The Fluff At The Threshold
Being a H. P. Lushcraft story
Edited and re-typed by 1996
It was to my cousin's house on Carcosa Crescent that I came that December, to look over the property and to set the place in order. I had been long overseas, first working as an assistant to the Professor Of Difficult Sums at Celaeno Gate College in the sultry Celebes Islands, and then recalled to the family Regiment when it formed up at the end of the War of Liberation in 2029, when the stranglehold of the EU over the (now happily Nationalised) landmass of Europe, had been so crashingly broken. The house had been undamaged in the war, despite it being within earshot of the great tank battle of the Thirsk Salient, where the Royalist armies had smashed the EU federation's forces. Not so grand as many on the street, still it had its own garden front and back, and was built of the solid grey stone of the hills around - and indeed there were some fine features of the neighbourhood, that made me hesitant to part with it. For I had intended to sell it, having a house of my own in the farthest reaches of the Dales, where the local industry of raising great cyclopean altars for the export trade still flourished profitably..
"Over there," the Agent had waved towards a hilltop just two streets behind the house, "ancient prehuman temple, recently renovated and brought back online. Services every new moon, usual splendid revived customs."
I had nodded, impressed. Like most people, I'm not overtly religious, but when the night's right to stand on a hilltop beneath the lurid sky-glow and make shocking, howling obesiance to whatever's taken the trouble to turn up despite the weather - well, it'd be right handy, I told myself. Handy indeed and no mistake. "And is everything... undisturbed ?" I asked. I had the keys from the family Solicitor - as the last survivor of our line, the property had passed to me, with all else that came with it.
The agent had nodded, his jackal ears and long, sharply handsome Annubis-like muzzle turning to face me. "It's a sorry way to come into an Inheritance," he looked at me solemnly, "But it's all yours. Everything he had, passes on to you."
Later, I was to remember those words. But as always - Later, would mean far too late.
It was a bright and cheerful day, when I went over the place. Two stories high, with a fine cellar built onto the ruins of buildings long destroyed in nameless times, before even the invention of the digital toothbrush. I poked around in the sub-basement, marvelling at the pre-Saxon round-headed arches mysteriously sealed up, and the runic seals undisturbed for a dozen centuries. Plenty of room for an extension down there, I told myself cheerfully, knocking with the haft of my entrenching tool on the ancient stone, and being rewarded with an answering sound that was not an echo. So far, so good ... and my first night's sleep was undisturbed as I rolled out my sleeping bag and made camp on the dining room floor. Rocked to sleep by the gentle sloshing as of some miles-high thing of jelly walking deep in the ground, I slept.
The next day, I met my neighbour at Number Eleven, Mr. Heppleshaw. He was a tall, six-horned goat of good local stock, the kind whose portraits you see etched in beautiful pre-druidic Monoliths dredged up from where the North Sea rolls today.
"So tha's movin' in, like tha' cousin ?" He greeted me over the fence, waving an unlit pipe at me. "He went off to the wars, like ... summat told me, he'd not be coming back."
"Oh ?" My wolf ears twitched, as I looked at him. "Did you ... know him well ?"
The goat nodded thoughtfully. He scratched his lower set of horns with the pipe, and I caught the familiar scent of refined hensbane and Asafoetida incense about him. "Aye ... there was a time I knew him well enough. But ... not at the end, like." His ears twitched, and he walked round to the gap in the fences of Carcosa Crescent where a EuroStandard Type 6 Tank had driven through to judge from the track marks still visible : not all the houses had made full repairs yet. "Come and sit thissen down, and I'll tell 'tha."
I followed him into a warm and crowded kitchen, lined with wooden barrels of ale. He grinned, pouring a foaming tankard for us both, in the oddly proportioned mugs that I recognised as having been illegally cut down from a litre to a pint. "Drop o'the best, to go with it," he gestured. "Took us a while to get the breweries back doing owt but that StandardBrau muck, most of us got back to mashin' the ales at home."
The ale was excellent: not too cold (seven degrees, the perfect temperature, I admitted) and rich with floating yeast and hops. As I supped it, he looked at me, one eyebrow raised quizically.
"I can see tha's a cousin... summat... out of the way in the both of you, happen." He said slowly. "Did tha' know 'im well ?"
I shook my head. "Not since before the Occupation... I was about ten then, he was fourteen ... I hardly remember him." And then I stopped. It was true - I had found not one photograph of Cousin Osric, and indeed the house was quite stripped of photographs. "I'm not sure even what he looked like."
Mr. Heppleshaw motioned me to stay seated, while he went into the parlour, and I heard him rummaging around. He came back a minute later, with an old printout photo, obviously taken on a digital camera. "During the Occupation, this was," he told me gravely. "Us folk had got a batch of ... unmarked food, were doing us a barbecue. Illegal, o'course. But then, tha' knows ... most things were."
I nodded. "That which is not illegal, is compulsory. That which is not compulsory, is illegal"; EU Directive 000000000000000001. I know. I might have escaped out of Europe, but it doesn't mean I didn't care. I came back when I could: I was at Milton Keynes, at the end." My face must have blanched, a difficult thing to do under fur in most other circumstances.
But then I looked down, and saw the photograph. It was taken over the garden fence, then intact, and showed a happy-looking group, standing found a barbecue. I could date it fairly well: the roof over the whole business was of wet, heat-absorbing blankets, which must have meant sometime after StandardSat 11667 had orbited in the summer of 2027. That flying eye could spot a trespasser in the middle of a field by the heat signature, let alone a subversive barbecue.
My Cousin was looking anxiously up at the sky - not at the camera, if indeed he knew a picture was being taken. He resembled me, in that he was of wolf stock but there the resemblance ended. I frowned. There was something definitely ODD about the look of cousin Osric... it certainly had not been there as a cub, when I knew him. Children are super-sensitive to the smallest oddities, always seeking new hooks to hang an insulting name on. What it was that so disturbed me, I really found hard to describe. He looked plump for a Wolf but I had seen other carnivores, even cheetahs, with figures like beer-barrels, and none of them had looked so disquieting.
My ears dipped. "Do you have any others of him ? I'd be grateful. I can't seem to find any in the house."
The hex-horned goat shook his well-equipped head. "That's the last one, like. I had a bundle, on the other film ... he begged them from me and the disc they were on, said he were going to get 'em enlarged." He sucked the pipe meditatively. "Never did see them again. And you say you've not found any ?"
I shook my head, and he looked at me for a long minute.
"I see the resemblance ... in the bone, not in the fur, like. And he were more like you ... first year I knew him, he were in here. Not that I knew him to talk to, back then ... I were living down at Number Six then, across the way a piece. Chap tha' wants to talk to, lived that side," he gestured over my back lawn, towards my other neighbour. "But he's gone, too. Happen he might be coming back, if he ever gets... cured."
That afternoon I spent sorting through the sad remnants of a life, boxing things up. I divided mercilessly into three piles: items I wanted to keep, items of some value that the Charity shop could use, and items to dispose of. The piles grew as I ransacked drawers and cupboards, grimly passing judgement. But it was in one cupboard that I found something Strange - or rather, what was strange was what was missing.
On the first floor, there was a chimney neatly dividing the room, on the wall facing my missing neighbour, the far side from Mr. Heppleshaw. On one side of the fireplace, the niche had been boxed over into fitted cupboards full of classic Rohan clothing I appropriated at first sight without even consulting the Classic price catalogue. But the other ... there was nothing there. And yet there should have been. Either an alcove by the chimney side, four metres long by two deep, or the same thing boxed in as on the far side. And yet... nothing, only a blank wall that rang as solid as any other to my enquiring knock.
I stood there, scratching my head. It occurred to me that the houses could be built in pairs on the terrace: instead of having straight boundaries, perhaps they overlapped like a chain of Seig Runes, nesting entwined with each other. To find out - I would first have to ask my other neighbour. And before that, I would have to find him.
"In a more ignorant world," the white-coated attendant explained seriously, as I followed him through the electric fences of the Earldom's recently re-opened Bedlam Institute, "Mr. Smithers-Jones might have been diagnosed as a "Traumatically Exposed Individual of Tragically Triggered Reality Denial", and left at large in the community. But these are modern times."
I nodded my head, walking past the spike-walled broom-cupboards where Claustrophobics were encouraged to get it all out of their system before tasting water or seeing daylight ever again. "But what's your prognosis ?"
The weasel medic's whiskers twitched. "Mr. Smithers-Jones is what we in the medical profession call "A Looney". It's a medical term. Though he's making reasonable progress: the first month he was here, we had to keep his head nailed to the floor. Most of the evil spirits should have departed by now though... otherwise we couldn't let you be exposed. You can catch it by eye contact, you know. Though I'm sure he picked it up in the line of duty ... he was almost in our Profession in the Occupation, you know. Worked for the EU, training airborne troops not to worry about unnatural forces harming them when jumping out of aircraft..."
I strained to hear him over the screams of the inmates being encouraged to Snap Out Of It, by one means or another. "What did you say he did ?"
"Like I said ..." the attendant gestured towards the room at the end of the corridor. "A ParaPsychologist." We were brought up sharply at the end of the corridor, by another of the Doctors. "Doctor Inselapfen, head of the Secure Unit," my guide explained. "He's looking after your cousin." With that, he handed me over and hurried down the corridor.
I stood looking at the Doctor for a few seconds, weighing him up. He was a furless ape-descendant, but possessed a good growth of head hair, and looked back at me with merrily twinkling eyes.
"Well now, so you're here to see Smithers-Jones," he boomed, jabbing the stem of his pipe towards me. "First visitor he's had in awhile. Sad case, indeed - very sad. Almost untreatable, but we're doing what we can."
"Is he in any state to talk to ?" I asked him cautiously, "All I need is a few minutes with him..."
Inselapfen looked through one of the shutters into the cell, and shook his head. "Not right now... if he moves, one of the puff adders will probably bite him. It's Acclimatisation Therapy, you see ... turns out he needed treating for fear of snakes. Shouldn't be encouraged, you know ... as Blenkinshaw and Yasamura discovered fifteen years ago, it's all in the mind." He tapped his head with the pipe stem. "All in the mind..."
I followed him into the office, and I explained my mission. The Doctor nodded thoughtfully, and tapped a few keys on his computer. "Looking for information on your cousin, eh ? Well, now ... I might have some of that myself... the name rings a bell..." He pressed a few more keys, and the bell rang obediently. "Well, now... yes, we have. Of course, naturally I can't disclose confidential Patient information..."
I tossed an envelope of newly-minted nine-pound notes onto his desk; like a striking seabird with a fish he snatched it up and riffled through, barely breaking the conversation for a second.
"Osric Olmthwaite, referred to various specialists... well, as he's dead, it's of no harm now, eh ?" He puffed his pipe meditatively. "Diagnosed as suffering extreme paranoia, and refractophobia ... onset very sudden, whole thing started overnight, so to speak. Referred to various specialist centres for genetic diseases ... hmmm, can't find those. Records all lost in the War, no doubt."
"Refractophobia ?" I looked at him curiously. "Fear of mirrors ? I've noticed ... there isn't a mirror in the house ... not even a reflective surface."
Doctor Inselapfen nodded. "That's part of it. Paranoia, self-loathing ... obsessional behaviour of all sorts. Nowadays, of course, we'd give him a good talking-to and tell him to Pull Himself Together - but those were unenlightened times. Same thing with his neighbour, to an extent ... we're keeping Smithers-Jones in full sensory deprivation and feeding him nothing but jam for days at a time, but ... even so, we can't do miracles."
The clock struck two, and there was a sound as of iron trapdoors closing, and the Doctor looked up. "Ah... that'll be the treatment cycle changing. Let's go and see if he's in a talkative mood."
Smithers-Jones was in a very talkative mood - evidently the enforced company of puff-adders and spitting cobras had discouraged him from making much noise for the rest of the day. But as I entered the room, the grey-furred rabbit's eyes bulged in horror... and he was looking at me, ears rigid in fear.
"Ye've Come Back !" He croaked... " and like before ... before ye knew... as was promised..."
I blinked. "Ummm... I don't think we've met. I'm looking for people who knew my Cousin Osric's house ... your neighbour ?"
A change came over him... a crafty expression slid over his face, and he beckoned me closer. "Osric, is it ? Yer cousin ? Aye' that'll do very well... coming back, and none to know ... back to the house, and folk won't wonder at it, though you look like you did years before... don't forget, it was me put you on the road..."
"I'm not Osric ! " I protested, showing him my Celaeno Gate Library pass and my Heavy Armoured Vehicle Driver's licence. "I'm his cousin Rufus ... look !"
He winked at me, looking at the documents. "Ye've done well, lad ... Rufus, do they call you now ? The face ... it's near enough ... they'll not suspect. And you didn't believe me ... you went off to die, so you thought ... but you should have believed the second chapter of Von Tuu's book ... and here ye stand, proof. Proof!"
I looked at the rabbit, leering up at me, though safely held down by the razor-wire of the therapist's couch. And then I made a decision, that I was to bitterly regret. I nodded, looking around as if to check for eavesdroppers.
"Yes, it's me." I whispered - not lying, though how he interpreted it was his own business. "I'm back in the house... is everything... as I left it ?"
He looked around, a crazed glee shining on his features. "Aye ! The Place between... I sealed it up when they said you'd died... everything's safe. I knew you'd come back, you see ... I knew it ..." His voice sank till even my wolven ears could barely hear it. "And ... when you come into your full Powers ... will you come and get me out of here ? After the Change, you know ... bars and grilles won't stop you." He giggled, looking around the room. "I've measured it, you see ... there's a gap of four millimetres under the door ... more than enough ... for You ..."
"Can I get in through your house ?" I persisted, pulling out a notebook which I'd brought with me for this event. "I just need your permission..." I winked at him, waving at the walls around us. "For THEM, you know ... so they won't suspect."
He signed a consent form for me to look around his house unescorted, and started giggling convulsively. I took my leave, but just as I turned to go, he whispered pleadingly... "Von Tuu, second chapter! Don't forget !"
I returned to Osric's house, having first taken the precaution of playing a good hour-long video session of "Immoral Kombat", the fast-paced carnage of the game cleansing diseased thought-patterns from my mind, disinfecting it. Sunlight was streaming down Carcosa Crescent when I got in, to find Mr. Heppleshaw sitting on his patio, a flagon of fine ale at hand. He waved cheerfully, and invited me over. "Tha' looks like tha' pulled a hard day's work, lad," he grinned, pouring me a glass.
"It feels like it," I nodded, gratefully accepting it. "I've been to see Mr. Smithers-Jones, in the Asylum. I've got his permission to look around. And I've nothing else to do, right now." A thought struck me. "It's the middle of the week, and most folk are at work ... what do you do for a living ?"
The six-horned goat got up, and beckoned mysteriously. I followed him into the house, and he gestured towards an array of plaques and awards on the wall, each framing a short quote written in gold calligraphy. "Virtual NQ/D Error - do not metaphasically alter limiting limitation limits," I read on one. "Ecneumenical Phase Imbalance Associations - See VVD-666a URGENTLY." I looked at the other. Then it dawned on me. "I always WONDERED who did that for a living!"
He grinned. "Aye, lad. I'm the chap who thinks up cryptic and ambiguous Error Messages for computer systems. Family trade, like - this was me grandpa's, fifty year back."
I looked at the ancient award on the wall, and almost bowed in awe at its timeless simplicity. Given the technology, with far less to go wrong than the delights of an Artificial Stupidity System, it was hard to imagine ever beating it. "Missing Keyboard - Press any key to Continue ! " I looked at my new neighbour almost in awe. And decided, there and then, to tell him all that had happened to me. Here, I knew, was a wise being indeed - and in the mysteries I found myself surrounded by, I could use his help.
We talked, until the sun went in, and the shadows lengthened. The first jug of ale ran dry, and the second followed it, before we retreated for the night to his kitchen. For something distinctly Strange was happening, and before I left Carcosa Crescent, I intended to find out what.
The next morning, I fired up my old wristwatch Cray computer, tapping into the official enquiries office of the Ministry Of Peace. Indeed, I was told, Osric Olmthwaite had joined up, trained, and followed the flag in the liberation of Europe. But then he had vanished - his name was posted as "Missing In Action", but of what that action might have been, there was no clue.
"It was a very confused situation, in the final month," the clerk explained apologetically, pointing me towards the Official Histories. "The combined National Forces waded in as fast as they could, as we knew the EU was about to unleash something we couldn't stop ... you know, of course, what they'd done already ?"
I nodded grimly. To first take, and then retain control, the EC's planners in Brussels had brought in aid from Outside the familiar seven dimensions that mortals and Elder Ones know. And though their final plans were frustrated, there had already been some hideous ... Entities, made incarnate on Earth. And neither normal weapons or Mnaran Rune magic had affected them greatly... the monstrosities that would have followed them, fortunately defied imagination. For the powers of Legiomancy had summoned them as a desperate measure: the evil art of rewriting Regulations to reshape the fabric of spacetime itself.
"We've only fragmentary records, especially of the Rotterdam Counterattack," the clerk nodded. "That was after we'd pushed some of the Entities out of Holland ... by that time, the second wave of them had been Summoned. The West Cornish 179th Tank Army was annihilated, as was the Albanian 71st Guards next to them, by what came out of Belgium. The final battles, " he shrugged. "One constant melee, falling back metre by metre, street by street, we threw in whatever forces were left. Nobody was keeping records, exactly... anything could have happened. And the few survivors, well..." he sucked in his breath sharply. "After what they saw, I doubt they'll want to talk about it."
But that night, as I leafed through official histories, something struck me as odd. Perhaps I was starting at the wrong end here - from what my neighbours had gathered, my cousin had left here, not intending to return. And it mattered little in what burned out EC shopping mall or drive-in dentists of the Rotterdam suburbs he had met his end - why had he gone there ? I closed my eyes, relaxing. And then a thought struck me, as I lay half-asleep. Or, more than a thought ... an image - as if I was looking at an architect's section of this house... and in between my upstairs spare bedroom and that of Smithers-Jones, there was a room-sized square block, windowless and unaccounted-for.
"The Place Between", I murmured, recalling the madman's words. "What did he say, "It was me put you on the Road"? Now, then..." I got up, purposefully, feeling the key to next door suddenly pressing in my pocket. There was an accounting to be settled - with a few cubic metres of mystery.
Outside, it was a calm night. Just behind Carcosa Crescent, a factory was changing shifts - they made customised hockey-masks and balaclavas for axe-wielding psychopaths (Or "Differently Moralled Minority Persons of hard-to-satisfy desires", as they would have been smilingly called under the EU's Correctness Regulations.) and were working all hours. I looked up at the skies: Formahault and Algol were wheeling high above, and the landscape was washed with the pale light of a quite astoundingly gibbous moon. Reassured by the calm normality, I went in to face the Unknown.
In Smithers-Jones' house, all was orderly and neat, as if its owner had just stepped out for a minute. It was quiet, the thick stone walls cutting out the noise of the factory workers heading home: the only sound was from the kitchen: I recognised the twin of a food processor my Cousin had, evidently bought at the same sale of Daemonically Possessed kitchen and household goods. With only the sound of its sharp whirring blades and garbled screams for company, I headed upstairs.
Finding the right wall was easy enough, but finding the catch that opened it, took me half the night. At last, I saw a narrow hatchway sliding aside as I pressed the deceptively obvious bright red button on the wall, and looked inside. My heart sank. The room was windowless, barely two metres my three, and had been some form of library. But a blueish fungal growth covered everything, and the books turned to dust as I touched them. Even the computer's plastic shell caved in as if it was riddled with rot, every component subsiding into an impalpably fine dust. Only one thick book on an upper shelf survived even long enough for me to read its title - "Die Uber Pflaumig Kulten", by Compte Von Tuu. But as I touched it, it caved in, showering me with dust and fibres, floating down through the air light as puffball spores.
I had come too late.
"Count Von Tuu," Mr. Heppleshaw nodded the next day, as we sat at ease in his kitchen, he with his pipe and both of us with our ale, "Aye, I've got something for you there, like. Found this in the Library, down in the Stacks." He pulled out a faded volume, and opened it on the desk - I shivered as I saw the title, for I had heard dread things of "Every Boy's First Wonder Book of Unthinkable Rituals", which was said to have inspired the Brussels Legomancers themselves.
"Count Von Tuu," he read slowly, from the brief entry, "was an individual gifted, or cursed, with what can only be called Excessive powers of Observation. Without external evidence, on several occasions he was simply Revealed things that later proved to be true, though hideously unlikely. "
"Such as ?" I looked at him. The goat snorted, the bar-like pupils of his eyes narrowing.
"His first Revelation," he read on, "Came as a child, when walking past Sandwell's World Of Leather, a well-established furniture and clothing chain. He insisted to his parents that behind the visible organisation, it was controlled by Aliens who really DID come from a World Of Leather ... a tough but wipe-clean planet, whose peace was only broken by the horrified screams of off-world geologists and Planetographers exiled there for professional misdeeds, and left there with their Sanity Points melting like ice in the sun."
"His parents, naturally, believed him, and encouraged him to write an expose of it for his School newspaper. And the very next day after publication, Sandwell's World Of Leather had vanished from Earth, leaving only precisely punched-out hemispherical holes where the shops had stood, before they had been taken away without a trace or witness."
Mr. Heppleshaw paused, to refill his pipe. "But of the book you want, "Die UberPflaumig Kulten," it hasn't got a lot to say. It means "Cult of the Ultra-Fluffy", and was said to be his last book ... before he Vanished, from inside a sealed and locked room. They never Did find out what happened to him ... and the manuscript was lost, apart from a pirated edition that got circulated through Unthinkable Book Of The Month Club, some ten years or so back. Strange, though... the Dates."
I blinked. "He was writing it just before the fall of Belgium ? He knew even then they were preparing to Summon up the Evil That Cuddles?"
His ears twitched, and he put the book down. "Nay, lad. That'd be nowt so strange ... or at least, it'd tie in with his usual talents. Belgium fell in 2029 ... but Von Tuu vanished, more'n Forty Years Earlier!" He clapped the book shot with an impressive bang. "And his Talent never dealt with the future, as such - it just revealed, what was already Happening."
My mouth was suddenly dry, in a way that a swallow of the excellent Ale somehow failed to relieve. For the dates referred to a time before either of us were born, or our parents either ... in our Grandparents' time, the 1970's or 1980's, was a shocking hint that the world had been invaded by the cute Things that we had thought bad enough in our own time, along with Psychotronic warfare and the like. Reality had barely survived even in the late 2020's, where the technology had been rushed into existence in the last desperate hours to cope with them. I shivered.
"There's no trace of whatever was in the room, nothing I can read, anyway," I admitted glumly, and told him of the strange decay of the computer and books ... as if their material had been, not so much rotted, as Transformed, into some substance unrecognisably ... Other.
There was nothing more to be done. I finished sorting out the house on Carcosa Crescent, spent a few more evenings with my Neighbour - and then business called me away across the country, for three months. The mystery was pushed to the back of my mind - and then came that frosty October evening, when the phone rang.
"Ey up, lad," I recognised Mr. Heppleshaw's voice at once. "I've got summat for thee. Ah bin checkin, like, on folk as knew tha' cousin ... an' I found one, who was with him near enough at the finish..."
I must have blinked almost audibly. "You Have ? Who ?"
There was a silence. "It only happens to be us local Vicar, that's who. He's been away, but he's coming back next week, to take up preachin' at Our Dark Mother Of The Woods convent ... just ower Ramsgill Moor from us. Art tha' comin' ower ?"
"Definitely !" I nodded, and arranged to return for the following week. As I put the phone down, I nodded. It was something I should have thought of ... although the official Military records might have very little to say, the post-Millennium Clergy were always on battlefields, and had their own records. Just on the horizon at the Thirsk Salient battle, I recalled they had made their debut ... and now the white-collared Chaos Vicars were a regular feature, urging their troops on, providing psionic de
fences against unwelcome Incursions from rival realities, and at need be, administering the final rites to the fallen to make sure they would not rise afterwards as the hideous pastel variants of Undead that had plagued Belgium. Their long black coats flapping, pistols and the precious tantalum plush-grollicking knives unsheathed, they would be in the forefront of every action where there was Unstuffed Horror to be fought.
"Our Dark Mother Of The Woods," I smiled to myself, making a reverent sinuous gesture, as tentacle-like as an internal skeleton would allow, to Shub-Niggurath, the Dark Goat Of The Woods With A Thousand Young. "Or, as they'd call her under the EU's Correction Enforcement Policies, "The Ethnically Coloured Caprine Deity-Person of The Sylvan Ecosystem With The Relaxed Attitude To Birth-Control"..."
It was raining again on Carcosa Crescent, when I arrived back. I was late, I knew, having stopped off in the town square - they had been bayonetting some Multiculturalists, a sight you rarely get to see much these days. I stood there, on the doorstep, looking out into the garden. And there I saw... no, "saw" is not the word for it. It was more of an afterimage... you know when you stare at a sharp image and look away onto a white sheet of paper ? It was just a shape, fading as if someone, or something, was standing in the grass at the bottom of the garden, looking at the house.
I stared, but there was nothing there, if indeed there ever had been. The house was undisturbed, so after dropping my pack in the hall, I went next door. By the hop aroma flooding out across the cold night winds, Mr. Heppleshaw was brewing a new batch.
"Ey up lad," he greeted me, turning round from the boiling vat he was stirring. "Good to see thi', like !" And then he must have seen something in my face, for his own goat ears twitched. "Looks like tha's seen a ghost."
I shook my head. "Not tonight. I've seen ghosts, and ... well. This was something Else." I sat down heavily, suddenly realising I had been trembling. "Have you ... noticed anything, out there ?"
He shook his head, and we both listened. For a minute there was nothing, and then both our ears twitched. There was a sound, coming faintly down the wind, as if falling from endless heights of Outer space. Our ears pricked up in alarm ... and suddenly my neighbour laughed.
"I know what That is, lad," he chuckled. "It's that time of year again, tha' knows ? Wait till folk get thessen a bit nearer, and relax thessen. Drink up !" With that, he filled another two of the illegally ground-down glasses, and passed me a foaming measure.
Soon enough, I could hear the words, of the little band of singers working their way down Carcosa Crescent. Then they were at the door, Mr. Heppleshaw flinging it open to smile on the little band Lurking At The Threshold. They sang, one of the old, old seasonal tunes that still brings a lump to my throat every time I hear it, or see a Balefire blazing merrily on some lightning-crowned hilltop far away:
"Roodmas time, tentacles and slime
Children do unspeakable crimes
Blood on the altars, balefires burn
Time to rejoice as the Old Ones Return!"
I hardly need to add that both my neighbour and I howled shocking obeisance with the choruses of all ninety-six verses. When the singers moved on, their pockets jingling with spare change, bon-bons, mal-mals and other such treats, we sat down again, feeling spiritually refreshed.
"Aye, lad, they Do sing'em like that these days," he smiled, raising his tankard. "I remember learnin' it in School, it were in that musical, "Joseph and the Appalling Monochrome Trenchcoat."
"I did that one !" I nodded. "I didn't get to sing, though ... the teachers thought I was pretty hot stuff playing the thin and sinister nameless flute ... and I'm not too bad at clicking the bone-dry crotala, either..."
"I think Everyone did that musical at school ... " he mused ... It's even in the Hr'ghyal'gha Shards, they pulled out of a Precambrian landfill site from eight hundred million years back ... well, you know what they say." His voice changed, and wrestled with a vocabulary that biologies suited to drinking carbon-based beer and sitting in three-dimensional rooms were not wholly optimised for.
"Ry'lhrrg... Chttttrgggg.. ny'tharg'ha ... Urupthraaah'g ... ry'llllgh'nyath .. p'ghrygg.. phftaaagh..."
I applauded. "But what does it Mean ?"
He gave a sudden, lop-sided grin. "Nobody knows, like ... but it's been passed down since Precambrian times, so it's got to be good, tha' reckons ? The only bits anyone translated of it read "Joseph And The Appalling Monochrome Trenchcoat...""
There was a pause, while we mulled over our thoughts, and mulled ale on the fire as the night grew chill. Eventually, I bade him good-night, and strolled home under the light of the sinister stars and a quite phenomenally Gibbous moon.
The next day I set out alone, hiking out over Ramsgill Moor, eager to find out more, if I could. It was becoming something of an obsession, I admitted to myself... it was not that I had ever known my cousin all that well. My brothers had perished in one of the EU's Political Correctness Enforcement Community Centres, and I felt no burning need to find out the details of that. No, it was something else ... something that struck a cord deep within me, as I left the house with no mirrors, or photographs to reveal just what Osric had looked like.
I found myself wondering just what had been on those shelves, and stored on the computer which had fallen into such strange dust, almost like the threads and spores of a fungus. But what sort of fungus could eat plastic, glass and all the mixed exotic parts of a computer ? The books were easily enough explained: paper and skin bindings perish easily, in the dampness. Though I would have been happier in a way, if there had BEEN some trace of dampness having been in the windowless room between the houses.
The vicarage was easily spotted: it was one of the standard wartime designs, looking rather like a battleship on tracks, but much bigger and far more heavily armoured. It was dug in hull-down next to the post-office: as I stepped out onto the drawbridge I shivered at the fifty metre drop to the top of the tracks in the great artificial canyon yawning below me.
Summoning up my courage, I knocked on the door.
"Your Cousin," I heard the Reverend Fanshaw deeply intoned, "Was, I must tell you, deeply suspect when he came to us. You do know of our Mission ? And what our duties are ?"
I nodded wordlessly, looking across the expanse of the desk. It was a beautiful leather-topped desk two by three metres across, its surface a mosaic of hundreds of rat-sized blue skins, cunningly jigsawed together. "You root out all ... unwanted intrusions from the wrong side of the time-tracks."
He nodded ponderously. The Vicar was a tall, horn-crowned deer of some kind: with his twisting, long horns I wondered if he proudly claimed descent from the famous Vlad The Impala. "We do that. However they may be found. Some, you know, arrive direct, as it were ... in full form, from Universes of ghastly cuteness so extreme that they glow in the dark here, the pastel lambence of real matter breaking down, corrupting to their own substance where it touches them." He took a deep breath. "And living things that have been exposed ... they too become corrupted, and warp their shapes in time to things of similar, but lesser horror."
The Vicar stood up, and looked out of the window, a fine stained-glass affair depicting stylised crusaders (all black armour, Chaos runes and spiky bits) hacking apart something of such sweetness that I felt nauseous when the light passing through its image fell on my crawling fur.
"With those, spotting them is simple enough. Dealing with them is less so ... but fortunately, it was found just in time that certain rare metals can disrupt their auras enough to send them back to the foulness from whence they came." He flicked his long coat aside, and I saw the crossed hilts of a pair of fighting sabres, plain basket hilts and black nylon holsters.
"Tantalum," he pulled one from its scabbard, and slid it towards me. "Tantalum and Technetium, the only non-radioactive elements that are suited to the job. When Nasimura first isolated the fundamental particle, the Kawaiion, back in '09, nobody knew any material that would stop it without being ... corrupted."
I picked up the sabre, as he turned back towards the window - at least I tried to, then tried to pick it up again. The blade was incredibly heavy, a strangely textured pattern on it catching the sunlight, like the Widmanstaaten lines of polished iron meteorites. And then I touched it - and gave a sudden yelp of pain, dropping it on the table with a hard thud.
"Cut myself," I explained, sucking my paw as he whirled to face me. "Those things are Sharp !" I had a mental image of how they would be used, one ten-kilo blade in each hand, the Reverend's trail on the battlefield a hideous spray of smashed plush and spilled stuffing, the like of which would sizzle most Mortal's Sanity points away like water on a hot stovetop.
He gave me a hard look, then relaxed slightly, nodding. "Those blades I wore to Belgium," he said simply, as if nothing else needed to be said. There was a long silence, and he began again to speak, without preamble.
"Your cousin joined us after we had already thrown the EC out of France, though there was one particular ... Site, South-West of Paris, that was never reclaimed. What they had intended to do there, we dared not guess - but we hit the area with short-lived radionuclides and VX agent, and sealed it off forever. That accounted for all the Mortal cultists, we know, and by now ... well, without Sacrifices, whatever Gate they had built, would have gone offline in weeks. So we went into Belgium... into the heart of it. Just in time for the new breed, you might say..."
He pulled off his mirror sunglasses, and looked at me hard. My heart skipped a beat, and as I flinched away from his gaze, I knew why all Vicars were said to be Differently Sane, as the EU Directive 0085569922110 bis would have forced me to say. Those eyes had stared into the pastel Abyss of ultimate fluffiness, and their owner was still alive nearly ten years after. Exactly what he had seen and done there, I was glad I would never have to know. Or so I thought at the time, that afternoon in the study lit by the oddly tinted sunlight shining through that holy and damned window.
"Olmthwaite, O, 4566444," he mused, breaking tone again as he tapped at a Sony DataStation he pulled out of an inner coat pocket. "Some military skill, and a lot of true crusading Zeal ... his own Vicar thought highly of him. Which covered over things that might have otherwise... not gone unnoticed. For the Corruption of the Cute can be subtle, mark you ! Subtle and slow, and perhaps lie dormant for years awaiting that trigger to full-blown contagion. And so we have to be, so Very careful, even now. They are among us still."
"I first met him when the Reverend Hubberholme had given his life to preserve his troops ... given them time to get away by duelling with a Totoroid monstrosity at the Marne crossing. They can recognise us, and you can scarcely believe the glee they radiate when we come within possible hugging reach. It was your cousin who held the retreat together, and stopped it becoming a rout. A fine leader, but to look at him ... there was something deeply disturbing. His shape. Round as roundness should not be ... and he became no thinner, even in the September campaigns where the resupply failed, and the rations were halved. I never saw him after that - for some reason he disliked using the video link. Why that should have been ... disturbs me, even now."
"Then, there was that final campaign ... just when they were about to unleash the flood of That Which Squeaks below, and needed to be sure we didn't overrun the Summoning sites they needed to do it. There were very few survivors of our forward groups, and your cousin was thrown into a rag-tag of whatever forces we had left - including a Russian artillery unit, the 103rd Guards, nicknamed "Farewell Motherland.""
He looked at me with those eyes that seemed to be focussing on a spot a light year behind the back of my head. "You must understand that until that campaign, there had been very few of those from Outside, summoned up against us. At no time, more than two hundred - but what those things ARE, is almost indestructible. Conventional weapons might blow them across the landscape, but with no more harm to them than a football takes from being kicked. Even nuclear devices - need to hit them, literally, with in twenty radius' distance of the warhead core, or it'll do is punt them into high orbit, to land somewhere less prepared for their pastel horror.
"By the final campaign, though ... there were Many of them. And our instruments detected a vast surge in the Kawaiion flux, deep under Brussels itself, as if thousands were massing. I was thirty kilometres away from your cousin at the end, in the outer suburbs of Rotterdam ..." he Shivered. "That was in the final hours, and much was done there that will never be known. But the comms link to his Assault gun battery stayed up till the end."
He told me what he knew, from the official reports, and even managed to pull off a few pages of the original datascript, from that desperate time. The Cornish 179th Tank Army had been almost wiped out, its vehicles picked up and Cuddled till they crumpled like tinfoil ... whole regiments had gone down beneath the all-conquering (but hideously Adorable) toes of the fluffy Horror that was planting its real Pastel bridgehead on Earth. For they had been the ones who had told the EC how to seize power: the Unification Directive and the horrors of the Occupation had been simply their idea of a good joke. Under their inspired leadership, all that was not forbidden became compulsory, and the Regulations were changed until the living envied the dead (who paid less taxes anyway.)
But in that suburb of Rotterdam, the survivors dug in and held, rationing their ammunition. The Russian artillery unit that was covering the bridge crossing was down to half its strength, and with barely a hundred tonnes of ammunition remaining - and with one of the big, smurf-killing 435 mm pieces on full automatic fire, a hundred tonnes does not last long.
Osric was there, surprisingly alive and sane, despite having been exposed to line-of sight contact with the pastel Horror several times. He was crewing the assault-gun when the final attack came in - mortal EC troops first, then tiny squeaking blue-skinned Daemons in a subhuman Wave attack ... and the rubble of Rotterdam bounced with the concussion as the last scores of 435 mm shells threw them back. For a few minutes all was silent, but then over the comms link there came a united groan of horror in half a dozen languages, followed by a distant burst of high, screaming laughter as one of the gun crew suffered another psychiatric fatality. Something Big was coming, rising up out of the river, its drip-dry, machine-washable fleece streaming with water, in a ghastly caricature of an Old One happily striding up from one of the beautiful cities beneath the Pacific.
There was hardly any ammunition left, by then ... and none of the full-calibre concrete-piercing shells that might just would it, if a long enough burst hit a seam. But the comms link caught hints - not translated till all was over - of how there was one shell they were keeping till last, a reprocessed RSZ-11 Artillery round twenty years old, that had been hurriedly fitted with a contact fuze and an outer jacket to fit the larger calibre piece they were using. And then there was no more time to talk, for it was on them.
Perhaps Osric was the last one left alive and sane by then, for the tracked Smurf Destroyer had no runic protection, only the "Chelyabinsk Chobham", and that level of Cuteness could penetrate the top and sides armour in seconds, at that range. For he stayed at his cannon, the final shell in the breech, even while the very steel and ceramic around him began to glow pink with contamination... waiting till the very last second...
The Reverend Fanshaw stopped, and looked at me. "How he stayed functioning so long, is something that ... puzzled me at the time," he said slowly. "For he kept on calling out ranging information even when the Fluffy thing was within a few hundred metres ... he had to be sure the RSZ shell hit a vulnerable seam, and penetrated. And then ... something very strange happened. IT seemed to sense where he was, behind the armour, and made straight towards him. His last shout was that it was opening its mouth ... by then it was only fifty metres away, and preparing to Hug."
There was a silence. At last, I stirred, finding I had been gripping the arm of my chair painfully hard. "And he lived long enough to fire ?"
The Chaos Vicar gave a single, abrupt nod. "He did. That we DO know - in the last second before he was overrun, he destroyed the Main Battle Fluffy that would have crushed whatever resistance we had left. A single shell, right in its gaping maw ... that was what it would have needed, for brand new the RSZ-11's yield was barely four kilotonnes, and the warhead was in its last working year."
So had Osric died, I knew, knowing what he did, and knowing what he had to do. But still... there was still a question beyond that, still so be answered. The Vicar was looking at me oddly, fingering his asymmetric star Octafix, when the phone rang, an old-fashioned one fixed to the wall in the corridor. He left me there in his study without a word, and I looked around at the book-lined walls.
Just then, my heart gave a strange jump. I recognised on the shelf, a book that I had seen before - a second copy, of Von Tuu's "UberPflaumig Kulten", twin to the one that had crumbled to such odd dust in my hands ! I could still hear the Vicar talking down the hallway, so in haste I grabbed it, taking great care to first spot exactly how it had lain on the shelf.
The book was Old, I could see ... it must have dated back to the nineteen-seventies, at least ... and the script was in the style and font coming down from the dark days before the Millennium. The fly-leaf stamp showed this copy to have been part of the private collection of the Dutch transport rental magnate, Albert Van Hire, and I shuddered to recall things I had heard whispered of the circumstances of his ... disappearance, for nothing readily identifiable as a body had ever been found.
Quickly, I pulled out my pocket Leica, flicking through the dread paperback page by page and photographing it, glad I had worked so hard for my Espionage Gold badge in the Cub Scouts. Just in time, I heard the phone going down in the corridor and replaced the book, matching to the millimetre the dust-line showing where on the shelf it had rested.
"I'll look into the files on your Cousin, if you're interested," Reverend Fanshaw nodded as I left that day, back over the moor. "I'm sure there's never been a full correlation of what we know. And then ..." he smiled at me, though I managed to avoid his eyes, "I'll let you know."
Back I walked across Ramsgill Moor, breathing easier for it. And for a few days nothing extraordinary happened ... except that I was conscious, perhaps ... of being Watched. It was nothing definite ... but when I worked outside the house, even in daytime, my fur prickled as if someone was standing right behind me. Nothing was there. The photos I had taken were sent off to be developed by some Privatised ex-KGB lab near St. Petersburg: foolishly I had forgotten how few cellulose film processors there were these days.
And then came that night of Horror, when my life was changed forever. It had started innocently enough: I had tuned in to watch that famous Japanese game show, "Pro-Celebrity Bomb Disposal", Happily settling down to watch the studio audience vote on which wires last season's surplus media stars should try next, I was content. And then the phone rang.
I was already out of the chair and halfway across the room when I remembered something fairly basic. I didn't HAVE a phone here. There was an old handset, but it was not connected: what little voice communication I wanted, went via my wristwatch Cray and its Aetheric modem. I found the white plastic telephone, and picked it up ... the whole cable coming with it, the unconnected plug swinging freely. And still it rang.
I froze, standing there in the hallway, with the shrilling thing in my hands. Then, very slowly ... I picked up the receiver.
At first I heard nothing. Then, there was what seemed like an endlessly distant voice, as if I was only hearing the echo bouncing off the dome of a great soft Cathedral, pouring down like syrup from the stars. There were words ... but for a minute, I could make nothing out. Then I could, and I froze in horror.
"... past ... never Knew ... away, tried to ... it was too late! The ... lastday, I knew ... tried end it all, but ... surely enough to finish me , but ... never saw the flash ... so fast... then I Woke Up !"
The last words were in a kind of horrified squeak, and I almost dropped the phone. But as my fur fluffed out in horror, I realised there was something in the voice that I ought to recognise. Not by its distant squeakiness, never had I known that before, but ... something familiar was there, behind it, that struck a deeply-buried note somewhere.
"... was Grandfather, he didn't know ... " the voice was getting higher-pitched now, and harder to follow, though somehow nearer. "Worked ...Florida.. ... ney, the Castle ... two seasons, and...took root... can't ... it spreads down the years ! Father knew, he ... end it properly... no scrap, if you can ...too late... now... looking down the years, he found out today ! " There was a muffled squeak. and then there was one last clear burst, before the phone hissed and suddenly went dead. "He's almost at the house ! Run !"
I stood there a full minute, my mind blank but seething like a pot of boiling water. My ears went down, and carefully I put the phone down, staring at it as if it was some poisonous snake. But there was nothing more: the phone stayed as silent as an unplugged plastic thing should remain. I shivered, and turned to return to the room.
Suddenly, there was a... what I can only describe as a wave of Silence, flowed through the house. It lay like mist, cold, choking mist ... almost as if the air had been frozen and solidified, so nothing moved in that place. And from out of the windows, I saw a hideously suggestive glow of light, as no light should ever be. What colour it had, I can hardly put a name to ... but it seemed to ooze through the stalled air, as if it spread at some speed of its own that Einstein would never have countenanced nor tried to measure.
It was in the back garden. It was coming from that direction where I had thought I had seen something standing like an invisible statue, looking at me and at the house. With legs that seemed to be working severely time-lagged, I forced myself to move to the kitchen window, and look out. Just as I opened the curtains, the light flared and faded to a dim glow... and sound returned, as if the air had been desperately holding its own breath and only now let it out.
My hand was on the door handle: grimly I forced it to turn, for there are Survival routines in the hindbrains of us all, that are there for very good reasons. But I overrode them, and stepped out into the garden, expecting to be overwhelmed by some noxious stench. The air was indeed strangely sickly-sweet, but nothing unbearable. Slowly, I went down the garden - and there my old life ended.
The Reverend Fanshaw's own life had stopped too: I found his body still warm. His face was set in a rictus of hate; in each hand was an unsheathed Tantalum sabre, the keen edges of which seemed somehow ... blunted, almost glowing. On their razor edges were lines of dim phosphorescence, that faded as I watched, leaving the place in darkness. Examining him, I found no obvious wound, but by the grating of broken bones as I turned him over, I realised he had been crushed ... as if bear-hugged to death in some final deadly embrace with a foe he had come here prepared to meet.
The glow had gone from the surroundings, as I have said. But as my eyes adjusted, I saw to my horror that there was a fading trail of it leading behind the potting-shed - and a stronger, though flickering glow reflected from the fence behind.
If only I had run, there and then ! The voice on the telephone had told me to run, and I might have gone far indeed, by which time certain ... traces, would have faded with the daylight. But I followed the trail, and around the corner I came face to face with that which haunts my dreams even now.
It was rounded, a blueish thing of such ... proportions, and ... texture, that I only know my mind mercifully blanked off the worst of what I was there. And it was fading: the Tantalum blades had torn it apart with wounds that its unnatural vigour could never heal. It flickered ... like a hologram in the last seconds of battery life, and then it looked at me.
"I tried ... stop him ... he didn't know until now ... and didn't tell ... anyone.." It was the voice I had heard on the phone, faint now but clear. "I saw you'd come back ... absorbed ... evidence, didn't want you to know. The film you took ... I couldn't stop that ... you'll have to know, now ..."
The pastel thing squeaked painfully, and as it turned its head I caught an alarming ... Resemblance, so shocking I staggered and almost fell, It panted and flickered wildly, and spoke again, its huge eyes fixed on me.
"They checked up on me, but ... they couldn't prove anything. Because ... there was nothing Outside... I changed from Within ... it was Grandfather, you see. Exposed ... it took hold of him, but he died normally before ... anyone .. knew. Except Father ... the furnace, remember?"
I looked at him, and recognised what ghastly hints of face and voice had been telling me. And then I DID faint, to wake up only with the daylight, where no trace remained. What had been there had ... evaporated, for it was not matter of our kind at all... a kind of ghastly fluff shed from the cosmic String of a universe so alien, and yet so covetous of our own sane and healthy six dimensions.
The police took the Reverend's body away the next day; I told them of the light and the Silence, and of the Thing I had seen - but not a word of what it had told me. And when the photographs from that terrible Book came back that day, I looked through them once before destroying them. For they only confirmed the thing I dreaded to see.
Von Tuu's book truly was a monstrous thing to read, and I am only glad he wrote no more. Had it been Prophetic, it would have been bad enough, for it has this to say of the things the world found out about almost too late to stop:
"And they shall come forth in their legions, from the false castles raised and praised throughout the world: those of softness and squeaking, whose names shall be on all lips, yet no mortal lips shall know the name they give Themselves, nor mortal ears hear their plans till they are ripened. And in the form they take before they are fully bodied, neither shall eyes that live see them, whether in naked fibre or fibrous corruption sheathed in flesh. The Devilbunnies are their kin, yet they can spy them but dimly, and none shall know the secret sowing in mortal flesh till its season of ripening and bitter harvest comes."
"For the corruption they bring may pass through the blood, and sleep long years to awaken: they shall walk among us unknown and unknowing, except to those who share that cup of horror. And at the last the secret seed shall ripen, and trouble all the ages until the last of it is burned, burned without trace nor relic."
All this, I knew, or could guess. But the date was wrong ! If Von Tuu had spoken truth, it was not in my lifetime, even, but much, much earlier when the first of them had set foot on Earth, and decided it would be theirs.
Von Tuu was right. The Thing that spoke to me before it died ... I knew it at the last, and I know what it meant. My cousin Osric had removed the mirrors from the house and tried to destroy all records of his appearance when he felt the Change coming... and somehow he found out what was happening. Some of the books that now were dust in the Room Between had the look of Family records, and some hint of what his Grandfather - MY Grandfather had done, and where he had been, might have survived. Some time when Von Tuu was dreaming his hideously accurate visions, Grandfather Olmthwaite had worked across the Atlantic in a place that was known as Florida when it lay above the waves, at a certain Complex whose name has not been spoken willingly for long years.
What did the pastel thing say ? Of someone who had found out, and made certain that his body would not change further, nor rise again even in the normal Undead fashion ? Osric's Father, my Uncle, I recalled from the family legend, had met a tragic and inexplicable end by falling into a blast furnace that the investigation proved had excellent safely guards against Accidents like that. What of him ?
For I knew even as I fainted, that Osric had not died in Holland. He had tried to - but already, enough of him had been ... altered, to survive even the fate he embraced. And he had regained consciousness, bit by bit, month after month, in a waking nightmare as he knew exactly what he had become. Not in solid form, oh no, but in a sentient cloud, a constellation of particles of Their matter, gaining strength and solidity all the time, and at last making its way back to the only home it knew, hoping perhaps to warn me.
I look down at my hand every now and then, at the scar on my hand. In the Vicarage, I had picked up the Tantalum blade... but its edge had not cut me - it had Burned me like red-hot iron. Now I know why the Reverend Fanshaw had looked at me so oddly, why the lunatic in the asylum had half recognised something of Osric in me ... not for the natural genetics we shared, but for that Other thing that we share now - that curse which no natural death will remove.
As I write this, I know what I must do. There will be no furnace for me: the Change may be too far advanced for even that to succeed. I will hand this to my neighbour, with instructions to open it a week after I am gone... for I know the Reverend Fanshaw was coming not for my Cousin, but for me, and I have another fate in mind. I will go to that destroyed land that was called Belgium, and seek out the others of my kind... for we have no Count Von Tuu for this decade, and beneath the green radioactive glass scabs of Brussels, horrid life stirs in secret.
Cousin Osric came back to warn me ... can I do less for the world ?
#End Transcript 125666 #