* * *
Sllytha's eyes snapped open. Outside the strange vehicle, the breath
of Huitloxopetl drew lightning through those terrible, alien skies. Sllytha
shuddered as she stared at the nightmarish landscape beyond the glass and
fought to control the strange vocal functions of this borrowed mouth. Her
soul prayed to the Elder Gods, but the lights in the sky, the pain in her
mind, told her that it was too late. His power was reaching out, his bonds
were cracking; this nightmarish world, her distant, beloved Yaar-Kyth,
all worlds in the ocean of stars were drawing their final breath. She looked
at the creature --the man-- that sought to gain her attention. He spoke,
but the gentle, tormented mind that had drawn her to this body was not
with her anymore, and her knowledge of this world's tongues and customs
had vanished with her. His strangeness revolted her, but she remembered
him; the woman had loved him. But Sllytha had mourned for them both, for
she had sensed the taint of the Haunter of Dreams at the root of that love.
Sllytha felt her eyes water; another new sensation, whose meaning she knew not. The man tried to touch her face, but she recoiled.
"Snnakh'gha!", she told him, signaling the horrid skies with a wave of her limbs. "Snnakh'gha, Huitloxopetl orr'ep Sygroth naflfhtagn!"
Of course, he understood her tongue as little as she, his. But he grew tense upon hearing the Ancient One's name. The Elder Rune... deep inside, she knew it was not strong enough anymore, but it was all she had. Again she turned toward the darkened landscape outside, and spoke the familiar, once conforting syllables:
"Laina caldulech, n'n'ghai'ghai; Nodens wegha'ymnko, n'n'ghai'ghai; Glyuh'uho w'gn-yah, n'n'ghai'ghai; Stell'gho dalmalech, n'n'ghai'ghai..."
Not enough. As the sorcerers had said, it was not strong enough to hold Huitloxopetl in check.
Panic rose within her. That hellish Being would soon cross the Gate, and this world would be but the first of thousands to be crushed by its wrath. She would die, not in her world, not even in her own body.
With an odd, barely audible squeal, she eluded the man's arms and climbed from the back seat of the vehicle where she had lain and out the open window on the driver's side.
The man called after her, unheeded, as Sllytha crawled away in panic, ripping the suffocating drapings that clung to her body, seeking only to get away from those horrible open skies. She must find some place deep and dark, with no empty abysses above, some place cold and black and conforting, like her beautiful, lost Yaar-Kyth...
* * *
In the hills, they gathered.
some drifted aimlessly, following a call which led nowhere; others gained the faintest insight and, being unprepared, gave in to fear or delivering insanity. Yet others, those in whom the call was stronger, grasped knives and guns and answered it in their own way.
But here, in Mount Chignautla, which could be seen in the hazy distance from Montecruz-- where Miguel Quocha had enjoyed the benefits of an art scholarship way back when-- the confused, the afraid, and the insane gathered alike, waiting for Old Artemio.
Thin, hunched, his limbs and skin dried and darkened by seventy years of sunlight, Old Artemio was a great Huichol shaman and healer of whom it was whispered that he became an owl by night and flew to the skies, where he talked to the moon and her faceless brother; none of it was true, but sometimes he did speak to the gods. Such a time was now. He had been sitting on a deerskin for three days while those who sought his guidance came.
At last, his eyes opened. He tasted the sour mixture of peyote and bile in his throat, coughed, and pain shot through his body as he raised his arms, drawing two hundred pairs of eyes to him.
A god had spoken to him; he knew what he must do in order to serve Him. Without speaking, Old Artemio took a knife from his waist and, as all those who had come to place their lives in his hands watched in horror, slit his own throat.
First, there was mute shock; then there were screams, and a god reaped fear.
* * *
"Sally!", Michael shouted hoarsely, jumping out of the car. "Sally!"
But she was already getting away. He watched in horror as she crawled away at an uncanny speed, without lifting any part of her body an inch from the ground. Her body snaked through the tall grass of the hillside, her naked limbs whiplashing to and fro in a way that seemed insanely familiar to Michael: it was so much like the convulsive crawl of the garden lizards he used to watch, as a child, in the backyard of his Westchester home. In a way, this was worse than all the horrors he had witnessed before: the Quocha paintings, the thing that has impersonated Daniel Pickman... Nothing was as rawly unnatural as watching the woman he loved behave like... like...
He had started after her, but stopped and ran back to the car. He would accomplish nothing going after her and getting lost; it was time to cut to the root of it all.
Michael opened the trunk of the car and pulled out the paintings, one by one.
* * *
Mexico City. The thin, ragged pauper stumbled across Tlatelolco Plaza,
shouting at the clouds as they made electric winces back at him.
"They're thirsty!", he croaked, then coughed out a clot of blood --a remnant of his last clobbering from the police, half an hour ago-- and went on, his breath stinking of marihuana: "Huitzilo-puch-tlee an'is brrrothers're hungry! Tlatelolco was their dish for food in the ol' days, an' it's gettin' ready to be used again! Th' gods want hearts, an' they want blood, an' they want 'em fresh an' yoongh! They're gonna feed soon!"
From a window in the luxurious Spanish building across the plaza, President Diaz Ordaz looked at the bum with undisguised revulsion. To think that one so young could end up like that...
Two policemen converged on the bum, clubs raised, and the President turned away, dismissing the whole thing altogether. He resumed his brooding over the strange, haunting dreams which had invaded his night-time of late; so somber, yet so inspiring...
* * *
"It's Freeman!", snapped Lt. August. They looked back at the coalescing darkness downhill, trying to pinpoint any further sounds. "Let's go!", muttered August, leading the way back to the car and drawing his gun. Jude Davenport went after him, and they both stumbled their way down.
Miguel Quocha watched them through his thick glasses. The flashlight
streaked the grass and tress as Jude tried to see where they were stepping
on. He had no flashlight, but darkness was no hindrance for him anymore.
He turned toward the Temple of Aype, and crossed the entrance. If something
bad was happening down there, it would have to wait; all the more reasons
to get on with what he had to do.
The warm blackness of the temple embraced him, the way a devious snake would. Back in 1941, his teacher Ramiro Aguirre had waited at the foot of the hill while he came here on his own; he had slept the night through beside the altar, for his test had been to fight off the madness that pervaded the temple-cave. The sculpted walls pressed on him, covered with intrincate bas-reliefs of Olmec priests, leering jaguars with forked tongues, and less identifiable creatures. And everywhere, in a thousand different forms, the dreaded, unmistakable glyph that was the sigil of Atzotol, the idiotic ruler of the Huehuetecuhtli, those Most Ancient Lords who once dwelt in the darkness before the young gods created the First Sun. Atzotol, a local name for Azathoth...
Fourteen years had passed since his previous visit to the Temple of Aype... to the world; to him, it had been so much longer. His childhood in Huaracho seemed so remote... as were the days when he was first haunted by dream-visions of Sygroth, which had shaken his sanity even though they were but pale shadows of the horrors yet to come.
It all started when he was twenty-one. He was a promising artist and had earned a scholarship at Valencia University, a small college in Montecruz, a town about thirty miles south-west from Huaracho; but his choice of subjects was taking a turn for the morbid, and his teachers were dismayed at what they saw as a loss of his aestethical values. There was a growing breach betwen Quocha and his local peers, so he started corresponding with other artists of similar tastes the world over. Thus did he get acquainted with someone with a similar penchant for strangeness, and with an entrancing talent, Clark Ashton Smith; and it was Smith who sent him photos and reviews of the works of one Richard Pickman, who, Quocha realized, had achieved depths of blackness in the human soul that he had barely glimpsed himself. He begged Smith to introduce him to this amazing artist, and Smith contacted him to a closer friend of Pickman's, a writer of weird tales named Randolph Carter.
Carter kindly agreed to Quocha's request, and wrote to Pickman about his young admiter --they both lived in Boston, but Carter had been staying in his birthplace of Arkham for the last few months--, and Quocha was overjoyed when Pickman agreed to meet him. Quocha would travel to Boston within three months, meet with Carter, and they would visit Pickman together.
The time cama, and Quocha was greeted at the station by a solemn but cordial Randolph Carter. As they dined at a nearby restaurant, Carter told him that he had been at Pickman's Newbury Street home and found that he was not there. In his last letter, Pickman had instructed him to take Quocha to his North End studio if this happened, since he was staying there most of the time lately, so they took the subway and they walked into a veritable maze of twisting, decaying streets; Quocha nervously eyed the locals as Carter explained that it was very unusual of Pickman to allow any but his closest friends to even know about his North End studio, but he must be too obsessed with his current work to get away from it for long, and would allow Quocha to go there for practicality's sake. He would most certainly refuse to show him the paintings he kept there, though.
Carter knocked, but there was no answer.
"He must be working in his studio in the basement, where he cannot hear us", said Carter, drawing out a keyring, and proceeded to open the door. They went in, and Quocha's inquiry about the sense of having a studio in a basement died in mid-speech as he looked at the masterful paintings that hung all over the living room: those terrible, life-like scenes of horror, so graphic and yet so subtle, mostly in greys and browns... Carter asked him to wait as he looked for Pickman, and he obeyed happily, feasting his eyes on the pictures.
Later, Carter came back. Quocha noted with disappointimen that he was alone; then he saw the way he swayed, supporting himself along the wall... and his face -- the thin, trembling lips, the shock in his eyes... He has seen hell, thought Quocha suddenly; then he went to his aid, stammering garbled questions as he helped Carter to a seat.
"He's gone...", muttered Carter, sinking in the couch. "I-I had not wanted to believe it, but I guess I saw it coming... He's gone for good, I think... those damned things... but what is that... place? How does it fit? How could even he paint that?"
Quocha gave him some water, then went down the hallway. He had to look. He heard Carter's shout, urging him back, but he was already descending the brick stairway to the basement. Just a quick look and--
Quocha had half-expected to find a dead body. But there was no body, no blood, nothimg. Only that one thing which he had known thatCarter had seen:
The walls were lined with the most masterful and abhorrent works ever created by Richard Pickman; there was also a cicular well door that Carter had covered with its wooden lid before going back up. But Quocha saw nothing but the canvas that held a landscape bathed with sickly, greenish light...
He barely heard Carter's approaching footsteps before dropping into blackness, feeling that something stabbed into his mind.
Quocha woke up in Carter's guest room, where Carter had taken care of him with the medical knowledge he had obtained during the Great War. Quocha told him of the dreams that had plagued him the last nine hours, and Carter listened intently, demanding every detail he could recall. Quocha had trouble to recall and pronounce that strange name, Huitloxopetl; and when he did, Carter paled. He then asked if Quocha had any knowledge of certain rare occult traditions, threw out a few names that baffled him. Carter sighed, left the room, and came back with a massive, centuries-old tome in his hands.
"This", he said, "is perhaps the only surviving copy of the Greek translation of the Necronomicon. It belonged to Pickman, and I am certain that he was studying it right before he... left".
Just as that had been but his first taste of eldritch nightmares, so was his night-long talk with Randolph Carter his first acquaintance with the insane lore of the Ancient Ones...
The following weeks were to Quocha an endless descent into madness. The dreams plagued him each night,and Carter tried to help him, acting as if he knew what they meant, but refusing to tell him. Quocha started to read the Necronomicon whenever Carter was not around, and his mind reeled at what he could gather from it. Yet it said nothing of Huitloxopetl.
And then that man came...
He must have climbed along the branches of a tree in order to break in through the attic's window; in any case, the broken glass suggested as much. He must have been a common burglar, looking for whatever valuable items Carter's home might hold. Paintings are sometimes expensive, so he must have decided to take a look at the canvas that lay facing the wall right beside the window. It was Quocha who found him, the very night he had decided to confront the painting once and for all. He went to the attic, the Necronomicon under his arm, half hoping to find some use for the protective formulae it contained...
But he had found the painting in plain sight, blasting him with his noxious influence with such force that he almost tumbled back down; then he saw the body, twisted at the foot of the painting, and his heart grew cold. Quocha knelt by its side...
...and almost ran off when the dead man's face shifted. He should have; but he stayed, thinking him alive after all. What he saw, though, was not life, but proof that the power of Huitloxopetl was not restricted to the realms of dream.
The man's face shifted, yes, but not as living features do: it stirred like a cloud formation, like clay under invisible hands. The jaw elongated, the nose grew straighter... and the dead man grinned obscenely with Randolph Carter's face.
Quocha could barely remember running out of the house and hailing a cab frantically, later to board a train back to Mexico, all the while absently hugging the Necronomicon.
Now Miguel Quocha knew what he had seen: the Haunter of Dreams had used its power to mold the flesh of the dead and create a servant with no life of its own, the same way it did when he tricked Sally and Michael into thinking that her father had returned.
He had been afraid to even answer Carter's letters for months, but he
finally told him about what had driven him away, and Carter later visited
him in Montecruz, easing his fears somewhat; but he never asked about the
It was then that Quocha began his occult studies, in search of a way to exorcise the Thing which haunted his mind. He besieged antiquarians, bombarded libraries all over the country with bizarre requests. His scholarship was cancelled; his father almost threw him out; his artistic mentor, Gerardo Murillo, rejected his darker, tasteless works.
Until Ramiro Aguirre approached him at the Montecruz library. This eccentric, cynical man with brown skin and black, thick sideburns, somehow broke through his wariness; they left the library together, talked through dinner, and they became not only teacher and pupil, but also friends.
Together they sought things hidden in the darkest corners of reality, plumbed sources of knowledge older than human life. They pursued the lore of the ancient Mayan wizards, learning the Songs and the dances which were fueled by their Wills, started to awaken dormant parts of their brains through the rite of Panchebe...
But Quocha was overconfident; they both were. They actually thought that such secrets would prove the undoing of the Ancient Ones' cosmic games, yet all the while unseen players led their every thought. Quocha thought himself free of dreams and curses, but truth finally laughed in his face in the form of heavily-drugged pulque that an old servant of ancient gods sold them that evening, at Sausalito. Quocha gulped it down, and blackness flooded his mind as it had not done in years, even as the old man laughed and shouted that terrible name, "Huitloxopetl". Then delirium embraced him, and he saw the Cyclopean Sygroth once more, the flailing form of Ramiro sinking into the gaping crypt even as the myriad wings of its dweller racked the noxious air within, flapping in triumph.
Quocha recovered his consciousness several days later; days he had spent with no food or sleep, only painting, painting the most abhorrent pictures ever created by --or rather, through-- a human hand. Ramiro lay lifeless in a corner of the room, and the old man who drugged them giggled insanely by his side, his mind destroyed.
Despairing, Quocha ran away for a second time, barely resisting the pull of the paintings; his mind, he knew, was the key it needed to break forth, so there was only one thing he could do, for the sake of all. He reached a sacred place in the caves of Chihuahua, and there used the Necronomicon to escape Huitloxopetl the only way he could --by leaving this world altogether. He broke the Seal of Power, opened a Gate, and went beyond the Haunter's reach.
He had lived far more than the six years gone by to the rest of the world since his faked demise; he had sojourned the places Between, had learned much, had --changed. He was now what he and Ramiro always strove for: a Halach Uinic, a Wielder of the Power.
For all the good that could do, right now.
Standing in front of the altar, Quocha gazed into the great obsidian
mirror above it. "Tezcatlipoca", had said Ramiro so very long ago, "The
Smoking Mirror of Nahualtotec --Nyarlathotep to you. The priests of Atzotol
used them as gates into the Throne of Chaos, where they could partake of
the madness of Atzotol himself. Whatever they learned there, they had no
sanity left to take advantage of it".
And in Azathoth lay the key to stop the Haunter of Dreams from breaking through, that much had his delvings revealed. But how? He certainly could not call upon the Daemon Sultan! Huitloxopetl's hate for his father notwithstanding, Azathoth had imprisoned him before the Elder Gods took away his intelligence! If summoned, he would wreak senseless devastation, undirected, uncontained; he would never think of punishing his rebellious son --he had no mind left to think! But Quocha believed he had solved the riddle. The pictures were the Haunter's link to this world, so he had to throw them through a gateway into Chaos itself, where no natural laws applied, and the gate to Sygroth would be nullified. It was simple indeed.
Too bad Quocha did not know that the paintings were meaningless, for they had already fulfilled their purpose; that they had created a conduit between a human mind and a mind from Yaar-Kyth, and Huitloxopetl's link to Earth was not a canvas, but a woman...
* * *
From time to time, thoughts started to form in Sally's shredded mind.
Then, awareness of her surroundings would batter her, and she would try
to scream, emitting only wet burping sounds which terrified her even more;
but madness soon settled in again, relieving her. The pain was always there,
streaking her every fiber as she slithered on the sand; her skin began
to wither as the three suns showered her with green death. Her mind still
carried recollections of swimming through dark waters, of surfacing on
a shore and crawling away from the sea. She had dragged herself for hours
over the burning sand, unaware that this alien, bloated body would never
make it to her destination under the scorching suns. Yet she kept moving,
even as some internal organs burst, her snaking limbs growing brittle and
their skin peeling off. Pangs of madness still shook her, but she could
not stop. Not even when the vast, sculpted crags of Sygroth rose around
Her eyes, fit for the depths of Yaar-Kyth's oceans, had long since shrunk into charred crusts within their sockets, but she needed them no longer, the Call was enough. It was far more than a mere sound or thought: it was a wave of rushing, all-consuming Will, filling her mind with pictures of the twisted constructions her path winded through, and of the beckoning central monolith, something shining with reflercted light within an opening in its base.
As Sally crept on, pieces of her water-starved body were scrapped off and left behind, unheeded. A thick, sweet fluid caked her mouth, dribbling off a ruptured organ. Unknowingly, she climbed a sand-encrusted stone ramp, passing over the bas-reliefs of ancient scripture which spelled the Elder Rune. She felt nothing when cranial fluids flooded the empty eye-sockets, even as she reached the edge of the great slab. She only longed for her own body, in which she had a voice to scream with...
Blackness gaped, and something shifted within its depths, the greenish light flashing off its surface. Sally gurgled a final cry as the Call released her. The pain receded, even madness seemed to take pity on her. She was aware of falling and, for just a moment, she finally knew. She realized that the alien body which housed her was plunging into the depths of Sygroth, and that her psychic linking with Sllytha had been no accident, but part of the decades-spanning gambit of Huitloxopetl. Richard Pickman, Miguel Quocha, the U-Boat, the O'Khymer librarian --there were no failures for the Haunter, no misfires; only subtle new twists in its plan. And she had now fulfilled it.
She tried to think of Michael as blackness engulfed her and was puzzled at the dull feelings his image evoked. She died not in fear or pain, but sadness; sadness because she knew that her love for Michael was but a hollow lie, inspired by Huitloxopetl.
The Thing in the depths caught the withered body, impaling it with an appendage; the psychic conduit was now within the limits of its prison, unobstructed. It flapped its myriad wings in satisfaction as it waited for the other end of the Gateway to open.
* * *
"Michael! What happened? Where is Sally?" Michael Freeman seemed oblivious
to his questions, so Lt. August pulled him around.
"She is... gone. She... something's gotten into her. We've got to burn these damned paintings! We should have done it long ago!"
"What do you mean, something?", pressed August. "Where is she?"
"She is not herself..." Michael was obviously on the verge of shock. She spoke in some strange tongue, then she crawled away! God, her eyes!"
Her eyes. Jude could not help a shiver. La Pulzella Gaia...
"Got to burn them...!", Michael squealed, and Lt. August slapped him, hard.
"We're going to need them, according to Quocha". Lt. August gazed at the electrified night sky. "I hate to say this, but we'd better look for your wife later".
Jude sympathized with Michael. He looked so distressed... almost like...
...like himself in Venice, five months ago.
"Not now", Jude muttered. The memories flooded his mind, unheeding. Laura, her beautiful eyes, her laughter...
"Let's take the paintings back to Quocha!", said Lt. August. Jude leaned down to pick some of them up from the grass.
Laura had been sitting on the fence along the channel that night, laughing at some silly joke. Jude never knew what made her slip over it. Shouting her name, he plunged after her, splashing blindly into the lightless waters. He was sure that his hand had brushed her at least once. God, he almost had her...
The cold blackness of the channel's waters was still so raw, so vivid in his memory, devouring every thought, rekindling the pain...
Then the blackness parted, and a beautiful, smiling face came into his memory, startling him. Laura came through the waters, arms outstretched.
"Laura...", Jud moaned softly, holding her close within his mind. This is wrong, an alarmed part of him exclaimed; it didn't happen this way, I never found her... But Jude hushed this voice, tears welling in his eyes. Laura kissed him playfully and then pulled back, with an impish smile. Jude looked into her eyes and grew suddenly cold, as the pale harlequin's face whispered teasingly:
"Poor things. Chasing ghosts for the Haunter's amusement. And the actual gate has escaped you".
Distant and unheeded, Michael and Lt. August were calling Jude's name. The harlequin drew back, and jude reached after her. A glass-like surface stopped him, as if she now were a reflection in a mirror; on both sides, though, there was only darkness.
Laura smiled again; so lovely, her dress flapping in the tide. "The gate is beyond your reach; her life is the only lock, and it is about to be opened". She raised her arms toward him in a blur of her colorful harlequin's garb. "I require such a gate, and you must be unlocked".
The harlequin with Laura's eyes erupted, becoming a bright pillar of golden flame. Jude screamed, trying to back away, but he was trapped. The mirror; it was him who was encased within the glassy surface. The pillar of fire grew, towering vastly into the black void. The mirror broke into a thousand pieces, swept and consumed by the fire, and Jude, and Jude's mind was blown away into nothingness.
* * *
When Jude fell to the floor, convulsing, Michael went into hysterics
until Lt. Freeman shook him back into his senses. Then, shaking, he obediently
lifted Jude's legs and they both started up the hill.
All the while, Jude muttered deliriously again and again: "S'teheli... S'teheli..."
* * *
Quocha felt it, that strange mixture of warmth and coldness within his
mind, even as the obsidian mirror above the altar cracked loudly, black
splinters falling off in a dusty rain.
He shivered, and turned around, his inhumanly keen senses already perceiving the approaching voices. He walked toward the entrance of the cave, fearing the worst.
There: that golden flame pulsating beyond the trees, rapidly approaching. Lt. August and Michael were unwittingly bringing its source to the Temple of Aype: the limp, shining body of Jude Davenport. Of course, theirs were normal, human eyes; they could not possibly perceive the terrible Elder Fire emanating from their unconscious friend. Unseen to most creatures, yet powerful enough to crack the Mirror-Gate.
Breathless, Quocha looked up at Betelgeuse, now brighter than the rest of the stars. He had read stories, vague mentions of an emissary of the Elder Gods, who went from world to world, charged with obstructing the efforts of the Ancient Ones to break the seals of their prisons... But he had never believed them...
But if the stories were true... if S'teheli was now truly manifesting itself, then they had less time than he had thought.
The Gate would soon be fully open.