FDC presents "Against the Nights of the Underground Fable" by Mikel Midnight
(A great deal of the prose in the beginning of this story is from "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" written by Ambrose Bierce.)
The silver aircraft called the Aviosub soared over the lands surrounding Carcosa, which were dark and twisted with corruption. Bowman eyed the Knight curiously. "And did you notice Naotalba didn't know what the Yellow Sign was called? Yet you named it the Pain of the Goat."
The Knight looked troubled by his memory of the sign revealing its true shape to him, all those years ago. "Hastur was originally a benign god of goat herders. Queen Maleva worshipped Shub-Niggurath, the Goat With a Thousand Young. The symbol has been used to represent both."
"Why 'the Pain of?'," Squire asked. "Birth pangs?"
"It put an end to the mole-men's fire," Frankenstein said.
"So it did, so it did ... " the Spider mused. "Which convinced all of us it could be used for our benefit, so Frankenstein carried it with him to Yhtill ... and then its presence seemed to act as a catalyst for Hastur's arrival."
Scarlet Hawk nodded, "The Spider's right. I think we've been manipulated. Even Princess Camilla dressed as a goat during the masque."
The Shining Knight winced, recalling the hapless girl's degradation after the King in Yellow's arrival. "He does truly represent Vice."
"Ystina, you said he looked like a mummer ... that's an actor, right? ... the 'King of Rags and Tatters' ... does that imply that ... what we saw of him wasn't real? That this was all a play?" Squire asked.
"The Hastur we met was no actor, nor were his undead scions," Frankenstein said. "Would that they were."
"Hrh, look to the left, mates, we have company." Scarlet Hawk peered from his pilot's seat at the black, shriveled, flying monstrosity with tentacles tipped with razor-sharp talons that hurtled through the air towards the Aviosub.
Vanguard snorted, stamping his hooves. The Shining Knight rose to her feet. "I know, you have been too long only a means of transportation and your heart thirsts for battle. Shall we approach this feaster from afar, together?" He nodded, and Squire quickly unbolted the hatchway door, clearing the way as the winged steed leaped out into the sky, the Shining Knight diving after him, landing perfectly mid-saddle with her sword drawn. Vanguard snorted and his hooves and teeth joined her sword as they fought the monster.
Scarlet Hawk cursed. "There's more on the way ... that was foolhardy ... now we don't have a choice. Bowman?"
Bowman nodded, manning the helm as Scarlet Hawk stepped into the Hoverer, holstering his old revolvers along with his throwball. He and the Spider stepped out into the skies as they were beset by a squadron of attackers. The Knight stepped up to join him as co-pilot.
The Aviosub's guns fired against the monsters as they came, but soon it came under a more focused attack. "They're damaging the engines," Bowman said.
"We're going to have to take her down, and hope those things don't follow us on the ground," the Knight said. "Though god know what other monsters are waiting for us there."
"I'll be waiting for them," Frankenstein said, as the vehicle began its rocky descent. The trio of aerial Soldiers retreated, firing and slashing away as they too descended to join their teammates, the Hoverer damaged and smoking as Scarlet Hawk guided it in for a rough landing. They all looked up to see the surviving monsters departing skywards, and a sudden chill wind struck their faces as they reunited to examine their unfamiliar surroundings. On every side of them stretched a bleak and desolate expanse of plain, covered with a tall overgrowth of sere grass, which rustled and whistled in the autumn wind. Protruded at long intervals above it, stood strangely shaped and somber-colored rocks, which seemed to have an understanding with one another and to exchange looks of uncomfortable significance, as if they had reared their heads to watch the issue of some foreseen event. A few blasted trees here and there appeared as leaders in this malevolent conspiracy of silent expectation.
"Look," Squire said, "we're ... somewhere else. Twin suns." Over all the dismal landscape a canopy of low, lead-colored clouds hung like a visible curse, obscuring the light of the suns which were still clearly visible in the sky. In all this there were a menace and a portent--a hint of evil, an intimation of doom. Bird, beast, or insect there was none. The wind sighed in the bare branches of the dead trees and the gray grass bent to whisper its dread secret to the earth; but no other sound nor motion broke the awful repose of that dismal place.
"This is some powerful magic," the Shining Knight said. "I don't believe even our Gloriana Tenebrae would have had the power to install a second sun in the sky."
The Knight sighed, this not being the place to discuss overlapping pocket universes with his teammate. "We're still distant from the castle, and so far as the way remains clear, we'll just have to travel the rest on foot."
Trekking on, they observed in the herbage a number of weather-worn stones, evidently shaped with tools. They were broken, covered with moss and half sunken in the earth. Some lay prostrate, some leaned at various angles, none was vertical. The Shining Knight knelt down to examine them. "These appear to be the headstones of graves."
The Knight paused and looked around. "If there were any graves here, they no longer exist, not even as mounds or depressions."
"The years level all," Scarlet Hawk added solemnly.
Scattered here and there, more massive blocks showed where some pompous tomb or ambitious monument had once flung its feeble defiance at oblivion. "So old seem these relics," Frankenstein said quietly, "these vestiges of vanity and memorials of affection and piety, so battered and worn and stained--so neglected, deserted, forgotten the place, that I can not help thinking myself the discoverer of the burial-ground of a prehistoric race of men whose very name is long extinct."
"You are filled with a rare and poetic melancholy I have not seen of you before," said the Shining Knight. "It suits you well, oh modern prometheus."
Frankenstein grunted, Squire looked at her wryly in response to her comment: Ystina's been educating herself, she thought.
No signs of human life were anywhere visible nor audible; no rising smoke, no watch-dog's bark, no lowing of cattle, no shouts of children at play--nothing but that dismal burial-place, with its air of mystery and dread. "Will we not become delirious, here beyond human aid?" Bowman mused aloud, even as he walked among the crumbling stones and in the withered grass.
A noise behind them caused them to turn about. A wild animal--a lynx-- was approaching. Vanguard sprang toward it, rearing high. The lynx trotted tranquilly by within a hand's breadth and disappeared behind a rock.
A moment later a man's head appeared to rise out of the ground a short distance away. He was ascending the farther slope of a low hill whose crest was hardly to be distinguished from the general level. His whole figure soon came into view against the background of gray cloud. He was half naked, half clad in skins. His hair was unkempt, his beard long and ragged. In one hand he carried a bow and arrow; the other held a blazing torch with a long trail of black smoke. He walked slowly and with caution, as if he feared falling into some open grave concealed by the tall grass. This strange apparition surprised but did not alarm, and taking such a course as to intercept him, the Spider met him almost face to face, accosting him with the familiar salutation, "God keep you."
He gave no heed, nor did he arrest his pace.
"Good stranger," the Spider continued, "we are ill and lost. Direct us, I beseech you, to Carcosa."
The man broke into a barbarous chant in an unknown tongue, passing on and away.
An owl on the branch of a decayed tree hooted dismally and was answered by another in the distance. Looking upward, they saw through a sudden rift in the clouds Aldebaran and the Hyades. In all this there was a hint of night--the lynx, the man with the torch, the owl.
Scarlet Hawk looked up. "We can even see the stars in absence of the darkness ... they're black against a nearly white sky. Under what awful spell does this mad world exist?"
A great root of the giant tree against whose trunk they passed held enclosed in its grasp a slab of stone, a part of which protruded into a recess formed by another root. The stone was thus partly protected from the weather, though greatly decomposed. Its edges were worn round, its corners eaten away, its surface deeply furrowed and scaled. Glittering particles of mica were visible in the earth about it--vestiges of its decomposition. This stone had apparently marked the grave out of which the tree had sprung ages ago. The tree's exacting roots had robbed the grave and made the stone a prisoner.
A level shaft of light illuminated the whole side of the tree as they continued on their trek. The suns were rising in the rosy east. They stood between the tree and the broad red disks--no shadow darkened the trunk. A chorus of howling wolves saluted the dawn. They saw them sitting on their haunches, singly and in groups, on the summits of irregular mounds and tumuli filling a half of the desert prospect and extending to the horizon. And then they knew that this was the ancient and frightful red-litten city of Carcosa.
After their long trek, the castle loomed unimaginably large before them, seeming to stretch off into space. Its walls were rough-hewn from red stone, its turrets reeking of evil. Its portal though was open, the hatch down and covering a yawning moat which seemed to descend to the underworld. "It looks like we're not unwelcome," the Knight said, "it's time to do what we came here for."
The Soldiers looked at one another, their faces filled with trepidation. Weapons drawn, they entered the castle in tight formation, backs to each other as they traversed the confusing tangle of ill-lit corridors with disturbing frescoes that chronicles Carcosa's bloodcurdling history. Eventually arriving inside a frightening domed room, they beheld an immense circular table, armoured fingers seated at it; above them, another pair sat on thrones of gold atop a stone dais. On the right slumped the lumpish figure of the King in Yellow, his brand on one side of his throne, his sword on the other. On the left sat a woman clad in gold and purple, her features concealed behind a gold masque with goatlike horns at its peak. On the wall behind the thrones was draped the symbol of a silver pine tree on a dark green background.
"Who disturbs the Knights of the Shadow Realm of Perfidious Albion?" asked the woman, when the Soldiers entered. They all turned to face her, and her voice as well as the features of her masque were instantly recognisable to one of the intruders.
The Shining Knight snarled, her face showing her loathing. "Morgaine le Fey!" She leapt forward, sword drawn and aimed at the woman's throat. The greyish-white hands of the King in Yellow reacted with lightning swiftness, drawing forth his sword to intercept the attack, and such was the force of the block that it rebounded her across the room. Frankenstein ran to retrieve her. "His sword ... " she whispered as he eased her back to her feet.
"The sword?" Frankenstein asked as her teammates backed up to clear a protective circle around the girl.
"It is Caliburn," she said, her voice mournful. "I did not recognise him when he walked amongst us in Yhtill, but Hastur is naught other than some twisted rendition of good King Arthur. Is Carcosa thus Morgaine's shadow reflection of Camelot?"
The knights had risen to their feet. "You would attack the Queen?" one of them shouted. He was hideously ugly, and his voice was garbled and unhealthy, as if he were speaking from underwater. "In truth as my name is Lancelot, I shall have your heads for this!"
Hastur beckoned to those who called him liege. "Come Lance, Gawain, Kay and Bors, let us dispel these intruders who would insult our Queen!" He descended on the Shining Knight, sword whirling in his powerful arms.
Frankenstein stepped forward to protect her, but found himself blocked by Gawain. "A biggun, eh?" the man said. "My strength is only starting to reach its peak as the twin suns rise ... let us see whether he can challenge me even now." Frankenstein grunted in pain as the knight's powerful hands met his own, and the pair began to wrestle.
The Knight swept aside his cape, and a squadron of miniature spitfires flew out, stinging bullets deflecting off Lancelot's seemingly invulnerable armour. His face split into a ghoulish grin beneath his helm, and he entered into battle with the Knight and Squire, their swords ineffective against his protection.
Scarlet Hawk aimed his throwball at Kay, who staggered under Baker's deadly accuracy, but a shift of his own cloak and he disappeared from sight. Scarlet Hawk backed away, narrowing his eyes suspiciously, when he felt the side of his helmet jarred by a blow from an invisible sword.
Bowman drew forth an a slew of arrows, aimed at Bors. The latter raised his hand, and from a scarlet ring he wore emitted tongues of flame, which incinerated the arrows before they could reach their target. Slowly, the shadow knight began to advance.
As the battles raged on, the Spider drew forth his web gun, firing a steel strong strand to the ceiling of the dome. He drew himself up to the top, where he hung like his namesake waiting for its prey.
Shouts of frustration and pain filled the throne room, and he saw his allies on the losing side. Slowly, he descended once more, until he sat in a reposed position, facing Morgaine. "Your Majesty," he said, bowing his head respectfully.
She tilted her head at him curiously. "You have the look of a master manipulator. And you are no more native to the world these others came from than I am. What boon do you seek?"
"Much like you, I am a seeker after knowledge." He bowed his head. "It was you who sent the Clockwork Cagliostro to storm Edinburgh Castle, wasn't it? What was your claim there?"
She snorted. "I am not titled the Witch-Queen of Northumberland for naught. Our people came from space to inhabit that land, and there was a temple built to me there. It is the first of the places we will reclaim when we take our rightful place once more in the world of men, striding forth from Yhtill."
He hrmed, removing a small box from his weapons pack and gazing at it thoughtfully. Her eyes widened. "That ... that ... how dare you bring that abominable object here! How did you come to obtain that thing?"
"Oh ... this little toy? It was described in some antique papers by Giuseppe Balsamo ... the Count Alessandro di Cagliostro. He was really quite ahead of his time, you know. I didn't realise at first that his abstract symbols were in fact something like circuit diagrams, and that many of his mystical discourses were in fact instruction manuals." It was only the Scarlet Hawk, under hypnosis, who had had the necessary skills to construct it, he recollected to himself, but some secrets are best left unspoken. "Your clockwork toymaker certainly seemed interested in those papers. I wonder what it does?" His deft fingers roamed along its side, finally reaching and turning a clockwork key.
Morgaine shrieked in fury, gold-clawed hands lunging for him, but he quickly retreated back up to the dome ceiling and out of her reach, as the box began to emit a still, small sound.
Ping ... ping ... ping ... ping ... ping ...ping ... ping ...
As if in answer, the walls of the domed room resounded with a BOOM.
A glowing tube appeared out of nowhere, and from it appeared a man eight feet tall, barechested and carrying a flaming sword. A winged helm rested over his long dark hair, and he rode atop an eight-legged stallion. "Aho, Thunderer," he said to his mount in a voice that filled the room as his horse reared into the air, "what devilry have we been summoned into?"
Hastur turned from the Shining Knight, and his sword Caliburn flashed through the air, only to be met by impenetrable flame. Morgaine screamed in hatred as the King in Yellow was felled, and the man dismounted, joining the Soldiers in battle. Thunderer's eyes flashed as it began to rampage around the room, hooves striking out against the blood-stained walls. Morgaine began to utter ancient words of control, but the horse charged to her. Panicked, she teleported herself away, abandoning her puppet knights.
As the last of them fell, the Shining Knight approached the man who had come to their aid. She knelt at his feet, "Sir, we thank you for your aid. May we have your name, that we may sing songs of your greatness in battle?"
He smiled down at her as he sheathed his sword. "I am Leäfar, called Lonar. I as well as these shadowy ones are inhabitants not of earth, but of ether; as they have themselves told you, we are dwellers in space. They have been interfering in human history and warring on the Infinite One for centuries. Later on in the plains of Assyria, under the name and form of a man, I baffled the designs of another of the same evil race. At the call of the Mother Box, I joined your battle to warn your first father of the designs of an enemy of the same order as this one of yours, but far mightier than she."
"We shall warn our leaders," the Knight said. "Lonar, we ... our team ... our vehicle was destroyed. I do not know what will happen to us if Carcosa contracts and removes itself from Yhtill and the Isles. Will we be stranded here?"
Lonar looked around the room, his eyes settling finally. "This artifact does not belong here. It springs from your own world. Assemble atop it, and I will dispatch you thence."
"The table?" Squire's eyes widened. "This is actually the real King Arthur's round table?"
The Shining Knight grinned, "If not the real, than a King Arthur, possibly. Although it does have a similar look to the one that I knew." She clambered atop it, followed by Vanguard. The others glanced at each other, almost shrugging, and joined her.
Lonar removed a gold box from the lining of his helmet. It was much smaller than the antiquated one the Spider had assembled, but he used it to open another boom tube, rough riding the Soldiers back to the Earth they knew.
His ears still ringing, Scarlet Hawk recognised the familiar architecture, on the Orkney island northwest of Scotland. "My god, he sent us home," he said as they all dismounted the table.
The Spider looked down at the clockwork device in his hand. "These are very clever devices, it seems. We must be careful with this one."
Frankenstein grinned, looking even more ghoulish. "And we have a new centerpiece for our meeting room. It fits us, I think."
Bowman looked at the Spider warily. How long had he access to the papers which had allowed him to build the device? Why hadn't he notified the rest of the team? He would leave his questions unstated for now, in their moment of victory, but he would not easily forget his suspicions.
"And if what Lonar said is true," the Knight said, "we not only prevented the shadow realm of Perfidious Albion from completely overrunning our own reality level, but reclaimed one of our greatest treasures. That's about all one could hope for from a successful case."
"And a day the minstrels will be singing of for generations." The Shining Knight raised an imaginary glass, "to the Seven Soldiers!"