange. Was it fear? “T-- That’s right! I’ll burn the goddamn thing in the fireplace, I’ll destroy it!”
“YOU DARE?!” It howled, rising to its full humanoid form.
The Man in the Book probably wasn’t used to people pushing back. Antonio probed for another weakness. “I DARE! What the fuck are you gonna do about it? Huh? What CAN you do about it?” Antonio leapt for the book suddenly, but the Blood Creature was faster than he realized. His hands brushed empty air as the thing before him snatched the artifact for itself. This led to a blood-curling scream. Antonio watched in shock as the creature’s hands melted away into black dust and clouds of ash around the book. It fell to its knees, howling and shimmering with heat.
In that moment, Antonio closed the distance between them, and the next he was backing away, book in hand. “You can’t touch the book,” Antonio was the one grinning now.
“NO, BUT I CAN TOUCH YOU!”
And with that, The Man in the Book started towards him. Antonio ran, stumbling through the doorway, and slapping the control panel on the other side. The creature was halfway through the doorway when the hatch hissed shut, cutting the bloody assailant in twine. It screamed with a thousand deafening voices. Yeah, definitely an “it,” Antonio thought to himself.
Its innards crept from its torso like worms, forming new appendages. He started running back towards the living room, where he’d burn the book and be done with it. Antonio only then realized that the fireplace was fake. There was no chimney chute. It’s sole purpose was to house the rotating hidden door. How could he be so stupid? He passed through that door now, into the living room, and continued running towards the kitchen.
Antonio’s first thought as he entered the kitchen was “I don’t remember leaving the fridge open.” That’s when he spotted the other milk carton on the floor, drained of blood. The Man in the Book grabbed Antonio from behind, its arms fully formed again. Its red skin burned through his shirt. He could smell the saccharine smoke of searing flesh. He screamed and dropped through its grip, to the ground, scrambling towards the stovetop. It was a gas range, but sometimes the pilot light took a while to--
“YOU EXPECT TO RUN FROM ME?”
The Creature seemed to grow taller as it advanced. Its grin had returned.
“YOU HAVE DISAPPOINTED ME FOR THE LAST TIME.” It reared back with its fist, ready to punch clean through his chest. Antonio spun a dial on the stove. “You’re goddamn right about that.” He said.
The Man in the Book found himself distracted by the blue flames licking up from the top of this strange hollow box. “WHAT MAGIC IS THIS?”
“It’s called a power burner, bitch.” With that, Antonio slam dunked the Book of the Dead onto the flames, scorching his wrist in the process. The Man in the Book’s jaw unhinged with a scream. He began falling apart into viscous pearls of steaming flesh. The book itself sizzled as the flames caught the pages. A black ooze bubbled from within the book. The flames were to the ceiling now. Antonio jumped to his feet, about to grab a fire extinguisher. Then another thought hit his mind: “Let it burn. Let it all burn down. The fifteen laptops, the algorithms, the youtube page. Let me turn around and look at the life I’ve been running away from all these years.”
But as he turned to leave, something happened with the book. The flames died out. The black ooze continued bubbling. It formed a pool on the ground, from which a familiar arm jutted out.
“Oh shit,” Antonio muttered. The face that followed was not one he recognized however. This thing wasn’t red or bloody. It looked like a man. Long blonde hair, covered in real skin. The man stood to his feet and reached for a handshake.
“Hello Antonio. Nice to finally meet you in the flesh, as they say.” He spoke like a normal man.
“Who… who are you?” Antonio responded.
“You called me The Man in the Book, in your head that is. My name is George.”
“You don’t look like the man I’ve seen.”
“The book makes you look a certain way if you spend enough time in there. But hey, thanks so much for freeing me. Told you I’d ascend tonight.”
“You tricked me?” Antonio cried out.
“Don’t try to make me feel guilty about it, Antonio. I’ve been trying to trick people into doing that for nearly three thousand years and you’re the first person who was stupid enough to fall for it. Then again I got tricked into doing the same thing myself, so, what’s the saying? About removing the stick in your eye before telling someone else about theirs?”
“Log… it’s a log…”
“Ah sure. Anyway, we have ourselves a predicament here Antonio. You just destroyed the Book of the Dead, which means right now there’s a lot of people out there not dying when they should be. You know what we have to do right?”
Antonio knew. He didn’t want to say. The naked man before him reached behind his back. Antonio’s eyes grew wide with fear when he saw what George was holding.
“It’s time to start writing a new Book of the Dead. With a brand new author.”
George placed the book on the counter. “Now be a good boy and get in the book.”
Antonio moved to run, but his legs were locked. All he could feel was that he was staring at his new home in the pages of that book. As he moved closer, George said something but it was already from another world. The color of the pages became his field of view. A yellowed patina wrapped over him like a cocoon and winched his arm to an outstretched position. He closed his eyes in pain, not believing what was happening. He slipped into psychosis, and was lost among the waves for a time. Bobbing endlessly in a black sea. A familiar voice laughing at him from the beach, in the shadows underneath the pier. “Told you so, Antonio!” It cried, laughing hysterically.
When he could finally open his eyes again, Antonio found himself sitting at a stone desk cut from the cave around him. A shaft of red light filtered in from high above. Antonio became aware that he was writing with an old quill pen in his hand. He was writing names in the book. These were all the deaths in the world as they happened. He was writing them and someone else had to read them. He knew that. Antonio wondered about his Facebook page. What would happen when all of his fans noticed he was missing? Then it dawned on him: The algorithm. It was going to continue reposting other people’s videos forever, or until someone shut it off. That could take months. Years. Nobody would know he was gone, that he was here acting as someone else’s algorithm. Forever reposting the losses of the mortal realm; A place that he barely knew, and would soon easily forget. Checkmate.