It was near midnight when he heard her knock. He looked through the fisheye lens in the heavy door and saw her face and his emotions surged like a breaking wave, as though some momentous, long-awaited event had finally materialized. Yet anger and fear tore at him and he hesitated to open the door; anger at the pain she had caused, and fear that she would bring more. There were no lights on in the apartment. He had been sitting alone, brooding before the embers in the fireplace, among his beloved books and the exotic objects that helped him feel the vastnesses of space and time; he could pretend no one was home. But in the end, he opened the door.
"Hello, Alifair. So you're back."
"Justin --." Her voice was thick with emotion. "Justin." She repeated it, as if just saying the name brought her comfort. He didn't invite her in. "I need you, desperately. You've got to help me," she said. "Please, let me in."
He led her to the comfortable well-worn armchair he used for guests. He looked at her in the firelight. She hadn't aged; it had only been five years since she left him for Aaron. But her blonde hair was disheveled, there were worry lines around her deep blue eyes. She collapsed into the chair, lay her head back and closed her eyes while she composed herself.
"You might at least offer an old flame a drink," she said without opening her eyes.
"Still scotch and water, no ice?" he said.
"Make it a double."
"How is Aaron?" he said when he returned with the drinks. Aaron with the quick smile women couldn't resist, with the air of mystery and secretive excitement. Justin had ignored the telltale signs, her boredom, the way her eyes flashed around Aaron, the coolness toward himself: then she was gone. And now that he was just getting past the pain, here she was again. He tingled with hope, and at the same time ached because he was almost certain he was just going to get hurt again. Almost; but he couldn't bring himself to cut off the last spark of possibility.
She took a long time to answer, and when she did, she gave him a boldly curious look as though gauging his reaction.
"Aaron is dead."
She waited for that to sink in.
"He died because of the book," she said. "Our whole life together revolved around it. You know how he was always half hinting that he was onto something tremendous, something beyond anyone's mundane dreams -- that book was what it was about. He already had it then. What he had was a complete version of The Lamentations of Sheol. Not the fragmentary remnant in Sumerian cuneiform, the complete phonetic version in devanagari script, from central Asia."
Justin was stunned. The Lamentations -- the revelations of the trans-human world of Sheol, obtained from the creatures of the dark side of nature by Queen Shub-Ad of Ur at the cost of the many lives, lives of her sacrificed courtesans. Other books of mystery told of the dark worlds -- only a few provided the means to reach out to those worlds and touch them. The Necronomicon of the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred was one. The Lamentations might be even more potent. No one really knew; the pronunciation of the Sumerian language was not known with precision, and few of the chants were complete. But there had been rumors of an occult oral tradition that preserved the sound of the chants, and of a 1600-year-old version in that most phonetic of scripts, the devanagari used for Sanskrit.
"It was intoxicating, Justin. Just to know we were on the edge of the deepest mysteries, hidden away for thousands of years. On the brink of adventures undreamed of ..."
He was sick with envy. Aaron had stolen away the most haunting, magical woman Justin had ever known, and had possessed the key to mysteries Justin could only glimpse from a tantalizing distance. Then he remembered what she had said: he envied a man who would love no more and go no more adventuring.
"He couldn't use the book, you see. He could read the script, and he understood the Sumerian language, but the sound wasn't right, not right enough anyway. We had partial successes, when we could see the shimmering boundary of known and unknown, when the smell of the dark worlds made our hair stand on end and we could sense alien voices trying to speak from beyond the veil ... but nothing quite worked -- until they found him."
"They never identified themselves, but Aaron always called them the Black Druids, right from the start. They were from Europe -- they must have spotted Aaron when he was investigating the Lamentations at the British Museum in London. Of course he didn't look like he did here -- he used a false name and dressed like a professor. When it disappeared from there, they realized who had smuggled it out and traced him back to the United States.
"We guessed someone was searching our apartment. Once the letters in a desk drawer looked like they had been moved, another time a book on the couch wasn't exactly where I'd left it. Two days after that they came to the door.
"There were two of them, Ian and Seamus. They wore American clothes, jeans, but they were always hooded. At first they tried to buy the Lamentations outright. Aaron kept saying no and getting more nervous about the whole thing. He told me he was afraid that if they got it they would kill us. When he turned down $1,000,000, even I wondered if he was crazy. That's when they made the final offer.
"Aaron couldn't refuse this one. We would give them the complete phonetic manuscript they needed, making a copy for ourselves; they would teach us the correct pronunciation, and give us $100,000 to boot."
"Sounds dangerous," Justin said. "Wouldn't that give them a chance to get close to you and figure out how to steal what they wanted?"
"That's what I thought, too, but you know what Aaron was like. He was sure he could outsmart them. He had it hidden, away from our apartment. He didn't even tell me where it was till later, when things were getting out of control. He brought copies of a few pages, specific chants that they requested, to each session.
"We had to meet them in a place they had set up, a dangerous-looking place we didn't like at all. It was deep under an abandoned building in the warehouse district, down by the tracks. I think they must have rigged a pretty substantial hideout there. But the only part they let us see was this one big room in the second basement. You know I'm not afraid of adventure, Justin, but I was really terrified every time we went down there, about ten times altogether. They had rough benches, like picnic furniture, and it smelled musty like a basement and oily from the Coleman lamps and heaters. Ian and Seamus were there, but the third man, a much older man they called 'Master', he was always in control. I think his English wasn't too good, Ian did most of the talking, but he kept talking to Ian in a foreign language, telling him what to say to us and demonstrating the sounds.
"They kept their part of the bargain scrupulously. First they would look over the chant Aaron had brought, all three of them, with a lot of nodding and muttering in that language which Aaron said was Celtic. Then they would all agree and start teaching us how to pronounce it. We went very slowly, in short phrases. They were afraid we would call up more than they wanted to deal with.
"The last meeting was tense. They must have been afraid we'd skip out on it and disappear, because they'd carefully avoided teaching certain key phonetic patterns up till then. Aaron had done a lot of analysis to make sure they covered every possible combination of letters, and at that last meeting he kept prodding them till they hit them all. On their side I could see they were upset when we didn't bring the manuscript, and when he told them he'd take them to it afterwards they were pretty sullen about the teaching. They obviously hadn't prepared the 'lesson' carefully like they had before, but Aaron had shrewdly brought along chants that used the combinations he needed to learn.
"He made his move while the Master was voicing the last verse, before he even finished. I swear I didn't know what he planned to do. He had one of those automatics made out of nonmetallic parts. He was afraid they would smell the gun. Before anyone could react he put a hole in the Master's forehead. He flopped over backwards like a rag doll and his head hit the floor like a melon. Aaron took out Seamus and Ian while they were still staring openmouthed. I didn't know blood stank so."
She took a minute to get her poise back.
"Did he really think he could away with it?" he said.
"Oh, yes. He always thought he could do anything. He was like a bright, precocious kid, not understanding that he could get hurt, that he could lose everything. We changed apartments, careful not to leave a trail. Didn't even move to another city. He kept the book away from the
apartment in case they tracked us, even though he was sure they couldn't".
"He used to play chess with me," said Justin. "He was a hell of an attacking player, but not much good at defense. How long did it take them to find you?"
"Not long at all. It was only a couple of weeks before we felt like we were being followed. Both of us. And we found little things out of place around the apartment, like before. Aaron assumed they wanted the book more than they wanted us. They must have wanted it awfully bad to hold back, when they could have killed us so easily. I was scared, really scared, but Aaron just didn't sense how much they hated us. It was all just a thrilling game to him.
"I was afraid to go out at night, did everything in the daytime when the streets were crowded. But Aaron wouldn't live that way, and he put off leaving the city. He still went out at night, but he started to act worried. He quit cutting through the park across from us, said the trees seemed to move sometimes. Just before the end he thought he heard footsteps following him, quick tapping footsteps, 'like little hooves' he said.
"It happened in that park. The police found blood there, and signs of a scuffle. Maybe they dragged him in there. They probably left him for dead, but he crawled across the street and rang the doorbell to our apartment before he died. There were bruises and little cuts all over him; his face was unrecognizable. The police figured it for a gang attack, in spite of those strange marks like the hooves of a goat.
"I was out of that apartment ten minutes after the police left and never went back. I've been hiding for three days now. Today I went to the place where the Lamentations is hidden. It's still there. He must not have told them where he hid it. I have to use it to save myself. They want to kill me; they know I was Aaron's partner and I know too much about them. It wouldn't be enough to give them the book."
"What do you mean? What else is there to do?"
She stared into the fire. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
"I have to give it back to the -- entities -- it came from. I have to take it to one of the hidden places where our world touches theirs, and offer it to the Horned One who walks on goat feet; I have to beg the forgiveness of Shub-Niggurath."
Justin hesitated. He had assumed she wanted help hiding, or running.
"And just how would you do that?"
She looked at him intently, secretively.
"We learned things, you know. Before they got him. If he had gotten away with it there's no telling where it would have ended. I know what I have to do. The Black Druids hate me too much, because we killed the Master. He was important to them. He was centuries old. Nothing I could do would placate them. But if I can supplicate Shub-Niggurath, and his servant on Earth, the Horned One, return the book to them so it can be used for their hidden purposes here, I will come under their protection. The Druids will have to let me alone.
"I know how to summon them, how to speak to them. There's a place near here, where the spheres impinge. Go there with me. Please."
"What do you need me for?"
He was deeply suspicious. He knew she could never care for him as she once had. If she didn't need his protection, what could she be after? As much as he cared for her, he knew she always had an angle.
"I need your powers of concentration. We'll be surrounded by evil forces, trying to drown us in our own fear. I know how powerfully you've developed your mental focus through the bhatranj practices, how you can keep your mind steady in the face of threats. Better than Aaron, even. I need your help."
She stared at him questioningly. When he refused to respond she lay back in the chair and closed her eyes, her hand still around her glass.
Justin looked around the room, at the comfortable refuge he had made for himself these last five years, the familiar books and recherché objects that fascinated him without threatening him. Then he looked at her face again, beautiful in the firelight, calm and innocent in repose. Could it possibly work with her again? Could he ever trust her?
"I'll do it," he said.
"I knew that you would," she murmured, softly but distinctly. Before he could speak again she was asleep.
Twenty four hours later they stood in the moonlight on a rocky hilltop an hour's drive outside the city. They had left the car on a dirt track far from the highway and walked for half an hour under the dark and silent trees, unnaturally large and regular. She carried the heavy tome cradled in both arms, refusing to let Justin help her with it.
"Here," she said simply. "Sit there and focus your mind, say nothing, think nothing while I build the messenger fire and chant the summons. Don't let yourself be distracted by anything, no matter what happens."
"But how will I know when you want me to intervene? What if it goes nasty?"
"It won't. Not here, not at the beginning. If trouble starts it will be later. Whenever trouble happens, your role is to stay steady, be a rock for me to lean on, something fixed to cling to. Anything else you do will probably backfire."
Still puzzled, he took up an erect sitting position facing her. He opened up his mind to the darkness, the soft night space around them, stilling his mind to a clear mirror of the events in front of him. Alifair laid the book on the ground and fumbled in the moonlight with the little backpack she had carried there. She built a tiny fire, heating charcoal blocks to an orange glow. She sprinkled a coarse powder over the fire and whisked the smoke to the four cardinal directions with a black feather. The fragrance of juniper reached him; at the scent his clear mind expanded still more, taking in her slim figure, the flat stony hilltop, the black circle of trees, the enigmatic vault of the heavens, glimmering with stars even in the brilliant moonlight.
She did not need to open the book to voice the chant. She sat by the fire, cross-legged and erect like him, with the book beside her. As the words filled the air he sensed an awesome meaning, touching his mind through the strangeness of the ancient words. He held himself in a timeless stillness; he had no feeling for the passage of seconds and minutes as she droned the arcane syllables.
But in the long monotony of the chanting he grew tense; at length his own anxious thoughts began to break in. He brushed them aside, returning to the open readiness of the mirror-mind that is the starting point of all bhatranj, until gnawing uncertainty grew into a major distraction.
Only when she turned and stared away from the fire into the darkness did he loosen his concentration enough to turn his head, and by then the movement of the trees was complete and they had parted to open a path leading down the far side of the hill, away from the direction of their arrival. They rose slowly and carefully, maintaining the balance and clarity of their minds as they approached the open way. It led steeply downward into the blackness, rough and lit only by the hovering moon. They had to walk carefully, with total awareness of each stone beneath their feet. At the bottom the path was level again and though the way grew even darker, their feet found the way without effort, as though the path were made smooth for them by unseen powers.
He saw with an uncanny clarity the trees that surrounded them. There was movement, though there was no breeze to interrupt the quiet: silent, sporadic, short movements that he detected only with his peripheral vision. The trunks seemed abnormally straight and thick for this part of the country. He trod the open path before them with care, instinctively dreading to stray among those solemn sentries in that mysterious glade.
Ahead of them a faint blue light appeared between the trees. They reached the bank of a pool, littered with big stones and boulders, lit by the quicksilver reflection of the moon and by a glow like fox fire from the stones and bushes around it. Across the water was a cliff face and the black mouth of a huge cave, an evil maw gaping in the night. Justin was filled with courage and determination to save Alifair from her own fate, but fear radiated from that gaping blue-lit cavern like an unseen cloud, a keening overtone to his resolve.
A rustling began deep within the cave, resolving into a clicking, rattling tumult, and a reddish glow swelled from the back outward. Out trotted a short, bald man dressed in an ordinary business suit, moving with a fidgeting, prancing gait. Behind him surged an army of shadowy forms, unidentifiable in the gloom, each no larger than a sheep dog. The man skirted the pond and came before the two supplicants.
The minion of Shub-Niggurath was superficially ordinary, plump, smooth-skinned, with a fringe of sandy hair like a monk. But his movements suggested hooves rather than feet, and he tossed his head and rolled his eyes like a crazed stallion as he took in the couple before him. When he
spoke his voice was shrill and lilting.
"You bring the book, you foolish thing," he mocked. "Whatever are you thinking of?"
"I seek the forgiveness of Shub-Niggurath, the all-mother, for my error. I didn't know what Aaron would do to the Master. I only sought to learn. Now I seek to abase myself before the power of earth and life and find peace and safety. I bring the book as an act of atonement."
She knelt before the preposterous yet terrifying creature. Yet she clung tightly to the book and did not offer it.
"If you seek atonement, give me the book now, you wretched creature," he bleated. "I can take it, you know. I sense your friend's shield, but his sorcery is feeble. Give it to me, or we will overwhelm you and trample you to a bloody ruin like your lover Aaron".
The clatter of the little shadow creatures swelled, grew frantic and menacing. Justin centered his consciousness in his abdomen, mentally reached out to the cardinal directions and the stars overhead and the firm earth under his feet, making himself a firm center of power unswayed by the flickering glow, the clattering of tiny hooves, the leering threats.
The bald man advanced toward Alifair and the shadows rushed to join him. Then he stopped and stared at Justin. The clattering diminished. The feeling of menace seemed to ground itself against the shield of power created by Justin's bhatranj yoga.
"I see your new friend is stronger than I thought. Not such a weakling as the one we caught in the park. Perhaps you must see the Horned One after all. I am not empowered to give absolution. Will you go further?"
"I must," she wailed. "If you cannot absolve me, I must seek a higher power."
His braying laughter echoed from the stone and the black water.
"So you must see the Horned One! Such hope, such courage, such dismal foolishness. He will devour you. Follow me, if you must!"
The grinning demon did not turn but moved backwards, with an inhuman jittering step, and receded into the glowing cavern. She advanced hesitantly. Justin followed closely behind her, careful to keep her within the edge of his small envelope of power. He wanted to reach out and touch her, to reassure her, but kept rigidly to the erect bhatranj posture, arms crossed over his chest in a mudra of defense. When they came within the cave the glow became a glare, and the clattering of the dark beasts intensified to a frenzy. Yet their shapes remained indistinct, a blur of small sharp horns, stamping hooves, yellow pinpoint eyes, covering the floor in an undulating mass, scampering up the walls. They surrounded the two supplicants but did not come closer.
A dim form took shape before them, a black vortex growing and clarifying in the rear of the cave. A wave of dread washed over both of them. Justin broke posture to take five star-shaped stones from his jacket pocket and quickly place them in a pentacle around himself. He made it large enough to hold both himself and Alifair.
"Alifair! Step back into the pentacle!" he called out. But she was already frozen with fear at the sight taking shape before her.
At first it was only a black spot in the orange glare of the cave; but it swelled quickly to a swirling cloud. Then features grew distinct, like an out of focus image sharpening on a screen. The emerging entity was much taller than a man, with glaring eyes set wide across the enormous goat-like head, gleaming yellow with vertical pupils. Heavy ebony horns curled like tentacles, sharp points forward. The towering body was dead black, hairy from the waist down. It walked on cloven hooves. When it advanced Alifair involuntarily stepped back, cringing and hugging the Lamentations of Sheol.
"Give it to me," it snarled in a bass voice like distant thunder.
"I beg forgiveness, mighty one! I will do anything you ask," she cried, trembling and buckling at the knees.
"I will have the book and I will have blood," roared the avatar. "You are helpless now."
It strode toward her, it's head rolling slightly from side to side. Alifair fell to her knees in limp terror.
"Alifair! The pentacle! You must get inside the pentacle of star-stones!" Fear shook his mind, rocking his consciousness like an earthquake. He had to center his mind, to let go of the panicky thoughts of escape and despair, and regain the steady power of bhatranj consciousness which was his shield against the avatar of Shub-Niggurath. Without the energizing power of mind the star stones alone could not prevail against such power.
She turned her head to look back at Justin but did not move toward him. She stared up at the Horned One.
"Great One! I have brought sacrifice to atone for my crime against the druids! I have brought flesh and blood to satisfy the hunger of Shub-Niggurath!"
Justin was startled and confused. His consciousness wavered, and the mob of sinister creatures surrounding them grew agitated and pressed closer to the pentacle. He summoned the power developed through long hours of practice and opened his mind even more; the creatures receded. He strove to expand his sphere of protection, to reach out toward Alifair and help her get to the protection of the stones.
"Take him! Crush his power, trample the star stones, offer him to Shub-Niggurath as the price of the druid master!"
A horrified comprehension clutched him. She half turned and pointed directly at Justin, not letting her eyes meet his. The beast turned its head deliberately to glare at him. Numbed by the brutal betrayal, he raged against the abyss of despair; painfully he to let the violent tugs of emotion pass. He centered his consciousness in the eye of the storm, with the clarity and symmetry of the bhatranj state. Fifteen years of practice had trained him for this -- the powerful emotions swept through him, but he strengthened into an unmovable tranquillity.
He saw her proffer the book to the thing, head down, arms extended. It turned its head toward her, then tossed its head and neighed in triumph. The bald man scampered out from behind it, giggling and whinnying, and seized the book, dancing back into the darkness.
The thing approached with powerful, purposeful strides, ebony hooves thudding on the rocky floor. As it passed her Justin saw her kneeling upright, slack-jawed, eyes grotesquely wide in her terror. It bore down on him; his mind ceased to touch anything but the motionless center of his consciousness and the snorting evil that towered only a pace away from him. He sensed the storm of uncanny malevolence that poured from the thing and washed over his shield. But it could not penetrate; it flowed all around Justin, short-circuiting in the mind-field and reflecting back to its source with redoubled intensity. The beast staggered back, bellowing its rage, then rushed toward Justin in fury. But again its own vile power reflected back against it, and again it staggered, almost falling. This time it roared in disgust and turned back toward Alifair.
Justin heard her high-pitched screaming, saw the sweat of fear run down her face like rain. She ran, away from the terror toward the depths of the cave, beyond reasoning, beyond anything but screaming and running. It overtook her in a few long strides and stooped to catch her with a sweeping horn. It tossed her against the cavern wall like a limp doll. She jumped up, blood seeping from her forehead, ran screaming again, now toward the cavern entrance. This time the horns took her from behind, one razor point slicing a huge wound across her back, the other passing through her abdomen. Justin smelled the rank, raw stench of blood and the biting ammoniac odor of urine an instant before the screaming stopped.
Then his tortured mind imploded into a full trance state, leaving behind his rigid, barely breathing body and the horror of Shub-Niggurath. He would remember the trance-wanderings of his soul vividly, and what he learned in those supra-human realms would haunt him for the rest of his life; but consciousness of earthly events returned only as he stumbled out of the woods in the gray cold light of dawn. The events of that night, leading to his second and permanent loss of Alifair, he would remember only rarely, painfully, and never willingly.
Created: January 31, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004