I sat silently on an old fieldstone wall, concealed by a century's growth of green, watching the gray furred forms moving slowly past the trees a hundred yards ahead, as they hauled the white obelisk using their manifold harnesses of creaking ratleather, dragging a groove in the grass behind them. The escort, a dozen strong, shelled in bronze and holding feather helm-crests high, clinked along guarding flank and fore. The cream-coloured hierarch balanced on the obelisk itself, flailing hir tail-ribbons imperiously impatiently, no doubt licking hir needle-teeth in both memory and anticipation of their evil rites.
The moon disgorged its blue bastard and the night's brightness doubled. The obelisk immediately turned black, and the hierarch hissed and leapt from hir perch, pwerling that queer high-pitched wobbling speech that made me feel like alien bees were crawling down my back. The escort scattered and the labourers hastened, hauling the thing into the deeper shadows of a copse of ancient elms and out of my view. All I could descry was the obelisk, now a faint, luminous grey cut by black straps.
Five stiff hours later the sinister moon swung back behind its pale mother and the cats began moving again, but slower than before. Another hour's haul brought them around toward the sprawl of sunken masonry thirty yards yonder from which my hiding-wall extended down a trough betwixt the trees. I dared not push through the shrubs to better my view whilst keeping my distance, for I knew the fine senses of these moon-hating ritualists, and could not risk arousing them yet. The only quiet way lay along the wall itself, tunneling through foliated darkness either away from or toward the glade of masonry.
Drawing my light cloak about me into a knot at my waist I stood up on the wall and padded forward along it, wary of loose rocks. Ahead lay a rift in the woods which I stopped at, looking over a thicket of brambles to see the newly made grass path left by their burden. I continued, and ten yards on the wall grew brisk lichen and invisible fungoid fruits which burst imperceptibly as I trod on them in the dark. I froze, smelling the dusty funk of the spore gas diffusing into the cool night air. Trapped in darkness, no more than a dozen yards from the glade, I pinched my nose and prayed that theirs weren't as keen as their religion.
Their talking reached me again, and my cramped calves tightened in an orgastic spasm of fear, my neck throbbing painfully. The wind suddenly rose and armour clinked in motion. There would be no flight, and as their wobbling, liquid speech waxed, my hands went to my ornate adamant hammer wrapped in velvet and slung over my chest. Shivering I drew it and tensed, crouching ready to smash any bronze-plated killer before shay could sink hir claws into my face. A lone bead of cold sweat hung between my eyebrows, and I cursed it for rolling so slow. Then I realised what I'd taken for metal clinking wasn't closing, and sounded brittle. What I'd taken for wind wasn't blowing, and sounded kittle. Whatever was happening had nothing to do with me.
Risking three steps forward, my hammer caught the glint of the white moon, then lost it to an occluding cumulus cloud. Quietly I climbed through the rubble, foliage languidly tugging at my cloak, clustered fruits bursting in scores under my fingers and stockinged feet. Upon a megalith I crouched, gasping at the sight of the white obelisk pulling erect against the lunar sky, its masonic weight yielding to the taut straps, brightening as the cloud slid past. The hierarch stood upon a megalith not a leap and a half yonder from me, hissing as if aflame, but sitting upright and still save for its thrashing, ornamented tail.
Bronzers stood upright against the tower of white stone, straining their arched backs against it with their adhesive paws. The labourers mewled and cried and moaned at their hitches, harrowing the ground in their desperation to flee the inescapable spike of stone. Then the cumulus drifted full away, the queer light of the Blue Sin fell upon the glade, and the resulting tableaux froze itself into my memory forever as several events happened at once.
The damnable witch-dog hadn't told me the adamant hammer would whine and glow in the blue moonlight, chilling my hand with its eldritch resonance. The brittle clinking started up as the obelisk flushed black once more. Unified the cats wailed like the hasty damned. I had no choice: I had been seen.
There would be no flight, even from armoured cats, not in this tangled black woods without my boots. But there was no time to slay the hierarch, that grinning white obscenity with hir absurd pomp and hir penchant for my babe's screaming flesh. My hammer would not taste true vengeance here, for its ill-timed revelation rendered hir eggshell skull and bloodthirsty brains unreachable.
Only symbolic vengeance could I wreak now, so I leapt from the megalith and surged down the rugged slope, crying out in wavering harmony with my frosted hammer. Bruising my shins I ploughed through the cats to the vertical obelisk and swung adamant rage home over and over, ringing as if off iron, pelting out chunks of black stone, shattering through the frozen ropes still hitched to the labourer cats. Within seconds they would be on me, slicing my robes and skin to tatters, but still I hammered, my hands numb, my face stung by flying obsidian, my head filled with blood and my nostrils with the smell of acrid hoarfrost. At the last I drove the hammerhead around and in a mighty blow felt at once my arms and the stone crack. Stumbling back I tripped and fell in a wash of clattering supine violence upon the cats, the hammer casually knocking off heads and snapping through frozen paws. But no sane death came then, only tinkling in blue silence.
The entire field of cats had been frozen solid by the lunar witchery, the straps' and ropes' middles shattering like brittle webs and raining down among the knife-edged grass, leaving stubs extending from their respective anchors. Paralysed cats stood with their mouths yawning in mute hisses, teeth like tiny icicles, fur glossy blue, armour and harnesses decorated in silvery brocade, plumes glittering. The obelisk stood like a broken tooth, an angular needle accusing the moon with vile ceremonies.
Blue Sin then fell behind a raft of clouds, and the scene dimmed, but the obelisk did not turn white. I began shivering, the hammer peeling from my frozen hands as I shoved myself backward with insensate heels, pushing through frangible cat-statues as my heart thud-flooded fear and warning through me. The black obelisk began sinking into the ground as though into soft mud, and I heard a howling from across the glade. When I finally managed to stand, the obelisk had almost disappeared, pulling the tumbling bodies down with it into a rapidly developing sinkhole. Standing on a megalith across from me was the witch-dog, howling in unison with the hierarch on its own stone. In a grim flash their plan came to me.
They had needed me from the beginning to fulfill their rite. Only a long-pig could wield such a hammer and smite the obelisk. But only a vengeful long-pig would parley with hir witch-dog lover to gain it and learn of the rite. One vengeful from the death of hir infant daughter, eaten by cats in hir crib. And yet this witch had seduced me, sired that very child! So this was the way of it: the hierarch feline sorcerer sacrificing scores of hir own kind on whatever dark altar shay worshipped with hir canine servant, in this elder glade of crumbling geometric masonry. And tricking me into thinking I'd ruin their spell, when I'd instead completed it! No doubt they howled laughter.
Rage oozed through me, flaring through my fractured forearms and enervating my thews. I screamed blue murder at them, and clawed my way toward them over broken, sinking cats and flowing cobbles, and they stopped their mirth to look at me coolly.
A terrible howling arose then, gusting from within the earth, and the entire ground lurched. Fumbling onward I came up against the hierarch's megalith, which ploughed smoothly down toward me in the fluid earth. Atop this wall of stone the hierarch leapt away, fleeing with the witch-dog to abandon me to my fate. Forced downward I strove to get around the stone block, glancing over my shoulder at the maw in the earth, from which a sight emerged it troubles me to remember, if indeed I recall truth and not phantoms.
Black claw-tipped cat-paws angled up out of the hole, but each was attached to no cat I could see, only to more leg, endlessly long, spindly legs angling out of the hole like nightmare rigid tentacles, or like an impossibly thin, hundred-fingered hand, each finger tipped with pads and
claws. This monstrosity kept unfolding, as if it possessed no body, only long paws, spreading outward and swinging over toward me. In an ecstacy of horror I ran, screaming and clawing, my broken bones convincing me I was alive and would soon feel those shivering paws poking me and hooking me and enfolding me and clawing me down into the awful lair of whatever elder horror those profane cats had summoned from its geologic prison.
Up the tumbling masonry steps my legs pumped me, the hideous howling penetrating me through my thighs and groin, wending through my spine to unfurl its galvanic dread inside my breast and behind my eyes. Behind me it must have been twenty feet, thirty feet, a hundred feet high, looming over me, slivering itself out endlessly, unfolding its evil designs, yet I dared not look back, only running, hurling myself over the slope-crest and into the dismal woods. By some chance I cracked my knee on the fieldstone wall and fell up onto it, fleeing down it back toward sanity. On the far away road I collapsed, to be found that morning by cotters on their way to Ulthar.
The people of Ulthar tended me and fed me oranges and tea from the last caravan of the year that had departed at dawn, and hushed me when I babbled of the things I had seen, and told me not to interfere in the affairs of cats, for they are fey. Afraid to venture back into the great woods, I made my home in Ulthar, and worked as a celibate scribe, surrounded by the multitude of cats no man may kill, dreaming of treacherous tongues, and watching for a cream-coloured cat with an imperious tail, or for armoured cats marching, or for word of impossibly long black paws that angle through the elder woods in search of the one who freed them in the name of vengeance.
Created: May 3, 2003; Updated: August 9, 2004