Thursday, June 2, 2011

FICTION: The Star-Stones by Chris Stibrany

I knew I never should have taken that trip with my old college friend to the Rockies. From the very start when my naturalist chum Harris mentioned camping in those gale-haunted icy-cragged mountains I felt a strong sense of dread and foreboding I haven't experienced before or since. So as a result of the horrible outcome of that trip I submit this statement to you, Detective Morris, to help you in closing the case. I suppose since this will be on the record I had better give you a little background before starting from the beginning of that horrible nightmarish camping-trip.

My name is Carl Echkarten and I am a 29 year old research fellow at Brown University, in Boston. I first met the victim, my friend Daniel Harris, at school for my undergraduate studies in Comparative Religions. We were auditing a class on 'Witchcraft in New England” taught by, I believe it was, Professor Von Mude. Although such a class was far outside the realm of my chum Harris' studies in Conservational Biology, he, thanks to growing up in the area that I was a scholastic visitor, had always had an interest in the outrĂ© parts of the area’s history. Not only that, but he confided in me later on after we became firm friends that his ancestors, Martha and, Jebediah Harris (married), had been burnt at the stake for witchcraft in the Salem witch-hunt. I suppose such a colourful event did no shortage of good in spurring my friend's interest in the topic. With the passage of the years, our friendship deepened. We spent time studying together, and also going on many camping excursions in New England and the Appalachian areas, which strengthened our respect for each other. Due to his interest in the great outdoors, he was always the more competent on these natural trips, while I contented myself with filling in our trivial and philosophical knowledge. After a time, roughly one month ago, I broached the topic of a camping trip further afield, in my home state of Colorado. While I had, of course, gone back and forth between the two states occasionally during my university days, with the passage of time I felt more at home in the Boston area and started to neglect my immediate family.

I felt a trip to the Rockies would be the perfect solution to first catching up with some familial matters and then both I and Harris could sojourn to those foreboding peaks. The departure date finally arrived and we set off in Harris' little automobile on the long drive. A few days of gruelling cross-country navigating later and we pulled into the drive of my parents' home. After spending a day resting and preparing ourselves, we set off to the far northern part of the state In order to fulfil our yearning for desolation. And desolate it was indeed.

The area we decided to set up camp in we picked through intuition alone. On the map, it seemed the name of the area was Crown Peak. This was called thus after the name of the mountain right near our camp site. The site was covered in at least 3 feet of fresh snow, on top of goodness knows how much packed snow. This was not surprising due to our trip being conducted in the middle of winter. Due to my occult inclinations, unbeknownst to Harris I purposely chose to arrive at our site as close to Candlemass as possible.

Students of forbidden lore will know this date, but I assume gentlemen of your stature have no need or interest in such things. So I will just say we arrived in late January; I think it was around the 30th or so.

After setting up our tents and getting all of our necessities in order such as the fire-pit, kindling, and provisions, since we had arrived fairly early in the day, we proposed to scout around. Our camp-site was on the gentle slope of a mountain side, and in extremely dense pine forest. The previous heavy snows had left a very picturesque blanket of white powder snow on all of the heavily drooping pine boughs, and many hidden snow-hollows lay under trees and rocks, creating a magical atmosphere.

The only sound as we tramped in our boots through knee deep snow was the soft galumphing of the powder underfoot and every once and in awhile the sound of a bird of some sort. I was surprised at hearing avian life so high up in altitude, and at such a freezing precipitous time of year; so I inquired to Harris as to the species of bird. He thought it sounded like a raven “as they often,” he said, “spend all winter in the mountains surviving on hibernating insects and of course, carrion.”

After discovering some interesting landmarks that we decided to explore later, like a large pine clearing, and a cave, as well as a series of small ravines in the rock, due to the encroaching darkness, we set back to camp for the night.

That first night I recall passed uneventfully (if a tad unnervingly, due to the high shrieking winds buffeting our tent walls about). I remember the wind sounded like an eerie wail of unhappy spirits as they swept over the tops of the ravines nearby and made the pines swishwa-swish all night. It was hard to fall asleep but I finally managed. The next morning too passed without event and if I may move forward in time a bit to our first explorations, I shall.

The first spot on our mental checklist to poke about was the set of small ravines and vertical cracks in the granite near our camp. Due to some twist of aeronautical fate, the wind had left the small granite outcropping under that part of the pine-woods mostly clear of snow. This was all well and good for it would not have done to misstep through the snow and fall down the 20 or so feet into these rocky clefts. We walked a ways round the bare rock down-hill, until we found one small ravine that opened up and allowed us entry back inside the cracks without requiring any climbing. The rough chunky granite walls shone in the sun of that clear day as they presented their sparkly mica and quartz colours amidst the dull grey. We timidly squeezed into the cleft until we were able to walk single-file.

Here it was very damp as the moisture the snow released trekked down during the occasional sun of the day. We felt many soggy pine needles underfoot as we slowly made our way deeper into the ravine, in the direction of our camp site. The first cleft we had entered eventually split into two ways. After following the first, which ended in a rough rock wall somewhat climbable, we turned about and elected to explore the second, left-hand ravine. This went a little farther back than the first, and also curved away from our site.

More interestingly and also a bit wearily for Harris, who unlike me was not too fond of small dark spaces, the way became a kind of tunnel or cave as the snow collected above into a roof. Gradually from what we could tell, the ground proper lost snow, then the curving rock walls became a cave roof verily.

When the darkness became too much for our lack of torches we promised to return later with proper illumination. At the very least because Harris was slightly claustrophobic but definitely afraid of dark eaves, I would return on my own.

Upon reaching the trail back to camp we decided to check out the other two landmarks we had chanced upon yesterday, in order of nearness, which meant first the proper cave we passed, and then the pine clearing. Harris grew visibly shaky when we approached the mouth of the large cave. Despite the somewhat cheery sunlight filtering through the fluffy clouds, and the beauty of the sparkly snow crystals in the sun, the stygian blackness of the cave, which even close to us was nigh impregnable, made even me feel a sense of oppression and native evil lurking patiently. Simply standing there we could feel a sense of total darkness, maybe even pure negation, emanating out of that black maw. Harris was glued to the spot with gaping mouth and wide frightened eyes.

Even so, my curious nature got the best of me, and after telling Harris he could wait there, I explored and climbed up to the cave. The cave was situated on the crest of a small rocky outcropping which jutted out of the larger mountainside facing the foothill of our campsite. I clambered up large granite boulders about 10 feet up from where Harris waited, and then found what appeared to be a man-made, but long disused trail in the frozen dirt, visible where rocks blocked the snow-fall. It went along up the hillside for about fifteen to twenty feet and then led into the cave. When I got to the mouth of that shocking hole, I was taken aback at the size of the thing. I would say you have never seen a more impressive cave opening in your life, especially not one as affecting as this. The air that wafted from it was a pure draft of ice and my unprotected scalp grew numb and goose bumped from the cold and I must admit, fear. The pit of my stomach strangely enough felt like it was dropping out. I found it odd yet I approached slowly.

For what appeared to be ten to twenty feet tall was, upon closer inspection, a cave whose opening would easily allow a thirty foot tall man to enter without stooping, if such a being existed. Likewise its width was equally prodigious and instilled in me a strange sense of fear out of character for one who had a love of eaves and small dark spaces since birth, which our ordeal sadly or perhaps gracefully erased from my psyche. Such a change as occurred in my preferences will be easily understood In due time as I continue with my narrative.

When I stepped but five or six paces into the tartaric gloom I was almost struck blind with the inky blackness. My only sights were the backs of my hands as I held them a foot in front of my eyes and when I turned around for comparison I could faintly see the white shape of the opening. It was surely an odd effect, and nigh irrational for so bright a day, and so wide an opening.

I resolved to turn back and return here too when I had obtained better tools for exploration. Harris was oddly enthused to see me and looked as well somewhat nervous as he clasped his hands in front of his middle with white knuckles, his brow knitted like a scared child. I asked him if there was anything the matter. Disbelief clouded my face as he told me he had been watching me enter the cave, grow invisible in the gloom, and then had seen something flit in front of the cave from behind a rock. He had squinted to get a clearer view but told me that try as he might, even with the sun shining down onto the rocks in front of the cave the thing, whether it be animal or not, stayed but a black shadow, in the shape of a vague blob. As he watched its movements, he said they appeared quick and flitty, like a cat, or maybe even a bird, but the size was both too large, and perhaps too vertical. I must admit that I laughed aloud in his face. I had never heard such unprompted idiocy from him.

Then he told me that with his eyes glued to the black thing he watched it seemingly melt into the blackness of the cave. On hearing such a bizarre story from my highly rational and scientific friend and noting his seeming distress, my irony left me and as his face betrayed no change nor jest, my skin grew cold and not from the wind which had picked up, rather from an inner iciness that upon listening to him had slowly gripped my heart and made it quicken its beating in fear.

I thought to myself then that perhaps the solid blackness in the cave had been a result of that thing blocking the light? That might add some credence perhaps to Harris' story.

With the wind picking up force, the formerly cheery clouds grew denser and darker and seemed to threaten snow. Not surprisingly for Colorado the weather in the ten minutes it took to walk half-way from the cave to the campsite grew from half-way dark and cloudy, to fully grey all through the sky, with nary a stray sunbeam but a faint distant grey glow. Considering the lack of light and possible threat of hypothermia as we hadn't brought our cold gear on our jaunt, we elected to return to camp faster and earlier than planned. The time had flown anyway and it was already far later than I had thought it would be when we returned.

In fact, although I thought it should have only taken us around two hours maximum for our excursion and slight investigations, almost four had passed… That vague sense of unease in the pit of my stomach manifested itself again at realising this but I shook it off as probable error on my part, and went out of the tent to help Harris with cooking up some food.

As I recall, that night passed uneventfully except for a dream of singular portent. In the dream I found myself in a pine wood with snow all about. I realised in my subconscious that this was here, the same area we were camping. I walked through the thick snow and felt it compressing softly underfoot with a satisfying muffled squeaky rrnk-rrrrnk and then I found myself in that pine clearing we had glanced from afar, near the campsite.

I walked through the clearing and up to the nearest pine tree. Its boughs were bent like the rest of its brethren as a result of being heavily laden with white powder snow. Underneath it the forest floor was clear of snow and laden with soft pine needles.

I bent down to look closer at the dream ground and got one of those highly emotional charges one gets in dreams, this one of dark fear and anxiety like being hunted. This feeling puzzled me, for all I spied on the ground there was a small pile of stones. It was obviously placed there with some intelligence, as no stone was nearby. Furthermore, as I peered closer I saw not only were the grey stones in a pile, they were arranged to form a five pointed star! Before I could examine them further, the dreamt fear intensified and I awoke, much to my chagrin. Upon awakening I sat up and looked around the tent. Luckily my dream and awakening hadn't woken Harris who still seemed dead to the world, softly snoring.

The dream did intensify my longing to explore the pine clearing the next day. As I tried to fall back asleep I listened to the pines swishing in the wind as it howled over the rocks. The moon must have been at least near full as the moonlight fully illumined the interior of the tent with a spooky watery glow. The more I lay there listening to the wind with the moon in my eyes the more awake I felt till at length I realised that no matter how tired I felt I wasn't falling asleep. So I resigned myself to exploring the pine clearing then and there.

I quietly dressed and stole out of the tent, hoping I didn't wake my friend. The snow glowed with a soft blue light from the moon overhead, which I saw was almost full. I felt a sense of mystery and expectant possibility as I made my way slightly downhill and towards the clearing.

Just like in my dream, the clearing lay in the soft thrall of the moon, but I could also see very slightly the haze of the oncoming day lighting up the horizon far away. I felt childish curiosity and also a bit ashamed out of a sense of wasting my time at such an odd hour. When I approached the pine I had peered under in dream I was too shocked to cry out. For there just like in my dream lay a small pile of grey stones! Not just any pile too, for when I crouched down above them for a closer look, arranged out of the stones that hatefully uncanny symbol stared up at me: a five pointed star!

As I bent down but a foot above the pile, with the lowest branches brushing my back I could see some sort of shape in the centre of the star as well, but the medium of pebbles did not allow me to make out what it was supposed to be, save that it was pointy. I reached down to clutch the centre stone to examine. By all that is sane and natural, that single centre stone was most certainly carved in the loathsome shape of a star as well; and though I could tell not in the dim light what supposed representation was supposed to be present, it too had a design in its centre!

I decided to pocket it to show Harris in the morning, and also to see what was carven upon it. Thankfully morning came quickly harkened by the glow in the East. Immediately upon waking I heard Harris hurry out of the tent probably to discern whence I had gone at such an ungodly hour. He found me crouched beside the cooking fire, drinking a cup of coffee and staring at the stone I had found. I wasted no time in showing it to him, and his face lit up in a smile. 'That's quite a find you got there Carl!’ he exclaimed, 'Where’d you come across such an ancient looking thing?' I went to task hastily filling him in on my dream and thus my surprise at finding the artefact that even I had not expected. Ever the rationalist, he did not believe I had precognitively discerned or even was told about the piles of stones; he explained it away as somehow my having gotten a faraway glimpse of them the other day, though we weren't anywhere near enough to see under the trees then.

When I showed him closely what was carven into the centre of the star-stone he was amazed, for it was a curious symbol. In the light of the morning we could see that in the exact centre of the star was carven an eye, like a human eye. Save for a pupil, instead of the standard dot or circle there was carven a flame.

It was most interesting, he thought, but something about it gave me the darkest feelings. It was as if I had seen it before, perhaps in my occult delving. I definitely got the sense that such a thing as this grey stone artefact was not meant for human hands to touch, nor any human eyes to see. The weathering and feel of the stone was not only immeasurably old, but also strangely dense and heavy, as if not of any stone I knew, but rather a metal. But it definitely appeared to be stone.

After having breakfast we set off to explore the sites of the day before, taking care not to forget both our cameras and sources of illumination for those dark spaces. Harris told me he was not too thrilled about the idea, but ever since he spotted that strange dark shape outside the cave, he would rather explore it inside with me than to be alone out there.

We set off for the first and closest site which was the pine clearing. It appeared just as the night before, save now it was in the golden light of the sun. For me however, it had not lost its sense of heavy dread or foreboding, though the sun cast golden light upon the green of the pine and white of the snow. We crept together to the base of that first tree I had examined just hours before and were shocked. Not due to the strangeness of the stone design, but by the very fact of the stone pile's absence!

Yet how could that be? I had just seen them a scant three to four hours ago… We searched under the other trees whereupon whose ground had laid the remaining stone piles in the shape of a star, in my dream. They too were not there. The ground felt spongier somehow too, and it may have been my imagination, but it also seemed to dip somewhat into a hole that mightn’t have been there before.

As if to question my memory and my sanity, I checked in my pocket for the star stone. It still lay there.

'Say,' asked Harris, 'you’re not having me on one of your weird practical jokes are you? You didn’t just bring that with us did you?' I assured him I had done nothing of the sort, and that I was as perplexed as him, if not more so.

Just then I had a strange idea. I asked him if we had brought any shovels or trowels. He told me we had brought a folding one for a latrine. I bade him please bring it here while I began to dig at the foot of the tree where I had found the stone in dream.

To add a hideous sense of unease to an already strange situation after digging down around 2 feet, through roots and smelly loamy soil, I hit with the shovel blade something hard that clanged. It was a rock. Not surprising, I had been removing them the whole time. I dug around it wider and hit another, and another 'don’t you see what this is?’ I cried to Harris, ‘The star pile is here! I didn't just make it up!’

We dug under five of those trees in the clearing, and as unbelievable as it is, under each one there was not only a group of stones that we could tell were, or had been in the shape of a star, but more maddening still, down in their newly dug pits, all save the one I had retrieved my star stone from in dream, had at their centre, a very same star shaped stone…

We took the four other star stones with us back to camp that day, and from all our exertion a good half of the day had passed. We each ate in near silence, simply astounded by our find. Harris, I could tell, was most shook up, for this put all of his ideas about the nature of time, space, and mans’ faculties in them into question.

Round about what I took to be two’ o’clock we set off down for the big cave to go exploring. We were both sore and exhausted from digging but did not want to miss the chance for what we felt may well be another unusual excursion. Our hopes had certainly been raised for interesting findings in the rest of the locations due to the star stones.

Harris rambled on about a civilisation that must have lived here years and years ago. On my end I couldn't shake the uncanny sensation that I had seen that symbol of the star with the weird eye before, and it did not bring with it any positive feelings.

We clambered up the slope to the cave and Harris was actually excited to go in. The archaeological find he had made had so piqued his sense of adventure that it was pushing aside his fear of both dark places and his claustrophobia, but also his fear of that unknown thing he had seen in this very location.

The beam of the flashlights we carried seemed to illuminate the space much less than I had expected. It was as if the darkness were not merely the absence of light, but rather a kind of active negation of it. In other words, our torch made the darkness stronger, or such was my strange imagining as we cleft the inky blackness.

In time, after much clambering over stalagmites and squeezing past increasingly sharp stones in ever smaller passages and tunnels we began to notice that the way was changing. The cave was not only getting more cramped and turning into a tunnel; it had also begun to slope gently downward. I remember an increasing sense of both unease and also excitement as I realised we were delving deep inside the mountain.

The other interesting thing I noted as we made our way deeper into the nighted earth, was rather than get colder as most caves do, the temperature which had been frigid was now becoming warmer. It was a very strange feeling being far under the earth In the middle of winter and starting to sweat with the heat. At times I would turn around to face my companion to see how he was dealing with his claustrophobic tendencies.

I admit he was starting to look a bit pale and sickly, but he assured me he was fine, and glad that both I was with him, and that there was enough space to stand and walk. In fact, as we tramped deeper into the depths, the tunnel now seemed to be remaining at a standard circumference, almost as if bored by an intelligence rather than hewed slowly out by water.

Indeed the cave was natural, and the start of our journey back had betokened natural processes, but here it was as if someone or something had one-pointedly dug down in a systematic manner. This was very exciting to me and brought to mind dreams of lost cities and tales of red-litten Yoth and black-litten N'Kai.

As we delved deeper and deeper along this apparently endless tunnel, I filled Harris in on what I knew of those two subterranean realms. They were long-held myths; nothing but myths of course, yet still exceedingly fascinating ones.

For one, the myth-cycles of the Native Americans, I informed him, speak of their fore-bears as having their genesis underground, and emerging into the light of day fairly recently. I told him that in certain reservation areas there was still talk among the Native elders of mounds still leading down tunnels like what we had found, to those lands of Yoth and N'Kai. I told him that in Yoth and N'Kai they were named or pre-fixed red and black litten respectively as somehow they were lit by some natural means in those colours, amazingly enough.

Furthermore I explained how even to this day, certain Native cults, as well as witches and wizards supposedly still worshipped the Great Old One still said to slither and hop for eternity underground. This Old One was called Tsathoggua to the witches and wizards, and to the Abanaki for one, was called Oglebamu the toad monster. It is said in Atlantis he was known as Zothoqqua. He was a giant blasphemy from the stars, shaped like a great toad, but with black fur, the sharp teeth of a crocodile, and claws of a dragon, or so the legend goes.

The myths say that the witches Sabbat on Walpurgis Night and other times was held to worship the great Toad and to sacrifice to him and his helpers like the Black Man. The Black Man was like the dark, a being made of a negation of light.

Such fantastical talk helped pass the time as we talked, and seemed to entertain Harris, for he chuckled and told me it was very 'interesting.' He asked me if Tsathoggua was so powerful then why would he choose to waste away under the earth? I told him he was held prisoner by the Elder Sign, that the old gods had hewn in stone and which looked like stars of stone with a flaming eve. Plus, I remember saying, it seems natural that a toad-like being would like to be in the mud and dirt.

I explained to him then, part of the reason I was so excited to find the stones we had dug out of the ground was because it gave these legends physical backing. At the least they would be of interest to a museum for anthropological reasons and folkloric interest such as I had elaborated on. I recall then he had stopped walking and shined his light on me: 'But don't you find it spooky, all the correspondences between the stories, and these physical things we're finding?'

I laughed and told him I was sure these were not the first or the last thing someone had found dealing with mankind's history and myths. If anything it merely provided proof that early man was more superstitious than we were. I also found it funny, and told him so, that a person of his scientific mind would need reassurance from an occult scholar and mythologist.

I recall checking my watch and being both surprised and a bit wearied by the fact we had been walking down for apparently over two hours. I was very glad that not only were our flashlights holding out, but that we had extra batteries in our backpacks. It was definitely exhausting just to think that for all the tramping downward we had done, we would have to do it again, but uphill.

About a half an hour after checking our time the tunnel began once again to open wider, and level out. It was at that time that after walking for about thirty paces through the large cavern our way had become, that we began to notice two curious changes in the atmosphere and surroundings.

The first change was that where before we had required our lights to see anything at all, we began to notice kind of natural phosphorescence lighting our way, steadily growing brighter. It wasn't your usual green or yellowish glow-in-the-dark lichen but rather an eerie red light that eventually grew so strong as to negate the need for torches altogether.

The way we tread was spookily lit and I whispered to Harris this area must have been what gave rise to myths of red-litten Yoth. He chuckled and said he would only believe it when he saw it. Which is why, Detective Morris, in the interest of time I will now skip over our tedious journeying and spare you the details of the crimson tunnels and caverns we stumbled through until we came upon the ruins.

These ruins were so ancient and crumbled and also so monochromely lit with their surroundings as to be almost invisible at first. I had sat down on a rock in another red-lit cavern for a drink of water when my eyes fell on something I felt was strange looking, a stone. 'Harris, what is that you think?' I asked pointing to the small object.

He laughed and gave me a weary look and didn't say anything, so I sat up with a groan and retrieved the rock. When I peered at it closer I saw it had what appeared to be linear engraved channels, like a piece of column perhaps. This made me eye the near-by ground more carefully and slowly.

Bit by bit the outline of what seemed to be the ruins of a kind of structure became apparent. What had seemed to be merely rocks and stalagmites places here and there in various stages of erosion now took on the appearance of a square outline of ruined walls and stumpy columns. Harris concurred.

'You see!’ I cried, 'Yoth was real!'

We must have spent an hour around that largest of caverns we had thus far seen. Slowly the enormity of the find as well as the creepy silence save for our heavy footfalls and laboured breathing started to give both of us a chill of other-worldliness.

It is during that more exerted series of actions that the second odd change I thought I had noticed prior genuinely became apparent. This was the presence of a faint but pervasive stench. I questioned my companion and he too smelt it, and said it smelt like sulphur. The scent, along with the weird red glow surrounding us eventually drove us to seek a way out of that ancient and damned ruin.

Once more we crept through seemingly endless tunnels, crevasses, cracks and caverns. The way again seemed to go down, and continued in its red litten aura. We came at last to a place where the tunnel just ended.

It was made even stranger by the fact that this abrupt dead-end finally made me realise the genuine queerness of the situation and our luck. In specific that suddenly blocking of our way thrust to the forefront of my thought the absolute improbability of our having gone so deep under the earth without ever here-to finding a cave-in or a rock slide, or some other obstacle to our descent. It was almost as if the way had been constantly kept up by constant use. But we knew this was unlikely for we saw no tracks in the dirt and dust save our own.

The other strange thing was that this apparent end of the tunnel should be coupled with, in front of the bare wall, a large and seemingly out-of-place stone. This stone was so bizarre because it also appeared to be manmade. The whole thing lying on the ground was flat like a large pancake, and perfectly flat and smooth on top, as well as on the edges of its circumference. It resembled nothing so much as a cyclopean manhole cover.

We bent down to examine it in the creepy hellish red glow and were chilled by the markings we saw on it. They too appeared carved by some intelligence, as they showed apparent mythical beasts that seemed like giant blobs or viscous oils with an eye here, a mouth there. They seemed to be covering up with their bulk human beings which were fleeing. All the while over this nightmare panorama a huge furry creature in the guise of a toad with a tail and crocodile teeth sat grinning as though presiding over the carnage.

As we peered around the large slab and tapped on it, we could see it was definitely covering up an egress down. It made a hollow sound for one thing, and I even remember seeing some dark indents in the dirt surrounding the stone that were indicative of a space underneath it. The problem was, how on earth were we going to move it?

I asked Harris if he had anything in his pack that could be used as a lever. He rummaged around and found a small trowel which he had used to help dig up the star stones. We shifted the huge stone with a mixture of sliding, shoving, prying and lifting it. It was extremely hard work, to put it mildly.

As soon as the cyclopean lid was moved from the spot it had been covering, we not only saw that indeed there was a circular hole the size of a small car, but we smelt the opening as well. A slightly warm, rank and musty smell assaulted our nostrils bringing to mind necrotic tombs and rotting flesh. While we stood waiting for the smell to hopefully clear out, we peered warily down the pit with our lights. All we could see below was a dusty brown rock face on the side of the wall facing us and the rest was pitch dark.

I crouched on my knees to try and examine the stone more closely and determine if there would be any means to climb down without hurting ourselves.

As luck would have it (or misfortune for that matter) I faintly traced with my torch the ancient remnants of holes and hand holds both carved into and jutting out of the rock face. Neither of us were particularly competent climbers and my palms are sweating now just recalling how we risked that vertiginous cliff. There were a few close slips but after climbing down through the near-dark with only something glowing below with a faint subterranean glow of that familiar red lichen, we finally made the bottom.

Just as we set foot on the red glowing rock below the cliff there came from seemingly both below us and to the front of us, and also more faintly above us a low fearsome rumble. The sound also vibrated faintly and we looked about in alarm for some kind of cave-in but thankfully found nothing.

‘I wonder what that could have been.’ I asked Harris.

‘Probably our escape being cut off,' he joked.

I just glared at him. I did not find any jokes about being trapped in ungodly red-litten Yoth very amusing, nor did it add to my sense of well-being which already had started to erode on realising the existence and truth of these hellish nether-worlds and upon seeing that horrible stone-carved lid.

Upon reflection after thinking of the lid we had moved and that horrible, low rumble as of moving or falling stone, I feared that perhaps the movement of such an obvious barrier had not been the smartest action. After all, what might it have been meant to keep at bay?

To make a somewhat eerie yet definitely tedious journey through more red-lit stink-filled caverns a bit faster-paced I will forego any more details save to say after more trekking downwards through these hellish regions we came upon another sort of barrier.

This one however, had somehow already been broken, though it appeared much the same as the first. Leading down under the broken lid edge we could see this time a kind of chute or circular path.

We followed it down as it led in a corkscrew motion. This time not only was the surrounding rock turning from red-lit brown to black, it was also becoming fouler and more aged in appearance. We also noticed by light of our flashlights that there was a queer channel cut into the stone of the centre of the walk.

Also noticeable was some kind of dried and dusty black residue caking the inside of this channel. The ambiance with the lack of light and these more eldritch black and dusty ways was becoming extremely oppressive and I think both of us wished to turn back soon.

We were feeling weary if only from the unhealthy stink and increase in muggy heat coming from the bowels of the earth.

As we reached the end of the chute and shined our lights ahead we were astonished to gaze upon rows upon rows of more of the mysterious shallow channels out into the rock floor. The stone around us now seemed a kind of black granite, or basalt. We noticed in the near distance a few lumpy but more regular looking stones of black that were also reflecting our torchlight to some extent. With some fascination we approached the nearest of these which seemed carved out of the ground and we saw it was a shiny obsidian statue. It changed my blood to ice as I uncovered the dust from its ancient glassy surface and recognised Tsathoggua the toad-headed, bat-winged and furred behemoth of an Old One. His sharp teeth grinned on his evil lidded-eyed face. Under his clawed forefoot was a writhing human and in the base of the sculpture were carved some strange kind of viscous looking lumps or waves. I had no idea what to make of it.

Then we heard a sound and we both froze with fright. It was like some water suddenly started flowing somewhere, yet it seemed to be getting louder somehow, as if closing in. We both managed to turn around towards the sound and flash our lights on the many channels curving in spirals and straight canals around us, but they seemed filled with nought but shadows.

Then as the sound gained in volume and also some sort of insidious gurgling or smacking quality, so loud as to seem right in front of us, Harris cried out, ‘LOOK! IT’S MOVING!' He shakily pointed towards a nearby channel.

Sure enough, somehow the shadows in the channel seemed to be flowing in time with the sloshing sound. Then an impossible sight met our eyes as the shadows there seemed to gain in thickness and began to reflect or glint slightly from our torches and I understood it must be a liquid. Somehow this development seemed vaguely familiar and in my puzzlement and dread I felt a sense of deja-vu. Then the blackness coalesced thicker and in doing so gained height. It slowly and miraculously, hideously drew itself up until we were looking face to face with a kind of shiny black tarry thing, waving or undulating gently like a snake but with no features. It seemed somehow to be exuding intelligent movement, as if regarding us.

We both were so amazed we had almost forgotten our fear of the unknown and were craning our heads forward to gaze closer at the thing, mesmerised. Suddenly a gaping hole opened up in the top of the thing and we gazed some manner of tube like proboscis shoot out as the thing hissed and seemed to leer at us.

That was sufficiently frightening for us to turn tail and run as fast as we could away from it, past the statue, over rocks, tripping over channels and having to scramble up. Once I caught my foot in a channel hidden behind a rock and slammed my knees and hands hard into the rough basalt cutting them and dazedly lifting there and clumsily and full of fear shined my light behind us. I could see the thing quickly trailing us still making that watery slimy sound but I noticed one strange fact; it did not seem able to traverse rough rock very quickly or efficiently as it would become slower. The rock caused it to unwillingly become divided into smaller rivulets. It appeared thus to prefer the cut channels for movement, almost as a necessity.

This gave me hope and I sprang to my feet with the help of Harris and we ran into a small side cavern that turned into a very small tunnel full of stones. I didn't think we could be followed there.

True enough the sentient slime seemed to slow down and eventually we watched it turn around but not until it made one last hiss at us. Gratefully we took a breather and I told Harris what I had discovered in regards to the things' locomotion. It may have come in handy later after all.

For perhaps another hour we followed this small black and horrid tunnel which seemed to open up a bit after slightly sloping down a ways. The large cavern we entered then right away seemed different.

The stench of aeons had lessened and we both said we felt some kind of breeze. We noticed no more idols or channels in this cave. It was far larger than the last however, and our torch light could not see the other side. The ceiling too seemed lost from sight due to height.

The curious thing as we got closer to the presumed far side was that the air steadily became fresher and colder. The draft also seemed to increase and to come from the ceiling. In the distance we could see some sort of rock pile. As we gained in proximity to it we could see it stretched high upwards and also the strange thing was we thought we saw a glint of illumination above our heads on the rockslide as well.

As we noticed no other egresses or tunnels we decided to climb up and hopefully gain our freedom from this subterranean nightmare.

Unfortunately that was where it all went wrong. The climb at first was nondescript, if tiring. We stopped frequently for rests, and also once to change batteries on our simultaneously failing flashlights.

The farther above the cavern we got, the more confined the space became, into a vertical shaft. Also the higher we climbed the more we seemed to notice an increase in both cold air, and illumination.

About what seemed to be half way up the visible rock pile we spotted some form of hole. It seemed recent, perhaps created by the fall in the rock. We saw nothing but a rough cave in the now moist earth. Wanting to reach a more safe position, and also wanting to see if there was a safer way up, as the rocks were becoming extremely loose and unstable, we entered the hole.

It was about twice the height of a tall man and at first we thought it had been made by the removal of a stone from the tunnel, but then we saw it went much farther back than could be explained by a missing stone.

Another strange thing seemed to overcome us too. Harris mentioned it first, but I definitely agreed with him. That was while at first we were both growing exceedingly cheerful at the prospect of reaching the surface, now we both seemed to be experiencing some ever growing and eclipsing dread the further we entered this dirt tunnel.

It was definitely sloping upwards, which was good, but we could not quit the feeling that something was wrong.

The air too, seemed to be growing steadily worse again, but in a new and uncomfortable way. Where before the stench had seemed mostly due to age and disuse, mixed with sulphur and dust, now it seemed to take on a peculiarly damp and odious quality such as one gets In bat caves or reptile-houses.

We were loathe being underground much longer, as the wristwatches we wore told us we had been down there nigh seven hours and night would soon fall. Thus we literally began to jog forward trusting this stray tunnel would continue both its smooth lack of obstacles and its steady upward climb.

Up ahead our torches unfortunately seemed to come upon some sort of wall or blockage. We examined it closely due to the bizarre colour of its surface. Rather than a brown or grey like the surrounding earth and rocks, it was a strange dark mottled green, strangely too were the apparent lichens or fungi growing in a mottled and raised bumpy manner on the surface of this rock. We touched it with our bare hands and recoiled in surprise, as it was not only slimy and wet but seemed to respond to our touch by a springy yielding.

'What a strange manner of fungus.' I said aloud.

'Let's hope it’s not sentient like that hellish black ichor down below!’ remarked Harris.

'Maybe we had better go back.' I said hesitantly.

'And waste all that time? It will be dark soon and I do not want to be around these caves in the night time, not after seeing that thing!’ he cried with a look of near terror on his ghostly-lit face.

With that, he took the spade from out of his belt and jabbed strongly at the fungal barrier before I could stop him.

Then all hell broke loose. For it was not a growth of fungus at all. The ‘barrier' seemed to revolve with a slow shifting wobble. What came into view was so unexpected I thought I had gone mad. A huge lidded vertical pupil-ed eye came into view, and then another. And then as those eyes raised upwards on some green mass I saw a huge batrachian mouth below, a malevolently grinning maw…

Then all reason failed me as this huge toad-like face opened its mouth to laugh, showing its razor sharp teeth the length of a man’s body. ‘IT’S TSATHOGGUA!’ I howled.

Harris I’m afraid had already fainted. The next thing I knew the bestial malefic god had raised up to its full height, stooping to fit in the tunnel on its hind legs, and the sight of its horrible bloated fur-covered belly and scrunched batwings against the walls almost made me lose consciousness.

He drew a long sharp-taloned finger towards Harris' prone form and all I could do was watch in horror as Harris was speared clean through on the Old Ones' black claw and lifted towards His gaping maw. Then the horror seemed to release fresh adrenaline and before I could think I dove through the only opening to the rest of the tunnel, which was between Tsathogguas scaly legs and I scrambled ahead.

I ran until I thought my lungs would burst. The tunnel curved occasionally back towards the vertical shaft as best as I could guess. After what seemed like ages I spotted light out at the end of the tunnel. I raced towards it near mad with a mixture of fright and exuberance.

When I found myself outside I was surprised to note I had exited a small shaft in the granite hillside, and what I saw nearly made me faint with shame for I realised then the horrible truth.

What lay ahead of me was not the series of crevices, nor the cave we had entered. Rather I was standing on a hillside overlooking the pine clearing. Or what used to be the clearing. Now, in its stead, were we had dug up the star stones was nothing but a gaping maw. It led down into the earth in an inky black well and was surrounded by the same pine trees.

Then the flapping of huge wings, like a great bat, caught my attention. I saw then what will scar me for life, for flying out of the hole newly-freed, the great maleficent Old One, Tsathoggua, stared me in the eye with a great evil grin and flew off above the Rockies.

How could I have possibly had anything to do with the cave-in and freeing of this evil scourge? As I fell to my knees in horror in the freezing snow, I knew all too well that my bumbling removal of the star stones in 'innocent' mesmerised obeisance to my dream had broken the only thing keeping our Earth from destruction. For only too late did I realise the Dreaming Power of the Old Ones, to make their thoughts your own, and to erase your foreknowledge of the protecting power of the only things the Elder Race had to hold Them at bay: a simple yet powerful spell of a circle of stones, carved in the shape of a star.

That, Detective, was how my friend was killed. I am sure you think I did it, but while I may not have killed him with my own hands, I will never be able to remove my guilt for unleashing this Elder Evil into world, and may God help us all. I take some small comfort that in penance for my easily influenced mind, my incarceration in this cell will probably prove to be my saving grace during the horrific days to come.

No comments: