J.B. Toner

The April Editor's Pick Writer is J.B. Toner

Please feel free to email J.B. at: jbtoner.z@outlook.com


by J.B. Toner

The battle woke something in the deep. For millions of years, the ocean waves all over the earth had been crawling up the shorelines, only to be dragged away from land, over and over, forever. Maybe all this time, the ocean has been trying to get away from something.

I’m Captain William Peter Outland, U.S. Marine Corps. When the Russians came across the Bering Strait, my company was one of the first to engage. The fight went three days; by the end of it, no one cared who was Commie or Yankee anymore. The Things from the Sea, and TheThing that controlled them, were the enemy of us all. And no helmet made by men can shield the sanity.

In the Arctic Circle, polar night begins on the twentieth of November. The next sunrise is on the twenty-third of January. When I regained consciousness after the final clash between the human and the horrible, there were fifty-four days of dark to go. I got to my feet in the wind-blown smoke and brushed the ice from my insignia.


I turned. “Ravenna. Still breathing, hey?”

“Yes sir, looks like.”

Staff Sergeant Camille Ravenna: a broad-shouldered fighter with incongruously cherubic eyes. She was winding a field bandage around her left hand, but her right was also bleeding.

“Lemme give you a hand with that. Are the—are they gone?”

She nodded. “For now, at least.”

“Who’s left?”

“Stetson, Mox, and Danforth, sir. Not sure who else.”

“All right, call a muster. We’ve gotta see if anyone’s got working comms.”

Our electrical equipment had all burst into sparks and blue flame when the aura of The Thing descended. Rapidly, we gathered the Marines who were still both alive and sane. Many of us had been killed, but even more had run shrieking into the frigid waters, fleeing the air that bound them to the cosmos. All told, about twenty of us remained. No one had comms.

“Listen up!” I shouted. “We’ve got no way to let HQ know where we are, and we can’t stay here. There could be more Russians on their way right now.”

“Or more of—”

“Yes, thank you, Mox, now shut up. Our best chance is to head north. It’s ninety clicks to the post at Utqiagvik. You’ve got five mikes to gather up ammo and chow, and then we haul out. Understood?”

A stentorian chorus: “Sir, yes sir!”

Alaska’s breath was bitter. Even with my face masked and swathed against the wind, I blinked out frozen tears with every stumble. The snow was hard, the evergreens unfriendly. The stars looked more remote, more alien, than before.

Stetson was on point, with a hand-crank flashlight that survived the electric pulse. The rest of us tramped along in double file, with me out on one flank and Ravenna on the other, both with hand-cranks strapped to the stocks of our rifles. When we’d been marching for about four hours, Stetson raised a fist to call a halt.

I trotted to the front of the column. “Whattaya got, Stets?”

“Looks like a village, Cap. Out past the treeline.”

I squinted. Nodded. “Let’s check it out. Someone there’s gonna have a phone.”

We fanned out and advanced quietly through the trees. It was a tiny settlement, only a few dark-windowed huts. But in the center of the village was a bonfire, red and rustling, tossing specks of light into the everlasting gulf. A dozen people lolled about the blaze in shoddy wicker chairs.

Ravenna and I paced forward, lowering our weapons. “Evenin’,” I said, though I had no idea what time it was. “I’m Captain Outland, USMC. Y’all speak English?”

A few eyes turned in our direction. One fellow raised a languid hand.

“Sir, look at their faces,” Ravenna muttered. “They’re stoned off their nuts.”

She and I came closer, and I felt an eerie tingle in my scalp. They were grey: their hair, their eyes, even their skin.

“What the hell is wrong with you people?” I demanded. “Who are you? What are you doing out here?”

The languid one licked cracked lips and said, “Nyarlathotep.”

“Do what now?”

“Gave us.” He pointed to a strange purple log protruding from the bonfire. “Made us.”

We both realized at the same moment, and whirled away from the fumes. “Everybody get baaacckkk….”


I was suddenly over dark territories. I knew I was dreaming, yet I was not. I was in that place, above, looking down. I was in the doomscape of The Thing.

Some trans-lunar shadow undulates upon these corpse-fields, the anti-earthly luminosity of dry places where the kindly gleam of sunshine will never reach. Some foulness permeates this world-grave, an exhalation from galaxies where death, despair, damnation, are but the foam on the breakers of the horrible deep.

As when, in dreams, the most innocuous smile of a nameless face stirs memories of a terror older than the stars, so every freakishly malformed dust-mote of this witch-lit vista recalls the blinking gaze of a Face that brooded in grim occlusion before any god or spirit came to be—a Face the mere beholding of which would impart the shattering experience of that ghastly unthinkable nothingness before all eternities—a Face that waits, mumbling in the wells of infinite silence, for the time when all eternities have failed. To tread these fields is to crack the mind and soul. And of what lies beyond them! Of that we must not think.

Wind-wafted like the pollen of some sewer-planet’s obscene poppy-garden, I stare down at the hideous expanse below. Dread and loathing fill my faculties, and I struggle to cogitate. What is this place, and how did I come to be here? Far beneath me, as I float impossibly onwards, I perceive the flicker of a bizarre indigo inferno. Straining to see it from this vast and ghoulish empyrean, I begin to make out the forms of huts all around it: pitifully squalid and misshapen ramshacks, emanating vaporous ill-green reeks. And suddenly I understand.

I’ve gotta get back down there. My Marines are waiting for me, and presumably so is my body. But then I hear something behind me, and turn in midair. And immediately wish I hadn’t.

I saw The Thing.

Towering over the dusky hate-lands, a ziggurat of pale blubber moves ponderously across the plain on slithering blue pseudopods: grotesque, titanic, filling the hellish vault of heaven. At the zenith of that fleshy monstrosity, a single palpitating orb like a lidless, unpupilled eye: cerulean, serene, a blasphemous mockery of the hallowed skies of Earth. It lumbers, swaying, a mountainous monstrosity, toward the infinitesimal village.

Then, from somewhere outside the sky, a series of deafening pops. Wait, wait, I know that sound. I live day and night with that sound, the life-pulse of my vocation. Gunfire! Get it together, Outland, your people are under assault.

I blink furiously, thrashing my limbs, fighting to snap out of this trance. For a flickering instant, the doomscape parts, slit across the horizon, and I see the legs and feet of my warriors around me. Looming over us, a mile high if it’s an inch, is the same fleshy ziggurat that oozes across the nightmare. I struggle to get up, join the battle—but another wave of disorientation swirls around me, and I’m back in the demon dream.

There: that single accursed eye! It peers through the merciful shroud of time, endlessly contemplating the void of annihilation that gapes at the edge of days; it knows only destruction. The thought of touching it afflicts my soul with a repulsion rarely felt by mortal man. Yet here I am, high above the noisome cemetery of the earth, the only one who can attack what must be this creature’s weak point. I can float here, borne aloft on goblin zephyrs; can I fly?

This is my trance, my dream. I gather my will, focus all the power of my commitment, and push myself through the vacuum toward the monster.

“Semper fi, you son of a bitch!”

Washing up like a castaway on the final ledge of doughy sludge, vaguely analogous to the bridge of its nose, I scramble onto the bottom rim of that vile, quivering eight-foot mass of goo. Must not stop. Don’t think, don’t feel, just kill!

Grabbing double fistfuls of horror, I twist and wrench and yank, ripping out purulent chunks of spurting pus and flinging them into the windy abysm below. The creature emits a booming howl like a trillion thunderclaps, but so low-pitched that it shivers my bones while barely registering in my ears. The clumsy pseudopods lash and slap through the sky, but they seem to lack any fine control. Again and again they smack against the creature’s grisly face in my vicinity, but they cannot pluck me from the gaping orifice.

And as I tunnel deeper into the gushing socket, bathed in the stinking filth of its blood, I hear a strange keening wail issue forth from the beast: “Daaaayyyyy gonnnnnne!”


I woke up with a jerk, clutching instinctively at my sidearm. Ravenna was nearby: hugging her knees and rocking back and forth, with a thin trail of spittle running from the corner of her mouth. The others were staring up at the monster, which had abruptly turned and was now heading off to the west.

“Cap!” They trotted over and helped me to my feet. “You okay, sir?”

“Yeah. What about Ravenna? Can she talk to us?”

“Dunno,” Stetson said grimly. “I thought you were closer to the fire than her, but I guess she got more of the smoke or somethin’. You both went catatonic, but then she went crazy. Started screaming and try’na claw her own face off. We had to give her morphine to calm her down.”

“How long was I out?”

“’Bout an hour, sir. Did you catch the freak show at the end there?”

“I caught it.” I wiped the dew from my brow, and my hand came away red. I’d been sweating blood. “I saw the whole thing from the other side.”

“The other side of what?”

I told them of the vision I’d suffered through. After everything we’d witnessed, no one seemed to doubt my tale.

“Went in through the eye, huh?” Mox said approvingly. “Hard core!”

“It wasn’t like that, Mox. It was—awful. It was more awful than anything.”

They were silent.

“We better move out, sir,” Stetson said finally. “Lord knows what else is slinkin’ around out here.”

I nodded. “Let’s get Ravenna on a stretcher. Danforth, you take her position on flank.”

“Aye aye, Cap’n.”

We headed north, munching our rations as we went. No one wanted to stay in that village for a chow break.

Six more hours. At last, half-blind with exhaustion, we stopped to bivouac. Thank God for Gore-tex. Huddling together, we broke the activated carbon in our heated blankets and slept as best we could. There was no dawn.

Onward, through the wilderness. Ravenna was now fully comatose. We marched through the endless night, the endless wind, the endless cold. Until, in the distance, we saw another structure that didn’t belong. A tall, tapering building, alone in the snow-swept wastes. It looked almost like some kind of church.

I glanced around. “Anybody curious about what’s in there?”

A quiet chorus of head-shakes.


“No sir, I think I’ve had enough weird for one night.”

“Well, that’s a first. All right, let’s cut east. We’ll give it a berth and then. . .”


“Give it a… wide…berth…get baaaccckk….”


The Thing, like a huge leprous goat cavorting on the altar, stomps its massive taloned hooves, and scarlet lightning blazes forth with every impact. The altar is endless, sweeping back behind the horrible goat into a senseless infinite like the tunnel of two facing mirrors; it is forged of some anti-terrestrial metal, tortured into ripples and frozen by long-forgotten craft, and its colors and angles are subtly but maddeningly wrong.

Above the altar, a dome of stone higher than the arch of the Milky Way; around it, pillars of burning obsidian that flail upward to the ceiling’s vertiginous heights. The floor is like mucus, barely hard enough to stand on, canted in geometric idiocy. And all around us, in that unholy temple, dance the thousand mongrel, gangrel humanoids that worship their mother, the goat.

This time around, I recollect myself more quickly. The proximity to that goat-thing must’ve somehow triggered a relapse into the dream-state. I’m ringed by murmuring shadows: my platoon, blind to this edifice of abomination juxtaposed around us on the material plane. Right now I’m standing instead of hovering, but maybe I can fix that. I gather my will, preparing to slip the surly bonds of earth.

But the goat has seen us. It rears up on that wrought-metal morass of an altar, and the interstellar pits of its eyes burgeon with an orange light that is almost liquid. At the last possible second, I leave the ground and go sailing upward like a gale-caught autumn leaf; and a single pulse of viscous energy blasts forth from the grotesquerie, missing my soles by a millimeter. The pulse cuts through my Marines like a concussion wave.

For a moment, nothing happens. The shadows of my warriors are establishing a perimeter around my fallen body, preparing to receive incoming. They have no idea that this unseen horror is bombarding them with evil. And then the shadows contort: spasming unnaturally, warping into sub-human shapes.

As before, I fight to open my physical eyes. I gain a glimpse of my people screeching and gibbering, dropping their weapons and loping in circles like orangutans. Their bodies look the same; their souls have been transformed. Mutated.

And now the goat-thing opens a fanged and slavering maw like the gullet of a manticore. A mind-breaking ululation shatters forth, a demon cacophony like a thousand air-raid sirens in a Jovian cyclone. The devolving husks of my fighters come shambling toward the altar at that call, and the goat flips heavily onto its back. Scores of protuberances writhe on its belly like centipede legs, but wriggling black maggots dribble forth from each protrusion. They’re not legs, I realize.

They’re teats.


“No!” I roar. I will not allow this alien Satan to force-feed itself to those who have fought and bled with honor. I swoop down to the altar, kicking and punching the horned freak, but to no effect. Pushed beyond all desperation, I seize it by the horns. Then, with everything I am, I fight to rise back into the air.

Slowly, glacially, we rise. The monster-goddess sags below me like a ton of slugs in a wet bag, slothfully agitating its forelegs. I reach the limits of my strength and courage in a matter of moments, but I will not stop. Up we go, up and up, straining beyond the possible. Up to the cosmic eminence of that starry temple’s dome, endless miles above the waiting earth. Then I let go.

A long, long silence. From far below, a resonating crash. The cold of snow on my back, and the night sky above me.

It took a supreme effort to get to my feet. My platoon was scattered, most of them sprawled or sitting, a few just wandering aimlessly in the snow. “Marines,” I croaked.

No answer.


Heads turned. One by one, they came to attention. Danforth uttered a strangled little, “Oorah.”

“Let’s keep moving, people. We can’t be far from Utqiagvik.”

Stetson raised a hand, involuntarily, and pointed. “Sir—your hair.”

“What about it?”

He handed me a silver flask. My reflection in the starlight showed close-cropped hair that had been red the last time I looked in a mirror. Now it was white as bone.

I opened the flask and took a long, deep draught of bourbon. Then I barked, “Move out!”

Another long march. Ravenna was finally beginning to stir. By the time we stopped for a rest, she was mumbling incomprehensibly.

“Cthulhu.” Her head moved back and forth as if trying to escape some unbearable sight. “Cthulhu fhtagn.”

“Camille?” Gently, I patted her face. “Hey. Ravenna!”

Suddenly, her body went rigid. “Cthulhu fhtagn!”

At the same moment, the now-familiar rush of disorientation hit me. I was…


…am hovering over a vortex of purple and green electricity, deeper than the core of the planet. The lightning-maelstrom lies in a craterous valley, and knolls of boiling froth arch over me on either side. To my left, a dozen ebony splotches the size of freight cars, amorphous and offensive, with countless eyes floating in and out of their protoplasmic forms. To my right, a single towering figure with a face like an octopus glimpsed in a fever-dream.

“Hey there, Cap.”

I whirl in midair, and break into a grin of relief. Ravenna’s floating right behind me.

“Where the hell have you been, Sergeant?”

“Got sucked into that big pyramid-looking thing back at the village,” she says. “Went a little crazy for awhile. But it spat me out after somebody poked it in the eye.”

“Glad I could help.”

“Me too. I saw a lot of stuff in there, inside its brain. Stuff I’d rather unsee. But I know some things now.” She points to the left. “Those are shoggoths.” To the right. “That handsome fella’s Cthulhu. They ain’t buddies. Either side’ll gobble us up if they can. But neither side’ll come within grabbing distance of the other.”

“So we’re safe as long as we stay right in the middle.”

“Safe is relative, but yeah. Problem is, squid-face hasn’t crossed onto the physical plane yet.”


“So our boys can’t see him.”

I’m starting to hear gunfire over the horizon of the dream-state. “Oh, shit. If they retreat from the shoggoths—”

“They’ll run straight into Cthulhu. He can’t touch their bodies from this side, but he can eat their minds.”

“There’s gotta be some way to communicate with our people.”

She grimaces. “Believe me, I’ve been trying. If there’s a way, I dunno what it is.”

The shadows of our platoon are starting to move. They can see the shoggoths, and they’re naturally gravitating in the opposite direction. And there on the peak above them, the tentacled abomination leans out over the precipice, waiting for its prey to stumble into its grasp.

Sometimes, to beat the Devil, you have to be the Devil. I can only think of one thing to do: I dive into the shadow that is the body of a nearby Marine, and take control.

“Hold position!” I shout.

“Ryerson, are you crazy? Those things—”

“This is Captain Outland speaking. Those things will not advance, do you understand? There is another threat behind us that we cannot engage.”

They’re all staring at me. Mox leans close and peers into my eyes. “Captain?”

“It’s me, Mox. We need to hold position.”

“For how long?”

Well now, that’s a question. “We can move laterally. As long as we maintain equal distance between those things and the thing on the other side.”

“Sir, there’s nothing over there.”

“I know you can’t see it, but—” I stop. With Ryerson’s eyes, I can’t see Cthulhu either.


I jump half a foot. “Ravenna?”

Yes sir. You can’t see me?

“No, but I can hear you in my head. You’ve got eyes on squid-face?”

That’s a rodge. Turn about fifteen degrees to your left.

I turn.

Now walk straight.

“Follow me, Marines. And don’t forget my body.”

With Ravenna guiding us, we head north. Cthulhu and the shoggoths follow us for miles, always keeping equidistant. No one speaks; this night has gone past words.

There, ahead of us: the city lights. Utqiagvik, Alaska, northernmost town in America. As we draw near, the shoggoths falter and finally slink away. Apparently they have enough intelligence to know they can’t take on a whole city by themselves.

“All right, everybody get ready to run. Once the blobs are gone, there’s nothing to stop the squid from attacking.”


“Go ahead, Sergeant.”

Cthulhu’s bugging out too. It looks like we’re in the clear.

I frown with Ryerson’s face. Why retreat, if it’s incorporeal?


But before I could frame the question, the eldritch creatures had all withdrawn. As their aura faded, the dream did likewise, and I found myself blinking my own eyes once again. I was on a stretcher next to Ravenna, and she was finally waking up as well.

“Gotta. . . hand it to you, sir,” she said groggily. “It never occurred to me to use possession as a means to communicate.”

“Desperate times, Camille. Can you stand?”

“Think so.”

“Here ya go, Sarge,” said Mox, offering his hands.

We climbed unsteadily to our feet.

“Ryerson, you okay?” I asked.

He nodded cheerfully. “Ship-shape, Cap!”

“Sorry I kinda jumped into your body there.”

“No worries. Saw some neat stuff.”

I turned my gaze. The city limits were just over the next hill.

“Guess we made it after all,” Stetson remarked. “I wasn’t gonna say anything, but I had my doubts.”

“All right, everybody fall in,” I said. “We’re not gonna straggle into town like a buncha vagabonds. Danforth, count cadence.”

“Yes sir. Forward—hut!” We began to march. “Left, your left, your left, right! Left, your left, your left, right!”

Proud and strong, we came trooping down the middle of Main Street. To our battered, weary hearts, the lights of bars and storefronts were like golden summer sunshine. Some silly part of me expected trumpets and ticker tape, but of course there was none of that. Not even a single voice was raised in greeting.

In fact. . .

“Where the hell is everybody?” muttered Stetson.

“Somethin’ ain’t right, sir,” said Ravenna.

Then Ryerson’s voice broke into a different marching song. “Yog! Yog! Yog-Sothoth! Yog! Yog! Yog-Sothoth!”

And all around us, from the shadows and the alleyways, from a hundred thousand throats, the chant begins to rise:

Yog! Yog! Yog-Sothoth!!”

J.B. Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College and holds a black belt in OhanaKilohana Kenpo-Jujitsu. He has published two novels, Whisper Music and The Shoreless Sea

Toner lives in Massachusetts with his lovely wife and their miraculously beautiful and exhausting daughters, Sonya Magdalena and Rebecca Eowyn.