In the distance is your sanctuary. A woman singing, a man shouting, he beckons wildly. His intensity an infectious fear, an alien plantscape clutches at your faltering form, this inmost dream world erupts, spilling over, searing your senses. Again the urgent impulse, the tyrannical moment, the horror of missing the precise instant of salvation propels you. Damned, falling among roots arisen to receive the doomed ones, you are consumed, and dragged beneath . . .
A small boy screams, compressing the past, present, and future into one more New England night cut short. His mother at his side, gently rocking his small, quaking, sweat-soaked torso. They will whisper together speaking of the dawn. Little Howard will dream again.
(The following account is distilled from Dr. Claude Augustus Farnsworth's notes. It is submitted as court's evidence in his defense against the charge of homicide in the disappearance of Dr. Howard Beam Phillips)
In October of 1996, Drs. Howard Phillips, archaeo-astronomer, and Claude Farnsworth, ethno-pharmacologist, began a cooperative study of select Venezuelan territory known to the indigenous populace as Neblina-tepui -- the cloud cliffs.
October 31, 1996
(miserably humid evening)
Howard and I are intrigued by folklore concerning a massive natural tower of anomalous black stone near Neblina. There exist associated references to the same locale from the Túcume diggings at the Temple of the Sacred Stone. Howard adamantly believes vague hints garnished from early 20th Century monographs on Uxmal ruins, suggest a temple remains evident atop the eleven-hundred-meter high sky-isle.
We arranged to have a helicopter lower us onto Neblina-tepui's most accessible summit for a quick survey. Upon arrival, quiet Asmodeus, our helicopter pilot, shaking his head, crossed himself, and agreed to return in twelve hours. I suppose his "Ricardo" Petty racing cap canceled out the look of worry in his eyes. He offered us a modified gun he called the "Meat Grinder," but we laughed, waving him away before we were discovered. Asmodeus circled us once, hesitant to depart. Reverberating echoes of his metallic dragonfly faded into the white noise roar of the Orinoco's headwaters swallowed by a verdant sea of rain forest nearly a mile below us.
Local authorities' interferences and jurisdictional foot-dragging called for a stealthy night drop. We figured a brief look-see would be sufficient to plan an extended investigation once the red tape scenario was completed. Our arrival at moonrise backfired. An unexpected greeting party descended upon us from the silent shadows cast by mute sentinels of stone.
We were swiftly encircled by about thirty men covered in glistening black mud, iridescent with flakes of an unknown mineral. They stripped us of our gear, slinging most of it off the precipice, all but anachronistic refuse to them. A tall, slender woman appeared in the foreground. She drifted closer, staring at us. Her lithe body was also covered in mud paste, a coruscant red ocher and metal-flake bone-white distraction. Alternating whorls of color accentuated her obvious femininity. A dangling loincloth of small bones strung together was the only trace of her modesty. Dull, yellowish hair hung stiffly to her shoulders. Later we discovered it was a wig of dried grass. Women kept their heads shaved in this tribe.
She reached up carefully and pulled ever so gently at my mustache. Then walking over to Howard, she looked at his overlong legs first, and finally stared up into his face, slowly running her index finger down the whole exaggerated length of his nose. When Howard attempted to voice protest, she placed her hand to his lips, and then to her own. Howard acknowledged with
polite silence. Pushing her way between us, she pointed to an opening in a boulder-strewn wasteland. She head-jerked a command and strode off into the shadows. We followed the surrealistic, candy cane, gazelle prancing off into the arched cathedral of chaos.
Through an incredibly confusing moonlit maze of wind- and water-carved rock passages, we stumbled just ahead of spear points. I feared for Howard. A man of fifty-nine could not keep up this pace for long. He looked winded, but refused rest. At forty-five, and in shape, it was a confused challenge for me to keep up with this rock-nymph. I tried slowing for Howard. Our escort did no violence, only showing a more urgent insistence for us to trudge onward. I was dragging Howard with me as we emerged into a vast grassy clearing and a surprisingly lush oasis of upper elevation rain forest.
A ceremony of dancing torchlight and a chorused clicking together of sparking stones came from the far edge of the clearing. A throng of worshipers surrounded their ceremonial edifice. Howard quickly regained his wits as we neared the cacophony of the scene. Nearly there, two more women came forward, gesturing for us to sit on a small granitic knob. Our seat was exquisitely carved with the same concentric patterns adorning the women leaning over us. I looked Howard's way to speak, but held my tongue. I had never seen him so silently fascinated or so obviously paralyzed by fear.
As I turned back to watch the spectacle, a man stepped out of nowhere, standing a few yards away. A three-tiered necklace of what appeared to be human teeth and other teeth carved of red stone hung prominently about his blackened neck. Beneath the necklace was a tunic with human jawbones woven into a tapestry of coiled snakes or worms. He held an obsidian knife in his left, three-fingered hand, and a small hollow figurine in his right hand. Raising both to the moon, then to the altar, and then back to the northern horizon, he began slicing his thumb. He bled himself, letting it drain into the head of the figurine. The clatter of clicking stones rose to a near deafening din. As this devilish brujo mixed his blood with what liquids were in the figurine chalice, the priestesses ringed the altar standing at the edge of the huge stone platform.
"This is beginning to worry me beyond words," Howard broke his fast of words, mincing them from the corner of his mouth.
I answered softly, "Listen, above us, I think --"
A thumping roar filled the sky and a blinding light pushed the darkness back into the rocky jungle's edge. Howard and I looked up smiling, the shaman walking toward us with his homemade blood pudding.
"It's Asmodeus!" Howard cried out, jumping to his feet.
Instantly men rushed us, forcing Howard to sit. The figurine chalice was first pressed close to my lips, the shaman opening his mouth, displaying his intentions for Howard and me. Naturally I was hesitant to sample the free drink, but a bloodied obsidian blade riding the heartbeat swells of my carotid was about to persuade me.
Asmodeus' copter's prop wash whipping our squinting eyes and the brujo's confusion in his haste, was a synergistic godsend. Our hellish bartender turned away slightly and I deftly aided his dropping the figurine, jerking my jaw away from his green blade. Enraged, he prepared to bleed me. An infuriated priestess shouted him aside, raising her hand to strike as he scurried away. It was quickly silent and dark again. For some reason Asmodeus pulled away and left. A spear, a stone perhaps, had struck his bird. Howard and I were on our own again.
Several women fell to their bellies and writhed worm-like across ancient tiles to the base of a marbled stone monstrosity beside our front row seat. Lambent flames of green leaped from skull bone braziers set on the periphery of the courtyard. The amorphous sculpture seemed alive in the play of flickering shadow and moonlight. Around the lower edges of this standing stone totem, small holes were systematically arranged in confusing patterns. The women slowly placed their fingers in each of these holes. An odor of spent gunpowder and sulfur wafted from the center of the spectacle. Then a haziness reminiscent of a shimmering heat mirage arose obscuring our view of the now-kneeling women. Suddenly from the priestesses arose an unearthly, high-pitched, ecstatic singing.
"I'm not so sure that we are meant to be awake, and seeing all this," Howard whispered.
"I don't think they really care about that at the moment," I added in concern.
Swirling images began to rotate around the courtyard. The enigmatic bulk of altar stone loomed taller. The ground beneath our feet became transparent! The priestesses and the whirlpool of torch lights faded away. They vanished as ripples of light on the pools of memory. There remained nothing but the courtyard and a misted jungle surrounding us.
Howard exclaimed, "Claude, what just happened? Where are the women? Look at the courtyard!"
"I see it, Howard, the carvings appear freshly hewn, unmarred by time. We have been given a new day as well." Flecks of dawn were cast across the inverted terrain of clouds overhead, the moon dipping beneath the tree line.
Howard continued, "Look at the lowered ground level about the edge of the courtyard and our sitting stone extending down beneath us! How -- where did the night go?"
"I prefer this quiet morning to last night. Don't you, Howard?" I reasoned, swinging out my dangling legs.
"Forget the dry wit, Claude!" Howard snapped back, unnerved by something horribly familiar about this place.
I broke the tension, thinking out loud. "Our little seat has become a substantial pillar and the courtyard a great pedestal. You will also notice this rock the priestesses provided us to sit upon is connected down there to the base of the larger edifice. Howard, it is my guess this is some ancient device that those women ritually began and here we are, sent to this, ump . . . alternate time or perhaps --"
Howard countered, "Don't start with all that alternate time line drivel! Dunne's theory is just that and nothing more. I prefer simple answers first."
"And what is the simple answer? I suppose this is not really happening? Are we both asleep and dreaming?" I asked.
Howard then stared wild-eyed beyond me, his jaw dropping. I spun about to behold his vision of horror.
Towering over us was a mangled mass of vine, leaves, thorn, moss, bark, and dried mud. Yet it moved! Stopping some distance away, quivering and shaking itself in small spasmodic twitching, it appeared to be looking us over. It leaned forward and fell toward us. A dust cloud of mold rose to smother us as we toppled backwards off into the lush vegetation breaking our fall. Dazed and bruised we wriggled ourselves free of vine and each other. Stumbling headlong into the high grass, we regained our footing and senses. A continuous crashing and thrashing noise behind us assured us the botanical abomination was nearing.
"Wait, please wait! Don't leave me alone in this cursed place! Stop!" came someone's shrieking echoes from the face of the jungle before us.
"That's a woman's voice, Claude! Hold on a minute!"
Howard and I stood still, watching a woman run past us jackal-fast into the thick of the undergrowth.
"We're here!" I cried out.
Spinning about and staring, she stopped as if shot.
"You speak English! Thank God! We have little time! Follow me back to the portal!" this strange woman called to us running straight back to the clearing.
"Portal? Hey! Wait! There's some life form after us!" Howard blurted out. He stood, arms akimbo, watching me chase after our hostess of the inhospitable.
"Come on Howard! She acts like she knows what's going on! That's more than we can say!" I yelled over my shoulder, sputtering in exhaustion.
We each arrived back at the twisted pile of the plant pseudo-monster, breathless, leaning on our knees attempting to speak to this vision of Diana towering over us, sitting atop the stone pillar. She found words first.
"Sorry to have frightened you two so badly with my alter ego just then," she pointed to the plant and mud effigy.
"An effective ruse, Miss --," I started.
"Smythe, Mrs. Endura Anne Smythe," she elegantly rolled her name down to me.
"Why, that's impossible! You're not the same --," Howard started.
"Howard, kindly let her finish. Who are we to say what's not possible after what has already happened?"
After introducing ourselves briefly, Endura continued to explain to us how she and her husband Professor Wheatley Ashton Smythe had come to South America in 1918 to investigate outlandish reports of certain explorers. The Neblina-tepui region was claimed to be home to giant flora and fauna found nowhere else on the planet.
"After weeks of expedition we found no signs of saurian beasts nor man-eating mushrooms, but were then led to these cliffs in the clouds you as well came to explore, I presume."
"Yes, yes, please go on," I urged.
"Wheatley insisted if anything of interest were to be salvaged of our wanderings, we would find such in these marvelous towers in the mist. We found much more than we wished for. Secretly we observed a tribe living near a blackened set of these monoliths. After Wheatley's endless note taking over five days, he was finally prepared to attempt contact. We then witnessed the start of some religious rite. A young male was drugged or made drunken as best as we could ascertain. He began singing a curious string of phrases we first took to be nonsense from his stupor. Then he shouted and pointed to a distant peak we had not noticed as it was always obscured in thick clouds. During the twilight moments the humid winds unveiled this spire of foreboding. Approaching carefully, we followed, at a distance, a procession of priestesses and villagers as they made pilgrimage. As you both know, the ascent was arduous --"
"We flew in using a helicop --," Howard began.
"Howard, not now, please! Let her continue," I said.
"We watched a bizarre ceremony and saw that young boy simply vanish from the stone of travel, as I now call it. I foolishly gasped in shock and we were found out. Our bearers and guides were horridly poisoned with a liquid that issued from crushed frogs. My husband went into a frenzied fit of yelling at the women about how he was to be a servant to Nycrama. His terror heightened when he discovered a necklace of his was dropped and lost in the scuffle. He called out to some Avalzant to have mercy. That necklace, by the way, held an amulet of a trophy stone Wheatley unearthed at Uxmal years earlier.
"I was more shocked at Wheatley's behavior than all the happenings up to that moment. I believe his mind had snapped. My poor Wheatley was bound, beaten, and readied to be sent to this very same place we find ourselves. He was drugged as the ritual began anew. Soon after this, the priestesses began showing a perverse interest in me and especially so in their repeated stroking of my long hair. I guessed then, they had never seen blonde hair before.
"I was taken to that ugly stone slab there and pushed to the top. The women began their chant and to my horror Wheatley chimed right in with them. I saw my poor husband sobbing, rocking, and mumbling like a demented child. Then he began to fade and flicker out like the last light of a spent candle. I could stand it no longer and I leapt over the heads of the kneeling throng. I raced across the courtyard to stop Wheatley from serenading himself into oblivion. I pushed him off this pillar I'm standing upon, and regained consciousness just over there," she pointed to a spot just crossed by Howard's monotonous pacing.
"So you came here to this parallel time instead of the intended Professor Smythe then?" I interjected.
"This place!" Howard insisted, resisting my ad hoc hypothesis.
"Unfortunately so and I never saw my Wheatley again after that penultimate moment of madness," Endura sighed touching the void in her soul.
"Blast it all! None of this makes any sense!" Howard broke in, walking back and forth around the carved column, hoping for answers in its interwoven glyphs coiled beneath his scrutiny.
"Mrs. Smythe, Endura if I may, what of our urgent need to return to this portal as you call it?" I asked.
"The moment has come and gone," Endura whispered softly.
"What moment?" Howard implored standing perplexed, a blind beggar, his arms uplifted to the oracles of our private Delphi.
"This place, the stones, speaks to me somehow," Endura gestured about her, leaning closer to us.
"Oh, good grief!" Howard sighed, his eyes shut tight, searching inside for the patience he'd left back in Boston. He began a mock woodpeckering of his forehead against the pillar.
I reached over and grabbed Howard, shaking him, admonishing, "Get a grip on yourself and let this poor woman finish without your rude and inappropriate skepticisms. I bet all your Prozac went over the cliff with our supplies."
He let out a long deep breath, "OK, already, OK. I am so very sorry, Mrs. Smythe."
"Continue, Endura, please," I eased the conversation along.
"Yes, by all means continue," Howard nervously added.
"You see, I have always been something of a seeress, a sensitive. In this place I have experienced a surge, a renewal of this sense. Things happen and I realize I felt it happening long before. I just know about certain things outside your usual time sense. I felt your coming and ran to the stone and waited. My alter ego frightened you off just as it has spooked so many who came before and never returned from the jungles and rocky maze around us. I have searched this cliff's vast plateau and found no one but myself here and no way down. I have but only once seen a break in the clouds surrounding this black pinnacle and what I glimpsed --," she trailed off in exasperation, her face in her hands, then stroking down her neck as she turned away.
"What did you see?" I asked.
"You'll think me madder than a --," Endura started.
"No, no, go on, and consider us all mad and dreaming as well. Nothing you could tell us could in any way distance you from us in this already compl --," Howard cranked up again.
"Endura, please excuse Howard's untimely verbosity," I insisted, glaring at Howard.
Howard stood shaking in steeped silence, fists and teeth clenched. He was losing control.
Endura spoke again. "The cliff's base extended further than I could see and beyond that was a vortex of stars, a storm of light spewing forth from the center. I could not discern whether the stars were whirling in or out. Then the clouds took their place again below me. I felt as if it was something forbidden to see. It was my glimpse of birth and death, the beginnings, and the finish, of chaos, twistedness, and rebellion."
None of us spoke for a space of time and we sensed a deep vibration beneath us, the very stones crying out of some forgotten truth. Howard's eyes were darting to and fro.
"That happens all the time. I have found trees toppled in the jungle and boulders slipping into the ground," Endura informed us trying to ease our sinking spirits.
"This is not comforting news at all! Drug crazed savages that drop in ad infinitum, visions of hell's gates, and now the earth slouches up to swallow us! What's next?" Howard screamed, fast approaching an all-consuming neurosis in his banter.
"Here you need this," Endura pulled at her side, offering Howard a taste of some bluish, pear-shaped fruit, "This will relax and refresh you. I don't know exactly what it is but it has kept me going these years."
Howard at first refused the offer, then ate slowly, approvingly.
I quickly scanned the clothing Endura had fashioned from leather, tattered pieces of cloth, and woven grasses. Not much was left of her boots that she had modified into a sort of Roman sandal. She had braided vines to make laces that wrapped around her legs up to her knees. She looked less the tourist to this world than Howard and myself.
At her side hung a blackened rapier of volcanic glass lashed to a stock of bamboo. Brittle as obsidian may be, I'd just seen it adequately split flesh. Deftly handled it could pierce, slash, and disembowel the skeptical offender.
"I presume you have survived on fruit and plants alone?" I asked.
"Yes, and I drank of this constant mist collected in bromeliads hanging here and there. I am sick of tasteless grubs and salads with no decent dressing," she chuckled vacuously, continuing. "Six miserable years of existing and every month or so another boy comes through the portal and runs off singing into the shadows. For a time, I quit scaring them and in a daze they'd race past me. They are bewitched lemmings running to that pit of oblivion past the bottom of the cliff. When I do feel like searching for them, I find no bodies, no clothing, not even a stinking bead! It baffles me. Seventy or more of them have come and vanished in these jungles."
"Fortunately, we escaped being drugged, Endura. I cannot begin to explain anything to you, but you need to understand something that may shock you as well as it worries me now," I began and continued. "You came here to Venezuela in 1918 and we arrived in the year 1996. The ill-fated Smythe expedition was chronicled as lost some 78 years ago and you claim to have been here six years. I can attest with Howard that your beauty is not that of a woman over 100! Time appears lagging behind in this place. Every month here is thirteen months passed back from where or when we first came. Each day we stay here we lose almost two weeks time in our own world-line as Minkowski would call such.
Endura muttered, her voice trembling, her hand pulling back sweat into furrowed brow, "My New England, my family, my time, all gone? I've nothing left to go back to, only to leave this nightmare for another."
"Endura," Howard spoke softly, standing now to reach up and console her. She reacted instantly, her sword whipping free, and poised, a cat startled awake in the midst of dream hunting. "Whoa, hey, I'm sorry!" Howard stiffened, adding, "I don't see how any of us can go back now. Maybe we can find a way down from this accursed place and work our way to civilization be it millennia behind or not."
"Ah, Howard, you are softening on the alternate time line explanation," I laughed. Howard's normal pallor was well flushed. He spat out a piece of fruit and his contempt.
"There is a way back or at least out of here," Endura spoke, jumping over to the larger pedestal. "When the sacrificial lads come and disappear like zombies, I have felt compelled not to follow them, but to sit upon the stone there. Always there's a tingling, a resonance, like a warmed engine you could say. At those times the song of the vile priestesses seems to echo in my mind and somehow I see them as they walk back to the village. It's all a faint hint of a dream now. When the portal is again alive, the images become fresh in my mind. Once soon after a transport, I placed a piece of leather on the sacrificial stone and tried to sing the phrases as they surfaced in my mind. The scrap of hide flickered out for an instant and then came back! I believe I can send us all home during the time of the next sacrificial rite. I would never try this on my own for fear of sending myself back to suffer death or far worse at the hands of the priestesses."
"How can we be sure of returning to the right time or place? We could be trapped in some timeless limbo or --," Howard once more started his diatribe.
Endura jumped to her feet. She began howling at us, sweeping the mist aside with her blade, "Gentlemen, this is a timeless limbo, there is no way down, and that which lies at the base of this pinnacle is very likely the maw of hell itself! You can stay here if you like, but now I would rather risk the trip back alone than to be driven insane by this endless whining! Years of solitude have not taught me patience!"
Endura walked to the edge of the pedestal and towered over us, tears streaming, mingling with perspiration running down her strong cheekbones. Howard and I were without words, offering no excuses, and awaiting the fiery jade gaze of her angry eyes to diminish. She sniffed in a renewed calm, sheathed her weapon, addressing us one by one, "Howard, Claude?"
"Yes," we both answered humbly.
"You must do as I say. The moon waxes full and another boy will be sent through at moonrise. I must repair my alter ego to scare him off as I have done for my six and your 78 years as you say and be ready to send us back through the portal. Our combined voices singing the chant on the pedestal and my sensing of the precise moment of transfer should enable us to leap to the stone of travel. With the grace of God we will return from this jungled fever dream tonight."
We began in earnest in mending the huge green scareman. Spectrally ambient light diffused by the moonlit clouds drifted up from the treetops. In the distance Howard struggled, collecting fresh vine. He froze in place clutching at his chest each time another tremor shook the plateau. In the tall grasses of the clearing he appeared more mirage than man. I imagined swells of Bartok to fit this scene's soundtrack. Instead, Howard began mumbling a P.K. Dick quote, "The dead shall live, the living die and music shall untune the sky."
Turning to Endura beside me working, I stopped short of speaking, looking at her in admiration and pity mixed. She was a bronzed Amazon, her blond hair tied back with leather straps, her strong, veined hands methodically working the vine. Her green eyes intent, determined, the expression of a survivor. My heart went out to her plight. Fate had robbed her of time she could never regain and left her with years of anguished isolation.
I never cease to be amazed at human nature. In the midst of this craziness I found myself straightening my shirt and hand-brushing my thinning gray hair. I wondered how my well-trimmed mustache appeared. For a man of forty-five, I was proud of my muscular, six-foot build, and level of stamina. Yeah, the stomach wasn't exactly abs. of steel, but I hoped to look somewhat swarthy and heroic to this mysteriously attractive Endura. Looking back at the ungainly, tall, clumsy, and gaunt Howard, I surmised, if worse comes to worse, I would be Endura's choice over the nasal timbred whiner. Forgive me, Howard.
"Endura, I'm sorry about Wheatley and all this happening to you. When and if we get back I --," I spoke, hoping to edge her my way.
"Stop, please, not that now," she bit her lip and tightened the lashings.
Startled, she gripped my arm as I winced.
"Something's wrong. They're sending someone now! It's too soon. The moon isn't up yet, but I hear the ceremony! Get this thing up on its feet and get behind it. Quick!" Endura screamed. I wasn't afraid of a drugged boy, but cooperated just to be sure.
A form began wavering, oscillating into view on the stone of travel. We stood sufficiently breathless. It was Asmodeus, our helicopter pilot! Bleeding, beaten, and staggering to his feet, he babbled the infernal cadence. He was obviously drugged as professor Smythe had been, but poor Asmodeus had not escaped transport. Perhaps he saw the viney alter ego. We weren't sure. Screaming, he ran away, a scared rabbit slipping into the night. Howard bolted after him.
"Howard, don't go! You'll never find him! Come back! The portal is ready for us now!" I called into my own echoes.
Endura stared light years past me, sighing in a monotone, "Claude, I feel we have lost Howard. I don't see him on the stone as we hoped," her arm raising gradually, she motioned stiffly toward the jungle. "That which has been calling souls to this place comes now to claim ours as well. We must begin the song of Nycrama."
"The song of what?" I asked with no reply.
I peered off into the darkness, hearing the screams of Howard rise to drift across fog-shrouded forms encircling the courtyard.
"Howard! Give it up! Come on!" my appeals lost in his wailing.
"Claude, leave him! Begin the chant with me here on the pedestal of power!" Endura begged, pulling at me. My trust in her waned.
She took my hands in hers and the night gusts whipped her hair free in the cloud-strobed moonlight. It was a corona of topaz fire about her head, her eyes opened wide, transfixing me. She coaxed me into the song of sorcery. She instinctively intoned what seemed to be Spanish mixed with gibberish, "Cerro la neblina, Neblina-tepui! Atrave del tiempo, la cancio , la cancio del templo! Nycramaaaaaahhhh! Yamil Zacraaaa! Yuzzzzh! Gran regreso de sue o largo!"
I aped the melody, emphasizing the prominent notes while Howard, unseen, continued howling agonies. His wailing was closer. The chant was mesmerizing and the image of Endura framed against the swirling starry mists was hypnotic. I was nearly entranced, was it not for poor Howard's shouting from the edge of the clearing.
"Claude! Oh my God! My G --" He gasped for breath. "It's coming! It got Asmodeus. I was chasing him across the smaller clearing . . . it barreled past me, following the sound of Asmodeus' babbling. Something came up from the ground and swallowed him whole even as I stood watching! I couldn't move! I just . . . it follows the chant! That's why the boys are drugged. They come here and then call it to feast on themselves. Claude I could see . . . Ohhh, I could see them beneath its skin. They're all alive inside that thing, squirming, struggling to the light and falling back deeper as it undulates its body! Endura scared the poor devils off and it ate them whole in the jungle! It's had to work a little harder for its food these past years hunting them down out there! It must dwell somewhere near this clearing. It's a stinking fishing hole for that thing! For God's sake, Claude, stop her from singing! It'll find us!"
Endura continued like an automaton, "Cerro la neblina, Neblina-tepui!"
Staring across the stone of travel I saw Asmodeus' blood-drenched flight vest and then spied his "Meat Grinder"! If that had made it through with him! I jumped across the chasm of green and grabbed the gun. Its cold firmness felt particularly comforting at that moment. Howard was just below me limping toward the pillar, entangled in the vine he had just pulled. Behind him I noticed the ground welling up and small trees swaying in the moonglow.
"Aaaaaaiiiiieeee!" Howard's shrieks ripped through me as the earth swelled at his heels casting him headlong. He vanished in the high grass.
"Howard don't quit now! Get up!" I called out, my finger sweating across the trigger.
He rose only to roll forward again. A mountain of mud and roots boiled, surging about him. Howard scrambled backwards, kicking, and spouting obscenities. Then I saw Nycrama lifting up, silhouetted against the full moon. I cannot fully describe what I witnessed writhing up some thirty feet tall, but I never hesitated to unload Asmodeus' "Meat Grinder." I aimed at what seemed its head, concentrating my aim at a pulsating, membranous orb. The creature recoiled, retracting the swollen organ away from the barrage of hot lead. Slowly a chitinous exoskeleton slid forward, encasing the ichor-oozing area I was swiss-cheesing. As it swayed angrily in blind confusion, its rippling extremities running the length of what body I could see, it extruded hundreds of smoothly segmented, taloned tentacles or tendrils. It was all at once slug, macrophage, and ravenous larvae. I could not tell which. By now Howard had dragged himself up to my feet. He slid closer, rising just above the sinuous coils of glistening black appendages,
hooking and whipping around the base of the travel stone. Soil, plants, and stones were being tossed everywhere by Nycrama's frenzied rage. Endura locked into her litany of doom, seemed indifferent to the threat looming over her.
"Endura!" I begged. "Stop, it's following your voice!"
"Nycramaaaaaahhhh! Yamil Zacraaaa! Yuzzzzh!" Howard began to emulate the song and Nycrama swung away from Endura to find its new meal.
"Good, Howard! I mean --" I fell back exclaiming, "Howard! That's enough already! You've got it going now." I fired again at close enough range to see the woeful, imprisoned contents of the thing jerking away from the bullets. This Orm of Dante backed away to sniff the breezes and reorient itself for the final strike. Perhaps it toyed with us knowing its advantage in behemoth dimensions alone.
There are images reserved only for nightmares of madmen and the rain-soaked visions of carnage mirrored still in dead men's eyes splayed over battlefields lit by lightning flash. Yet what I witnessed next was far beyond all perversity imaginable. Nycrama began regurgitating the contents of his vast gut. Tangled strands of mushroom gray flesh piled up at the foot of the pedestal. I could only hope it was death throes and ceased my shooting. I recognized this noisome slurry as an amalgamation of human bodies. Slowly, they were each dying, released from a living death. Nycrama retracted a multifurcated umbilicus, audibly snapping it free from the base of the skull of each quivering victim, nearly drained of his very soul. Death claimed them swiftly.
I looked for Asmodeus among the lifeless horde. Not finding him, I surmised him as hidden beneath the remains. Howard began gasping and vomiting. Nycrama bowed his hooded head toward us. From behind the hard shell at his neck there was a horrid protrusion growing. It slowly gained my recognition. Now astride the worm that dies not, Asmodeus' upper torso fitfully writhed atop this putrescent pariah. He mouthed silently, gesticulating, choking, and coughing up Nycrama's zombifying essence.
Asmodeus strained words, his will, his individuality, slipping away, "Claude, kill me, please, I, I, I can't . . ."
Nycrama eclipsed this plea, surging forth to address us via Asmodeus, "At last, the game is over and I soon feast on the countless souls of men. Free! I will rule and ravish your world pregnant with billions! Avalzant, Envoy of the Fiery Change! See my day! The contest falls to me, the door of home opens! Sing my sweet darling Endura, sing as I take you. Ride within me to rule eternal. The prize of endless waiting now brings me forth out of this prison! You can hold me here no longer, Avalzant! I alone have made sure the tunnel to freedom. You have lost Elder one! So, so many worlds await my coming. I have wasted in this mirror-world and vile body long enough. Avalzant, you housed my soul in worm, but see! Great I have grown! Curse you Avalzant and that stupid soulbox, Wheatley, in failing me! Yet now by his little, songbird wife I fly. Now to find the amulet he almost brought through to me. The fool! The last Zacran stone fallen to Uxmal, just beyond the door, will be mine again. It is nearly time to feed in new pasture. Sing, Endura, my priestess, sing! Enjoy your stay gentlemen!"
Endura paused briefly in her singing, calling to me, "Claude, I have seen Nycrama's fate and your deliverance. Return and destroy the priestesses of Nycrama and with their death the wormhole of Nycrama's escape will close forever. His cursed song of living death must never be sung again! I must face Nycrama in my own way! You must not interfere!"
"But, Endura, I ca --," I pleaded.
"Do it -- or we all die!" Endura answered adamantly.
With this said she tossed a small leather-bound notebook to me. She turned away, facing the blood red moon as she, the activated pedestal, and Nycrama began to slip into the ghostly past. Nycrama swarmed his bulk up to Endura as she screamed, "Cerro la neblina, Neblina-tepui! Atrave del tiempo, la cancio , la cancio del templo! Gran regreso de sue o largo!"
"Endura! No! Wait!" I called, riveted in place.
From the sheath at her hip Endura drew the long blade of jade-black stone, holding it high overhead, spinning it about, and placing its tip to her breast. With a scream I will never shake from my soul, she triumphantly sank the shaft well through her own heart! In heroic defiance she stood facing Nycrama, the bloodied length of her weapon still protruding from her back. Mingled with my own screams, I swear I heard an ungodly laughter bellowing from Nycrama. Endura swayed backwards, holding her hands up to some unseen deliverer, and then toppled down, falling against the altar stone.
As the stone of travel, now fully activated, carried us back to 1996, I saw Nycrama's fading form slouching disgustingly onto Endura's lifeless body. Immediately the heaving mass angrily roared in pangs of tortured pain. Its horrid frame reared back and exploded, sending splintered shards of protoplasm skyward. Jets of black effluent drowned the pedestal of power where Nycrama's remains smoldered in a greenish flame. I began firing mindlessly into his vanishing vileness.
The scene of this slaughter was vividly replaced with the priestesses of Nycrama, back in my own time, still kneeling before the great stone slab expecting their god to come. Sulfur and saltpeter fumes were swiftly replaced by the stench of the deathly fetid vapors of Nycrama. His body fluids began spewing forth from the curious holes dotting the mound of stone I now recognized as the sculpted head of Nycrama. He had planned to come into this world long ago, but the time was not yet full. Now only his corrosive remains came forward to cover his puppet priestesses in liquid fire dissolving their flinching bodies. Even as the remaining worshipers fled judgment on this night of an ancient prophecy, I sensed a great evil maelstrom abating. I began to retch, shivering in a cold sweat.
Howard lay still at my feet, his heart not able to stand under the incessant pummeling of terror within him. I dropped the "Meat Grinder" to my side, realizing the ammo had long since run out. I bent down closing Howard's eyes for him and picked up the leather notebook resting in Howard's outstretched palm. In the bright moonshine and emerald fireglow, I read betwixt dancing shadows, the last entry.
Claude, my dear friend, as you read this, I have gone to Avalzant, my father, and Nycrama's soul is sent to the dark center of Yuzh. Wheatley and I found and translated petroglyphs in the ruins of a temple dedicated to Yamil Zacra in the Yucatan. There Wheatley also found the Zacran Stone of Uxmal that Nycrama needed. The inscriptions told of the priestesses of Neblina-tepui and the god Nycrama. There were no dinosaurs here in Venezuela. Wheatley knew that well, but used it as a cover to come and find this Nycrama. Nycrama controlled Wheatley through the necklace amulet of Zacran Stone he wore at all times. In the stony text it foretold of the day when the priestess with the hair of the sun would come to bring Nycrama to this world and this time. The prophecy contradicted itself and portrayed this priestess doing battle with Nycrama. If Nycrama were to be victorious and consume her, his loathsome body would lose its grip on his prison's temporal space matrix and then pass through his self-made portal to our world. Wheatley was influenced by Nycrama to bring me and in return gain some unimaginable power.
Seeing me that night, back in 1918, the priestesses were in exultation, for here I was, the chosen one, come into their midst. Fate would have it that I came first to Nycrama's abode to destroy him. Without the Zacran Stone of Uxmal, Nycrama was limited in his original power. He fed on living souls to gain strength enough to return to battle Avalzant again. Nycrama did not understand though, that to devour any freshly dead body, was to invite Death within the temple of his corrupt soul. In doing so, Death could then dissolve Nycrama's foul body into eternal nothingness, thus releasing, and then binding his soul within the ever burning core of Yuzh. This battle, I was born in your world, to fight. I will miss you and your New England of 1996.
-- Avrenim, my Pnidleethonian name
(and for you, Claude), Endura
Providence, Rhode Island
March 11, 1997
After an astonishingly successful escape and journey back to the States, I come home to face murder charges, no one believing my account of events. I sit here now in my study and look into the past out across the treetops. The moon sets and I weep once more for my good friend Howard and my dearest Endura. I cannot decide whether or not to burn this curious notebook of Wheatley's. In it I have discovered the transcribed song of Nycrama. If I could only see Endura again. I hold in my hand the Zacran Stone of Uxmal, found while burying Howard on the Neblina-tepui. What good is this curiosity to me?
"Avrenim, Endura," I cried to my empty room, "Avalzant, whoever you are, hear my cry! Answer me!"
(This ends Dr. Farnsworth's notes. Neither the aforementioned Zacran Stone nor Wheatley Smythe's notebook were located among Dr. Farnsworth's belongings. His butler, a Mr. Yu-Chin Zhang reported, ". . . hear shouting, strange voices, laughter, and then thunder on the last night I see good doctor . . . doorknob very warm and room smell of sulfur . . . candles lean over to side . . . all circuit breakers tripped . . . every light bulb bad in doctor's study." Dr. Claude Farnsworth's disappearance remains unexplained.)
And for the space of forty days, the dark orb Yuzh, sister star to Yamil Zacra burns noticeably brighter in the skies of Pnidleethon. Lord Avalzant, lady Avrenim, and their party later on that last evening of celebration look quietly upon the Milky Way and toward one small star near the galaxy's edge. Claude Farnsworth takes Avrenim's hand and they walk, gliding across the royal balcony of Avalzant.
"Avrenim?" I asked, ducking the undulating branches of a playful Khisanti tree.
"Yes, Claude?" she answered, her eyes reflecting the luminous opalescent orbs following us to light our way.
"Explain to me again about Nycrama," I spoke.
Avrenim, leaning back against an invisible wall of temp-rest that supported her, recounted, "You understand the recruiting system we employ on Pnidleethon, right?" I nodded yes. "Well Nycrama came from the distant past of your world, a brujo. He was being watched by Avalzant as a possible recruit to the ranks of wizardry here. In his travels to gain power, Nycrama came into possession of the Zacran skystone fallen at Uxmal in the Yucatan. With it, he asserted authority over the priests there and at many temples elsewhere. He traveled and taught others his dark skills. We here are not above using similar powers Nycrama dabbled with, but he fell into soul eating. He learned how to consume the life essence of others to extend his own life. This is not our way. Nycrama set up his final temple at Neblina-tepui. What he planned and carried out at that place was too diabolical for Avalzant to ignore. My father confronted Nycrama and challenged him to a contest to teach Nycrama humility and turn him from ultimate evil. Nycrama refused to heed any stranger's advice and lost the first phase of the battle. Avalzant destroyed Nycrama's human form and sent the Zacran Stone back to Uxmal. He then sent Nycrama's naked soul into a microscopic world-bubble pinched off into a space-time prison, where perchance he might repent.
"Instead of reconsidering anything, Nycrama began work in a newly acquired lower life form, to punch a hole back to his crumbling temple at Neblina-tepui. A dream here and a shaman's prophetic utterance there, were small steps for Nycrama to systematically inspire a religious sect to reestablish worship at Neblina-tepui. He was able, through his priestesses, to reactivate the original transport power of the temple. Procuring enough souls by ritual sacrifice, he was then able to reach out for someone to bring the Zacran Stone to Neblina-tepui. He found Wheatley's mind the second he stood close enough to the right spot in the ruins at Uxmal. Nycrama dreaming dreams into minds at his temple could never guide anyone to find the lost Zacran Stone dropped by Wheatley. By merest chance alone, Claude, you found it. Unbeknownst to you, the Stone led you into the wisdom to pilot the helicopter down to safety. It propelled you as well, unharmed, back to your home. We believe here on Pnidleethon that the Zacran skystones find people and not vice versa. Claude, you held the amulet of Yamil Zacra to your heart and called for Avalzant. You then chose to undergo the Fiery Change and come to me. For that, I choose to remain in the body you know as Endura. Avalzant granted you the luxury of a slightly younger body of Dr. Claude Farnsworth. Do you approve of this?" She finished her talk, tipping her head to one side, smiling.
"Yes, this meets all the approval I can muster," I answered.
"Avrenim, what of the carvings at the Yamil Zacran temple at Uxmal? Why didn't Nycrama believe the danger of your coming?" I asked in retrospect.
"You see, Evil blinds itself to its own defeat, existing only to jump through Fate's loopholes, buy itself time, and cause a lot more pain," she mused for me.
"But couldn't Nycrama have read your mind and found you to devour you earlier and avoid his doom?" I went on.
"Claude, I was born a woman to avoid that possibility. Since Nycrama had a taste for the souls of young men, I was nothing but a curiosity above his lair. He never recognized my presence as his ticket to freedom until he saw my prophesied 'hair of the sun' by viewing me through your eyes. And, as for my mind, Avalzant did not fill me with full revelation of my identity and mission until the very last," she finished.
"Incredible! Did Avalzant send you or --," I began.
"No, I drew the short straw you might say," she chuckled.
Shaking my head and laughing briefly, my gaze drifted back across alien skies to Earth for one little private goodbye.
"Do you miss your world, my love?" Avrenim spoke in a whisper, her hand weaving itself into mine.
"No, I don't at all," I added, the cool night breeze lifted the light orbs into a slight bobbing motion, "not one bit, Avrenim."
She tugged at my arm and we moved closer to one another for warmth, the spiraling winds of Ahkomnem clawed our backs. Avrenim's anklet bells chimed in unison with the great wind gongs mounted in the upper walls of Avalzant's palace.
"We should go in now for the hour given to the Pnumbrals comes," she informed me pointing to a dark, wispy shadow darkening, blanking out the stars to the south. "They come devouring the refuse of daily life and eliminate the foolish, the unwary, and the slothful of Pnidleethon."
What I thought were the stars now turned a brilliant, laser red, was in fact the eyes of the black winged mass.
"I can lift the walls to build an observation dome if you like," she offered.
"I suppose so, yes, I am intrigued by this," I responded a bit nervously.
She sang a note or two of signals and the winds stilled. I felt a pressure grow in my inner ears, my footfalls echoing beneath the unseen shield.
"Avrenim, so much here continues to amaze me. I feel the child and all about me teachers!" I retorted, watching the cloud of mystery now swarming about us.
"Yes, and there will be time enough for you to grieve," Avrenim cryptically commented, anticipating my next thoughts.
"So much worked out for my good and . . . yet Howard came out the loser. I mourn his passing and inside lies a guilt for being the survivor," I sighed.
Avrenim chuckled into a full laugh, holding me tighter as I recoiled in disgust and shock. She continued her snickering saying, "I said there would be time to grieve, meaning the loss of your former way of life, not for Howard."
"What are you . . . Howard was a dear friend and --," I argued ignorantly.
"Claude, Howard is not dead, as you might believe," she announced.
"I buried him myself!" I shouted, pulling away, the Pnumbrals flying overhead forgotten. I barely noticed their beating about the fortress Avrenim had just erected.
"Claude, calm yourself, hear me out. Above us assailing the barrier, the shadows seek to enter and devour our bodies but are held at bay. Your dear Howard's shadowy soul left his body moments before its transfer back to Neblina-tepui of 1996. The soul hungers for a living body. Howard's body was broken, useless, and finished. Howard's soul, his ego-consciousness, slipped out of Nycrama's crumbling world fleeing into meta-temporal space and wound up back on Earth somewhere near the nexus of 1890 and your Providence of Rhode Island, old New England. We watched him wandering aimlessly, confused, looking for his own body, and his best friend, you, Claude. Somewhere, he heard the words, `Howard Phillips,' and instantly he willed his ego there. A young male was gaining his name, even in the womb. Your Dr. Howard Beam Phillips' nearly-dissipated self, fell, moth to the flame, into that unborn child. Howard's total life is being lived out in your New England's past. I believe his full name was to be . . . yes, Howard Phillips Lovecraft," she ended speaking, smirking with a head nod.
"You can't be serious!" I mouthed incredulously, knowing all the time she was dead serious.
"He creates quite a long lasting stir in literary circles, I believe," she added, giggling in abandon.
"Lovecraft died in 1937 and Howard was born in 1937!" I reasoned, hesitating, ". . . Avrenim, I need to get some sleep."
The last Pnumbral regained the flock, vanishing over the frozen mountain ranges cradling the northern skies' bejeweled sunsets.
"You may call me Endura, if you like, Claude."
Lady Avrenim smiled serenely, pulling the good doctor closer. They retired to her chambers for a night of their favorite, preselected, dream sequences.
I dedicate this tale to the memory of Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, and H. Beam Piper. Avalzant, Pnidleethon, Yamil Zacra, Yuzh, and N(y)ecrama are fantastic names and places, inspiring me to write, first used by Clark Ashton Smith in his unfinished tale, "The Infernal Star," begun in 1933. My apologies to the old masters of fantasy.
Created: December 5, 1999; Updated: August 9, 2004