From: simon leo barber <> Newsgroups:

cthulhu Subject: Shoggoths and Swashbucklers (Andrew Nellis, repost) Date: Wed, 05 Jun 1996 19:17:50 GMT From: bs904@FreeNet.Carleton.CA (Andrew Nellis) Subject: STORY: Shoggoths and Swashbucklers Date: Mon, 17 Jul 1995 10:00:27 GMT WARNING: Rated PG (Parental Guidance suggested)

After reading the recent multi-part sotry by Darcthyus in this newsgroup, I found myself annoyed that the protagonist of hsi story should be able to operate without challenge from a single brave, noble, etc, etc, hero daring to stand up to him. I must admit that I am something of a romantic, and while I'm sure most of you tend to side with Wil Whately and will be most annoyed at me for tossing a wrench into the works of your twisted imagination, I think someone has to stand up for the good guys and be counted. For those unfamilar with 17th century France, it was a time of great political upheaval, and of course great swashbuckling and daring-do. Most people are not aware that while the specific events in The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas are fictionalized, the people and politics he wrote about were very real indeed. If you enjoy this story please let me know. If you don't enjoy this story, well, I guess you can still let me know, but I won't we anywhere near as happy and i can't promise you a card at Christmas. I give you a warning that it does take a while for the story to enter the "sex/cthulhu" genre, but I believe it is well worth the wait. If it's not quite as hard-core as you'd like, sorry but you're stuck with it until someone gets around to creating alt.romance.cthulhu.swashbuckling ;-). Special thanks to Dracthyus for the inspiration, even if it was by negative example. 8-) One final warning that there is at least one graphic sexual scene, and several graphic violence scenes described. If you are likely to be offended by this, please do not read any further. Now, tie on your tabard, strap on your sword belt, and get the popcorn ready, because it's all for one, and one for all! On with the show! ------------------------

Had there be anyone there to see him, they would have been quite surprised at the lithe and utterly silent grace with which the large man crept

through the darkened coridors. Walking on the balls of his feet, he advanced with one hand extended, for he dared not carry light and the dim starlight ghosting through the very ocassional narrow-slitted window was not enough to see well. His other hand rested lightly on the gasket and pommel of the sword that hung at his side, for he was neither an expected nor a welcome guest. At an intersection in the hallway, he froze, his head slightly cocked to one side like a hare scenting danger. Voices. At least two of them, he guessed, and not far away, though it was hard to tell here for the long, winding hallways played strangely with sounds. Suddenly, light bloomed down one of the side passages, and he realized that in a moment, whoever carried the light was going to turn the corner and see him standing in the intersection. With a speed that belied his bulk and would have left an observer gasping with amazement, he darted back two steps down the passage he had come, and squeezed himself into the shadows of an alcove containing one of the interminable statues of the Virgin. He pressed himself behind the statue as best he could, whispering a brief "Pardon, madame," into its cold, alabaster ear. Down the corridor, two of the Cardinal's Guard in their yellow-on-red tabards hove into view, one carrying a hissing flambeaux, and both with functional-looking rapiers at their side. As they passed his hiding place, he held his breath, willing them not to turn and see him. Pressed in place as he was, he would be defenceless to their swords if he was discovered. Like any good Gascon he did not fear death, but he would not pass from the world in so ignoble a way if he could avoid it. "It is a bad business, Armand," said the man with the torch. "Oui, it is that. nervously. I like not the smells from the cellar," said Armarnd

"What does he do down there, do you suppose?" Armand crossed himself as the two passed him hiding place, muttering "I am sure that I do not wish to know." After they had passed from sight, he allowed himself to exhale his held breath explosively. He pondered their words, and wondered what bearing they had, if any, on his mission. He made himself wait for five minutes in case they came back, and as he waited, his mind wandered back to the meeting the week before. He had been resting in his bunk with a pot of cheap red wine, dozing lightly but not really asleep, when Arnaud had poked him in the abdomen with the toe of his boot, saying loudly, "Leves-toi, Isaac, you lazy sloth! De Troisvilles has sent for you, though the Lord alone knows why. Maybe he requires someone to slop the stables, eh?" Opening one eye, he peered at his friend, Arnaud de Sillegue d'Athos. The man was stroking his great waxed moustaches, as usual, for they were his pride and joy. "Thigh ticklers" he often called them with a twinkle in his eye, and Isaac was forced to admit that d'Athos certainly got his share of the women, and a sizable portion of everyone else's. Perhaps there was something to the moustache after all.

"Up, up!" continued Arnaud, waving a hand theatrically. Isaac recognized the impish smile that crinkled his friend's face and sighed inwardly. He was to be the butt of his jibes again. Or perhaps not, he thought, the faintest of smiles adding a subtle upward twist to the edges of his lips. If Arnaud saw the smile he gave no sign, but continued in his loud, hyperactive ministrations. "Up with you, brute! Here you are slugabed, while there is work to be done," he went on, and made to jab Isaac in his broad gut once again with the toe of his boot. "Yaaaah!" shrieked Arnaud suddenly, in mid-sentence. With a swiftness none would have believed possible, Isaac grabbed the proferred foot by the ankle and, standing up, heaved Arnaud upside down so he dangled head-first over the floor. "Yah, let me go, you great oxen!" yelled Arnaud, his eyes wide with surprise. Isaac bellowed in laughter, and shook Arnaud violently up and down by his foot as if the man weighed nothing more than a rag doll. Coins from Arnaud's changepurse fell to the floor in a metallic rain, rolling in all directions, and his rapier slipped from its sheuth to clatter on the floor alongside his hat. "St-st-stop th-that! I d-d-demand y-you c-cease or I sh-sh-shall b-b-become a-annoyed," said Arnaud loudly, trying to be heard over the great roar of Isaac's barrel-chested laugh, which seemed to shake the very foundations of the building. All at once, Isaac dropped him in a heap and wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes. Isaac de Portau was not a somber man, but his humour ran more to the broad and physical than the sophisticated word-play his friend Arnaud so seemed to enjoy. Buckling on his sword belt and placing his feathered slouch hat upon his head, Isaac swept out the door past a shaken Arnaud, calling out behind him, "Beware, friend d'Athos, when you hunt the tiger, for sometimes the tiger hunts you." It was a short walk to the Hotel de Troisvilles, and the air helped clear de Portau's head, redolent though the air was with the smell of horse droppings and the rancid sweat of too many people living in too small an area. Dodging carriages and avoiding the pitiful bundles of rags which slept in the street and ocassionally begged him for a few pistoles, he picked his way through the narrow avenues. He was admitted past the guards without question, and he finally trooped into the office where de Troisvilles was instructing a lackey of the errands he was to run. "You may go," said de Troisvilles, nodding in greeting to Isaac, who sketched a quick bow in return. Both men waited until the lackey had left, Isaac closing the door at a motion from da Troisvilles. Jean-Arnaud du Peyrer de Troisvilles leaned back in his chair and surveryed the King's Musqueteer before him. Having been the commander of the Musqueteers for many years, he was an excellent judge of character. He knew, of course, that de Portau was brave and capable; that much was true of every man in the Musqueteers, for they were the very best of France's foot soldiers, each one selected and approved by de Troisvilles personally. The problem he faced, however, required also other talents. First and

foremost, he foolish as to organization, simply a fact But de Portau in the affair

required someone trustworthy. De Troisvilles was not so believe that the Cardinal did not have men within his as de Troisvilles had men within the Cardinal's. That was of life in 17th century France that went without mentioning. had showed his loyalty and more importantly, his discretion, of George Villiers, the english duke, not many years earlier.

De Portau had other assets as well. He was a Gascon, and de Troisvilles did not trust these Parisian dandies, with their lace and ruffles. De Portau was also likely the strongest man in all the Musqueteers. Standing over six feet, he towered over everyone else, and his solid muscle stretched his blue tabard tautly across his great bull chest. De Troisvilles had once seen de Portau split a Spaniard from the top of the head to nearly the midsection with a slash from his rapier during battle. And while de Portau did not have the scientific skill with a sword of, say, Henri d'Aramitz, he did possess a kind of animal cunning that made him a dangerous fencer indeed. All these things de Troisvilles had known already, but he knew that the truth of a man lay in his eyes, and his cool gaze met de Portau's own, probing and measuring. If de Troisvilles' eyes were flecks of ice, de Portau's were blazing coals, reflecting a fiery passion deep in his broad, muscular chest. Somewhat to his surprise, de Troisvilles felt a measure of the same probing from de Portau that he himself was engaged in. Both seemed satisfied with what they believed they saw in the other, and someone else in the room would have instantly felt the release of tension. "Please," said de Troisvilles, motioning to a chair. The chair creaked alarmingly as de Portau sat his bulk upon it, but God had decreed that it should withstand his weight this day. "I am sorry to disturb you Isaac," began de Troisvilles, "I know it is your off day, and I would not have robbed you of relaxation without great cause." "I am a soldier," rumbled Isaac, dismissing it with an airy wave of his meaty hand. "I live to serve God and the King, whatever the day may be. Duty takes no holiday. If I'd wanted a life of ease and laziness, I'd have joined the Cardinal's Guard." De Troisvilles had to smile. He knew then that he had picked the right man and launched immediately into his story. "Four days ago, a boy arrived here in my office and sat in the very chair you now occupy. His eyes rolled like a horse's at the scent of blood and the sound of battle, and his face was white with terror. He could have been no older than twelve, and he was dressed in the Cardinal's livery. "He told me that his name was Richard, and that he was the only son of lackies married in Richilieu's service. He was almost incoherent with fear, and babbled a long, nonsensical story about some kind of horrible monster that had killed his parents." De Portau raised a single ponderous brow, but remained silent. "He said that his family lived in the servants' quarters of Notre Dame, and that his father was a wine steward. Of late, he said, there had been

terrible smells in the cellars, and his father did not like to go down there. The common belief was that an animal, perhaps a cur, had found its way down and died in some dark corner. "He said that it had been his father's custom to take a glass of wine in the late evenings before retiring, and that this night he discovered his last bottle empty. Though he disliked the smell of the cellars, he did not fear them as many did, for though they were dark and shadowy, and caked with nitre and old cobwebs, he had been safe enough in all the years he had spent tending to the Cardinal's wines. "Taking a lamp with him, he had left to get a fresh bottle from the cellars and never returned. His wife thought it odd that he should spend so long there, especially as the foetor in the cellars had seemed so much worse recently. Though she was far more fearful than her husband of the dark and ancient cellars, she had imagined him sprawled at the bottom of the stairs with a broken leg perhaps, and rose to go to him, taking their second and last lamp. "She had left a candle burning in their rooms for the boy, for he had awakened from the disruption, and lay listening on his pallet with the wide ears of children. After some time when his mother had not returned and the candle began guttering low, the boy grew nervous. "His fear gave him the strength to light a new candle from the remnants of the old one, and, dressing quickly, follow in the steps of his mother and father to the cellar to see what was become of them. "Here his story grew confused, for he was alternately sobbing and shrieking in terror," said de Troisvilles, growing thoughtful. "I shall tell you though, Isaac, there were times when I thought those sobs sounded like hideous laughter, and I am not ashamed to tell you that it prickled the hairs on my neck." De Portau crossed himself without being aware of it and shifted uncomfortably in his seat, provoking a new series of creaks and groans from the tormented wood. "As best I was able to determine," continued de Troisvilles, "the boy says he crept down the stairs to the cellar and found the door ajar. Peering around the corner, he claims he saw some kind of beast devouring the bloody remains of his parents. When I asked him to describe this beast, he just shuddered. "He said he made to creep back up the stairs but when he turned around, the Cardinal himself was standing on the riser above him, glaring down at him." "Monster enough for any boy," chortled de Portau. De Troisvilles shot an annoyed look at de Portau and continued. "The boy claims the Cardinal grabbed him and was going to drag him into the cellar with the monster, when he balled up his fist and let the old man have it right in the sweetmeats." De Portau howled in laughter, his great form shaking with mirth as the chair threatened to collapse once more. De Troisvilles tried to look angry, but could not keep himself from chuckling.

"I'd trade a month's wages to have seen that," averred de Portau, trying to catch his breath. "I'd not be averse to seeing it myself," admitted de Troisvilles. "In any case, the boy said he made his escape while Richilieu lay on the stairs moaning, and dashed from Notre Dame before the guards could be alterted. He said he spent hours hidden in a stable nearby, watching the Cardinal's Guard look for him, and later made his way here, the only place he felt could protect him from both the Cardinal and the monster." De Portau scratched his chin and pondered for a moment. "How much of the boy's story do you believe? Obviously there is no monster lurking in Notre Dame other than the good Cardinal himself, but the story has the ring of truth to it to my ears. Mayhap he saw some evil of the Cardinal's befall his parents?" De Troisvilles nodded in agreement. "I wasn't sure what to make of it, but the boy was in mortal terror that was too complete to be feigned. At the very least I could make a few inquiries and easily ascertain at least a few of the details of his story. I gave him a room and a pallet here, and saw that he was fed. "He said that he did not believe he was seen or followed, but to be certain, I placed two good men at his door with orders to admit no one but myself. That evening, when I went to visit him and clear up a few details of his story, I discovered him unconscious. I summoned a surgeon immediately, and I was told the buy was suffering from a brain fever, extremely rare in one so young unless he had experienced something which caused emotional upset in extremis. "He hovered at the edge of consciousness, raving and screaming for two days, until finally he grew quiet and his condition seemed to improve. That was last night. This morning, when I went to check on his condition, the boy was gone." De Portau blinked in surprise. "What of the men guarding him?"

"They swear that they neither saw nor heard anything all night, and that there were no visitors. Neither, they say, did they see the boy leave. Since there is no window to the room, I would have had little choice but to believe the men liars, traitors, and possibly worse besides, save for the fact that when I arrived, we had to bash the door in, for it would not open, and the boy would not answer and we feared for his safety. Some time during the night, the boy had levered his chair against the door, and made a wedge to jam it shut from the straw of his pallet." De Portau frowned. "Damned strange," he muttered, a shiver of supernatural chill pimpling his back against his will. "It is that, I'll grant you. Truthfully, Isaac, I just am not sure what to do. I'm beginning to doubt my own sanity in this matter. It's as if the boy never existed. My instincts tell me that this is no small matter, and anything that places Richilieu in a bad light is of interest to me. I wish you to look into this matter." De Troisvilles reached inside his tabard, and pulled out a folded rectangle of parchment which he slid across his desk to de Portau. He remained silent as the big man scanned the paper, his eyebrows lifting slightly and

then shooting straight up on his forehead like frightened cats. "This paper," said de Portau, gesturing with it. "It is real? What I mean is, the seal affixed is what it appears to be, and it says what it seems to say?" De Troisvilles nodded. "As you well know, that is the seal of His Royal Highness, King Louis XIII, and that is his mark above it. And as you have no doubt gleaned from the cautious political wording, I am permitted and required to allow myself or my agent carte blanche in investigating this matter." Whistling low in appreciation, de Portau's eyes narrowed and shot de Troisvilles such a look of cunning calculation that da Troisvilles was momentarily taken aback, and had to remind himself with a mental kick that he was dealing with no slab-sided mountain of beef with brain to match, regardless of the man's appearance. "This paper must have cost many favours owed to you," said Portau, almost as if he were thinking aloud. "Surely the fate of two lackies and their penniless son cannot be of such great value. If I am to accomplish what is required of me, I must know all, monsieur." The commander of the Musqueteers sat for a moment and weighed matters in his mind. He sighed as if coming to some answer in his calculations that displeased him, though thrice-checked. "As you know, Isaac, His Emminence has been in failing health for some time. It is sinful to pray for the death of a man, especially when that man is a cardinal of the church of God. And yet, I know I for one shall be thankful when he breathes his last, for while he lives he is an unpredictable danger to us all. "The Pope has sent a man to replace him, as you know. Jules Mazarin, a mere abbe dressed up in cardinal's robes, and an Italian besides. I have made no secret of my dislike for the man, and I do not wish to see France fall into the hands of an Italian as it has been in the hands of Richilieu who is at least a Frenchman. "I am out of favour, and I have run out of objections. I fear that unless I find some way to impugn this upstart Italian, I shall be numbered among his enemies when he comes to power, and Richilieu cannot live much longer. When Mazarin controls all France, as he surely will, the King's Musqueteers will be disbanded as a danger to his power." A shadow seemed to pass over de Portau's solid features. "I have spent my life defending France from her enemies, within and without. I risk death at every turn by sword or cannonball, and I have asked nothing in return save the small pay I earn, and the honour to serve with the finest soldiers in all of France. You may rely on me to do no less than my best to deal Richilieu a solid slap to the face and send this Italian puppy racing home to the Pope with his tail between his legs." De Portau had outlined his plans, and de Troisvilles nodded approvingly. At last, the two had clasped hands and wished each other luck. De Portau was officially on leave, and would remain so until such time as he had completed his investigations.

Five minutes of waiting passed as slowly as the movement of glaciers, but at last it was over, and de Portau eased himself out from behind the statue, stretching cramped, painful muscles. "I thank you for your kind assistance, madame, and pray forgiveness for any liberties," he whispered, doffing his hat and bowing to the Virgin. He thought perhaps that the statue wore a wry smile that had not been there before, but then upbraided himself for allowing his imagination to run wild. Still, as he padded down the hallway, he could not resist shooting a glance back over his shoulder at the Virgin who continued to smile her ancient, cryptic smile. He arrived at the winding stairs down to the cellar without encountering another soul, which struck him as odd. Even at this time of night, there ought to be servants about. And after what happened yesterday, he had expected a solid cordon of guards here... He paused at the top of the stairs, took a few steps down, and paused again, wrinkling his nose. The stench was unbelievable. If the smell grew worse towards the bottom of the stairs, he thought, I shall surely smother. As he made his way down the staircase, the foetor did indeed increase by leaps and bounds, and several times he gagged. Holy Mother! he thought, no mere dead cur could produce such a foul miasma. Surely every dog in Paris must have rolled in dung and arrived in great packs to fall dead by the hundred down there. At the bottom of the stairs, at the huge iron-banded door that barred entry to the cellars proper, he could stand it no longer, and fell to his knees, retching up his dinner of roasted chicken and cheese. He wiped the bile from his lips with his sleeve and felt better, if a little hollow. The smell grew no kinder for the rancid vomit on the floor, but at least he had started to become somewhat accustomed to it. He kneeled there on the floor, an arm against the wall to support him, and tried to breathe through his mouth. Thoughts strobed randomly through his mind like shooting stars. Inevitably, his mind turned to the events of yesterday, and those that had led up to it. He had been walking alone through the Bois de Boulogne with his thoughts, staring up at the dappled sunlight between the treetops and trying to fit the jigsaw pieces of information together. A wine steward had disappeared one night along with his family; the official word was that he had been stealing wine and selling it on the black market and had fled when he feared discovery. It had not been hard for de Portau to find proof that the man had, in fact, been doing just that. But then, why had the man left behind accounts to his favour unsettled with the dealers? It had taken some persuasion - and not a few broken bones for Portau to convince the black market dealers to speak with him. In the end, they had revealed, cursing and cradling limbs that bent in directions other than the ones nature intended, that the wine steward was still owed for several orders of wine and had not collected it. Surely a man in desperate straits would need all the money he could lay his hand on. To that fact, de Portau added the many mysterious visits to the Bastille by

the Cardinal, sometimes accompanied by his men and sometimes not. There was also the matter of the Cardinal's strange new fascination with the ancient, nitre-caked crypts of the church. For a matter of some weeks, he had spent inordinate amounts of time down there amongst the dead, and several priests admitted to feeling uncomfortable with this behaviour. So wrapped in his thought was he, that de Portau failed to hear the sound of stealthy footsteps around him until they were almost upon him. "Halt in the name of the King!" thundered a voice from behind him. De Portau spun around in a long-practiced move, his cape flying to the side to cover his sword arm and the top of his scabbard as if by accident. Before him stood a man in the red garb of the Cardinal's Guard, rapier bared in his hand. From the trees around him, several more arrived like phantoms; one on each side and he sensed more than saw the one immediately behind him. "Surely," said de Portau with a cheerfulness he did not feel, "there is no crime in a man enjoying the fresh air of the woods." "You will throw down your weapon, monsieur, and come with us," said the speaker, one Jean-Phillipe de Mars. "Perhaps there has been some misunderstanding, eh? Come with us and we shall clear this up. When all is well, I shall buy you a pot of wine in recompense and we shall laugh of this in some congenial tavern." "I am afraid, monsieur," said de Portau, still cheerful, "that I only do my drinking with friends, so I shall have to decline. Besides, I have a sensitive nose, and I fear your breath is not improved with proximity." "Musqueteer dog!" snarled de Mars. "You shall serve as a lesson to others not to demonstrate their contempt for His Emminence by sniffing at his heels like an ill-behaved cur. Take him!" With that surprising speed, de Portau's rapier whispered from his scabbard, as he drove sharply backwards with his elbow. There was a satisfying impact with something soft behind him and a breathless grunt of pain, followed by the unmistakable sound of a body crumpling to the ground. De Mars stood stunned for a split second by the amazing, blinding speed of the big man before him, and it was long enough for de Portau to spin and thrust at the man to his left, plunging the blade through his chest with bone-snapping force, and pinning the body to the tree in front of which he stood. De Portau cursed, for the blade was stuck in the tree, and he dared not take the time ot free it, for de Mars and the other swordsman were already moving against him. Rolling acrobatically to the side, he barely avoided a slash from de Mars which would surely have disembowelled him an instant before. Leaping to his feet, de Portau drew his poiniard. It was designed primarily to turn a slash, but it could be used as a weapon in a pinch. His reach was longer than most men, but even that could not begin to make up the difference in length between their rapiers, and his short one-foot dagger. And there were two of them.

The two swordsman moved warily now, having seen the serpent-like speed that this deceptively large man could use. Nodding to each other, they attempted to surround him so that at least one would have a chance at his back, but de Portau moved quickly to keep them both in front. This complex dance of death might have gone on indefinitely had de Portau not made a single mistake. Mind focused on the two before him, he had forgotten the man he knocked down, who had now recovered enough of his breath and his wits to see the situation. When de Portau backed towards where he lay on the ground, gasping for breath, he lashed out with his boot, hitting the big man unexpectedly in the back of his knee, and toppling him to the ground. Unfortunately for the kicker, he had misjudged the effect, and de Portau's huge bulk landed like a toppled tree on top of him, snapping one arm and several ribs like twigs. His shriek of pain was high and shrill. De Mars and the other swordsman leaped for the kill, swords extended before them. Desperately, de Portau grabbed the screaming man bodily, and lifted him into the air in front of him. Unable to check their lunges, their rapiers plunged right through the chest of their comrade, and out his back, their tips quivering a half-inch from de Portau's throat. His living shield gurgled once and went limp. With a grunt, de Portau heaved the body away, ripping the blades from the hands of his opponents. Both backed away quickly and retrieved their rapiers, giving de Portau enough time to leap to his feet, and snatch the dead man's rapier from the ground where it had fallen. Not waiting to be flanked, de Portau rushed to the attack, using the element of surprise to beat down the second man's rapier and flick his blade almost casually across the man's throat. The man crumpled, dead before his body hit the ground. With eyes narrowed to steely slits, de Portau smiled grimly and turned to his last opponent. "Well, Monsieur de Mars, it is just the two of us. Shall we dance?" "I need no help to deal with such as you," sneered de Mars, raising his rapier in a salute. De Portau returned the salute, and a second later the battle was joined in earnest. Blade rang on blade, striking blue sparks. Like snarling beasts, the two circled each other, seeking weaknesses, feeling for footing, trying to force the opponent to make a mistake. From time to time each would sally a lunge or a slash, and would be turned aside by the other. Suddenly, and with magnificent speed, it was over. De Portau's footing slipped, and de Mars lunged in a fleche to run him through. Too late de Mars saw that the slip was a feint. He tried to pull himself back, but he had already committed himself. With a single smooth slash, de Mars' head toppled from his body, a look of pure astonishment forever frozen on its face. The body stood for a moment, took a tentative step forward, then thought better of it, toppling forward into the leaves. De Portau tossed the bloodied sword aside and with a strong tug freed his own from the tree where it still impaled his erstwhile opponent. The body fell to the ground with satisfying thud, and de Portau cleaned the blade on

the man's cloak. He knew now that he must bring this investigation to a close very soon for his own safety. Once he had reported, his finding would go straight to the King's own ear, and Richilieu would not dare to move so openly then. Taking a deep breath, de Portau stood and inspected the lock. It was far more sophisticated that was warranted by a wine cellar, he saw. He weighed the risk of noise against the risk of taking too long to pick the lock and being trapped at the bottom of the stairs. Removing his hat, he laid his ear against the door and listened. He could hear nothing. He stepped back from the door and made a swift rush at it, setting his legs solidly against the floor and the far wall, applied his full strength and weight to the door. It shuddered in its frame, the four inch thick, iron-banded oak resisting his whole strength, but still the door sagged open. De Portau noted with amusement that both the door and the stout iron lock hed held, but the brass hinges had been torn right out from their settings. De Portau hefted the door in both arms and lifted it entirely aside - and nearly passed out from the unimaginable stench. It hit him in waves, each more potent than the last, washing over him and making his eyes burn and water. "Good Lord in heaven," he gasped, crossing himself. He stood there for almost five minutes, eyes streaming, and danger be damned. Worse than the smell of this unholy stink was the taste it left in his mouth. The odor kindled a memory in him; once, as a young child in Gascony, a great storm had washed fish, squid, and jellyfish ashore for a hundred yards inland. The corpses were knee deep in places, and for the next two weeks the smell from the beach had been similar to this. It was sweet and deep, and almost salty. "Sweet Jesus," marvelled de Portau. Devil's own farts." "The air has been fouled by the

When he had recovered enough to move again, he took a hesitant step into the darkness inside the door, and felt for the torch he knew he would find on the wall. He took flint and steel from his belt pouch and struck a spark, and instantly regretted it. A huge blue ball of flame bloomed, enveloping the torch, his hands, and his head. For a moment, de Portau stood very still while his eyebrows burned merrily, unable to believe that such an indignity had been heaped upon him. The feather from his hat fell to the floor in front of him, burned to a blackened curl of ash, which broke his stunned inaction. For the next minute, de Portau displayed a talent with profanity that would have amazed all who knew him, for none would have believed he possessed such eloquence, much less known such obscure words of such raging, hand-waving vulgarity in several major and a few minor patois'. He also extinguished his eyebrows. Still grumbling to himself, he laid out a wad of sooty snot. The torch might," he grumped.) but he noticed hotter than he would have expected, a finger aside each nostril and blew was burning extremely well ("As well it that the flame was much larger and and tinged with blue.

As he held the torch up to look around him for the first time, his blood ran cold. Torch light flickered in a thousand beady eyes. Rats of all sizes sat and stared at him. De Portau crossed himself, and looked all around, feeling the weight of all those eyes upon him. "Saint's balls!" he goggled. Moving slowly, he took a torch from the other side of the doorway and sent it flying at one of the rats that sat atop one of the wine barrels. It hit with a thud, and the rat fell to the floor. Seconds later, it clambered back on the barrel. De Portau imagined he saw a look of indignant anger in those little black eyes and looked away. Whispering a brief prayer, he pulled the small silver crucifix from beneath his jerkin, kissed it, and let it dangle in the open from its silver chain. As if on cue, the rats scrambled from their perches and vanished into the shadows, their nails scratching a tattoo like hail on a marble roof. Swallowing his dread, de Portau glanced around the large room, and decided on one of the arched tunnels that led off from it based, as little as he liked it, on the fact that the odor seemed to be emanating from there. Though there were some cobwebs on the ceiling, it was evident that this tunnel was in use, for the dust on the floor was so well-disturbed that no individual tracks could be discerned. The tunnel twisted and turned until de Portau could no longer even guess what part of the church he might be under. He stumbled and almost fell over the pile of masonry scattered across the floor at a bend in the tunnel. He crouched to examine it, and realized that a solid wall had once stood here, and had only recently been disinterred. Beyond was small alcove, with a trapdoor set in the floor. The wood was very old, but dry and set with a bronze ring so old it was encrusted with a green patina. The trapdoor swung open easily, and de Portau noted that it had been well-oiled within recent memory. By lowering the torch into the square of inky darkness, he could see a stout wooden ladder set in the wall, and the crumbled remains of a much older ladder on the floor below. Taking a deep breath, he lowered himself down. Looking around, he realized that he was now in the crypts of the church, but doubtless one walled up long ago for whatever reason. As he walked along the corridor, he saw alcoves along both sides, each containing a single bier with a corpse mouldering its way to dust within. He shivered, and pulled the collar of his porte-manteau higher. He had reached a point where he began to consider turning back, for his torch burned faster than he anticipated, and with even more blue in the flame, he noted. If he waiting long to turn back, he would risk losing the light and he did not favour the idea of wandering blindly amongst these dead. He cursed himself for not taking the second torch, but he had not forseen a labyrinthe of crypts to be explored. As he pondered his choice, he became aware of a sound other than the pounding of his own heart. He turned his head slowly from side to side trying to determine from what direction the sound came. Hesitantly, he picked one tunnel, and had to turn back when it stopped at a dead end.

His second choice was more accurate, and he crept silently up to a large wooden door. The door was very old, and it hung crookedly, leaving a wide gap beneath, through which weird, eldritch green light pulsed and a throbbed. De Portau pressed his ear to the door, and immediately, jumped back as if burned; the door was not just cold as a hangman's heart. It did not matter. Even though he could make out no details, he could tell that someone was chanting in a sing-song voice on the other side of that door. Occasionally, the voice would rise and a single word could be heard, and though de Portau did not recognize the words they made the hair on his bull-neck bristle. For a long time, he just stood there, his hand poised over the handle of the door and a single drop of sweat beaded on his upper lip despite the arctic cold that emanated from the wood. He knew that whatever lay within was nothing natural, and that if he opened that door his life would change in ways he could not now understand. All this he knew, while those strange words continued from within, and it is testament to his stout Gascon heart that he silently consigned his soul to Christ, gritted his teeth, and flung open the door. Whatever he had expected to greet him within, it was not what he saw. The door swung open and de Portau stepped boldly over the casement, rapier in hand. Within was a large chamber of ancient, crumbling stone blocks with a high, vaulted and butressed ceiling lost in shadow above. The walls were done in fresco reliefs, showing strange creatures to beggar the imagination of the authors of medeival beastiaries and haunt the dreams of a thousand mad poets - or a single mad Arab. The centre of the room was taken up by a put ten feet around which appeared to de Portau as merely a circle of utter blackness. From out of the pit wafted the unmistakable odor of decay. At the far end of the room was a squat black altar, carved from a single piece of glistening obsidian, and behind the altar stood a wooden lectern carved with cherbim and the holy cross, onviously a recent addition. Atop the lectern was a book, a very large book, turned open to a page and held in place by a leering human skull. These things de Portau noticed momentarily, along with the glacial chill that froze not only his flesh but his soul. But first, and most shocking, was the sight of Cardinal Richelieu, holy vestments lifted to reveal a shrivelled, wizzened old-man's body and a huge, throbbing erection topped by a great purpled head the size of a fairish plum, which hovered scant inches from the bare pubis of the girl chained upon the altar. The two men stared at each other for long seconds, in stunned silence. De Portau felt the presences in the room, the beings he could not perceive with any sense he could name, yet knew they lingered here. It was de Portau that broke the impasse. "Emminence...?" The Cardinal snarled like a rabid animal, and de Portau shrank before the weird light that played in his eyes. "No!" screamed the Cardinal, "I am too close! I cannot be stopped now!" Releasing the hem of his robe with one hand, he gestured in the direction

of the pit and shrieked a litany of words profane before Man crawled from the primordial slime of his seas. "Ia Cthulhu! Cthulhu fhtagn! Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'Lyeh wagh'nagl fhtagn! Ia! Ia!" From within the pit came foul sucking noises, and slurpings, and crunchings. De Portau felt his nerve endings go numb as something, something horribly liquid, began squelching up the side of the pit. A liquescent black pseudopod oozed up, over the side and began to grow as more of the flesh which was not flesh came up. Foot after foot it came, unknowable tons of malleable foulness. And with it came the stench that had pervaded all the cellars, but ten thousand times worse. It was the stench of dead things, and of ancient secrets festering in the dark like an open sore, and of creatures beautiful in their mind-blasting ugliness that lay hidden beneath black, stygian waters. When its full bulk hove into view, it was nearly twelve feet around and eight high, small for a shoggoth. And out of its gently ululating flesh formed a pustule nearly a foot across. This pustule tore open, and an eye the size of a dinner plate - not the eye of mindless beast, oh no, but rather an eye full of dreadful alien intelligence and malice - turned its full gaze upon de Portau. He felt his sanity slipping away. He saw blackness forming at the edges of his vision in spots, coalescing into larger spots, and felt an eerie calm. In a moment, he knew, what was truly de Portau would be gone, and nothing this abomination could do to the meat that used to house his spirit would hurt him. And yet. And yet, somewhere deep within him, a voice he scarcely recognized called out. "Stay, Isaac!" it called. "You must stay, for you are not weak. It feeds on your weaknesses, Isaac; your fears, your doubts, your lack of faith. It grows strong on your weaknesses. But you are not weak! You are a Gascon and you are made of sterner stuff than the average man. You are one who has always lived as you wished, never in battle with your spirit and that has made you strong. Perhaps you shall not prevail, but you shall die as God intended, on your feet with a sword in your hand and a song in your heart!" Dimly, he recognized the voice as his father's. De Portau shook his head as if to clear it. The shoggoth, which had been rolling slowly towards him with its peculiar amoebic gait stopped, suddenly perceiving things it had not expected. It formed tongues and fnasted the air like a serpent. It extended strangely-shaped pseudopodia that, among other things, measured brainwaves, heard heartbeats, scented pheromones, and read electro-magnetic fields. The creature had sensed a Presence briefly, of a sort it had not not before encountered and that made it wary. It double-checked its analyses and found that the meat creature prey before it possessed slightly denser flesh than what it had previously encountered, but of little import to a being that could chew and consume ingots of iron. No exceptional teleplasmic or ectoplasmic mass which could indicate the possession of Power. Its brain and circulatory organ were still functioning, and while it was unusual for this to occur subsequent to encountering one of its kind, it had happened before and merely made for a more pleasurable kill. Up and down wavelengths and bandwidths that a physicist would have given

his soul to merely have knowledge of - and some, one day, would do just that - it scanned its prey carefully, for it was a wary creature by nature, and taking chances with a life that spanned the millenia was unthinkable. Satisfied at last that this meat creature posed no threat beyond its primitive weapon, it closed for the kill. While the shoggoth analyzed its senses, the blackness cleared from de Portau's vision, and the terror that transformed his heart to a black of ice melted in the fiery passion of a new emotion: rage. A great, righteous fury gripped him with a strength that sent power surging down his limbs and burned away the last of the darkness in his mind. "I am Gascon!" he thundered, causing the shoggoth to extend a huge malformed ear. "And I fear no man or beast before God!" Richilieu ran his hand over the delectable young creature bound and gagged before him, and slammed his grotesquely huge member home up to the hilt, uttering a profane "mea culpa" in the extremity of his lust. In and out, in and out, he thrust, his time-worn heart pounding against its paper-thin walls. He turned his head to see the shoggoth close with the awesome speed of its kind with the bellowing Gascon and chuckled. Thrust. Thrust. "I have a new God now, Gascon," said Richilieu a satisfied smile on his face. "The old one offered me an unknowable heaven beyond this world, or a fiery hell beneath it. I choose to stay in this world and make of it my own personal heaven - or hell, if that suits my pleasure." De Portau's eyes widened at the speed of the massive shoggoth as it rushed toward him, and hurled himself away in a diving roll just fractions of a second before the creature slammed into the wall where he had been standing with enough force to shatter the stone and shake the ground. Thrust. Thrust. "I found a book in the crypts, Gascon, the very one you see upon the altar. It was written by a disgusting heathen arab, but I have gleaned from it the secret of immortal life. Life eternal!" The shoggoth emitted a piercing shriek at its failure like the sound of a steam whistle. It did not even seem to change direction. It simply began picking up speed once more in the direction of its prey. De Portau knew it was faster than he by a good measure, and that while he could avoid it with careful timing a few times, it would likely become wise to his trick. When that happened, he was a dead man. And so, as he leaped aside once more, he slashed viciously at the creature's side. It barely penetrated the thick hide, but it did sever an eyestock which the creature had been projecting for trinocular vision. Thrust. Thrust. "The rituals require sacrifice. It was no difficult matter to obtain harlots and young female debtors from the Bastille. There were none to complain of the disappearance of creatures so unimportant, and as you can see, the sacrifices are not totally without their own rewards." He reached forward with a hand to pinch the girl's nipple painfully. The shoggoth screamed its fury, and extended a sucker mouth to devour the severed eyestock. Its whole body suddenly bristled with razor sharp appendages atop pseudopods which whistled through the air to slash at the surprised Gascon.

So surprised was he that only the instincts gained from a dozen battlefields saved him. The air was suddenly alive with sharp, slashing death, and he arm moved to parry blow after blow with dazzling reflexes that were not entirely conscious. Again, without conscious thought, he turned the defence into a counter-attack, and slashed at one of the pseudopods, severing it entirely. Thrust. Thrust. "Soon, I began to acquire true Power. I summoned forth your playmate there, though he very nearly cost me a great deal. I allow him to run free in the crypts at night to feed on rats and such when I have not enough political prisoners to sate its appetite. That damned steward and his wife should have known better then to be down there at night. It might have been alright if it had eaten the boy too, but no, the blasted urchin injured me and escaped. It took a great deal of sacrifices to send the shoggoth forth across dimensions and snatch the boy from beneath your very noses, but oh, how it must have rankled de Troisvilles! Hee hee. I assure you, the urchin's death was neither short nor painless. I did, however," he cackled with a leer, "discover how delectable a tight little boy could be." A thin, brackish liquid trickled from the stump where the pseudopod had been before it healed over, and the shoggoth writhed with its fury, slamming the ground around it blindly with with pseudopods that packed the punch of sledge hammers, but missing the wily Gascon. Once more, the shoggoth devoured its severed pseudopod. De Portau rubbed his arm, trying to get some feeling back into it. The force of the blows he had turned were unbelievable, and his arm was numb with their force. He realized that he was constantly giving ground, and now stood nearly back to back with the rutting Cardinal, whose insane babble continued even as he subjected that poor girl to his less than tender ministrations. De Portau longed to spin around and plant his rapier in the man's foul heart, but he dared not take his eyes of the shoggoth for even a second. It was simply too fast. So far he had been lucky, but he was tiring. And if he was even the tiniest instant slower than he had already been, he would be dead, or worse, in an eyeblink. The shoggoth quivered silently for a moment. It had never in its long existance met any that could withstand it as this creature had, who did not also possess the Power. It carely extruded a phallic-looking sensor and scanned once more, but could find not the tiniest femto-erg of Power within it. It was not truly hurt, of course. It had lost no mass; it simply devoured the amputated flesh. It could systain ten million times the damage it had taken and not be reduced to one ten millionth its power. Yet it was infuriated, if such an emotion could be escribed to so alien a creature, with its failure. Cunningly, it flicked a pseudopod at de Portau, who slashed at it and severed it. But this was as the shoggoth had intended, for a second pseudopod wrapped itself around the blade and twisted it from de Portau's hand. The sword slithered towards the shoggoth, which extruded a huge mouth filled with flat grinding teeth, and crushed the hardened steel rapier to powder, which it ingested.

Thrust. Thrust. "Thirteen rituals are required to obtain the Power. I have completed twelve ere tonight. This shall be the thirteenth. After tonight, I shall not need king, country, or God. I shall be a power unto myself, and I shall live for an eternity. At the moment of climax, and at this delicious creature's apex of terror, I shall still her heart. Her soul shall be forfeit to the Great Old Ones, and I shall be as a god!" Suddenly weaponless, de Portau cursed resoundingly and drew his poiniard. He almost laughed at his own foolishness as he compared the short parrying blade to the seemingly endless tonnage of the shoggoth. With blinding speed, the shoggoth threw itself towards its now helpless prey. Desperately, de Portau heaved the poiniard at the creature as he rolled for cover behind the lectern. The shoggoth ingested the poiniard without slowing, and slammed into the fall immediately beside the Musqueteer. Before he could recover, it grabbed him by the legs with two lightning-fast pseudopodia, and nearly dragged him from his feet towards its waiting maw. Only by hanging onto the heavy wooden lectern did de Portau remain errect, and when it toppled, so did he. He felt himself dragged along the floor towards the creature, and new that he had breathed his last, but would not die quietly. Unable to kick for the strength that held him, he grasped for any object around him that he might use as a weapon. His hand stumbled across the skull which had sat upon the book on the lectern, and hurled it into that waiting maw. The mouth closed briefly and there was a horrible grinding noise. When it opened again, the skull was gone, and Portau was dragged up to he knees into the creature's toothfilled mouth. Screaming what he knew to be his last battle cry, de Portau snatched up the heavy leather book and brought it down with all his might against the tentacles which enfolded him. To his shock, the shoggoth screamed in apparent agony, an ululating sound he had not heard it make before that caused his teeth to vibrate in sympathy in his skull. The shoggoth shrank away from him as if burned, leaving a smouldering pseudopod on the ground before him. Surprised beyond words at finding himself alive, de Portau examined the heavy leather-bound book he held, and realized that the cover was engraved and picked out in gold with the design of a five-pointed star, within which spidery marks and sigils of dire portent seemed almost to twist slowly into ever more dire shapes. He also realized that the elder sign, for such it was, was pulsing and strobing with a weird, eldritch green light than he had seen from beneath the door to the room. De Portau smiled a savage grin that would have made anyone seeing it doubt his sanity. "So, servant of Satan, you can feel pain. Let us see if you can also feel fear." Holding the book before him like a shield, de Portau advance on the creature. Desperately it tried to flee, but the light which now blazed from the symbol appeared to pin it in place. It lashed out in blind panic with its pseudopods, all shaped into slashing blades, stabbing spikes, crushing balls, but all retreated before that hateful green radiance. Fearless and towering with the fury of a righteous Gascon, de Portau raised

the book over his head and brought it down hard against the flank of its glistening flesh. A shiver ran through it, and a maw of monstrous size formed in its body from which a piercing keen wailed, as if every key on the world's largest pipe organ was being simultaneously depressed. "Bon appetit," said de Portau jauntily, and tossed the book into its mouth. He had been expecting some final awful death throe, some kind of last attempt at vengance, but it was nothing so dramatic. The shoggoth simply vanished, as if it were nothing more than an inflated pig's bladder which had sprung a sudden and disastroud leak. Once moment it was there, and the next it flickered away to nothing. The book landed with a thud on the ground, its light dimmed to a faint shimmer. Then from behind him was a ragged cheer of triumph, and de Portau knew he had won too late. Richilieu stood half-naked and covered in blood. An obsidian knife rested in one hand, with which he had stabbed the girl first in the groin to produce the maximum pain and terror, and then slashed her throat to kill her instantly at the peak of her agaonies. His penis, limp and angry red with over-use, dripped a few last drops of semen upon the floor. "I have the Power!" exulted Richilieu. "I am God. You have caused me some trouble, for you have banished my shoggoth. It is no impediment, for now I can summon ten, nay, fifty of them. I shall summon a veritable host of shoggoths, for they shall be my angels, and they shall mete out punishment to all who defy me. I shall have to summon one to clean up this mess, of course. Or perhaps I shall take care of this one myself, to celebrate." To de Portau's horror, the Cardinal bent over and bit off several of the dead girl's toes, which he chewed gustily. "Delectable," announced the Cardinal, now quite mad. "Emminence," said Portau, as he drew the musquet from his belt, "may God have mercy upon you, for I have none." There was a loud report, and the Cardinal's eyes opened in suprise as a perfectly round, red hole materialized in the center of his forehead, and what brains remained to him exited his head through a considerably larger hole in the back of it. The Cardinal crumpled bonelessly to the ground, and there was complete and utter silence after the report of the musquet had died away. De Portau sat for a long time on the floor, not thinking of anything at all. It might have been minutes or hours; he was never quite sure. Finally, his tired muscles began to cramp and his mind returned from the grey land it had wandered. Idly, he kicked the leather-bound book towards him, and held it in his hands. Picking a page at random, he made to turn to it, but the end of a gnarled wooden staff pushed the cover of the book shut again. "I wouldn't," said the Wanderer. *** De Portau and the Wanderer sat together in a great hall that looked as if it might once have held thousands. Two huge tables a thousand feet long ran the length of the hall, with wooden benches on either side. Evidently

the place had not been used in a very long time, for dust and cobwebs lay heavily across everything. The building itself was made from heavy timbers, and de Portau imagined that whole forests must have been denuded in its making. A hundred feet up, the roof was made from shields laid side to side and sewn together. In a few places, the shields had been damaged or blown away, and sunlight streamed through in bright shafts to dispel some of the gloom. The tables of the hall were still strewn with jugs whose contents had long evaporated away, and the heaped bones of whole chickens and boars. Clay and wooden plates sat on the tables by the thousands, and here and there was the gleam of gold or silver mugs. Those last to use this hall had left in some considerable hurry. For some reason the hall produced the same unreasoning sadness in de Portau that the Wanderer himself did. They both gave the impression of existing long after their purposes had been served. Though he could not have said why had hot coals been applied to his feet, de Portau felt as if the hall was a fairy tale which had long ago ended and ceased to have any meaning. Once again, de Portau essayed to examine the Wanderer. Since he had appeared so mysteriously in the crypts of Notre Dame, de Portau had been trying to get a look at the man, but he wore a simple loose robe that disguised his body, and a very large and disreputable slouch hat that disguised his features save for the long white beard that well to his belt, and his long, fine white hair that fell in a cascade down his back. That and his bony hands as gnarled as the staff they held, which de Portau noticed had curious puckered wounds on their backs. When the old man had introduced himself as simply the Wanderer and offered to lead de Portau safely from the crypts, he could not argue with the man, but he almost balked when he saw what mode of egress the old man intended to use. At first blush, it appeared to be a horse, but it was much too massive to be anything but perhaps a heavy draft horse. It also appeared to have six legs, rather than the four more commonly found on equine species. Furthermore, it had no head as such. Instead, it had a ring of think, ropy tentacles which surrounded the crushing sphincter that passed for a mouth. Though it didn't seem to have any sense organs, it had detected de Portau's presence in some way for it hissed a warning when he arrived, and had to be calmed by the Wandered, who ran his hand gently among the grasping tentacles as a man might stroke the nose of a real horse. With much cajoling, de Portau mounted the beast behind the Wanderer, and it began galloping towards a wall. Just when de Portau thought they must crash with bone-jarring force, the world seemed to snap out of focus and slowly shimmer back into existance in a new arrangement, the hall in which the two now sat, with the Wanderer's strange clopping docilely from the hall in search of forage. The Wanderer was apparently in no hurry to explain himself, or anything that had happened, so de Portau, never a patient man at the best of times, broke first. "Who are you?" "I am the Wanderer, as I have said."

"Yes, so you have said," quipped de Portau sardonically. "Mayhap you would kind enough to tell me then where we are and to what end I have been brought here. Not that I do not mean to be properly grateful for your assistance, monsieur, but I have had, er, rather an eventful day." The old man raised his head suddenly, as if scenting danger. "What? What is it, Monsieur Wanderer?" asked de Portau nervously, his hand reaching automatically for the rapier which wasn't there. "The Dark Man comes," said the Wanderer, angrilly. "He dares too much!"

A man emerged from a corner of the hall, where only shadows had been before. De Portau noted that he had not so much appeared suddenly as seemed to shoulder his way from the line of demarcation that indicated where the angles of the wall met. "Ia Cthulhu," said the Dark Man, a thin-lipped smile on his strangely unremarkable face. De Portau could not tell whether the man was black or white, or whether his nose was large or small. He had a curiously average appearance that frightened him more than a ravening monster would have, for this was a face you would not notice even if it passed you in the street. You might well pass on unaware of the danger that lay in wait for you; for indeed, de Portau sensed great malign power within him. "Get thee from my hall, herald! Thou art cast out!" raged the Wanderer, who raised his staff as if to beat the Dark Man with it. "Now, now, old man. No need to get testy. I am here to warn you that we know of your plans. This... man," said the Dark Man, gesturing at de Portau with evident contempt, "is no match for one with the true Power and you well know it. You have not the power you once did, old man, and you risk much by placing it within the fragile vessel of this Powerless mortal. You have been warned, old man. Do not interfere with what does not concern you. Or we shall see just how weak you have become." His eyes narrowed. The Wanderer seemed to grow taller, and more powerful as he grew angry. He removed his old slouch hat to reveal a face hard and chiselled, with a single eye, they other covered by a patch. His eye began to blaze with light, and his staff stretched and straightened, and grew a sharp blade at the end, until it was a massive spear of burnished hardwood and intricately worked blue steel. "I have power yet to crush such an insignificant ant as thyself, Nyarlathotep!" Arcs of blue lightning played about his single eye, and de Portau realized with great surprise that the Dark Man was cringing and backing away from this awesome being, terrible in his majesty. "By the Power of They Who Live Above In Shadow, and by the Power of the mighty spear Gungnir, and by the Power which yet resides in this body, thou art cast out, Herald, whose True Name is Nyarlathotep! GET THEE FROM THIS PLACE!" These final words came from the Wanderer not as the voice of a man, even a powerful man, but rather as elemental thunder itself, reverberating through the hall and through the sky. He raised his spear high into the air, and lightning crackled at its tip, too bright to look at. It arced through space and coruscated in a shower of blinding blue sparks across the body of

the Dark Man, who screamed once, agonizingly, and vanished. The Wanderer turned his single furious, blazing eye upon de Portau, who found he could not look away. That eye held the power and secrets of the universe, and pierced the brave Gascon through his very soul. Then, all at once, the light went out like a candle, leaving only a dim, red sputter within that socket, a reminder of what those banked coals could become. And then the Wanderer collapsed. For a moment, de Portau could not believe his eyes, but with that incredible speed, he rushed forward to catch the old man before he could hit the ground and carried him to the table like a limp doll. He was amazed at how light and frail that body seemed, and was further shocked to see blood dripping from the old man's head. The Wanderer sat up slowly, despite de Portau's demand that he remain prostrate, at least until he regained his strength. "This is as strong as I will get, I'm afraid," said the Wanderer. a kind man, Isaac de Portau. I have chosen well." "You are

"Please, monsieur," said de Portau, "If what you ask of me is possible within my sworn oaths to God and the King of France, I shall do what is within my power to do. But I must know the facts. I must know who you are, where I am, and what is expected of me." "I have been known by many names in many places, Isaac da Portau. I have bee called Woden by some, and Odinn by others. I have been called Moses and Merlin and Vainamoinen. To some I was Zeus, and to others Qetzalcouatl, the Feathered Serpent. I am the last of the Elder Gods upon your world. I serve They Who Live Above In Shadow, who are to me as I am to you in Power and mystery. I and my kind are what you and your kind shall become if you survive the unspeakable horrors of the Great Old Ones who are our ancient implacable enemies. To such as the Elder Gods and the Old Ones, time and space is but an agreeable illusion that masks a truer reality." The old man paused for breath, as Isaac de Portau sat spellbound by his words. "I alone remain to protect your world, which will in time become my world. Once, a long time ago, we of the Elder Gods made a great and terrible war upon the Old Ones, who were banished for an age. But such as they can never be truly destroyed, and they shall return when the stars are once more right. "We contend, those of us who remain. We contend for the minds, bodies, and souls of humans. The Dark Man, whom you have met, is the herald of the Old Ones and the least of their number. But I am old, and my power is limited, and I fear I am no longer capable of dealing personally with such beings as Great Cthulhu, high priest of the Old Ones, and the greatest of those who remain. "You see, I made a decision some years ago let go the reins of my Power, and let it seek out those who may learn to use it. It made me weak, but gave your people a strength they had never known before."

The old man held up his hands and showed the perfect round holes in the centre of each hand, and the ragged tears on his forehead and around his head, as if torn by a crown of thorns. "I have," said the Wanderer quietly, "also been known as Saviour." De Portau could think of nothing to say, but dropped to one knee before the olf man. "No, Isaac de Portau. Rise, my good and noble servamt. You and I have much work to do. For you see, the Old Gods have chasen a champion and set him lose upon the world. Look into my eye, Isaac, Look and see the face of evil." De Portau looked deep into the old man's eye and felt himself falling, tumbling down a long tunnel walled with crackling blue lightning, the air redolent of ozone. At the bottom of the tunnel he emerged to find himself strangely disembodied. It was not altogether a comfortable sensation. He looked around and saw himself in a black chamber with five walls, containing four sets of shackles and a squat black altar he thought he recognized. Two corpses of young women lay on the floor, and one upon an altar, her limbs bent at odd angles, and with a strangely mashed look to her. Near him a shoggoth began ingesting one of the corpses on the floor. Unable to control himself, de Portau floated through the ceiling and into a bedroom where a young man slept, his face handsome and innocent. Except that de Portau had seen what horrors lurked in his basement. Narrowing non-existant phantom eyes, de Portau committed the young man's face to memory in case they should ever meet. With shocking suddeness, the boy in the bed opened his eyes, as if he was aware of being watched. He glanced suspiciously around the room, but could find no source for his worry. Satisfied that there was no danger, the buy relaxed again, and sat up in bed. Before de Portau's amazed eyes, the boy laughed with pleasure and transformed himself into a jet-black dragon with scales like the plates of a hauberk. And then he was back in his own body, his flesh feeling like a pair of over-heavy and cumbersome boots. "That," said the Wanderer, "is your enemy. His name is Wil Whately, and he is the champion of evil. His flesh is tougher than the strongest steel. His strength is twenty times that of the normal man. He can run without exhaustion for years or even decades if he has to. He has as little need for sleep, air, or food as I, but has not yet lost their habits. That is a weakness, and one you might be able to exploit. "He can transform him body to any shape or form that pleases him, and while his his use of the Power is yet crude and unshaped, it is strong and he will have plenty of time to practice for he is immortal. "His food and drink are now pain and suffering. He draws his Power from the agony of others, and takes special pleasure in inflicting that agony with his own hands. In short, he is the as close to the paradigm of evil as humans can yet come, and he will soon learn new ways to improve upon the model."

De Portau spread his arms wide. "I am as brave as the next man, Monsieur Wanderer, providing that man is a Gascon. If it is your will that I throw away my life in opposing this Antichrist, I shall do so and gladly, only knowing why I am to die in this manner, for surely there can be no other result if I should oppose such a creature." The Wanderer smiled. "As usual, your words speak well of you, Isaac de Portau. I do not ask you to throw away your life, though it is only fair to warn you that you are likely to lose your life no matter what the result of this confrontation is, for the Old Ones are not known for their forgiveness, or willingness to play by a set of rules. "I shall give you three gifts, Isaac de Portau, that shall serve you in good stead in this battle." With the end of his staff, the Wanderer pointed at the crucifix which hunrg from de Portau's neck. It blazed brightly for a moment, then dimmed, thought Isaac could still feel its warmth through the material of his jerkin. "By this gift shall you know your enemy, no matter what the form he should take." The second gift the Wanderer pulled from a pocket somewhere in his voluminous robes. It was the most breathtakingly beautiful feather that de Portau had ever seen, and made him think sadly of the burnt and missing feather of his own hat. As if reading his thoughts, the Wanderer reached up and placed the feather in the brim of de Portau's hat. "This feather is of me, the pinion of the winged serpent, Qetzalcoutal. As such it carries a part of my essence, and by this second gift shall you be protected from all manner of magics, large and small. "The third gift, Isaac, you shall have to choose for youself. I can choose its substance, but not its form. Its form must be decided upon by you and only you. It shall be the means by hwich you shall overcome your foe." The Wanderer drew the end of his staff in a circle, and de Portau noticed that the old man's hands and forehead had begun bleeding again. As the circle was completed, an unholy blue light exploded from the circle like a porthole to Hell itself. The Wanderer reached into the hole and drew forth a large handful of glowing blue metal. The hole vanished instantly. "Now," said the Wanderer, his voice cracking with stress, "take this metal within your hand. Fear not that it shall hurt you, for my magics have protected us both thus far, though I reached into the very heart of a neutron star." De Portau had no idea what the Wanderer was talking about, and didn't care. He looked only at that great lump of metal in the Wanderer's hand, and thought about how hot it must be. Had he known that in fact the metal was several tens of millions of degrees, he would not have been surprised. Reaching deep once more into his Gascon courage, de Portau gingerly took the metal in his hand, and felt it quiver as if it was alive.

"Reach out with your mind, Isaac de Portau. Feel for the shape buried within the metal. Call forth your avenging arm of justice." De Portau closed his eyes and tried to think of justice. Of honour and nobility. Of faith and goodness and all things beautiful. Of lost causes and of hope. He felt the metal stretch in his hand, and bend and shape itself to his will. He opened his eyes and saw he held the finest rapier ever seen by mortal eyes, and he gasped at the beauty of it. It was truly a weapon of from the Hand of God. The blade was shiny and true, and light glinted along the perfect blade. The gasket seemed to be composed of lightly spun gold, yet it had none of gold's malleability. And set in the pommel was a gem of icy blue, within which tiny sparks of lightning played and danced. De Portau made as if to test the blade with his thumb, and the Wanderer quickly grabbed his wrist in a vice-like grip. "That would be a good way to lose a finger. The blade is made of collapsed atoms, and weighs more than the largest mountains on earth. It is denser still then ten million diamonds crushed into one. Its mass is such that nothing - not even the most invulnerable of skin - may resist its edge. "My magics make the blade as light as air in your hands, though none besides yourself shall ever be able to wield it. And now I set upon it the runes which I learned hanging from the branches of the Tree of Knowledge to enoble its spirit and make its cause just." With the upon the Wanderer slashing end of his staff, the old man traced strangely familiar symbols blade which glowed briefly and faded. When he was finished, the smiled at de Portau and explained "You can now sheath it without a gaping hole in the scabbard.

"And now, brave, noble, Isaac de Portau, we must go and mount Sleipnir once more, for we must traverse not only the miles but the centuries. Come, let us leave the sleeping and forgotten halls of Valhalla, and we shall put the forces of darkness to the test. "Your destiny awaits." -+-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-+ | Andrew Nellis | | | +-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-+

.. "In order to live free and happily ..... . you must sacrifice boredom. It is . . not always an easy sacrifice." . ...... -Richard Bach, "Illusions" .........