Love Me, Love My Hellbeast

Professor Pickman scowled down at the Quad from the ivy-framed window on the third floor of Curwen Hall.  “I say, is that Anastasia Marsh with Arthur Orne?  That’s a strange pair!”

“Anastasia Marsh?” said Prof. Pabodie, looking up from the Gazette.  “I don’t believe I know her.”

“Striking woman,” Dr. Tillinghast said, following Pickman’s gaze.  “Rather regal.”

“Amazonian, I’d say!  She was in my Ancient 801 course, and I’ll tell you, it’s the first time in years I felt uneasy standing up in front of a class.  Those enormous, piercing eyes!”  Pickman shuddered.

“I had her in my Semitic Languages class,” said Alisha Billington as she evaluated the color of her tea, judging it to be dark enough and taking out the bag.  She squeezed the remaining liquid out of it and discarded the limp bag, dabbing her fingers on a paper napkin.  “Extremely bright young woman.  But I know what you mean.  Terribly superior attitude.”

“There you go,” Pickman concluded, “birds of a feather.  I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a more stubborn, arrogant, and egotistical piece of work than that Orne fellow.”

“You haven’t been teaching long enough,” Dr. Armitage said, holding court from his customary place in the large chair by the tidy and purely ornamental fireplace.  “I’ve seen his type before.  They think they can get away with anything because they’re gifted.”

Dr. Martense, who was short and rather apish-looking, commented, “Orne was dropped from the Evolutionary Biology program.  He was pursuing the most bizarre theories, studying L’Amourfaire, refusing to do the required reading—“

“Who the devil is L’Amourfaire?” Tillinghast exclaimed, turning around.

“Worst excuse for science since Creationism,” Martense replied.  “Dr. Herbert P. L’Amourfaire asserted that certain myths and the worship of particular deities sprang out of actual fragments of racial memory.  Supposedly, archaic peoples had concrete–if unsophisticated–knowledge of intelligent forces which guided the evolution of humankind.”

“Shades of Velikovsky,” Tillinghast murmured, turning back to the window to observe the two students below.

“I recall that L’Amourfaire advocated an exhaustive translation of the Pnakotic Manuscripts on the assumption that they were the oldest known writings,” said Prof. Billington, perching on the arm of a chair, her thin fingers wrapped around her tea cup.

“That’s the man,” Martense affirmed.  “I believe it was our own Ashton Clark who demonstrated that the Manuscripts were actually contemporary with the Medieval scholar who claimed to have discovered and collected them.”

“I heard that it was never settled whether or not they were a hoax,” Dr. Armitage said with a provocative twinkle in his eye.

“I assume Arthur Orne doesn’t consider them to be a hoax,” Pickman said.

“Much to the dismay and disgust of the department,” Martense agreed.

“What on earth got him started on all that nonsense?” Pabodie asked irritably from behind his paper.  Then he put it down with a rustle.  “No, don’t tell me.  That dratted Necronomicon, right?  It seems like every few years or so somebody reads that book and goes off the deep end!  Something ought to be done!”

“Special Collections keeps it under lock and key,” Dr. Armitage said, “they make a note of everyone who looks at it, they refuse to let it out of their sight, and they won’t allow even the smallest part of it be reproduced.  What more can they do?”

“Wait a minute—“ Prof. Billington held up a finger.  “Now that you mention it, Anastasia Marsh was doing an independent study, translating some obscure old text.”

“I wonder if it could be the Pnakotic Manuscripts,” Martense mused.  “That would explain why those two have their heads together like that.”

“A disturbing couple,” Pickman murmured.

“Couple of fools!” Pabodie snorted, and turned the page of his Gazette.

#

Arthur Orne and Anastasia Marsh did not consider themselves to be a couple; they barely considered themselves to be on speaking terms.

By some genetic quirk, Anastasia Marsh did not fall victim to the same inbred repellent appearance of the rest of her kin.  Somehow the shape and proportion of her other features balanced out to give her a kind of decadent sensuality, exotic, alien, a defiant challenge to the classic Western ideal of Grecian beauty.  She towered over Arthur Orne who, in sharp contrast, was fine-boned and pale-skinned, with a small nose and thin lips.  He had short, dark hair and intensely bright, ferret eyes which glared out through his glasses in minute scrutiny of whatever caught his interest.  That interest was focused now on a notebook held in Anastasia’s hands.

“So this is it?” Arthur asked eagerly, taking the notebook from her and opening it immediately.

“I finished it late last night,” she said.  “I spent most of the day checking my work while I waited for you to get out of class.”

“A damned waste of time,” he grumbled.  “I’d simply drop out except for the pleasure it would give to that simian Martense.”

“You should have kept your mouth shut and just gone through the semester parroting back whatever they wanted to hear.  Confronting Martense accomplished nothing.”

“I’ll thank you to mind your own business, Miss Marsh!” he snapped, “I don’t need them.  My work will show them all to be the intellectual dwarves that they are.”

“Our work,” she corrected him frostily.  “I shall pursue you into your grave if you try to claim full credit for this.”

“It’s my theory.”

“It’s L’Amourfaire’s theory–”

“My theory developed from L’Amourfaire’s inconclusive work!”

Anastasia snatched her notebook out of his hands.  “Then identify and describe the forces behind the mechanisms of evolutionary change without my research.  See how far you get.”

“All right, all right!  Our theory!”

Anastasia smiled primly.  “You were correct about the last formula,” she said, graciously permitting him to examine her notebook.  “Prinn quoted it verbatim.  I was able to translate all of the last fragment using it as a key.”

“Excellent!  Now, where does that bring us?  Was my intuition concerning the Elder Gods correct?”  He thumbed through the notebook, pausing to scan a page at random.

“Not entirely,” Anastasia said, “But very close.  You were correct in assuming that the Elder Gods, and not the Great Old Ones, are the forces behind major evolutionary changes.”

“Hah!  So L’Amourfaire was right and Von Junzt was wrong!” Arthur said triumphantly.  “I knew it!”

“No doubt Von Junzt was deceived by the Old Ones themselves.  His untimely demise would indicate that he did more than just study the formulae in the Manuscripts.”

“No doubt, no doubt,” Arthur murmured, reading with growing absorption the notes she had made on a particular passage.  He looked up with a frown.  “Are you certain about this, Miss Marsh?”

“Are you questioning my work?” she bristled.

“And why not, if I sense inaccuracy,” he retorted.  “I think you’re making an unwarranted assumption here.  On what do you base the assertion that this passage refers to the Elder Gods and not the Old Ones?  The pronoun is unclear–”

“I base it on my knowledge of the material, Mr. Orne,” she interrupted in an arctic tone.  “You may rest assured that I am correct.”

“I take nothing for granted, Miss Marsh,” he said.  “Kindly explain to me why you chose this particular interpretation.”

She assumed an expression of supercilious smugness.  “I happen to know it is the correct interpretation.  The same thing is mentioned in greater depth in the Book of Eibon.”

Arthur regarded her with impatient disbelief.  “Nonsense,” he said.  “The last known authentic copy of the Book of Eibon was lost centuries ago.”  He sneered at her, “Don’t tell me a copy showed up in your grandfather’s attic!”

“It wasn’t lost, Mr. Orne.  It was stolen and smuggled to America in order to keep it safe.”

He peered through his glasses at her suspiciously.  “Are you claiming you’ve seen a copy?”

“My dear Mr. Orne,” she replied, “I own one.”

“You’ll forgive me if I find that just a bit difficult to swallow.”

“Come with me,” she challenged him, “and I’ll show you.”

“Gladly!  This I’ve got to see!”  He followed her, ready to debunk her claim but curious all the same.  A setting sun bled into the horizon, casting rusty orange over trees and buildings.  They walked in silence across the campus, Arthur hurrying to keep up with Anastasia’s brisk strides, until they reached the edge of Arkham’s downtown.  Anastasia rented an overpriced little closet of an efficiency over a store which catered to students.  As they climbed the stairs they heard the raucous thumping of rap music coming from the apartment of another student.  Arthur and Anastasia exchanged expressions of shared disdain.

Anastasia unlocked the door.  Her room was small and cheaply furnished, but adequate for her few belongings.  Books and notebooks were stacked up by the score.  The entire room was draped with heavy black curtains, tacked up carefully and securely, floor to ceiling.  Strange irregular figures were painted on them.  He stared at the figures, recognizing them.  “I thought you’d never read the Necronomicon,” he said.

“I haven’t,” she replied.  “My Latin is rather poor.”

“But these designs on the walls,” he argued, gesturing to them.

“I’ve been familiar with them since childhood,” she explained.  “Their design and use have been known to my people for generations.”

“Their use–?” he echoed incredulously.  Then rage boiled up in him.  “Miss Marsh, I get the distinct impression that you know a great deal more about these matters than you have let on!  We agreed to share all relevant knowledge.  What have you been holding back?”  In his anger he grabbed her arm.  She drew herself up imperiously.

“You will let go of me.”

His eyes narrowed and his thin lips tightened, but he obeyed.  She graced him with an arctic smile.  “Thank you, Mr. Orne.  Now, if you will just be patient for a moment.”

Anastasia went to the chipped and battered table which served her for a desk and withdrew from a stack of papers a small book bound in cloth and very much worn with age.  “This, Mr. Orne, is the Book of Eibon.  Be very certain that you understand the responsibility and privilege that I am about to bestow on you.  This document is of inestimable value, not just for its age and rarity but for the information it contains. ”

“Incredible!” he breathed, examining it with reverence, his eyes huge behind his glasses.  He could find nothing to cast its authenticity into doubt.  “My god, this must be centuries old!”

“Two centuries and a half,” she affirmed.  “Copied faithfully from faithful copies of the original text.”

“Miss Marsh, where did you come across this?”

“It’s a family heirloom.  We have been its keepers for as long as memory serves.  We are the last family to still maintain the tradition.  All other authentic copies have passed into oblivion.  May I assume that you fully understand the significance of what you are holding in your hands?”

It was quite obvious that he did.  “May I take this and examine it?”

“You’d find it quite unreadable,” she said, deftly removing it from his hands, “unless you’d been trained how, as I have.”  She took a thick notebook from her desk.  “Here, Mr. Orne.  A privilege very nearly as great.  My complete translation and analysis of the Book of Eibon.  Take it and read it.  Thoroughly.”

His awe began to melt again into irritation.  “Why did you wait until now to show me this?”

She smiled like a lascivious sphinx.  “I have my reasons, Mr. Orne.  I wasn’t about to reveal all my secrets to you until I knew more about you.  You see, I wouldn’t have considered showing that notebook to anyone outside of Innsmouth, until I met you.  I can tell that you will appreciate it.  And guard it carefully.”

His thin lips formed the small “v” that served him as a smile.  “Of course, Miss Marsh.  I shall not betray your confidence in me.”

“You’d best not.  You’d regret it bitterly.”

The way she was looking at him was distinctly disturbing.  He detected a subtle change in her attitude, and he wasn’t sure he liked it.  She seemed predatory, but with a certain caution, like a leopard considering whether or not to pounce.  It was with relief and intense anticipation that he said goodnight to her and hurried out into the deepening night towards his own quarters, the notebook clutched tightly under his arm.

#

That night he read until his eyes blurred and his mind was numb.  It was the fearful significance of the thing.  Anastasia Marsh had far more than a merely academic interest in the forces they were studying.  Her notes made it clear; she took the prophetic instructions in the Book and the Manuscripts very personally.  She was carefully mapping out all the requirements and how her own life and times might match them.  Her notes also indicated that she was looking for an accomplice.  He thought at first that she had her eye on him, but as he read on he realized that he didn’t fit the requirements; she needed someone of her own kin, related by blood, the closer the better.  Why, then, had she shown him this notebook?  What did that sinister woman want from him?  How seriously should he take her very literal interpretation of the ancient texts?

He fell across his narrow bed fully clothed, his brain feverish, and he slept thinly through vivid nightmares.

At first the Morpheic spectacle was familiar; half-formed icons of repression gave way to the image of a closet door rushing at him.  “Horrid child!” came that voice, “Morbid, unnatural little brat!  Just like your father, just like all your father’s cursed people!”  His aunt, that damnable bearlike woman, slammed the closet door shut leaving him in darkness.  Living, breathing darkness full of whispers.  The walls were thin, and on the other side of them was Cousin Chrissie, who hated him.  Cousin Chrissie who was beautiful and popular and just sixteen.  She had boyfriends.  She was supposed to be studying with one of them, but there were giggles and moans.  Thin walls, and the bright crack which irresistibly drew his eyes, revealed bestial secrets.  Chrissie the whore.  Chrissie the bewitching, disgusting slut.  He turned away from the crack, sickened.

Then the nightmare changed into something new, something unfamiliar.  The darkness breathed and gibbered.  The illuminated crack beckoned.  He resisted; “Never!”  It widened, and he was surrounded by voices, some wailing in horror, some shrieking in triumph, some chanting.  They chanted the Words of the Great Old Ones, Words twisted and garbled with time, lost to all except the very few.  In the dream he knew the Words and understood them easily.  They called into his soul and summoned up forces he fought to repress.  They pushed him to the crack and through it, into a strange and alien void of light.  Out of the effulgence came a figure, shapeless, shrouded in yellow silk, walking slowly towards him playing a flute.  The flute he knew was made of bone.  The tune wasn’t a tune; it was indescribable, beautiful and utterly alien.  The din of dark voices around him fell silent.  The figure looked up.  The hood slipped back.  It was Anastasia Marsh.  She smiled at him and raised her arms.  The yellow silk robes slid off of her like water and she stood before him naked.  She whispered his name.  The darkness rushed him towards her, shrieking–

Arthur sat up in bed in a cold sweat, dazed and shaken.  Immediately he went downstairs to the kitchen and made himself a cup of fiercely strong coffee.  Steeling himself against the taste, he drank it down.  He intended to have no further nightmares.  Then back he went to his room to wait out the night.  Inevitably, he picked up Anastasia’s notebook again to read and reread, helplessly fascinated.

For a while, the only sounds were crickets outside the open window and the omnipresent low hum of the electric clock.  Then he began to notice the frogs.  Their voices were rising into a veritable cacophony of croaking and piping.  He looked up from the notebook.  The batrachian chorus almost had the sound of guttural voices and reminded him uncomfortably of his nightmare.

Then he noticed the smell.  Foul and fishy, like rotting wharves.  He heard a sound behind him at the window, a sickening plop, like a large bag of jelly hitting the floor.  He spun around and stared in horror at the bulge-eyed obscenity that squatted by the window.  It was grey-green and slimy; the bony toes were tipped with suction cups that pressed themselves against the floor with a revolting sucking sound.  Arthur stared at it in astonishment.  Its wide, sloppy mouth cracked open.  “Book,” it croaked in a gurgling mockery of speech, “Give me Book!  Not for you!  Belong to us!  Give back!”

The smell of it was nauseating.  Clutching the notebook with one hand, he covered his nose with the other.  “It belongs to Anastasia Marsh.  You can’t have it.”

“She traitor!  She betray tribe of Cthulhu!  Give you Book!  Book not for you!  Give back!”  It leaped at him, frog-like, its slimy mouth open.  Arthur ducked past it and bolted for the door.  Half-way down the stairs it hit him from behind and knocked him off his feet.  Still gripping the notebook for dear life he rolled onto the carpet, hitting shoulder first, his glasses flying off.  He scrambled to his feet, stunned and staggering.

“Give Book!” he heard its hateful voice gurgling.  He tried to get his balance and find the door but it knocked him onto his back and pinned him to the floor with its gelatinous bulk.  It gargled a hideous roar and opened its mouth as if to swallow him whole.  Its breath nearly choked him.

Suddenly the front door slammed open and the house was filled with drunken singing.  Arthur’s house mates were returning home from their late night fraternity bash.  Startled by the interruption, the batrachian monstrosity hissed in impotent fury and fled, leaping past the drunken revelers who stared at it in bleary astonishment.  “Jeezus, what was that?”

“Looked like a dog.”

“Weirdest frikkin’ dog I ever saw.  Hey, Arthur, you got a dog in here?”

“Frikkin’ A, what’s that smell?”

“God, Arthur, what have you been doin’, man?  Torturing fish?”

Laughing uproariously, they staggered off to bed.  Arthur groped for his glasses and was vaguely relieved to find them intact.  He sat in the living room on the threadbare couch, unable to say a word, unable to move, clutching the notebook against his chest.  His heart was pounding.  He was just beginning to notice sharp pains erupting throughout the left side of his body where he’d hit the floor.  It had been real.  He hadn’t dreamed it.  The others had seen it, and smelled it, even if they had been too stupid with alcohol to realize what it was.  It had come for him because of Anastasia’s notebook.

His mind raced back over all the arcane lore he had been studying.  How much else was literal reality, not merely analogical truth and allegory as he had always assumed?  If that creature existed, if Anastasia’s notes were to be taken literally, if such things could actually happen, what a shocking, mind-numbing blow to the reality all normal people accepted!  But it also meant that he had discovered proof for his theories; he was right, more right than he could ever have suspected.  The unknown forces existed, and they were horrifying.  As a scholar and a scientist he couldn’t merely close his eyes with a shudder, hoping that if he dismissed it as hallucination it would go away, returning him to the safety of a sane, sunlit world.  No, he had to accept it and deal with it.  The slimy assassin was very, very real.

And it might come back.

That thought, and a board creaking on the porch outside, roused him out of shocked immobility.  Holding his breath, he listened.  Someone or something was creeping up to the front door.  Arthur tensed.  A weapon.  He needed a weapon.  As quickly and quietly as he could, he went into the kitchen.  The front door clicked open and creaked ajar.  He grabbed a carving knife lying on the breadboard.  The hell-beast wouldn’t catch him off-guard again!  The notebook tucked securely under his arm, he crept towards the kitchen door, ready to discover what sort of putrid ichor the monster had for blood.

What he discovered, to his surprise and almost disappointment, was Anastasia standing in the living room.  She was dressed entirely in black except for a silver chain around her neck.  A curious silver pendent hung from the chain and lay against her ample chest.  It was a maze of curved lines which seemed to form an elaborate and intricate eye.  “Well, Mr. Orne,” she said dryly, observing the knife, “This is an unexpected greeting.”

He tossed the knife aside with irritation.  “Yours is an unexpected visit,” he said.  “What are you doing here?”

She arched an eyebrow at his lack of appreciation.  “To be quite candid, I was concerned for your safety.  From the look,” she wrinkled her nose, “and smell of things, it seems my concern was not in vain.”

“I did have an uninvited guest,” Arthur said.  “It was rude, thoroughly unpleasant, and spoke wretched English.  And it seemed extremely annoyed that you had lent me your notebook.”

“I see,” she murmured, searching the floor for signs of the creature and seeing smears of slime.  She knelt, touching the tip of one finger to the ooze.  “Ith’lyrghi,” she murmured.  “They wasted no time, then.  He didn’t get my notebook, did he?”

“Of course not,” Arthur said, pulling it out and giving it to her.  “I realize the value of the thing.  That monstrosity’s fixation on it only underscored my determination not to surrender it.”  It pleased him to note that Anastasia seemed impressed.  She tossed him a back-handed compliment.

“How extraordinarily brave of you, Mr. Orne, considering your ignorance of such matters!  But tell me, how did you manage to escape it?  Certainly not with that toothpick.”  She gestured towards the knife on the floor.

“The drunken dolts with whom I share this hovel arrived home from their debauch at a quite propitious moment.”

“How fortunate for you.  It would have been a most unpleasant death.”  She went to the door, looking out into the night, listening to its sounds.

“Miss Marsh,” he demanded, “What was that thing?”

“One of my kinsmen,” she replied.  “Now, I suggest that you gather your possessions as quickly as possible.  I must get you away from here with all due haste.”

“Now, wait just one minute, Miss Marsh!  I demand to know exactly what is going on before I budge from this spot!”

“I will explain it to you in the car,” she said.  “Now, for your own safety’s sake, will you please hurry.  Or would you care to tangle with Ith’lyrghi again?  No doubt he will be back soon with a host of reinforcements.”

“All right, all right,” he agreed grudgingly, “but at least tell me where you intend to take me, because if the answer is Innsmouth I’m not sure I’d care to go.”

“Oh, no, Mr. Orne, not Innsmouth.  Innsmouth is no longer safe for either one of us.”

“Where, then?”

“To the only place of relative safety left to us,” she replied.  “We are going to Dunwich.”

#

He packed hastily and had no silly pseudo-chauvinistic qualms about letting Anastasia help him carry his belongings to the car.  He did not bother to leave a note explaining his sudden departure.  Let them wonder.  Besides, he had no idea when–if ever–he would be returning, and she refused to give him a clue.  It was a damned inconvenience but he stubbornly held his tongue, sitting beside her in the car until they were out of Arkham and well along the old Aylesbury Pike.  Then he hit her with a single, icy, imperial, “Well?”

“Yes, Mr. Orne,” she said briskly, “What would you like to know?”

“First of all, why me?  Why did you seek me out for this fiendish little game of yours?”

“I didn’t,” she corrected him.  “If you’ll recall, it was you who sought me out because I had certain knowledge which you desired.  Am I not correct?  And was I not quite cooperative in giving you what you wanted?  Eh?”

“So what now, payment for what you’ve given me?” he snapped, his irritation aggravated by her accuracy.  “What do you want, my soul?”

She laughed.  It was a chilly, unfriendly sound.  “Hardly!  It would be of little use to me.  In fact, I desire nothing of you that you are not willing–indeed, I must insist, eager–to give.”

“What do you want, Miss Marsh?”

Her eyes glittered in the greenish light of the dashboard.  His irritation was melting into apprehensive unease.  He did not trust this woman–this creature.  She said, “Why, I want the same things that you want, Mr. Orne.  Knowledge.  Power.  Immortality.  How much of the notebook were you able to read?”

“Enough,” he replied grimly.  “I know that what you are considering would make you–and whomever joined you–despised by Heaven and Hell alike.”

“There is no Heaven,” she replied, “and if I succeed, Hell itself will have no power to touch me.  Or the one I choose.”  She grinned at him, red lips, white teeth, predatory.  He felt a chill, once again suspecting–or more precisely fearing–what her intentions towards him might be.  It couldn’t be that.  To put his mind at ease, he brought it up.

“According to the book,” he said, “The one chosen must be of the same blood line to she who chooses.”

“Quite so,” she agreed.  “It’s a primary requirement.”  She said no more, and he began to relax.  Then, with an air of casual conversation, she said, “Did you know we are cousins, Mr. Orne?  I did a bit of checking, just out of curiosity.  I recalled that we had Ornes in the family somewhere.”

He stared at her, feeling his stomach freeze.

“Oh, distant cousins, I grant you,” she said cheerfully.  “I believe we share the same twice-great grandmother.  There is Marsh blood in you.  I suspected it the first time I saw you.”

Blinking with horror he exclaimed, “Then, I must also be related to–!”

“The thing that attacked you tonight, yes, I’m afraid so.  It’s quite a long story.  But don’t worry.  You’re a lot of generations down the line.”

He sat and pondered that little tidbit for a few moments.  And the inevitable conclusion.  He looked over at her and asked her point blank,  “You’ve chosen me, haven’t you?”

She laughed.  “Yes, Mr. Orne!  Has it really taken you this long to figure it out?”

“You trapped me!” he exploded furiously.  “You gave me that damned notebook!  You made me a target, dependent on you for protection!”

“I don’t recall having to twist your arm to get you to take it,” she replied.

“How was I to know how strongly your batrachian relatives would object?”

“Your relatives, too.”

“Don’t remind me,” he growled.  “The point is that you should have known.  You irresponsibly threw me into this catastrophe!”

“My dear Mr. Orne,” she replied, “You have studied enough about the forces we’re dealing with to know they can be extremely hazardous.  You gleefully embraced the danger every step of the way.  Kindly don’t come crying to me now.  You should instead bless me for the singular opportunities our collaboration has brought you.”

“Hah!” he shot back, “The singular opportunity to endure the nauseating halitosis of that monstrosity out of Hell’s own myths!  What now, Miss Marsh?  How do you intend to protect me from that thing?  I hold you personally responsible for my safety!”

“Relax, Mr. Orne,” she said reassuringly, although very little she could have said at that point would have reassured him.  “It’s really quite simple.  You must be marked with the Elder Sign.”

He pointed to the silver pendent.  “That?”

“Yes.  It is the only thing the servants of the Old Ones respect.  By wearing it I am fully protected.  Of course, I have gone through a long series of rituals to augment its effect.  I’m afraid that you, being a neophyte, will require a bit more than just a pendent.  You may require the Eng.  In fact, it’s probably the only choice we have.”

“Ugh!”  He had read about that one.  “Are you sure that’s my only option?”

“Do I detect a note of squeamishness?”

“I hardly think it unreasonable for one to feel at least mildly apprehensive about getting one’s flesh carved up like the Illustrated Man!” he shot back furiously.

“I assure you, the Eng is far more pleasant than what Ith’lyrghi would do to you.  In fact, if the potion is mixed properly, the initiate shouldn’t feel very much pain at all.  Afterwards, you will be free to go.  There will be no place on Earth you cannot walk safely.  And if you choose not to participate in my little experiment I shall raise no objections.  It is entirely up to you.  As I said before, I want nothing of you that you are not willing to give.  If you are not interested, I’ll simply choose another.”

“I suggest you do so!  ‘Little experiment’ indeed!” he echoed sarcastically.  “Hah!  You are plotting an apocalypse!  I’ll have no part of this infernal insanity of yours, thank you very much!”

“Suit yourself,” she replied lightly, and after a minute she said casually, “It’s probably just as well.  There’s another primary qualification which I doubt you’d meet.”

“Oh?  And what is that?”

“Why, lust, Mr. Orne.  It’s a critical part of the ritual, you see, necessary to the bonding.  It’s also the trickiest part, because it must come naturally and cannot be coerced or forced.  Pure, unadulterated sexual lust.  I have my doubts as to whether you could be capable of it.”

His eyes flashed indignantly.  “You have no idea what I may be capable of, Miss Marsh!” he snapped.

“I’m very happy to hear that,” was her silky reply.  “I look forward to finding out.”

He muttered something resentful under his breath and stared fiercely out the window.

Anastasia waited for him to cool off.  Then she said, “There is another primary requirement.  Both the Magna Mater and her consort must have been celibate up until the proper time.”  She looked over at him.  “Have you remained celibate, Mr. Orne?”

He shot her a contemptuous glance.  “I hardly think it’s any business of yours!  Besides, I haven’t agreed to this madness, remember?”

“Of course,” she said, shrugging it off with careless indifference, “I was merely curious to see if you would have qualified, had you been interested.  Of course, if you’re afraid–”

“Listen,” he snapped, stabbing his finger at her, “I am afraid of none of it, do you hear me?  I am no coward, Miss Marsh!”

She smiled, her large eyes enveloping him with unspoken possession.  “I never had any doubts about that, Mr. Orne, or else you wouldn’t be here.”

Arthur hated feeling intimidated, and this unearthly woman intimidated him profoundly.  He was determined to find a way of cutting her down to more manageable size.  Finally he said,  “What makes you think you could be the Yrl’hi described in the Pnakotic Manuscripts and the Book of Eibon?  Your interpretations of the prophesies are subject to a great degree of personal bias, and speaking purely from logical empiricism you–”

“I am an extremely unusual woman ideally suited by my intelligence, physical attributes and strong will to the role of Yrl’hi.  I intend to fulfill the prophesies.  In any case I refuse to play the part of a passive, dutiful Marsh woman, an heir to tradition producing the next generation of heirs.  I taught myself the Wisdom in defiance of the Elders and I intend to follow through with my ambitions to the bitter end.  Do I make myself quite clear?”

“Quite,” he said, “But I think you fail to take into account the nature of the Beings whom you hope to propitiate.  I quote your own notes: ‘The Elder Gods cannot be summoned; They come only when They wish to come, hear only the prayers that interest Them, and act only when They wish to act.’  No matter what you do, no matter how determined you might be, it won’t make any difference to Them.”

“On the contrary, Mr. Orne, what I do is critical.  If I do not conform precisely to the requirements of the prophesies, then I can be certain that I won’t be accepted as the Yrl’hi.  My choice of consort must also be precise.  I believe I have chosen well.”

“I haven’t agreed to this,” he reminded her sharply.  She smiled at him again with that unnerving confidence.  He resented it, but was flattered at the same time.  She was the first woman who had ever expressed something other than distaste towards him–at least, the first one that he had any small amount of respect for.  Of all the people he’d known, male or female, she came the closest to being his equal.  That, too, unnerved him.

#

It was early in the morning.  A grey and gloomy mist was falling.  The sky stayed dark before them as they left the Aylesbury Pike and drove through the deep woods and oddly symmetrical drumlins that surrounded the decaying hamlet of Dunwich.  The road looked like it hadn’t been improved in decades, and the jouncing of the car jostled Arthur from an uneasy doze.  He pushed up his glasses and rubbed his eyes.  “Where are we?” he asked, trying to remember why his left shoulder was so sore.

“About ten miles outside of Dunwich,” Anastasia replied.  “Did you have a good nap?”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” he grumbled, “I was thoroughly uncomfortable.”  He stretched his sore and stiffened muscles with a muted curse.  “Is it much further?  I’m getting very sick of this.”

“Soon, Mr. Orne, very soon.”

They passed by deep gorges, crossing ravines on ancient wooden bridges of dubious safety, passing by the noxious marshes out from which the strange Miskatonic sprang, born out of their foulness and rot.  The road then wound past long-abandoned rocky fields and crumbling farmhouses whose yards were filled with rusting junk and weeds.  It was difficult to imagine any human being inhabiting the squalid shacks of tar-paper and corrugated metal, but slatternly figures slouched on the porches or peered furtively from the doors, and filthy children fought and screamed in the junk-strewn yards.

They came to what passed for a downtown section: rotting gambrel roofs of architecture which seemed too ancient for the area; faded signs of indifferent businesses, open or closed, it was impossible to tell.  A single slovenly store operated out of what might have once been a church, and it did not invite patronage.  Unwholesome locals watched them pass with suspicious, hostile curiosity.

“A delightful place,” Arthur commented sarcastically.  “I must remember this quaint little spot next time I’m vacationing.”

“Patience, Mr. Orne, patience.  There may yet be some survival of intelligence and knowledge of the old ways in this place.”

A short way out beyond the center of town were several old mansions which must have been owned by fairly proud and prosperous folk at one time, but had long since fallen into the omnipresent state of decay which characterized Dunwich.  In front of a white colonial still in reasonable repair was a rusted mailbox with a broken latch held shut by twine on which was painted the name “Whateley.”  It was here that Anastasia stopped the car.  “What’s here?” Arthur asked.

“Possibly allies,” she answered, and got out of the car.  She went up to the door and rapped on it smartly.  Arthur followed, somewhat less assured but determined not to appear faint-hearted.  After several loud knocks with the obvious intent to remain until she got an answer, an old man came to the door.  He peered suspiciously through the crack. “What’s yer business?” he asked, in a mere three words revealing a thick backwoods Yankee accent.

“Would you be kin to him who was called by the name of Wilbur Whateley?” she asked.

The old man replied with undisguised hostility.  “Who’d be askin’?”

Anastasia replied in language straight out of the Pnakotic Manuscripts, although Arthur couldn’t quite place the exact quote.  The old man’s eyes widened and the suspicion in his voice changed instantly to fear.  “We’re at yer service, ma’am, we mean no disrespect.  What would you be wantin’?”

“Let us in and we will explain,” she commanded, and the old man hastened to do her bidding.

The inside of the house was what might be expected, once finely furnished and now gone to seed.  Dust and wear lay heavily on its contents and its inhabitants.  It reeked of a mixture of stale cooking odors and general human musk.  Eyes watched them in fearful fascination from around corners and behind furniture.  Anastasia came directly to the point.  “We require shelter and aid.  Of which branch of the Whateleys are you?”

“The only one what remains, I reckon, since Curtis and his family moved east,” he said.  “Old Zebulon was my grandpap, if that be a help to you.”

“You recognized the Words.  Do you know of the Books?”

“I seen the books from Old Wizard Whateley’s estate,” the old man said, “But I never read ’em much.  Enough to know what you said is of the old ways.”

“Is there anyone left in your family who knows the old ways?”

“Aye,” he said eagerly, “My boy Seth!  He’s a real bright boy, and he knows all them books.  He read ’em all clear through.  Seth!” he called,  “Libby, go and fetch Seth, quick now!  Don’t make the Lady wait!”  They heard a rapid scuttling.  The old man said hurriedly, “He’s a real good boy, my Seth.  Real good at doin’ things.  Went to college up in New Hampshah and got hisself a degree in farmin’.  Done real good in school, and done real good with the farm.  Made it grow like nobody else.  My Seth, he’s made us all real proud.  Yes, ma’am!  Now, he knows them books, just you wait and see!”

“What is it?” said a deeply adult male voice, “What do these people want?”

His father eagerly introduced the “boy”, who looked to be at least in his thirties.  His accent wasn’t nearly so thick as the old man’s, confirming an outside education.  He was broad-shouldered, tall, a muscular and handsome man, lean and tanned from working in the fields.  He had dark reddish curly hair and green eyes.  In fact, he looked a great deal like Anastasia, like an Innsmouth Marsh, with the same wide, full-lipped mouth and predatory eyes.  Also, like Anastasia, those features gave him a look of sensual decadence.  He and Anastasia stared at each other.  Arthur was quite sure at that moment that he hated Seth Whateley intensely.

[end of excerpt – back to Short Stories]

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