The man in the tattered clothes tugged at a frayed collar in a vain effort to keep out the relentless cold. The cloudy green neck of a bottle of cheap muscatel peeked insecurely from a worn back pocket, a poor man's fire for a wintry night. Stumbling from doorway to doorway, he paused constantly to stamp the slush from shoes that had once, like the man who now wore them, seen better days.
A lone snowflake floated aimlessly through the harsh white glare of a streetlight before settling in the filthy grey slush that obscured the cracked and broken sidewalk. A bone-chilling wind whipped along the desolate street, whistling a mournful dirge to the abandoned fire-scarred tenements that stood silent sentinel in the dead December night. The brick skeletons were a mute and tragic testimony to a once prosperous and friendly neighborhood. A neighborhood that was now, like the pitiful figure stalking its darkened streets, far beyond all hope of redemption.
The man took temporary sanctuary from the biting wind and searing cold in the flame-blackened doorway of a deserted grocery store. It was really no warmer there, but at least the wind could not penetrate this shadow-shrouded shelter. Squatting on the back of his heels, he fiercely rubbed his numbed hands before reaching for the bottle. He cursed softly under his breath when he saw how little remained of the precious liquid. A dirty left hand wandered to a pocked and extracted the metallic content ... forty-seven cents! He cursed again, more loudly this time, after counting all of his worldly wealth. A single tear trickled down his unwashed cheek, vanishing into the greasy stubble of of his beard. He carefully replaced his funds in the cloth vault. The wind outside howled an eerie lament. He swallowed the last of the wine, after allowing it to linger lovingly for a moment on a tongue that had long lost the ability to discern subtle distinctions of taste. Tossing the empty bottle into the slush-sodden gutter outside of his refuge, he settled down to await the bleak dawn and the happy prospect of a hot breakfast at the Salvation Army kitchen. He never heard the footsteps of the figure that crept up behind him, nor did he feel much pain when the hypodermic needle plunged into the small of his back, sending his into quick unconsciousness.
The tall man, dressed completely in black, stepped over the prostate form and walked into the street. He watched with a satisfied grin as the black Mercedes rounded the corner and cautiously approached him. When it had drawn up next to him, the driver emerged, nodded curtly, and both men entered the gutted storefront doorway. When they returned they carried a limp unresisting form which they carefully laid across the back seat of the car. The car pulled away from the kerb and drove off into the shimmering night.
A little over two hours later the Mercedes was safely berthed in the garage of the rambling neo-Georgian home that Spencer Dryden had built for himself in the rustic village of Bloomingburg. The two abductors sat sipping at glasses of a notoriously expensive brandy. The tense silence betrayed their anxiety and guilt at committing an act for which they were fitted by neither persuasion nor upbringing. The shorter man, John Wendell, could barely conceal the trembling of his hands, which threatened to spill his drink into his lap at any moment. Dryden was managing, with a supreme effort of will, to appear outwardly calm, though his turbulent emotions belied the external coolness. Using both hands, Wendell finally managed to drain his glass and broke the stillness.
"I really can't quite believe it, you know! I mean we, of all people, sinking to the level of common criminals ... kidnappers!"
"Fiat experimentum in corpore vili!" mumbled Dryden.
"What!" asked Wendell, sitting erect with a puzzled expression on his face. "What the hell does that mean?"
"An old Latin dictum!" replied Dryden, intently staring at his distorted reflection in the bottom of his brandy glass. "It means simply: Let experiment be made on a worthless body. Isn't that what we're going to do?"
Wendell had calmed sufficiently enough to pour himself another brandy without getting more outside of the glass than in. After a few sips he spoke, an unmistakable undertone of sadness in his voice, "Now we play God! Is this the way things must go?"
Dryden replied in soft, well-modulated tones, though he was struggling desperately to maintain control of all his faculties. Rationalizing came easily to him -- it had to when he knew quite well there were no legitimate excuses for their action of tonight.
"You know as well as I do that we need a test patient before we dare use the Takhel ourselves. You also know that things like this must be done clandestinely; people tend to misunderstand matters of this sort. You'll recall the incident that led Dr. Reymaurd to the quillotine in Lyons right after the war. Those narrow-minded imbeciles destroyed the life's work of a great man. Do you want all our work to go down the drain? Do you want me to step forward in public and proclaim that we are experimenting with a consciousness-expanding drug, which makes LSD look like caffeine? Do you think the ignorant petit bourgeois public is ready for the Key of the Poet?"
Wendell made no attempt at a reply. He was busily thinking that it might have been a terrible mistake to have carried things this far. It was one thing to take your own chances, or even to have someone take for you, providing it was voluntary, but to kidnap a man and force him to take part in this was worse than criminal -- it was madness.
Dryden rose from his chair and without a word walked to the foot of the stairs. Wendell hadn't noticed he was leaving until Dryden turned at the foot of the stairs and spoke. "We begin tomorrow! We've come too far to back out now, Paul. We've got the Key and all that remains is to open the door. I trust everything will turn out well. Good night!"
Seeing Dryden slowly ascending the staircase and vanishing from sight in the shadowy gray half-light of the second story landing reminded Wendell of a film he'd once seen. Hitchcock, perhaps ... or maybe Polanski. He put the scene from his mind and turned his attention to the bottle of brandy on the table. Even with the artificial comfort of alcohol it was many hours before he dropped off into a fitful dream-haunted slumber.
They began early the next morning. Dryden had prepared 380 grains of the base substance from the Isbanah and he manufactured the Takhel without much difficulty -- at least he hoped it was the Takhel. The resultant product was a thick, sticky, green substance and it gave off a nauseating stench like the dead carcass of an animal, which has lain in the blazing sun for several days. The smell was so overpowering that both men retreated to the garden to suck clean, cold air into their lungs.
They debated the means by which they would introduce the Takhel into their subject's system. Dryden pointed out that Franz Jute claimed the Takhel was soluble in most liquids and suggested they place a minute quantity in a glass of burgundy, allow it to dissolve, if indeed it would, and give it to the alcohol starved wino to drink. Wendell agreed.
Dryden had given the wino a strong sedative the previous evening and its effect was undiminished nearly twelve hours later. Half conscious and incoherent, Wendell virtually had to carry him into the basement room that Dryden had designed and built for the singular purpose of consummating his ambition.
Dryden was aware of the inevitable doom that overtook Halpin Chalmers when he neglected to take the necessary precautions before his foolhardy venture. It wasn't that Dryden knew positively that Chalmers had taken the Key of the Poet, but the distinct possibility did exist. He knew for sure, though, that Chalmers had attempted a similar breach of those laws and natural barriers which govern mankind's limited conception of space, time, and ... the outside.
The subterranean room contain no right angles at all. Even the floor was curved; though to the eyes and senses the curvature was so slight as to be imperceptible. All corners, both on the floor and ceiling, had been rounded off. The room had five walls, being pentagonal in shape. This practical prejudice against right angles applied to the room's sole piece of furniture as well, an inflatable plastic chair of the style which has become popular in the last few years. While Wendell guided their subject to the chair, Dryden took care of the final details necessary to the working.
In a rough circle around the chair he placed the five-pointed stones that had been discovered in an abandoned village in Mauke. In the gaps between the stones he sprinkled the Tikkoun Elixer from a small silver censer. The Elixer had come from the Holy Water fount at Our Lady of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church in Middletown. With a stick of blue chalk he scribbled a dozen or so esoteric symbols which constituted the protection ritual from the Kran-Wehl Formulae. Closer to the center of the circle he wrote the traditional Judaeo-Christian words of power: Adonai, Shaddai, Elohim, Sabaoth, and Tetragrammaton.
Satisfied that all was ready, Dryden poured the mixture of Takhel and wine into a large pewter cup and placed it against the lips of the unsuspecting subject. Swallowing noisily, a thin trickle of the foul brew ran down the wino's chin and dribbled onto his filthy shirt. He coughed violently for a few seconds and then his body relaxed. Dryden and Wendell squatted on the floor -- Dryden intently watching the subject's every move and Wendell scribbling copiously into a spiral notebook.
The subject's breathing was deep and regular, giving the impression of a man in a sound sleep rather than some chemically-induced trance. A quarter hour passed with not a single occurrence. Without warning or premonition, the subject bolted stiffly upright in the chair, his eyes opened wide, his breath coming in short staccato gasps. Then he began flaying the air wildly with his arms as if he were beating against some invisible barrier. Dryden jumped to his feet, ready to forcibly restrain the subject should he attempt to breech the circle. But as unexpectedly as the outburst had begun, it ceased, leaving a shaken Dryden and Wendell to resume their vigil.
A further quarter hour expired without incident of any sort. Then, without forewarning, another outburst took place, being only slightly less violent than the first. In almost every respect, it was a sequel to the first.
Hours seemed to pass -- though it couldn't have been more than ten minutes -- before anything further happened. The subject began to speak. Meaningless jumbles at first. Snatches of conversations vaguely recalled. Names of places and persons from an irretrievable youth. And then a certain frightening coherence began to become apparent amidst the hopelessly confusing words that flowed in a torrent from the lips of the subject.
"... I ... in this place ... My God! ... I'm ... in Hell ... those things ... this must ... under the sea ... can hear it ... the singing ... to me ... singing ... call me ... R'lyeh ... called R'lyeh ... black slime ... like buildings ... they call it R'lyeh ..."
Dryden felt an electric shiver run up the length of his spine. Wendell tried to speak, but couldn't seem to find the proper words. Finally Dryden got to his feet and began questioning the subject.
"What does it look like? Answer me, man, what is the architecture like?"
Time passed with the consistency of molasses. Seconds passed like lifetimes. Only the subject's heavy breathing was audible in an atmosphere burned with hushed anticipation. Then ...
"Towers everywhere ... can't see where it ends ... mud all over ... big ... like skyscrapers ... covered with seaweed ... giant tombs ... He is in a tomb ..."
"Who is he?" questioned Dryden as he threw a triumphant glance at Wendell.
"He who dreams!" came the cryptic reply.
"What is his name?" cried Dryden, a detectable tone of annoyance in his voice.
"He knows I'm here -- He feels it. There they are. They've seen me."
The subject's eyes bulged horribly as if they were straining to leap from their sockets. Incessantly throbbing veins stood out dangerously across his temples and forehead. Dryden heard Wendell mutter something about the subject looking as if he were about to have a stroke.
"Who are ... they?" demanded Dryden.
"Servants of Dagon. They of the deep who wait upon him who dreams."
"Who waits? What the hell is his name?" screamed Dryden, though he already knew the answer.
"They sing of him ... they want ... me to join ... them in singing ... his praises ... can't you hear ... they call to me ... for the love of God ... No! ... No! ... there are no gods but the Old Ones ... a time shall come ... as it was before ... Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn! ..."
The final barbarous string of words, with its wholly inhuman syntax and coarse offensive pronunciation, struck Dryden with the impact of a sledgehammer. The total alienness of the phrase was disturbing enough, but the manner in which it was spoken lent it a deeper horror. Dryden had heard someone speaking in those same ecstatic, almost religious, tones before. But then the voice had belonged to a young woman at a revivalist tent meeting who believed herself cured of a malignant cancer through the intercession of a faith healer, not a drugged dipsomaniac in unholy communication with the batrachian slaves of an evil,
The subject seemed to be sleeping and Dryden was sure that the effects of the Takhel had worn off. Wendell scribbled a few more lines in his notebook and then fished in his jacket for the pocket watch he always carried. He noted the time in the log.
"Exactly forty-nine minutes since he swallowed the Takhel," proclaimed Wendell as he replaced the timepiece.
"Well, we didn't get much in the way of concrete knowledge, but we know positively that the Key is effective. That's the most important part."
"How much of the Isbanah did you use?" asked Wendell rising to his feet.
"Only ten grains. That leaves us over three-quarters of an ounce and I've only processed a handful of the stuff."
"What about our friend here?' asked Wendell, gesturing toward the inert form of the man in the chair.
"We'll bring him back upstairs to the room he was in last night. There's no telephone and the door locks from the outside. When he wakes up, you'll go and tell him that he was found unconscious by the police and brought here for treatment. Tell him this is a private hospital and he's here to take the cure. It's as good a line as any."
"I don't like this, Spence. I don't like it a bit," said Wendell.
Dryden awoke the following morning with a throbbing headache. It was most likely due to the inordinate amount of brandy he had consumed the previous evening with Wendell. But he was also worried about Wendell's attitude and that didn't ease his pain in the least. It was becoming increasingly obvious that his partner was developing all the symptoms of a classic case of cold feet. It was time that Dryden made their position clear -- it was too late to back out. The entire affair had come about because Wendell had enough curiosity for three men, and now he was suddenly subject to the whimsical calls of his conscience. Dryden swallowed two aspirin and hoped the headache would go away before it was time for the second experiment with the Key of the Poet.
He found Wendell downstairs, apparently none the worse for last night's overindulgence. If anything, he seemed to be in uncharacteristic high spirits. Dryden fervently hoped that he had overcome his scruples. Giving Dryden a hearty good-morning, Wendell informed him that the subject was quite well and genuinely convinced that he was in a hospital. As a precautionary measure Wendell had used an assumed name when introducing himself and advised Dryden to do the same.
Following a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and black coffee, they descended to the queerly designed basement room where the subject waited, peacefully unaware of the role he was playing in Dryden and Wendell's plan. He sat as before in the inflatable chair and eyed them quizzically as they entered.
In his most soothing and confident voice, Wendell introduced Dryden, "Sir, I would like you to meet Dr. Lewis Norman. He's in charge of our Alcohol Abuse Program."
The old man looked Dryden up and down as if he were contemplating buying the suit Dryden wore. Though his eyes were bloodshot and watery, they seemed, to Dryden, to contain a gleam of innate intelligence, that he found menacing. His scrutinizing of Dryden apparently over, he asked in a thick voice that could not conceal his mistrust and antagonism, "Is this a city hospital or what? How long do I gotta stay in this joint."
"Until you're cured or we decide to release you," Dryden replied coldly.
"What the hell kinda place is this, anyhow? Ain't no windows and these funny lookin' rocks on the floors. An' look at this goddam chair?"
Dryden decided upon a more tactful approach, one he was sure would appeal to the wino's base nature. "Don't tax yourself worrying about it. If you'll just make up your mind to cooperate with us, you'll be out on the street again before the week's out. With, I might add, two hundred dollars in your pocket to do with as you please. You can drink yourself into hell for all we care. So what is it going to be?"
The wino mulled the situation over for a minute before make his decision. "Okay! I'm wit ya all the way, even if I don't know what you guys er up to."
"Good!" snapped Dryden. "I rather thought you'd see things in their proper perspective with a little monetary inducement."
Wendell told the subject to lean comfortably back in the chair and relax. Dryden handed him the pewter containing the mixture of Takhel and burgundy, telling him to drink it all. Draining the entire contents of the cup in one gulp, the old man's face soured and between coughs he speculated obscenely about the possible origins of the wine. Dryden and Wendell listened patiently to the coarse, but amiable, chatter of the old man until his chin dropped limply to his chest. The Takhel had taken effect within five minutes, a fact Wendell dutifully recorded in his notebook.
A quarter hour later the subject burst from the chair with astonishing agility and had to be forcibly subdued by both men. They held him down, expecting the inflated chair to rupture and deflate at any second, until the violent seizure had passed. The second outburst followed the now evident pattern and, though not as severe as the first, still required an immense physical effort to contain. Ten minutes passed and then came the semi-lucid mutterings which they had anticipated. Finally ... the breakthrough.
"Freezing ... hardly able to walk ... snow ... too deep ..."
"Where are you?" asked Wendell, not bothering to look up from his notebook.
"Dunno ... mountains ... on a ledge ... snow comin' down ... Christ, so cold ..."
Dryden threw a wondering glance at Wendell, who just shook his head and whispered, "Leng maybe! Or Kadath! I can't be sure without more specific geographical detail. I suppose it ..."
He was interrupted in mid-sentence by the subject.
"A cave! Red lights comin' outa it ... not far ..."
"Go in," commanded Dryden.
"Steps goin' down ... can't see bottom ... steps turn ... all busted up ..."
"Go Down," ordered Dryden. "All the way to the bottom."
Seconds dragged tediously into minutes with no further communication from the subject. Dryden felt the irritating rivulets of perspiration running down his neck and staining his white collar. Wendell's eyes darted frenetically from the subject to Dryden to the notebook, where he jotted some notation in shorthand, and then he repeated the procedure. He noticed, with some trepidation, that the subject neither moved a muscle nor flickered an eyelid. Even his breathing seemed to have ceased altogether. Wendell nervously lifted one of the subject's limp hands and felt for a pulse.
"Very weak, but steady," he remarked to Dryden.
A long, hollow whistling sound came from the pursed lips of the old man, his eyes opened, and his lips quivered slightly as if he were straining to articulate something.
"What is it?" asked Wendell.
No reply was immediately forthcoming. Breathing in deep, painful gasps, the old man's chest heaved in an irregular rhythm. His face seemed even older than it had looked before and was etched with dark lines. Dryden could not help but noticing the resemblance of the deathly countenance to those carven masks worn by the performers in Greek dramas. Then, quite unexpectedly, he spoke and the words, spoken in a hollow monotone, conveyed a message of sinister import.
"Men have died here!" he stated flatly.
"What! How do you ... how do you know? blurted Wendell, his voice cracking and high-pitched. There was no reply but the breathing of the drugged subject. Dryden watched impassively as Wendell got to his feet and reiterated his demand, "Tell me, dammit! How do you know?"
The old man's face split in a grin, revealing twin rows of rotten, blackened teeth that tilted crazily in all directions like two lines of neglected, time-ravaged tombstones. It was a grin without a trace of humour in it and Wendell unconsciously recoiled several steps.
"How do I know?" the subject mimicked. "I stand over their corpses."
Dryden felt a tightening his his stomach. The subject continued.
"They look to be European or American by their dress. I'd say they died violently ... and recently."
Something was going wrong, terribly wrong, and Dryden knew it. He was aware that the subject was no longer speaking in his usual slurred tones and he was no longer using the jargon of the typical wine-soaked bum with which every large city abounds. On a more instinctive gut-level, Wendell also concluded that something was going awry and was about to demand that Dryden put an end to the entire business right here and now. But before he could air his disillusionment, Dryden stood up.
"Try to discover their names," he feebly commanded the subject.
"There are some papers, but they've deteriorated along with the rotting flesh. Wait ... here's something! It's a metal identification disc ... a dogtag. I can just about make out the name ... Major Arthur Y. MacFadaign ... 4th Katangese Paracommando Regiment. It would appear that this fellow fought for Moise Tshombe during the Congolese civil war."
Wendell could no longer conceal his growing fear and exclaimed, "My God, Spence. I don't like this at all. Listen to the way he's speaking."
Dryden wasn't listening, he had something else to occupy his thoughts. It was MacFadaign. It was so damnably familiar that he knew, lurking somewhere in the back of his mind was the knowledge of who Arthur MacFadaign was. And, more importantly, what he had to do with all of this.
His ponderings were broken by the announcement of the subject, "I'm continuing downward. There is nothing more to be learned here. Incidently, these two men seem to have been shot as they mounted this stairway."
An agitated John Wendell was pacing back and forth in the circle, muttering softly to himself. Dryden was becoming fully convinced that Wendell was going to foul things up somehow because of his nervousness. He was about to tell Wendell to shut up and sit down when Wendell abruptly wheeled around and exclaimed, "I've got it. By God, I've got it!"
"What are you talking about?"
"MacFadaign, that's what I'm talking about. I was sure I'd heard that name before and now I remember."
"I was just thinking of the same thing myself," said Dryden, mildly surprised.
"Don't you remember? He was that famous Irish scholar who disappeared a few years ago."
"Right! Now I recall. He gave up his chair at Dublin University to go soldiering in Africa. The Katangese secession, that's what it was. Everyone thought he'd lost his marbles. Wrote a book about his adventures, too, but I can't recall the title." Dryden paused to glance at the subject before asking Wendell, "I once heard that he went off to Asia in search of some lost city. In Red Chinese territory, too. Know anything about that?"
"It looks as if he may have found it," Wendell replied.
"I guess so. Wonder who that was with him."
"Your guess is as good as mine, but there is one thing of which I'm pretty sure, though. The place where they died, and where our friend is on his astral journey, is Cimmu-Lcca, one of the outposts of Leng. Von Junzt mentions it in Nameless Cults and that occultist I met in Paris, Morheim was his name, spoke to me about it. As a matter of fact, Morheim was associated with a neo-fascist named Kramer who authored a strange book called The Crimson Epoch.
"The book was an incredibly rambling potpourri of Aryan racialism, disjointed pleas for the revival of the medieval feudal system, and fanatical exhortations for the people of Europe to rise up and wage a holy war against bolshevism. It could've been a carbon copy of Rosenberg's Myth of the Twentieth Century, except for one disturbing element. He repeatedly mentions the Great Old Ones as entering upon a period of renewed activity designed to finally usurp mankind's mastery of the earth. Kramer was convinced that the only alternative to defeat and enslavement by the Old Ones was the development of a Master Race of Magicians. Naturally, to Kramer's way of thinking, only the Nordic peoples were capable of rising to the task.
"Now all that is weird enough, but here's the really bizarre part. Both Kramer and MacFadaign were sought as suspects after the theft of the Delancourt copy of Nameless Cults. The morning after the theft they both left Brussels on a flight for India. Neither of them, as far as I know, has been seen since. We might surmise that the other body is Kramer's. You know it just ..."
Whatever Wendell was about to say would remain unsaid. Dryden noticed that Wendell's eyes suddenly riveted upon the face of the subject a fraction of a second before the words had died in his throat. Without a word, Wendell stepped in front of the subject. Stooping over, he stared intently into the vacant, staring eyes of the old man. Dryden watched, perplexed, as the blood slowly and visibly drained from Wendell's ruddy face. Wendell's mouth dropped open uncouthly and he reeled backwards across the room, like a drunken man, in the direction of the basement room's only egress. At the foot of the stairs he turned and, facing Dryden, screamed almost hysterically, "His eyes! Spence, don't look into his eyes!" Then he fled up the stairs. A few moments later Dryden heard the front door slam behind Wendell.
Somewhere deep in the pit of his stomach Dryden perceived a tingling sensation growing upwards, spreading inexorably like a fungoid growth. His throat went dry rapidly and he found it nearly impossible to swallow. A chilling perspiration speckled his forehead and his hands became damp and numb.
It was fear that was doing this to him. He tried to make himself understand that it was this and nothing more. It was fear alright ... he had to keep repeating it to himself. Fear ... fear of whatever had sent Wendell running in mad terror from the basement room. Fear of what Wendell had seen in those bloodshot eyes ... eyes which he could not bring his own to meet. Fear of those things he had been stupid enough to tamper with, where so many others had met their doom. Names flickered into his mind and just as swiftly faded. Chalmers, Blake, von Junzt, Angell, Geoffrey, Wendy-Smith, Carter, Alhazred, ... and how many others? All gone because they had entered the midnight regions of thought and activity that will not tolerate understanding.
He forced himself to look around the room. Nothing had changed. Nothing physical, that is, but he knew that some subtle transformation had taken place. If not physical ... then psychical. He blamed it on his imagination. Circumstances such as these, he desperately reasoned, could lead the most pragmatic and rational of individuals into imaginings of the wildest sort. There was only one way to resolve this and it had to be done.
Dryden rose on weak and unsteady legs. He moved stiffly, like a marionette, to where the subject sat in the black, balloon-like chair. He steadied himself by leaning on the arms, the squashy, yielding, vinyl arms of the chair. Bringing his face to within inches of the subject's, he stared into the blank, idiotic eyes. He suppressed a scream.
Dryden lay across the rumpled blankets on his bed. The rim of the pale sun was casting exploratory shafts of light over the dark silhouette of the Shawangunk Mountains to dispel the shadowy remnants of night lingering tenaciously in the pine forests beneath. The double roar of a hunter's shotgun echoed violently across the slopes, sending sleepy-eyed forest creatures scurrying for the security of their dens.
Dryden tried to keep his mind from constantly dwelling on the horror, but knew it was a useless effort. I would recur again and again to torment his nights and haunt his waking hours. How, even if he lived ten-thousand lifetimes, could he banish the memories that would one day drive him to madness.
The image of the horror began to take form in his mind again. He wanted to struggle against it, destroy it completely in some self-invoked amnesia, but knew it would be a futile maneuver. Dryden sank into the memory unresisting. He could smell the stale, rancid breath of the derelict as he bent closer to peer into the glazed, rheumy eyes. His hand brushed against the subject's and he impulsively recoiled with a shudder. The frigidity of the skin was like cold, smooth marble. Deliberately, this time, he touched the subject's hand. It was like ice and the fingertips seemed bluish and frostbitten.
It all seemed to transpire so slowly -- with himself as an ineffectual observer, yet at the same time a party to the event -- like a mirage filmed in slow motion. He thought of the coffin sequence in Carl Dreyer's pallid film classic Vampyr and the moody, dreamlike paintings of the pointillist artists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Despite his apparent aloofness from the scene, he was acutely, painfully aware of the blood tingling, burning beneath his skin. Dryden made a feeble effort to break free of the clutches of the memory-dream, but fell back, pulled downwards by an undeniable, malevolent force.
It was the fear he recalled most vividly. It had been no ambiguous human emotion, it was real, it existed as physically concrete as a block of stone. In a brief lightning-flash of intuition, Dryden realized that the fear was not only his -- somehow it was also emanating from the subject and joining, unifying with his and increasing in intensity. He felt justified in believing that this tremendous invisible current of negative energy could kill him, tear apart his soul and crush it together again like aluminum foil. Only one way lay open to stifle his terror. A phrase from Nietzche sprung to his mind, "that which does not destroy me makes me stronger!" He had to look into those eyes.
The eyes ... the reflection that should not have been. A reflection, not of the sickly green cellar walls or Dryden's own face peering back from the watery convex orbs, but of something else. He saw the stone, glowing vibrantly from within, luxurious waves of crimson light pouring out to wash over and illumine the ominous background. Behind the symmetrical perfection of the crystal, desolate, time-ravaged structures vanished in the umbrageous distance. Where the crystal spawned light held the encroaching blackness at bay, Dryden could detect no evidence of present habitation. The wide streets and narrow alleys were blocked by rubble. A depressing feeling of loneliness and futility came over him. So that was all that remained of Cimmu-Lcca, the forgotten outpost of prehistoric Leng. Sealed forever in the black fastnesses beneath the surface of the earth, illumined only by some miraculously functioning remnant of a long-gone science.
His attention was arrested by the crystal. It was growing larger. No, ... nearer. The subject, or rather his astral form, was drawing closer to it. One shining facet quickly occupied the entire field of vision. And inside, Dryden observed with a start, something had moved. Something partially obscured by the swirling tendrils of red mist. The figure, definitely humanoid, made a slight gesture and the clouds dissipated to reveal a shabbily-robed man with a gaunt, mocking face. The facial contours gave no clue to the figure's racial type. Dryden guessed him as being a hybrid of predominately Asian blood. A taunting, sardonic smile contorted the ancient, yellow features and the thin, bloodless lips moved in silent speech. Then the words that he could not, should not, have heard. For moving in unison with the mouth of the reflected being the subject spoke.
"You are mine!" he had said. "Mine for the glorious return of Lord Yog-Sothoth. Soon the stars will be right and my Master will return to ..."
Dryden remembered little detail of his mad scramble from the house. He ran aimlessly through the forests and fields that bordered his property. Stumbling repeatedly, his clothes were torn and his face and hands were scratched and bloody. At last he fell, exhausted and panting. He didn't know how long he had lain there, oblivious to the cold, staring up at the winking unsympathetic stars.
Somewhere, from some hidden reservoir of strength, he had screwed up the courage to reenter the house. He didn't immediately descend to the basement. First he wrapped himself in a heavy woolen blanket and poured several stiff brandies to combat his shivering and ward off the dull ache in his bones. Feeling a little better, as much as the circumstances permitted, he apprehensively went down the stairs. He found the subject dead, his lifeless body sprawled across the perimeter of the circle. Dryden felt slightly repulsed at his lack of remorse. He left the body where it lay and went up to his bedroom.
It was nearly three in the afternoon when Dryden awoke. He couldn't bear to guess how many times he had relived the horror-fraught happenings of the previous evening in those torturous, recurrent nightmares. He wondered how often a person could be subject to the same dream, or more precisely, dream-memory, during a single sleep period.
While shaving, he turned his attention to more pressing and pragmatic concerns. The problem of disposing of the corpse in the cellar would not prove too difficult. A man like that would have no relatives or friends to notify the authorities of his disappearance. Even should the body be found, no one could possibly connect it with him. Dryden determined to be rid of the corpse that very night, by dropping it from the narrow bridge on Tarbell Road that crossed the icy waters of a kill that snaked through the woodlands of Shawangunk Valley. Today marked the close of the hunting season, so the chances of some sleepy, rifle-toting rustic accidently discovering it were virtually nonexistent. It would probably be early spring before it was found and Dryden planned to be in Europe long before then.
He was about to turn left to go to the storeroom for some canvas and rope with which to wrap up the body, when he heard the sharp, metallic clatter of something dropping to the floor. Unmistakably the sound had originated from the room wherein lay the body. He hesitated a second before flinging open the door and stepping in. Speculating on what he might find inside would certainly not have prepared him for the scene that met him.
The body of the old man had vanished. Seated in the inflatable chair was John Wendell, his head lolling backwards, his eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling. The pewter cup was on the floor where it had slipped from Wendell's loosened grip. A torn sheaf from the notebook was on Wendell's lap. Dryden picked up the cup and cautiously sniffed; it had the unmistakable odour of the Takhel and burgundy. He read the hurried scrawl on the loose leaf:
Apologies for my cowardice last night. I've got to make amends both to you ... and myself. Mixed 20 grains of T. in the wine and will wait till I hear you coming downstairs before swallowing. All will be well.
We'll talk in an hour or so.
"Stupid sonuvabitch!" Dryden snapped aloud. Turning his back on Wendell, Dryden stalked out of the room to search for the cadaver. Wendell had to have secreted it in the house somewhere. A search of the other cellar rooms revealed nothing. Dryden even slid open the grating on the oil burner in case Wendell had made some crude attempt to cremate the remains. The ground floor was as clean as the second. The attic, where Dryden stored his blueprints and drafting papers, also yielded nothing. Running down the stairs to check the garage, he heard the muffled sounds of shrieks and shouts from the basement.
Without thinking, he dashed down to the basement, heedless of the book-laden table he crashed into or the shelf of delicate porcelain figures he sent flying to destruction. He found Wendell still in the chair, his features twisted in mental agony and mouthing indiscriminate phrases with no apparent logic behind them. They also seemed intended as replies to an unrelated series of questions. A dawning awareness crept over Dryden and a searing blast of horror scorched his conscience like a flamethrower. From his vantage point at the door, Dryden could clearly, distinctly see a dull reddish glow in Wendell's distended eyes. No powers on earth or in heaven could induce Dryden to venture closer and auger the revelations in the unearthly reflections. Slumping limply to the floor, he turned his face away and as the shouts increased in volume, he clamped his fists over his ears. The flesh and blood insulation was scarcely sufficient to blot out the reality of the situation.
The spoken replies of Wendell -- adamant, almost defiant in tone at first -- degenerated into pitiful pleas for help. A long, low moaning, like the wail of a lost soul in eternal torment, vibrated eerily in Dryden's skull.
Then, "No ... No ... Spence ... Help me ... please ..."
Dryden pressed his hands against his ears until the sides of his head ached. Still, he could not stifle the heart-wrenching pleas. He found himself praying, something he'd not done since adolescence. It was to no avail.
"Spence ... don't let them take me ... for the love of God ... please ..."
Dryden made fervent promises that he could never abide by to a God he'd long since dismissed as superstitious myth. He swore undying fealty to a faith he'd cast off with disgust as being fit only for fools and slaves.
"Don't let them take me ... Kran-Wehl Formulae ... perhaps that'll be ... losing quickly ... may be too late ... help me before they ... you may be next."
It was over. Afraid to look and find his companion as still and lifeless as he had found the old man, Dryden picked himself up and, without a backward glance, headed for the stairs. Something, he was quite sure it wasn't accidental, made his halt and look over his shoulder. Wendell's chest was gently rising and falling, the steady, reassuring rhythm of life. Dryden carried him up to the living room and laid him across the sofa.
Sitting himself where he could keep a watchful eye on Wendell, he found himself again, as he did all too frequently these days, seeking solace with a bottle of brandy. Mulling over the means by which he might end this adventure turned debacle, he finally determined upon the simplest solution. It was Dostoevsky, he thought, who had one of his characters exclaim, "For a long time I have pondered the idea of starting a fire ... but I have always save it for the critical time ..." And this was the time. Tomorrow at first light, Dryden resolved, all would be consigned to the purifying flames. The books, with their distressing insights by the sacerdotal servants of the Ancient Ones, would go. And with them the Takhel, the artificial inspiration, the Key of the Poet. And with them into harmless ashes would go, too, the notes so scrupulously transcribed by Wendell and himself. The damage already done, he sadly recalled the face of the old man, could hardly be rectified, but he consoled himself that there would be no further victims.
Uneasily, Dryden opened his eyes. I must have dozed awhile, he thought. Looking about him, the source of his discomfort became apparent. Wendell was sitting on the sofa, staring intently at him with an indefinable expression on his face. Something like amusement, Dryden thought with annoyance.
"I didn't want to wake you, Spence," said Wendell with a grin. "Seemed as if you'd been through an experience nearly as harrowing as mine."
"My God, John! You had me frightened half to death. Are you alright?"
"Fine. Never felt better in my entire existence."
"Then tell me what happened. I mean during the time you were ... Oh, Christ! The old man ... he's ..."
"Dead!" Wendell supplied the distasteful word.
"Yes," Dryden affirmed. "You knew, then, eh! What about the body; it's gone?"
"I know that, too. Listen, Spence. It's a long story. Let me get you a drink, then I'll tell you some startling things. I'm positive you'll find my story most interesting and incredible."
While Wendell busied himself with the drinks, Dryden sank lazily back in his chair. Wendell was whistling Le Streghe again. Not quite as well as he used to do it, thought Dryden. He was missing something, but Dryden couldn't put his finger on what it was. Perhaps the pitch was deeper. He turned his thoughts to other matters. Reconsidering his hasty decision to end the experiments with the Key of the Poet, he discovered that he was actually hoping for Wendell to say something to dissuade his intentions. In his heart he knew that he still wished to visit those incredibly ancient citadels of the Ancient Ones; to stand in awe before the towering, cyclopean architecture; to see the ultimate artistic expression of a pre-human creative genius. Wonderful revelations would be forthcoming from Wendell, he told himself with
"Here," Wendell handed him a drink. "Let us drink a toast to my return."
Touching his glass to Wendell's, he smiled at the reassuring tinkle of the glasses. Dryden briefly scanned the long shelves line with old books. The strange and beautiful titles seemed etched with fire on the cracked and broken spins. He may yet require the knowledge they contained, he carelessly mused.
"To your safe return!" he intoned ritually before draining the glass in a single gulp.
He was shocked at first and comprehension was slow in coming. But there could be little doubt of what had been done to him. The burning liquid seared his throat and tongue. The strong hands that seized him by the shoulders, forcing him down into the chair, held him there with an unyielding, uncompromising strength. Wendell's harsh glare and bitter, hateful, inhuman laughter. There could be little doubt. He wanted to vomit, to purge his body of the poisonous Takhel that tied his guts into Gordian knots. He was rapidly growing numb. His arms refused to obey frenzied commands from his brain. A second figure stepped into his field of vision. The pressure on his shoulders had relaxed, ceased, in fact. But he was still unable to move from the chair.
He estimated that he had only minutes of true consciousness left. He focused his waning vision on the person standing behind Wendell. He saw ... and doubted his sanity. It was the old derelict who had served as the subject -- alive and healthy! He attempted to articulate his confusion, but only a thick, sibilant hissing escaped his lips. The twin figures, slowly fading into indistinct blurs, smiled. The one he knew as John Wendell.
"You will soon join your comrade and victim, foolish mortal. Whilst we assume your roles to prepare the way. Countless years have we patiently waited for the day when men, with their pitiful notions of progress and scientific zeal, unwittingly reopened the gates. We are the first. There will be others. Of that Lord Yog-Sothoth has assured us. Once we trusted men to do our work. But it seems that all men are treacherous and serve none save themselves and their futile dreams of glory. Alas, even the Gods blunder on occasion. We will set things right now, though. Go fool, join the others!"
The crystal loomed before Dryden. The lurid red glow blinded him as he toppled into the prison of the Elder Gods.
Created: August 11, 1997; Updated: August 9, 2004