Robert Clarke was driving again, as he had so many times before. Deep moonless night pressed in on the little car as it crawled along the treacherous narrow roads of the West Virginia hills. It was late, and Clarke was tired, and the road was unfamiliar. Beside him his wife Karen slumbered fitfully. Eight months pregnant. Their first child. Ultrasound had revealed a boy. They were still not settled on his name.
Clarke glanced at her, saw no seat belt. She claimed it was too uncomfortable. He didn't like it, but he didn't say anything, either. They would be at her parents' house in under an hour; everything would be fine then.
The trip was all Karen's idea, of course. He never quite felt at home around her parents, especially her father. Howard Rainey was a very religious man, and Robert's indifference to the Gospel did not please him at all. It was obvious that he held Robert responsible for his daughter's apostasy as well, though Robert knew Karen Rainey was quite removed from her parents' Christianity by the time he met her in college.
They had attended a few services together, just to please her parents. Robert remembered Reverend Hughes' wild-eyed exhortations with distaste. Waving his arms, ill-fitting suit threatening to burst at the seams, Hughes would roar, "Who knows who among us is closest to eternity? Who knows if we will ever get another chance to turn to Jesus? Who knows?"
Certainly neither Robert nor his wife had cared.
There would probably be another Hughes session to endure on this visit. Not a pleasant thought. The preacher had hardly mellowed with age.
Without warning a car came around the bend, tires screeching, headlights off. Robert blew his horn, but took it in stride. No need to panic. A road sign: CHARLESTON 50. That meant it was about another twenty miles to the Rainey's trim little home up Hugheston Hollow. He would make it by midnight or die trying.
And for just a slice of a second, he felt a wild terror rise up within his heart, as if he knew nothing would ever be fine, not ever again. This was crazy, he told himself, and willed his heart to slow its beat, willed his fright to subside.
But suppose (just suppose ) that somewhere up ahead was a man behind the wheel of a dilapidated pickup. He'd have to have a name.
A name like Mike Hanson, for instance.
Imagine that somewhere ahead, Mike Hanson had thrown back his last drink and staggered from the End Zone bar. Imagine Mike Hanson, behind the wheel of his battered 4x4, weaving from lane to lane, heading toward a terrible rendezvous with Robert's Toyota.
Why would he think of something like that?
He glanced in the rearview mirror, saw a face looking back at him. An old black man wearing a spotlessly white suit, a golden chain around his thick neck bearing a peculiar triple crescent symbol. The reflection smiled at him, spoke with the voice of mysteries revealed: "Is this how it happened, Robert Clarke?"
It was Le Novar. Le Novar, that phony, that charlatan.
Le Novar, his last hope.
He hadn't met Le Novar until long after the accident.
Fear washed over him in waves.
He tried to wake Karen, called out her name. She didn't move. Her head lolled to one side; he saw the blood running from her nose and mouth, saw the blood on his own hands. The steering wheel moved forward, struck like a snake, crushing his rib cage. Horns blared, lights seared his eyes.
Even then, he could only think of Karen. Karen and their son, their unborn son, falling now, falling away from his reaching hands, swallowed by the screaming darkness, as Robert Clarke woke from the dream with a stifled shout.
How many times would he travel that road?
Karen was not beside him. Slowly he climbed out of bed, all too aware of his slight limp, of his scars, of the knot in his arm where the bone had not healed correctly. He found her in the living room, in her wheelchair, watching the flickering television. Not watching, just staring at the screen, seeing nothing. Her tears told Robert that she had also been dreaming. Five years had passed, but it didn't matter. They were both still ensnared by that West Virginia night.
He wanted to tell her everything. About Le Novar, and the Clawed Crystal, and the things that would happen, that had to happen, that must happen. About his trip to Arkham, to the university, and what he had done there.
He looked at his wife, at the tears in her deep blue eyes, and he knew he could say nothing. She wouldn't believe it. Even he could barely believe it, and he had seen the things Le Novar could do. There was nothing he could say that would help at all.
So together, in silence, the man and woman watched the television. On the screen, cartoon people did cartoon things. Blown up, they reassembled. Dropped from a cliff, they bounced right back. Impervious cartoon people, for whom every calamity was a laugh.
It was morning and Robert Clarke was not at work. Jim Jackson, his foreman, would be phoning the house, asking Karen in his no-nonsense foreman voice where her husband was. Karen would have no idea.
It was morning and Robert Clarke was limping through that part of town most people shunned. He carried a small parcel, a box wrapped in brown paper. He passed empty storefronts, faded signs painted on the ancient brick walls, bleary-eyed derelicts rummaging in waste cans for hidden treasure. A short woman, jet-black hair hanging down in unwashed strands, pulled at his arm. "Hey, buddy, you gotta quater? I need a quater fora bus." She reeked of cheap wine and urine.
He gave her his wallet and went on.
Normally he would have shaken her off. But it didn't matter. When he failed to show up at work, Jackson would be angry. Jackson didn't matter. Karen would be worried, maybe frightened. That bothered him, but he knew, in the end, it didn't matter. Today nothing mattered, because soon everything would change.
It was morning and Robert Clarke was on his way to see Le Novar for the final time. On his way to change the world.
He turned at the narrow alley between the empty art-deco shell of Lowman's Pharmacy and an ugly, off-white apartment building, made his way down the shadowed incline, his bad leg aching with every step. Out in the sunlight a car drove by, speakers thumping out brutal rap. At the end of the narrow, damp passage, a door in the side of Lowman's.
Clarke turned the knob, stepped in. There was nothing but debris and an odor of decay. Panic. He looked at his watch. 8:58. Le Novar had told him to meet him here at nine. Feeling foolish, he stepped back out, waited two minutes, and entered again.
The room was filled with the scent of strange incense. Glowing globes hung from the ceiling, seemingly filled with flowing blue-white fire. Liquid lightning. Le Novar stood before him, resplendent in his white robes. The weird pendant glistened in the coruscating light.
Clarke was not surprised. In the months since the old black man had first contacted him, he had seen stranger things than these. He had to be convinced, and Le Novar had convinced him. Despite the fact that the old man's real name was Nick Calvert; despite the fact that he had written The Stars Are With You!, a paperback mishmash of von Daniken, Madame Blavatsky and H.P. Lovecraft, in which he claimed to have been born, not in Kalamazoo, Michigan, as his birth certificate attested, but on Xandra the Asteroid Planet, untold millennia ago; despite all the pompous circumstance with which he surrounded himself, Robert Clarke believed in him.
Le Novar had shown him many things before he could find the faith to follow the old man's instructions.
He had seen the ruins that lie below Mars' crust, where Vulthoom, mighty Hellflower, slumbers in the caverns of Ravormos.
He called it hypnotism.
He had seen the black temple-tomb at the bottom of the sea, where awful Cthulhu waits to arise and overtake the earth.
It was done with mirrors.
He had looked upon ravenous Kaalut and its swarming insect servants in the nightmare realm called K'gil'mnon.
That had shaken him, but it wasn't enough.
So Le Novar had leaned across an ordinary desk and told him something in an ordinary voice. Something no one other than Robert Clarke could know, something very terrible, very shocking, something that happened when he was a child. Something that happened in a church.
And he believed.
And the deal was made.
Now the deal was consummated. Clarke handed the package to Le Novar, who unwrapped it slowly, without speaking. Within was an ancient manuscript, a thing of parchment, its faded lines written in ideographs unknown to Clarke or any man. He had stolen it from the library at Miskatonic University.
"Did you make any effort to cover your tracks?" asked the old man, fixing Clarke with his bright serpent's eyes.
"No. Why should I? Tomorrow everything will be changed."
Le Novar nodded. "Good." He opened another door, motioned Clarke within. "We all have our dreams, Robert. This is mine. Yours is here, as I promised. The Clawed Crystal. Come in, then, and let us remake history."
Clarke stepped into the room. There on a short, squat pedestal was the goal of his wild hopes. The crystalline thing was almost a foot high and black as a starless night. From its central core three long talons stretched up. The hum of its power was terrifying; though barely audible, it resonated in the human soul at the frequency of the deepest ancestral fears. Clarke reached out for it as if magnetized, but Le Novar seized his hand with speed and strength unexpected in one so old.
"Not yet! You would surely perish. Listen to me one last time. Tomorrow will dawn on a new world, and you will have never met me."
"If that's so, why was that scroll so important? You won't remember it."
Le Novar laughed. "Time is different for me, Robert. Anything you do to the past can hardly affect the Xandriac soul that inhabits this sorry Earther shell. I will still recall its contents, even if it passes from me."
"Why didn't you get it yourself?"
"There are special checks and guards in the library of Miskatonic. Certain men have found the need for these things. They are quite effective in their way. No doubt I could have overcome them eventually, but it was easier to send a simple human in, against whom the secret barriers have no power." Le Novar turned to the Crystal. "Enough of that. Here is your answer. It came from holy Xandra itself."
"This has to work, Le Novar. It has to. Karen can't stand much more. I can't, either. Every day I feel like something is about to snap --"
"But it will not snap! This will heal the wound you both bear. Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more."
"Shakespeare. Macbeth. True words about Earther life. But you shall have another hour upon the stage. Now listen. When the Crystal bonds with you, you will be catapulted into time. Your destination is clear, yes?"
"Oh yes. Very clear." I see it every night, he thought.
"It is your soul that will travel the timeways. Remember this: nothing you may meet there is an ally. Time is filled with voracious beings of all kinds. The Hounds of Tindalos will be there, lean and athirst. If they scent you, you are lost, even in the new timeline you will return to."
"Hounds of --?"
The old man did not repeat the word, but continued his warning. "The Gromac, the Shatterer may find you. Portions of it are of the fourth dimension. It will appear as a very terrible dragon, if it does appear. Do not fear it, however. Its only power in the timestream is to frighten. In other dimensions, it has another form and much more influence."
Clarke said nothing. He was anxious to begin the journey.
"Yog-Sothoth, that which dwells in the Past and Future, may intersect your time period. You will perceive it as a mass of frothing iridescent globes. If it follows you back, your world will be as Xandra. Dust. Fragments in space. Yog-Sothoth is entropy, do you understand? Anti-life. Nonexistence."
With a thrill of terror, Clarke realized the extent of Le Novar's warning. From anyone else, it would have seemed madness. But this was Le Novar, and Clarke believed in him. "I didn't know -- How do I dodge these things?"
"Keep your mind on your purpose. Think of nothing else. Such beings are drawn to loose thoughts and shattered dreams. And trust to your god, if you have one."
Clarke looked away from the old man. "I don't."
"Then your journey will indeed be dark. Finally, Nyarlathotep the Crawling Chaos, whose evil is unparalleled, often walks the timeways." He shrugged, a gesture belonging to a world far away. A saner world. "Who can say how it will appear? In ancient Khem it took the form of man. But it was not a man when it came to the Xandriac adepts. Simply remember that everything in the dominion of time, no matter how benign it may seem, is and always will be the bane of Man."
The Clawed Crystal ceased to hum; it chimed, high and tinkly, then low like a giant brass bell. Le Novar stood aside, motioned toward the ominous object, which had begun to glow a deep, radiant red.
Without fear Clarke put out his hand, seized the Crystal. Its talons stretched, flexed, whipped around the flesh of his arm; the hot red glow poured from it, suffusing his body, consuming his vision in crimson radiance.
Maybe he screamed.
He was a point of consciousness without a body. Without a body image. Less than a ghost, he saw without eyes the terrible roiling vortex which is Time. Fragments of unfulfilled futures spun in the immaterial cyclone that surrounded him, engulfed him, threatened to dissolve him in a thousand different directions.
He seized onto the moment he had come here to change. That fatal night, five years before, the night of June the fifteenth, when drunken Mike Hanson had destroyed his dreams forever.
The consciousness that was Robert Clarke moved strangely through the whirl of Time, which began to resolve itself into a landscape. An Earther landscape, as Le Novar would call it.
Why had the Xandriac exile never used the Crystal himself? Never tried to restore his shattered world from the cataclysm that had consumed it?
Maybe he had, came the thought, and Clarke's spirit knew cold fear. His forward motion slowed, lost its course in the eddies of the timeways.
Something impossibly thin and flat moved near him, stiffened in a way that told him it was aware of his presence. It changed shape, becoming in quick succession a myriad of geometric forms, none of which could exist in a three-dimensional universe.
Le Novar's words came to him: They are drawn to loose thoughts and shattered dreams. Even as the memory flashed to mind, the thing stretched through angles, drew still nearer, if the term had any meaning in the temporal chaos. Another came to Clarke's perception, far below him, on another plane. Yet another, above him, to his left.
There was no room for horror. Fear would drag the devils down on him. The Hounds. Yes, they were the Hounds. He had to contain his thoughts, or the Hounds would have him. And Karen would be lost. Their son would be lost. Think of one thing. One thing only.
The trio of Hounds darted like ebon lasers around his disembodied soul, closing in for the kill.
Flesh and blood could not have achieved the ultimate concentration Robert Clarke battled to maintain. The Hounds gained upon him nonetheless. He felt his spirit growing disorganized as their chaotic essence began to consume him, and the terror he had struggled to repress enveloped him like a shroud. The Hounds screamed their scream of victory down through the swirling maze of Time and reached out to annihilate him.
And were stopped by searing brightness.
Clarke saw a figure, a creature of pure clear light standing in the maelstrom of Time, its terrible lightning holding the formless, foaming Hounds at bay. He saw a face like an angel, perhaps like a god. In its awful majesty, it smiled at him. He heard its words, there in that nether realm.
"The Hounds of Tindalos shall not have you. Pass."
Again Clarke visualized his goal.
The sense of velocity became unbearable, then decreased. Stopped. The Hounds receded. The waters of Time parted. The landscape of Earth became clear.
Clarke looked out from above the ancient hills of West Virginia, saw the twisted roads that entwined those wooded mountains. With a thought he flashed forward to a certain road, to a tiny Toyota motoring through the darkness.
Within that car, Robert Clarke, so small, was hunched over the wheel, while Karen Clarke slept beside him, their child a brilliant spark of life within her womb. Without warning a car came around the bend, tires screeching, headlights off. Robert blew his horn, but took it in stride.
The road sign: CHARLESTON 50.
The all-seeing soul of Robert Clarke watched his past unfold before him.
His perception changed. In sharp focus he saw Mike Hanson's pickup, every molecule of dirt on its surface visible to his extrasensory scrutiny. Its erratic path brought it nearer and nearer to the moment of collision. Still some miles to go.
This was his hour upon the stage. He dared not fumble his lines.
With an effort of will, he moved closer to his past self. Reached into his mind. Fought to implant the idea there: Pull off, stop driving, rest.
He could not do it.
His past self was too strong. His equal, of course. Try as he might, he could not batter his way past his own stubbornness. Robert Clarke was going to make it to Hugheston Hollow by midnight or die trying.
There was one other chance. Again he switched focus, in that strange intuitive way natural to spirits. He overshadowed Hanson's truck, drove his thoughts like spikes into Hanson's disorganized, drunken brain. Hanson was easy to overcome. Vodka had already lowered his barriers.
Clarke was repulsed by some of the things he unwillingly saw in the man's mind, but held his psychic ground. Struggled to gain motor control of the body. It was hard; the alcoholic's synapses did not trigger correctly in his drunken state.
The truck barreled on. Clarke fought for control. In another minute they would round the curve. In another minute everything would be decided, once and for all. With Hanson's slurred voice, Clarke cried out, "It mustn't happen!"
Control was achieved.
The Toyota appeared before him. He saw himself behind the wheel.
Clarke pulled Hanson's unresponsive hands hard to the right.
The Toyota's horn sounded like the shriek of the Hounds as it swerved past the truck, kicking up dirt from the berm, and disappeared in the distance.
Instantly Clarke's spirit was pried free from Hanson's body, from the still careening 4x4, from the West Virginia night. He fell back through Time at immeasurable speed, unable to stop, unable to even control his falling.
Helpless, he still knew he had succeeded in his mission.
And Le Novar was wrong, he thought. There was someone, Something, there in the midst of the labyrinth of Time, that had helped him. Something that had saved him for this moment.
Dissolution quenched him like a candle flame. Snuffed out.
Robert Clarke woke from the dream with a stifled shout. Karen woke as well, turned over in the bed.
"What is it, hon? What's wrong?" Her voice, always so sweet to his ears.
"A nightmare. That's all. Remember when we almost had that wreck, going to your parents' house? I was dreaming about that."
She laughed a little girl's laugh and put her arms around him. "I hadn't thought about that in years. I didn't wake up when we almost wrecked, but you woke me to bawl me out about the seat belt."
"Not so loud, you'll wake up David." Their son, asleep in the other room. Their perfect, brown-haired boy.
Robert and Karen Clarke, snuggled tightly together, laughing over things that might have been, dreaming dreams of happiness for their son.
And deep in the maelstrom of Time, the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep looked on and laughed its sardonic laugh, no longer a noble angel of light. Around its eight segmented legs the Hounds of Tindalos angrily snarled and frothed, maddened at being cheated of their prey.
Nyarlathotep looked into Time, drinking in the future as a man drinks a fine wine:
When David Clarke was ten years old, he would smoke his first joint.
At the age of fifteen, he would be dealing.
There would be constant stress in the family. Karen would suffer a miscarriage.
When David was seventeen, his mother would have a heart attack, struggling with him after finding heroin hidden in his closet. She would die a year later, face blue, gasping for breath while Robert frantically phoned for help and their boy stood by sullenly in the doorway and watched.
At the age of twenty-six, David would be gunned down by police after a tense showdown in an apartment building beside the abandoned Lowman's Pharmacy. The girl he had been living with would be found strangled to death with a phone cord. She had threatened to leave him, the note would say.
His father, Robert Clarke, would be broken by the news. He would live another thirty-five years, half-insane, seeking solace in drink. Finally, he would climb into his car, drunken, delirious, and kill himself.
Nyarlathotep looked away from the future, satiated, satisfied. For this agony, it had held back the Hounds. It, in all its forms, is a gourmet of torment. And it relishes a single, simple drop of human suffering more than the crude spectacle of spiritual or physical slaughter, more than the garish fireworks of a entire collapsing universe.
Le Novar spoke the truth: Time and all its denizens are eternally the bane of Man. And, in the words of the Earther bard whose works the ancient Xandriac held in high regard, all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.
Created: October 5, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004