Even with success may come defeat.
Toad Lake is aptly named. Lost deep in the Minnesota forests, far from the prying eyes of civilization, this weed-choked and algae-scummed body of green sludge is home to many a varied species of frogs, newts, and, of course, the countless multitude of toads of all sizes that crowd its banks and lend to it its rather colorful name. And although the lake is so remote from the everyday hustle and bustle of humanity, it literally teems with its own brand of hopping, crawling, croaking life. The raucous din its inhabitants produce can be near-deafening to the casual hiker who comes upon her shores abruptly, and such an unexpected experience can be practically nerve-shattering in its intensity. Yet all this is naught compared to the experience in discovering that other form of life which haunts the slimy dark depths of Toad Lake.
It had been almost five years since I had last heard from my friend, Thomas Wynne, but at the insistence of his urgent telephone call I came at once. We had been childhood friends growing up together in Braving, and had even roomed together our first two years at Royceton University -- how could I have done otherwise? Besides, I could tell over the phone that something was bothering him -- he sounded very uneasy.
My Jeep Wrangler jounced steadily up the rutted path leading to his cabin on the lake, several times slowing down to a crawl and threatening to become mired in the mud, but at last I gained the hilltop whereupon sat Tom's cabin overlooking the panoramic vista that is Toad Lake. To say she looked ominous just then would not wholly be true, for at that moment with the early morning sun filtering through the overhanging treetops and reflecting warmly off her surface, she was truly breathtaking. Yet I had heard vague unwholesome rumors concerning Toad Lake, and they had spoken volumes!
For one thing, she was said to be a sacred site of worship for the Kaygeema Indians who long ago inhabited the wilds of northern Minnesota, but were now long-extinct. Aside from a few scattered forest-overgrown megaliths the only trace of the Kaygeema that remained today was their enigmatic treatise, whose true name was unpronounceable, but the English translation of which was known as The Sky-Fathers, which was purported to concern the worship of ancient devil-gods from the stars. A copy was sequestered under lock and key in the Royceton University collection at Braving, alongside such similarly shocking and debatable volumes as The Elder Oracles of Reverend Thomas Skyler (which chronicled his own incredible battles -- with the aid of another race of godlike entities he sometimes referred to as Elder Gods, or more often, Elder Oracles -- against the eldritch evil of those devil-gods, the Great Old Ones), the Latin grimoire Litaniae ad Deum Fraceum by an unknown author, and even a translation of the weird hieroglyphs which make up the Papyrus of Khamon-Ra. In moments of boredom at my job with Royceton University Security (and, I admit, with burning curiosity), I had peeked into the translation of The Sky-Fathers, as well as translated sections taken from the Litaniae, but found their mythological ramblings rather absurd and unbelievable, if a little unsettling.
But extinct Indian tribes aside, as to the unsavory history of Toad Lake in the modern age, I knew little for certain save that she was occasionally the site of strange lights and unexplained disappearances: victims of accidental drownings or UFO abductees none could say, but all knew implicitly that Toad Lake was a place better left avoided at all costs.
Just why Tom chose to live on her shores I wasn't quite sure. I knew that early on in life he had experienced a lot of disappointment in what civilization had to offer him, and I remember his burning desire to "get back to nature." I suppose Toad Lake fit the bill nicely.
As I sat musing upon this I heard the front door of his cabin open with a creak, and the blond giant I had called my best friend emerged. He crossed over to my jeep in barely three great strides and proceeded to haul me bodily from the cab.
"John," he boomed, "what the heck you doing sitting out here!" Clasping me in a powerful bearhug, he then drew back and pumped my hand enthusiastically in joyful greeting.
"How you doing, pal? Still working for the Law?" he asked, referring to my Campus Security position. I nodded, and told him I was in line for a promotion, and he seemed genuinely glad for me.
He led me inside his rather spacious cabin, and we sat and caught up on old times. When he suggested preparing a couple of drinks, I readily agreed despite the early hour, and as he saw to them I sat and mused over my friend's appearance. At 6' 7 and nearly 300 pounds, Tom had always carried an impressive figure -- star football player in high school and solid backbeat as the drummer in our college rock band, Dimensional Shambler, back at Royceton. In fact, Shambler's breakup was a large part of Tom's disillusionment with life. The rest of us had other things to move on to, but to Tom the band was everything! With Shambler no more Tom quit Royceton and moved out here to Toad Lake. I had always meant to visit him here, even though it was quite a drive from Braving, but somehow I never did seem to find the time. I hadn't heard from him until yesterday's almost frantic call begging me to come visit him here as soon as I was able; though he hadn't said much else, it had seemed to me almost a plea for help.
He had finished with the drinks and brought them over to the table and sat down with me. With his bushy blond beard and golden curls falling to well past his shoulder he would have fit the "Grizzly Adams" role to a "T." And despite his gruff exterior, like the popular Dan Haggerty character, Tom also possessed a warm, gentle heart. I wondered just what could be troubling a man like him. His manner seemed nervous, constantly alert, even fearful. As I sipped my drink I asked him what the trouble was.
"It's all those damned frogs!" he spat angrily, and his right hand convulsed suddenly and shattered his glass. Cursing a blue streak, he grabbed a towel from the sink and began wiping the mess up -- but his mind seemed rather distracted from the task at hand.
Not knowing what else to say, I tried my best to console this quaking giant. "Listen, Tom, I'm sure the noise of the frogs gets to you sometimes . . . probably especially at night when they're most active." Even now their polyharmonic croaking was threatening to drown out my words. I took a sip from my glass and continued. "I know for a fact that the noise would drive me nuts, but you must be used to it by now?" I suggested. "Anyway, you could always move back to the city."
He ignored this suggestion. Instead he sat back and lit his pipe. "It ain't just the frogs," he said in a rather strange tone of voice. The he actually shuddered.
Tom told me a great deal about the unsavory history of Toad Lake then and there. What he talked about he told me he had gleaned from his own copy of Skyler's The Elder Oracles, as well as from local hearsay.
He told me about a family named Creech who long ago lived directly across the lake from him. The Creeches were rumored to have settled at Toad Lake as far back as when the Kaygeema prowled her shores. It seems that back at the turn of the century this family -- a lawless, careless bunch of heathens by all the Reverend Skyler's accounts -- had gotten so out of hand in their carousing and carrying on that the nearby town of Lakewood decided that they could stand for no more. With the aid of the neighboring towns they gathered together a sizeable police force and one moonlit night raided the Creech homestead (which then consisted of an inn and a sawmill, as well as a resort of cabins). The story related by those unlucky enough to survive the raiding party was a terrible tale indeed.
The raiding party moved in by force, rifles at the ready, and began cleaning out the resort cabins systematically, forcing the inhabitants therefrom and making their way toward the two-story inn on the headland. They found holed up in the cabins all sorts of miscreants, from society outlaws to heathen Indians to -- and this is only the first unbelievable part, yet the chroniclers swore it to be true! -- things not even recognizably human, but rather part man, part toad in appearance -- dwarfish, stunted things that while being rousted called out in supplication in croaking voices an eldritch name to the gibbous moon: "Sathogwa!"
But the rifles made short work of them, whatever they were, and soon the raiding party (its number severely cut down in the skirmish, but still sufficiently large enough for the task at hand) made its way to the Creech inn.
Within they found all manner of strange and blasphemous objects: unholy, crumbling books, terrible statues to nameless devil-gods, even a larder stocked with fresh human corpses! But nary a Creech, nor even their servants and slaves, were anywhere to be found.
At the rear of the inn the raiding party found a boat-dock, and several boats missing from their moorings. Commandeering the remaining boats, Police Chief William Crompton and the Reverend Skyler took a force of four boats loaded with six men each, and they set off in pursuit of their devilish quarry.
Skirting the lakeshore to the south -- which seemed the likeliest avenue of escape since it was thickly-forested and would provide adequate cover for the fleeing felons -- they found a cluster of abandoned boats and canoes dragged up on the shore. they drew their own boats ashore and began their way on foot once more. They were but a few steps along when two members of the party sank almost immediately out of sight in a bog of quicksand. Three more men became mired, and the others rushed to help them when they heard a loud splashing noise coming from behind them. Torches were swung around and rifles were brought to bear, but what the heavily-armed men saw rushing upon them made them quake with terror in their boots. Two monstrous toads again half as tall as a man hopped horribly toward them, claws flexing horridly and fangs glinting evilly in the moonlight. Two more of their party were ripped to bloody shreds by the dreadful beasts before they could gather their wits about them. Finally regrouped, a fusillade of shots brought the beasts down in the end, but not before the party had been signficantly reduced to just eight men: Police Chief Crompton, two of his deputies, four deputies of neighboring Armas township and the Reverend Skyler himself. Skirting around the bog, they entered the forest glade and espied an outre greenish glow emanating from somewhere in front of them. Fortifying themselves with a few blessings from the Reverend Skyler, they pushed on, and emerged to a sight straight out of purgatory itself!
Old Man Creech and his degenerate offspring, as well as several of the dwarfish toad-men encountered earlier at the cabins, were dancing in naked abandon in front of an oddly green-flamed, firelit altar, crying out in joyous supplication that hellish name heard earlier this evil night: "Sathogwa!"
Now, as the Reverend Skyler allows in his book, The Elder Oracles, he knew of this Sathogwa of old as one of the ranks of those eldritch devil-gods from the stars that ruled the Earth before the advent of man. And he recognized this monstrosity, too, from his likeness depicted in the terrible statue hovering over the blood-blackened altar, that of a monstrous conglomeration of bat, ape, sloth and toad, and knew it to be a representation of the selfsame daemon Tsathoggua, who ruled in ancient and ice-covered Hyperborea aeons before. And knowing the Great Old Ones -- for such they were aptly called -- he also knew of their weaknesses. Drawing upon the powers of God and man alike, a terrible battle raged that night; a battle of wills and powers nigh-impossible to describe, or even hint at too broadly, but suffice it to say that that night the powers of good were victorious, and the Reverend Skyler, Police Chief Crompton and one of the Armas township men came out of the fray, not unscathed, but alive.
Following the battle, the purifying powers of flame were put to good use (one oldtimer, an August Williams, was even quoted in the papers of the time as saying that the flame had burned hotter and brighter than ever, and had even danced as if alive -- and even that rather than burn out naturally it was seen to depart into space when it had accomplished its task!), and the buildings standing on the land of the insidious Creeches were fully razed to the ground.
All was silent and peaceful around the environs of Toad Lake for long after that bizarre skirmish -- but, of course, the disappearances resumed about fifty years later, and continue to this day.
His account at an end, Tom looked meaningfully at me. He leaned forward and in a hushed whisper said, "I've seen the green firelight across the lake. They're back."
As I said before, I had had occasion to glance into those terrible tomes locked securely within Royceton's walls, and at the time such incredible facts and events as they had related seemed so much "gobbledy-gook" to me. But having heard Tom's story, and being able to back at least part of it up by my earlier readings, I now felt several strange truths borne in upon me. Either Thomas Wynne, my oldest friend and one of the most clearheaded, most sensible men I had ever known was mad -- or -- it was true. Maybe not all of it, for I certainly wasn't ready to believe in the existence of a race of deathless beings hailing from the stars and being worshipped on our own humble sphere as gods, but I now felt that Tom was indeed onto something.
I offered to drive back to Braving this very night and beg, borrow or steal a copy of the translations from Litaniae ad Deum Fraceum on the off chance that Tom's story was right (for if any of the ancient books would contain the formulae for banishing the members of that hellish omnipotent pantheon from our own mundane sphere it would be that one!), but Tom said there wasn't time. His copy of The Elder Oracles hadn't been of use in battling the influence of the Old One, the Reverend Skyler hadn't given the formulae -- but he did war that Its power would wax with each night of ceremony dedicated to It, each ritual sacrifice given to It, until the devil-god would be too powerful to stop. It had to be now or never! Good old-fashioned gunpowder would have to do the trick.
Saying this last, he held up his ace-in-the-hole, a convoluted mass of wires and dials attached to a small black box. I guessed it to be a handmade explosive device of some kind, equipped with a time. "I guess my copy of The Anarchist's Cookbook came in handy for something!" he exclaimed laughingly. I laughed with him, and left unvoiced my prayer that it would be enough!
It was getting on near nightfall, and the frogs had dramatically increased their raucous din when we set out in Tom's canoe for the far side of the lake. We both carried high-powered 30.06 rifles with infrared scopes and Tom had his pack containing his bomb slung over one massive shoulder. We slipped swiftly and silently through the water, but surely the frogs' croaking chorus would have drowned us out at any rate. As we approached our goal on the far shore we could espy a dancing emerald firelight through the trees, just as Tom said, and as we disembarked from our canoe on the shore we began to make out a croaking, rhythmic chanting: "Sathogwa! Sathogwa!"
Then, to our horror an amazement, the frogs and toads ceased abruptly their raucous din . . . and answered the chant with one of their own: "Sath-ogg-wa! Sath-ogg-wa!"
With rifles in hand, we crept forward to the tree-line. At the edge of the unearthly green-tinged firelight madness met our eyes! Before the altar danced a weird assortment of inhuman beings. Half man and half toad, they shambled bestially and croaked repellently as they hopped and danced in wild abandon. Yet their movements were also suggestive of human mannerisms and gestures, as if they were toads that thought that they were once human! All about the hellish scene the ground was littered with thousands upon thousands of frogs and toads of every size, color and variety known to men, madly hopping and crawling about, flopping wildly like their human-imitating counterparts -- in mad dance! But most horrible of all, towering over the entire scene as if dominating all their actions, was that hellish eidolon described by the Reverend Skyler in his book, The Elder Oracles, as the beast-god of Hyperborea . . . Tsathoggua! A monstrous conglomeration of bat and ape, sloth and toad, could hardly describe it in accurate terms, for though it was obviously solid there was about it a suggestion of plastic fluid life, as if it could stretch itself into an infinite number of shapes at will. And its nauseous greasy fur was so coarse and thick, so lifelike that it seemed to waver slightly in the evening breeze.
And then it moved. The black, plastic, noxious thing hopped horribly forward on monstrous splayed clawed feet, half-closed eyes regarding us sleepily, its cavernous maw smiling evilly. I'm not ashamed to admit that we both lost what little sanity we retained then and there. Firing wildly, laughing hysterically, crying uncontrollably, Thomas Wynne and I attacked, heedless of the danger. As one the throng of man-toads rushed us. We were hopelessly outnumbered. We cut down countless toad-things, yet still they came at us. Then before I could stop him, Tom vaulted forward and, fighting wildly like a man possessed, broke through their ranks. He planted his pack of explosives at the very feet of that monstrous abomination from the stars and blasted it and its throng of worshippers to smithereens.
As I sat there gibbering, heedless of the guts of toads and frogs and things less nameable raining down upon me, I caught a glimpse of the noxious plastic form of the living eidolon of Tsathoggua steadfastly recombining itself from its sundered parts as if in a movie shown in reverse, and then slipping silently, ominously, with one last hateful glance in my direction, into the green-scummed waters of Toad Lake.
My account should end here, and yet it does not. The horror came again for me when I looked upon the lifeless body of my friend Thomas Wynne (for he had of course been caught up in that same explosion which ravaged the eldritch life-imbued eidolon of Tsathoggua and destroyed its worshipping throng) and saw than unbeknownst to me he had been wearing a wig and fake beard earlier on. Wig and beard had now been ripped off in the explosion, and I now saw that my supposedly hirsute friend had actually been completely bald and clean-shaven all along. And as if that wasn't enough, to my utter horror I saw that the features he had concealed beneath proved to be rather froggish or toadish in appearance!
But even that was not the final horror for me. No, the final horror for me is the fact that even as I write this I bear with me the knowledge that my fingers and toes have become frightfully webbed, and should I look in the mirror now I know what face I shall see staring back at me.
Created: June 27, 1997; Current Update: August 9, 2004