James Ambuehl and E.P. Berglund
Once again it is the Christmas season. The snow is falling lazily from the gray sky; people are rushing to and fro in their efforts to do their last minute shopping before Christmas Eve; the ringing voices of Christmas carolers can be heard on the evening breeze, men, women and children singing gaily, lulling you into a sense of tranquillity, giving the impression that all is peaceful and joyful and well in the world. But then memory intrudes upon the magic of the season and this sense of well-being melts away, as the blanketing snow soon shall. It is a time such as this that everyone should be jolly indeed, yet I have trouble conforming with the rest of the hustling hordes of laughing, singing humanity. For it is at times such as these that I can't help but recall the letter I received from Davis Rault a scant two years ago. The letter arrived in response to a query of mine, for at the time I had just been appointed to my position as head Curator of Manuscripts at Royceton University here in Braving, Minnesota, and knowing of Rault more by whispers and rumors than any concrete reputation, I took a chance and wrote to him concerning my proposals for the Royceton projects I would be heading. To my surprise and extreme gratitude, he wrote back warmly and appreciatively and offered to help out in any way he could. For I had felt sure he had experiences that would fit quite nicely indeed into such a repository as ours.
I need hardly inform the reader of just what kind of manuscripts Royceton was compiling, for if we were to take any part whatsoever in the war with our ancient enemy, the Great Old Ones themselves, those inconceivably vast, omnipotent and nigh-immortal devil-gods that ruled the universe before the advent of man -- we would have to be educated: we had to familiarize ourselves with every reported incidence known to man of Their involvement. To this end Royceton had of necessity become a bastion of scientific and even magical study, much as Miskatonic University in Arkham had been almost a century earlier, and indeed our repository of the ancient texts nearly rivals their own. The war would be long and hard, but we were making several advances, of which I hesitate to speak of here. The time is not yet right, but neither are the stars, and for that I am grateful. As I said earlier, I had written to Rault asking him about his own weird occurrences of which he had knowledge or particular involvement. It took quite a while for my letter to reach him apparently, for in the course of his outre studies Rault was constantly on the move, but find him at last I did, and a slim journal detailing his adventures arrived from O'Khymer, Oregon, as did the following letter:
George C. Christendahl
Curator of Manuscripts
Dear Mr. Christendahl (George, if I may be so bold?),
In reply to your recent letter, I heartily applaud the planned efforts of Royceton University, and would be glad to offer my services to you in whatever capacity I may, upon my eventual return to Braving. I must say, however, that you don't exactly have your work cut our for you, for Their reach is long indeed, and Their evil has spread like the noxious cancer it so resembles. I, too, find myself occasionally residing in Braving -- though my adventures take me everywhere else in the world quite frequently (as I said, Their reach is long indeed!) -- and know it to be a strange locale indeed! Even so, I have read several of your (hopefully edited) accounts under your auspices concerning Braving and the surrounding area, and I must admit that I have very mixed feelings. I have thrilled to these adventures, as I would guess have many of your readers, and yet I shudder at their implications! any rate, I thank you for considering my not too modest experiences in your manuscript-collecting efforts, which have appeared thankfully very sparingly in the press at large (it would not do to have Their influence documented too thoroughly . . . you never know who might be following such reports, and, as the sages say, personal bravery is best tempered by being discreet!) I've enclosed a journalistic account of some of my more bizarre adventures, which you may delve into at your own leisure -- and please feel free to publish excerpts from them as you see fit. Rest assured, I have of a necessity censored them slightly. I would like to think you'd understand why -- and I'm penning herein a separate account which I think you'll enjoy (or perhaps not, considering the frightening nature of these revelations!).
It happened many, many years ago, when I was pursuing my studies in Arkham, Massachusetts at the Miskatonic University (officially as a major in Anthropology, but you can guess what I was actually studying -- with the aid of dear old Armitage, of course, and a few others!). My residence was located next door to the site on which stood the infamous "Witch-House" of Keziah Mason, whose name I'm sure you're all too familiar with. But perhaps you are not aware that the Witch-House was torn down after the unfortunate circumstances surrounding it in 1931, and a new house was built upon its foundations. I suppose you're wondering what kind of person would reside in such a house, built upon such a locale -- but let me assure you, my then next-door neighbor Smith is not your average man!
I would not say that we were friends, but rather we were friendly acquaintances, as both of us were involved in our separate studies of occult subjects. Occasionally he would drop in on me to borrow some book or folio I had acquired in my own outré travels, and would peruse them avidly and excitedly. Yet I had the strange feeling that no matter how fabulously rare the book, how few copies were known to exist and how ancient and crumbling its wonder-portending pages -- he already knew what shuddersome secrets lay nestled within the worm-eaten covers, and was merely checking facts as one would check an appliance manual! During these infrequent yet awe-inspiring visits, he would mention in passing some tidbit of information from a recent case he had been involved in and, being caught up in his hints and implications, I would have no choice but to drag the full story out of him. Usually over more than one glass of brandy, although Smith himself, that powerful viceless man, drank very little indeed. Do you get the idea that I was impressed with the man? Yes, I was, and you would most assuredly be too if you had had occasion to hear even one of his adventures related to you in that somber, deep bass profundo. Smith is a man you should definitely seek out for accounts to add to the Royceton collection -- if he's even on Earth anymore. . . .
But I digress. The occurrence of which I am writing did not involve Smith -- although I feel my experience was easily as strange as any of his . . . well, some of his at any rate. And he's had so many! Why, a normal man would have to practically be immortal to live through all of the experiences he has! But as I have said, Smith is not your average man!
Ezekiah Scranton was my next door neighbor until recently. He was a gloomy sort of person and, as the Christmas season approached, it became very evident that he hated Christmas and everything about it. And . . . it was hinted in certain esoteric circles that Scranton was a black warlock of the first water. (On reflection, it seems rather remarkable that no less than three magicians were living in such proximity, but I would guess it had something to do with the confluence of power gained us by the locale of the former Witch-House!)
Normally, when not off adventuring in some near-forgotten corner of the world, I keep myself busy with scholarly tasks, such as translating this or that cryptic tome or trying out some of the more obscure, but not dangerous (no, not those mindblasting ceremonies of the Great Old Ones -- well, not too often . . . sometimes my curiosity does get the best of me. . . .) rituals that I have run across in my studies to test them for their efficacy and authenticity. But when a holiday rolls around, especially Christmas, I am a completely different person altogether. Admittedly, I become much lighter in mood, even carefree -- a regular "party animal," you might say!
This particular Christmas Eve it was decided that my house was to be the site for a holiday party. Numerous scholars from various disciplines put their cares aside and attended the party: Armitage, Wilmarth, that intrepid reporter Hasrad . . . well, you know the names by rote, I'm sure. It was an annual gathering that rotated each year from house to house, and it was a wonderful means of keeping up with each other on the latest discoveries in our related disciplines. My neighbor, Smith, with his vast stories of erudite lore would have been most welcome indeed, but alas, he was unable to attend, doubtless on one of his frequent adventurous travels.
The party had been going on for a few hours when the telephone rang. I had realized that there was not enough fruit punch in the punch bowl (it was a delightful mixture of my own invention which I called "Space Mead," after the presumably late Laban Shrewsbury, whose footsteps more than a few of the attendees, myself included, followed in) and was reluctantly adding more to the mixture. All the invitees were present. I could not imagine who would be calling, for my telephone is used very infrequently indeed, myself preferring to communicate by correspondence, in person, or even by "Byakhee" (via the read "Space Mead" potion) as the case may be, for the ringing of the telephone severely taxes my nerves and sets my head spinning with its insufferable jangling . . . for you see, George, I have a "tin ear," one of my countless "battle scars" afforded me in my skirmishes with those Great Old Ones, this particular unwholesome entity being that Demon of Dissonance, the Master of Twisted Sound known as Xa'ligha! But you can read of this in my journals, and at any rate I'm digressing again.
I went into the kitchen where the telephone is located, curious who could be calling, especially on Christmas Eve. I threw the fruit cans in the trash, wiped my hands on a dishtowel and took the phone from its cradle and put it to my ear.
"Yes?" I inquired, a trifle impatiently.
"Rault? This is Scranton!" the voice grated in my good ear. "Turn that blasted noise down at once!" he demanded. He was referring, of course, to the Christmas music playing on my stereo system.
"It's a Christmas party, Scranton," I began. I was feeling particularly generous that evening. "Why not come over here and join us in . . ."
He harrumphed loudly. "Turn that noise down -- or else!" he growled and slammed down the telephone. I jerked the receiver from my ear and gingerly hung it back in its cradle. Having second thoughts about Scranton continuing to call and interrupting the gaiety of the party, I took the receiver off the hook. I'd be damned if I was going to let him ruin my Christmas party! I went back into the festivities just in time to catch the end of young Riley's narration concerning his adventures in blasted, yet still shadow-haunted Innsmouth.
About an hour later, we had just finished a particularly harrowing discussion concerning the carven megaliths of Mystery Hill and their supposed relationship to the mysterious "Devil's Hop Hard" in nearby Dunwich -- the Christmas songs playing on the stereo all the while, to help lighten the mood somewhat -- when I heard a scream ring forth from the environs of the kitchen. I rushed into the kitchen to find my butler Judson standing at the open kitchen door, his face as white as the snow-carpeted ground outside. He was in a state of shock, and as I called the hospital emergency room he mumbled something about how the courier had taken to the air, unfurling leathery batwings and flapped away. I noticed that Judson clutched a small ivory-colored envelope in his hands. I muttered my address into the telephone, hung it up and eased the envelope from his stiff, cramped fingers. Gingerly I placed it upon the kitchen countertop.
After the ambulance left, the party began to break up, in spite of the early hour. But it was understandable, for how could we carry on laughing and joking when poor Judson was waylaid so? I saw the last of them to my door, then returned reluctantly to the kitchen and what awaited me there. I tore the envelope open and read the enclosed note.
You are a fool not to heed my warnings. You thought you could get rid of me that easily, by leaving the telephone off the hook, eh? I challenge you, Rault! Come out to the vacant lot behind the Witch-House in an hour's time -- and prepare to meet The Whiteness!
Yr. Master in the Arts,
There was a card enclosed with the note. Before I could look too closely at it my maid entered the kitchen just then, saw the card, and smiled up at me.
"Oh, you got a Christmas card. Very good. I take it for you and . . ." Her voice trailed off as she took the card from my hand. I assumed that she would take it into the den and put it with the rest of the cards on the mantle. I wanted to stop her, to prevent her from putting such an evil -- yes, that was it, it carried with it a palpable feeling of evil -- thing like that with such Christmas sanctity, but I was numbed and speechless with the proximity of the thing. As she turned to leave the kitchen, she looked at the card. Her eyes widened and she immediately dropped it to the floor, as if it had burned her hand. Her face turned pale under her dark skin and she began trembling with fear.
I told her that she should go lie down for a while, to leave the card with me. She worried the bottom of her apron fretfully as she backed out of the kitchen, keeping her eyes on the card where it lay on the floor as if it were a serpent that might have bitten her. I surmised that she had seen what was on the card before, probably in her native homeland of Haiti. And again, I cannot stress this enough, George: Their tendrils stretch far!
I picked up the card from the floor where my maid had dropped it and forced myself to look at it. The card was jet black, but on it, printed in a sticky white substance, was an eldritch name: S'tya-Yg'Nalle. I felt the tendrils of fear creeping up my back as unbidden to my mind came thoughts of the Elder Lore -- the Elder Gods and the Great Old Ones engaged in a cosmic struggle of no little significance. Yes, the name was one I recognized: S'tya-Yg'Nalle was one of the most powerful servitors of the Great Old Ones themselves!
I read again Scranton's note and realized that he had the advantage this time. Although I had had occasion to spy in the ancient, forbidden texts the name of S'tya-Yg'Nalle, also known as The Whiteness and said to be an ally of Ithaqua the Wind-Walker, I knew practically nothing else about The Whiteness. But what I knew concerning Ithaqua, known variously by such epithets as the Death-Walker, the Snow-Thing, and even the Wendigo of popular legend and folklore, served to freeze my soul and chill me to the bone. How much less terrible could his avatar truly be?
There would be other Christmases, I told myself, but only if I resigned myself to the task of countering The Whiteness, whatever it entailed. Scranton's challenge could not go unanswered. I locked myself in my study and began working on finding any references I could to The Whiteness.
Fortunately, I have a well-stocked and well-indexed library, and in little over half an hour I found five references to S'tya-Yg'Nalle, The Whiteness. The first was in an obscure book with no title, loaned to me by Smith, which contained rituals such as "The Silencing of the Night," which was an esoteric ritual that involved obtaining boughs of the Xa'ligha tree, which grows only in an obscure dimension linked tangentially with the Lake of Hali (Yes, George, the Demon of Dissonance and the King in Yellow often act in concert with each other when perpetuating their foul evils!). Boughs from Hali indeed! But excuse me from digressing once again.
The reference to The Whiteness in the nameless book stated:
The Blackness which devours the fabric of one's very existence can be said to be a portion of Nyarlathotep. The Whiteness which devours the fabric of one's flesh from within can be said to be a portion of Ithaqua. And as The Blackness is said to move through the stream of time, The Whiteness fills the spaces. Just as The Blackness may be set upon a person to devour the soul, The Whiteness may be called upon to devour the body.
And, in an obscure reference in a Tibetan book of Chod Rites, I read:
Blackness and Whiteness are not to be considered opposites, just as Yin and Yang are not opposites. Do not seek to call Blackness against Whiteness, or vice versa, for they are aspects of time and space and are One. And that which manifests these Forms are to be considered as Brothers in concert with each other
And, in The Secret Teachings of The Hand, I read:
To call forth The Whiteness you must perform the Nyarlathotep ritual of Ob-ran, the Dark Herald of the Angled Howler, and interject the name of Ithaqua's Whiteness-Wielding ally, S'tya-Yg'Nalle, for Ob-ran's.
This in turn struck a chord of memory within me, and led me to reexamine the fantastic works of the late decadent poet, Ronald Dunsey. I found he had ended one of his enigmatic poems with these lines:
And last, but certainly not least, I found the following in Shrewsbury's translations of the inscriptions found on the enigmatic Celaeno Fragments:
To forestall the effects of The Whiteness, one must, while under its influence, shout out the Words of Power, whilst simultaneously dousing the rival caster with none other than the Tikkoun Elixir. This will then turn The Whiteness against its very summoner.
I knew the Words of Power meant the Vach-Viraj incantation found in Abdul Alhazred's abhorrent yet indispensable Necronomicon, and according to research done earlier at Miskatonic by Armitage and others, I knew the Tikkoun Elixir to simply be an older name for holy water. Such a common and useful object, even against decidedly non-Christian devils and demons, I had already retained several vials for the odd emergency. At that time I was down to a single vial, having recently gone up against an invasion through the angles of space and time, the foci smack dab in the middle of Miskatonic U. itself, by those dreaded Hounds of Tindalos! (See my enclosed journal, George, under the chapter entitled "Hounds of the Miskatonic.") I hoped that that sole vial would be enough. I delved into Alhazred's abhorred book and refreshed my memory of the Vach-Viraj incantation.
Armed at least with the most powerful of weapons: that of knowledge itself, I left my study. I donned heavy coat and woolen scarf in the foyer, and left the house for my appointment with Ezekiah Scranton.
The snowfall had let up, but there was still a chill wind coming out of the north. The walk to the site where the fated meeting was to take place seemed longer than the few steps it actually was. The sound of my shoes compressing the inch or so of snow beneath them echoed eerily in the darkness. There was just enough light from the first-quarter moon, which had risen about an hour ago, by which to see. As I neared the site I could see the weeds had overgrown the vacant lot where a previous home had once stood, the tops of the vegetation poking up through the thin crust of snow, and I speculated idly if perhaps the house's proximity to the site of the infamous Witch-House had been its downfall.
I approached the site from the property next door, on the opposite side of the lot where formerly stood the Witch-House from my own. I knew Scranton would be expecting me to come directly from my own yard, and I figured it prudent to attempt to gain the element of surprise. Coming in from the right was a weed-grown driveway. Standing upon the driveway, halfway in from the street, was a figure swathed in black robes with a cowl covering his head. Scranton stood out in bold relief against the pure white snow. He stood with his back to me. I bent down and scooped up two handfuls of snow and packed them together into a snowball, with the vial of Tikkoun Elixir in the middle. I approached calmly as possible, stopping about fifteen feet from him, then cleared my throat, my hands hidden behind my back.
He turned abruptly in a swirl of robes. Despite the thinness of his apparel, the cold didn't appear to be bothering him. I, on the other hand, surely felt the effects of the chill wind, my hand clutching the snowball growing numb. His surprise at my sudden appearance soon abated.
"Ah, Rault," he said with the air of the predatory wolf he so resembled in his gaunt, towering form. "I am glad you could come." He chuckled softly. "I feel I should tell you that I bear toward you no particular animosity — aside from that which we have cultivated in our personal choices of . . . shall we call them sponsors?, at any rate," he paused and sighed, "but truth to tell, dear man, you raucous din was interrupting my . . . shall we say, experiments." He began to rub his hands together avidly, he canine smile exposing pointed, or filed, teeth. "I did warn you, but you chose to ignore my threat." He chuckled again, and his face darkened perceptibly. "You are a fool," he spat angrily, "as is the presently absent inhabitant of this house." His arm flew out to the side to indicate the site of the Witch-House. "But now you shall learn, and then he shall learn in due time . . . and you shall both contemplate your folly together in hell!"
I stepped forward. "The powers of good must prevail," I said, sounding much more confident than I felt. "You can't win, Scranton."
"Can't I?" he grinned mirthlessly, lips drawn back like a rapid dog. "It is ironic that I shall destroy you, a white warlock, or scientist if you prefer, with the powers of The Whiteness. But you will surely learn that the powers of S'tya-Yg'Nalle are not good -- he is not one of your puerile 'Elder Gods.' The eldritch energies conveyed to me by this legended locale shall suffice well. Good-bye, Mr. Rault."
And with that, Scranton threw up his hands to the darkness and commenced uttering an incantation. It sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place it. But as he finished his incantation, its purpose became horribly apparent: it was a Stasis spell from the ancient Book of Eibon! I couldn't move a muscle!
Then his chanting changed. This one's uncouth utterances I had never heard before, and I felt sure that this must be the Summoning of The Whiteness; it rang forth in a mighty bass profundo, and was interspersed frequently with the name "Ithaqua." Such evil and malefic inference filled the sound of the chanting. Though I could not move, my skin virtually crawled at the sound of the incantation. Then, just as I thought I could stand no more, Scranton stopped and fell silent. I knew that I would soon learn the horrible meaning of The Whiteness.
While Scranton stood there fixing me with a satisfied smirk, misty vapors caressing his dark figure, white snowflakes began appearing upon me. One snowflake followed another, and then another, but they were not falling from the sky! They seemed to be coming out of my body, as if my form had become the embodiment of some sort of Gateway -- which, of course, it had! The Whiteness was coming, entering into our mundane continuum, through me!
The "snowflakes" were not cold, however, but rather warm to the touch. In fact, they were actually hot enough for me to feel them through my heavy coat. Too, I could see now that they were not true snowflakes in appearance, but actually tiny white crawling forms, scabrous and pincer-clawed, like tiny crabs or spiders -- and I gaped in horror as I saw that several of them bore in their tiny claws irregular bits of pinkish and reddish matter -- tatters from vital organs! At once I thought of that horror-portending line from that enigmatic, nameless book: "The Whiteness which devours the fabric of one's flesh from within . . ." As they ate, the pain became nigh-unbearable.
Through the pain-haze I started feeling a tingling sensation starting in my hands and spreading throughout my body. It was the spell-cancellation effect I had been hoping for, initated by the Tikkoun Elixir in the middle of the snowball! And my own proximity to the powerful negating properties of the Elixir was freeing me from the Stasis spell!
As soon as I could move again, I coughed out the words of the Vach-Viraj incantation. At the same time I threw the massive snowball, I had been holding behind my back, directly at Ezekiah Scranton. The snowball hit him squarely in the face, the vial shattering and soaking his face under the cowl and the portion of his chest beneath his chin. Almost at once, the "snowflakes" began to disappear from my body — only to reappear on Scranton's!
Scranton had been cackling madly before the Tikkoun Elixir had doused him. Now he stopped abruptly, and a look of unimaginable terror came over his features. He gurgled something unrecognizable as the first malignant flakes of The Whiteness began to emerge from him, the tiny white forms pouring out in loathsome waves. He began to scream with the pain as the things scrabbled forth to feed on their unwholesome "meat." With a great effort he tried to recall the words I'd said, but being a black magician he had never bothered to learn the Vach-Viraj incantation, a spell of protection against the evil of the Great Old Ones.
His defeat was assured as The Whiteness swiftly covered him from head to foot. He soon resembled an animated snowman, the kind one sees on the children's cartoons on Saturdays, dancing in agony as his very being was devoured. At last the "snowman" fell over on his side, flopped about a moment, and was still.
The Whiteness began to depart as suddenly as it appeared, seemingly melting into the black wizard's body, taking the evil essence of Ezekiah Scranton with it. What it left behind was not a pleasant sight -- a shrunken, lifeless shell, the skin torn and ragged, vaguely resembling a human being. The horror of the object there on the ground was softened slightly by the swirling tendrils of windblown snow, slowly covering it.
I shuddered one last time -- not altogether from the cold -- and began walking back to my house. On the way I passed a crowd of carolers, and I laughed mirthlessly aloud at the song they had chosen: "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas . . .," the voices rang.
Yrs. for Esoterica,
Created: December 26, 2006