Flesh! Live flesh! Fleshy sounds and smells, drifting down the seventy steps of dreaming to the cavern of flame. Raising rubbery, blood-splattered heads, the ghoul pack stopped feeding. The alpha ghoul growled. Inside the flickering, glowing cavern, the pack silently hid themselves inside crevices and deep black shadows. Biped, wolf-shaped, large as kangaroos; yet after that flurry of movement the cavern of flame seemed empty. Empty except for the ghoul pack's dinner. Its fingerless hands still jerked uselessly towards a smashed automatic pistol.
"Come on. Come on, now." A carefree angel's voice, drifting down the steps of dreaming. Possibly fifty stone steps away. "Come on now, you're doing fine." The alpha ghoul snarled. That more prey -- live prey! -- should descend into the Dreamlands from the moss-covered graveyard above was fine! "You . . . (growl) . . . Princess . . . more . . ." A wolfish, inhuman voice. The five other ghouls joined their leader in barely silenced rage. Just above them! A fellow ghoul! Held captive! Forced to speak English!
". . . More beautiful . . . than . . . (growl) . . . moonlight."
Above them, the female sighed happily.
"Go on," suggested a new voice. A darkly male, clearly human voice. Earth Dreamer! Thirty steps away!
"More beautiful than . . . (growl) . . . dead, rotting flesh!"
The unseen male exploded in laughter. The alpha ghoul's dinner -- a CIA agent named Hanes -- lifted what was left of his body off the rock floor, screaming, "Jones! In here!" Clawed paws slapped him down.
Four steps, three stone steps, two steps, one. A large, very tied-up ghoul was pushed into the cavern. The Earth Dreamer holding a knife to its throat was larger. Massively shouldered, dressed in black leather. Cowboy hat shadowing most of his face. Dreamlight glittered raindrop-like upon the smooth black darkness of the leather. His beautiful companion regarded their captive with regal, withering contempt.
Finally, the lovely young woman smiled. "Kill the foul mouthed son of a bitch, Jones." Her witch-violet eyes glanced about the cavern. "As a matter of fact, kill 'em all."
Before anything inhuman could move Jones' knife sliced effortlessly through rubbery neck. The head rolled as Jones blocked the alpha ghoul's lunge with his new corpse shield. The knife speared into the alpha ghoul's heart. Thrusting his two corpses aside, Jones met the beta ghoul's attack with a drawn revolver whose razor sharp barrel sliced open the beta ghoul's skull. Only then, with the pack leaping, did Jones open fire. Two seconds after the first ghoul's head hit the floor, the ghoul pack was dead.
Her royal honor as a beauty thus upheld, Princess Twilight Lirazael Smith walked delicately into the carnage. Kneeling besides the ghouls' dinner, her small soft hands closed ruined eyes. The tortured body relaxed. Turned over. Began crawling towards a pile of gnawed bones. Fingerless hands pushed into the bones. Abruptly, the body shuddered, died.
Jones pushed apart the bone pile. A black leather pouch, sandwiched in ghoul bone. Jones grabbed it.
From below came the sounds of the ghoul nation moving. "Damn," Jones said softly. Smith stepped with a thin spiked heel upon the human corpse. Where she stepped, dust coiled into new, flame-lit being. Now, something huge and reptilian regarded the princess with venomous, knowing, eyes. "Kill them," Smith whispered. "Kill them all." Smokelike and crawling, the demon entered into the earth.
Rainbow Jones and Twilight Smith joined hands. She smiled. In a flowing of dark elfin magic they were gone.
"New black boots!"
CIA agent Cobbs screamed, eyes twisting shut. Twilight Smith, grinding herself into his lap, began trying to pull his eyelids open. Rainbow Jones, lounging on a huge pile of cushions, nodded approvingly. Cobbs was proving himself to be more reasonable than Agent Robards, their former liaison, who had shown the Princess no respect at all. Perhaps Twilight's smallish size turned on the aggressor in him. Finally, her royal patience exhausted, she had (after ceremonially changing into a tight black leotard) softly and sweetly commanded Robards to lick and kiss the bare royal feet. True, it certainly had shut him up the rest of the afternoon. The trouble, though, with an elfin princesses' command is that it has an ungodly long half life. After constant public humiliation back on Earth, Agent Robards had had no choice but to resign his post and enter an all male monastery. Agent Cobbs had just now tried to run the show. Point made, Twilight left her seat and settled onto the velvet black love seat which served as her throne.
Outside, on the streets of Ulthar, vendor noise suddenly stilled. There came the music of myriad small bells ringing. Through the open window a large grey cat stepped into the room. Cobbs straightened. "Your Holiness," he said solemnly. The large grey cat gave him an unfathomable stare.
Turning, the cat saw Twilight Smith. "Well! Princess!" (It's voice was playful, full of high pitched whisperings.) "This cat once again sees a future queen." Jones waved a casual greeting. Shakti, High Priest of Dreamlands' cats, settled itself comfortably on Twilight's seat. From outside came the bell sounds of Shakti's escort leaving.
"Now then,' said the cat, "Cobbs, if you would be so kind as to run the video which Smith and Jones recovered from your most unfortunate agent."
Late afternoon sunlight glittering off of onyx silver statues; merchants hawking exotic fruits and perfumes from the silent tribes of the desert. Jones saw all this and more as he drew a breath of fresh air before the cinema.
"Jones! Lights. Please!"
White, polar world. Ice cliffs shivering in moonlight. Very high cliffs. Probably Earth. Antarctica. The camera moved towards a huge black cross at the base of the tallest cliff. Or was that cliff really some impossibly angled temple? The black cross cast insect-like shadows on the moonlit ice. Including the cameraman, there seemed to be five explorers. Rainbow glanced at Smith. Twilight's lovely face was wary. She knew what was coming?
Where the shadows touched the ice . . . somehow it looked like the ice was screaming. The largest of the explorers touched the cross. A young boy now stood there. Had he been the cross? The cross his tomb? His gateway? There was sadness in the boy's dark eyes.
"Lost Little Boy," Twilight whispered. Her voice was lust and horror and fear. The young boy -- maybe 14 years old? -- returned the explorers touch. The human turned to mist and ice. The boy held out his hands to the other explorers. They backed away, camera shaking. The Lost Little Boy licked his teeth with a tongue that was far too long. He wore a black jumpsuit which probably was his skin. Jones cursed, softly.
The boys' smile began to melt, all humanity spinning away. Where the boy had been there was now a huge spiderweb, full of Antarctic moonlight. Moonlight and spiderweb began to mate together, merging till now there was only an endless black Doorway whose countless open mouths were screaming. Cobbs also began to scream, as one by one the remaining explorers were gobbled up by that Doorway. Then the Doorway in the video disappeared. Jones fainted.
When he came to, Agent Cobbs was dead.
"Couldn't take what he saw. Hung himself." Shakti purred. "You did well Jones, fainting. Only that, at the sight of Nyarlathotep, Messenger of the Ancient Ones!"
Jones just groaned.
"Is he sane?" Twilight asked, doubtfully.
"Jones, the princess tied the noose for Cobbs. She doesn't hold a grudge!"
"Shakti, she's a vindictive bitch!"
"There. Quite sane."
Jones tried rising to his feet. Nothing moved. Reached for his beloved hat. That worked. Tried again. This time made it upright. "What the hell was . . ."
"Nyarlathotep. The Lost Little Boy. The Boy made of Starlight. Messenger of the Ancient Ones."
"How . . .?"
"Human voices called to It . . . It calls to humans . . . you must feel that."
Jones nodded. It had seemed a lost child. In need of help. Jones shuddered, remembering the darkness of its eyes.
A paw slapped his ankle. "Jones! Courage! Having been brought back, Nyarlathotep will have no choice but to awaken the Ancient Ones. The only magic able to defy him belongs to . . ."
The Peaks of Thoth!
Rainbow Jones, torn between wonder and fear, let out a long, ragged breath. The princess was already twenty yards ahead of him, cutting her way confidently through the deep, clinging darkness. But Jones could only look, marveling at the night landscape about him. No moon, no stars. So where was the light coming from? He stood in a luminous twilight that went on forever. Some magic in the desert landscape around him.
All about, scattered like cactus, lay huge piles of bone. Some were human, most were not. Off in the black twilit distance rose the endless peaks of Thoth. Shaking the wonder out of his head Rainbow Jones started walking.
Twilight Smith stood beside a very large pond. Around the pond's edge were still more piles of bones. Jones could hardly put a name to any of them. Still and ghostly was the pond; so much more impossible moonlight.
"Hey! Princess! Thoth is supposed to be pure desert."
Smith grinned. "What better place to hide a crocodile?"
"Crocodile! What do you mean hide . . ."
"Jones, you're not in Utah any more." She picked an unseen -- or imaginary -- stone up off the ground. Sent it skipping across the pond. Each skip more impossible silver moonlight on the pond.
"This place is the Crocodile's. It is as he wishes it to be." Smith spoke in reverent tones. Rainbow grinned. Reverence sat badly on Smith. "This, Jones, is the Pond of All Memory. From here the Crocodile continuously creates everything's past. If Nyarlathotep destroys this place . . . no past, then no present. No ordinary magic at all. The Ancient Ones will feast on the unshelled meat of our universe."
Jones kicked aside a few bones. In the magical twilight they made a dry, shifting echo of sounds. This adventure was getting rather too deep for him. "I still don't know why you and Shakti believe Nyarlathotep will bring the Ancient Ones back. You told me the Ancient Ones control Nyarlathotep against his will. That they created him against his will."
Twilight glanced at him. Looked right through him. From somewhere deep in the pond there came the light and sound of skipping stones. Hands on his weapons, Jones stared. Eyes the shape and movement of fire gazed back. Jones cursed softly.
With but a wind ripple of water the Crocodile broke the surface. Not quite a crocodile, but near enough.
"-"Well?"-" It asked. There was no sound, Goddamn it, Jones thought. Mind reader!
The princess raised her beautiful head. "-"Nyarlathotep is coming,"-" she thought, "-"to destroy you and so release the Ancient Ones from their tombs."-"
The Crocodile laughed. Its laughter, Jones realized, was the source of the twilight around him.
"-"You will help us?"-" Jones thought. "-"The Lost Little Boy . . . she says you can defeat him!"-"
The sound of rain, slithering. Jones looked upward. Where?
No, not rain. Not rain on bones, rain inside his mind. The Crocodile was crying. Crocodile tears.
"So much for that!" Rainbow, picking up a sizable bone, snapped it in one hand. "Why do you think it mocked us? Too old and crazy?"
In front of him, pale bones danced in midair; assuming subtle, dreadfully endless shapes. Smith -- her jump suit-clad body veiled in shadows of pale conjurelight -- looked up from her space-time deadfall. "Mocked us? Hardly. Well, maybe. Just for a moment. But then it gave us a swell idea. Except I couldn't quite catch it. 'Time and weather' or, . . . something like that.
"'Time and weather'! The croc never said anything like that. You're dreaming!"
"Well, d'uh! But until I can figure out what it actually said -- and then use it -- this trap may be our best bet. It'll use Nyarlathotep's own energy against it. Send it so far away in space-dream-time it'll never find the way back to Thoth. Stop fidgeting!"
Annoyed, Jones left her to her work. If Twilight could get a clear shot at Nyarlathotep . . . preferably from behind . . . but as things stood, the Lost Little Boy would be coming fully aware, fully ready for battle. He doubted her magical deadfall would hold It for more than a moment. 'Time and weather' indeed! Foolish to ask advice from a crocodile!
Jones wandered over to the pond's shore. Pensive, he drew out his silver lighter and lit himself a smoke. The thin cigarette's glow reflected oddly and endlessly, a handful of stars, upon the pond. Jones shut his lighter. Half the echo of stars was gone.
A stone skipped across the pond. Startled, Jones looked up. The Lost Little Boy stood there. It was staring, intently, at the thin night sky of flame on the pond. Jones' hand jerked upward. The stars remaining danced wilder.
Jones hit the ground within a second, but the creature on the far side of the pond was not bothering to see him. It simply continued to gaze, fascinated, though the reflected points of flame on the pond were gone. The reflections, Jones thought. Those reflections have meaning to It. The Messenger of the Ancient Ones was on Its knees now, gazing hungrily into the pond.
One chance. Jones began crawling on his belly towards Nyarlathotep. All energies must abide by the laws of the shape they take. A knife thrust into the heart of The Lost Little Boy's human form
. . .
It was the greatest stalk of Jones' life. A foot away now, and not a bone disturbed. Nyarlathotep's hands were in the water; dark light crawling wormlike out of Its eyes. Jones froze for an instant in fear. Then his knife thrust entered where a heart must be.
The Lost Little Boy seemed not to notice. The dark tears grew stronger. Jones flipped the Bowie across the thing's throat. Again, nothing.
Neither Jones nor the Thing moved, but somehow Jones now gazed into Its eyes. At first he saw nothing. Not his own reflection. Not the dark tears. Closing his own eyes, Jones looked deeper. Nyarlathotep looked back into the pond. Again, neither had moved.
Finally, Jones saw. There was a sun, its light lost forever to the sky. The Child Made of Starlight. Nyarlathotep. Slithering from their lairs the Ancient Ones had seized that starlight as it raced from sun to sun. Took the starlight back to their tombs. Took it to where it could not exist. Growling, they shaped what had once been starlight into their own unspeakable form. Shaped a Doorway from all realms into the next. Gave life to what had once been only beautiful, soulless light. Nyarlathotep. Starry Messenger. Lost, forever wandering. Lost Little Boy.
Jones opened his eyes. Nyarlathotep was gone. Shouting, Jones ran towards his partner. From where she was came a sudden snapping of magic, punctuated by an insect-like screaming. Then silence. Jones ran even faster.
The deadfall was gone. Or perhaps transformed into the cage of cold iron which held Twilight Smith. She was spread-eagled nude onto its floor, chained face down; held by iron links which held no play. Beside the cage stood the Lost Little Boy. Older now, as though It had taken age and thought from Jones as he had taken ancient knowledge from It.
Smith began stirring. Fought against her shackles, then laid still. One last chance, thought Jones. All energies must abide by the laws of the shape they take. Maybe, anyhow.
"Well," Jones began, in what he hoped was a friendly, avuncular tone. "You've got the right idea. But she looks her best held in leather."
Nyarlathotep licked Its teeth. The bars of Twilight's cage began shrinking inward, stopping only when they caressed into firm flesh. Smith lay there, sandwiched inside cold iron, unable to scream or move or speak.
"She looks well enough now, Jones." The Star-Thing's voice was an insect mockery of Jones' own. "Indeed, thanks to my brief link with you I see now how to please my Masters. Your friend is
. . . quite beautiful. The Ancient Ones love pleasure. An elfin princess will do."
Nyarlathotep changed. Jones saw starlight, saw the Lost Little Boy, saw a multidimensional prism with claws, saw a billion open doorways all hungry, all stained with teeth and pain and death and stars.
"Jones. You are only food. The Ancient Ones feed now."
Rainbow was where?
A cold, foggy beach. Maybe he was dreaming! Wasn't Smith in trouble? He couldn't be sure. Behind him was a small stone hut. He shook his head. How did he know that the lichen green stones of the hut had come down from alien stars?
Jones went inside. Where the roof should have been . . . Jones blinked. Pinched his eyes. The roof was there now. It had come back, just then. All except for a sort of smokehole in its center. Inside that smokehole . . . that smokehole was the galaxy of the alien stars and from it Something was even now coming for him. Passing into Space-Time so that Jones became prey.
"All right," said Rainbow to what was coming. "Lets' fight."
But the hut was gone. He was back in the magic of Thoth. Twilight Smith stood there, nude except for leather straps on her wrists and ankles. At her feet was the shattered prison of cold iron. A leather collar graced her royal neck. The other end of its leash ended inside the smoldering remains of Nyarlathotep.
The two adventurers looked at each other.
"So 'time and weather' was really 'tied in leather'?"
"Yep." Jones touched the ashes with his boot. "You sure can burn them, darling."
Smith was not flattered. "Only Nyarlathotep's outer form. Let's hope It never finds its way back here again."
Jones and Smith joined hands. In a flowing of dark elfin magic they were gone.
Created: August 14, 2001; Updated: August 9, 2004