There it was again: the shape.
It was the second photograph of the old Bayfriar's Church to reveal it: dark, indistinct, supremely vague in its outline, like a shadow beneath ice. Or glass, as it was in this case, the case of both pictures. True, it could have been a trick of winter light upon the abandoned church's tall, narrow, painfully Gothic windows -- but Helen came more and more to doubt that idea the clearer the black-and-white photograph became.
The anomalous photographs were themselves part of a larger project, perhaps the first in which Helen had begun to lose her sense of artistic direction, of purpose. Previous undertakings and gallery shows had been ever more successful, each another step upward in her career as a photographer. Her last show, in particular, had earned kudos: a female nude, usually close to the viewer, against various backdrops of grainy urban decay. Granted, the model herself had been a bit of a chore, usually letting it be known how cold she was or how the gravel pricked her feet. But she had had a marvelously serene face, still as death, lunar in its whiteness. She had been at once a contrast and yet akin to her bleak surroundings.
Then, the inevitable, a creative dearth; this seemingly hopeless attempt by Helen to top herself, with little to show for it. Oh, there were a few pictures, mainly of old churches and colonial homes -- Arkham had them in spades, as Ross had said. It was competent work, none of it inspired, which was exactly what her colleagues and critics would say.
And now, this -- a touch of mystery amidst mediocrity.
Bayfriar's Church, atop French Hill, had been the last of Helen's architectural subjects in her latest essay.
It had been a wet shrouded shadowless day in late January. The dulled atmosphere made the clustered brick houses and soot-darkened roofs of French Hill, which were never inviting, almost forbidding. They perched over the narrow streets, over a vast ganglion of twisting lanes and brick-walled alleys, and nothing was entirely right about the place, even in the prosaic light of an ordinary day in an unexceptional month.
Urban decay was nothing new to Helen Sutherland. And frankly, she had seen worse than that of the older quarters of Arkham -- Harlem; the projects of Chicago, whose graffiti-tattooed fortresses reeked of gunpowder, piss and despair. Places where nothing worked, where everything was broken, great and small, from the streets to the tiny caged hallway lights known derisively as 'landlord's halos.' But there, in those places, ruin was simply ruin, and there had been nothing to suggest other than the work of human hands. Nothing more.
That had not been the case here.
Helen Sutherland, though shy, did not scare easily. But, by increments, the place had begun to poison her thoughts, to work into and under her skin like a parasite.
The further she penetrated into the sullen, soundless neighborhood, the more and more convinced she became of its lifelessness. It was a facade. [a curlicue below the "c"] A drained husk. It was midday and hardly a soul was to be seen. Apart from the creak and squeal of a lone weathervane or two, the winter winds, and perhaps the shutting of an unseen door, French Hill was uncannily quiet. Brooding.
No, there was something else. A secretive sound that disquieted her. To either side of her, ice-rimed water trickled into steaming storm drains. The effect was subterranean, that of a cave where blind things might live and squirm . . .
And Ross Maruzzo had thought the place would make for a fine shoot.
Helen had photographed her surroundings, nevertheless, more to oblige her colleague and quiet her nerves than out of any artistic inspiration. It was not a good day for shooting film, really. The light was flat, without nuance. The houses varied little in character, beyond age and decrepitude, their tiny plots bare but for melting snow, their windows the dusty abandoned eyes of the terminally ill. She took a picture of a tiny old woman across the street, carrying a small bag of groceries. Before Helen could meet her, the old woman had shuffled painfully into her house and shut the door. And that was the sense of the place. Whomever -- or whatever -- had remained behind here preferred abandonment, the sharp stillness and cold solitude of January afternoons.
Upward the buckled street wound, and Helen followed -- a thirtyish, mildly attractive woman in a blue serge coat that made more of her than she was, quick of step and perpetually watchful.
You can't miss it, Ross had said. Sometimes you'll lose sight of it, what with the way they built the houses around there, one on top of another, but it's at the top of French Hill, corner of Church and Powder Mill. Name of the place is Bayfriar's. It's been empty for, oh, about a hundred, hundred-fifty years or so. But I think it's what you're looking for, kiddo.
Kiddo. Helen had never liked the nickname much. Yet whatever Ross' faults -- self-interest, slight arrogance, a gift for the subtle manipulation of others -- he was a good friend and an exceptional photographer and artist. His war photography, in particular, had landed him in the pages of noted periodicals.
And suddenly it had loomed before her, an immensity of brick and stone blackened by ash and soot, by the breath of furnaces long since grown cold. Bayfriar's Church. She recognized its outlines from the old photographs -- the singularly tall and narrow arched windows, the great circular louvers set up high in the dizzying spire, the curiously angled roof. The lower windows, from what she saw, were securely boarded. The great Gothic doors were likewise chained. About the whole was set an iron fence so draped in dead vines that the barrier appeared more the making of nature than man. Yet, somehow, despite its confinement, Bayfriar's did not seem captive. In fact it appeared to Helen not so much a prisoner of time and the elements as outside them, the keeper of this strange place. A blind king atop a lonely hill, with winter clouds as its crown.
In its hour, doubtlessly, it had been impressive, as it was now. But she could never imagine Bayfriar's as being beautiful. It was too cold, too stern, too imposing. The eyes traveled helplessly up the towering brick walls, thick with withered ivy and a curious sort of dry moss. The heart quailed at the thought of approaching the huge double doors, of disturbing the giant. Try as it might, the mind could imagine nothing of solace or peace here -- only lingering unease, the dim pulse of blood within the ears, the soul a mere spark in the darkness. A great beast had died, long ago, but the bones remembered.
So Helen had kept a respectful distance, walked the perimeter of the church grounds, and shot a roll of film.
On the west and north side, where Bayfriar's loomed over the Church and Powder Mill streets, she was able to get quite close -- close enough, in fact, to see the molder and decay of the yard, the drifts of dead leaves, the moraine of crusted snow.
There was a smell here, too -- a scent, hidden, musty, faintly unpleasant, the odor of a reptile house. Her nose wrinkled at it. Small wonder people stayed away from Bayfriar's. God only knew what was rotting away in there.
What had caught her eye were the great, attenuated Gothic windows. Each was easily three times the height of a tall man, and yet as narrow as the lines of an epitaph. Soot had blackened all but the mullions of the windows' upper reaches to view. Yet near the ground, Helen could discern much of their original design and color: a curious leaded mosaic of subtly worked stained glass, the principal colors of which were various shades of violet bordered with gold and black.
Rather repellent, really, but she had had two shots left, and had decided that the strange window, against its backdrop of dying ivy, had made for an interesting composition. Not brilliant, but interesting. And if she could catch some of the mid-afternoon sky reflected within its depths, so much the better . . .
But as revealed later that day in the darkroom, that was not what she had caught.
"So what do you think it is?" Ross Maruzzo asked.
"That's just it," Helen replied. "I don't know. But I don't think it's a trick of the light."
Ross nodded, sipped at his latte, swiped at the bit of foam in his mustache, leaned back in his seat. The coffee shop was quiet at this hour, nearly deserted but for a bored University student behind the counter and another student -- a heavyset girl in thick glasses -- in a corner, poring over a textbook titled Perspectives on Rhetoric. A stack of similarly titled books lay upon her table.
"And here it is again," she said, and handed Ross the second picture.
"Hmm," Ross replied, and scratched at his goatee. He leaned forward, studied the photo.
"It looks like . . . a hood or something, inside the window, doesn't it?" Helen asked.
"Yeah. It does look like one."
"Now look. See? It's taller in the second picture. And I didn't move or anything."
"Hmm. So did you see it move?"
"No. I didn't see anything. I didn't see this until the pictures were developed."
"OK . . ."
Exasperation crept into her voice. "You think I'm imagining things, don't you?"
"Hmm? Oh, no. No, I'm not. But be honest, kiddo. There's not a lot to go on here."
He smiled winningly.
"And what do you mean by that?"
"OK, listen," he said, and Helen thought, Here he goes again, Ross Maruzzo, world-weary photographer, becomes Ross Maruzzo, patient mentor. But he did look the part: the prematurely lined face, the threads of gray creeping into his black hair, the fine gold chain about his neck. Perhaps it appealed to the impressionable young things he liked to pursue these days, but to her it said one thing: semi-elderly educated stud put out to pasture. Proceed with caution.
"Look at these two pictures, kiddo," he said. "Trust me. It's an optical illusion. Light and shadow. There's probably something in there, probably furniture under old sheets. Either that or these are just bad exposures.
"Sure does look like something, though, doesn't it? Kind of creepy, really . . ."
Ross handed the photographs back to Helen.
"So why aren't the shots the same?" she asked. "Why the difference?"
"Hell . . . got me."
"Well, you're a real big help."
Ross chuckled and shook his head at the mildly pointed joke, his weathered face breaking into lines. For a moment Helen found him almost handsome. Perhaps comfortable was a better word.
"Sorry . . . it's just that . . . well . . ."
"You know . . . next thing, you'll be seeing flies on the window . . ."
"Like The Amityville Horror, right?" she asked with a smirk.
Ross nodded, trying hard not to smile. "Seriously, after that it's 'get out!'"
He did a fairly credible imitation of the film's demonic voice. Helen, annoyed and yet somewhat amused, swatted his arm. Ross laughed loudly enough to stir the student in the corner out of her pre-exam death trance.
"Knock it off, Ross," she said.
"OK, OK . . . you don't need to be getting all harassed on me, Helen. Jesus . . ."
"I'm not getting all harassed on you. It's just -- what if these pictures really are of something?"
"What?" His grin slid across his face, splitting his short beard. "You mean a ghost? You think this Bayfriar's is haunted?"
Trapped, she shrugged.
"Why not? It's been deserted for God knows how many --"
Ross was slowly shaking his head again: the patient mentor and errant understudy. Would he ever lose that notion of their relationship?
"Helen," he said patiently. "Kiddo. Look. Now don't take this the wrong way, but seriously: don't be too credulous of stuff like that."
"I didn't say --"
"Wait. Let me finish. What I'm saying is that there's probably an explanation for this, and it's probably very ordinary."
Mustering her patience, Helen said, "Go on."
"Seriously. Don't be so quick to assume the inexplicable. Too many people do, these days. They see lights in the sky, they say it's a UFO. They go to bed at night and they hear a bump downstairs, they say it's demons moving the furniture around. Nobody ever stops to think that it's a jet going over, or that it's the furnace turning on."
He laughed gently. "People . . . people are just entirely too credulous these days. 'The government is in contact with aliens . . . psychics predict a cure for cancer in the coming year.' That sort of thing."
"Ross . . . I'm not jumping to any conclusions here . . ."
"I didn't say you were."
Echoing him, she leaned back in her chair. "So what do you think it is, Mr. Expert?"
"I honestly don't know."
"Wanna find out, hotshot?"
Helen gave Ross's shin a light, playful kick. "Scared?"
"No," he replied, slightly irritated. "What are you talking about, anyway?"
"I think I'm going to go back to Bayfriar's. I'm going to go back and get some more shots. Maybe even a few from the inside, if I can. If you know what I mean . . ."
"Helen," Ross said, suddenly serious, "that place has been locked up for over a hundred years. What happens if you go waltzing in, step on some rotten floorboards and take a dive into the basement? Try explaining that one to the cops."
"I don't believe this," Helen smiled. "I'm sitting here with the same guy who shot 'Two Weeks in Sarajevo', and he's afraid of some musty old floorboards. Hell, you're the guy who told me to go to French Hill in the first place!"
"Helen, I'm not scared, it's just that --"
"So are you going with me or not?"
Ross swirled the remainder of his latte about his cup. The student behind the counter, arms folded, stared blankly out the store window. The heavyset girl closed her book, stretched and yawned. Ross finished his latte, set the cup down emphatically.
"All right," he said. "I"ll go with you."
Everything was as it had been: the lowering, overcast sky; the toadstool cluster of decaying houses and doubtful little shops, of narrow lanes and blind alleys; the silence, the sense that what was here was outside all things. Whatever might occur here went mercifully unseen, unnoticed only by a few, fine degrees, and with every sideways glance Helen expected something unspeakable, the revelations of nightmare. But everything was as it had been. Bayfriar's reared against the bleak sky, a crumbling soot-stained fortress, enigmatic as a skull. The dying creepers and vines were no more or less profuse than before, and the iron fence remained a barrier. The only differences were slight: the presence of Ross Maruzzo, and the delicate dance of tiny snowflakes through the air.
"Sure is ugly," Ross said, hands stuffed deep into his pockets. The weather had turned colder. Snow was predicted that night. "Big, too. Which side did you take your pictures from?"
"The street side," Helen replied, "from Powder Mill."
"Doesn't look like there's a way in. Place's probably all locked up. Where are you going?"
Helen, only half-listening to Ross, walked the perimeter of the rusting fence, heading east. The nineteenth-century ironwork really wasn't much of a barrier, being set too low to deter much more than children and animals. At the fence's eastward corner she turned and followed it south. The church grounds were high with dead weeds the shade of old bones. The trees, meanwhile, appeared to have been cruelly shaped by impersonal forces, only to be left to some unknown malady. The pines were half-bare and dying, while a single great oak bore curious lumps and swellings upon its trunk and boughs.
Then Helen found a gate. The rusted broken lock lay nearby. Someone, obviously, had been here before them. Teenagers or bums, most likely. A flagstone path wound through the undergrowth. She swung the gate open as quietly as she could; it squealed dreadfully, and she smiled at this small though appropriate detail.
"Ross," she said. "Ross. Come on."
"Man, I don't know about this . . ."
He glanced about uncertainly. If anyone had seen them, they were making no attempt to stop them.
"Well, are you coming or not?" she asked.
After a moment's hesitation, Ross followed.
Here, close to the church, Helen felt again the faint unease, the sense that reality grew ever more tenuous with each step away from the prosaic Victorian fence. The gaunt blackened windows seemed to shift and shimmer with inner, serpentine colors, the fouled scaly walls to thrust ever upward, a dream of vertigo. Why should they end? The single dizzying stone belfry scraped at the gray sky. Why should it not compound itself, become infinite, a dark dead Tower of Babel touching the very planets above?
The ground was no longer steady beneath her feet. It threatened to pull her earthward . . .
A hand clasped her shoulder, steadied her. "Are you OK?"
Helen nodded. "I think so. I just had a . . . a bad spell there, for a moment."
Ross' humor returned. "Well, Jesus, I thought you were going to faint on me there."
"No, I'm all right now. Come on, let's find a way in."
They found a cellar bulkhead near the transept of the church, but it was securely chained. No luck there. Rounding the transept, they came upon a smallish, paint-peeling door set within a blind expanse of wall. The jamb was splintered, the door slightly ajar.
"Kids," Ross said. Helen pushed the door open.
It was quite dark inside, and when their eyes made use of what little light there was, Helen saw that what was hidden here was hardly strange. A forgotten back room, empty but for the spoor of adolescent intruders: a crumpled beer can or two, a small crate mounted with a half-melted candle, and a wayward shoe. Dust and cigarette ash drifted in the draft. A row of pegs lined each wall. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling in great tattered rags. The air was still, stale and --
"Smell that?" she asked.
"Yeah. Place stinks."
"I know . . . but it's strange. It smells . . . different, somehow, than it did last time."
"Whatever you say, kiddo. Let's just shoot some pics and get out of here."
The next room was an office, cramped, as claustrophobic as the church itself was overwhelming, the wainscoting worm-eaten, the hardwood floor warped and stained. In a corner was an ancient roll-top desk and single chair, along the wall other chairs and a bare coat rack. All were festooned with webs, made into shapes ominous and darkly fantastic. The single window was boarded up. Over the desk hung an oil painting of glum colors and somber character. It was of a middle-aged man just beginning to gray, sporting the full mustache and beard popular a century ago. Heavy brows all but obscured his dark eyes, made his face one of secrets. A dusty brass plate mounted upon the frame read: ELIJAH WAITE, FOUNDER, 1832-1895.
"'May he find the Eternal Wisdom for which he seeks,'" Ross said, reading the rest of the plate. "Know much about this place?"
"No," Helen replied. "No more than anyone else, anyway, and most of that from my older sisters. They told me it was haunted. That someone, a witch or a sorcerer, had been buried on the grounds, before there was even a church. They told me that the grave was near one of the street corners -- French and Lich, I think. They said that if you stood on that spot and repeated his name three times, you'd hear him scratching at his coffin."
She nodded. "The other . . . the other story was about the sewers . . . that something lived down in them."
"No. No, something else. From what I was told, every so often there'd be an outbreak of sewer rats in the neighborhood. 'French Hill rats' is what the rest of the town called them. Word was something down in the sewers had panicked them, something had driven them out . . ."
Her words trailed off into silence, into the spectral hush of the church she had grown to dislike.
A sudden rattle startled her. It was Ross, fumbling with the desk. With a scrape and clatter he finally opened it.
"Ross, what are you doing?"
"Nothing," he replied, delicately brushing webs aside. "Just looking around. Thought maybe I'd find something."
"Well, don't take anything."
He gave her a strange look. "Why not? Might be something valuable in here. Antiques, maybe. Enough cobwebs, anyway."
"All right, don't panic." He wrestled the roll-top closed, brushed the webs from his arms and hands.
There was a doorway to their left. Helen could see little of what lay beyond, but there was a vast space of some sort . . .
It was the nave -- a vast arching darkness, a void to awe whale-devoured Jonah. The ceiling was shadow and trailing webs, and as black and soundless as the spaces of night. The poisoned light that did manage to enter the titanic vault did little more than to give fleeting pallid life to uncertain shapes, this universe of dust and Helen herself, who lingered at the doorway and knew not whether to enter, or go away.
It was Ross who pushed past her. "Jesus, look at this mess," he muttered. "Hard to believe anyone was ever here, you know?" His footsteps echoed alarmingly in the padded silence.
He bounced twice on the creaking floor. "Least it seems solid."
The rotting pews were in disarray, as if forced aside by something. There was nothing to suggest the work of vandals or intelligent, willful destruction, however. Otherwise, everything else -- the pulpit, the beautifully carved altar railing, the dusty oil lamps in their niches, the looming violet windows rearing upward into blackness -- seemed undisturbed, untouched. The immutability of the place made Helen's flesh creep. It mocked the ephemeral and the passing of all things not of darkness and stone. Bayfriar's had stood for over one hundred and fifty years atop its bleak, windswept hill. Why not that it should stand for one hundred and fifty more? Or a thousand?
Ross said something to her.
"Pictures," he said. "Are you gonna take any or not?"
"Um . . . yeah, I will . . . in a minute."
She stood in the aisle, and took a picture of the nave. The camera flash was as brief and bright as burning magnesium, and she did not like the manner in which the darkness leaped away from it. She had disturbed something. It was as if the eyes of a corpse thought long dead had suddenly snapped open.
Ross walked toward the pulpit. "Funny," he said. "But I haven't seen one bit of religious anything since we came in here. No Bibles. No crosses. No pictures of baby Jesus or the Madonna. Nothing. Have you?"
"No," Helen replied. "They might have taken those things with them when the church was closed." Inwardly, privately, she doubted whether such things had ever been within these walls, or that such a place would recognize a kingdom greater than its own.
"Could be," Ross said. Then sudden inspiration struck him. "Or . . . or they could be all locked up somewhere in here. A closet. Maybe even the basement . . . what do you think, kiddo?"
"I saw it over there," she said.
"Saw what over where?"
"There. The third window, to your left, the one facing Powder Mill. That's where I saw the shape in my pictures."
"Hmm. Doesn't look like there's anything there, now, does there?"
Helen walked toward the peaked window. Its panes were less obscured by soot and dust than the others, and the spiders had not completely conquered it. Nothing nearby even remotely suggested the shape she had seen. The speckled red-violet glass revealed nothing. No, wait. Were there tiny obscure markings within the glass, in black and gold, insects in amber, smaller satellites orbiting a greater mystery? She scrutinized the shapes, none of which was larger than the ball of her thumb. Sanskrit? Egyptian? Sumerian? Or something far older and infinitely more removed?
Hesitant, Helen touched the glass, touched one of the cryptic sigils. Both were cold, and the muffled wind rose to a thin cheated shriek, buffeting the window. Formless lunatic shadows danced and swayed drunkenly within the violet arch. Trees, Helen told herself. The wind and the trees out in the churchyard. It was a windy day, after all . . .
She drew away. The wind fell in pitch, became a low moan. She might have taken a picture of the strange window had not her hand begun to tickle gingerly. A small black spider was making its way up a finger, the finger that had touched the glass. She grimaced and swatted the thing away.
"Helen," Ross said. "Helen, come here."
"What?" she asked, brushing at her hands and scanning the floor about her for the little horror. "What is it?"
"Found a book up here. A ledger, I think. Looks really old."
"That's nice, Ross . . ."
"No, seriously. It's book-marked and everything."
She heard the dry, dusty sound of pages turning and Ross muttering to himself. He stood in the pulpit. Above him rose the apse with its semicircle of Gothic windows, dimly touched by January light, behind him the altar. He seemed strange there, very inappropriate, his jacket a bright lurid smear of red against the deep blacks and drained grays of the church apse. And so she took another picture.
"Come on, no pictures of me," Ross said.
The next shot was of the central aisle and jumbled pews receding into darkness, the third of the Gothic windows, taken from below and an extreme angle. All the dusty rumors surrounding Bayfriar's slowly came creeping back to Helen, hideous and eager to speak, to whisper into her ear. People had disappeared here, on occasion, though never more than to provoke rumors and momentary concern. Five years ago it had been a teenage runaway, ten or so years earlier a homeless man. Details were prosaic, faces vague, names forgotten. The stories of her playmates had been infinitely more frightening.
One time we sneaked in there, and the walls in the nave were glowing green!
That's nothing. Bobby Batermann told me that when he was up there he heard something moving the pews around!
Did you guys know that the minister hung himself in a back room?
"Hey," Ross said, "listen to some of this garbage. This is weird: 'The fifth is . . .subterranean,' I think is the word. 'These live in caves and caverns in the mountains. They are of a very mean disposition' -- I can't make the rest out except for 'treasure' and 'shake the foundations of houses.'
"'The sixth is the heliophobic, because they especially hate and detest light, and never appear
. . . during . . . daytime.' The rest is . . . 'These devils are completely inscrutable and of a character beyond human comprehension, because they are all dark within . . . shaken with icy passions, malicious, restless and perturbed . . .from Guazzo's Compendium Maleficarum, 1608.'"
"Is there anything else?" Helen asked.
"Let me look." More flipping of pages. "All right, here. This is good: '. . . And then a Black Shade rose up before All, and All present were struck Dumb, so that only the Sorcerer Z------ could Speak, and said He, "Who is this before Us, in the guise of the Adversary?"
'But the Shade . . . did not deign to Reply, and was indifferent to all Entreaties.
'Then the Witch G------ came forward and said with great Impertinence, "Speak, Shade! Who are ye? Are ye Beelzebub? Are ye Leviathan? Perhaps ye are the Father of Merlin, I should ask? Or perhaps ye are the Serpent, for ye Smell as Such, and thy Reek goes before Thee."
'But the Shade would brook no Impertinence, and forward It came, and Pitiful were the many Screams that rent the Air. Only the Sorcerer Z------ escaped, and this Feat was accomplished only by the timely Recitation of the Incantation of VACH-VIRAJ.' Theophilus Wenn. True Magick, 1743.'"
Ross whistled softly, shaking his head. "Good God," he said. "It looks like whomever wrote this stuff even included the incantation. Listen to this:
"'THE INCANTATION OF VACH VIRAJ, to be Invoked against the Dweller in the Red Abyss: 'Ya na . . . kadishtu nilgh'n stell'brae . . . Nyogtha . . . K'yarnak phlegethor . . . l'ebumma . . . syha'h'yhft . . .'"
Ross' pronunciation stumbled over the strange words. They echoed faintly within the upper vaults of the nave, became ghostly and hollow, filling the silence with their presence. They trailed after Helen as she walked down the central aisle, camera in hand, toward another door.
"'Ya na kadishtu . . . ep'r'luh-eeh . . . Nyogtha . . . eeh' . . . wait, woah, where are you going?"
"Just looking around," Helen replied absently. She pulled at the antique, slightly loose doorknob. The door had settled on its hinges, and opened with a thin high squeal.
Inside was what might have once been a halfhearted parlor, or an attempt at a lounge, to judge by the dust-frosted furniture within. Two small, mean chairs sat beside a grate of green marble, a drop-leaf table between them. Against the far wall was the moldering wreck of a patterned divan, beside it loomed an ancient and silent grandfather clock. Cobwebs had erased the corners of the room, and hung like strips of rotting lace. The windows here were as tightly boarded as elsewhere, and the wind screamed faintly in hidden spaces. But it was the bookshelves lining the walls that caught Helen's eye -- heavy, unlovely, imposing, much like Bayfriar's itself. Rank upon rank of web-shrouded books, smelling faintly of old binding and rot. Stranger still, the bookends: a smallish dusty globe; a stuffed cobra poised to strike; a jawless human skull staring blankly.
Footsteps, from behind.
"Come on, Helen, I think that maybe we should -- Jesus, look at all these books . . ."
Carefully, they brushed aside the webs. Here and there a title was revealed. Nothing especially ominous, and yet nothing either to speak of beatitude or sanctity. Ungainly treatises on mythology, ancient history, geology, obscure geographic explorations by men long dead, essays on mathematics and astronomy, perhaps a jewel or two among the stones, a book to hint at darker mysteries: de Marigny's Elegy for a Dying Planet, Frasier's The Golden Bough, Remy's Demonolatreiae. Helen ran her finger along the books, along their spines, at once disliking and yet fascinated by the reptilian texture of the old binding. One slid easily enough from its shelf, was heavy as a stone in her hands. No title. She opened it, carefully turned the brittle pages. It apparently concerned the presence of a secret necromantic school within Spain. Stylized woodcuts depicted the summoning of the dead. Fearful lords and ladies made obeisance to leering devils and unknown things. Helen silently repeated their names: ERZELAIDE . . . BALBERITH . . . NERGAL . . .
On the next page, a sheeted, faceless, curiously stern phantom pointed to a radiant sphere, from which emanated beams of light. Kings and queens, astronomers and wizards, all averted their eyes. Words circumscribed the sphere: That which is All is AZATHOTH.
She returned the book to its place.
The wind pressed hard against the windows, rattling them. The thin ice of Helen's unease was slowly giving way to the darker depths of true dread. Whatever was at work here, whatever had happened here, was of a magnitude far greater than the old stories had ever known. Whatever lurked here pressed close against this place, where the barriers had been worn thinnest, the empty streets and wan souls beyond merely its wards, a black universe within walls, a macrocosm within a microcosm.
And so she found it both chilling and utterly appropriate that there should be yet another door, beyond the unlovely bookcases and past the great grandfather clock. Of course.
There are other things, the door seemed to say, and she could not help but feel that reality was crumbling away in the face of mystery, as surely as was the church itself.
"It's snowing out there pretty good now," Ross said, peering between the slats of the boarded-up windows. Helen went to a window. Snow was falling, snow so fine it was almost like thin smoke. The churchyard was white. Powder Mill, opposite, had disappeared, its presence marked only by one of the faintly steaming grates.
"Are you done yet?" Ross asked.
"No," Helen replied. How empty and alone the world beyond these walls seemed. "Not yet . . . what's that in your coat pocket?"
"That notebook I found," Ross replied innocently enough.
"Ross, I really think --"
"Oh, come on, Helen. Where's the harm? I mean --"
"Put it back."
He cocked his head to one side and folded his arms. The smile was gentle, its amusement somewhat forced. "Is this place making you weird or something?"
Before she could reply, he threw his hands up in good-humored defeat. "All right . . . all right
. . . I'll just slid it in between these two books here . . . like so. There. Now the spirits will rest easy, and . . . great, now you're mad at me. Now what's wrong?"
"What's wrong? I'll tell you what's wrong, Ross. Is this some kind of joke to you?"
"Meaning . . ."
She sighed. "You know what I mean, Ross."
He leaned against one of the bookcases; self-assured, unconcerned, always slightly superior. Classic Rossford Mazurro, Helen thought.
"Look, kiddo --"
"Don't call me that."
"OK. Look, Helen. Now don't take this the wrong way . . . but I think you're getting a little carried away with this entire thing. OK, you might have seen something in one of the windows. You've heard bad things about this place. It's creepy and it smells funny and it's full of weird old things. Fine. Do I think it's the seat of all evil? No. Why? Because --"
"Because you've been to places like Afghanistan and Sarajevo, right? And in those places you bore witness to true evil. Right?"
She watched his smile fade, with slightly rueful satisfaction. Ross rubbed his eyebrows with thumb and forefinger.
"Fine," he said. "You want to get to the bottom of this? Fine."
He went to the door, and opened it -- with rather too much force, actually. It struck the wall and rattled on its frame. Then, to compound matters, he stuck two fingers into his mouth and whistled piercingly.
"Hey! Any ghosts in here?"
"Goddammit, Ross! Not so loud!"
Ignoring her, he walked out into the hallway.
"Oh, this is perfect," she heard him say. "A stairway leading down to the cellar. How utterly appropriate."
He leaned back in the doorway. "Coming?"
Helen did not reply.
"I have a penlight, just in case."
"I will . . . in a moment," she replied. "I'd like to get a few more pictures from up here, first. It's getting late."
"Come on. It'll only be a moment."
The smile was back. "All right. But only a moment," Helen said, and followed him to the cellar steps.
The steps were of stone, worn and slick, the walls rough and unpainted. It was not, however, as dark as they had anticipated: two small dusty windows on either end of the room permitted faint, feeble light. The ceiling was low, a crypt of old woodwork and cobwebs from which dangled desiccated insects -- gossamer tendrils that moved within some unseen current, seeming to beckon like ghosts. The penlight revealed a great forgotten clutter. Shelves. Discarded furniture. A pew on its end in one corner. Crates and boxes. A stack of old newspapers gone yellow with age. A row of empty picture frames. All the antique wreckage of a bygone era, touched and made so strange and suggestive by the work of light and shadow, dust and time, that Helen was reluctant to draw near. Nor did Ross seem any bolder. Something was to be expected here, within this maze, these walls. Whatever might occur above was incidental and ultimately of small consequence -- it was all shadow-trickery, sleight of moonlight and the seasons, the merest surface rippling of a vastly more potent, greater, luxuriant blackness.
Here, alone but for dust and dead twilight, it had bitten deeply into the dark earth. Here it had taken root.
The wan circumference of the penlight trailed over the bare walls.
"There's the furnace," Ross said, ". . . and that must be the coal bin over there. Fucking cold down here, isn't it?"
Helen nodded, her arms folded, half-listening. A row of shelves had caught her attention. There were more books here, in an even greater state of decrepitude than those upstairs -- worm-eaten and mold-stained, smelling faintly of rotting fish. One in particular she noticed. It was larger and thicker than the rest, and not nearly so far gone into decay. Into the spine were brutally punched thin metal strips, as harsh in form as Nordic runes, their sharp gleam as dark as that of a mortician's instruments.
CTHAAT AQUADINGEN, they read.
"Some kind of arch or vault over here," she heard Ross say. The penlight beam danced and swayed, minute galaxies of dust drifted within it, briefly illumined, and then plunged once more into shadow. Ross seemed far away and unimportant now.
Helen pulled the book from its place. Its binding was curiously shaded, disturbingly pliable -- and moist, of a clamminess entirely too familiar. And the outlines of the book seemed strangely uneven, somehow. Blurred.
It was not until she looked closely that she discovered the reason. Fine hairs, some blond, some brown, stippled the book's surface. Then something jerked -- whether it was her, or the book, Helen was not entirely sure -- and she dropped the horrid thing. It lay there on the floor, chilling in its remote equanimity, the stapled scalpel words glittering. She half-expected to see blood well up about the greenish bronze: CTHAAT AQUADINGEN.
"Ross?" she said, her voice thin and querulous. "Ross? I think I've seen enough . . ."
There was no reply. She was alone in this dismal place -- no, there was faint light ahead, a ghostly bobbing will-o-wisp of illumination. Ross had passed beneath the curious arch into a vault or tunnel, was far ahead.
"Helen! Get in here! And bring the camera!"
"Ross, I think --"
It was with singular reluctance that Helen crossed the lip of the threshold, and in that moment she knew immediately that she and her mentor were no longer within the spaces of light and reason. The very blackness argued so, infinite and dead, nearly beautiful in its totality of form and purpose, its elemental gathering of forces -- the needle-cold rains of autumn, the bloodless white depths of winter, the drip and trickle of poisoned earth, the warp and whine of outer winds. An infinite October. Were there walls or ceiling? It did not seem so. There were no bindings here -- only a perfect horror of freedom.
The sickly bobbing light came toward her, blinded her briefly.
"Didn't you see them?" Ross asked. His usual reserve was gone, in its place genuine excitement.
"See what?" Helen asked, blinking.
"The pillars! Christ, I'm surprised I didn't run into one of them, especially since they're staggered about the way they are -- no rhyme or reason at all. Here, look!"
The wan beam wandered until it found a pillar, an unlikely speckled serpentine thing welling up from the floor, near shapeless and yet disturbingly suggestive in form. Rounded protuberances irregularly studded its surface. Some were no larger than a fingernail, others the size of a fist. Eyes were what they appeared to represent, but of a profoundly alien cast. Where convex gave way to concave was no less unsettling: holes, orifices, black lipless mouths howling soundlessly. The beam moved to another pillar and revealed a similar weird tableau.
"Devil worship -- that's all there is to it -- devil worship," Ross said, speaking rapidly, pacing, the penlight beam tracing out the dimensions of the chamber, which was nearly as vast as the nave above. He laughed suddenly, and the sound was hollow and jarring. "I mean -- God damn, but this is the living end! An honest to God Satanic temple. These -- these fuckers actually built one! And look at the size of the thing . . . I had an idea that something wasn't right upstairs . . . but this . . .
"Aren't you going to take any pictures?"
Helen swallowed and said, "No. I'll stay where I am."
"Because I've seen enough, and I think we should leave. Now."
"Helen . . . do you have any idea what we have here?"
"Yes," she replied. "And I think it's awful. I think it's evil and that we should leave it alone."
Ross stared at her for a moment, and then threw up his hands in disgust. The penlight beam flickered crazily over the walls and ceiling, both of which Helen thought curiously black and slick, like oil.
"Fine. Then give me the camera."
"Helen -- look -- I -- just give me the camera, all right? Then you can leave if you want. Just a few more pictures, and then we'll go."
He started toward her, and she backed away. He began to say something, but Helen interrupted him. "Since you seem so interested in this place, Ross, maybe I should tell you about what I found."
"What did you find, Helen?"
"I found a book --"
He shook his head. "So what? This place is full of them."
"-- bound in skin. Human skin, Ross."
He blinked, rubbing the back of his head. For once, Ross Maruzzo seemed to have no answers.
"Does that give you any idea of what we're dealing with here?"
He muttered something.
"I said, 'It's probably lambskin.'"
"I don't think --"
"Look. Will you do me one little favor? Will you take one picture of me in this place? Move out into the cellar and I'll stand near the entrance, OK? Come on, this'll make the papers!"
Helen sighed. "One picture?"
"One. And then we leave. Agreed?"
"Agreed," she replied reluctantly.
"Great! Great! And trust me, kiddo, it's lambskin."
She returned to cellar. The Cthaat Aquadingen, mercifully, had remained where she had dropped it -- she had had a horrid vision of it squirming away through the dust, like a wounded thing, to hide. But why did that seem ever more possible, especially in conjunction with the fading light?
Ross, meanwhile, stood within the arch, to one side.
"Got my good side?"
Taking aim with her camera, Helen smiled wanly at the small joke.
"Here," he said. "Let me shine a little light on things. I'd like to get one of the pillars, if possible. Too bad there's no electricity, right?
"Ready . . . Helen?"
It was not until Ross followed the direction of Helen's gaze that he, too, saw that the pillar was lost in sudden, furious movement, as was the darkness itself -- twisting like a mass of iridescent black snakes. From the orifices of the pillar they writhed like the tentacles of an anemone. No, not snakes, it was a singular dark plastic mass, welling up like blood from -- the floor? The walls? Helen could not tell. It was everywhere at once. Ross uttered a single, startled cry before he disappeared, pulled violently backward by one of the tendrils. The penlight fell to the ground. There was a flicker of red -- his jacket -- and he was gone, enfolded within the churning slime. The air was heavy with its ancient odor; the musk of sewers and carbolic acid, the stink of Archaean mud drying beneath a juvenile sun.
Helen, horrified, laughed, her hands clutched tight to her mouth, fingers digging into her face. It was the shape she had seen in the window. The bulk of it reared up within the arch, swelled like the hood of a cobra, and the fluid tip suddenly bloomed into questing pseudopodia of all sizes. She laughed at it again, at its blasphemous absurdity, at its upset of all things sane, and she sounded like a rabbit caught in a snare. She backed away from its enormity, slowly, toward the stairs. Perhaps it was blind. Perhaps it would miss her. Yes. Move slowly. Give it no reason to strike. It seemed unfamiliar in its new environment, hesitant to emerge into the dusty light. Delicately, over the walls and floors, probed gelatinous feelers; membranes formed and broke as they touched and parted. Move slowly . . .
A sudden sharp sting brought Helen out of her trance. She gasped and jerked away, clasped a hand to her cheek, and stumbled up the cellar stairs. One of the tendrils, no thicker than a finger, had touched her face. But how? The thing was before her . . . no, it was all about her. Slime ran from the windows, down from the walls. It brimmed at the smallest of cracks and fissures.
And then a Black Shade rose up before All . . .
Helen turned and stumbled up the stairs, into the parlor with its dusty books and dead clock, and shut the door behind her. But it was here as well.
Foulness squelched from between the slats of the boarded up windows, a slag of blackness scintillating with poisonous colors. Tendrils stretched forth toward her like living vines. It pooled under the doors. Ribbons of itself made their way across the floor and she screamed, scurrying away from them. And the door leading to the cellar had begun to buckle ominously beneath the weight of some unknown thing eager to meet her.
She ran to a window -- she would scream for help, someone must hear her -- and a sudden profusion of slimy tentacles warded her off. She went to the door leading to the nave, and again, the Medusa made itself known. There seemed a dreadful, thinking patience to its maneuverings -- the languid experimentation of a cat with the fitful struggles of a mouse. Perhaps it was not entirely unthinking protoplasm.
And so this was it: the blind horror, the abomination come to tear the universe from its moorings, the Black Shade . . .
. . . and forward It came . . .
And suddenly, with the dreadful wrack and ecstasy of revelation, Helen realized what she must do.
As it drew ever closer, she went to the entombed books upon their shelves.
Anyone who might have seen Helen Sutherland emerge from Bayfriar's toward sunset that winter day would have been understandably puzzled. Doubtless there would have been many notions as to just why she was there, spoken and unspoken. Analytical sorts would presume the prosaic. Minds given more to superstition and the old fears, however, would assume the worst, draw shut their curtains and seek succor in impotent beings.
But if anything was evident, to judge by her actions, it was that she appeared inebriated. The weal on her left cheek was merely proof of her condition.
Snow was falling thickly now, but she did not seem to notice. The topaz streetlights receded into guttering iron gloom, and she was careful to remain within their feeble, snow-speckled glow. White. All was white now, it was all so terribly fitting, and her laughter seemed inappropriate at this hour and in this place. She stumbled, was amused by her own clumsiness. She uttered nonsense: S'uhn-ngh athg . . . li'hee . . . orr'e syha'h Nyogtha eeh . . . and giggled at her own portentousness. About her neck bobbed the camera. In her arms she clutched a small, tattered object -- what appeared to be a very old booklet or ledger.
"Only the photographer 'H' was to survive," she said to herself, to the strange empty houses that flanked her lone march, "and this feat was accomplished only by the timely recitation of . . . the Vach-Viraj!"
White. It was so beautiful, this utter absence of color. But not of shape, of form, of course, for that was the supreme horror. Shapelessness. And black, for black was the end of all things. Black was malice and icy, unknowable passions. Black was Beelzebub and Leviathan and the Serpent. Black would brook no impertinence . . .
Black was the slick hump within a corroded, humid sewer grate across the way, an amorphous blue-black periscope that quickly slid from view.
The laughter died in Helen's throat. The snow continued its dizzying, inexorable descent. The thing was here. Nyogtha was here. Tears stung her eyes.
"You -- you can't come here," she said to it, her words trembling. "Here . . . here it is white. Everything is white, and you cannot come here, because I recited the Vach-Viraj, and you were forced to leave. You must stay away now. Go. Now!"
She knew it was still there, though. The fetid plastic mass began to fill the grate again.
With nerveless fingers she fumbled through the moldering ledger, past the obscure musings of Friar Guazzo and the Jesuit scholar Del Rio, past the chilling, dreadfully beautiful verses of the Etienne-Laurent de Marigny, past the arcana of Theophilus Wenn.
"Ya -- ya na kadishtu," Helen began, the words trembling, "nilgh'n stellbrae N-Nyogtha --"
She entered the street, walked toward it. This time there would be no half-measures. This time she would truly drive it back. Black would not prevail. Black would not rule.
She did not notice, however, the steaming grate behind her, several paces further down Powder Mill. From it burst, like blood from a severed artery, a twisting tentacle of slime. Other, smaller appendages writhed forth in mad riot, through the fresh-fallen snow toward Helen. The greatest of the tentacles bullwhipped through the flake-dusted air to seize her by the throat. The ledger fell from her hands. A single choked cry escaped her. She was dragged, struggling, with brutal, propulsive force into the sewer grate. Here iron was stronger than bone. But Nyogtha was stronger than either, and bone began to split and crack like twigs as Helen was pulled through the narrow aperture, inch by bloody inch -- head, shoulders, torso, legs, and, finally, feet.
Then only the ledger remained, and soon it was buried beneath white.
Created: August 17, 1999; Updated: August 9, 2004