Chapter 1: The Black Book
A single round in the chamber, and it is nearly finished. No more bullets will be necessary, and those unfortunates that remain to see the end will doubtless need them more than I. The end of all comes, the stars are finally aligning and the unfathomed depths of the ocean will disgorge all the horrors they have hidden since the unspeakable past. But I will not be there to see it. My end came earlier, and I have lingered only to leave this futile testament.
My name is -- Shepard, and until recently I was a professor of ancient history at Miskatonic University. I was perhaps not suited for my occupation, my experiences during the Great War leaving me brooding overlong on the sins of the past. However, I diligently pursued the knowledge that pained me so, and for it developed something of a reputation as a scholar. And that is what lead her to me.
Miss -- Zorah was the scion of uncertain eastern european parentage. The coarseness of the Slav was muted in her hinted-at sensual features, transmogrified by the rumors of ancient and terrible nobility in her bloodline. For this beauty, she suffered the so-called "disease of kings," a thinness of the blood and a strange anemia that often left her listless and enervated. She affected a veil at all times, an idiosyncrasy to hide her bloodless lips and shield her febrile cough.
We met only momentarily at first, hardly a foreshadowing of the impact she would have upon my life. I recall the day was humid, the air rolling in from the sea with loathsome moistness through my office window. I was tidying for the summer break, enjoying the relative sparseness of the campus.
She introduced herself as she entered unannounced, diction cultured, but with an unplaceable accent. She claimed to have been recommended to me by a friend from my days in the service, one Captain -- Anderson. A small paper package, bound in twine and scarcely larger than a paperback novel, was what she had brought to me. It was, she outlined briefly, a book that had been handed down through her family, and, with the late passing of her father, had finally been bequeathed to her. The text was in no language that she could fathom, she admitted with a certain prevarication.
When I pressed her for details, however, she was overcome with a cough, and begged my pardon to excuse herself. Bemused, I bid her farewell, receiving her card so I could contact her at a local boarding house.
The book was bound in soft black cloth over wooden covers, worn greatly at the edges. The leaves were marked dark brown, as if thumbed through many times. Inscrutable characters lined the pages, top-to-bottom, only bearing a slight resemblance to the much sought-after expurgated segments of Von Juntz's terrifying work, the ones said to be partial, but direct, copies of the fabled Pnakotic Manuscripts.
It was clearly beyond my meagre power as a translator as well. I was forced to seek assistance from the Archaeology Department, in the form of Miss -- Tsoni, a somewhat mysterious Oriental who was nevertheless very learned in obscure and benighted languages. It was rumored that before emigrating, she had studied in the most inaccessible Tibetan monasteries, gleaning the basics of those dread tongues from cloistered monks who's traditions were said to originate in the black plateau of Leng. Would that I had never consulted her, and that I had remained merely an intrigued ignorant, unaware of the seething evil beneath the mask of mundane reality.
Chapter 2: Miss Tsoni's Advances
The following, being an account of the attempt to learn more from an expert of obscure history, one Miss -- Tsoni.
Neither her office nor her classroom yielded up evidence of Miss Tsoni, and I was loathe to call upon her apartment for fear she would impose upon me to stay for interminable tea and awkward chatter. That left her usual haunt of the university library as the sole remaining locale for my search. She was well known as a haunt of that hallowed institution both for her voracious demand for old and obscure titles, and for her habit of reading them aloud, albeit under her breath. Students gave her disconcertingly accented mutterings a wide berth when she was at her studies within.
The library was quiet and dark but for slanted shafts of wan sunlight admitted by the heavy draperies. Subtle currents in the still air stirred motes of dust in these beams as if marking the passage of things invisible to the naked eye. These intimations aside, I was alone, no students coughed, shuffled papers, or thudded heavy tomes against antique oaken study tables. Summer break was not quite here, but Miskatonic’s erstwhile etudiants where already taking their leisure elsewhere.
Tall, dark stacks towered over me and I was transported in mind back to my childhood in smoky Boston. Orphaned at a young age, I was abandoned to the streets and wandered near starvation among those similarly faceless and shadowed edifices before I became a ward of the state.
When I emerged from my unquiet remembrances, I found myself before one of the private reading rooms. I found it locked when I tried the knob, but espied light emerging from beneath the doorframe and knocked to inquire within. The door cracked and Miss Tsoni’s flat, sallow visage was thrust forth.
Glancing about as if expecting others to be lurking behind me, she opened the portal wider and bade me enter. It had been barred, she explained, because some unsavory characters of swarthy visage had been loitering about the library grounds of late. I had seen no such thing, but was not of a mood to argue with her suppositions. I did not know yet who dogged the heels of my mysterious interlocutor and her little black book.
Miss Tsoni proved an invaluable resource, though her Oriental forwardness was discomfiting at times. Her native experience with pictographic languages served as the keyhole into the mysterious text, allowing the perceptive mind to peer, albeit in a limited fashion, at the terrible wonders concealed behind the pages of the small book. We spoke late into the night, poring over other dark volumes, until, mind weary and awhirl, I at last fled her advances for the safety of my own room.
Once there, however, sleep eluded me. I had stared too long at the indecipherable text, burning its damnable pictograms into my unprepared and overly impressionable mind. Against the screen of my eyelids, the hateful letters would flash, imparting the most awful of implications. This one, concave and jagged, became a mouth screaming in inchoate terror. These letters, bent double, were figures cowering before their unspeakable doom. A darkened oval became a black sun occluding certain stars in such a specific way as to awaken vast forces beyond comprehension. And where the text trailed into juddering inspecificity, there, there was hinted the ultimate horror reaching out to grasp the very moon and devour it as one might an apple before seizing all of creation in its many-tentacled grasp and squeezing until… until…
I awoke with a start, chilled terribly despite the unpleasant heat of the coming season. Somehow, sleep had found me during the night, though from it I had derived no rest. My room was bescattered with notes and transcriptions of Miss Zorah’s text, as if I had worked, though I had no memory of doing so. The only scrap immediately decipherable was a small list of private collections of texts in England that might have some utility in unlocking the secrets held in the benighted tome.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
This chapter has been expanded from the original, brief manuscript.
Chapter 3: Disquiet in the Boarding House
The following, being an account of the state of a certain landlord of Arkham, Massachusetts.
As I examined the disorder of my small and usually tidy room, I was struck by the sudden and irresistible desire to see the intriguing Miss Zorah, to share with her what I had learned. Given to solitude as I ordinarily was, I should have viewed this impulse with more suspicion, but as it was, standing amongst the detritus of research I could not even recall, it seemed the most natural of ways to spend the day. To allay my disheveled appearance, I completed a brief toilet, noting a number of small cuts along the edge of my cheekbone that I could not explain.
The boarding house identified by Miss Zorah’s card was of ancient architecture, even for the long-brooding homes of Arkham. Having lived in Arkham for almost a decade, I do not believe I had paid the building more than a single glance in all that time. The ill-maintained gambrel roof sagged, calling to mind the furtive slouch of a figure glimpsed from the corner of one’s eye on a darkened and unfamiliar road. Greying white paint peeled from the ever-so-slightly warping boards of the façade, the good, Colonial carpentry finally giving way to neglect and the relentless ravage of time. From the ramshackle porch with its swaying gable, one could look back along the length of Garrison Street to see the lurking presence of the so-called Witch-House, which hysterical rumors had sprung up about following the disappearance of a certain student of mathematics.
The landlord who answered my knock was a leering rustic who would have been more suited to the ominous forests of dark pine that crowd the banks of the Miskatonic’s inland reaches. Darting, furtive eyes almost hidden under bushy white brows peered through tiny spectacles at me, then beyond at the street, as if he were expecting a further invasion of his unkempt yard. One gnarled hand clawed through his bristling beard and he licked his lips unpleasantly.
“Ye here ta be callin’ upon Miss Zorah, then, young sir?” he nattered insinuatingly, “hain’t bin much o’ new faces arount here. Oh, she’s bin expectin’ ye.” He waved away my exclamations of surprise at his intrusion in my business before stepping aside to allow me to enter the lower hallway.
“She’s a pow’rful strange one, she is,” the old man cackled, showing grimy and crooked teeth as he dragged those knobbed and bent digits through his long beard once again. “That queer accent o’ hers, I never heerd o’ nothin’ like that un. Thew, the way my grandpappy told it, uster be some folks as like her come round the taown in his day, afore the trials and burnin’s.” Again he gave an inexplicable laugh. “Allus locked up in her room with her books an’ picters, lights goin’ at all hours, them smells and saounds comin’ daown…”
“Pow’rful strange,” he repeated, eyes bloodshot, “them little white hands, all cold lookin’. An’ her face, cover’t up liken she was skeert folks’d see somethin’. Gets a man ta thinkin’, thinkin’ haow she might look, haow thet skin might feel…”
A towering, uncharacteristic rage filled me, bringing heat to my face. How dare this imbecilic ancient spread rumors? And for him to spout such lewd fantasies about a lady to me, a complete stranger. I am not by nature a violent man, and had my fill and more of it in France during the Great War, but at that moment I contemplated doing physical injury to the repellent old man. So disordered was my state of mind that I am unsure what I might have done, had there not been further intervention.
“Shepard,” came that clear, pure voice from up the creaking stairs. The repulsive landlord quickly retreated, his earlier gregariousness suddenly vanished. I had already forgotten him, however, and was holding out my hands foolishly to her as she carefully made her way down from the upper floor. Her hands were smooth and cool as polished stone, hands that had never known physical travail or labor.
As we ascended to her room, I made offhand mention of the prying nature of the aged landlord. She demurred, assuring me that he meant no harm. "Mr. Pressly?" she exclaimed with a light chuckle, "no, he has been no problem whatsoever. A curious man, to say the least, but easily satisfied with a few odds and ends." I experienced a slight chill at these words, recalling the fervent and repugnant emphasis he had placed on the subject of her books and pictures. However, the dilapidated house was drafty with age, even in the overcast heat of the day.
The dim room in which she boarded was positively crowded with belongings, primarily books. Though I had scant time to make a full survey, and my attention was fully upon Miss Zorah in any case, the few glances I stole revealed a deep and broad interest in occult subjects. Cotton Mather's magnum opus rested heavily upon a shelf, gathering dust, while a nearby copy of the foul Liber Ivonis appeared to have received much more attention. Open on the small table near the window, lit by what light entered the shaded window, was a copy of Regnum Congo, open to a gruesome plate of the practices of the Anzique cannibals of darkest Africa. Placed carelessly on the nightstand, as if read before slumber, was a slim pamphlet script titled Krol na Zolto.
Understand, reader, that I thought it not strange at all to have entered the room of a woman I barely knew, or for her to have invited me in so boldly. I should have averted my eyes from the sight of her bed in the tiny garret room, but I had no thought of it. My eyes were drawn only to the veil covering her face, seeking to discern the contours of her visage much as I had labored the night before to discern meaning from the maddening glyphs filling the book she had given to me. Even in the dimness, her eyes glinted bewitchingly behind the sheer material, a feverish intensity in them as they stared undaunted into my own. The spell was broken as she was wracked with coughs. Her handkerchief, placed to her hidden lips, came away flecked with red, though she quickly hid this from me.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 4: The Vision in the Room
The following, being the account of the discussion, an arabesque vision, and new plans formulated thereafter.
I expressed concern for her health, but she waved away my worries with a small gesture of one pallid hand. Miss Zorah explained that such ailments ran in her family, attributing it to ancient and thoroughly intermingled nobility. The subtle tones of her accented voice seemed perhaps to imply an older, more distant nobility that the haemophiliac Hapsburg off-shoots that were my initial assumptions. Reconsidering at my present distance, and with terrible after-knowledge and confirmation of certain things, there are many oddities of which I should have taken notice, but did not. I apologize, reader, but I am only human, subject to all the assorted frailties creation has seen to inflict upon us, both physical and mental.
Producing the more legible and coherent of my notes, I began to explain to her my findings on the subject of her mysterious book. She commented in an animated and erudite fashion, with broad, energetic sweeps of her hands and arms at odds with her asserted fragility. It was as if the subject electrified her, and it was a subject she seemed well-versed in. Continually, I found her knowledge of occult subjects and ancient history in general to be quite broad and learned, especially for one of her sex and apparent tender age. I noted that I would have been gratified to have her as student, and she seemed taken aback by the praise, dipping her head demurely, though only a moment previous she had been debating fiercely on the similarities between two of the more obscure glyphs. She gazed up at me shyly from behind her veil and I felt a strange dizziness, attributable no doubt to the stifling atmosphere of the small room.
While we spoke, the unsettled feeling grew, the room seeming to shift around me. The dimly lit ceiling seemed now utterly lost in shadow, giving the impression of unimaginable height. Vertigo clutched at my stomach, as if I might tumble up into this abyss above, to fall forever into that formless darkness, screaming and adrift, plucked at and torn apart by the horrors that flit therein. Already reeling, what grip I had upon my faculties was almost lost completely as I heard from some fathomless distance, the faint, thready skirl of tuneless piping.
"Shepard?" her voice called to me, and I seized it with both hands. Blinking, I found myself once again in her cluttered apartment. She had reached across the small table to me, and I had grasped her hand with enough force to leave the reddened impression of my clumsy fingers. I withdrew my hands immediately, begging her pardon. She merely folded her hands, not seeming to care about my unforgivable blunder.
"You were speaking so intensely," she explained, that she felt the need to steady me. Indeed, she insisted, it was she that should be making the apology for interrupting.
Interrupting what, I questioned, puzzled, for I could not in truth recall what I had said.
In light tones, she said I had been elaborating on the vague meanings that could be puzzled from the book.
Taking her at her word, I ended the presentation of my meagre findings with the mention of additional sources that might be useful for continuing translation of the book, most notably the "Prothean Carvings," a series of shadings recovered from a recent Antarctic expedition. These shadings, reputedly made from certain reliefs located on that icy continent, had made something of a controversy in academic circles. Their fantastic and uncorroborated nature had lead to their rejection by most reputable scholars, and now the few published manuscripts were quite difficult to obtain.
By chance, however, Miss Zorah had seen one such copy in a used bookstore in Manhattan before she had made the journey to Arkham. However, she admitted, she had not foreseen the significance it would have for her own personal endeavour, nor had she the funds to secure it at the time. With some embarrassment, she explained that while she was able to live comfortably, her recent travels had somewhat depleted her inheritance.
Overjoyed and frankly intrigued by the possibility of fully unlocking the mysteries of her father's book, I offered to accompany her to the city to attempt to acquire this manuscript. I reasoned that it would be an opportunity to add to the University's already noted library of rare texts. Happily, she acquiesced, and I went about making arrangements for travel.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 5: A Rival Appears
The following, being the account of more urban climes, and a new impediment to the search.
Miss Zorah and I traveled by rail from the shadowed streets of Arkham to the boisterous tumult of New York. Much of the travel was spent, for her, sleeping, her ancestral illness leaving her enervated. For my part, I passed the time reviewing my research and attempted translations, but without the “Prothean Carvings” and direct perusal of her black book, I made no headway. I was loathe to open the book in such close proximity to her. The sight of it seemed to disquiet Miss Zorah, setting her fragile hands atremble and causing her eyes to dart behind her veil like trapped birds. She insisted that it be covered or wrapped while in her presence, and with such vehemence that I wondered how she had made any attempt at translation herself.
Many have derided New York as home to little other than cheapness or vulgarity, however, I have found during the brief stays I have made it boasts a thriving and vital atmosphere, if tainted by the wicked and terrible elements that are sadly endemic to humanity. Here mankind reaches to soaring heights, constructing what may be the tallest buildings in modern times, and yet delves more deeply than perhaps it ought, with the construction of subways and sewer tunnels through the chthonic depths of the earth. Scholars and seekers after knowledge can enjoy the universities and salons of the learned, but in dilapidated tenements and abandoned churches lurk the swarthy and inscrutable immigrants which plague the city, overripe with awful secrets from the primitive and unhallowed past.
Manhattan, I quickly discovered, showed all of these traits, having quite recently suffered from a great migration of Southerners, bringing with them the diabolical rites practiced in secret in the slave quarters of moss-shrouded plantations. While I was wary, however, of the city’s changing nature, Miss Zorah was energized, exclaiming in joy at the sights, pointing out to me transformations the city had undergone since her previous visit. She fairly swayed at the rough, discordant instrumentals emerging from sinister dance halls and musical venues, hearing music where my ear only detected an unsettling noise.
Mindful of her hinted-at financial straits, we dined at an inexpensive tavern near the hotel where we had secured rooms. Despite her alternating bouts of languor and vigor, she ate nothing, and drank little, preferring to speak of our research.
Again I was astounded by the obscurity of her studies, finding her to be more widely read in certain areas than myself. My fields of expertise extended from the present to the most early dynasties of Egypt, but hers knew no such confinement. Despite her seeming naiveté of some aspects of the modern world, she had plumbed the depths of history more deeply than I, even unto the most unwholesome of ancient legends about the supposed origins of life upon this planet. Furthermore, she was a student of the teachings of Mesmer on animal magnetism and the Marquis de Puységur on somnambulism. She discoursed fluently, much to my surprise, on the alchemical origins of these theories, even extending into Newton’s writings on universal gravitation and “sacred geometry.”
So, I should not have been surprised that she knew many of the dusty and cluttered used-book stores tucked into blind alleys and cobbled side streets of the city. In one such establishment, situated between a decaying apartment building and a reeking butcher shop, she claimed to have seen a copy of the “Prothean Carvings.”
The shop was fronted by cracked windowpanes blocked utterly by mildewing volumes. It had, once, a sign advertising its function and owner, though time and malicious action by the roving gangs of pockmarked youths that haunted the back streets had obliterated it. Now all that remained to hint at the contents of the shop was the half-effaced image of a book on the door. A bell jangled as we entered but did not summon the shop’s proprietor. Instead, we were left to our own devices, trying to find what we sought among the unsorted literary detritus littering the establishment.
While much of what we perused was drivel; novels in popular genres or obsolescent and thoroughly discredited geographical surveys, there were hints that there was more to be found with diligence. Miss Zorah turned up a 1st Edition print of Dee’s benighted and repugnant work, but quickly set it aside with a small noise of disappointment. I resolved that if we did not find what we sought, I would return and make a more thorough investigation, however. Would that all that followed had not come to pass, and I was able to make good on that ignorant desire.
Our searches finally roused the proprietor from the locked back room of the shop. He was a small, swarthy man, repulsively reminiscent of the polyglot brood that once peopled the ill-fated neighborhoods and harbor of Red Hook before the great police raid that dispersed them. -- Udina claimed Spanish heritage, though his features seemed to owe descent to the Moor invader, as well. Surly at being called upon by customers, he scowled as he leafed through ill-maintained records in search of the volume we requested.
Much to our dismay, however, he informed us with smug satisfaction that the book had been sold, and only recently, too. The buyer, he said in his crude and debased accent, was one – Arterius Esq., a name that was, unfortunately, known to me from the Great War.
M. Arterius was highly-ranked officer then, a colleague of Captain Anderson, before being dishonorably discharged for inflicting unspeakably cruel outrages upon what members of the enemy were unfortunate enough to fall into his clutches. He had been horribly maimed at Verdun, his face ruined by the gas the foe deployed, and then whilst convalescing behind the lines of battle, had lost a hand during an artillery barrage. Since then he had become known as a notorious mystic and occultist in the mold of Rasputin or Crowley, perhaps even exceeding their abhorrent example in the depths of his depraved practices.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 6: The Sinister M. Arterius
The following, being an account of the growing menace presented by the Frenchman malveillant.
My disquiet only grew as I scoured the salons and bookstores of New York to learn more of M. Arterius’ activities. I had hoped perhaps to locate him and for the sake of Miss Zorah overcome my distaste for his person and habits and prevail upon him to sell us the manuscript or at least allow us to study it and make appropriate transcriptions. However, this course of action began to seem less an option and more dangerous folly.
Prior to his most recent stay in New York, M. Arterius spent time in upstate Maine, excavating certain shunned and darkly-rumored Indian sites in the loathsomely overgrown and trackless forests there. Following his return, he had gathered about himself an ill-omened and disreputable band of exiled Turkish renegades, intellectuals, and mystics disaffected by the rise of Ataturk’s republic. The squinting pack of foreigners had been seen to accompany him throughout the city, and though no charges were leveled, rumors of mayhem and rapine circulated about them.
They were, it seems, making desperate searches for certain obscure volumes, of which the “Prothean Carvings” were but one example. In fact, they had ransacked several bookstores and libraries looking for the same volumes that Miss Tsoni had referenced to aid my translation project. A mere week into our stay, the newspapers reported the violent death of a prominent antiquarian and the theft of much of his collection of occult oddities. There were no suspects, but it was noted that a number of M. Arterius’ Turkish adherents had been witnessed lingering near the victim’s apartment.
My concern was only elevated learning that M. Arterius’ search was not confined to books and objects, but also to persons. Most specifically, he had made inquiries into the whereabouts of one Romanian heiress, known to travel with her face perpetually veiled. He claimed to be a doctor, famed for his ability to treat certain illnesses of the blood, and thus was able to obtain a number of references. Realizing almost too late the danger to Miss Zorah, I informed her that we must make plans to depart immediately.
The mere mention of the Turks produced an agitated reaction in Miss Zorah. It transpired that during the later Middle Ages, it had been Turkish invaders that drove her distant forebears from their ancestral lands and homes on the shores of the Aegean to their present estates in Romania. It was this flight that lead to the family’s slow decline, including the dilution of their noble heritage by intermingling with the Slav. She harbored a terrible paranoia that these Turks were somehow intent on exterminating her line root and branch, and despite the hysteria of her accusations I was inclined to believe her, given the unsavoury reputation of their current master and the deceptions he was perpetrating in his attempts to locate her. However, so great was her desire to see her father’s bequest translated, she was unwilling to abandon our search even in the face of such obvious danger.
Reviewing my notes once more in an attempt to make some headway without the “Prothean Carvings,” I came upon my hastily-jotted list of English book collections. The list included the private collection of -- Newstead, the author of the manuscript on the carvings. In my haste to pursue the first available lead, I had forgotten that the source itself was available. Following the discredit of his academic work, the sole survivor of the ill-fated Antarctic expedition had retired to the countryside, taking residence near a seaside hamlet known as Greenmarsh and developing a reputation as a recluse.
Through my own academic work, I possessed some contacts in England, and began to make hasty preparations for a trans-Atlantic voyage. I reasoned that Miss Zorah, and quite possibly myself due to my association with her, would be safer leaving the country for a time. It was fortunate happenstance that this would also advance our researches. My reluctance to part with Miss Zorah, on the rare instance I would stop of consider it, troubled me somewhat, however it was easy to rationalize it as my innate desire for knowledge of the past, or a natural protective instinct.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 7: Horror in the Hotel
The following, being an account of a perilous midnight escape from marauding Turks.
Phantasmagoric dreams plagued my sleep. In them, black suns burned in the heavens, casting their dreadful un-light upon the blasted landscape below. I drifted over the abandoned cities of men, their skyscrapers toppled, empty and echoing with age. Trolleys, cars, and motorcoaches were scattered about the streets, long gone to rust, and all was silent but for the weird, piping cries of the blessedly indistinct forms that wheeled on gossamer wings above this ashen wasteland, and malignant howl of the bitingly chill wind.
I slowly sank toward the ground, and then perceived that the ruins were not wholly empty, as I once had thought. Furtive shapes darted from shadow to shadow with the timidity of prey long-used to the hunter’s piercing eye. As they drew closer, and closer, I realized that these were not solely mere prey, rather perhaps lower predators themselves, for they circled with clear diabolic intent, stirred from their hiding places by the terrible pangs of hunger. I remained motionless, unwilling to move or unable, within this dream, as they finally sidled completely into view. Hunched and emaciated, their blighted forms nevertheless bore an abhorrent resemblance to that of mankind, and I understood in a merciless moment of clarity that this was all that remained of humanity, the rest swept from the surface of Earth by a cataclysm like I had dreamt during my studies of Miss Zorah’s black book.
Still these wretched creatures approached, their hands hooking into talons, ready to tear at my immobile flesh and devour what sustenance could be ripped from it before they attracted the gaze of creatures far more terrible than they. Their visages were shrouded by lank, tangled hair and my consciousness recoiled in terror at the thought of what perversions might hide beneath that shroud. One crept forward within reach, bolder than the rest of the slinking beasts. Almost cowering before me, yet slavering in anticipation of the feast, it paused, claw-like fingers outstretched but tentative. Against my better judgment, no, against my very will, my own extremities responded. With trembling hands, I began to lift the foetid mat of hair away from the face that I might see what lay beneath. A lipless gash of mouth was revealed, jagged and sharp teeth bared. I uncovered the rest with a convulsive sweep of my arm and reeled away, the sight too horrendous to bear.
The thing threw back its monstrous yet unbearably familiar countenance and howled a single word at the pitiless, uncaring sky.
“Shepard,” it cried, and the debased pack of horrors set upon me at that signal, grasping and rending. My mind fled, and I remembered no more of what nightmares may have beset me before regaining consciousness.
I awoke with a start, every sense suddenly alert. I lay atop the bed sheets, fully clothed, for I had stretched there only hours before, uncaring, as exhaustion took me. The doorknob to my room at the hotel rattled stealthily, and I realized that this was the sound that had roused me. Creeping to the door, I heard the low mutter of foreign voices from the other side. My preparations to leave New York with Miss Zorah had come too late; M. Arterius' barbaric Turks were already here, and I had taken no precautions against being assaulted in my room.
I seized Miss Zorah’s black book from the nightstand where it lay open, tucking it into my pocket, then leapt to the inner door that connected my room to Miss Zorah’s. I had suggested that she keep it locked for the sake of propriety, but I was grateful to find she had not heeded my advice. As I turned the knob, the first crash of something heavy against the hotel room door resounded.
Hurriedly I burst through the inner door as the outer gave way, spilling armed Turks into my room. I was surprised to find Miss Zorah already awake and dressed, sitting by the window. She looked at me, apparently my equal in amazement, as I slammed the portal shut behind me and threw the lock. Breathlessly I informed her that M. Arterius must have found us as the flimsy inner door began to shiver on its hinges. Together we pushed a massive and antique wardrobe in front of the door, blocking pursuit by that route. However, as Turks were sure to be thronging the corridor, we remained trapped. In confirmation, the outer door of Miss Zorah’s room began to shake with battery from without. Again, working together, we barricaded the other door with the bedframe, though this would serve only to delay the entry of determined assailants.
Not yet given over to despair, I threw open the window, only to find that the drop was a sheer three stories down to unforgiving cobbled street below. The only hope was to assay an escape along the narrow window-ledge to a nearby fire escape. Alone, I would not have hesitated, yet I feared for Miss Zorah, given her delicate condition, the clumsiness of her skirts, and her femininity. I cast my gaze around the room once more, searching for some other answer, but none was evident.
However, Miss Zorah joined me at the casement, and looking out as I had done, merely asked for my assistance in boosting her through to attempt the perilous passage to freedom. I gallantly offered to make the journey first, but reconsidered as the door to the corridor began to give way. A rifle butt was thrust through, being used as a lever to drive the failing portal open. Instead, I assisted her onto the ledge, and then joined her as quick as I could, pulling the curtains closed as I went.
Wind tore at us, threatening to pluck us from our narrow perch and dash us to the distant street. However, I maintained my grip, offering a hand to Miss Zorah as well while we inched away from the danger invading the recently abandoned room. As we made our way to the fire escape, the wind disheveled Miss Zorah’s dress, momentarily suggesting certain oddities in the shape of her feet and legs. Below exquisite ankles, her feet seemed overlarge and splayed, and her calves were muscled as though they belonged to a loping predator. However, I dismissed these as fevered imaginings brought upon by the poor light cast by the city lamps below us and the precariousness of our situation. It is with some shame that I admit to you that I was more intrigued by the alluring hints of her face provided by the windswept fall of her veil.
Miss Zorah attained the fire escape, and extended her pallid hand to me, which I was grateful to take, despite the incongruity of trusting such a slender arm for assistance. At that moment, however, the first hateful, turbaned head Turk was thrust from the window we had exited. Spying us, he shouted in his harsh tongue to the brutish fellows on his heels, pointing his rifle at us. The rifle discharged, shot striking sparks from the metal frame of the fire escape. I leapt the final distance, tumbling onto the platform with Miss Zorah's aid.
Still holding her hand, I dashed down the metal staircase, hearing another rifle shot, though it seemed not to come as near as the previous missile. By now, though, a crowd had begun to gather, even at this late hour, at the mouth of the alley we were descending toward. The foreign shouts, the sound of gunfire, both served as powerful lures to the dregs of the city that loitered about the darkened streets during the hours when respectable citizens were abed.
Reaching the ground first, I called to her to jump, and was able to catch her before more shots could rain down at her as she struggled on the final ladder. Hurriedly, we mingled with the crowd, averting our faces as a motorcar full of Turks slowly rolled by on the street, still searching.
M. Arterius and his cruel Turks evaded for the moment, I resolved that we should leave New York on the morrow, no matter the cost. To this end, I was able to secure passage on the SS Normandie , current holder of the Blue Riband. It was assured to me that no ship could reach Europe sooner, and though its destination was La Havre, France, rather than England, and the price was little short of exorbitant, I dared not linger. Having purchased a change of garments at the first shop to open its doors that morning, we boarded the ship, leaving the New World, and, we fervently hoped, pursuit behind us.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 8: Darkness on the Ship of Light
The following, being an account of the opulent yet unsettling transatlantic voyage.
luxurious opulence did credit to Cie. Gle. Transatlantique, and was the rival of any Cunarder vessel. The interior fostered a grand perspective, corridors running spacious and straight to open upon sweeping staircases and vast yet elegantly appointed public salons. Light streamed through brass- and chrome-rimmed portholes, cheering the spirits of those within. In murals along the walls, tritons and hippocampi frolicked mockingly beneath the ships of men, giving lie to the might of human construction. Meals were held in the grand dining hall, the length of which exceeded that of Versaille’s Hall of Mirrors. Strangely, no natural light was admitted to this room, rather taking illumination from massive pillars of Lalique glass, lit from within. Not for nothing was this known as “the Ship of Light.” It became my habit, following meals, to spend part of the evening in quiet contemplation of the intricate scenes of ancient Egypt that adorned the walls of the ship’s smoking lounge. I would marvel at their accuracy and imagine that the regal, austere faces of the pharaonic women might lie beneath my traveling companion’s veil. Nor had the ship’s speed been exaggerated to me, the great vessel cut through the seemingly endless leagues of the tempestuous Atlantic in a way that allayed the urgency which had settled into my chest since learning of M. Arterius’ dread interest in Miss Zorah and her book.
Due to our somewhat limited funds, we had been forced to share a cabin, though to assuage the demands of propriety I slept, for the most part, in a comfortable chair. However, it often seemed as though Miss Zorah slept little, if at all. I would often awake from a light slumber to find her seated upon the bed, regarding me with strange intensity. On such occasions, my notes and scribblings would be arrayed about me, as though I had been trying to make sense of the unfathomable pictograms in her mysterious book, though I had only the most vague recollection of unsettling dreams before waking. By way of explanation for her sleeplessness, she complained of a curious insomnia brought about by the serene quietude of the marvelous ship’s passage. She assured me, however, that despite the difficulty sleeping and her continued lack of appetite, her condition was much improved by the salt air of the voyage.
Other times I would wake to find she had vanished from the cabin entirely, a somewhat unsettling experience, such was the silence with which she had accomplished the feat. Concerned for her well-being, I decided that I should accompany her on one of her midnight excursions. So it was that I awoke, having dozed only fleetingly, to hear the latch of the cabin door click. Miss Zorah had only just left. Pulling on my coat, I made to follow, but then stopped short. Would I be intruding upon her solitude? Was it not burden enough upon her to be forced by our meagre means to share this cabin? Was there a reason why she would slip from the room in such a furtive manner?
Chastising myself for that final, suspicious thought, I assured myself that I intended only to ensure she did not endanger her delicate health with the night chill. It quickly became apparent that I was in the right, for the weather had changed for the worse, winds harsh with spray buffeting the ship and myself mercilessly as I emerged onto the open deck. As large as the SS Normandie was, built with all the power and ingenuity that mankind was so foolishly proud of, it remained only a mote against the unutterable breadth and awful depth of the ocean it dared to flit across. Ominous thunderclouds blotted out the sky, and for a moment I was given pause, recalling the way the stars had been occluded in such a way in my cataclysmic dreams. Even the ship’s generous deck-lights seemed dimmed in the face of the storm’s approaching wrath. However, the spell was broken as eldritch forks of lightning tore asunder the smothering blackness of the night.
Illuminated for a moment by the malignant blaze in the sky, Miss Zorah stood upon an upper deck, arms outstretched to the inky heavens, skirts whirling around her, tossed by the now raging winds. She may have spoken, I cannot say for certain, such was the crash of the waves against hull and the oppressive boom of thunder. Perhaps above the pandemonium I heard a cry of “ Ia! Ia! ” though it would have taken a dozen voices to be heard amidst such a din. I stood, dumbstruck by the terrible transformation of my travelling companion. Gone was any suggestion of frailty, replaced by a nightmarish sense of presence and a hideous strength of will that seemed to radiate from her. And beyond her... what horror lay beyond! As the jagged bolts of electricity reached down, so too did something reach up, stretching black tendrils from the heaving, grotesquely phosphor-limned surface of the ocean up to impossible heights in the sky above. I nigh cowered from the sight, so forceful, so abhorrent was the image, before I was rescued from it by the passage of the lightning back into darkness. With the sudden return to blackest night, there came a momentary dearth of sound as well, and in that lull I heard a faint, weakened cry from above, where I had seen that awful apparition.
Pulled from my transfixed state by the thought of her in pain or peril, I hurried up the steps to Miss Zorah’s side. She leaned heavily against a wrought-iron railing, all trace of that unnatural vitality having left her. I helped her to her feet, noting her dress was sodden with the blowing spray. Covered with cold water, yet seemingly burning with a feverish heat, she trembled in my grip, though I held her with all the comradely gentleness I could muster, given my disordered state of mind. I was torn between confusion at what I had seen, panic at the dreadful sight, and more tender, protective feelings towards one of the weaker sex.
"Shepard," she whispered, as though steadied by the name, "not yet... no, not yet..." In that moment, a mocking gust of wind tugged mischievously at her veil, teasing the soaked hem up above her mouth. Pale lips, bloodless and cold, curved bow-like in an incongruous smile. The smile widened, revealing small, curiously sharp teeth, from which the gums were drawn back to an unsettling degree. So transfixed was I by the sight that I could not help but lean ever nearer, until it seemed my lips would touch hers!
Suddenly there came a shout, and I saw one of the Normandie's sailors beckoning to us from an open hatch. Helping steady Miss Zorah's weakened form, I hurried under shelter. The sailor, a slight fellow known to me as M. -- Moreau, was able to aid me in returning my companion to our cabin. He provided a nip from a pocket flask to steady my own nerves before bidding us goodnight and cautioning us to remain below decks until the storm's fury was spent.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
This chapter originally featured artwork created for it which is not currently available for inclusion here.
Chapter 9: Traveling Companions
The following, being an account of travel enriched by companions both new and of old.
Mercifully, nothing further was spoken between Miss Zorah and I of that terrible night, and the blessed inconstancy of human memory began to take its toll on the doubt and horror I felt. For a time, I was even able to convince myself that I had seen nothing untoward; the abhorrent apparition on the horizon having been nothing but a trick of my eyes. Had I not just previously been nearly blinded by the sudden and overwhelming flash of lightning? As for Miss Zorah, I suspected that it had been a bout of hysteria, perhaps exacerbated by the tumult of the storm, that had seized and overcome her, leading to the strange behaviour on the upper deck. Indeed, the following day, she was long abed, her fragile frame wracked with coughs and fevers. She muttered, only half conscious, as I attended her bedside, though there was nothing intelligible to be gleaned. At various junctures, she verged on lucidity, but the soft glibberings that emanated from beneath that accursed veil, redolent with hidden intimations and somehow suggesting certain tongues no longer spoken by living men, only disquieted me further.
The SS Normandie arrived at La Havre, drifting through an early-morning fog to come to rest at a dock scattered with hardy well-wishers come to see the city’s favored ship return. Beyond them the grey slate rooftops of the long Italianate and corniced row-houses lining the quays stretched away in the overcast, broken only by the occasional quaint turret or mansard roof. The discordant chimes of trolley cars echoed along unpeopled streets tolling what was, all in all, an inauspicious arrival for Miss Zorah and myself upon continental Europe. Lacking the culture and beaux-arts of Paris or the liveliness of Marseille, there was little to be seen in this port town and we had no time to spare for such meanderings in any case. As it was, a few precious days were lost while passage by ferry to England was arranged. Miss Zorah also seemed afflicted by the weary drudgery of the city, keeping to the rooms we had rented, where she would gaze silently out past the harbor at the sinister undulations of the open sea.
Once begun, at least, the voyage to Portsmouth was providentially short. My appetite for travel by sea, never large having been prejudiced by the horror of the influenza-wracked troop ships of the Great War, had diminished even more. My relief at catching sight of the great derricks and smokestacks of Portsmouth was palpable. On Miss Zorah’s part, I believe that she shared my buoyed feelings, for she clutched my arm and pointed, expressing joy that we were nearing our goal.
It was a simple matter, once in Portsmouth, to purchase tickets for a train to Cardiff, where I hoped to meet with a former student to help guide us to the estate of Dr. Newstead. The train was prompt, and conveyed us swiftly through the English countryside toward Wales, befitting of the sterling reputation justly held by the English rail service. We had reserved a compartment to ourselves, as I reasoned that Miss Zorah would be adversely affected by the noise and close atmosphere of the coach cars. However, not ten minutes into our journey, there was a sharp rap at the compartment door, and when I responded, I was confronted by a most singular personage.
The intruder was dressed in a weathered blue cape over a uniform of a similar hue. His rudy face, all harsh planes and angles, was dominated by neatly trimmed muttonchops which twitched amusingly as he spoke in a rumbling voice. Doffing his tall round helmet and presenting his credentials, he introduced himself as Detective Inspector -- Vakarian, of Scotland Yard. Excusing himself somewhat sheepishly, he asked our leave to join us in the compartment, as he had been forced to board the train on constabulary business, and there was no seat otherwise available to him. I would have begged his forgiveness and refused, however, Miss Zorah, selfless as always, gladly admitted him.
Inspector Vakarian was easy company, speaking effusively on the nature of the business requiring him to travel with such haste. By curious coincidence, it transpired that he was also en route to Greenmarsh. Knowing something of the Metropolitan Police force from an earlier stay in England during my military service, I questioned why he would be dispatched to such a remote part of Wales. Here, however, he prevaricated, explaining that members of Scotland Yard, while their ordinary purview is the Greater London area, have jurisdiction throughout England and Wales. He then lapsed into dark mutterings, hinting at a series of murders at his destination. It was the grotesque and repeated natures of these crimes, it seemed, that required the attention of an agency more reliable than the local authorities. Though I had originally been loath to share a compartment with him, I was soon enthralled by his tales and erudite discourse on the philosophy of law and order. With the gregarious Inspector’s entertainment, the trip passed swiftly, and as we disembarked, I agreed that we should travel together, as we ourselves were bound for the general area of Greenmarsh as well. Inspector Vakarian happily joked that my offer would save him the time and discourtesy of having to commandeer a means of transport.
Having been notified by me in advance via cable, a former student of mine in the field of ancient Cymric mythology awaited us at the platform in smoke-shrouded Cardiff. -- Williams’ post-graduate studies had taken her from shadowed Arkham to the modern-day land of Wales, where she had swiftly made a name for herself, despite the pall cast over her reputation by an unfortunate archeological fraud perpetrated by her grandfather. I had not seen her in years, and was surprised to find her trousered and unkempt, clearly more at home now in dig sites than academic society. She cast aside the remains of a cigarette, and after a brusque greeting, helped us load our meagre luggage into her motorcar. She seemed to regard Miss Zorah with some suspicion, though she eagerly launched into a discussion with me on the rather gruesome matter of a certain grotto excavation underway at an estate called Exham Priory. Eager to be at our destination we drove late into the evening, finally arriving well after dark.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 10: The Abode of Dr. Newstead
The following, being an account of the curious living arrangements of the disgraced Antarctic explorer.
Despite the lateness of the hour, we were encouraged to stop at Dr. Newstead’s estate by the lights burning in the windows, which suggested that the inhabitants were still awake. The ornately arabesqued gate to the grounds stood open as well. In any event the weather, which had turned to sheets of rain, seemed to rebuke any plan to proceed onward in search of a roadside inn to shelter at for the night. The moisture and discomfort of the ride had taken a heavy toll on Miss Zorah, and she coughed miserably, though she stolidly endured without complaint. As the headlights of Miss William’s motorcar swept through the downpour, it became clear that the grounds were unkempt, verging on overgrown. Ornamental benches and trellises seemed to have been overtaken completely by curious growths of vine. These obscurely repellent shoots extended up the walls of the manor itself, the tough rope-like tendrils swarming in a horrifying manner all the way to the eaves. Nor did they lend to the appearance of a quaint, ivy-walled country house, for the vines were without leaf, and had a strange, doughy appearance completely unwholesome to the eye.
Much to my surprise, we were greeted at the door by one Lieutenant -- Alenko, whom I had met years before in France. The disinherited scion of a White Russian family, Lt. Alenko had traveled widely, serving in the Foreign Legion during the Great War where he had made my acquaintance. Now bereft of his homeland by the October Revolution, it appeared he lived as a soldier of fortune, lacking any other skills. A sensitive man despite his unfortunate profession, he was much afflicted by headaches and, laboring under the Eastern superstition common to his race, consumed philters made from cacao leaves and other more obscure substances besides to alleviate his ailment. Much given to philosophy, it was his claim that the dream-trances and wild imaginings these potions induced in him helped to calm his nerves and give him insight into the world about him.
He and another Russian were serving as bodyguards to Dr. Newstead, he told me, though he remained evasive on what cause the doctor had to require protection. Welcoming us into the manor, he assured us that Dr. Newstead would be happy to accommodate us for the night, given the inclement weather and the state of the country roads. However, before I was able to elaborate on our reasons for intruding on the doctor’s privacy, the other bodyguard happened to appear.
Where Lt. Alenko was darkly handsome and well-groomed in a European style, slender as befitted a man of his stature and profession, -- Urdnot was a barrel-chested brute of a Cossack, his face marred by injury and his bristling beard lending an aspect of ferocity to his visage. Despite initial appearances, however, I was to find him a more brooding sort, seething over some deep hurt within his psyche, rather than the innate dour fatalism of his kind. It seemed his custom to go armed about the house, as if expecting attack from any quarter.
We were escorted by the lopsided pair through the darkened manor, for it was only the front windows that were lit, it seemed. As my old acquaintance spoke of trivialities, I began to apprehend the feeling of strangeness afflicting the household: lights all extinguished, portraits and lintels laden with dust, furniture covered, debris littering corners. All these signs pointed to a house nearly empty of inhabitation. Indeed, Miss Williams happened to make comment on the overgrown nature of the verge surrounding the estate. To this, Lt. Alenko noted that the groundskeeper had quit his position, leaving the job quite unfinished. The groundskeeper had been an excitable sort and overfond of his drink besides, and had fancied he witnessed certain abnormalities in the creeping verdure. It seemed that before the gardener fled, he had made a great many slanderous utterances regarding the respectable Dr. Newstead while in his cups, spreading his own panic like a contagion through the rest of the staff. Thus most of the master’s servants had long since fled, save one, a scullery maid who we met as she tidied our rooms.
The maid, an Oriental of distinctly sickly and unnatural hue, said nothing though she glared at us boldly as one would intruders. I suspect that she remained because she was more accustomed to strangeness, having been born in richly-legended Macau. Miss Zorah regarded her warily, though she herself was reduced to leaning heavily upon me for support, such was her exhaustion from the trip. Before I helped her to her own room, she paused at each of the doors to the guest chambers, muttering in a low voice and making vague and somewhat unsettling gestures. Though I did not glimpse them with complete clarity I was reminded, with some trepidation, of certain rituals hinted at in Margaret Murray’s treatise alleging dark practices of witchcraft and debauchery through Europe. The name had come up, during our frequent discussions on the matter of Egyptology, a field in which Miss Murray also excelled, so perhaps that was how my gentle companion had knowledge of such things.
As the others settled in for the night, Lt. Alenko drew me aside and speaking quietly, confided in me that he was grateful for my unforeseen appearance. Dr. Newstead, he warned, always an eccentric, had been acting more strangely of late and to an ever-increasing degree of mental perturbation. The doctor had taken the Russian pair into his employ following his general discredit by the scientific and academic community, claiming that his detractors might not be satisfied with the destruction of his career and reputation. There were a great many valuables and rare manuscripts in the house, such as unscrupulous treasure-hunters might think to steal with the assumption that none would care if the scandal-ridden explorer were to meet an untimely end. Though no such threats had materialized, the doctor remained wary to a paranoid degree, as if a great terror hung over him, a terror which he must have perceived drawing ever nearer as the servants fled and the grounds of the estate became overrun with leprous foliage.
Bidding the Russian good night, with the promise that we would speak further in the morning, I returned to my room, finding Inspector Vakarian lingering at the door. At his questioning glance, I repeated Lt. Alenko’s warning, happy to take the constable into my confidence. The Inspector nodded, adding his own caution that one of the reports he received from Greenmarsh had spoken of a great mob of surly Russian immigrants descending on the town during the exiles and pogroms following the Bolshevik coup. He was thus wary of the intentions of the burly Cossack in Dr. Newstead’s employ, as there were hints of immigrant involvement in the murders he had been sent to investigate. Agreeing to remain on guard, we shook hands and departed to our separate rooms.
Despite my earlier travel-induced weariness, I found that restorative sleep evaded me. Sullen winds rattled the shuttered windows, and the loathsome ivy scraped and shook against the walls of the manor in a manner unpleasantly suggestive. Unable to find slumber and unwilling to dwell upon the eerie clamor, I contemplated the incredible journey I had embarked upon, and the most singular woman who had precipitated it. Such a contradiction is rarely found across the breadth of humanity; one so gentle, but frightfully determined, so open, but shrouded in mystery nonetheless. A supreme irony, one of the many tricks with which an uncaring universe has chosen to torment its playthings. I again returned to that night aboard the SS Normadie , so fraught with horrifying allure, but foolishly all that came to the forefront of my mind was the distressing enticement of her pale lips, finally revealed to me by a chance gust of wind. Of the heights of eldritch terror preceding that moment, I rue to admit that I thought nothing.
A sound startled me from my reverie, muffled by the door, but distinct all the same. From the hallway there came a peculiar slithering, tentative and stealthy, across the floorboards. I strained every nerve, held frozen by apprehension as the noise drew nearer, occasionally making a muted bump or knock, as if something groped blindly down the corridor. Several times a curious rattle or metallic clicking could be heard, though I would not comprehend the import of this for a moment yet. Finally the source of this dreadful, squamous sound stopped before my room. Silence reigned momentarily, and I fairly held my breath for the tension. Just as it seemed that it had all been merely a fancy, the product of the uncanny atmosphere of the house working on my fatigue-addled imagination, there came a fumbling at the latch of the door, and I realized that it had tried each latch in the hallway in succession! I would have sprang from bed to seize the door and prevent entry to whatever lurked outside, but as quick as it had begun, it stopped, and made its slithering retreat back down the corridor. Now more wary than ever, I remained awake for some time, falling asleep only at the thought of Miss Zorah’s strange actions at each door before we had retired for the night.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 11: From Beneath the Ice
The following, being the hidden tale and unfortunate fate of Dr. Newstead.
When morning forced night into temporary retreat there was no sign of whatever lurking presence had haunted the hallway outside my door. In fact, the wan sunlight illuminated only a greater degree of squalor than was revealed the night previous by Lt. Alenko’s lamp. Though I had not noticed it before retiring, the floorboards were strown with fragments of soil , doubtless signifying the absence of adequate cleaning staff. The soil seemed rather more moist than it should have been, had it been tracked in by our shoes, nor was it arranged in any manner suggestive of footprints. The only order to be discerned in its scatter was a perhaps-imagined trail of shuddersome sinuousness traced through it. In any event, it must have come from our party, for the bits of soil were only left as far down the corridor as my door.
Greeting us was Lt. Alenko, who saw us to a kitchen where he and his Cossack companion had prepared a meal such as I might have had in the trenches of France: bread topped with an overdone egg and strong coffee in the Russian style with rather more sugar than required. My old acquaintance apologized for the crudity of the meal, but admitted to a reluctance to partake of any meal prepared by Dr. Newstead’s remaining servant. Breaking our fast, I assured Lt. Alenko of the confidence I placed in Detective Inspector Vakarian, and left the constable in his company with instructions that the Russian explain to him more fully the suspicious events surrounding the estate.
Following our meagre repast, of which Miss Zorah took no part, she, Miss Williams and I were shown to a finely-appointed first-floor study by the vaguely repulsive maid. The room was stiflingly warm, a low blaze burning in the fireplace despite the season and the windows shaded by heavy curtains. As we were now alone, I went to the window and drew back the thick cloth revealing a view, only slightly obscured by the abhorrent creeping vines which plagued the house, of the distant headlands of the Welsh coastline. At the very edge of view, a thick black line stood vertical against the horizon, as of some colossal pillar, though the distance was too great to discern further detail. This seemed a mercy; the mere glimpse of this anomalous formation filled me with a sense of formless dread, as if catching a glimpse of an unexpected shadow in my path. It seemed altogether too stark, too great a contrast to the moors and heather of the countryside, a relic bespeaking an earlier, unhallowed age.
“The Citadel,” came a voice from the doorway, startling the two women and myself. Turning, I saw that Dr. Newstead had, with disturbing silence, entered the study unbeknownst to us. The reclusive owner of the estate was tall, with a full beard and clear, piercing eyes more suited to an Amundsen, Thorfinnsen or Nilsen than a man of letters. Though he stood straight, he walked with a perplexing hitch, as though unused to the action. Otherwise appearing the picture of rude health, his complexion most resembled the indefinably aberrant hue of his sole remaining housemaid.
Moving to my side, he went on. “That’s what the locals call it, that is. Basaltic rock, near as one can tell, nigh one-hundred fifty feet up from the breakers below, and another fifty in diameter. No saying how tall it really is, the ocean floor drops beyond sounding quite suddenly off the coast here.” At that he drew the curtains again with unsettling vehemence, cursing softly under his breath. I was not able to catch quite what was said, but it seemed to concern the overgrown state of the lawns.
Dr. Newstead suddenly seemed afflicted with a wracking spasm which doubled him over. I helped him to a chair and as the weakness seemed to pass, the explorer gave a queer laugh. The tone of this unexplained hilarity seemed to be at the same time both sinister and despairing, though I could not reconcile these conflicting impressions with any definable evidence. This, coupled with his uncanny entry to the room served to elevated his otherwise reasonably mundane appearance into the realm of grotesque.
The ladies and I took the seats he indicated as I offered a more formal greeting, and began to outline the nature of our visit. However, he quickly waved me to silence. “The damned carvings, is it? Never been a moment’s peace since the expedition, and it’s all due to those poxy carvings. First my reputation ruined, and for telling the truth, mind you, then Monsieur Arterius, and now you.” The shock at hearing M. Arterius had already visited the estate must have shewn on my face, but he seemed to pay no heed.
“I’ve half a mind to send you away like I did him, but I don’t want to be saddled with another spy like that maid. Oh, I’m sure Arterius thinks he’s quite clever, but she’s already gotten more than she bargained for, I’ll wager.” Again, he gave that queer laugh, spittle collecting in the corners of his mouth. He produced a handkerchief to dab the moisture away, but moved jerkily, seemingly out of practice in moving his own joints. “But no, look if you like, for all the good it will do you. The original rubbings are in the portfolio on my desk.”
I signaled to Miss Williams, who fairly leapt to peruse the explorer’s work. She produced a notebook and began transcription as Dr. Newstead continued. “They’re a poor treasure for the lives spent obtaining them. The whole expedition was ill-fated form the start: our departure was overshadowed by the first messages back from the Pabodie Expedition, and our return merely a footnote on the heels of their tragedy. I had thought to claim the plaudits rightfully ours and to do the memory of those who died in that hellish wasteland justice with the release of my manuscript, but, well, I am certain you know the results. Those cowards Dyers and Danforth, only now they speak up as to what they truly saw, trying to stop the Starkweather-Moore expedition? They’d best have a care lest they share my fate: disgraced, the laughing-stock of academia, a prisoner in my own home!” At this, he was seized by another paroxysm, this one nearly apoplectic in violence.
Regaining his composure at length, he went on, “granted, our expedition was less ambitious in scope and perhaps more esoteric in goals than the geological study Pabodie intended. However, drilling ice cores to discover the different strata of sporation was and remains a noble goal! Imagine it: a perfect record of the plant life from untold aeons, remarkably preserved beneath those eternal glaciers. What discoveries might have come of this? But now, I am ruined both in career and soul by this expedition.”
Seeing that he was truly a man in despair, I hastened to offer him my reassurances, but earned only another gestured rebuke. “I’ll not have your pity, sir! You, you who hasn’t an inkling of the suffering dealt to me. You think I care for my reputation, the aftermath of my Antarctic explorations? Not in the face what I saw there beneath the ice. It haunts me, yes, haunts. I feel its weight upon my mind, and now, now I know it lurks… But no, I go too far.” After an outburst of such fervor, his startling lapse into reticence bespoke a more terrible secret behind his agitation and other peculiarities and despite the warmth of the room I found myself shuddering at the implication. Here was a man, delivered mundane blows enough to shake anyone’s resolve, and there was something more that he feared.
For a time, silence reigned but for the eager scratch of Miss William’s pencil in her notebook. Now and again she would gasp at some half-realized illumination presented in the eldritch and benighted transcriptions she was working at. Stealing a glance at her, I could see that though she had gone very pale, and perspiration beaded her forehead. I would have reassured her, or perhaps taken her place, but Dr. Newstead chose that moment to continue.
“Perhaps I should speak plainly, then. As outrageous as my manuscript must have seemed to an academia blinkered by a lack of imagination or perhaps an unwillingness to embrace awful truth, it was the subject of some censorship on my own part. Some revelations I deemed to terrible to repeat, but now it seems there is no use in keeping my silence, for there will come a day that the truth will be apparent to all. And for myself, the day approaches all too quickly.
“Even if you have not read my manuscript, you must have heard the outline of my tale from those same rumormongers so willing to dismiss my work. The ice cores we took in the Antarctic interior were promising, shewing definite layers of deposited spores in the ice corresponding with differing ages of history. And then you must have heard of our discovery of a layer not of ice, but of preserved plant matter: vines, thick and tough, more suited to the untrammeled rainforests of the Congo than to the wind-blasted wasteland of ice. Where had they come from? What strange aeon had seen them flourish in such an inimical environment? And then, our ice-bores burst through into empty space, a vast glacial cavern, filled with objects of unmistakably artificial manufacture from an unspeakably distant age.”
“I have presented this cavern of treasures as a simple cache of a few tablets, but the truth, ah, but the truth is far greater. No mere ice cave it was, but a veritable abyss of cyclopean proportions and artifacts. An entire city, and one filled with such wonders as to astound the mind and inflame the imagination. From the strata in which it was found, it must have lived more than 250,000 years before our time, though certain hints suggest that it might be abhorrently closer to our own era. Such things belong in the past, and there they should remain.
“But forget the nonsense about fumbling in the dark with torches; that likely would not have duped the astute reader. The cavern was lit bright as day, the radiance emitting from a central tower, and reflecting to every corner of the city by virtue of the reflective ice which formed this sub-glacial realm’s sky. It is my belief that this artificial sun was a sort of atom torch more powerful than any envisioned by science today. Oh yes, as ancient as this city was, its inhabitants were surely our superior in the scientific fields. And it still lived, after a fashion! Rich vegetation covered much of the surface of those remarkable basaltic ruins, seemingly akin to the preserved vines we had discovered earlier in our ice cores.
“I get ahead of myself. Oh, the things I could tell you about this society, hidden beneath the ice, yes, hidden! But all that is in my manuscript, as you shall see. No, I must tell you of what I left out.” Dr. Newstead’s eyes shone with feverish intensity, his lips trembling as he spoke. Frequently his hands would jump or shake though he seemed altogether too young to be afflicted by a palsy of any sort. In all, he seemed in a state of dangerous over-excitement, hysteria, even. I began to regret leaving Inspector Vakarian elsewhere in the manor; I would not care to match myself alone against one in the throes of some overwhelming madness, and there were the women to think of as well. However, as the others had before it, the spell seemed to pass, again with an unnerving titter from the explorer, leaving me once more with the impression that there was some terrible jocularity in play to which I was not a party.
“They were a strange people, to have fled so far and hidden so deep, where ordinary men might have stood and faced approaching disaster unflinchingly. Strange indeed for a people that rose from the same earth as we now walk upon, breathed the same air, and beheld the same skies. But then, you see, they were not men as we know them !” My perceptions reeled at this revelation, but Dr. Newstead pressed on, a trace of lividity entering his ghastly complexion. “They were not shy about portraying their form in statuary or carving, and considered themselves handsome in the extreme, compared to the foolish and clumsy apes that shambled from the forests in their era. Our eyes might not perceive them as such, but they were like us in mind: curious, inquisitive, rational, though each to a greater degree. The world was theirs, for a time: the grotesque Elder Things of Dyer’s wild confession had slipped from this earth, and those octopoidal star-spawn whispered about by sea-side cults were quiescent, biding their time. This race, these Protheans, bestrode the world, colonizing lost Lemuria and other forgotten lands besides.
“Their reign far exceeded our own pathetic millennia of history, yet for all their puissance, wisdom, and knowledge, the end was swift, leaving only the hidden remnant there at the bottom of the world, carefully concealed by glacier and all the artifice of their eldritch science. A fine time for them to become reticent in their history, let me tell you! All their carvings of the end were damnably ambiguous, merely showing them cowering away in terror. It was no war, fighting seemed futile, and no cataclysm came from the skies, as that damned Arab Alhazred might have hinted. These lonely few, they huddled and left their obscure records until they fell into decadence. Here, their own timidity betrayed them, for they had forgotten why they hid. They returned to the surface after millennia of concealment and degradation, beholding the sky and paying it homage like a living godhead!”
Miss Zorah laid a pallid hand on my arm, startling me from the rapt attention I was paying the speaker. Looking to her, I could see the warning in her eyes, even through the veil shrouding her tantalizing features. Just then, Dr. Newstead rose from his chair in a halting fashion, and began pacing, marionette-like, his voice rising in pitch. “Yes, yes, oh, the irony! How they frolicked so horribly in orgiastic furor at the sight of the aurora australis! How they shook in frenzies when the katabatic winds would blow! Yet they reserved their most singular festivals for the touch of Zeus’ fury upon the ice, and it was this that spelled the doom of the last of their race. A certain windblown spore, a little thing, as one might catch in the fold of one’s clothing, much like Derby did, or Dr. Bishop, or, in the end, all the others, that grew and grew in the presence of an electrical current. Dr. Bishop, the poor fool, he was the one to call it the Thorian, seeing its reaction to the batteries of our torches. The vines! The vines soon overtook these final Protheans, infesting them, then bursting forth in an explosion of growth to claim their ruins.
“That last night among the ruins, as the aurorae blazed above us, and the lightning struck the earth, oh, the horror of it all!” The explorer nearly shouted now, his arms gesticulating spasmodically. “I saw their end, you know, but I thought I had escaped! Yes, yes, I took precautions, slaying the dogs before my return to McMurdo, divesting myself of all I wore and burning it, yes, burning! Even after my return, I suspected, and laid plans. There are several carboys of sulphuric acid in the coachhouse for just such an eventuality. But suspecting, and knowing, ah, different things entirely. Do you wonder why the grounds are so overgrown? Or just what that groundskeeper saw amidst the greenery? Or why I cannot escape?"
Dr. Newstead shivered in the grip of another fit of unsurpassed severity, but remained standing. Staring, aghast, I imagined that his very skin writhed and lifted, as if tendrils moved beneath it. His hair and beard seemed suddenly shot through with green, surely a side-effect of the poor light provided by the banked fireplace. "The Thorian! Even now it infests me, controlling me, compelling me! But it cannot stop my voice, no! And it cannot escape, for without the final measure of electricity, it cannot produce spores. And I--!"
Here he unleashed a pained howl and reached for me, hands bursting in an awful spectacle into a mad riot of snaking vines. He might have seized hold of me, and to what end I shudder to even consider, but for Miss Zorah. She sprang from her seat, knocking the maddened professor to the ground. In the tumult, I heard a low, fearsome growl, like that of a she-lion, but perhaps this was another mad utterance by Dr. Newstead or whatever he had become. As he rose from the floor again, visage completely obliterated by the horrific, curling growths, I made to flee but found the study door locked from without! Suddenly, however, came the thunderous report of a revolver discharging all six cartridges and I beheld Miss Williams, pistol in hand, standing over the grotesquely deformed but now unmoving form of the pitiable Dr. Newstead. It transpired that she carried a concealed pistol among her belongings against the danger of looters that might plunder the dig sites she frequented, a fact for which I am eternally grateful.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 12: The Terror Lingers
The following, being something of a travelogue from one unsettling locale to the next.
It was Inspector Vakarian who finally responded to our repeated pounding upon the door of our would-be prison. It does him credit that while he paled at the sight of what Dr. Newstead had become, he had no suspicion or recrimination to direct at us, for no crime within human capability could have effected such a nightmarishly verdant metamorphosis. Mindful of the doomed explorer’s own terrible preparations and desperate, maddened warning, we made use of the supply of powerful solvent he had procured to obliterate his remains, which even after the repeated shots by Miss Williams’ revolver shewed signs of a certain vegetable rejuvenation. Miss Zorah bravely offered to help us, but judging her delicate health to be a risk as she had already witnessed such a shocking transformation and even suffered a physical altercation, I bade her to conserve her strength for the renewed travel we would soon face. I wished no further danger to her; phantasmagoric images of tiny spores becoming caught in the ruffles of her dress momentarily clouded my mind. This mad intrusion into our own time from the awful past could not be allowed to exist, and so with bolstered resolve on my part, the constable and I set about the grim task, making sure to avoid allowing bits of the plant’s matter to adhere to our clothes.
Lieutenant Alenko and the Cossack Urdnot made a thorough search of the estate for the repellent maid, but of her, no trace could be found. Her olive complexion, once merely somehow outside the realm of ordinary pigmentation, now filled my reeling mind with the most awful of associations, intimating that perhaps another carrier of that floral intelligence remained. To this day, I cannot observe the tracery of lightning in the distance, nor behold a flickering light bulb without wondering if somewhere that once-human creature abides, waiting, taking nourishment from the wrath of nature or the invention of man and growing . As for the apparent immunity of Dr. Newstead’s bodyguards, I wonder if some trace of human volition had remained in the pitiable man that he resisted the Thorian’s grotesque impulses. Or perhaps it was the pharmacological effects of the good Lieutenant’s regimen and the rude steppes-bred robustness of the Cossack that rendered them invulnerable where the maid was not. In any event, the Lieutenant remained the man I had always known, and he vouched for his more taciturn countryman.
As we left the benighted estate that had seen such terror and lurking malignancy take residence, I noted with some satisfaction that the unnatural vedure which held the grounds in its unwholesome grip shewed signs of withering and decay. That which had closed its vegetable talons about Dr. Newstead’s soul must have served the awful matted greenery as sort of a nerve-centre and its destruction had robbed the growths of their dreadful vitality. Yet even with this relieved conjecture was tinged with the painful knowledge of what the professor claimed waits beneath the Antarctic glaciers for another unlucky explorer to find: mile upon mile of the terrible vines, brooding nightmarishly over the carcass of a race which suffered not one, but two annihilating tragedies. Perhaps neither this, nor the fate of that mysterious maid, shall matter in the course of human history, though. The end may come swifter, and from another source entirely.
The Russian and the Cossack elected to follow us to Greenmarsh, both desiring to investigate the rumors of involvement by immigrants from their self-same motherland in the murders there that Inspector Vakarian had related. With a touring car appropriated from Dr. Newstead’s estate in train, we formed a rather diverse convoy, the likes of which were not seen often on such lonely country roads. Finally, the unexpectedly gruesome events and tasks of the morning complete, if not entirely behind me, I was able to turn my attention on the matter which we had traveled so far to pursue: the “Prothean Carvings.” Miss Williams, behind the wheel of the car, steadfastly refused Inspector Vakarian’s offer to drive so that she could consult with Miss Zorah and I on the matter. She claimed that have seen more than enough of the “damned things” as she called them. Knowing what I do now, I admire her mental fortitude in enduring even the suggestion of what those carvings held, for such tough-mindedness is seldom bestowed upon the gentler sex.
Such was Miss Zorah’s excitement at the promise of new development and revelation in the translation of her father’s book that she consented to have the tome open in her presence, even leaning close to examine the transcription my former student had made. So, heads very near to literally together, we began the laborious work of translation, though I suffered the occasional distraction from the poor condition of the roads, the speed at which Miss Williams insisted on driving said roads, and, most disconcertingly, a faintly sweet fragrance, as of ancient funereal incense, which seemed to cling to Miss Zorah’s veil. It was, I admit, a somewhat immoderate circumstance perhaps, but such was the necessity forced upon us both by the confines of the vehicle and the demands of our scholarly task.
Making liberal use of my dog-eared copy of della Porta’s De Furtivis Literarum Notis as a reference, we were very quickly able to begin to ascertain the basic outline of the book, though many of my original theories formed using Miss T’soni’s aid were proven mistaken to a greater or lesser degree. It was, it seemed, a transcription of a much older work, most likely even copied down through the ages of Miss Zorah’s darkly-rumored ancestry, each generation adding more notes in the margins as they made use of the secrets contained therein. Remarkably, it purported to contain a history of the Prothean race predating the era of fall, decay, and obliteration that Dr. Newstead’s expedition had uncovered.
This “Book of Ilos,” as it was titled, hinted at terrible and fathomless cycles natural to this planet, a cosmic joke played upon the native inhabitants by the universe. In its very first paragraph, it advised an unceasing vigil be kept for the changing of the certain stars within the heavens, for only thus could the turning of this fatal cycle could be detected. As one who has hungered for knowledge and thirsted for understanding throughout my life, I knew well the dangers of delving overmuch. Some knowledge is not for the consumption of humanity, and some understanding can only be attained through the loss of one’s mind. My appetites, then, cannot be forgiven in hindsight, as even less than a day before I had witnessed what abominations could be dredged up by well-meaning seekers of truth. Therefore, I ask only sympathy from the reader; I foolishly sought that which I should not own, disguising my foolhardy and ignorant covetousness as an attempt to discharge my promise to Miss Zorah. For that must be the reason for my downfall, it must! The reverse is far too monstrous a blasphemy to even consider.
We had scarce progressed past the curious preface to the tome when we found that we had arrived in Greenmarsh. My first impression, made through the rain-streaked window of the motorcar, was one of a quaint village, picturesque in its rustic inelegance. Double-chimneyed cottages of rough stone lined the hillside roads, presided over by church which, while dilapidated, exemplified very early gothic architecture. I recalled from my earlier investigation of the village that it had stubbornly resisted conversion to Christianity until well after the enlightenment of neighboring Ireland, and decided that perhaps some resistance still remained, given the place of worship’s apparent desertion.
However, upon more careful consideration of the scene, certain rather disquieting details began to emerge. Though it was well after midday, silence reigned in the streets. Of the bucolic Welsh shepherds and yeomen so stereotyped by their more sophisticated urban countrymen, there was no sign. The few faces which peered at us from lifted curtains or cracked shutters were drawn and pale as if in great fear, and shewed certain facial stigmata usually associated with degeneracy and breeding of the lowest sort. Though fishing must comprise at least some of the village's livelihood, no ships were in evidence at the ramshackle dock, and only a single vessel could be seen on the horizon. Also lacking were the white speckles on the green hills near the village that would suggest grazing flocks. A pall seemed to hang over the town, though, in light of the most striking feature of the landscape, this should not have caused surprise.
To the south, looming over a band of foul-looking salt marshes, stood what Dr. Newstead had called "the Citadel." If its appearance at a distance had struck me with a vague uneasiness verging on dread, the sight of the pillar of black stone's hateful proportions so close produced an aversion somewhat approaching terror. It was far too smooth and stark for my liking, giving an impression of a terrible artificialness, though what human hand could have constructed such a monstrosity? I shuddered to consider the effect upon the psyche of living within sight of the thing, the oppressive inkiness of the stone clotting every view of the sky, the sense that it it did not merely stand, but somehow waited ! But for what, no man could say.
When Miss Williams stopped before a decaying country inn, I was only too eager to be beneath a roof, and out of sight of that dreadful basalt spire. Inspector Vakarian accompanying me, I made arrangements with the innkeeper for a short stay. It was not my intention to remain long, having aided the constable in reaching his destination. However, when I happened to glance at earlier entries in the guest book, I was astounded to see that M. Arterius had stayed there on numerous occasions during the past year. Inspector Vakarian also seemed to make a discovery within those pages, for he seemed most interested in a certain name written there, though he did not elaborate on the matter to me at that moment. From his mutterings, it seemed that he suspected the name he had chanced upon may have had bearing on the murders he had been called upon to investigate.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 13: The Troubles of Greenmarsh
The following, being second-hand tales of supposed Russian perfidy and a confession from Inspector Vakarian.
Having packed little food, given Lt. Alenko’s concern about the possibly adulterated nature of Dr. Newstead’s provisions, we were forced to dine at the tavern adjoining the inn. Inspector Vakarian remained in his room, consulting a small notebook he had brought with him, seeming elated at the discovery he had made. The other diners at the tavern, a thin crowd of the sorts likely to take their repast so cheaply, kept their distance to some degree. I was grateful for this, but concerned about the wide berth they seemed inclined to give to outsiders. Much of it, I felt, could be attributed to the natural reticence of country folk around strangers, which is the same the world over. However, there was a certain intensity to their fear and aversion which lead me to suspect rather more. Their barely concealed stares, laden with half-contained terror and mute accusation, made for poor dinnertime company. It seemed to put Miss Zorah completely off her appetite, for she ate little all evening despite the exertions of the day.
However, upon the departure of Lt. Alenko and the Cossack, leaving Miss Zorah, Miss Williams and myself to linger over our meals, a surprising change came over the rustic patrons. The serving girl, a sorry specimen with an unpleasantly receding chin and a cast in one eye, hurried to our table and warned us in a hushed whisper that we should flee while the Russians were gone. A nearby diner, brushing crumbs and other less definable debris from his beard to little effect, leaned over and seconded the advice in his nigh-incomprehensible Welsh accent. When I asked for explanation, I was answered by a veritable chorus of garbled exposition from the entire tavern, each person seeming to have been desperate to relay the terrible state of affairs.
I soon gathered that the Russian immigrants, all Cossacks fleeing extermination at the hands of the Bolsheviks, had arrived the previous year following a startling aerolitic display in the heavens that could not possibly be related, lead by a sinister gentleman. By their description, and there was no mistaking the old, poorly healed injuries described, this was none other than M. Arterius. Though the immigrants had been no trouble at first, hard times had come upon the town with their arrival. Judging from the babble, there was considerable resentment that the immigrants had installed their own curiously debased form of Christianity in the village church, though the villagers themselves had, as they termed it, “lettle truck wet’ churchgoang since the vicar passed.” Strange traffic began to plague the town, with “Mohammedans” arriving by both road and steam yacht, usually conveying packages of an indistinct nature to the Cossacks. Sometimes they would bring good, honest English or Continental visitors with them, though most of these were never seen to leave the village. Mindful of M. Arterius’ Turkish followers, I bade them go on.
Their other complaints, however, seemed far less directly attributable to the new citizens, or vulnerable to perfectly rational explanation. For instance, suspected wolves in the surrounding forests and marshes, coinciding with the foreign arrivals, grew bolder in snatching from the flocks of sheep kept by the villagers. No wolves were to be found, attributable to their supposed extinction in the Isles, but what else would seize sheep so boldly and with such cunning? Traps and poisoned meat had been laid out, but produced no results; unsurprising if the theoretical wolves were so clever as to avoid detection during their depredations in the first place. They also spoke fearfully of strange, sickly lights burning in the old church at all hours, often accompanied by indescribable foetors and heathenish chanting, but I felt that these were the worries of superstitious folk unaccustomed to the relatively benign religious practices of foreigners cleaving to the Orthodox creed.
Then, they went on, had come the killings. Lone men, usually shepherds, snatched away from open fields or hillsides at night, to be found later by the seaside, subject to the most outrageous mutilations. They would have suspected the inexplicably resurgent wolves, but for the condition of the bodies: in all cases the deceased had been subject to certain excisions of utterly ghastly portent. These killings had lead to the local constable to send for help, though it had come too late for him. He had vanished one night as well. The situation had only worsened since the Russians had left, the villagers avowed.
Here I was forced to call for explanation, as the Russians could hardly be responsible if they had left, though part of the reason for the town’s apparent desertion now became clear. This caused some consternation among those assembled as they puzzled this wrinkle of logic out. However, one spoke up, saying that the Russians had all gone off into the marsh, and their lights and chanting could be heard on clear nights there. This hardly provided an explanation, and seemed the most outlandish claim yet made, until one greybeard deep in his cups vowed that he’d seen the Russians worshipping meteoric artefacts they had dug up in the hills.
Seeing that there were more than enough accusations to be spread around, I explained that I trusted my traveling companions, and that we were in the company of a detective inspector of Scotland Yard. At this, the villagers were nigh-overcome with grotesque displays of approval as is the fashion among such simple rustics. Despite how joyous they seemed at the prospect of salvation in the form of an agent of His Majesty’s law, they remained adamant in their warnings not to go abroad after nightfall. I promised to relay their complaints and fears to the good inspector, and beat a hasty retreat, glad of the excuse to be gone from their faintly loathsome presence.
To my surprise, I found that despite his earlier desire for seclusion, Inspector Vakarian was just as eager to speak with me. “Shepard,” he began, holding up a hand to beg my pardon at the interruption, “it’s with no small measure of apology that I must admit I haven’t been entirely forthright with you. Yes, I’m here about the murders, but I’m not completely about Scotland Yard’s business, you see. I’ve been on the trail of a certain rogue, a Dr. -- Saleon, since after the war. No true follower of Hippocrates, this one: he was once a resurrection man of the worst sort, agents of his plundering graveyards all over England for his gruesome vivisections and medical studies. Then, we caught him selling tainted penicillin stolen from military supplies, again to finance a series of abhorrent outrages he was performing in secret on kidnapped indigents and vagrants. When I heard about Greenmarsh's murders and mutilations, I knew it had to be him. And there, in the inn’s registry, I saw his alias: “Dr. R. Heart.” He may not be here any longer, but there’s bound to be a trace of him still.”
Astonishment filled his face when I repeated what the villagers had said about the visitors brought by the Turks, and how none of them had left. Though I was not eager to interfere in his own personal matter and had been looking forward to more work with Miss Zorah on translating her father’s book, the possible connection to M. Arterius made me agree that the matter deserved investigation, official sanction or not. Even with the villagers’ warnings, it seemed expedient to begin the search at once; with the Russians having left Greenmarsh, it was possible that the trail might soon go irretrievably cold. After some ratiocination with the good inspector, the deserted church seemed the logical place to start, given the close connection to the Russians, and the mortal terror the locals had for the place.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 14: The Thing in the Steeple
The following, being a depiction of the gruesome and otherworldly discovery within the church.
Despite the unseasonable chill and clammy mist besetting the town, possibly owing to the proximity to certain ocean currents, Miss Zorah insisted on accompanying Inspector Vakarian and I on our midnight excursion. It was my intent to prevail upon her to rest and avoid having a cough settle into her delicate lungs, however the constable laughed and suggested that if she could keep up, she could join our “fool’s errand.” Thus mollified by his continued good humor in the face of adversity, and hoping that Miss Zorah’s veil would protect her from the worst of the inclement conditions, I reluctantly assented to her presence. I reassured myself that perhaps she would be safer in my company than alone in her room at that decaying inn.
Our first order of business was to examine to local constabulary, which was merely a room in the now-vanished constable’s cottage. The door was unlatched, and it quickly became apparent that the local agent of His Majesty’s law had been, at heart, a rustic like those he protected: more concerned with poachers and the like than strict maintenance of civil codes. He had kept a journal of sorts, full of indecipherable notes and curious digressions which worsened as the moment of his disappearance approached. While the inspector looked to the old man’s antique yet serviceable Enfield rifle, I attempted to glean any clues available from the spidery text.
The village constable, having rejected the possibility of wolves or even wild dogs long before the more superstitious and credulously unimaginative townsfolk, reserved judgment as to the perpetrator of the murders, though his wilder jottings hinted at half-forgotten local myths of things that flew and hunted when Fomalhaut peered red-lit over the southern horizon. More rationally he seemed convinced that the murders depended somehow on atmospheric properties, as the disappearances would occur coinciding with the chill fogs that would shroud the village, leaving only the steeple of the rundown church visible. On his more lucid days, it seemed, he suspected human agency behind the murders and livestock thefts, first suggesting feuding families then succumbing to the same more generally-held suspicions of the unwelcome immigrants. He could ascribe no motive to these suspects, however, and this appeared to preclude him taking any action other than finally sending for assistance. His last entries provided no help whatsoever, as he claimed to have been dogged by half-imagined flappings and rattlings at his windows and scribbled affrightedly as to what each night’s weather portended.
Looking up from the journal, I saw that Miss Zorah and Inspector Vakarian had moved to peer through the small-paned window into the thickening mist. Both wore an attitude of careful listening, so I stilled myself to bend an ear as well. The night was soundless, the fearful town having withdrawn in upon itself, not a mortal soul stirring outside their doors now that darkness had fallen. In this silence I heard, first faintly then more distinctly, a great susurrus, as of the fluttering of innumerable membranous wings. I would have spoken, inquiring as to the source of the sound, but Miss Zorah raised a small hand, anticipating my question. Straining still harder I finally noticed at the very limits of conscious hearing the dull pounding of some great drum accompanied by the mad skirl of pipes, all seeming to emanate from the southern marshlands.
“Perhaps those Cossacks out on the moor,” the inspector muttered, though the music bore no resemblance to the traditional folk compositions that race made on bandura or tambourine. Unable to confirm or refute the supposition, I joined them at the window. There was, however, little to see in the fog save for a minute flicker to the south that might have been a bonfire. Even this vanished, however, as the solidifying miasma closed its grip upon the benighted village.
“Shepard,” Miss Zorah spoke, turning her hidden eyes upon me, “we may make our way safely now, I think.” At this, I reflected how the faint tumult of wings had passed and wondered again at the meaning of the village constable’s final, terrified notes. Perhaps fearful of being separated in the ever-thickening murk, she slipped a cool hand into my own as we followed Inspector’s Vakarian’s broad back out of the cottage. She needn’t have worried as the gathering gloom tended to limit our view only at a distance, and I had taken a small oil lantern from the constable’s office as a precaution against losing our way. All the same, I was glad of her caution, for I wanted no harm to come to her.
Our small band, thus prepared, hurried up the steep cobbled road to the pinnacle of the town. Once or twice we paused as a strange buzzing call broken the hush that permeated Greenmarsh. It seemed almost as if the noise was in imitation of speech, but this was not possible, for what could buzz in such a manner from so high aloft? Perhaps overly excited by the confused legendry the missing constable had filled his journal with, my mind shied away from the thought of what might soar above the town on this terrible night. Nothing, however, interrupted our pursuit of the inspector’s blurred outline as we approached the overlooking church.
Forbidding in its size and bleak in its deserted aspect, the church loomed malignantly over the homes of its neglectful congregation. As we approached, Inspector Vakarian motioned for me to extinguish my lantern. In the resulting darkness a green and red phosphorescence, somewhat akin in appearance to the ignis fatuus, shewed with eerie lambency through the cracked panes of the edifice’s upper windows. As our eyes adjusted further, the glow seemed so strong as to suggest St. Elmo’s fire upon the steeple. The buzzing sound, replete with the awful suggestion of a source alien to the natural world, was once again audible, this time clearly resonating from within the supposedly abandoned place of worship. More terribly still, it seemed to be answered from various points in the starry sky, though what might be responding to that bizarre call was mercifully beyond our sight.
The door, boards clapped over it to emphasize the church’s desertion, required a small pry bar from the constable’s office to force before allowing us ingress to the darkened narthex. Only very faint lights sifted through cracks in the rotting door to the nave, and debris crunched softly underfoot as the inspector crept forward. A stalwart man, the inspector’s hand still shewed noticeable trembling as he pushed back the door allowing us full view of the interior.
The lights we had seen from outside seemed to be emitted by thick and foetid deposits of tarry stickiness that pooled in each desecrated ambry along the walls. Many of the pews were upended as if by considerable violence, and the iconography so beloved by those adhering to the Orthodox creed was scattered carelessly across the stone flags. A closer inspection of the nearest icons revealed that their subjects were blasphemies of the most abhorrent sort: saints in grisly torment, or depicted engaged in macabre acts with expressions of unholy glee. The altar was obscured by a tattered white curtain of gauze which seemed to ripple and billow at the slightest breath. Above, the groined arches of the ceiling were cracked and mouldering, and the vault above the altar had given way completely, leaving yawning blackness gaping beneath the steeple-spire. A noxious reek, half of rancid meat and half of some other unspeakable stench filled the air, setting both the inspector and I to fits of nauseated coughs. Miss Zorah, perhaps inured to such nasal difficulties by the frequent travails of her fragile health, sniffed keenly and seemed to shiver with fear or some other indefinable thrill.
“Returned already have you, you chattering blights? Found one quickly, then,” a quavery voice echoed from the transept. With a squeal of unoiled axles, a wheelchair rolled into view, its thin, wasted occupant wrapped in a dingy blanket against the chill. Valiant holdouts of unkempt white hair lingered on his parchment-like pate, and the speaker wore dark glasses despite to the gloom in the church.
“Dr. Saleon, I presume,” the inspector growled, a righteous loathing filling his voice.
“I… I was called that once,” the wretched man in the wheelchair answered distractedly, rolling to a stop near a long-battered table clotted with gore and other unmentionable fragments. “You… are not… why are you…”
Inspector Vakarian, striding forward to apprehend the criminal, informed him heatedly that he was under arrest, but the doctor held up palsied hands pleading for quiet. As the constable seized one of Dr. Saleon’s stick-like arms, the doctor finally resisted, and in the struggle the blanket slipped from his lap to the floor. Despite himself, the inspector recoiled at the sight of the doctor’s legs, which had been crudely severed mid-thigh and sutured with thick black thread. I pressed a hand to Miss Zorah’s veil to shield her from the sight, feeling the feverish heat of her skin beneath the thin cloth.
“Ah, an agent of the law, then,” the doctor sneered, suddenly seeming to find his voice, if not his composure. He tore away the dark glasses, uncovering blinded, horribly empty sockets. “As if your earthly punishments could constrain me any more than your earthly laws could constrain the advances of science! No, I have been punished quite enough, you fool, though pure science has always demanded such sacrifice. I say damn your petty justice and damn that madman Arterius and his lies for leaving me like this!”
“A man of my stature, confronted with some of the greatest advances to human knowledge within recorded history,” he shouted stridently, his mutilated face undergoing fantastic contortions in his fury, “only to become a prisoner and be reduced to the role of common butcher!” He indicated the scarred table near him, calling our attention to the surgical tools piled there. My stomach twisted terribly at the thought of how the villagers had described the excisions that had marked the bodies found by the seaside and how the desecrated church reeked with the smell of spoiled flesh. To what nightmarish purpose had the doctor lent his perverted expertise?
“Bah!” the doctor went on, but then he took on a more crafty aspect, “remain if you will and mock me with your pronouncements. Yes, remain. I’m sure they will be just as impressed. And then you may…”
Suddenly he stopped, shoulders hunched as if expecting a blow. Turning his sightless eye-sockets up toward the blackened void of the steeple, he cocked an ear as if listening. Several crumbling bits of mortar and stonework clattered down from above, causing him to flinch and wail pitifully.
“Oh, now you’ve awakened… no, and there is no meat!” Dr. Saleon, his anger quite vanished, now shrank into his rickety wheelchair in fright. Preparing for the impossible, Inspector Vakarian readied his rifle, aiming up into the dark reaches of the collapsed ceiling.
The thing that dropped from the darkness was beyond what any earthly experience could have prepared me for. Indeed even the stolid detective inspector, hardened by the occasional mundane horrors of his work, was thunderstruck by the sight, the barrel of his rifle wavering as he staggered in shock. For myself, I could only stand and stare though every fibre of my being desperately wished to look away. Miss Zorah remained steady, but standing behind me as she was, she may not have beheld all that I did. In one ghastly instant, I realized that what I had thought was a curtain obscuring the altar was instead a membranous web of monstrous proportions.
How can such a thing be described? A creature of a size more suited to an autobus hulked, rugose and chitinous, buzzing horribly from a dozen mouths. Of legs, it had more than an arachnid’s share, though in a similar configuration. Compound eyes unnumbered stared Argus-like from its bulbous head, surmounted by a pair of repulsively whipping tentacles. However, it seemed imperfectly formed, for its broad, translucent wings were torn and ragged, the edges showing evidence of having been burnt. Through the screen of its web it regarded us with dreadful intelligence, then tentatively extended one disgustingly cilliated leg through the curtain.
This galvanized Dr. Saleon, causing him to fumble desperately within his coat to produce a curious glyph inscribed on a greenish disc of stone. Presenting it before himself, he gabbled an afrighted injuction for the thing to keep its distance. The creature slowly drew back, as if with great reluctance, then turned its gaze more fully upon Inspector Vakarian, Miss Zorah and myself. Its pandemoniac buzzing reached a stuttering crescendo and then began to organize itself with bizarre regimentation, finally forming a repellent approximation of human speech. The thing from the steeple began to speak !
"Humans... you free us..."
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 15: The Doctor's Fate
The following, being the record of a bargain struck which brought no succor.
It is truly a testament to Inspector Vakarian’s nerve that he did not immediately fire and perhaps damn us all. Believing he had apprehended such a detestable criminal, only to find his quarry crippled and at his mercy in such a place of blood-curdling horrors, then to be confronted by this creature seemingly conjured from the darkest regions of a madman’s fancies? It was more than most men could be expected to bear. Appearing to sense the precipice that we all teetered upon, the thing from the steeple drew back into the darker regions of the desecrated altar, cloaking its abominable form in shadow behind the screening web.
As for myself, I could not help but question my own grasp on reality, to accept this unutterable bizarrerie on display before me. However, did I not stand within that awful fane of horrors, was I not nigh-overwhelmed by the charnel atmosphere, did not hieroglyphs obeying no geometry understood by human eye lie etched into the altar dais by no human hand? What choice did I have other than to believe my entrancedly staring eyes? To begin to doubt at that moment, or even this greater-removed moment would be to consign myself to an ever-descending spiral of catatonic psychosis.
“No!” howled Dr. Saleon, thankfully shocking me from my astonished trance, “things such as you should not speak! Serve, only serve! You’ll have your meals soon enough! Call back your spawn!” He gestured madly with his peculiar glyph, as if it held some sway over the monstrosity. Strangely, at this the thing set up such a piercing chatter that it seemed our ears might burst, and I was nearly driven to my knees by the unholy cachinnation. The doctor laughed giddily, more unhinged by the moment, gloating that soon our intrusion would be dispensed with and he could again resume awaiting the return of M. Arterius.
From Dr. Saleon's ravings, it seemed that even one of his own demented cruelty had found a fiend more depraved than he in M. Arterius. The disgraced officer had lured him to Greenmarsh, promising a medical conundrum of unparalleled nature, and Dr. Saleon had only been too willing to step into the trap. The doctor would have pranced and capered if he could, I think, such was his state of mental agitation and deterioration in finally finding an audience for his frantic gibbering. Though his tale was distorted at the best of times, it seemed that, by studying certain signs in the heavens, M. Arterius had predicted the fall of the creature during the plunge of the aerolites near Greenmarsh. Fantastically, the thing originated not of our own earth but of a world orbiting a distant star known to mankind as Fomalhaut. Taking advantage of its weakened state and tattered wings, he had bound it into captivity and service using occult methods gleaned from obscure myth-cycles implied in his prodigious collection of forbidden tomes.
The ancient authors of humanity, more timid and respectful of things beyond their ken than modern man, had known of that race’s travels to earth to hunt and prowl and had left their oblique warnings that no sane man should go abroad in desolate places on nights when the red star casts its baleful light from the heavens and meteors streaked the sky. This hinted-at race of fearsome star-dwellers knew things beyond any earthly knowledge, owing to their fabulous lifespan and otherworldly perceptions, and it was for this reason that despite all warning M. Arterius sought to enslave and interrogate the creature. Though he had the service of his murderous band of Turks and the wretchedly worshipful Cossacks besides, his true weapons in the war he had set himself to waging were unspeakable secrets and scraps of mind-searing knowledge. However, his intent still eluded me, and Dr. Saleon for all his grotesque promises and pronouncements, seemed ignorant of the matter as well. The doctor alternately whispered and shouted such horrors as what might be found outside the bounds of our curved space, the unholy deed before the commencement of time which so inflamed the thirsting hounds that lurk in the angles of the universe, even the dreadful origins of what skulks and lingers, dreaming, beneath the waves. There was no purpose to these scattered revelations; whatever reason he possessed was too decayed to provide any basis for rational deduction.
Inspector Vakarian was powerless to stop the doctor’s frantic tirades though he must surely have wanted to, for he dared not turn his rifle away from the phantasmal loathsomeness that, half-seen, crouched so abominably on the altar. I believe that the good inspector had the worst of it, having seen a clearer view of the thing than I. Though the moment is passed now, and his English reserve does not permit him to say much on the subject, I believe his nerve has not quite been the same since that night in the polluted fane. Then, however, I watched the muzzle of his rifle dip and sway and feared the worst.
From without the church came that tenebrous fluttering we had heard before our arrival, and this set the doctor to tittering again, promising an assortment of horrors for each of us. Stealthy crawling could be detected from the unlit rafters, and the eerie sensation of being the object of malignant regard by eyes inhuman and unnumbered crept over me. Slowly, lurking on the edge of our vision, they came, terrifying copies in miniature of the creature from the steeple. Our continued sanity surely only depends upon how they kept to the plentiful shadows with their buzzing and their jerky, unnatural scuttling. What man could have witnessed, and remained a man, that hellish profusion of eyes, those thrashing pincer-tipped tendrils, or even just the horrible suggestion of swarming, blasphemous life from spheres beyond our own?
While the inspector and I had lingered immobilized, however, we and the doctor had forgotten Miss Zorah. Somehow she had contrived to slip ever-nearer to Dr. Saleon, and during a particularly florid gesticulation on his part, nimbly plucked the strange talisman directly from his bony grasp. For a moment chaos reigned, a frightful din of alien buzzing and chitinous scrabbling. The creature on the altar surged almost into perfect visibility, but shrank back once more, this time when Miss Zorah herself presented the curious emblem before it. Instinctively, I understood that now it was at our mercy, just as we had only moments before been to Dr. Saleon. As for the doctor, he was shocked into silence only for a heartbeat before commencing the most pitiable entreatments to return the stone to him.
From the darkness behind the obscuring web came that buzzing imitation of a voice once again, this time with a hateful confidence.
“Humans, you make that one free us.”
Emboldened, the inspector steadied his weapon, but I placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. I cannot say what mad impulse lead me to stay his shot. I can only again plead that the hunger for knowledge had, perhaps like it had for M. Arterius once, overwhelmed wisdom. Looking to Miss Zorah, I saw her nod, and she brandished the icon again with a peculiar flourish. Lead once more into delving that the black abyss that yawns behind the façade of the ordinary, I demanded of the thing what M. Arterius was about.
There was a terrifying silence, and then came the creature’s more terrifying reproduction of speech. Mere words are insufficient to describe the sheer, mind-blasting inhumanity of the intellect partially transmitted to our hearing by that repulsive buzzing. No trace of kindred emotion or sympathy could be detected, for truly it belonged to another world altogether, and its presence upon our planet was a crime against the cosmos. It told me that its captor, which I perceived to be M. Arterius, intended nothing short of enacting some unspeakable ritual which might somehow grant him sovereignty over the entire earth. This ritual, the thing hinted, would involve a terrible cataclysm leaving the disgraced officer to rule only a brutalized fragment of survivors. Its final warning was merely that our time was short.
The thing indicated that it would depart our world, borne away by its teeming spawn, but reserved one demand of us. Thus I was reminded that any deal for knowledge must carry a terrible price, especially if one desires comprehension beyond one’s means. The object of its horrific petition was its tormentor, Dr. Saleon. He, it intimated, would be conveyed to that nighted world in the orbit of Fomalhaut, where its abhorrent kin could study and make much of him. From the complete and utter terror in the doctor’s piteous wailings, he seemed incapable of imagining any horror to supersede this.
Gazing at Inspector Vakarian, I intuited that the constable was considering the idea, perhaps finding it a fitting punishment. However, too much bargaining with nightmares had taken place that night, so I shook my head, to which he replied only with a curt nod. Dr. Saleon’s grateful screams rose in a dizzying crescendo as the detective inspector turned the rifle on him and placed him beyond the reach of that thing from outside the gulf of the stars.
As I pen these words now at some remove, I am again struck by the thing from the steeple's last intelligible words to me. I had taken them as a warning, then, that M. Arterius was near to accomplishing his blasphemous goal. However, I now see that I was confused by the creature's inhuman, buzzing inflection. It was no warning, but rather an assessment of all life on our planet, reaching back into undreamed of pre-human cycles, and extending as far into the future as our pathetic scrap of matter might support what feeble life can exist in the face of the uncaring cosmos. Our time is short. I was soon to understand, much to my sorrow, the cause.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 16: The Dream Out of Time
The following, being a revelatory vision-tale from the undiscovered past.
We fled that fane of otherworldly horrors soon thereafter, not wishing to remain to see the ghastly preparations the creature might take for its merciful departure from the realm of sane men. Miss Zorah, perhaps overcome by the terrible events of the night, happened to linger somewhat in that gruesome church, leaving my sight momentarily before my own whirling mind realized her absence. I admit a moment’s hesitation before hurrying back, but re-entry into the damnable place of such nightmarish doings was thankfully not required, for as soon as I began to return, I found her behind me. My attention must have discomfited her, for she self-consciously ducked her head and coughed, dabbing her hidden lips with a cloth. Again, perhaps I saw spots of blood on the handkerchief, but with only my lantern illuminating the fog-choked night, it was impossible to be sure. I would have inquired as to her health, but did not wish to pry further.
After accepting and returning a comradely clap on the shoulder, Inspector Vakarian retired for the night, clearly having much to think upon. I apprised Lieutenant Alenko of the general situation concerning the absent Cossack immigrants, though I confess I left out a great many details as to what precisely had transpired in the church. Knowing me of old, the lieutenant elected not to press me, a kindness for which I was sorely grateful. As for myself, I was eager to be abed as well, but had promised myself to examine Miss Zorah’s black book for a few pages more before allowing slumber to take its residence.
No sooner than I had begun to puzzle out the next section of strangely ciphered Prothean characters, however, than a thunderous noise was heard from the highest point of the town. Hurrying to my window, I saw that the decaying church had given way at last, the abuse both physical and moral seeming to have driven it beyond the point of architectural endurance. The mists stirred around its base, billowing with the collapse, and in the lurid light of numerous small fires begun with the building's demise I saw a vague shape waft upward from the wreckage. It appeared, at my considerable remove, to be a form of monstrous size borne aloft into the abyss of the night sky by the action of a great many smaller sets of wings working in unison.
Later, I would learn, the villagers examining the ruins found very little evidence of what might have caused the crumbling ancient structure but discovered that perhaps some of the immigrants had been secreted within the building and unable to escape the downfall of the edifice. The greatly mutilated state of the bodies, owing to the crushing action of the enormous stone blocks, prevented individual identification or even the positive assessment that the bodies were human. But what else could the grotesque organic remains have been, reasoned the simple, gently degenerated rustics of Greenmarsh. There were no other native townsfolk missing, nor any evidence that animals had begun living in the abandoned church.
In the immediate aftermath, however, I heard a weak cry from the adjoining room where Miss Zorah lodged. Forgetting all propriety in my concern for her safety, though I gave no thought at the moment to what could possibly have befallen her in the safety of her own room, I rushed into the corridor to attempt to make certain she was well. Much to my relief, she quickly responded to my frantic knocks at her door, perhaps having paused only to don her veil. Her breath came in quick gasps, however, so I assumed that perhaps she had been woken suddenly by the collapse of the church.
I swiftly made my apologies and would have returned to my room, but she placed a small hand on my arm to stop me. She had suffered a terrible nightmare, it seemed, and apologized for disturbing me with her involuntary cry. Further, she invited me to sit with her for a while and work on the translation of the black book. I was astonished to find it still in my hand and perhaps this surprise kept me from properly declining the invitation. Instead, I allowed her to draw me into the small and poorly appointed room, though I at least did not allow my gaze too linger on her dressing gown. Due to the enfeebling effects of her hereditary illness she returned to bed, though she seemed quite energetic despite the lateness of the hour and the uncanny events just experienced. Still loath to intrude, I reluctantly acquiesced and pulled up a chair at the bedside, if only to help take her mind off whatever dreams had plagued her.
Together we worked, reading as if old friends over a much-loved work of literature. Her native facility with even the peculiar archaic and debased Romanian of the margin notes sped the work on the more ancient language considerably, for the notes were often a commentary on some textual oddity. As we sat together, she excitedly placed her soft, chill hand on mine following the unraveling of a particularly thorny passage, startling me somewhat with the gesture of familiarity. Looking up, I fancied that for a moment I met her eyes through the sheer cloth of her veil, for it seemed that she was returning my surprised regard with considerable boldness. Struck by the seeming intensity of her gaze, I inquired if anything was amiss.
“Nothing, Shepard,” she replied, lightly. The smile audible in those words seemed a balm to the soul nigh-overwhelmed by the recent events which had tried the fortitude, both physical and mental, with their witness.
So greatly was I soothed by the simple pleasure of sharing an intellectual challenge, I must have allowed sleep to take possession of me for I slipped, nearly without transition, into the most curious dream. In it, I hurried along the labyrinthine stone passages of a cyclopean watch-tower, much as I had made my way so laboriously through the twists and turns of that ineffable Prothean text. I knew, in that strange surety that accompanies dreams, that I must hurry to the summit of the tower, for an astronomical event of remarkable singularity was soon to occur. I reached the zenith, finding the tools of an astronomer's craft awaiting. Among these were represented both the most ancient tools, such as silver mirrors, astrolabes, horologia and palms, and pieces of equipment more advanced than I had ever seen. Though I should not have recognized such implements, I knew them somehow, identifying among them devices such as etheric neutrinometers and subtle apparatuses for measuring the minute impingement of gravity upon light. Notes were scattered about on thin slips of a metallic substance, and I understood that these writings were somehow what I was now reading in Miss Zorah’s book!
I paused before the silver mirror, thinking for some reason that I should adjust my robes, which were disarrayed from my precipitous rush to the pinnacle of the watchtower. What part of me retained volition in this uncanny trance was unaccountably frightened to see my reflection, so I quickly turned away. I was not swift enough, however, to miss several peculiar and altogether shuddersome anomalies in the form I had glimpsed so briefly.
My dream-self had little time to spare for such alien aversions, readying tools for what was sure to be an observation momentous in rarity. By the calculations inscribed on those sheets of metal, the predicted occlusion of the beloved pole-star by the movement of the until-now only inferred black sun was an occurrence repeated only once every quarter of a million solar cycles. There were those, I somehow knew, who predicted dire things of this phenomenon, pointing to evidence of great extinctions in almost unfathomed past ages, but similarly I knew that these were the ravings of the unhinged. Was I not a rational being, a devotee only of science? And so I began my vigil, watching the sky and waiting, ready to etch all that I witnessed onto new sheets of metal so that a record would be made for all time.
How can what transpired be described? Tumult, chaos, a living darkness sweeping across the land, till it seemed that the watchtower stood alone in a seething, black ocean. Even to myself, as a dispassionate observer, the images are confused though I attempted to recall them as best I could upon waking. In this strange dream of times past, the end came with the terrible allusion that it had come many times before. I heard the screams of uncounted multitudes, throats raw from giving voice to the horror that crept, mountainous, upon the dying civilization. My dream-self screamed as well, of this I am sure, for who could witness such and remain silent?
And that horror, oh, that dreadful shape ! Though my dream-self suffered terribly from this sight, somehow a clear image eluded me. I recall a multitude of legs, or perhaps tentacles, though they were strangely jointed and moved with a terrifying precision utterly abhorrent for something so large. The rest, however, was visible to me in unutterable clarity. The seas foamed at its passage, waves topping fifty feet and more, tinged with foully red phosphorescence. The roiling black clouds that had descended upon the previously clear sky tore and parted before it, unveiling again that hateful occlusion which had so pitilessly spelled the doom of all life. The ground cracked and split, the very earth unable to bear its approach, spilling noxious gasses and pyroclastic flows. In its wake crawled, flopped and slithered a blasphemous host of misbegotten terrors, called from their hiding places to partake in the shouting, revelry and slaughter that reigned over all.
My dream-self, for all his vaunted reason and belief in the natural order of the world, gibbered and prayed to that nightmare incarnate, if only it would deliver him from the coming cataclysm. For this was a blinding revelation, though it was momentarily incomplete: the horror that stalked forth to clear off the earth was the natural order, and it was rational civilization that was the sorry by-blow of idiot chance. No deliverance came, not the least from that very engine of annihilation, and so the revelation was complete. Even in understanding, none would be spared. Thus, all that remained was to cower and await the end.
However, as a being of reason, my dream self was not content. He would endure agonies all the greater for this lucidity, but again he turned himself to his etching stylus and media and began to write, to chronicle the end of his world. Would not life rise once more, only to be again so cruelly snuffed? Could some creature in the far-flung future find his words and know their end as it approached?
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 17: The Mire of Madness
The following, being the preparatory act and the plunge into the malefic polder.
Consciousness came slowly to me, and I found myself to have slumped forward in my chair, exhaustion having apparently gotten the best of me. I had laid face down upon the edge of Miss Zorah’s bed, her father’s tome still resting under the fingers of my outstretched hand. Looking at it briefly, it seemed as though we had unaccountably read much further than I recalled from the night before. Indeed, there was little over a quarter of the pages still unturned, though to my still-weary mind only the most general shape of the contents of the earlier portion of the book came easily to memory. Then, with some consternation and a great deal of embarrassment, the full understanding of my mortifying situation struck me. Miss Zorah was still seated upright in bed, watching me with what I felt must be some amusement. Wan sunlight filtered through the drab, threadbare curtains of the small-paned window; I had been here all night.
Pursued by the sound of her chime-like laughter, I made my hastily apologies and fled. She had been extraordinarily forgiving of my missteps thus far, but there was no excuse for such unbecoming behavior. I would have apologized once more when I saw her at the late breakfast in the adjoining tavern, but was instead drawn into a discussion between Lieutenant Alenko and Inspector Vakarian. Lt. Alenko’s hollowed, deep set eyes suggested he had engaged deeply in his chemical pursuits the previous night, but the good inspector looked little better. The pair, along with occasional grunted input by the Cossack Urdnot, were debating the merits of trailing the missing immigrants into the marshes to the south of the village. Both looked to me as I joined them, the lieutenant expressing his pleasure at seeing me up and around.
I returned the pleasantries, but was forced to caution against their planned pursuit. After all, I reasoned, M. Arterius was a fiend whose deviltry and madness seemed to obey no boundaries. He was attended, at the very least, by Turks who were no strangers to armed violence, and possibly now Cossacks besides. I intended to see if he could be stopped in light of the terrible revelations by the thing from the steeple, but I was loath to see others risk their lives in such a foolhardy venture. Though it pained me to do so, I went so far as to attempt to persuade Miss Zorah to return to Cardiff with Miss Williams, where she could embark to a safer destination of her choice. That I would not be able to assist her in completing the translation as I had agreed, I was truly sorry, but her safety was my foremost priority.
Certainly the shock must have shewed on my face when I was confronted by a prompt and vehement round of rejections of this plan. Miss Williams was the first to speak up, noting that without her vehicle and the appropriated truck, it would be a long walk indeed into the marsh and reminded me of the disaster that might have already befallen me without her presence in Professor Newstead’s study. Both Lt. Alenko and his swarthy companion insisted that it was a matter of pride to determine if their erstwhile countrymen had embraced some sort of vile form of ritual and cult, and my old acquaintance hinted that he had dreamed a terrible outcome to the matter, if steps were not taken, though he refused to elaborate. Seeing his haggard appearance in a new light, I did not press the matter. Miss Zorah merely shook her head firmly in quiet insistence that she would not be deterred from seeing things through.
Inspector Vakarian summed up the general feeling for the others best, perhaps: “Shepard, you are a fine chap and a gentleman besides. But having seen what I’ve seen, I couldn’t say the same of myself if I showed the white feather now. I’m your man.”
With the support such stalwart friends in the face of dangers unknown, my spirits could not help but be lifted, though the shadow of the nightmares faced less than half a day before still weighed heavily on me. Here I had found fellow scholars and seekers after knowledge tried sorely yet undaunted by the terrors already witnessed. Without them, and the original assistance of Miss T’soni, there is no one who could say what might have happened. Perhaps I would have remained in blissful ignorance until the end. There are many things I would as soon forget about all that has transpired since the day Miss Zorah entered my office at Miskatonic University, but the friendships I renewed and found along that hellish path to what must be my ultimate destination are not among them.
The matter laid to rest, we obtained what poor maps and directions there were to be had from the rustics of Greenmarsh. The townsfolk avoided the marshes and bogs for the most part, the treacherous and undomesticated wetlands being anathema to their pastoral way of life. Some of the eldest, however, repeated injunctions they had heard in their youth that concerned certain rings of standing stones of evil reputation arrayed in the deepest regions of the mire. As to the reasons for such aversion they grew reticent, casting furtive glances to where the church once stood and remarking only that things had been done differently in the town in times past. At the landward extreme of the marsh there were situated a small cluster of shacks belonging to peat-cutters, according to our simple informants. We gathered that these cutters were somewhat outcasts even from the largely decayed population of the village, but would be better able to direct us to where the Cossacks might be camped.
Before setting out, a peculiar ritual played out amongst my companions as we stowed our luggage on the vehicles. The detective inspector checked the action of his rifle, stowing a handful of loose rounds in a pocket of his blue coat. Likewise, Miss Williams examined the load of her pistol with well-practiced, if unbecoming, familiarity. Lastly, the Russian and the Cossack also displayed well-traveled but impeccably-maintained firearms. The more heavily-armed Cossack readied a fearsome trench-sweeper of American manufacture along with his sidearm and lavishly-decorated shashka sabre. Lt. Alenko was armed more prosaically, with a Nagant carbine and revolver. He offered the revolver to me, and I took it with some distaste, having seen more than enough of the carnage such weapons could wreak during the Great War. For all my lofty goals of stopping M. Arterius and my moral horror at the consequences of possible failure, this was perhaps the first time I considered the method with which success might be obtained. It was a sobering thought, and I prayed that we would be in time for such measures to be effective, for I feared mere gunpowder and lead shot might be useless against the sort of incarnate nightmares that the disgraced officer intended to traffic with. During this, I thought that I spied Miss Zorah whetting a strangely constructed blade which seemed more an athame than a knife of any more mundane use. When we finally embarked, however, there was no sign of it, so I put it from my mind. She apparently would remain unarmed, and sat quietly, giving the impression of conserving her tenuous strength.
The drive along the back roads from Greenmarsh to the deepest point of the bog accessible by motorcar was an unpleasant one at best. The rutted tracks had clearly seen little passage by conveyance of any sort, and were overgrown with tall grasses and repugnant fungal growths of stupendous size. Several times during the trip, we were forced to disembark and push the vehicles out of sections of the road that had turned to morass, pitfalls that were practically invisible due to obscuring growth. It soon became clear that we were not likely to reach our destination before nightfall, though actual dusk did little to diminish the already poor visibility the path was so overshadowed by low trees with scabrous, lichen-riddled boles. These crooked trunks twisted and leaned so close that often it seemed as though we would be forced to abandon the vehicles and proceed on foot and more than once I despaired of reaching the described peat-cutter settlement at all. More disconcertingly, the few times the darkening sky became visible, it was invariably bisected by that abhorrent black spire off the coast.
As daylight faded, however, our headlights illuminated the first of the wretched hovels huddled in the midst of that forsaken bog. Clearly unused to the sight of automobiles, the miserable denizens of the shacks crowded about. As I emerged from Miss William’s motorcar and held aloft my lantern, it was all I could do to avoid recoiling at the filthy primitives that comprised the peat-cutters. If the rustics of Greenmarsh had seemed somewhat anomalous in appearance, these bog-dwellers were in the grip of a degeneration altogether worse in its grotesque obviousness. Signs of their catastrophic isolation were clear in their receding chins and sloped, beetling brows and other less describable physical deformities. Some seemed good-natured, if affrighted and bewildered by our arrival, while others stared with an idiotic vacancy that had an intensity bordering on the sinister. Bombarding us with questions in archaic Welsh and fragmentary English, they pushed close, but dispersed with startling suddenness for no apparent reason.
We had only moments to wonder at their panicked disappearance. Thudding hauntingly over the bogs came the cause: the pounding of those damnable drums. As our eyes adjusted to the gloom, an unwholesome reddish glow filtered through the underbrush in the direction of the uncanny noise, which as we listened was joined by the occasional accompaniment of blood-curdling shrieks and other more ineffable screams and shouts. Only careful coaxing could encourage the misshapen folk of the cutters’ settlement to approach once more, and even then they glared suspiciously at -- Urdnot, suggesting that they knew of and greatly feared the Cossacks lately of Greenmarsh. When questioned on the matter, what little of their tale that could be comprehended depicted a community under an even great terror than Greenmarsh. Since the Cossacks had occupied the jagged standing stones in the heart of the marsh, several women and children among the peat-cutters had gone missing, undoubtedly abducted by the new arrivals. The peat-cutters spoke in fear-struck whispers about the unholy tales surrounding the standing stones, which they said aped the hideous outlines of that monstrous obelisk known as the Citadel. So great was their fear, in fact, that they refused to guide us even one step closer to the standing stones, no matter what enticement was offered.
Unguided, then, except for that hatefully incessant drumming and malignant red glare we foraged ahead into those black arcades of horror. Ugly, gnarled roots of loathsome thickness seemed to pluck at our wearying ankles with each step, and we slopped though foetid water that splashed with an unpleasantly thick liquescence. Strangely, Miss Zorah seemed indefatigable, despite her omnipresent cough, though her earlier conservation of her strength may have accounted for this. She seemed infected with an almost feverish energy, at times pushing ahead near the front of our stumbling procession. The Cossack seemed the most affected by the hardship, uttering low curses in his own guttural tongue at each misstep. I believe that the possible complicity of his countrymen in such gruesome and blasphemous activities weighed heavily upon a mind already predisposed to wrathful brooding. As we struggled onward, the drumming and the orgiastic shouts grew ever louder, taking on more unspeakable characteristics as they became clearer. The demented cries resounded through the malformed trees, at times sounding like men, at other times like the braying of beasts, and still other times as though they were formed by no natural throat on this earth. Rank and nameless odors gusted forth from the hidden frenzies ahead, calling to mind the warning in the Necronomicon concerning the formless evil of the hinted-at Old Ones: "As a foulness shall ye know Them." Supporting each other for the few final steps through this veritable mire of madness, we prepared to breach the final barrier of undergrowth between us and our goal.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 18: Madness and Sacrifice
The following, being the necrology of an old and treasured comrade.
Our group had previously enjoyed the benefits of both comradely encouragement and martial preparation but no measure of bolstering our resolve could have immunized us against what lay beyond the thin screen of trees in that accursed vale of phantasmagoric blasphemies. Miss Williams, who despite her sex had braved the unearthing of Roman lime-pits and other such horrors as archeology could provide, was forced to turn away, retching. Likewise, Lieutenant Alenko’s face shewed very pale in the hellish firelight though he, as I, had seen grotesquery nigh-unending in the trenches north of Riems. His Cossack companion remained singularly unaffected in that respect, his only reaction to the sight being the deepening of his habitual scowl into an expression of stony wrath. It is possible that I cried out in shock, but this involuntary outburst was swallowed utterly by the unspeakable cacophony emanating from the glade before us. Inspector Vakarian muttered for steadiness, perhaps to himself, but each of us stood transfixed and trembling by the sight.
In the copse before us rose a loose ring of standing stones, each as black as the deepest subterranean reaches, shot through with bilious green veins of an unknown mineral impurity. Straight as outstretched fingers on a hand pushing up from the earth, they clawed at the abyssal void of the sky. What force could have driven them so deep as to remain so perfectly vertical in spite of the slopping unsteadiness of the their boggy foundations, my mind shuddered tremulously to consider. At the center of the ring an enormous bonfire blazed with a baleful red light, sending mephitic sparks drifting into the upper air, where they were whirled in churning, prismatic patterns by the keening night wind. Before this bonfire stood a dreadful basaltic slab of an altar, decorated with such gruesome accoutrements as might litter an abattoir. About the standing stones were crudely-lashed frames of gnarled swamp-wood, each bearing the horrifically mutilated body, wretches perhaps stolen from the miserable settlement of the peat-cutters.
This realm of unspeakable morbidities, such as might be painted by a Fuseli or Sime, would have been enough to send the unprepared viewer into mad, headlong flight back through the inky waters and warped trees of the bog. Far exceeding even that fantastic terror, though, was the seething throng of worshippers paying orgiastic veneration before that monstrous altar. They capered and danced, all nearly unclothed and frantic in their abhorrently bestial, licentious gyrations. To our tortured ears, their pandemoniac roaring had earlier seemed altogether without order, but now an abhorrent rhythm crept into our comprehension of the scene, as the debased and repulsive brood bellowed in a vile sing-song an ineffable phrase:
"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Nazara Ilos wgah'nagl fhtagn."
I would have collapsed utterly at this, for the tones and uncanny syllables, never intended to be shaped by human tongue, awoke in me oddly clear memories. As it was, my knees buckled, nearly spilling me into the knee-deep effluvium of peat and blood in which I stood. Miss Zorah, however, grasped my shoulder to steady me, and I remained upright. Only dimly, I heard the sound of shots fired in the air and the mad shrieks and chanting dissolve into a chaos of screams and howling. My companions surged forward as the Cossack Urdnot was no longer able to restrain himself, but I remained where I was, revolver hanging in my hand forgotten. I had seen that which had lurked on the edge of each nightmare since I had begun to read Miss Zorah’s damnable tome, and I knew naught else for a time. This abhorrent vision hovered over the bonfire within the ring of standing stones, its illusory form called by the bacchanalic rites of these depraved and foul cultists. I cannot bear to impart its form on paper here, however, though the time is coming when I feel that I must.
Perhaps it spoke to me imparting terrible knowledge, or merely idiotically bellowed its existence to all of creation, or it may be that all of my fragmentary understanding of the contents of the Book of Ilos finally combined into a single, soul-curdling truth at the sight. In any case, what filled my mind with such awful clarity at that moment has prevented a single night’s peaceful sleep since. For I suddenly knew, as certain as I knew my own name, that at the instant when the primal, cosmic forces of gravity caused this planet to coalesce, peculiar mechanisms of dreadful intent formed with it. These mechanisms, an awful, elder machinery intrinsically bound into the very fabric of Earth’s existence, slowly turned, marking off each second with abominable precision, and waited. They waited until the stars were right, and, awakened by the implacable movement of the occluding black sun to eclipse Polaris, they heaved from where they slept away the aeons to clear of the earth of all thinking, rational life. No transdimensional monstrosity or lurking star-spawn filtered down from the heavens in unknown epochs of history they were. No, the fatal joke played upon all life unfortunate enough to arise upon this planet and believe that there was order in the cosmos was that its own cradle was its mindless executioner. This world was for these elder machines, and none other would hope to disrupt the demented cycle of rising, glory, and horrific slaughter and desolation. Their very existence predicated our deaths.
With this, I finally understood the insane intent of M. Arterius’ nihilistic designs. The elder machines waited and would come nonetheless, but M. Arterius sought to curry their favor as the high priest of their cult, ushering in their age of ruin. He desired not sovereignty, but willing slavery if only to be spared the full measure of the nameless horrors they would visit upon what wretched life had dared infest the world. And this, this was the best that could be hoped for.
As if the very thought of the disgraced officer-turned-nihilist willed him into being, I came to my senses on the edge of the benighted clearing once more. Slowly arising from behind the altar where it seemed he had been prostrated in worship the entire time was the sinister M. Arterius. He wore a grotesque, mandibled mask over his scarred features, but the gore-clotted hook now replacing his maimed hand provided verification enough for myself of his identity. At his appearance, the deranged celebrants took heart, rallying from what had been a nauseous rout. They scattered in all directions, it seemed, at the warning shots by Inspector Vakarian and the others but now rushed back at the sight of their fiendish leader, nearly surrounding us.
Trench-gun now fired in earnest, the Cossack Urdnot roared his primitive fury at the animalistic assailants, sending several reeling away, blasted to red ruin by the storm of pellets. Unthinkingly the crazed Cossacks still threw themselves at my companions, even trying to scramble over the bonfire in their madness. Overbalanced, the conflagration toppled, spilling fire about the clearing. Most of my companions were able to get clear, but as the flames spread to the grisly sacrificial frames, Lieutenant Alenko was completely cut off from escape, frenetically trying to force back the lunatic mob with the butt of his carbine. I ran to assist, finally firing the borrowed revolver into the fray, but was brought up short by a scream for help. It seemed that Miss Williams had been pinned by a portion of the collapsing blaze and was unable to free herself. Torn by the awful choice I found myself having to make, I hurried to Miss William’s aid. Lt. Alenko was a dear friend of old, but he was a man of his dangerous profession, and knew well the vagaries of war.
Wresting Miss Williams from where she had been pinioned, I had opportunity to look back to the good lieutenant. I saw his carbine torn from his grasp and he grappled with several Cossacks, getting the worse of the struggle with his more robust and hysterical opponents. I would have attempted to hurry to his aid, but he turned his eyes to meet mine, and produced a hand-grenade from his threadbare uniform coat. Over the din I heard his piteous cry:
“Shepard! For the love of God, run! It’s your only chance, there’s nothing you or anyone can do now!”
I reeled away from the thunderous detonation, ears overwhelmed by the blast and the hideous screeching of the injured. Flames had been cast everywhere, setting tree, grass, and cultist alike ablaze. Stumbling, unable to act, I saw M. Arterius flee with several of his followers into the swamp in the direction of the sea where the Citadel reared malignantly. Dizzied by all that had happened, I reached out blindly in the chaos for support, my hand seeming to find Miss Zorah's of its own accord. She pulled at me urgently, and with surprising strength, and I found myself tripping after the remainder of my companions through the bog in pursuit of the disgraced officer, the rest of the heathen multitude baying at our heels.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 19: In the Shadow of the Citadel
The following, being an account of the flight to that grim monument.
Ask me not to speak of that terrible, half-mad race as both pursuer and pursued for much of what I recall is hardly believable, even to the credulous reader. What details are fit to be related are atmospheric and mundane when considered individually. However, approached with a holistic view, and one already shaken by certain monstrous sights and the death of a much beloved comrade, these otherwise simple details formed an unequalled landscape of madness which our aimless flight and chase crossed. The unwholesomely damp night-winds rolled in from the coast unseen before us, carrying a foetor laden with terrible portent. The gibbous moon leered overhead, a malignant eye watching the terror of the earth below uncaringly, its idiot scrutiny broken by the dark cumulonimbus billows driven by the gale in the upper air. Swamp lights flickered all around us, confusing our bewildered sense of direction. These greenish will o’ wisps flickered with such devilish intent that it was difficult not to ascribe an evil volition to what surely could only have been natural ignitions of marsh-gas. Eerie cries sounded on all sides, and though we hardly lacked for explanations, given the nature of what hunted on our trail, I could not help but recall the dark whispers of the Greenmarsh folk about what might lurk among the standing stones of the bog.
At times it seemed we were nigh to apprehend M. Arterius, at others we dashed in stark terror of being overhauled by the howling mass of Cossacks, yet somehow both outcomes failed to be realized. Instead, we continued the stumbling dash though the swamp, slopping through disgustingly stagnant and brackish pools and turning ankles joltingly on the occasional stone or other strangely solid patch of earth. Miss Zorah may have lead the way, loping easily over the loathsome, moist ground, torso bent forward at a queerly predatory angle. She, younger than I, had perhaps discovered a better way to traverse this wasteland of muck and slime despite her hereditary illness, for she seemed less troubled by the terrain. However, the sure-footed Inspector Vakarian also made good speed, obviously accustomed to the rigors of pursuit.
Tormenting me as we ran were the revelations of the night, the awful knowledge that human civilization hung by the most tenuous of threads over a seething abyss of madness and blasphemy from which it could never be recovered. What point was there, to continue our hunt for M. Arterius, if we could hope only to deny him whatever self-inflicted servitude to gibbering powers beyond human comprehension he was bent upon? Would not the Elder Machines rise from their slumber of eons with nightmarish purpose no matter the outcome of the relatively pathetic mortal drama already taxing us to our limits? Foolishly, my mind struggled to find a way from this cruel trap the cosmos had set for life on our benighted planet. Despair choked my breath as I falteringly ran, for how was I to devise a plan that might disrupt an infallible cycle of insanity and obliteration older than the very continents upon which life had the temerity to tread?
This jumbled, fleeting turmoil was banished from my mind without resolution, however, as we burst onto the verge where salt-marsh became sea. Ahead, it seemed that there had been boats drawn upon on a hummock of grass in preparation. Now only one remained, the other bobbing out through the surf towards a small steam yacht at anchor, M. Arterius surely aboard. The fiend had left one of his followers behind to spite us, the half-mad cultist wielding an axe in an attempt to knock out the bottom of the single boat to further forestall pursuit. His countryman Urdnot dispatched him with a single blast from his shotgun, clearing the way for us. By silent agreement, we wearily clambered aboard the nominally seaworthy craft, and the indefatigable inspector laid to the oars. The fiend Arterius had made some headway, and there was some argument at attempting to bring him down with gunfire, but the poor lighting and wretched condition of the tossing boat precluded any marksmanship. Quickly, the disgraced officer reached the safety of the waiting steam yacht, and the vessel, pressure already up, turned about and made for the open sea.
It was at that moment, though, that the sinister clouds parted and the pallid moon shewed its sickly radiance upon us once more. Or rather, would have shewn, as it was horrifically bisected by the ominous bulk of that blackest minaret of stone: the Citadel. In our panicked flight through the swamp, we had not realized how near it had become, and now we lay directly in its nigh-palpable shadow. A spectral chill filled the air, leeching what warmth remained in our muck-sodden clothes. In the darkness, the lights of the steam yacht glowed feebly, showing that it was not merely escaping, but rather making directly for that dreadful basalt spire. A faint, tremulous hope emerged in my chest: though they would certainly reach the base of the Citadel first, it was still within our power to pursue. But what then?
I voiced this fear, and for a moment received no reply. Inspector Vakarian nodded, but did not speak, gasping as he swept the oars through the inky water. The Cossack Urdnot merely grunted angrily, still glaring over the waves back at the shore where the cultists floundered in thwarted fury, their ululating cries for our blood fading in the distance. My former student looked nigh-overcome, shivering and staring at nothing in particular. I feared then, and still do today for the state of her nerves, sorely tested as they were by the terrible events of that eldritch night. Despair threatened once more to overwhelm me, my silent outrage against the bitterness of the cosmos nearly spent until I heard my name spoken. Of my travelling companions, it was finally Miss Zorah who spoke:
“Shepard, there must be something in the Book of Ilos. And if not, then perhaps we…”
She did not finish, though it seemed there must be more that she desired to say. Perhaps she could not force the terrible reality of the situation past those bloodless, shrouded lips. Yet, it seemed there was a hopeful lilt in her voice, as if some other solution was there to be presented. What other alternative beyond the emergence of those unspeakably ancient nightmares eluded my horror-wracked consciousness, though, and I would have shouted my despondency at her, such was the maddening hopelessness that filled me. However, raising a sallow hand she touched my cheek, the febrile heat of her skin startling me from my miserable state.
Nodding with renewed resolve, I produced the Book of Ilos from my coat where it had been spared the worst of the swamp’s damp. I had not let it leave my presence almost since receiving it, a fact for which I was now grateful. Flipping through its ciphered pages in the dim light of my lantern, I searched madly for a clue that might help to avert the fast approaching and doom-laden fate of humanity. And there, blessedly, after indulging in a mix between frenzied research and the wildest speculation, the barest suggestion of way out began to form. I remembered the terrible vigil kept by my dream-self in that time-spanning nightmare that plagued me as I translated the eon-cloaked text, and how important it seemed to that unfortunate stargazer of unfathomably ancient times that a record be made. Weighing upon my mind as well was the mindless arrogance of that blasphemous apparition that had spoken to me in the mire of madness, and how the presence of rational thought demanded that extinction unutterable be visited upon the face of the planet. Yes, perhaps something could be done. I looked to my comrades, seeing each lost in their own thoughts, save Miss Zorah who, though I cannot be certain, I felt gazed upon me from behind her veil. They could not be told of this course of action. The remote possibility of success depended upon its complete secrecy and the ignorance of all involved.
There still was left research to do, so I busied myself with feverish intensity, turning the pages of the book and muttering over the damnably difficult hieroglyphs that littered the pages. As I committed the formulae and incantations to mind, the Cossack took his turn at the oars, and I saw we were drawing ever nearer to that abhorrent black obelisk. The steam yacht ahead of us had already arrived, and the trembling lights seemed to suggest that its passengers were disembarking and beginning to climb the face of the frightful stone. Taking care to avoid their immediate notice as we ourselves made the approach, the Cossack rowed around the base of the Citadel, finding that it was ringed with jagged rocks that while slimy with sea-life, afforded a landing spot of sorts. Thus, we as well disembarked, and again Inspector Vakarian and -- Urdnot looked to their weapons, for at any moment it seemed that the followers of M. Arterius might discover us. It was then that we decided to split our forces: the Cossack and Miss William would assault the steam yacht directly, hopefully cutting off reinforcement of the party which even now seemed to be intent on ascending to the very apex of that fantastic spire. Meanwhile, the detective inspector, Miss Zorah and myself would scale that abysmal height ourselves to attempt to put an end to the hellish cycle of the Elder Machines.
Ascent proved a nigh-impossible task, for though the Citadel was wound about with crevices approximating stairs, these routes had been constructed by insane chance. At times there were only inches for our feet, and even less to cling to as a hand-hold. The bleak and haunted winds plucked at damp clothes, threatening to dislodge our tenuous grasp and send us shrieking down to the loathsomely phosphor-lit ocean below or to dash us to carrion on the serrated rocks. More than once I slipped and would have tumbled to my death but for the intervention of the ever-stalwart inspector. I was also plagued with doubt as to the fate of my companions both present and absent. Fear tore at me when I imagined a terrible fate for Miss Williams, and I wished I had bid her remain with the boat, though that course of action held little more safety. So, too, did terror fill me that Miss Zorah might come to some nameless end here or even up above if we survived to confront that would-be celebrant of the end of sane existence for mankind. I realized, though, that there was perhaps no safer place for her given the consequences of failure, and that indeed there was no place I would rather she be than here to provide such support as she might be able. We had begun this journey together, and it seemed we were fated to end it the same, no matter what ineffable cost might be exacted upon us. And a cost would come, though at the time, I could not have understood the extremity of that dreadful price.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 20: The Fiend Confronted
The following, being an account of the antagonist M. Arterius' despair.
Ascending to ever more dizzying heights, the climb became nearly vertical, forcing us to inch upward along a narrow diagonal niche. Torn hands ached and bled, but there was no chance of turning back. Once, at a great distance below I thought for a moment that gunfire was audible: the boom of the Cossack’s fearsome trench-sweeper and the crash of a revolver discharging its cylinders without pause. Whatever the outcome for our companions, we had no choice but to go on. The moon had pulled a caul of vapor about itself again, and so we clambered on in darkness, feeling our way ahead over the moist black stone. An eerie lack of sound seemed to reign, the susurrus of the restless ocean only a mutter at the edge of hearing. Even the tearing wind did little more than whisper along the sharp ridges of the Citadel. It was as if time itself had paused for our progress, watching the struggle with bemused indifference, taking note only because it would all soon come to an unspeakable end. And indeed, the night had already been overlong, and shewed no signs of giving way to dawn. For mankind, it never would, it seemed.
Exhaustion dragged at the limbs of our small band, the detective inspector and I both panting raggedly, and Miss Zorah occasionally emitting a liquid cough. Her earlier energy seemed to have fled, and the full burden of her illness now weighed upon her shoulders. With little else to do, I prepared for the moment when she would no longer be able to continue, when my desperate plan would cause her untimely mortality. In the back of my mind I understood that likely none of our small band would see the following day, but the thought of an early end terrified me. I would have reached down a hand for her, but doing so would have risked my own plunge, quite possibly dislodging her as well. What little I could do to help was gasp encouragement and press onward myself in the hopes of reaching the top more expediently.
Suddenly from above a gunshot resounded, thunderously near, accompanied by a wild cry that nearly startled me from where I was clinging to the chill basalt. A scuffle could be heard, and then a despairing shriek, the source of which became apparent as a flailing Turk plummeted by within sight of our perch, his turban unraveling in a long stream of white as he vanished below. A series of other cries nearly indistinguishable from those of an animal echoed out over the abyssal drop, and then another shout as one more Turk tumbled past, this one giving the appearance of having leapt, rather than fell or been thrown. It seemed we had almost attained the summit of the Citadel without realizing in the dark, and even now some struggle was taking place there among M. Arterius’ followers. One final hoarse scream split the darkness, turning to a liquid death rattle. Inspector Vakarian paused, signaling down to Miss Zorah and myself that he had reached the edge of the pinnacle. I motioned him forward, and he inched up, cresting the brink with impressive silence and unslinging his rifle as he went. I followed, extending a hand down to Miss Zorah once I had reached safety.
Ever since I put pen to paper and began this futile chronicle, I have dreaded this moment. My fear of reliving it even within the safe confines of the page is exceeded only by the expectation of relating a single other moment, though the demands of chronology force me to withhold that revelation for the time being. Rest assured, patient reader, I will reveal all no matter how desirous I am to remain silent. Grant me this temporary stay whilst I collect what is left of my nerve, knowing that before the end I am compelled to leave this record even if I doubt it shall cause any impact beyond what nameless fears it might engender in the individual reader. It is the nature of this accursed cycle that the unfortunate few shall know the unutterable truth, and the wretched majority will be left to spend their remaining seconds in inchoate and bewildered terror when the end comes with all its incarnate nightmares.
The scene atop the cyclopean spire of the Citadel was worthy of Roerich in its fantastic setting. The roughly flat apex was lit by a few oil lanterns set about, though the light was chiefly shed up in vain at the depthless black of the sky and had not been visible to us as we climbed. Thus, the queerly slick and reflective surface of the dark monolith was like a disk of obsidian set adrift in an endless void, ringed all about by colorless vapors that caught and magnified the wavering, thaumatrophically cast shadows. Only a blasphemous realist like the now-shunned and vanished Pickman might have rendered the more personal tableau of those arrayed upon this portentous stage, though. A lesser artist, or even a greater one, perhaps over-enamoured of the impressionist movement, would have cloaked the scene in churning, prismatic ephemera and lost the true nightmare quality. What lay before us was undeniably real, laden with minute detail, from the mud insinuated into the hems of Miss Zorah’s skirt, the raw redness of Inspector Vakarian’s knuckles as he brought his rifle to his shoulder, to the gloss of sweat upon the brows of M. Arterius’ swarthy adherents.
What imparted that wet gleam to the otherwise matte surface of the Citadel was blood. The dark crimson liquid fountained from the gashed throat of a struggling Cossack whose arms were pinioned by a pair of Turks, spilling across the zenith of that monstrous stone. M. Arterius held the sacrificial blade, for this could only be some sort of sinister ritual, in his remaining hand, and cast it aside to raise his arms to the blank heavens. He gave voice to a nightmarishly distorted cry, which was echoed with heathen ululations from his Turkish followers.
“Ia! Ia! Nazara fhtagn!”
It was all I could do to avoid lending my voice to that grotesque chorus, for having seen the shape of the disgraced officer’s ineffable masters, I now understood the meaning of that horrible phrase. “Nazara waits dreaming,” with the entity named being one of the eldritch host of the Elder Machines. For that is how they whiled away the eons, dreaming abhorrent thoughts of madness and annihilation. This then must be the meaning of the mad Arab’s curious couplet: “That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange aeons even death may die.” The Elder Machines waited to be called, and when they had passed, life or death would have no meaning. My plan to stop them depended on the nature of that call.
“Arterius,” I exclaimed, meaning to confront the fiend at last.
His Turks responded first, dropping their grisly load and fumbling at their bedraggled sashes for pistols. The detective inspector’s Enfield barked, spilling one to the ground where he stood. With a rack of the bolt, it spoke again, and the remaining cultist toppled as well. By then, however, M. Arterius had turned and leveled a revolver in his uninjured hand. He rested his aim on each of us in turn, and with a muttered curse, the stalwart constable held his fire. With considerable dexterity that fiendish celebrant used the hook replacing his severed hand to lift the grotesque, inhuman mask back from his face. What was revealed stunned me. On his scarred visage was not the foam-flecked lunacy I had expected, but a weariness, a depressed and despairing ennui worthy of Baudelaire.
“Shepard,” he acknowledged with a sigh. “I suppose you’ve come to stop me. Well enough. I shan’t make it simple, but you’re welcome to try. The death of one or the other of us might well be a mercy, considering what comes. But on that account, at least, you’ve lost. You know that, don’t you?”
With that I realized that M. Arterius, no matter the cruel life he had lead and the depravities he had enjoyed and inflicted, now found himself, much like Dr. Saleon had, in a trap wrought by forces unfathomably more wicked than even he could have imagined. The anguished desolation in his eyes told the story, how he did only what he believed offered some hope for himself, if none other, to be spared the full measure of the hideous fate now seemingly inevitable.
Seizing the opportunity, I made my impassioned plea. Strange as it must have been to one so immersed in the occult as he, I possessed knowledge that he lacked. Had he managed to seize the Book of Ilos from Miss Zorah and I, it is possible that he might have chanced upon the same plan I now outlined to him. Knowing was the key to the arrival of the Elder Machines. Without rational thought to behold them, to understand that the world belonged to them, and only to them, they would dream endlessly, secure in the ignorance and innocence of the feeble creatures treading their domain. It required a thinking mind to comprehend the unseen, grasp the deranged truth what lay beyond the façade of physical reality, and batter down the barriers separating their existence from ours to bring them spilling forth.
As I spoke, the faintest glimmer of hope seemed to awaken in his cold, desolate eyes, an emotion surely long foreign to him. With all he knew of such matters, and he was undoubtedly a better study than I who had merely happened to possess the singular fragment required to formulate a solution, he quickly grasped the heart of the matter. He nodded once with a sense of grateful finality.
“Goodbye, Shepard. Thank you.”
Swiftly, he placed the revolver up under his chin at an angle and pulled the trigger. He did not linger, perhaps finding the peace he had denied himself in life.
Somewhat morbidly, Inspector Vakarian stepped forward, trailed by Miss Zorah, apparently to confirm his death. Suddenly, however, the gloom about the peak of the Citadel seemed to tear, revealing the star-lit vault above. Despite myself, I breathed a sigh of profound relief, which was rapidly replaced by a horror just as abject. There, in those chilly heavens, that most constant star of the northern sky was slowly blotted out, as if by the eclipsing movement of a black sun. I was too late!
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.
Chapter 21: The Living End
The following, being an account of the end of innocent existence, and of the haunted aftermath.
In some respects, it is little surprise that subsequent to this experience I was the unwilling guest of an asylum for the mentally insane. The dreadful encounter has more than a little of the phantasmagoric or lunatic about it, and for perhaps months following I would have appeared as one utterly cracked. I was subjected to sights and sensations so far outside the realm of the ordinary or even the extraordinary that mundane existence can offer that for some time I myself questioned my sanity, and even my humanity. There was an immediate change in my perspective as that which I feared and had struggled so mightily to prevent began to come to pass. Such was this bizarre alteration in the very texture of how I experienced the world that even the staunchest skeptic, once subjected to the same adjustment, would have been disarmed of their cynicism and been compelled to acknowledge that forces beyond the scope of human comprehension were at work.
All that I beheld seemed brittle and false, as if painted upon a paper screen or the surface of a delicate glass ornament. I had only to stretch forth my hand, finger extended, I felt, and I might puncture the world itself and it would burst and vanish like a soap bubble. Such was the feeling that reality was little but a sham, I was positive that if I but took a single step to either side I might see behind it, like I had rounded a cheap stage backdrop. With this unwholesome acuity came new and more vivid heights of terror. There was no physical sensation to which I can attribute my apprehension, but I somehow knew that the sum of all fears known and unknown lurked behind this ephemeral partition.
“Ia! Ia!” a voice croaked, like the rustle of crumbling ashes. To my shock, M. Arterius began to stir where he lay, loathsome vermillion light leaking from his horribly open eyes and mouth. Against all physical possibility, he rose, arms outstretched and held to the abyssal night as he began again gasping foul obeisance to his otherworldly masters. Inspector Vakarian shouted and tried to grapple the Arterius-thing to the ground, and I would have gone to his aid, but I had espied something which drove all other coherent thought from my mind.
From the depths they came, though I cannot say for certain if I truly saw their emergence from the fathomless ocean on the far horizon or if this was merely the only metaphor my feeble mind could concoct to explain their appearance. They swayed and loomed hideously, forms grotesquely malleable as they shambled impossibly toward the coast. I can scarce describe them, for they fought against and eluded the eye, even as they commanded one to look upon their unholy magnificence, and gaze in worshipful awe. Their vast bodies hulked blackly, stark against the cold light of the stars, swelling and towering on an absolutely impossible scale, large enough I felt as diminished as might a bacterium perceiving an elephant. At times they seemed carved of stone, at others, gruesomely organic. Vast eyes compounded, slitted, and of types beggaring any description at all, opened and closed convulsively across its form. I babbled in terror at the sudden sensation of being watched, for they had taken notice, a vast, alien scrutiny that saw myself and all mankind as nothing more than crumbs to be swept from a tabletop. Below these bodies were abhorrently nautiloid heads, festooned with snapping beaks and maws enough to rend an ocean liner whole, each signing an ineffable song of nihilistic revelry . They dragged themselves on mechanically jointed tentacles, the ocean seething furiously at their passage.
“Don’t look!” I screamed, or at least it is my fervent hope that I lent some warning to my companions, rather than merely staring helplessly. Miss Zorah’s eyes must have been turned away in any case for she did not cry out, and the constable was preoccupied with his mortal struggle against the Arterius-thing in its senseless adulation. There was almost nowhere left to look and not behold the Elder Machines, such was the horrible rapidity of their approach. Already the first had reached the shore, those whipping, segmented and appallingly mechanistic tendrils devastating the tiny homes of Greenmarsh, though it was not clear if mindless spite or idiot indifference motivated this carnage.
The very Citadel shook with the violence of their passage, and the earth resounded and air quivered from the nightmarish sound of their thunderous babbling and mindless laughter. My skull throbbed in pain, unable to contain the nameless sights and sounds yet I wanted nothing more to take in every last bit, to see and to know and to titter terribly in discordant unison with the true lords of all creation. Knees buckling, I almost fell on my face in adoration to the Elder Machines, even as they reared so grotesquely above my lofty perch at the apex of that cyclopean monolith. Yet there remained a portion of my mind frantically clear in thought, desperately aware of the lunacy replacing sanity and struggling to maintain some semblance of rational thought. As if it were a separate part of me, it viewed the proceedings frenetically casting about for a way to turn back the inevitable.
The answer came to me even in my awestruck, terrified, and bewildered state. I had forgotten my own revelation to M. Arterius! Knowledge was the key. Through my own well-meaning study and diligent translation of the book bequeathed to Miss Zorah by her father, I had unwittingly taken the role of the Elder Machines’ high priest and summoner. By my own life and comprehension, I gave them access to the world, dooming mankind with each breath I continued to take. So, too, did I understand my only resort, and knowing myself to be at least the equal in determination as poor Arterius, I steeled myself for what must be done. Enjoining my comrades once more to keep their eyes averted, I glanced back one last time, hoping to fill my eyes with the sight of Miss Zorah before I did was what necessary. The familiar shape of her veiled head provided the last measure of resolve I needed.
Involuntarily bellowing as I wrested myself from my mesmerized paralysis, I took several faltering steps forward. My pace strengthened as I continued, until I was at a headlong run straight toward the oncoming host of those which blasphemed and gibbered so mountainously. I would have wept blood had I looked any longer so I shut my eyes, knowing that I did not need to see to reach my destination, only to hurl myself headlong from the crown of the Citadel. If abject fright did not stop my heart, then the annihilating impact with rock or surf below was certain to extinguish me and, I hope, sever the conduit I had become for the Elder Machines. As my feet found empty space, however, a thin, chill hand caught my outflung arm.
Oh, the remorse I felt in those moments before darkness claimed my consciousness. Miss Zorah, not comprehending my terminal duty, must have leapt after me, overtaking me easily with her queerly swift pace. Her touching loyalty and companionship misplaced, she had reached out to me. She might have pulled me back from that fatal brink, such was the uncanny strength in her grip, but the unsteadiness of her footing betrayed her. With a piercing scream, she tumbled after me, still clinging fiercely to my hand. Clammy winds shrieked around us at our fall, the din compounded by the roars of thwarted fury by the Elder Machines. Our sacrifice, I begged as the stark terror finally overcame my senses, let it not be in vain.
How I survived remains a mystery even at this remove. I was delirious for a time, I know, having only the most vague sense of my survival. I believed I was on a boat, for I was able to perceive a sensation of swaying and rocking, as of a vessel adrift. Later testimony by those who discovered me would confirm that I had somehow ended up aboard the steam yacht of M. Arterius, but would claim I was the only survivor of what they believed to be a terrible storm, the only other passengers being the slain followers of that tragic cultist. This, however, I know to be false. Improbable at it may seem, I believe it was Miss Zorah who came to my rescue, somehow managing to get me to safety on the abandoned craft. I remember her febrile warmth, and her persistent cough as she tended to me, nursing me as I lay invalid. I knew no time, though it must have been days that we were cast adrift, perhaps even weeks. Miss Zorah dealt tiny sips of water to my parched and feverish lips with a glass, and because I lacked the strength even to swallow, fed me only what she had already masticated.
Those affrighted fishermen who found me would perhaps have dealt with me in a rougher manner, or disposed of me quietly, but for the steadfast love of law and justice held by the doughty inhabitants of the British Isles. As it was, they bound me hand and foot, and seemed distasteful of caring for me in the milder manner that my frail condition required. My bouts of delirium did little to engender in them more compassionate feelings. I shouted and begged to die, I’m told, when I did not scream of the hellish behemoths waiting to clear all mankind off from the Earth. In moments of seeming lucidity I asked after Miss Zorah, but all avowed I had been the only living soul on that ship of morbidities. Whatever the case, I remember none of this. They delivered me to the even more unsympathetic authorities, whose only recourse was to have me interned as a madman. Thus did I find myself, when I finally regained my senses months later, the recipient of the care a great many professionally concerned doctors at His Majesty’s Royal Hospital at Monks Orchard.
They call me mad, those learned men, a supreme irony, for they are the ones who natter on in ignorance, not I. Who is truly insane: the one who has seen what I have, or the one who looks upon a façade and thinks it the extent of what is real? No storm could have devastated the Welsh coastline so, nor any tidal wave born of freak tectonic activity from the ocean floor have wiped Greenmarsh from the map so utterly, leaving only a tarry stickiness that no animal will approach. My enforced convalescence gave me ample time to brood on these and other dark thoughts, perhaps to the detriment of my health and temperament. I wondered if any of my comrades had survived as I had, and what had become of Miss Zorah. If nothing else, I consoled myself on the occasions when a gap shewed in my despondency, she now possessed the answers she sought when she first came to me, and could return to her ancestral home satisfied. It was all I ever wanted. This thought sustained me, and slowly time began to gnaw at the vibrancy of my dreadful memories. My wits recovered some, though I have since been unable to look upon the dispassionate glitter of starlight upon the trackless ocean without a shudder.
Would that my narrative have ended here, that I might have been content to remain nothing more than a poor Tom of Bedlam, convinced of my own mental disintegration. However it did not, and now at some remove from that penultimate nadir in my life, with many more fantastic, grotesque and blood-curdling events behind me, I find myself once again in the grip of a despair that time and futile hope cannot lift. My only recourse is the revolver. Before that solace, however, much of my story still remains to be told. There is but one more oddity of my confinement to relate, however, preceding the tale of my release from that ungentle institution.
While I remained, for a time, a guest of Bethlem, I was kept under lock and key in what less enlightened times knew as the “incurable” ward. The smugly learned alienists and psychiatric physicians of all types which demanded my attention on a daily basis would not tell me the cause of this veritable incarceration, suggesting only that I would surely remember when I was ready. I confess I raved, though about what I cannot recall, and there were those who raved louder and more inexplicably who were allowed to wander freely about the grounds while I was not. No, it was not my insistence of the blasphemous reality of the Elder Machines which kept me a prisoner, with shackles of iron at my ankles and wrists. The only clue, it seemed, was to be gleaned from the frightened gossip of the staff when they believed that I was not aware of their chatter. And in those damnable whispers they wondered at how I might have survived on that derelict steam yacht for so long without proper provisions. Then they would speculate on the bodies of the Turks that were found with me on board, all bearing frightful marks. And how fiendishly suggestive those singular mutilations were, evoking tearing bites by a dainty mouth full of small, sharp teeth.
Originally posted on the now-defunct BSN forums.