FDC presents "Sixtystone" by Mikel Midnight
Near the campus of Brichester University, George Cross seated himself at a streetside table in front of Peace & Beans, the local vegetarian restaurant. A bohemian-appearing waitress whose eyelids lowered wickedly approached him as he perused the menu. "I'm gonna have the alfalfa sprouts and, uh, a plate of mashed yeast."
He set about reading a found copy of The International Times, when his eyes widened as he took in some of the passers-by. "Cyril ... Beryl ... go to a new city and you know the first people you come across."
Beryl Hutchinson laughed, "Hi Georgie."
Cyril Sheldrake looked wary at the sight of his old friend. He guided Beryl to join him at the rough wooden table amidst the clientele of students and a few health-conscious oldsters. "So ... " he said, "visiting Brichester for business or pleasure? Anything to do with our ... mutual hobby?"
"Quite so," George nodded and lowered his voice, "a friend of mine, Talbot, came here after hearing that his brother had disappeared. He rang me yesterday, nearly incoherent, asking me whether I had seen the 'yellow sign,' whatever that is. Naturally I had to investigate. What about you two? I've been reading in the newspapers about your new septet, tackling some quite high-profile cases. I'd think Brichester is a bit out of your way."
At the mention of the yellow sign, the other two shared an uneasy glance. "I think we're here on exactly the same business," Cyril said, "though I suspect what you're really looking for is to the east, out in Goatswood." He gave George a capsule summary of the 'Pain of the Goat' case, and the Soldiers' decision to pursue the matter presently.
"That's ... pretty outside the sort of cases I am usually on top of ... " George mused. "So are you Seven a private club or can just anyone tag along?"
"We've always got room for you, Georgie," Beryl said.
Later that evening, George Cross had donned the costume of the Hood, accompanying the Knight & Squire as they joined their fellows in the woods toward Goatswood, at the clearing with its mysterious gray cone.
"So this is the famous meteorite," the Spider said. He ran his hands along the old stone.
Scarlet Hawk eyed his scanner. "It's not radioactive, at least. Do you see any obvious entrance?"
"Nothing obvious at all," said the Spider, "nor do we know if this even is an entrance; whatever the inhabitants of this place are, they're also using some sort of visually cloaked airship, remember."
"Might this help?" The Hood reached into one of his utility pouches and withdrew a black tablet of stone with writing displaying sixty characters in an alien language upon it. "It's one of the artifacts my friend's brother was working on before he left for Brichester; he called it the Sixtystone."
The Knight blinked, and took the object from his friend's hand, examining it closely. "I recognise some of these symbols; they're similar to the characters shaped from flint along the old stone wall at the edge of the clearing. And that one," he said pointing to a triskelion, "is the yellow sign ... the Pain of the Goat."
The Squire slipped off one of her gloves, attempting to read the information patterns off the object by touch. After only a moment she pulled her hand back as if it had been burned. "Ugh, it's horrible. Ancient and evil. We'd do better off to destroy the thing. But yeah, it can be used as a key, I think among other things."
"Do you see any insets or spaces which look like the tablet might fit into?" the Bowman asked.
"Nothing obvious," the Spider said. "Squire, I'm sorry, we need your talents."
"Just be careful," the Knight said, looking uneasy.
The Shining Knight placed her hand on the other girl's shoulder. "You're among those who love you, sister knight, no harm will come to you here."
The Squire looked from face to face hopelessly, and placed her hand once more on the tablet, the other one on the gray cone. Her face showed her revulsion as she took hold of the tablet, pressing the yellow sign against the top of cone and then rotating the tablet counter-clockwise.
"So it was a key after all," the Spider murmured as a hatchway opened in the turf at the base of the cone, revealing a stairwell carved into the earth.
The Squire dropped the stone, her face pale, and leaned back against the Knight, who whispered to her, "Good girl." Frankenstein knelt down to retrieve the tablet, securing it in his belt pouch.
The Shining Knight drew her sword in anticipation. "This has the look of the work of the Tylwydd Tęg, the little people who were rumored to be ancient even in my time of Arthur. Who knows what monsters they employ to guard their gates?"
"Fortunately, our side has monsters of its own." Frankenstein stepped forward. "I will take point, I am invulnerable and no stranger to horrors."
The Shining Knight looked up at him admiringly. "A monster in name only," she said, "your heart is as true as any knight I have ever fought alongside. Lead on, lead on, and we shall follow."
Frankenstein entered the hallway, grateful for the dimness which hid his facial expression. Ystina, if only my heart were as invulnerable as the rest of me, he thought to himself as he proceeded downwards. He drew forth his steam-guns, having them at the ready.
Vanguard whickered resentfully, and the Shining Knight lay her head against his muzzle. "You'd barely fit in there, and not be able to fly. You remember our instructions ... if you don't hear back from us after a day, contact Detective Sergeant Lament, yes?" He nodded, and she followed the other Soldiers into the dark.
Nothing prepared them for the sudden dropoff, as the stairwell crumbled suddenly and the eight heroes found themselves plummeting groundward. The Spider activated his jetpack, reaching for the Scarlet Hawk and the Bowman to slow their fall.
"Did we just send them all to their deaths?" The Bowman cursed, "Spider, lower us down and let's try to salvage something from this mess." He did not relish the idea of wading through his teammates' corpses, or how he would regather the International Association of Masked Archers if this dreadful case needed to be pursued further.
The Spider nodded his assent in the darkness, and they followed their companions' startled cries. They need not have worried, as the others found their impact halted by a tarp, stretched taut almost like a trampoline, before they hit the ground. Jarred and disoriented, they detangled themselves and made their way through the darkness. "Torches out," the Knight said, and the Spider distributed illuminated spelunkers' helmets to those who needed them.
"Now we know why they use an airship," Shining Knight said indignantly.
"Huh, look at this," the Scarlet Hawk said. "This cloth is suspended between a host of statues. Familiar-looking ones too, I must say."
As they all turned to look, the Squire was first to express her dismay. "Wonder Woman?"
Life-size statues bearing the Themyscarian uniform were poised in a circle around the tarp, which was attached to their hands as if they were holding it. "Not quite," the Scarlet Hawk observed. "The details of the uniform are wrong. This is Wonder Queen, her predecessor who operated in my day. It appears we're not the first costumed adventurers to visit from the surface world."
Only the Knight, through his contacts with the Justice League, knew that Wonder Queen was in fact Hippolyte, mother of Wonder Woman herself who had time-traveled back into the 1940s. "We know something else: at least one individual has come down here and then returned to the surface world. And if she can, we can as well."
"The colours on the stalagmites and stalactites down here are amazing," the Hood observed. "Such a loss they must always be hidden in darkness."
"Who knows about 'always,'" the Spider said. "There may be some Mole People who travel always in darkness, or there may be other sources of light down here ... for all we know one of the outside walls of the cavern we're in has a light switch. It's not as if anyone was expecting us."
"We must hang together, for we can not protect each other if we explore in tandem," said Frankenstein, privately thinking: for I can not protect all of you. "Chinard also has a point. We ought to extinguish our torches and see whether there is any external source of light down here we can follow to its source. That will help conceal our arrival, and also allow our eyes to adjust to whatever we might find."
After a brief discussion, it was agreed. Squire's eyes quickly adjusted. "You were right ... I can see something coming over there, on the far left. Do you?"
The Shining Knight nodded, "I do as well. Our path is set."
"I'm blind as a bat," Scarlet Hawk said. "I'll follow your lead." He wondered what sort of frequency of illumination was gender-biased, as none of the other five Soldiers could see anything as well.
As they approached a passageway leading to a larger cavern, their sight became clearer due to what appeared to be a series of artificial suns, hanging from the cave ceilings. The suns made the interiors reflect with technicolour brilliance. Additional light came from a shining pyramid of flame which was erupting at the head of an evidently sacrificial platform, though cloudlike gases emitted from the flame lent an obscuring glow to the upper levels of the cavern. Gathered around the platform were the Tylwydd Tęg: no more than five feet tall, their abominable yellow limbs, vague and yet too plainly seen, writhing and intertwined. They hissed, rather than spoke, in a venomous tongue, and yet one phrase was plainly recognisable: Shub-Niggurath. Strapped into the center of the platform was the man George Cross recognised as his friend Talbot, going into fits and speaking, in tongues, the very speech of hell.
Near the base of a platform was a woman, regally clad, her skin the same shade as the males, yet taller and beautiful of form and feature while the males were nothing but grotesque. "Hold," she cried out in sibilant English, "we have visitors to the cloudy depths of Demhe ... come forward, penitents to The Goat With a Thousand Young."
The celebration ceased, and the figures turned to watch the Soldiers as they ventured warily into the room. "I am Queen Maleva," the woman said, "you have come from the world above to join us?"
The Hood stepped forward. "We have come for that man," he said, pointing to Talbot. "If he is released to us, we will be willing to depart in peace."
"Silence, male!" Maleva hissed in anger. "Since the Wondrous one came to us in order to reveal the natural inferiority of the male race and to establish the rank of Queen, only females have been allowed to speak unbidden. Do you have any amongst you to speak in the presence of a true daughter of Shub-Niggurath?"
Squire and the Shining Knight glanced at one another, and the latter stepped forward, kneeling before the Queen. "I am Ystina, known as the Shining Knight, last scion of Camelot. I would enquire about your purposes for this captive male."
Maleva smiled. "We women who rule over the mole men mean to conquer the upper world by creating new forms of plague, grown in artificial seed-beds of pestilence. We send forth our ship, the Germ Grower, to gather living samples that we may learn how best to weaken and kill our inferiors. So rise, Shining Ystina, and stand by our side."
The Shining Knight drew her sword, "I have met another queen who was evil incarnate, and you are of like kind. I have nothing to offer you but the point of my sword." She leapt forward, and was interrupted by the mole men, who moved with alarming speed.
The other Soldiers similarly found themselves mobbed. The Hood brought forth his powerful lamp which he normally used to announce his presence to his superstitious, cowardly opponents, shining his insignia of a British cross. Groaning, many of them fled, and he cleared a path towards where his friend lay. He knelt down beside the man, "Talbot," he said, "Talbot, can you understand me? I'm here to help."
The man howled as if possessed, and from his head emitted a slimy tentacle, snake-like in smell and sticky in residue, which wrapped around the Hood like a python.
The others battled the crowd with sword, arrow and mace, web gun and throwball. Frankenstein pushed his way through in an attempt to grasp the foul appendage from which the Hood sought to free himself. As he wrestled with it, the Hood was released to the ground although Frankenstein then found himself bound. Struggling, he reached inside his pouch to pull out the black stone tablet.
"Ixaxar!" The cry went around the mole men at the sight of the tablet, "Ixaxar!" They began to back away, and when Frankenstein touched the stone to the tentacle it retracted back inside Talbot's skull. Whatever force caused the object to manifest though remained undaunted, and Talbot's body began to shift and change, transforming into that of a great wolf, which freed itself from its binds and crouched, snarling at Frankenstein.
"So, it's to be Frankenstein versus the Wolf-Man, is it?" The wolf lunged at Frankenstein's throat, and the fierce battle began. Once the Sixtystone was no longer being used, the mole men resumed their battle, though many scattered in disarray when the body of the wolf was tossed amongst them.
"There is no monster greater than Frankenstein!" he howled, brandishing the Sixtystone once more. He walked to the pyramid of flame, thrusting it inside, until the flames themselves turned black. The bleating of a thousand goats could be heard until the flame itself retracted, leaving nothing but the scent of ash.
"This way!" the Spider shouted over the hysteria of the mole men. He gathered the others together, Frankenstein carrying the unconscious form of the wolf, and directed them to a peculiarly organic looking vehicle, resembling nothing other than a yawl-built boat lying on the body of a large wheelbarrow.
"I curse you for your weakness, Talbot!" cried Maleva as he was carried off. "You shall never be free of this transformation! I curse you all with the wrath of Shub-Niggurath!"
The Knight nodded, "Inside!" he said, and they piled into the cramped structure. The Scarlet Hawk examined the controls, and set his hands to them. Erratically and abruptly, the Germ Grower rose into the air, heading up the passageway they had entered, soaring towards the light.
The Bowman eyed the pathway suspiciously. "Shouldn't there be a hatch opening about now, Baker?"
The Squire screamed as the vehicle crashed into the entranceway, the sound met by Vanguard's startled whinny from above as the ground erupted beneath the horse, sod exploded by the vehicle which appeared invisible in the sunlight. Frankenstein pushed his fist through the visor window, and with the assistance of the winged horse and the Spider's jetpack, the inhabitants managed to clear the vehicle before it tumbled backwards, crashing into the impossible depths below.
Once exposed to sunlight, Talbot reverted to his original human form. The Hood knelt down, removing his disguise so the face of George Cross was plainly visible. "Talbot? Larry Talbot? Are you still with us?"
"He might not be in his right mind," the Knight said. "I can't even imagine what he was subjected to down there."
"I'll take care of him, and be sure he gets the help he needs," George said.
"What are we going to do about the mole men," Squire asked.
"I think after the destruction we caused down there, they're no immediate threat. But we're going to contact the Justice Society, for the first thing, and see if they have any information in their archives which may be useful. Maybe call in the Ultramarines. This is not over yet, not by a long shot."
The supernatural aspects of this story (and the occasional small bit of prose) have been borrowed from Wonder Woman #4 as well as a variety of secondary sources, notably detailing Ramsey Campbell, H.P. Lovecraft, Curt Siodmak, Arthur Machen's "Little People" stories and Robert Potter's The Germ Growers.
The Hood was my original seventh member of the team; circumstances required his replacement with Frankenstein (sacrificing the universal Britishness of the team but acquiring a less generic Soldier in exchange). Alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast is the menu item Woody Allen ordered at the Sunset Boulevard-located vegetarian restaurant in Annie Hall.