Wednesday, April 15, 2009


A few days ago, he had saved the man's life. Or he thinks he may have. He's not sure. They haven't spoken since that moment. The man – Peter – his own mad fury may have been enough to pummel that bloated, white beast back to Hell, but something had gripped Alexandr too in that moment.

Slamming the lamp into the monster's soft body like a battle ax. Coming back into the dry cell of his own apartment, falling face first on the bed, sleeping, his chest heaving. Remembering the Games and the War.

Did they have to kill it? Yes, absolutely yes, God's Yes. It was there only to be destroyed. Doing so, Alexandr had awakened in himself a righteousness, a vigor he hadn't felt since . . .

War Hero. He leaned against the window sill with one arm, sneaking the other up the leg of his short pants to scratch the scar on his empty sack. Peter also had been gripped by the urge, like a command borne in the creature's mockery of a face, to dismiss it, to repel that – Alexandr had to stop and think. ". . . that stalking pus-bag from the world."

It was the eighteenth, Peter had a friend arriving from London. He watched the two Engländerin embrace on the sidewalk. The foreign nurse was there too, bowing to the Englishwoman, pressing her palms together. And then there was Katya, dressed in lady's field khakis, very pleased to make the woman archaeologist's acquaintance.

This house was forever a burlesque. Peter, Bhakti, that metal hunk, that thing – all connected, of course. He heard them stamp their ways up the stairs to the third floor flat. Alexandr thought that the Englishwoman and Peter might be close. Possibly they were brother and sister, or betrothed.

There was a moment of happy babbling, barely audible, trickling through the ceiling. Footsteps, a vague conversation in the hallway. Alexandr pieced together some of it. Katya, in English: "We have much to talk about at dinner." Peter: "Roddle boddle coddle. Ha, ha-haa!" Steps down the stairs, a knock at the door to his cell. "I'll be there," Alexandr replied without getting up from his window.


  1. At the first opportunity that strict German etiquette would allow, Peter took Irene to his room so they might converse privately.

    "I trust you got my letter," he began. "I apologize if it seemed too cryptic in its curtness. I wanted to say enough to inform and reassure you without also revealing too much, for I think I am being watched."

    Lest she fear he had become paranoid, he opened his journal and produced the vaguely threatening message he had received upon his arrival in Berlin. "I haven't the foggiest who this C.B. person might be," he said, "but he or she certainly seems to know not only who I am, but where to find me. So you'll have to forgive me if my precautions seem a touch extreme, or if I tend to look over my shoulder more than I used to."

    He lit a cigarette and continued, "I am eager to hear what if anything you discovered in England, but first let me tell you more about my experiment with the mirror. It sent me to the Library, which is so gigantic it's like another world unto itself. I walked for what felt like miles upon miles, and was there for what seemed like days; yet when I awoke, only a brief time had elapsed here on Earth!"

    "I was not alone there. Having discovered how to read a volume of the Library's catalogue, I found an entry on Agasthiya's mount, and just as I wondered how I might go about finding the location of such a thing, a creature appeared to lead the way. It was some kind of librarian, I think. How can I describe it? It seemed innocuous enough at first, but the more time I spent in its company, the more loathsome it became to me; it was shrouded in some strange cloth, yet I could see enough to recognize its general form as somewhat columnar, and I got the impression of a single, dark eye behind its hood. There was a moment when its cloak got snagged on the protrudence of some other creature, and the very prospect of seeing it unveiled was so utterly abhorrent that I fell to my knees, retching. And then the foul thing soaked it up, absorbing it like some kind of sustenance! We are not alone in the universe, Irene, and God forbid we should ever see such horrors upon our native soil..."

    His voice trailed off a moment. "Ah, yes, something did come through with me. Something awful, some other kind of detestable alien creature. Not quite a boar, not quite an ant, but some atrocious amalgam of insect and mammal. It was a bloated thing, with many eyes and legs. Twitching, whipping... I don't recall much more about it, for which I am grateful. I came to my senses just in the nick of time, as it attacked me! Klaus, Bhakti, they saw it. Alexandr saw it too, and he helped me kill it. I wish it had not happened that way, but there will be much that I will have to explain at dinner, and I will need you to attest to my sanity."

    "Oh!" He added, "Let me not forget the other fellow: the Frenchman, Henri. He materialized a short while after the librarian, and he seemed genuinely disoriented and on the verge of madness. I could certainly sympathize with the poor fellow, who seemed to regard me as some kind of hallucination. He mentioned something about a silvery substance and a mirror, and he speculated that he had been poisoned. He also mentioned a swami, and then he recited the syllables from the Alakshmi yantra, whereupon he vanished. I would have liked to learn more about what he was doing there, but he did not seem to be in a very rational state of mind at the time."

    "There is more to tell about the Library, but my recollections are still muddled. It is like trying to recall a dream, and not being able to put it into words until some external cue brings the memory into focus."

    He paused and looked at Irene for her reaction, hoping that his story was not so incredulous that she had lost her trust in him.

  2. (FYI, dinner will be in the downstairs flat, which is Klaus'/Katya's flat. The dinner scene is poised and ready to strike as soon as the characters make their way downstairs. Also, Bhakti is with Klaus at this moment.)

  3. Being watched…well, Irene was not entirely surprised. She had excepted that someone would pick up their trail. It would not be too hard to do, either for someone involved with the cult who had watched them, or even for someone with a suspicious mind that had put together pieces and found they didn’t add up. She hoped it was the latter, and the note really did seem to indicate that was the case. It was threatening, but it was also just…weird. The initials meant nothing to her, which in turn meant nothing, but still.

    “It’s a ‘he,’ almost certainly,” Irene noted. “Perhaps it is sexist of me, but I really do not think that a female would write like that. There is something about the hand that is decidedly masculine.”

    She thought of making a suggestion, but left it for the time being. He had more to say and that was more important.

    When Peter finished speaking and cast that look at her—the one that plainly showed his fears that she would think him mad after that incredible tale—Irene reached out and took his hand, desiring nothing more than to assure him immediately that she trusted him and believed him; why, if his story was not ravings of an deranged mind, then hers surely was not either! In a way, she was reassuring them both.

    “First, I can only say that I am glad that you are unhurt; indeed, you are quite lucky to be so, judging from your description of the Library and the awful thing that followed you back! How on earth did you kill it anyway? Oh, wait, let me go on first…

    “Second,” she said, looking at him sternly, but not without a smile in her eyes, “I am obliged to scold you for not being more careful! But a mild admonishment is all I can give you; I too am at fault, though quite clearly I was the luckier of the two of us.”

    Rummaging in her large purse, Irene retrieved a carefully wrapped parcel and handed it to Peter. Inside was the palette, that beautiful and terrible artifact that had tempted Irene into the sins of witchcraft. She also searched for her notebook, retrieved it and handed it to Peter. The transliteration was written on the paper.

    “There was no time to tell you of my discovery and my own experience; in fact, it was what I found that prompted my hasty departure, not your letter, which I received the day after the goings-on at the British Museum.

    “I was so fortunate as to make friends with Kathleen Kenyon, the daughter of none other than Sir Frederic Kenyon. With her help, I was able to gain access to the uncatologued artifacts in the British Museum, and not only that, but to look at them at a late hour, when everyone else had gone. With Kathleen as an eager helper, I was able to sift through a fair amount of material, though heaven only knows what else is buried in those shelves!

    “Anyway…oh—I told Katherine some of what went on in India, enough to capture her interest and persuade her to help me without spreading word of what I was doing. Please forgive me for that, but it was necessary. I would not have told her had I not believed her to be a good, honest woman. She will not betray me. In fact, it was she who enabled me to bring you the palette without leaving record of its absence.”

    She fiddled with the strap of her purse, not eager to move onto the real meat of her tale. But she had to. “In short, I recognized the importance of the palette, of course, and I also noted—as you might have as well—that the words are a spell. Thinking that nothing would likely happen, I spoke the words.”

    There was a brief silence. Irene’s eyes were gazing past Peter’s shoulder, focused on nothing in particular. She was reliving that moment, the feel of it, the power and the rush of adrenaline and…oh, it had been wonderful! And then her cheeks turned deep pink, she glanced back at Peter apologetically and continued:

    “I can’t describe it. Nothing I could say would ever do the moment justice. It was, in short, the single most exhilarating moment of my life. I have never sought power or influence on my own, but having felt such pure, raw potential in myself…it was intoxicating.”

    She looked down at her feet, a little embarrassed to continue. Why she should be, she did not know; but her mouse friend seemed rather silly in comparison with Peter’s magnificent Library. Probably best to phrase it another way.

    “I think I know,” she went on, “how the Cult induces the jackals to kill, and perhaps why Lop Mudr having been fabled as formed out of the best parts of ‘all the animals’ is significant. I believe that this spell enables conversation between animal and human minds. The only creature in the museum for me to speak to was a mouse, but even with such a tiny, seemingly comparatively unintelligent animal, I looked at him and I understood what he was thinking. He, ah, came with me here. I will introduce you later,” she said with a small smile, resigned to being thought a little silly. “My success was small, barely significant, but the potential, Peter, think of it! Why, that is what worries me!”

    And intrigues me. “I want you to keep the palette in your room, Peter, and if you will let me, I will guard the mirror,” she finished. “I know you are loath to part from it, but I think that we must protect ourselves from temptation. Perhaps yours is not quite as pleasing a temptation as mine, but it exists. Knowledge has a way of pulling people like us, of persuading us follow even when there might be horrible consequences for doing so.”

  4. Peter carefully examined the ancient palette as he took in Irene's narrative. How had she managed to translate it? He had to marvel at both her talent and her moxie; she was, it seemed, a rather quick study, not only in lost languages, but in the art of theft as well.

    He also had to admit, having heard her report, that he was indeed tempted to replicate her success with this new spell; for, if nothing else, it certainly would explain how John Daniel was able to bend the jackals to his will.

    But to hand over the mirror? Peter was reluctant to do such a thing, even though he trusted Irene more than anyone. For he had won it at the cost of some integral part of his humanity, and its care was now his responsibility, his burden: his karma. He did not feel tempted by the mirror so much as shackled to it.

    "I'm sorry," he said after some consideration, "but I can't agree to that. It's not that I don't trust you, I just--" He struggled to put his thoughts into words. "How can I explain? The mirror is not something I can just hand over. It does not belong to me, Irene; rather, it seems more and more that I belong to it.""What I can offer instead is my promise that I shall not use it without you, for it is clear that such experiments must not be undertaken lightly, or alone. You are right to scold me! Not only might I have lost my mind on some alien world, but the creature that came through might also have killed me, or escaped and caused unspeakable havoc."

    "Thankfully, the thing did not escape. As for how it died, Klaus tells me that I beat it to death in a rage. I have to take him at his word on this, as I have no clear memory of this event, merely a hazy impression and some scratches where the bugger got me."

    "I think you are right about the note," he concluded. "The handwriting and lack of couth both suggest the author was a man. And, unless I am mistaken, 'limey' is an American term of endearment, is it not?"

  5. Irene understood Peter’s reluctance to part with the mirror, despite not being able to really imagine what his bond with the object felt like, but she was disappointed, nonetheless. Moreover, she was worried. She didn’t like the idea that Peter was—or felt that he was—so connected with an object capable of bringing terrible creatures into the world. How could he be ‘owned’ by it? It could not be so; Peter was his own man, capable of resisting anything, even this. She was convinced that he was wrong, that he felt this way because John Daniel had, and his dying words had polluted Peter’s mind. Of course, she could not actually tell him that, but with time, perhaps, she could help him realize he was not a slave. Because if he really was, well…she was not sure that she could accept that. She didn’t want to think about what the consequences might be or to what extent the object might be able to twist and pull him. And change him. Then again, she suspected that the palette might do the same to her, if she were not careful. But she did not feel that it owned her; she was positive that her willpower would win out. Was that foolish? Or would that mindset save her in the end? Or was it far too late and she was only deluding herself that she had control?

    She smiled a little when he mentioned the unique term ‘limey’, though it felt forced. “Yes, I suppose it is. I believe I’ve heard it in films, now that you mention it. An American…how very odd! And rather strange that he did not try to conceal his nationality.”

    He was not a professional, then, whatever that meant.

    Peter's explanation that he had apparently beat the creature to death was indeed a fantastic one, not at all what Irene was expecting! Irene could not imagine how one man could go up against such a hideous beast, even in a ‘rage.’ But then she recalled that he had said he’d had some help from the other lodger. Thank goodness Peter was surrounded by those who would risk their lives to face abominations when it would be easier and more attractive to run the other way.

    “And what does Klaus—er, or Katja—think of this madness, then?” she inquired, not really bothered by the duality of their host, but still not quite at ease with how to talk about him/her in conversation. “And Alexandr, the man that helped you. What on earth did you tell them afterwards? Or have you been waiting for my arrival to induct them into the madness?” she asked with another smile, this one coming more easily. Despite everything, she could still find some humour (mostly dry) in their situation, and she was glad of it.

  6. Peter was glad to see Irene smile. "After waking up from my ordeal," he said, "I knew there would be some questions that demanded answering, so it was with great relief that I received word of your coming. I told Klaus that everything would be explained then, and assured him that he would get a much more complete account with you present, which seemed to mollify him for a while. He is understandably eager to know what that creature was doing in his home and how it got there, so you should expect that he will have no shortage of questions for us over dinner. I wager that our mouths will be busier talking than eating."

    "But Klaus -- or perhaps he will be Katja? -- is really not one to judge. He is much more accepting of the bizarre and the incredible than most, so we needn't worry that he may think us daft or demand our departure. I am more concerned that he may not comprehend the gravity of these matters, or that he will insist upon some demonstration for his amusement."

    "As for Alexandr... he has not taken the intrusion so well, I think. He spends most of his time alone in his room. I only see him in passing, and he gives me the oddest of looks. I don't suppose I can blame him, after what he saw, but I fear that the experience may have rattled him worse than is apparent on the surface. Not knowing him very well, I cannot predict what reaction our tale might produce in him."

  7. Irene nodded when Peter explained Klaus/Katja’s feelings on the matter, then frowned a little—but nodded again as well—when he moved on to Alexandr. She felt sorry for the man, who through no fault of his own had found himself dwelling in the same building as a man who possessed a dangerous portal to another world—or dimension, or reality, or whatever it was! And yet, he was still here. That meant that he had enough fortitude and bravery to remain in his rooms despite a close encounter with that repugnant creature. Surely no one would stay out of pure curiosity! No, such interest could be satisfied after having safely moved away. Alexandr's continued presence indicated that, though rattled, he was far from his breaking point. That was admirable indeed; most people would run the other way when confronted by mind-bending horrors.

    “Let us not keep them waiting, then,” Irene said, smiling again. “I have had a long journey and, therefore, plan to eat hurriedly and thoroughly, but I promise not to embarrass you by chattering on with my mouth full.” Her eyes sparkled with laughter; she seemed truly relaxed, as if she were determined to store up these silly moments in preparation for the rough times ahead.

  8. Dinner was in a room behind the antique shop on the first floor.

    Alexandr was sitting, with his back straight and arms resting on the table before him, knife in one hand, fork in the other. Broad-chested, with a thick handlebar moustache, he seemed aged perhaps, but his was not the pallor of sickness that Klaus had described to Peter. He had the body of an old labourer, muscular and robust, but with none of the weathering a weary form takes on after years of lifting crates at the docks or carrying bricks to construction sites. It was easy to see that he had been an athlete, but Peter's only real introduction to the man had been at that moment of horror when, as he emerged from the recesses of the library – wherever that was, in his own mind, in the walls, in the metal tusk which had provided him entre – he had come face to face with that pile of joints and bulges. Gripped by the same holy madness, their mutual introduction had been simple. They had greeted one another by joining to smash the thing into the floor. At the end, Alexandr stood there, panting over the strewn and indistinguishable innards, bleeding from the wound in his gut, resting the heavy end of the floor lamp on the ground, clutching it like a war club from the days before Saint Boniface. He watched Peter as the Englishman pounded his fists into the wet mess, killing it over and over again. Before Peter had finished, he heard a loud thud as the antique lamp bounced on the hard wood. Alexandr, in his shorts and robe, was already going through the door.

    Klaus had regained his wits slowly. Once it seemed that there was no more life for Peter to pummel from the searching thing, Bhakti, who recovered more quickly from her shock than any of the Europeans, led the master of the house down the stairs and into his own bed. There he had fallen asleep, exhausted. On the way back up to the third floor, where she and Peter were staying, she had also closed Alexandr's door. Inside, she had heard him snoring.

    The next morning, Katya had appeared at Peter's door. Bhakti, of course, answered. Over a surprisingly civil breakfast, Katya assured Peter that while she would not pry too much, there would have to be a time to fully explain the violence of the previous evening. This was a tremendously understanding move, even for her. Peter was reticent to share, but promised his old friend that he would do his best to account for everything – just not right then. The tea in his cup trembled as he apologized for the mess, which Bhakti had spent the remainder of the evening and the best part of the early morning, cleaning. For her labor, for her discrete midnight burning of the remains, wrapped in newspapers repetitiously decrying inflation, all were thankful – except Alexandr, who would remain brooding in his flat for another two days before stepping out even for exercise, and whose feelings on the matter remained secret.

    They remained secret until dinner.

    Bhakti had been helping Klaus in the kitchen (Katja was not the right persona for cooking). She carried a plate of rabbit to the table and sat it before Alexandr, whose eyes widened, as if starving, as if he would eat the whole tender cut. Bhakti, of course, would not be taking any. Peter was growing more and more appreciative of her talents by the day, but the rabbit was obviously Klaus' work – Bhakti knew only a limited range of strictly "shakahari" recipes, containing no meat, garlic, or onions. Ah – and here, just to confuse everyone, was Klaus bearing a pot filled with some kind of green gravy. As he sat it down on the table in front of Alexandr, he glanced over to Bhakti and said, in German, "This is a Baluchi speciality – I call it Spinach and Cottage Cheese. Or, paluk paner," he added, mangling the Urdu name that had, apparently, been supplied by Peter's nurse.

    "And this," Bhakti chimed in English and slightly twisted German, "is Hassemp-peffer. 'Rabbit from Germany.'" After another trip to the kitchen, the table was filled with plates of vegetables and even an apple pie. As Peter and Irene, and then Bhakti and Klaus took their seats, Alexandr spoke for the first time. "We shall say the Lord's Prayer, yeah?" he asked in English. There were no objections, so Alexandr led the diners in giving thanks.

    "Vater Unser im Himmel,
    Geheiligt werde Dein Name,
    Dein Reich komme.
    Dein Wille geschehe,
    Wie im Himmel, so auf Erden.

    "Unser tägliches Brot gib uns heute,
    Und vergib uns unsere Schuld,
    Wie auch wir vergeben unseren Schuldigern.
    Und führe uns nicht in Versuchung,
    Sondern erlöse uns von dem Bösen.

    "Denn Dein ist das Reich und die Kraft
    und die Herrlichkeit, in Ewigkeit.


    Bhakti did not recite the prayer, but politely echoed "amen" when the time came, and immediately stood again to begin doling spoonfuls of stewed vegetables onto the others' plates.

    As she laid a cut of squash on Alexandr's he gave a muffled cough. "Peter," he stated before asking, with earnest curiosity and a not a hint of anger, "What did we kill?" Klaus looked down and then back up, lips pursed and eyebrows raised. Bhakti paused, surveyed the others' faces, and receiving no clear cues, laid another squash on the Olympian's plate. "I'll have no more of that," Alexandr said, "Rabbit for me please."

  9. "Amen."

    Peter had only just taken his first bite when the question came. He wished that he were able to enjoy more of his meal and the mundane pleasantries of dinnertime conversation before having to delve into matters both strange and horrific, but it was clearly not to be. The Englishman set down his silverware, chewing slowly and thoughtfully, and washed the succulent mouthful down with a few sips of wine as he took his time in composing a response that he hoped would reveal just enough to satisfy the questioner.

    "Das schmeckt!" He remarked in earnest, smiling appreciatively at the respective cooks. "Klaus," he asked, "would you be so kind to translate for Alexandr? It is difficult enough for me to find the words to answer him in English, and I am afraid my grasp of German is not up to the task."

    Peter set down his glass on the table and steepled his fingers. Clearing his throat, he began: "As you may or may not already know, Miss Howell and I only recently returned from an ill-fated archaeological expedition in India, in which our objective was to excavate a center of the ancient Harrapan civilization called Mohenjo-Daro, or 'The Mound of the Dead.' We did not get as far as we might have liked, as our dig was shortly interrupted by the activities of what we later determined to be a cult whose spirituality seemed to revolve around the worship of various malevolent goddesses. I myself was seriously injured in one of their attacks and spent several days recovering in the hospital. Why they targeted us, we were never able to determine."

    He paused to allow Klaus to translate before resuming his narrative. "Our endeavour was not completely in vain, however; through careful research and consultation with local mystics, Miss Howell and I managed to discover a method for projecting one's consciousness beyond the body to an alternate space, the properties and boundaries of which I have yet to fully explore. In truth, I am not even sure of its location -- perhaps it exists on Earth in some distant past or future, or perhaps it exists in another world altogether -- but it is a vast place of titantic architecture, where time has maddeningly little meaning, and where I discovered to my horror that we are not the only sentient life the universe has devised."

    He paused again to drink while Klaus translated, watching Alexandr's face for his reaction.

    "On the evening in question," he continued, "I had sent my mind abroad to this place of nightmares to learn more about it, and to the best of my reckoning it would seem something from that world found a way of coming into ours. That, Alexandr, is what we killed. Let me thank you once more for saving my life. And though I had no way of anticipating that such an intrusion could happen, I humbly beg everyone's pardon for my recklessness."

  10. "You are pardoned," said Alexandr, chewing on a gamy bit. He was staring. "Will you do it again?" he asked in English.

    Klaus cut through a slice of cottage cheese. "Oh, I tink what Herr Kunzel means to say –"

    "Will you do it here? I mean to watch." He pulled another morsel of flesh from his fork.

    Klaus threw an overwrought frown across his long chin. "I don't want any more monsters in my haus, Alexandr!"

    Heedless, Alexandr continued. "And, I am curious about you, Miss Howell." Under his thin, silvery beard, Irene saw well-defined muscles clenching in his jaw. "You were on the safari too."

    "Ach, now!" Klaus put his fork and knife down with a clink and made a calming gesture towards Alexandr. "In her own time!" He opened his mouth as if to continue, but something at the other end of the table caught his eye. "Please pass the please, er, der peas."

    Bhakti handed the peas to Irene to Peter to Klaus. Alexandr's eyes followed the dish and finally landed on Klaus. They settled there, softly, with none of the indifference or hardness that Peter and Irene had felt. The two made unlikely friends. Alexandr, the forgotten hero, still musclebound and bearish, but wasting from age or ill health - Klaus, sometimes Katja, a raucous dandy with nary the resources to accomplish the dreams of his leisurely heart. "That piece you have, Peter. The metal one that was on your lap. What was that?"

  11. Peter thoughtfully chewed a mouthful of rabbit. Swallowing it, he answered, "I can't say for sure. I only know that it is meant to be used as a meditational focus for this, this.. what is the term? Astral projection. I liberated it from the corpse of one of the cultists who was killed during a raid on our camp, and later learned of its purpose from a Siddhar whom I befriended."

    "As for projecting," he continued, "I should not think I will do so again. Not here, at any rate, not that I now know the dangers of doing so. We were fortunate that we were able to overpower whatever it was that came through the last time! I shudder to think what could happen if we are less lucky in the future."

  12. "It did not 'come through' I am thinking." Alexandr was paying more attention to his food now. "It was there before you awoke, it came from behind the couch."

    "No, sir." It was Bhakti. "It entered through the window." Peter looked to her, and she immediately assumed an apologetic stance, putting her utensils down. "Sorry, sir, nobody asked - and that night was . . . nerve-rattling, sir." Downcast, she continued. "It came in through the window, I saw it seep in between the . . . sill, and the window. My meaning is not clear. It squeezed through the crack in the window."

    "Hrmph." Alexandr's mustache bristled as he chewed. "Maybe you did not bring the creature with you. But it is still not a . . ."

    "Coincidence," mused Klaus. "Was it looking for you, Peter?"

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  14. "For me or the metal piece, I suspect," Peter said, considering. "Thank you, Bhakti."

    "While this news would seem to absolve me of blame - insofar as the creature's appearance was perhaps not directly my fault - I can find but little succor in it. For it either means that such devils can come into our world as they please, or that someone else summoned the thing to find the artifact and kill me."

    Peter finished his wine, letting the implications of his conjecture hang heavily in the air for a moment before continuing.

    "Klaus is right; the timing of the attack was almost certainly not coincidental. Perhaps the seeker was only able to hone in on my location after I had used the metal piece? In which case, it would be feloniously irresponsible of me to do so again! My apologies, Alexandr, but there will be nothing of the sort to watch."

    Peter struggled not to show it, but the conversation was making him progressively more uncomfortable. It was not just that Alexandr's pointed inquiries had forced him to lie, or that too much attention was being paid to the mirror (though he resented the waning Olympian for both these things). Rather, the source of his vexation was something he still could not yet articulate.

    His subconscious mind had been diligently processing his experience in the Library beneath the threshold of his awareness, and even now the vague impressions and sensations were beginning to coalesce into recollections. There had been a hole of some sort, a shaft...


    Peter's head swam. He had to change the subject. Let someone else do the talking. Now.

    "Irene can talk to animals," he blurted.

  15. Irene listened attentively—her German was rather good, though her French was better—but it might have been hard to tell given that her eyes were often on her plate. She was devoting much of her energy to eating as much as she could without appearing too unladylike or greedy. But she was quite famished after her journey, and besides that she knew that the conversation would likely travel down some avenues that would result in her stomach churning in apprehension and her throat closing involuntarily. Best to eat now lest she lose her appetite.

    Her eyes widened when Alexandr spoke of Peter repeating the process, and then became yet more saucerlike when he turned his attention to her for a moment. Luckily, Klaus went on an intercept course and she was able to regain control of her muscles and finish swallowing the bit of bread in her mouth.

    Bhakti’s news about the creature’s origin was frightening. So, that thing had already been in the world somewhere? How could that be? Had Peter’s actions summoned it somehow? It was a horrible thought indeed. She felt as if the barriers between reality and fantasy were breaking down rapidly. It would have been better if Peter had brought it with him; then, she could tell him never, ever to use the mirror again. As it was, though, it seemed more and more as if the library had not been a place of danger. Perhaps the creature was trying to prevent Peter from doing something, continuing his conversation, making a discovery, or something like that? Peter’s words proved to Irene that they were, once again, on the same wavelength.

    Then, in an instant, he broke off and went in an entirely different, wholly unexpected direction:

    "Irene can talk to animals," he blurted.

    If looks could kill…alright, it was more of a wounding glare than a deadly one, but it was still the harshest look that Irene had ever sent towards Peter. Even his admission of murdering John Daniel had not made her so angry.

    Bastard. You’re a bastard, she thought fiercely in an attempt to project the words right into his mind. How dare you put me on the spot like that!But the rage didn’t linger for too long (though he was sure going to hear about this later!). She understood Peter’s desire to direct the dogged questions elsewhere; she probably would have done the same thing. And she could handle this. Somehow. It's just that she hadn’t really been ready to deal with an opening like the one Peter had given her…

    “That is not quite true,” Irene said, her cheeks flushed with suppressed irritation and chagrin at suddenly being the center of attention. “I had one, ah, experience in which I was able to, er, mentally communicate with one animal. And the test was far from conclusive. I have no reason to believe that the process could be repeated; it may well have been a fluke!”

    She didn’t really believe that, but she wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of discussing spells and theft of museum property with the people at this table. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust them—okay, that was part of it. Klaus she felt at home with; he and his alter ego felt like family, despite the short time she’d known them. But the other man…Irene wasn’t sure what to make of him. His imposing physicality coupled with his cool, almost unemotional conversation that gave no hint as to his real thoughts about the situation was just...unsettling. Irene didn't usually have so much trouble reading others. Perhaps if she could draw him out, get a better idea of what sort of man he was…

    “But, please, let us return to the basics for at least a moment. It feels strange to speak of supernatural events when we are little more than acquaintances, does it not?

    "First, I must beg you all to call me Irene. Second,” she went on, turning to Alexandr, “you asked me about myself before. What were you curious about, exactly? And perhaps you would be willing to share your own tale when I am finished with mine?” she inquired with a gentle smile.

  16. "My tale." He just kept chewing as he spoke. "What story do you want me to tell you?" Alexandr's lips didn't seem to form the words; they were occupied riding his teeth as they ground food into nourishment. The words fell from his mouth as he put more food in: "I am a famous man! I can tell you anything you like. There are ghouls and magic in none of it, and I have never mentally communicated with an animal. What kind was it?" His eyes, which had been locked on Irene, now flitted about her frame. The look was lascivious, indulgent, but in none of the ways that would have marked Alexandr as a cad, a masher, a pervert. She felt that those two eyes - in a face so consciously occupied in chewing - were in a way eating her. "Was it a mouse?" He swallowed. "This is what I would like to see."

  17. Alexandr’s intense glance was actually a trifle unsettling for Irene, who admittedly could be a bit of an attention whore in certain scenarios (nights out back home were always a bit, er, crazy). But she stared back calmly, trying not to appear too rattled. She did, however, shift in her chair a little bit, though that could be attributed to the tense situation.

    A famous man? Irene wracked her brain and tried to think of where she might have seen him before. Obviously, he was an athlete, but she wasn’t one to pay too much attention to such matters. But now that he mentioned his fame, she looked at him with new eyes and realized that she might very well have seen his picture in the past, though perhaps she had never known who he was.

    Then, he dropped the bombshell. For the second time in minutes, Irene was flabbergasted.

    “How could you possibly—” Irene started, but her voice gave out.

    Then, with great effort, she closed her mouth, took a deep breath and tried to remain calm. “It was a mouse, yes,” she said, looking at Alexandr with a mixture of amazement and suspicion. “Is your question a mere coincidence, or have you something more to tell me?”

    She didn’t comment on his desire to see such a species to species communication. Her gut told her not to even think about it, but every other inch of her was urging her to try it again, to see what the potential was. Moreover, it meant she would feel again the wonder, exhilaration and power that had filled her before. How could she not long for that again?

  18. It was true. Over the past days Irene had been unable to refrain from wondering what thoughts could be running through the heads of the dumb beasts around her - for they all now less dumb. The little mouse that had been stowed in her bag was far from thoughtless. It was just that he seemed to do much of his thinking with his nose. As she grew accustomed to the sensation of allowing her mind to graze across his, Irene had noted that the mouse's interests changed with every new gust of air, and that there was little difference for him between a notion to do something and a scent.

    Knowing what was on the minds of other creatures was a natural enough and innocent enough wish, surely - Irene had caught herself thinking this as she passed a field of cows on the train - so, how could its fulfillment be wicked?

    "Zufall," said Alexander. "Mice are always at hand." With barely a breath, he continued: "Why do you ask me if I have something more? You expect me to have some kind of dark tale of my own. Do I remind you of someone?" He speared three hunks of squash on his fork. One, two, three, they went into his mouth.

    Klaus lightened the air a little, but did not change the subject to Irene's satisfaction when he asked, "What kinds of things are on a mouse's mind?"

    Alexandr, "Yes, what does a mouse think of these times?"

    Encouraged, Klaus added, "Perhaps you could report on the moth?" He lifted his eyes to the cheap chandelier above the table, where, behind a curtain of red glass baubles, a fat moth was beating itself against the electric bulb. "Or you will be my diplomat to the ants that are living behind my sink?" He smiled and gestured to the kitchen.

  19. As he stared silently at his plate, part of Peter felt painfully guilty for having put Irene in such an uncomfortable position to save himself, and part of him withered under the displeasure of her glare; another part of him bristled at how Alexandr and Klaus seemed to tease Irene as they attempted to elicit a demonstration of her purported powers; but he could do nothing now but struggle to hold on, as the flood of memories began to congeal and reveal more to him of his misadventures in the Library...

  20. Irene was tired. She’d had a long trip here and not much time to recover from it; then, she’d been thrown into a most unwelcome subject; and now she was being pestered about a “talent” she hadn’t yet come to terms with. She had not been ready to share it with anyone else but Peter, because she knew the reaction would be too much for her right now. No one would understand. How could they? Still, she had never imagined it would be quite this bad. She supposed that they might mean well, but how dare they make quips at a time like this! Interest she had expected, but not this.

    She ignored Alexandr’s question; she was too upset to deal with it right now.

    “Just because my experience wasn’t as outwardly frightening and dangerous as Peter’s doesn’t mean that it’s something that should be taken lightly,” she said stiffly, looking pretty rattled. Maybe the others wouldn’t think it was that much out of character, having just met her, but Peter would no doubt be struck by her lack of calm. “It’s nothing to joke about. It’s…it’s part of me now. I can’t let it go. And I don’t know how I should feel about it, but I would like—that is, I beg you to make light of it or not press me about it right now,” she finished with a bit more calm.

    She pushed her plate a few inches away from her, signaling that she wasn’t going to be eating anything else that night. Then, she glanced at Peter. The anger was gone now. He was her only lifeline, the only one she could count on. He had once done something to protect her, and she had berated him for it; but now, she wanted nothing more than for him to rise up and play the hero. But she didn't really expect it. That would have been unfair of her.

  21. Peter swam against the current of recollection to bring himself back to the table and back into the conversation.

    "Um," he began, "while I understand that we have been discussing some especially weighty matters, and that it is only natural to want to inject some levity into a conversation that has perhaps grown too grave, please, gentlemen, let's take care not to do so at the expense of the lady's feelings."

    "If she is not up to a demonstration of her power," Peter continued, "then you shall have to content yourselves with this. See here." He stood, unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt, and rolled up his sleeve to expose the scars on his wrist from his encounter at the well.

    "Jackals," he explained. "The cultists I spoke of were able to direct them from afar, presumably by the same spell Irene deciphered; for I found myself in a fight with several of the beasts, who exacted their share of my flesh, as you can see. And before you suggest that these mongrels were simply trained, I will counter that one of them found its way into the hospital, into the very room of a cultist we had wounded and captured, and chewed out his throat. They had potent secrets worth protecting, you understand."

    "So you will pardon us for not seeing the humor in our situation," he concluded, "for we barely escaped from India with our lives, and even now we must contend with the likelihood that this cult is actively searching to recover the secrets and artifacts we liberated."

    His point made, Peter sat and refastened his cuff. "Klaus," he asked, "would you please pass the wine?"

  22. Klaus quietly did as bid. "I can see why you have not told the police, and I am sorry to have upset you, Irene."

    "I cannot see," Alexandr interjected. "Why not go to the authorities and explain your situation? Leave the magic out of it, the Oriental cult is enough, surely. They are Thugs, are they not?"

    "You forget that you live on Frederichstrasse."

    "They will take my word," he retorted in German.

    Klaus replied likewise, in calmer tones. "This is not entirely our business, Alex."

    "By all means it is!" Alexandr stood, bumping into the table as he did so. Silverware jumped against porcelain. He pulled his shirt from his pants waist and peeled it from his belly. On his hairy stomach, thick with muscle but undefined, was a wound. Like a second navel above the one his mother had given him, a clean pink scab had formed over a wound the size of an anna coin. "Since we are showing scars," he said in English, "this is my investment in the matter!"

    Without tucking his shirt back in, he resumed his seat. "It stung like a knife and left a hole like a bullet . . . If the police are not called, then I would like to see what has come into my home!"

  23. Irene had not seen the full extent of Peter’s injuries before, and she could not look at them for long. It had been easier to regard the ripped throat than to see such marks on the flesh of a dear friend.

    “Please, think nothing of it,” Irene replied to Klaus, somewhat chagrined by her outburst.

    She would have said more had not the large man cut in. It was not until he raised his shirt and exposed his scar that Irene realized just why he had been so pushy and so interested in them and their mystery. Her mouth fell open, but she clamped it shut again. They were in a difficult predicament. It seemed that they would have to satisfy Alexandr’s curiosity. Irene wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted, but she was willing to go to nearly any length so that the police would not be called.

    “I am truly sorry that you were forced to become part of this chain of horrors,” Irene said, regarding Alexandr with sincerity and sympathy—but not as much that one might expect from a woman. “But to involve anyone else would only spread the danger further, not to mention would make it impossible for us to follow clues on our own, as there would always be someone watching us, and would no doubt result in more deaths in the end. I could not live with myself knowing that I have consciously put more people in danger. But if you feel you must go to the authorities, then that is, I suppose, your right. But if we can satisfy your curiosity without opening up this home to further danger, then I think we can both agree that would be a better course.” She looked at Peter to be sure he agreed with her.

    “What,” she finished, her eyes steadily focused on Alexandr, “exactly do want from us? And what can we in turn except from you?”

  24. When Alexandr jumped to his feet, Peter's thoughts went to the pistol concealed behind his dinner jacket, tucked into the waistband of his pants; and he was alarmed at how quickly and easily his mind seemed to go to dark places...


    ...clatter - click - squeak...
    Peter shook his head to clear it, and reached for a napkin to wipe the sheen of perspiration forming at his brow. His hand trembled as he brought his wineglass to his lips, and he hurriedly gulped down its contents.

    "What exactly do want from us?" Irene had asked. "And what can we in turn expect from you?"

    "Listen, Alexandr," Peter said, "you cannot put your faith in the authorities with matters such as these, for a number of reasons. Miss Howell and I certainly would have from the start, had we even the ghost of a chance of being believed, but there was no such chance."

    "First, it took a great deal of research and misfortune to even discern that the attacks against us were perpetrated by a cult instead of common thieves. Miss Howell and I only found this out due to certain marks they bore on their bodies, and only with the assistance of a local spiritualist."

    "Second, yes, these cultists are like the Thuggee near as we can tell, but the Thugs have been extinct for decades. The authorities available to us in India would not have been receptive to any suggestion to the contrary. Moreover, I do not imagine that the German police will be especially eager to investigate a group of Oriental murderers whose existence has passed into legend."

    "Just what would you tell the authorities, Alexandr? How would you propose to subtract the supernatural from the matter when that is precisely our problem? You think the police would believe you because you used to be important? Or, more likely, would they only pretend to humour you, while attributing your wild claims to age, or a pathetic need to be in the limelight once again?"

    "I do not mean to be unkind," Peter continued more softly, "but, you must recognize, Alexandr, that often the role of the authorities is to keep these things out of sight: to avoid a panic, or anything else that might upset a social order still strained by a devastating war. No, these matters are only of interest to individuals on the fringe, and the last thing we need is additional attention from nefarious occultists."

    "Once again, Alexandr, I am truly sorry that I put your life in jeopardy, and I am thankful for your bravery, but you must let this go. It is bad enough that you know as much as you do, if only because I fear it has stripped you of certain beneficial illusions. If you would feel more at peace without me here, then I will gladly find another roof under which to dwell during my stay in Berlin."

  25. Alexandr returned Irene's gaze and did not break his stare until Peter uttered the words ". . . or a pathetic need to be in the limelight once again?"

    "Oh . . . Peter . . ." Klaus groaned.

    Aleandr's jaw flexed as if his squash was somehow too tough, and he listened to the rest of Peter's soliloquy.

    "You should not go elsewhere," Alexandr said quietly, almost meekly by comparison with his previous bluster.

    "No, it will not do," agreed Klaus.

    "And I have few illusions left to strip - about the devastation of war or anything else."

    Klaus had turned his attention conspicuously to his food.

    "And there is nothing for me to lose from either of you, so I will admit that what I want is to be involved." He forked a bit from the remainder of the mess on his plate - it might have been a morsel of rabbit with squash on it, or it might have been a bloodied chunk of gourd. "It was." He ate. "Satisfying. To destroy the creature. I was glad that it was dead."

    Klaus looked up.

    Alexandr reverted to German to explain himself, "I am glad that it is dead. I know that the monster was incidental to your weird journey, but the fact of its destruction . . . strange . . . and the steadfastness you both seem to have tells me that something noble may come of your explorations. I am drawn to that. Even if you did call me pathetic."

    Alexandr chuckled. And he smiled. "Now," he said in English, "You will do more than to say that I am brave, and you will also make an admission. That is you are in a situation that you do not understand and for which you are not prepared. If it were not for your maid's scream, your friend's key, and your neighbor's bravery you may not be enjoying your rabbit right now.

    "I wish to learn a little. You may expect my aid. I think seriously you have little choice."

  26. Peter sighed. Removing a cigarette from its case, he lit it and looked at Irene, allowing her to weigh in first.

  27. Irene was rather surprised that Peter did not answer Alexandr straightaway, but instead turned to her. Surely he did have to admit that the man had saved his life; surely he was grateful and would honestly say it! But for some reason, the words did not come out of his mouth.

    For her part, she could not deny Alexandr’s heroic act, no matter how or why it had come about, or what the man himself thought about it. He had still saved Peter.

    “Alexandr,” she said, speaking with kindness that went beyond her normal polite tone, “I can honestly admit that you have done a great service to Peter, whom I consider to be the best, closest friend that I have, and so you certainly have my personal gratitude for your actions. More than that, I am beholden to you. What you ask seems entirely reasonable. I’ll admit that I am not eager to let you into our confidence—and that is for practical as well as selfish reasons—but you have stated your case well. I will do my best to be open, but please understand that it may take me a little while to become accustomed to treating you in the same matter as I do Peter. We have just met, after all. It is...a big step to take so quickly.” She smiled, briefly.

    But others were involved in this—CB and Henry, for example—so who was she to say that Alexandr and Klaus might not belong among their number? Because to Irene’s mind, this wasn’t just a random sequence of events; there was some underlying purpose to it, though she couldn’t quite figure it out yet. She and all these others had been drawn together by forces they could not control. They were then, perhaps, fated to be together. Perhaps.

    “Still, despite not knowing you well, what you say about how you felt when killing the creature, that struck a chord with me. I know how it is to feel something very strongly and to not really be able to put it into words. We both do, I think,” she added, glancing at Peter.

  28. "You are right, Alexandr," Peter grumbled as he stubbed out his cigarette into one of Klaus' porcelain ashtrays. "We have little choice. In my own rush to learn, I inadvertently opened your eyes to something both dreadful and potentially grand. It is that lure of grandeur and our damnable need to know that keeps us delving further into this realm of wonder and horror. Who am I to deny you, to tell you to look elsewhere, when I cannot take my own advice?"

    "I don't know that our pursuits are entirely noble," he continued, "for you may find, as I have, that following this path to its end may require you to compromise on certain principles. Even then, you will be fortunate if that is its only cost."

  29. (Peter has passed a sanity check for a horrible event hitherto shielded from his conscious mind. The event was so horrible that despite Peter's resolve, he has suffered a loss of -4 sanity.)

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  32. Peter folded his napkin, set it on his plate, and stood up from his chair. "Klaus," he said, "I have no doubt that you have prepared a fantastic dessert for us, but you must forgive me if I have lost my taste for sweets just now. I have enough to digest, if you'll pardon the pun, and I am still feeling somewhat fatigued from my ill-fated explorations."

    Sighing tiredly, he looked at Alexander pointedly and added, "I will honestly consider your offer, sir, but you should also consider my warning. Before all is said and done, you may find that you have much more to lose than you initially thought."

    "But for now, I think that I have said all I can on this. By all means, please feel free to continue this discussion without me."

    "Klaus, Bhakti, thank you for a most wonderful meal. I will see you all at breakfast in the morning, I trust? Til then, guten Abend."

    Peter was climbing the stairs to his room when, out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a roach scuttle into the shadows at his approach.

    He paused mid-step. His eyes lost their focus.

    Where am I?

    The dark recesses of the staircase suddenly exploded in a gruesome swell of insects. In an instant, they swarmed over his body, up the legs of his trousers; the disconcerting sensation of tickling became a horrid pinching, biting, sucking. They covered his eyes and blinded him with their sting, he opened his mouth to scream but the sound was swallowed as the chitinous tide surged down his throat, into his lungs, simultaneously choking and devouring him.

    He could climb no more.

    Irene and the others heard a repetitive, wooden thudding as the body of Peter Cox came tumbling down the staircase. On the floor, a pool of blood began to form around his head. His hands were poised over his eyes in a clawlike grasp; his tongue protruded horribly through lips frozen in a grimace of terror.

  33. Irene was a little bit hurt that Peter had directed no parting words in her direction. She knew he was not himself, that this dinner had been as upsetting to him as it had been to her, if not more so; however, the snub, intentional or not, still smarted. And so rather than following him as she really wished to do, she remained in her chair, her eyes cast down at her plate. But she wasn’t really looking at it. She was miles away—nay, continents away…

    The rhythmic thuds ended Irene’s daydreams as quickly as they had begun. She knew instantly what the cause was, and she was out of her chair and heading to the stairwell before anyone else. Even in her heels she was fast. and quite steady on her feet as well.

    “Call a doctor,” she cried out even as she was turning the corner.

    Seconds later, she set eyes on Peter’s battered form, which appeared frighteningly frail and twisted to Irene’s affectionate eyes. But nothing could stop her from going to his aid, not even that jutting tongue and sickly pale visage. She literally fell to the floor beside him, her knees knocking painfully against the wood floor, her breath momentarily lost to her. The blood was of no consequence; she made no attempt to move out of its path.

    “Peter,” she half-groaned, half-sobbed. Her hands shook as she reached out to him. That was because, she realized with chagrin, she was afraid to touch him lest he were to move his hands from his eyes and show her the madness that was certainly lurking in their depths. But she steeled herself and grasped his shoulders, at first lightly, then firmly enough so that her fingers would leave little red marks under his shirt before this was over.

    “Peter, please--look at me,” she said, even though she was terrified by the very thought of it. But she knew that he needed to remember who he was and that he was safe among friends, and what better way than to see her face and hear her voice? Perhaps her concern and steadfast loyalty and affection would be enough to bring him back to earth.

    “I can’t do this without you, Peter; I’m not that strong,” she whispered roughly.

    It was then that she realized her cheeks were wet; she’d been crying, perhaps since she had left her chair; she really didn’t remember. With a stifled cry, she closed her eyes and pressed her face against his shoulder, her fingers tightening their grip. She didn’t care if he tried to throw her off in his madness, or if her attempt to reach him was pointless because it only had a chance of success in her own fantasies; right now, she needed to hold him tightly and that was all that mattered.