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The Terror Below (Short Story)
The following is another installment in an ongoing series of loosely connected short stories. I started this series a few years ago as an attempt to emulate famed horror author HP Lovecraft and create my own mythos with stories that would span decades (or perhaps more) but all take place within the same “Universe”. I began this installment, entitled The Terror Below, over a year ago but writers block, laziness, my job and other factors have kept me from finishing this story until recently.
Unlike the first two stories which relied heavily on a sense of foreboding and atmosphere I feel that this “episode” is far more action-oriented.
I. The Spinning Stone
There it was, spinning end over end suspended above the stone covered floor. The cave itself was natural, each turn and wind cut from the rock by underground streams and rivers that had dried to a trickle centuries ago. This chamber was unlike the others though, it was worked on by decidedly intelligent hands. Staring at the device as it spun I wondered if those hands were anything like those human beings possessed or if they were different.
Anderson, my friend and assistant, set his bag down carefully in the corner of the chamber being sure not to obscure any of the thousands of runes scribbled into the cave walls. Some had been carved, I noted turning my torch to the left and the right, clearly work that was centuries old if not more. Other symbols seemed newer and were scattered on the walls and floors of the cavern in some otherworldly pigment like no ink or paint I'd ever seen.
Anderson handed me something then and I found myself tiptoeing around the symbols as if merely touching them would upset some cosmic balance. I wasn't ordinarily so superstitious about such things but since the discovery of the cave I'd felt rather uncharacteristically skittish even in the face of new knowledge for the scientific community. The book Anderson handed me was old, nearly as old as the carved runes that surrounded the strangely spinning device.
I shined light on the brittle aged pages of the ancient tome and recognized some of the runes and symbols I was seeing upon the walls. There were few scribblings about their actual meaning. What I was truly interested in were the writings of the mad Arab, as the author of the tome was lovingly referred to, regarding the spinning stone in front of me. I had read excerpts from the Necronomicon before but knew little about it in general. It surprised me when my research led me to conclude that the book was actually several volumes in a series of ancient writings seven of which had yet to be deciphered by even the most talented linguists and brilliant minds and more of which might have been lost to the ages.
I was holding the third volume in my hand, the latest to be translated and that translation only tentative at best. There in the age old pages of the book was a depiction of the spinning stone, levitating and basked in a sort of ultraviolet light that was painful to the eyes. The stone in front of me was the same, it too was shaded in a dark gray light that was agonizing to look at dead on but which didn't seem to cast itself about the cave as ordinary light would. My eyes went back to the stone, then back to the book, then back to the stone again.
“The runes are in place around the stone,” I mentioned to Anderson who I noticed was sweating profusely now, “What is it James?”
“We've never been this close,” he answered with his anxious fingers practically gnawing at his collar, “I'm just not sure we should go through with it Eastman”
“We have the book,” I assured him with a disarming smile, “and the runes are all in place. Please James, this isn't the age of curses and mummies, it's nearly 1970.”
“The Pharaoh's had nothing like this,” he replied gesturing for me to simply get it over with.
At this point I was still quite skeptical that anything would happen when the words were spoken in sequence but the book had led us this far and I was willing to give it a try. It isn't everyday one discovers a free-floating stone wrapped in blindingly dark light after all. I lifted the pages closer to my eyes searching each line for the words until I'd found them at last scribbled in the blood-ink of the mad Arab himself.
“Uria Rah Elam Ki'tur, bemal soth. Kor' se'dintu nara yu'erok. Eten Soth!”
I looked back at the book wondering if I was pronouncing the gibberish accurately and if there were any meaning to the words at all. Of course no translation was present and there was no guarantee that the original language of the Necronomicon was even transcribed into the modern alphabet with any accuracy. I glanced back at the stone which simply continued it's monotonously circular journey around it's axis and found myself growing frustrated at the sight.
I'd never been one to believe in magic words or supernatural things of any kind really but I had been hoping that perhaps there was something to all this. The book had known the position of this underground cave never before seen by modern archeology and the runes inscribed upon it were unknown and untranslated. Here in the center of the room a stone levitated by some power or force manifesting itself in photon form. Surely whoever wrote the book knew something.
“I suppose this means we'll be leaving,” Anderson said grabbing his bag and feigning disappointment with his tone.
“Not so fast,” I replied grasping hold of his sleeve as he tried to skirt passed me toward the exit tunnel, “It's spinning the other direction now.”
“So what?” Anderson complained throwing up his hands, “Maybe it does that on it's own every so-”
Few things could make James Anderson stop mid-sentence and stand with mouth agape but what we watched unfold in that cave did just that. The stone wasn't just rotating differently it was slowing down and the light that surrounded it was shifting rapidly in shade. The color change in the light was so quick as to be only barely discernible by the human eye at first but now it was slowing considerably as well to give us bursts of brilliant light from every end of the visible spectrum. As we stood watching the spinning stone-piece smoke began to pour from the sides of it as if it's attempt to slow down were actually generating heat and friction. Like a locomotive drawing itself to a complete stop fiery steam billowed from all sides before it finally seemed to come to a rest and then, just like that, it dropped.
Anderson looked at me with a curious expression and I returned it feeling equally concerned and astounded. He soon had out a set of instruments designed to measure the level of ambient electromagnetic energy in the air while I nearly dove for my Geiger counter. The radiation of the room around the stone hadn't increased but I found the nearer I got to the stone the more the levels increased. I dared to get within two feet of the stone and found the radiation levels there to be deathly high had I decided to remain there for more than a few minutes.
“I wish we could take it with us,” I lamented continuing to test every available inch of air around the stone for radiation, “what truths does such an incredible find hold for human kind?”
“Truths we weren't meant to know,” Anderson answered without missing a beat.
“What an odd thing for a man of science to say,” I mumbled aloud to myself but as I did I realized that the counter was no longer ticking, “the air seems to have cleared, whatever energy permeated the stone it seems to have ebbed. Get a case James, we're taking the stone!”
“Are you sure that's wise?” Anderson asked wiping the sweat from his brow as he hefted the rather heavy specimen case they had brought along into position and gave me a look promising that he would not be the one touching the once radioactive stone.
“Of course!” I boomed, my voice echoing off the walls, “This place is ripe with secrets for the picking, we'll document every rune, every etching, every mark!”
“We're going to need University funding for that,” Anderson replied and I was nodding the whole time in agreement, “and a lot more than just we two.”
“All in good time,” I answered packing my things and eyeing several samples I'd taken of the strange pigment on the wall, wondering what secrets they might tell us.
“Do you think they will even allow you back on the grounds after what happened?”
I let Anderson's comment hang in the air. It wasn't that I was uncomfortable with the subject matter, it was, for lack of a more accurate phrasing, ancient history after all. I had broken no laws during my brief tenure at Miskatonic University but had clearly upset more than a few of the more orthodox faculty. It had begun innocently enough with a course I was teaching on Lost Civilizations, a rather speculative albeit interesting topic of study and one I was naturally familiar with. The textbook for the course was the legendary Book of Eibon, or rather a commentary on the book written by a fourth century monk who claimed to have found a rare copy translated into an ancient Chinese dialect.
The monk's commentary was most troubling to the superstitious people of New England, particularly the parents of young impressionable University students. Certain passages did relate to the occult and demonic of course, though I was more interested on descriptions of the monk's visit to China and India and the sunken island of Worria, which had risen from the sea off of India's coast during an earthquake and revealed ruins and splendors untold. The outrage of parents and priests managed to get me shut down by the University in a matter of only a few months time. Luckily I'd rescued the scrolls from the inquisitional wrath that had been raised against them.
It wouldn't be easy to gain their approval but few Universities in the country could have provided the reference materials we would need if we hope to make any progress in deciphering the mysteries beneath our feet. I had Anderson make the arrangements for my journey while he remained behind with most of the specimens, including the enigmatic spinning stone.
II. The Sleeper
I pulled up to the main gate late on a Saturday afternoon knowing that few classes ever carried on on the weekends. A few students were still here of course, catching up on research, heading to and from various laboratories, libraries, music halls and many other buildings and resources the University provided. I was unopposed by the security man at the gate, who laughed lightly with one of the students apparently regaling him with the story of some liaison he'd had with another students girlfriend.
Youth – I scoffed. Although that scoffing was deeply rooted in the saddening sense that I'd spent my youth with my nose in a book exploring archaeology linguistics and history rather than exploring the companionship of the fairer sex. I was a dissatisfied thirty-seven year old Doctor of Archaeology without a legitimate career and, thanks to Miskatonic, without a tenure. If I was successful today, however, all that time might not have been wasted. I was on to something. Stones, I kept reminding myself, did not turn end over end suspended in empty air emitting light and shoot steam when magic words were spoken.
Having reached the main campus hall and still being quite unmolested I approached the receptionist without hesitation.
“I'm looking for a Professor Whitley Cornish.”
“Doctor Cornish isn't here I'm afraid, he's on holiday.”
I was surprised by the receptionists British accent. My Mother was English, from the county of Kent, and I'd spent much of my childhood with her in Great Britain. My father had been an American veteran of the Great War and had fallen in love with my Mother and the country of Britain. It was there, in the countryside of Kent, that I'd first taken an interest in ancient history. The stone monoliths, the ancient barrows, they had captured my imagination as a child. Reading about the other wonders of the ancient world, and finding them, figuratively at least, in my backyard had set in motion events that had, ultimately, led me here, to Miskatonic.
“May I take down a message for when he returns?” the woman asked startling me from my thoughts.
“Has he left a number or address?” I queried with a most perplexed expression but she was shaking her head with every word.
“He specifically wanted to take a leave of absence, I'm afraid he hasn't been in very good health Mister-”
“Eastman, Samuel Eastman,” I announced with a slight bow and was surprised that she didn't seem to recognize the name at all, “Thank you for your help Miss, I won't bother you any longer.”
Professor Whitley Cornish was one of my oldest friends. We'd met on the journey to America when both our families were sent searching for friendlier shores by Hitler's Blitz. He was nearly nine years my elder but even as a teenager was far sillier than his age would have indicated. We'd often go on adventures, off into the forests of New England, finding it as ominous and full of history as our imaginations would allow. Every twig the remnant of a spear or arrow and every deeply buried boulder a hidden entrance to an ancient tomb holding secrets lost to time. He'd grown up too quickly for a man once so silly but both of us had ended up Professors.
I noticed then at the end of the hall a face I only half recognized. It'd been three years since I'd last been on campus, since I'd last seen her, and yet she seemed infinitely older, infinitely more beautiful. She'd been but a child of nineteen when I'd parted ways with Miskatonic, now twenty-two she seemed a flower in full bloom and here I was, at the age of thirty-seven, with my knees growing weak at the sight of her. She turned in my direction and caught sight of me. I did my best to compose myself and outstretch my hand to meet her own. She wore a warm smile, her youthful complexion dotted by a few blemishes but her bright blue eyes blotting out any imperfection I could have hoped to find. I set aside those boyish feelings and shook her hand happily.
“My my Professor Eastman, I'd never expect to find you here,” she said looking around as if expecting security to swarm me at any moment, “or should I simply call you Doctor Eastman.”
“Amelia Cornish,” I replied with equal astonishment evident in my voice, “What's all this about your Father going on holiday?”
“It's respiratory,” she explained, her voice becoming quiet, “well actually the doctors weren't sure. He figured a holiday back home in England would do him some good. Did you come all this way to see him?”
“I have a project I know he'll want a piece of,” I explained, “and as it stands he's my only friend left at University.”
“Well,” she started to smile once more, “not your ONLY friend. You're looking at the future Professor Cornish.”
“Really?” I asked taking a second estimation of the young woman and realizing that despite my initial fascination with her beauty she did indeed look the part of scholar more than socialite. She was bespectacled though her blue eyes shone through and had her burnt blonde hair fairly short and done up in a pony-tail. Her fair face still sported a fair number of freckles and I smiled remembering that as a child she'd sported a lighter shade of red-brown hair that had become a much lighter but still transitional form of blonde. Rather than wearing a skirt like most of the female students she wore a pair of dusty old trousers with the knees nearly worn through that befit an archeologist. I chuckled as I realized that her pants were in fact an old pair of her Father's, likely from his time as a grad student, the mud stains on them reminded me of several trips to Cambodia to study the temples there that we had undertaken with him as an already entrenched Professor and myself as a pupil.
“A female professor is not such an oddity in this modern age,” she scolded assuming my laughter was somewhat derogatory, “I'm nearly done with my doctorate.”
“Last time I was here you had just been accepted into the University, my how you've grown up my dear. Your major is still in linguistics is it not?”
“Dead languages are my specialty,” she nodded, “though I've been longing to get out on some digs. I still have archeology listed as a minor, if the whole ancient languages thing doesn't pan out.”
“Very much your Father's child, I'm very proud!” I applauded, “Perhaps I won't have to schedule a flight to the English countryside after all. Amy, how would you like to see what I've been up to?”
We retreated to one of the branches of the Miskatonic library I was most fond of. Here in this hallowed wing were hundreds of tomes, scrolls, inscriptions and works of art that never saw the light of day nor the attention of serious science. Here were the lost languages, the proto-tongues and the secrets of all human history disregarded as oddities, anomalies or hoaxes. Few of these works saw the study they deserved though a handful of history's most ardent students had managed to secure them a place permanently in Miskatonic's collection.
Here I explained my findings to Amelia. I showed her photos Anderson and I had taken of the cave hoping that she might recognize the language that had been strewn all over its walls. She seemed as perplexed by it as I was. It had no precedent and though a few of the symbols appeared in the Necronomicon there was not enough content to even attempt a translation. We spent several hours pouring over ancient tomes written in every known language and several unknown. The Manuscript of Zor, the Hyperborean Parchments of Pnom and one of the more recent discoveries, a fragment of tablet from a burial mound in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania known as the Sleeper Stone.
The stone was so named because, along with indecipherable runic symbols, it depicted a monster, or ancient god or spirit who appeared to be sleeping. Amelia explained that her Father had recovered the artifact on a dig about a year ago. His colleagues believed the depiction was of a rival chieftan, personified as a hideous beast with six serpentine legs and a grotesque bulbous head like that of a slug. Her Father, ever the imaginative one, had rejected the hypothesis, believing that one does not create a burial mound for a rival chieftan. The mound itself had yielded no human remains, but several large fossilized indentations had been found with startling similarities to cephalopods and mollusks. This had lead my dear friend Whitley to conclude that the ancients had come in contact with an octopus, or perhaps a squid of some kind, either dead or alive, and had attached godlike significance to it.
“It was after this discovery that his trouble started,” she explained with a yawn, “there were tunnels below the main mound, though eventually the funding was pulled. All the time he spent down there must have ruined his lungs somehow, he never was quite the same. And the dreams.”
“Dreams?” I inquired rising from my chair to stretch and realizing that it was now well and truly dark outside.
“The stone consumed him,” she said, “I know that sounds odd to say but he dreamed of it almost every night. He told me on many occasions, he would see the stone in his dream, floating before him, always these words repeating in his mind. He began keeping a journal, you can imagine how I worried. The doctor said it might have been stress, you know as well as I do he wasn't himself after Gloria, after my Mom, died.”
“I know this sounds strange, and perhaps too personal even for a dear old friend but might I see his journal?”
“May I at least know why?”
Thinking quickly I reached into my pocket and unfolded a piece of paper. It was the one clue to all of this that I hadn't shown her. Not a photo, for who knows what a flash of photons would have done to the stone, but a drawing, an illustration I'd made from memory of the strange floating stone. I pulled from my bag my copy of the Necronomicon and put both illustrations on the table before her watching as her bright blue eyes became sad and angry with recognition.
“The stone he drew, the stone he dreamed of, was not the Sleeper Stone,” I theorized.
“Doctor, what is going on?” she asked looking up at me with tears forming in her eyes.
“I wish I knew Amy, but as wild as it seems I believe it is all connected. My discovery in Ohio, your Father's find in the mountains of Pennsylvania. We may be the first to stumble on to a secret, one the natives of this place left buried thousands of years ago yet somehow burned into the mind of the Mad Arab and your Father.”
“We'll need funding,” she whispered, “If we hope to mount a scientific expedition.”
“First things first my dear... we'll need his journal.”
At first I had assumed that we would be visiting Professor Cornish's home in town but Amelia soon squashed that notion leading me off into the boondocks. We followed winding wooded roads where massive trees rose with twisting intertwining branches on either side of the street. Their trunks seemed bent, as if each ancient tree was fighting the pull of some unnatural gravity. The night was thick as we had spent the better part of a day hunting in the library.
It wasn't until the pale blue of pre-dawn lit the sky around us that we found the cabin. We had passed several such lakeside cabins on either side of the road. Tucked away in this forest were some of the more expensive and expansive homes in New England, built by recluses and tycoons alike. Whitley's Cabin was not at all like the others. More a ramshackle little house it was definitely an abode that bespoke a man of science and intellect rather than a man of substantial monetary wealth.
The woods around the cabin seemed eerily calm as we pulled into the driveway. Amelia was in a half-sleeping stupor beside me as I turned to regard her. Her directions to get to the cabin were scribbled on a sheet of paper perched on my dashboard, luckily they had been detailed enough that she had been able to nod off for the last few miles of our journey. She looked truly angelic, I found myself thinking, imagining myself brushing away the bangs gently from her cheek. It was not an illicit fantasy but it was one I shook from my head insistently nonetheless as the halt of the engine stirred her from her sleep entirely.
“This is it?” I asked as much as declared and a yawning Amelia Cornish nodded her head and stepped from the car.
She opened the cabin with the key her Father had given to her and we both stepped inside. The air within was pungent with the stench of old books and manuscripts even within the vestibule leading into the house. The main den of the cabin was littered with scrolls and old tomes though many of them I recognized as mere copies of the originals, they were still no doubt fairly old. Despite being everywhere, perched on nearly every piece of furniture in the place, the various works of lore and literature seemed completely organized, as if they were each in their intended place.
“He loved it here,” Amy remarked and I noted the pained expression on her face, “He used to tell me this was the only place he could escape the dreams, and write of them without reliving their horror. He told me that this was like the eye of the storm, a calm island in the sea writhing inside of him.”
“Awfully poetic for a man like your Father,” I blurted but luckily the comment did nothing to disturb her.
Amy dutifully lead me to a latched basement door. The odor that emanated from below was even more dingy than the oldest books and the deepest layer of dust. She went down ahead holding out her hand behind her bidding me to stay. I stood at the top of the wooden stairs, I could hear her rummaging around downstairs. The stillness of the air here still bothered me. I began turning around anxiously noting that many of the windows in the place were open and yet there was no breeze or noticeable draft. Indeed it seemed there was no air moving at any time.
“The eye of the storm?” I mumbled, dismissing my concerns as based in superstition and not worthy of a man of science.
“Here,” Amy said returning from the shadows below and handing me a journal in one hand and a replica of the sleeper stone.
We sat down in the modest little kitchen of the lakeside cabin, the both of us risking the water that shuddered out of the sink to replenish our fluids. I cracked open the journal and immediately recognized my friend's handwriting. It hadn't changed much in many years though his scribbles here certainly seemed to have been made in haste. The first journal entry contained only a vague description of the dream,
“Two stones,” the entry described, “A multitude was meant to guard them. A chorus of voices sings out in my slumber. Do not let the sleeper wake!”
More dark poetry followed in the next journal. It wasn't until more recent entries that my dear friend began seeming more and more himself and described what he saw in his slumber far more coherently and in better detail.
“The Glyphs are the same as those I saw in the burial mound, but that is not the only place they are present. They are related, I think, to an ancient Nordic tongue, definitely runic in origin but far far older than even the oldest standing stones. Despite my instincts as a man of science I cannot help but feel some energy from these words in the dream, like heat or even radiation. There is always that presence there in the back of my mind, like a weight, I can feel it even when I am awake now, even here, to the lake, it has followed me! Those lidless pale pinprick eyes, like the lenses of a Nautilus! What cold intelligence lies hidden beneath our feet? Kept slumbering by the stones! Do not let the sleeper wake!”
“The symbols are definitely similar to the ones I found in Ohio,” I remarked trying not to appear too shaken by my friend's apparent descent into madness, for Amelia's sake at least, “some are identical.”
“It is clear that my Father believed they were related to the stones, to some ancient energy, possibly atomic.”
“It is possible the walls of the burial mound, like the stone I found in the cave, are radioactive,” I proposed, “It would explain his sickness and perhaps even his mind.”
“Plausible but I still fear there is some underlying truth to everything he said,” she stood then and moved to the window taking a deep breath as the sun broke the horizon and appeared in reflection on the lake, “As crazy as it sounds. I think you should put the stone back.”
Just then we heard it, a whooping sound like the call of some strange bird. Amelia fell back from the window reflexively and nearly toppled over as she pressed back against me. The sound passed and slowly the tension of the strange call left the room. Frozen as she with her back against me I could feel the sweat building on my brow, made more nervous by her proximity than by the strange sound. She stepped forward and turned toward me with a yawn. I reached out and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
“We may be on the verge of discovering something that will change the world,” I said, “But I will put the stone back... for your Father's sake, and for yours my dear.”
“Thank you Profess- uh, Doctor, Eastman. You've been a good friend to my Father. I often thought of you as my Uncle growing up, though now I see less and less of you it seems. I am going to bed, there is a spare cot down the hall if you tire of admiring my Father's eclectic collection.”
With that she gently pattered off to bed. I retired at once to the spare bedroom and walked to the small porthole shaped window staring out over the beautiful lake. There was a series of small islands in the center. The twisted and gnarled old trees that had dominated the road seemed even more ominous and ancient out there on the shore of those tiny specks of land as if for centuries, millenia even, those tiny islands remained. These lakes were likely carved by glaciers as many bodies of water had been. There was something timeless in this New England woods, something that made them seem older than even the Ice Age if anything of the sort were possible.
“An uncle?” I mumbled in frustration as my thoughts turned back to Amy.
She was so much younger than I and, to make matters worse, the daughter of a trusted colleague. How could I be having such romantic thoughts about her? And yet I was, despite the discoveries we'd made so far my thoughts turned to flirty fantasies every time she was near me. Yet it seemed to her I was an old fuddy-duddy or worse... an Uncle? I was nearly fifteen years her senior and not exactly gifted in the social graces that would have won me a girl of any age. It wasn't romance I was after but knowledge and academic success, after all. I lay down on the acceptable but rather uncomfortable cot and tried to put Amelia in the proper place within my mind, namely as a friend but as I drifted gentle fantasies of kisses in the rain gave way to a dreamless sleep.
A shocking scream shook me from the depth of my rest. It took me a few moments to gain my bearings made all the harder by the jolt of pain rushing up both my arms. The blurred figures ahead of me danced dangerously close as I slowly came to. I noted the sky above was tinted blue not with the light of early dawn but with the tinge of a late October afternoon. The numb agony shooting down my arms wracked my body forcing me to close my eyes, but another scream, a familiar scream, shook me from my own pain.
“AMY!” I cried seeing her beside me, her arms above her head bound to a strange totem-like pole of twisted black wood. Not wood naturally black, I realized quickly, but covered in oil and pitch.
“Doctor!” she shouted back struggling as mightily as she could against the bindings, “They are madmen, all of them!”
I too tried to struggle but one of the men, his shape finally coming into focus, quickly rushed forward smacking me over the head with a stone in his hand. The searing pain and warm feeling of my own blood only drove me to struggle more. I found that I could, just barely, wiggle my feet against the ropes that tied them down. Soon I had my legs free and though I was far more academic than athlete I managed to swing myself up and kick the man. They were all men, I realized, except for one, with the men dressed in strange attire and whooping and hollering loudly like the war party of a Native American tribe.
The man with the stone tumbled away as I kicked him aside but the others laughed wickedly pressing in nearer to me. They were wearing what appeared to be robes sewn together of seaweed and stitched and glued of the shells of mollusks and crabs each one ornately painted or carved with some all too familiar runic shapes.
The only woman of the group stood on the other side of a massive bonfire, the smoke rising up to greet the slowly appearing stars as the sun slipped finally beneath the horizon. She wore a strange headdress, a crown of seaweed with crab claws, antlers and what looked like sharks teeth rising from the tangled kelp. Besides the crown she wore nothing all, her chest shone, glistening with the same dark pitch and oil that adorned the poles they were tied to. She was breathing rapidly and even through the sparks and flames I could see her eyes twitching as she too whooped and howled as if in a trance.
We were on the shore of one of the islands, far from the safety of Miskatonic, deep in the forests of New England on the secluded Lake Archer. The strength was leaving me as I continued to struggle with my already numbed arms. It was little use. Something, perhaps some drug of herbal poison, must have been used to get us this far in an unconscious state and despite the fact that it seemed to be wearing off I still felt weary.
Despite crying out like some depraved pagan cult the men and women around me were not at all ethnically or economically diverse. In fact each and every one of them was wealthy and pale-skinned and likely American as well. These were not some devotees of ancient practices common to this area in ancient times, at least not that I could tell, but were instead some other kind of mad cult. They did not seem the sort who would be given to mind-altering drugs either and, in fact, I recognized one of them as a noted philanthropist, multi-millionaire Charles Brandon - one of the men who helped fund the University no less.
Finally the naked woman let out a piercing and demonic sounding howl that quieted the crowd of dangerous revelers and calmed the whole scene.
“Doctor Samuel Eastman,” the woman's voice had a tremble to it one reminiscent of a Pentecostal preacher, “We have followed your work for many weeks now. We believe that you should be one of us my dearest Doctor.”
“I don't understand,” I exclaimed, “Please, let Amy go, she's done nothing!”
“WRONG!” the woman shouted and her breath caught the crisp October air before the cloud of mist from her lips hit the warm air of the fire and vanished, “She would have you believe that the floating stone is to be returned. We have waited, our kind have heard the calls, and seen the darkness!”
The crowd rumbled with anticipation at the mention of that, several of them hitting their knees as if in prayer while others reached their hands out toward the naked speaker as if bidding her to continue.
“The stones shall usher in a new age of peace as the sleepers shall wake! We cannot allow you to put them back.”
“Them?” I asked and repeated the question under my breath, “There is more than one?!”
“The ancients did not bury men in those mounds,” the woman answered as she began to approach the both of them, she stopped to regard Amy with a wicked smile on her face, “your Father found the fossils of those who opposed him, of those who no longer can guard the great Chief Muth'Kar! They removed the stone there as well but there is one that remains to be found. One that will awaken an age of enlightenment and knowledge, one that will lose the dark! Uria Parl, even now the great congregation watches our deeds!”
“You are mad! Insane!” Amy shouted as the naked woman removed a small knife carved of some kind of bone from her tangled crown and pressed it to Amy's throat.
“You leave her alone!” I shouted.
“You will leave the stones far from Krul'hara, far from Muth'Kar! And you will give us the final piece!”
“What are you talking about? I have no idea what the hell you're talking about!”
“Do not test me!” the woman shouted drawing a line of blood across Amy's cheek with the knife, “I am devoted to my K'sar! My lords and the lords beyond them! The stone you carried was a fake! And Professor Cornish did not possess one either!”
“What have you done to my Father?” Amy asked breathlessly.
“It is of no concern, we only seek the stone, to birth a world far older than our own,” the woman replied as she turned toward me with a lewd smile, she crept in close to me staring into my eyes with her ebony orbs twitching, “Uria Parl sits in psychic union now that they will spare your life if you help us get the stone. For it is the key of erok. Or, if you will not help, the smell of your flesh will please the old gods as you burn!”
“You first,” I whispered using all my remaining strength to get my legs up between myself and the crazed woman, she gasped in horror as I kicked out as hard as I could. She tripped over the stone that had earlier cracked into my skull and stumbled backward, her body covered in flammable liquid. The flames licked out hungrily catching her on fire and causing a bright flash as she essentially exploded. Just before the flash I caught sight of the knife tumbling from her hand, landing tantalizingly close to me.
“The sacrifice must be completed,” the men shouted, “They too must die! Finish it, for the ones that watch and the ones yet still slumbering!”
I had pulled off my shoe now and managed to barely reach the knife, wedging it between my toes as the first of the men rushed in. I stabbed out at him with my leg cutting at his seaweed clothing as the still screaming, still burning, woman leaped from the fire toward me. I managed to shunt my one attacker into the immolated woman as her last burst of strength was used up. The two crashed down together now both on fire as the woman breathed her last.
The others were coming now and I was already so exhausted. I turned to see Amy, with great effort and a great deal of rope burn she had finally freed herself of her bindings, but despite her attempts her legs were still bound. I called to her tossing her with knife with my toes and breathing a sigh of relief as she caught it. With one hand she fended off a fevered cultist while other tried to cut at the rope.
I felt the hard thud of several punches as one of the cultists came in at me but behind him another approached, this time with a lit torch. I barely had the strength to lift my knee into the abdomen of the first attacker and kick him aside as the second barreled in with his torch held high. If the flames even got within a few feet I was afraid I would go up in a flash of light. I struggled ever more against the bindings above me but soon found Amelia beside me with the knife working on my own ropes. As I was finally freed I dived out of the way but not before being struck by the attacker's torch, the flames licked at my clothing and I tore off my jacket and tie beating them into the dust with my feet as the cultist fell forward into the pole. The flames leaped up the oil soaked wood and into the air catching the cultist on fire and nearly taking Amelia and I with him.
In the chaos of that explosion we ran, darting in between the tangled roots and twisted ancient trunks of that island. It was primordial, our surroundings seemingly older than time itself, and the night darker than any I had ever experienced. Adrenaline drove us on, guiding us, I found myself clasping Amy's hand as tight as I could until at last we reached the shore and plunged into the water. Only then did I feel the minor burns on my skin, the sting of every little bump, bruise and wound in the icy water of Lake Archer.
We swam toward shore with all our might until, with aching lungs sputtering, we reached the distant shore. Torchlights on the water alerted us to the fact that our pursuers had a boat. We wasted no time resting despite our powerful exhaustion and continued rushing through the New England woods until at last we spotted a structure, a campsite, where a lone hunter sat with rifle at the ready and a hunting dog at his side. I could have cared less, in that moment, that hunting in these woods was likely against the law and had never, in all my life, been happier to see someone with a gun.
“Jesus Christ, what happened to you two, did a bear get you?” the man asked in his thick Boston accent.
“Please sir,” Amy pleaded collapsing to her knees out of exhaustion, “Take us away from here, we need a hospital! We need protection!”
An ungodly howl shot through the night air followed by more whoops and hollers and the sight of torches through the tangled trees.
“Names Russel, that's Spike” the man said helping Amy up and pointing to his dog, “Now let's get you folks the hell out of here.”
Russel Owens, the hunter we had met out in the woods, proved even better than his promise to get us away from Lake Archer. He went out of his way to bring us to the best hospital he could find and stayed with us as we recovered. I knew, of course, that his interest was mainly in helping Amy. Despite his rough weathered exterior Russel was only in his late twenties and he was keen on telling stories about his rather lonely life as a poacher and hunter.
“Always wanted to give it up and get a real job, just that since my Ma died there's no real reason to go back to Boston. No family. No girl,” he looked at Amy as he said it and she nodded and patted him on the hand reassuringly, “No real reason to do anything but what I know.”
“Well you have a reason now,” Amelia remarked and I found myself awash with a wave of jealousy, “You have friends.”
Spike, Russel's lovable if not adorable Pit Bull barked happily.
“And you have some new friends now too Spike,” Amy laughed, looking out over the hotel balcony. Luckily the cultists hadn't been interested in their money and had left both of their wallets unmolested. This had allowed all of them to get as far away from Lake Archer as they wanted to be after they had been released from the hospital.
“Do you think the police will find the men that did this to you?” Russel asked apparently deciding that just being friends would have to do.
“I just hope they don't lead them back to us,” Amy remarked.
“We haven't been followed,” I assured her, “And Anderson assures me that he will be here soon enough and that the stone is safe and ready for us.”
“To put it back?” Amy asked and her expression told me that she was afraid of my answer.
“Yes,” I replied with a confident smile, “Whatever this is we were dragged into we have to finish it, for your Father.”
“Thank you Doctor,” she whispered kissing me on the cheek. I blushed bright red, thinking to shrink back but instead I took her hand in mine and kissed it softly.
“You're welcome my dear.”
IV. The Key Out of Time
Anderson arrived at the hotel the next day looking more than a little distraught. The man had ever been of the nervous sort but the sight of Amelia and I in such a wounded state, for we still bore many bruises and healing wounds, seemed to leave him more shaken than usual. He assured me that he had the stone safely stored away in the home of a nearby scholar and mutual friend. I realized at once that he must have been referring to Mikael Gerdur, the Ukrainian Professor of physics at Miskatonic University and one of the only other staff their that had protested the inquisition that had thrown me out.
Russel decided to tag along with us to confirm our safety and he insisted that each of us take up arms in case the cult managed to track us down once more. I took from his personal armory an old Thompson submachine gun, one that his Father had passed down before his untimely death in the early 50s. There was little ammunition for it, a single thirty round magazine, but it was just a precaution after all and chances seemed good that the strange cult of Lake Archer was local. Amy took a .45 caliber pistol while Anderson was already armed with a shotgun he usually kept locked away for self-defense in his home gun-chest.
We reached Boston after a few hours drive and soon were pulling up to the considerable estate of Doctor Mikael Gerdur. Gerdur had made quite a tidy sum by defecting to the United States from Russia during the earliest phases of the Cold War.
I could tell as we pulled up to the house that something was amiss. Anderson immediately began to act anxious as several figures in hooded robes accompanied Doctor Gerdur out of his house. With my submachine gun firmly in my grasp I stepped from the car putting myself between the figures and Amelia and lifting the weapon threatening to fire.
“Please Eastman, do not antagonize them!” Mikael cried out, “They are far more powerful than you realize.”
As he shouted I felt a wave of despair sweep through my mind accompanied by a throbbing gentle numbness. I fell to the pavement with tears in my eyes immobilized by the sheer sadness that had swept unbidden into the depth of my being. A swelling tide of warm feelings followed, love unconditional picked me up and carried me on waves of satisfaction to a full course meal of comfort and content. I dragged myself from the pavement at last hearing the gentle humming, the sonic vibrations somehow emanating from human vocal cords as the hooded figures let down their shadowy garments to reveal ordinary faces.
“They are not the enemy,” I said though the words seemed less my own than theirs.
“Understand Samuel that they arrived only a few hours after I did and knew things that they should not have known,” Anderson explained, “They knew of the cave in Ohio, and of the spinning stone.”
“Not a stone,” one of monks chimed harmoniously, her voice like a warm melody, “but a lock.”
“We must put it back!” I turned to regard Amy as she stepped from the car and stood beside me.
“It will not be easy,” one of the other monks, this one a man, spoke, “Already the Dret'Tur is open, the pit will bring forth its many forms, and they will stand against us to see the awakening fulfilled.”
“Doctor Eastman,” the female monk chimed, her gray eyes almost white, her face shining and beautiful as she stepped forward to embrace me, “You are the one who removed the stone, you must be the one to put it back. We, the Order of Orellyon, will help you.”
“Please tell me, what is this all about, what is this beast they hope to awaken?”
“Krul'hara has had many names, a fearsome beast with many limbs, worshiped as a chieftan, as a King and as a God throughout time immemorial on Earth. His body is but a vessel though, for if awakened the Bemal Erok will bind him to the Uria Parl and usher in the celestial darkness.”
“I'm more than a little lost,” James muttered beside me and Russel merely patted Spike on the head nervously, “But if they are right Eastman we would see creatures from other worlds, other realities even, spilling into our own.”
“Like the creature on the Sleeper Stone,” I whispered as one of the monks revealed a relic from beneath his robes, “the Sleeper Stone!”
“The Key out of Time,” the woman confirmed with a nod, “A relic forged somewhere outside of time itself that locked the door. Uria Parl, the Dark Congress, used the door to escape, they wait now, outside of the laws of time and space, their psychic unison only managing the barest influence on our world until now, until the removal of the stone that kept the door locked. One piece of the lock that will awaken not just the stuff of nightmares, Doctor, but the stuff of madness!”
“Is safe,” the female monk said softly, “We got to him before they could and have him secluded away.”
“So we have the key,” I mumbled to myself, “should we hide it? Destroy it even?”
“You can try to destroy it if you wish,” she chuckled, “Many are the mortals of this Universe that have sought to destroy it. Orellyon himself could not abide its existence after all the havoc it wrought across the worlds of Ios! I digress... there is but one thing to be done with it, to the depths of Dret'Tur we descend. To the pit! And in the fires of that portal we break off the key and close that gate forever! With both the guardian stone and the bemal erok we can break the link!”
“This gate, portal to another dimension, it seems risky to take the key there. Even with both stones we run the risk of destroying this world,” I reasoned still unsure if I was ready to believe any of this talk of other worlds and monsters, “But I intended to set the spinning stone back in its place and I will.”
The monks bid us to come inside and for the first time in weeks Amy and I enjoyed a decent meal. Russel was amazed at the lavish home and even more impressed by the cooking. The monks hummed quietly as we ate, taking nothing but a few glasses of wine for themselves as we feasted. Amelia seemed eager to see her Father but the cryptic members of the Order continuously shunted her questions away and brought the conversation back to the caves in Ohio.
They briefed us as the night went on on what we might expect to encounter as we passed into the underworld. They showed us ancient maps that seemed scribbled in blood, clearly familiar to my eyes as part of the Necronomicon, but not any piece of the Mad Arab's writings that I recognized. The maps depicted further tunnels in the chambers Anderson and I had explored, tunnels and corridors that were specified to open only after the stone had been removed.
Several blood-ink drawings of monsters were in the pages and parchments that followed, many on papyrus that seemed older than even the eldest surviving Egyptian writings. The monks translated for us though many of the depictions spoke for themselves. Great mollusks the size of houses, crabs with claws the size of a man and scaled demonic-looking bipedal creatures along with a great monstrous squid were among the illustrations. I was hardly a biologist but even the most earthly of these specimens seemed utterly impossible.
The writings ended in a mad scribble as if the author had been assaulted in mid-sentence leaving the rest of the journey a mystery no doubt populated by even stranger things.
The night wore on and soon enough we all grew tired as the tension and adrenaline of the whole situation began to fade and fatigue set in. Mikael's rather large estate was more than enough to accommodate all of us even with his three children occupying the second floor bedrooms. They were, each of them, grown now but aside from Anvel, the eldest son, none had an inkling of aspirations about their own lives. We set out to the third floor where the monks had also posted up residence.
“I'm so glad to hear that my Father is safe,” Amy remarked to me as we checked each of the rooms searching for which we preferred.
“We'll have a tale or two to tell him when we see him again!” I laughed aloud but stopped when I saw she wasn't laughing and feared I had offended her.
“Yes, yes we will,” she agreed leaping to the tips of her toes and kissing me square on the lips, “You have been nothing short of amazing Samuel. If you weren't old enough to be my Father I might like to share a room with you.”
“You tease!” I exclaimed under my breath with my cheeks a bright red of embarrassment as she shut her bedroom door behind her with a playful smile on her young face. I turned away with so many emotions swirling within me. I was too old for her! And yet she had been the one who kissed me, I reminded myself time and time again. Plagued by a bizarre blend of nightmares and romantic fantasies I struggled to get a restful nights sleep.
I woke the next morning to find the expedition already nearly finished packing and prepping. The monks especially had come prepared with weapons and climbing gear. Mikael had already paid for our flight out to Ohio, which left a little after noon. We ate breakfast with his three sons who he repeatedly reassured about our status as colleagues and fellow men of science. Amelia rarely made any eye contact with me spending most of the morning with Spike out on the considerable grounds of the estate.
I watched the whole thing feeling like I was in helpless stupor. There were no ancient books I could retreat into to give me a way out of this and these strange monks would have compelled me to finish this fight whether I wanted to or not. The source of their power eluded me as I watched them industriously finish packing all the gear away. They seemed possessed of some psionic or psychic ability, phenomena I rejected as having any grounds in reality. The female monk seemed to be the leader, Azuriel they called her. Her gray-white eyes seemed possessed of some unearthly qualities as though, like the spinning stone that had set all this in motion, they radiated light in spectra we could scarcely see let alone understand.
As we exited our vehicles to enter the plane Azuriel approached me, now wearing plain clothes she looked utterly different. Her eyes took on a mundane brown shade as did her once ghostly white hair which I could now see extended down nearly to the small of her back. Her age was difficult to place as she put her hand in mine.
“Your ignorance may cost this world dearly,” she warned though her tone and gestures towards me only eased my tensions, “but I sense more than blind intellect within you Samuel... within you there is strength of another kind.”
“The power you wield, it cannot be of this Earth,” I found the words stumbling from my mouth as she gently caressed my cheek, the world around me seemed to freeze, “it simply cannot be.”
“It is not any longer,” she replied cryptically, “we are but memories, ghosts of a Father that has left us in the dark. Who will guard this world when the ghosts fade away Samuel? When all the shadows of the Father's promises have dissipated, who will stand at the Gate of Ios?”
The flight was a tense one for all of us I assume. My mysterious conversation with Azuriel had initially eased my fears but now I found them flooding back. I looked down over the world of men, the world that men of science had helped so stringently to build, as if this would be the last time I would see it in this state. That's when I saw it, the headline on the newspaper of the man sitting next to me.
“Murder in the Ozarks – 12 Found Dead, Kroll Cult to Blame!”
I picked up the newspaper I myself had bought at the newsstand, the Boston Herald. Everything in it seemed fairly normal and for a moment I relaxed and took my mind off of monsters and sacrificial cults until I reached page 5 and saw the article printed there along with a blurry black and white photo “Pennsylvania man claims creature from the stars is killing his cattle”. Despite the lack of good detail the shape in the photo was unmistakably like the one from the Necronomicon fragments the monks had showed us, a hunched bipedal creature with a shell-like exoskeleton, like some hybrid between a man and an arthropod.
The world of men was a frail thing indeed. I felt a wave of guilt rush over me as I considered my own part in all of this. For the first time in my life I saw my own curiosity as a bad thing. All the years I had spent studying artifacts and manuscripts trying to gain an insight into ancient epochs that seemed beyond the purvue of human history as we understood it. Now I was learning more and more that there were pockets of Earth's history best left unexplored and lifeforms that called the Earth home that were best left buried.
“I will set this right,” I mumbled beneath my breath.
V. The Grave
We set down in Cleveland several hours later and were soon gathered together at a nearby motel. I sat on the edge of my bed and watched the clock strike midnight. Already the world seemed to be coming apart at the seams around me. Cultists were killing people as far away as the Ozarks, no doubt seeking some other relic or portal, some other key that might further weaken the border between worlds. Monsters and alien beings were no more the fodder of fakers and kooks but now seemed real, tangible.
“All my fault,” I moaned putting my face in my hands.
A knock at the door brought me from my brooding and I opened it to find Amy on the other side. She hugged me softly and burst into tears sobbing into my chest for a full minute before breaking our embrace and collapsing onto my bed with a deep and profoundly troubled sigh. I regarded the young woman with a perplexed expression though I shared her no doubt mixed and confused emotions.
“All I wanted to do was finish my doctorate,” she sighed with a tremble in her voice, “and make Daddy proud.”
“I dragged you into all this, I'm sorry, this whole thing is my fau-”
“No it isn't!” she contradicted, “My Father dug up that stone! That key, whatever it is! There was no way that any of us could have known the consequences. Curses, other worlds, monsters, these are for myths and mystics not for men and women of science Doctor!”
“Yet here we are, getting ourselves deeper into who knows what!” I agreed sitting on the beside her and slumping my shoulders despondently.
“We may not survive, we barely survived Lake Archer,” she sat up and put her hand on my shoulder, “I care about you Samuel. You're the only man I know who takes me as seriously as an academic as you do as a woman. You looked at me as a fellow intellectual, a friend, you were protective yes but not because you saw me as weaker but because you saw me as precious-”
She leaned in and kissed me softly on the cheek but I managed to steal a soft passionate kiss on her lips as she pulled away. We parted lips and she gave a gentle smile, the gentlest and prettiest smile I had ever seen.
“I'm going to leave the room now,” she said maintaining her flustered smile, “before we ruin our friendship.”
I rest my head confused not only at the direction my own life was taking but of what world I might leave behind if our expedition failed. All of this talk of otherworldly destruction and evil was knew to me as a thinker and a scholar. I was hardly the sort that had ever believed he'd be saving the world from any evil, earthly or otherwise. And what of Amy? If we walked out of this mess alive was she to be merely my friend? Was that what I wanted for the two of us? Was that what she wanted? The world was on the event horizon of chaos but my mind and emotions were already over the edge.
The clouds swarmed the early morning sky ominously as we set out into the cool November air with one purpose in mind. There were thirteen of us in total traveling in three different cars each loaded down with enough to gear to get below ground and navigate the tunnels and chambers below. The winding roads to the secluded little mountain were nondescript and hard to remember but what I failed to recall Anderson helped recount until at last the tree covered peak showed on the horizon.
The opening to the cave system seemed wider now and a wind emanated from within that had not been present at all on our first journey. The monks went first and Russel allowed them to use Spike as a scout. We were glad to have the hunter along as he was likely the best shot amongst all of us, though the skill of the monks was an issue of some debate between myself, Anderson, Amy and Russel. There was no danger, other than that of falling or getting your foot caught in the jagged and twisted floor of the cave, for most of the beginning until at last we reached the beginning of the runes.
The walls seemed to throb melodically with some strange harmonic resonance as we pressed into the tunnels. Anderson dutifully remembered the way until we came to the main chamber. There in the center of the room was the pedestal where the spinning stone had rested. A dim light still shone from the air distorting and twisting it as it hovered above the pedestal. I removed the stone from my satchel but the female monk, Azuriel, held me back gesturing toward a sharply rectangular hole in the floor of the cave that had not been there before.
“We cannot put it back here, the seal is already broken,” she explained, “You know that we must go deeper.”
I took a deep breath and stepped into the darkness, feeling an unearthly chill seep into my bones as the shadows enveloped our group. Even with torches and flashlights I felt so isolated and so devoured by the darkness and the others seemed equally uneased by the depth of the darkness. There were no runes here and no carvings or pigments on the walls but the strange sound still hummed around us nonetheless. We pressed on for what seemed like an hour, down twisting tunnels where the only life we encountered were blinded insects and the occasional bat.
A howling sound ahead of us shattered the ominous hum into a thousand different sounds, each of them a scream multiplying over and over. It was unlike any call I'd heard before, deep and guttural feral and primal, and yet not at like any made by a mammal. I gripped my submachine gun and held my torch out higher basking the walls in light. Then I saw it above the monks, the lurking figure glistening in the dim light, dropping like an assassin. I lifted my gun as Azuriel grunted in pain and spun on her attacker. Spike growled and leaped in making it hard for me to get a clear shot. To make matters worse the whole tunnel suddenly came to life.
Insects and mollusks, snails and slugs and crabs and spiders seemed to scurry from every whole and a sickly breeze wafted the smell of death into our nostrils. More shapes moved toward us in the darkness, crawling along the walls on all fours as they rushed in. I felt inhuman hands grab me, cold icy palms covered in scales. I nearly screamed as the expressionless cold face came into view, six eyes shined in the darkness staring at me from behind armored eyelids. I felt the knife dig into my gut but managed to fire off my gun. The sound of exoskeleton cracking and splitting and gunfire filled the tunnel and as I freed myself from the creature's grasp I spun around firing off more rounds at the creatures on the ceiling of the cave.
“They are unnatural,” one of the monks screamed and I spun to see him eviscerated, his blood painted across the walls by a bipedal monsters spear. They were fleeing then, the monsters rushing back into the crevices and cracks they had entered from. Stillness gripped the air of the cave once more and darkness even thicker than before.
In pain I grabbed at my wound but soon felt a wave of relief and strength washing over me as if from beyond my own mind. I turned toward Azuriel, the woman apparently unscathed, and nodded my thanks before recovering my torch so that we might continue. We stepped past the remains of Gregory, one of the monks, and behind him the remains of the creature that had attacked Azuriel, its head with a hole in it delivered by Russel's hunting rifle at the last moment.
“Riza Uria,” she said, “the servants of the shadow. We aren't far now.”
Russel took the lead now with Spike at his side. The dog had miraculously escaped unharmed from the mandibles of one of the Riza. Despite the fact that they had outnumbered them the Riza had retreated and that fact did not at all reassure me. We moved deeper now, the winding tunnels proving to have been recorded on the map parchments with incredible accuracy. The walls began to take on a more crafted and carved state with more and more symbols appearing, many of them depicting creatures being worshiped and human sacrifices being performed. How long ago had all of this taken place? By all estimates man had only been in North America for some ten to fifteen thousand years and yet these winding ruins were clearly artificial and very old.
“If only Professor Cornish were here,” I found myself saying as the runes and carvings became more and more like a language with clear sentences and even paragraph structure.
“It would take even him years to translate all this,” Amy replied catching up to me, “but what secrets must be told here!”
“That must be kept buried!” a male monk known as Imam interjected, “Even we of the Order are allowed to know only a fragment of the history of the worlds. The Children of Orellyon must keep their solemn vow.”
Azuriel and Russel guided our way down a flight of massive stairs and past a series of monumental statues that depicted what appeared, more or less, to be ordinary human beings though with some subtle morphological distinctions. We had little time to date them or even to speculate on their origins or meaning as the darkness came alive once more. The skittering of exoskeletal legs across the floor of the cave ahead alerted us and brought Russel's rifle up high.
Azuriel pulled from her robes a fully loaded M16 assault rifle. I smiled at the sight of it and lifted my own half-empty gun. A sicklier sound came then, slug-like, as appendages swept out of the walls and grabbed four of the monks each of whom produced a sharp machete-like blade and began swinging at the tendrils. Black and oily and covered in a lubricating slime these demonic worms reached out toward us all with razor maws gasping and snapping. Screams echoed once more as the giant centipedes arrived with mandibles tearing into the flesh of one monk while the other fired his gun time and time again splitting the beasts exoskeleton in several places but only wounding it slightly.
I fired my Thompson at the nearest target, a swirling tangled mass of three tentacles sweeping in toward me. My heart raced as the bullets leaped through the air decapitating one of the worms as the other two crashed down and devoured their fallen comrade. My attention latched onto Amelia who fought with all her might to stop the crushing jaws of a four foot centipede. I could see she was struggling, the sharp pincers cutting into her hands as she fought. Without even thinking that I might miss I lifted the gun and fired off the last ten rounds of the magazine listening with satisfaction to the crunch of each bullet as it impacted the black shell of the creature and sent its corpse sliding across the floor leaving a trail of ooze-like blood.
Amelia spat in its direction and leaped to her feet with her pistol in hand as a tentacle dove in low for her feet and pulled her down hard. I had little time to help her however as a spider-like creature mounted my head from above and bore down on my scalp with two sharp fangs. The twang of poison entering my blood sent searing pain through me as I tossed the creature aside and smacked with the butt of my gun. It hissed loudly at me as I dove in with my hard boot and drove its head against the nearest rock. It took several kicks and jumps to drive its head down hard enough to kill it but at last it died.
I spun back toward Amy to see Anderson had blasted a hole right through the offending tentacle that had snared her only to get himself snatched by one.
“Monsters,” I mumbled incredulously.
The poison hit me then sending me to one knee as I watched a centipede herd scatter past me as if fleeing toward the mouth of the cave. That was when we heard the footsteps. At first I thought it was my heartbeat, the pounding in my head growing louder as the spider's venom flooded through me but then the ambient hum of the cave became quiet by comparison and the impact could be felt through the floor.
“Get up Doctor,” Azuriel's eyes seemed to beg me as she turned back toward the creature that was coming up the corridor toward us.
It was a hulking behemoth. Grotesque tendrils grew out of its head and back twisting and spinning like the snakeheads of a Gorgon. It's body was a good ten feet tall and sported three legs that barely seemed fit for walking. It occurred to me as I watched its awkward gait that it might have been used to four legs but lost one. I shook such academic nonsense from my mind and tried to steady my feet beneath me. I turned to see Amelia doing the same, her head was bleeding considerably and she had several lacerations on her hands and forearms from the biting centipede. The lumbering thing was getting close now, its mournful cry reminiscent of a whales moans as it lifted its claw-like hands menacingly before its considerable girth.
“There they are! Come now, let us spill their blood in the name of Kroll! We must complete the ritual!”
I turned at the sound of the shouting to see half a dozen cultists, each adorned in leaf-stitched robes, rushing toward us from the opposite end of the behemoth. Cursing our luck and assuming our sure doom I rushed to Amy's side as she lifted her pistol and fired away hitting the first few cultists before their rush overwhelmed us. The others fell dead soon enough though and we turned to see Russel holding out his hunting rifle and dropping it to the floor below.
“I have never run out of ammunition before,” he remarked spitting on the ground beneath him.
We watched as the brave man rushed at the behemoth as if he meant to fist fight the monster. We cried out to him, trying to get him to give up this foolish suicide as he deftly dodged the first claw strike. His luck turned quickly as the second swipe caught his leg and the serated claw cut into his flesh tearing down to the bone and shattering even that. Blood shot from his wound as he pounded helplessly against the creature's claws and was lifted into the air. He reached out toward the nearest statue, one depicting a man in strange armor that seemed more like that worn by Greek or Roman soldiers than by anything the Clovis civilization might have dreamed up. He grasped the statue's massive sword and to my surprise the massive stone statue lurched a bit forward.
“There is nothing I can do for him!” she cried out firing off the last of her rounds most of which failed to find purchase on the behemoth's armor hide.
“Give me strength,” I begged and though I didn't know if the woman could even complete the request, “these great warriors may have fallen to this beast before... but not this time.”
“Fallen,” she remarked with a nod and sent out the two remaining monks to shadow me.
I rushed along the side of the chamber with the monks mirroring my every move. I could hear Russel's death cries and could not help but shed a tear for the helpless man. Finally I reached the statue and steadied myself. I looked back to where Azuriel stood and felt my focus and strength increase tenfold. Multiplied by the minds of the monks I pressed my hands against the crumbling statue. At first it didn't budge and I thought the creature might catch us but fortunately it was distracted by its macabre meal. The stone gave at last and the sound from across the way told me that the other monks had succeeded as well. The behemoth was toppled under the crushing weight of the massive stone sculptures. It roared in pain and anger as it was trapped beneath the rubble.
The monks were on it in and instant stabbing at its head repeatedly until, a puddle of blue blood rushing across the cavern floor, the creature howled its last breath.
My Herculean task complete I collapsed to the stone floor. Memories fluttered into my mind stealing me away from the present as I faded in and out of consciousness. Amelia was above me, thought she seemed floating like an angel. I reached out to touch her face recalling the journey to America, recalling the day I had met her Father. Recalling her Mother Gloria and how happy Whitley had been on the day that little Amelia was born. How beautiful she had turned out to be and how foolish I had been for wasting my days buried in a library instead of meeting the day head on.
“Doctor!” a voice cried.
“I should have been a poet, a romantic!” I shouted gasping for air as the world around me flooded back.
“We're almost there!” Azuriel promised as I managed to get to my feet.
Spike whimpered sadly as they continued on. He'd been far ahead when his master had fallen chasing down the monsters that had run away from the behemoth. Yet now as he helped Azuriel find the way he seemed saddened as if he knew the loss had taken place. We all seemed lessened at the death of Russel, even Anderson who hadn't known the man more than a few day. His death had served a purpose, we told ourselves and we would finish the job he had died doing.
“All he ever wanted was someone to care about,” Amelia remarked sadly as we trekked even deeper into the darkness, “I suppose he found that in the end. How are you Doctor, how's your head?”
“Stings,” I confirmed, “but the venom of, whatever the hell that was, must not be deadly to humans.”
“This ecosystem has been cut off for a long time Doctor, I doubt they're venom is specialized for anything remotely similar to humans.”
“And yet humans were here,” I struggled to reconcile the strange blend of eras and artwork we were encountering and the presence of bizarre primordial monsters hardly helped explain any of it.
At last we came to a great stone door. Azuriel removed the Sleeper Stone from her bag and it immediately began to hum. The entire cavern began to shake as the heavy stone door slid away. A shocking white light split the darkness and shone from the room beyond. We stepped through unsure of what we might meet. It was a throne room, we quickly realized, adorned with gilded treasures and sculptures, carvings and the skeletons of animals and men alike scattered about in various states of mumification. At the center of the room was a massive skull that reminded me of images I'd seen of whale skulls.
The remains of this creature were not staying as remains however, the celestial light was bathing the skeletal head and wrapping it with new flesh. Already we could hear the deafening screams of a thousand voices singing in praise.
“We are the darkness outside of time!” a voice screeched from beyond, “Krul'hara hear our cries, for these mortals have the key! And you shall have power and praise from the beginning of yours days until the last!”
Only now did we see the dozens and dozens of Riza standing at the gate. They did not impede us as we passed by them. Barely conscious and in a dream-like daze I walked forward until Azuriel seemed to fade into nothing and I stood with one stone that bore the resemblance of them both. I walked to the top of a spiral stair-case carved of ancient bone driven by a hum more primal than the deepest sleep. There I placed the stone and recited the words.
“Uria talis korah ki'tur.”
The portal of light swirled shut and a loud pop seemed to suck all the energy from the room. The Riza fell dead, their crustacean-like bodies limp and lifeless. I fell back and hit the cold floor of the cave.
“It is broken, they cannot wake!” I heard Azuriel whisper in my mind, her warm calming presence soon faded and only darkness remained.
VI. Nightmare's End
A splitting headache gripped me as I slowly began to wake at last from that deep and dreamless sleep. I turned my head, an action that pained my stiff neck, catching sight of a nearby window. Beyond it were green pastures, rolling hills dotted with farmland and trees. I knew this landscape at once, realizing myself to be somewhere on the island of Britain. Immediately I tried to sit up and though the attempt succeeded it did not come without pulses of pain rushing through me. Dozens and dozens of bruises, bumps, cuts and a particularly nasty scar in my abdomen sent the memories of what had transpired rushing down upon me and I collapsed back into the bed.
“All a bit overwhelming,” a voice from a forgotten age seemed to speak, I sat up once more and turned to regard my old friend, Whitley Cornish, looking far older than his forty-five years of life, “What's all this I hear about monsters and portals and ancient gods Eastman?”
“Professor!” I exclaimed and had it not been for my soreness I might have rushed to embrace him, “You are alright!”
“Azuriel cared for me before she set out to find you,” my dear old friend nodded, “otherwise the sickness might have taken me.”
“Azuriel!” I shouted looking all about me with a moment of panic but Whitley's eyes grew grim and he simply shook his head.
“She gave her life to save us all,” Eastman remarked, “And all of her strange power.”
“Strange power, that reminds me, you're a lucky one, what with all the radiation poisoning!”
“Lucky that my old friend Mikael came through with a cure. Funny, he claimed to have never detected that type of radiation signature before... which suggests to me that you've been busy!”
“Busier than I should ever like to be again,” I chuckled as I stood at last.
Amelia stepped into the room with Spike on her trail and behind her came one of the Professors assistants carrying a tray of tea and cakes for all of us. And so we sat and talked and told the tale to my dearest friend. Anderson entered an hour later and helped us finish the story filling in his own end of the details until at last we had spilled every last one. To my honest surprise Professor Cornish did not call into question any of the details of the events despite their incredible and almost impossible nature.
“You must write it all down of course,” he said at length, “the world must know. All of mankind must know.”
“I fear the curiosity that will arise if the world knows what secret power lies beneath our feet,” I replied with a firm shake of my head, “There is some knowledge that is too destructive. We must keep these worlds beneath us a secret my old friend. I wish to be done with this whole business.”
Later that evening I stood on the balcony overlooking the countryside of Kent and wondering what the future might hold. It had been November during our ordeal in Ohio and yet now the air held the warmth of late Spring. I had no intention of going back to my day job now and even the prospect of taking a Professorship in ancient lore or linguistics seemed utterly out of the question. Where was I, as a man of science, to place the monsters on the timeline? And the statues that had towered above us, telling a tale of heroes from around the world, from throughout time, that had fought the scarred behemoth.
I could not place these events in my lesson plan and yet they were now a part of some forgotten history beyond the boundaries of ordinary time. I reached into my pocket and took out my pocket watch wondering what I might find to do with myself. At the meal Amy had revealed her intention to return to Miskatonic, to finish her degree but there was nothing but nightmares left for me there.
“Do you think we'll ever see the Order of Orellyon again?” Amy's voice called as she stepped out onto the balcony wearing a beautiful nightgown, “I couldn't sleep either.”
“I suspect we are honorary members now,” I said noting the scar on her cheek where the cultist had cut her and the stitches still embedded in her skull from when the tendril of that great worm had stolen her feet from under her, “But I have no intention of ever learning more of their secrets. I would like to learn some of my own for a change, find a life beyond the depths of a cave or the spine of a book.”
We walked back into the house, into the hallway that led to our respective bedrooms.
“Are you sure you won't come back to Miskatonic with me?”
“It would take an awful lot to lure me back there,” I blurted out without thinking of the double-meaning she might take, “But that shouldn't stop you, you're to be a Doctor soon.”
“Doctor Amelia Eastman- Cornish,” she corrected herself as the slip left her lips and immediately she looked very flustered as she backed away from my bedroom door. I grabbed her by the hand and pulled her to me leaning down to kiss her softly.
“I'd better turn in for the night,” I whispered before her kisses back to me could become too severe, “... before I ruin our friendship.”
“Very well Samuel,” she said suddenly becoming very stiff and official, “but I will see you at Miskatonic when I am awarded my Doctorate... perhaps THAT will lure you back.”
“What games we play,” I muttered to myself as I closed my bedroom door behind me and wondered what was keeping the two of us at play. Perhaps it was my age or perhaps it was my respect for her or her Father.
“Or perhaps monsters are not the thing you fear most,” a soothing tone wafted into my ears from across the room as I regarded the strange phantom. She was there and yet she was not, floating like an ethereal ghost, insubstantial but yet detailed in every way.
“Azuriel,” I muttered in shock, “you are alive!”
“As I ever have been,” she replied and a shudder seemed to shake her ghostly form causing her to become even more corporeal, “and as I will be until the Promise of Orion is fulfilled.”
“Why have you come?” I asked with fear gripping my heart as if I was seeing a ghost but Azuriel waved her hand and took away my fear, “Didn't we stop the thing? And close the gate forever?”
“That gate yes but there is much more danger on this world and beyond it,” she gestured out the window to the full moon that hanged in the sky above, “And I fear we haven't much time before the curiosity of men once again threatens to unleash that danger. I fear that we shall meet again under less favorable circumstances my friend.”
“Friends,” I echoed holding out my hand to clasp hers but she faded away into nothing, “with a ghost.”
“You are one of us now,” Azuriel whispered, her voice like a distant melody, “write all of what you have experienced down my dear Doctor but only so that those you trust may know the truth and those who come long after you may have a way to fight the darkness. Farewell.”
With her voice cascading through the caverns of my mind I lay down to rest not sure if I should hope this was the end of my adventure or merely the beginning.
Other installments in the series:
- The Gilded Shadow (Short Story)
Centers around the discovery of several massive and ominous machines in deep space.
- The Slumbering King - Lovecraftian Horror
The story revolves around a slumbering evil, uncovered by the curious prodding of archaeology and the intentional meddling of some unsavory human characters.