The peculiarly angled edifice atop the red rock bluff above the mansion—the Temple of Xenophor, he called it—still stands intact, but those goofy New Age pilgrims don’t journey there any more. It’s padlocked, I hear, slated for demolition, maybe destined to become the parking lot for a new strip mall. Who knows? I don’t care.
Neither, certainly, does Tharaspas. He’s gone, wiped from this world. The press reports convincingly relate the tale of the explosion which blasted his house, erasing all trace of him.
That’s how they tell it, anyway.
One morning bright in 1930, at my dingy hole-in-the-wall of a downtown Phoenix office (small, under the radar, suitable for my business), my secretary Angie carried in a letter for me. One of those old fashioned written kind, inscribed in beautiful cursive, with a stamp and everything; I don’t get many of those.
The return address listed Professor Anton Vorchek. I grimaced, but nevertheless tore open the envelope. I knew Vorchek from way back. A smart fellow, sort of a part-time academic who always had the inside straight on whatever strange was going on. Good guy too, as long as you didn’t turn your back on him. With approval I noted he’d addressed the letter formally to “Mr. Sterk Fontaine,” and below that, “Esoteric Archeology, Ltd.”
My Dear Mr. Fontaine:
No less than Gregor Tharaspas requests my aid involving complicated matters pertaining to the arcane. After receiving from him further particulars, I suggested in my acceptance that you might be willing to lend your expertise in support of our endeavors. He acquiesced to this, mentioning in his response previous dealings with you about which he did not elaborate. Inform me so soon as you are ready.
Inform him, indeed! Mightn’t I refuse?
He figured not, nor would I. Despite suspecting a messy situation, I had to bite. My earlier acquaintance with Tharaspas had proved enormously lucrative to me. A repeat engagement could produce an accumulation of benefits. I had Angie shoot Vorchek an telegram acceptance, and promised her a rollicking night on the town if something worthwhile developed.
I make an up and down living out of the locating and procuring of artifacts, some extremely old and extremely rare, for rare and special clients. There’s a covert society existing within our own of unique, oddly learned folk who dabble in the bizarre, the occult, the downright weird. For their purposes—into which I seldom pry—they need documents, relics, mystical trinkets believed to possess enormous value to their intellectual delvings. It’s an interesting racket, no questions asked, cash on the barrel head, and chancy. I get burned a lot. On the other hand, when it pays off, it pays big, and I’ve built a reputation as a man who can be counted upon to do anything—anything—to get the job done.
Angie handled the arrangements. A few days later, bright and early, I made the pleasant drive up to Sedona, turning west from the interstate, whizzing past the primordial sandstone wonders (already thronged tourist attractions) of Bell Rock, Courthouse Butte, and Cathedral Rock, the sharp spires of Chicken Point stabbing the emerald blue sky dead ahead. Off the highway, I passed into a community of expensive houses in the shadow of these ancient natural monuments, chugged up the steep road onto a flat ridge overlooking and isolated from the neighborhood.
Atop a higher outcrop of garish red bedrock, loomed the distorted gray slabs of that “temple” so attractive to gawking tourists and scatter-brained true believers. Much of the ridge was dominated by the famous mansion and spacious grounds of Gregor Tharaspas, one of those big-shots of the odd, professing in public (and turning a staggering profit on) New Age hokum, and in private engaging in matters bizarre to the verge of insanity, as I well knew.
The Sedona House he called it, and the singular name captured popular or tourist bureau fancy and stuck. Easy to see why: imagine it now, or study the old pictures, of that sprawling, gleaming white architectural conglomeration, with its roots in Greek and Roman forms, and God knows what else. The forbidding masonry wall around the property, softened by a riot of naturally gaudy flowers, enclosed a parkland of green lawn, transplanted eucalyptus, exotic shrubbery, flower beds, pools, fountains, and statues of the Grecian type, heroic male and risqué female gods of yesteryear.
I pulled up at the wide driveway around the side, where a servant directed me into the cavernous garage, a space by itself bigger than most people live in, including me. It contained a range of snazzy cars and a beat up old SUV that I recognized from previous adventures. Directed through the left of three doors, I was led through increasingly ornate corridors and past inviting rooms to the heart of the domicile, the vast study of Tharaspas.
Bookshelves dominated the lofty walls with nothing ornamental in their appearance, only a massive collection of aging, tattered tomes, tightly packed here, padded with clumps of yellowed papers there. Enough reading material for ten lifetimes, but it all looked well used. A brilliant crystal chandelier, fit for a palace, depended from the painted ceiling, hanging from the center of a bright, visually oppressive star-burst pattern radiating from what I interpreted as an aggregation of green, staring eyes.
Amidst resplendent, regal furniture, the master of the Sedona House rose to greet me. “Mr. Fontaine, of course,” he declared loudly, beckoning me forward, motioning to another lackey to pour me a drink. “You arrive in good time. I believe you know my other guest.”
Vorchek stood up from a high, soft velvet chair, and nodded. “Mr. Fontaine,” he said, in that precise, slightly accented speech of his. Always the natty dresser, he stood stiffly as if prepared to bow, in suit and tie, an old fashioned floppy hat riding down toward his shoulders. “I reasoned that we could count on you.”
“That remains to be seen, Vorchek,” I replied with a formal smile. “I haven’t a clue why I’m here. Knowing our host, I guess it’s something weird.”
Tharaspas laughed, a hearty rumble that nevertheless hinted at pose. His eyes didn’t laugh. “Take that for granted, Fontaine.”
In some respects as old world as Vorchek—certainly by ancestry—Tharaspas nevertheless was wholly American in his personal presentation. His flat, harsh voice boomed from a pale, fleshy face beneath tousled black hair. He wore an open beige tee-shirt and what I’d have taken for scuffed gardening pants. His shoes, though, I noted, were shiny and sharp, tailor-made, cost no object, no doubt.
I accepted the wine, sipped greedily. My favorite; he’d remembered. I asked, “We have business to transact?”
Vorchek shrugged, stroked his short, well-manicured beard.
Tharaspas glanced his way, grinned. “Sit down, Fontaine, and I’ll quickly bring you up to date.” We all did so, about a triangular mahogany coffee table heaped with oddly decorated porcelain urns and strewn with raggedy documents. When suitably arranged in those pleasurable chairs with drinks in hand and cigars passed out, Tharaspas launched into a surprising discourse.
“I’m winding up my public affairs, Fontaine. I’ve already shut down the Temple of Xenophor, a silly conceit I no longer need. It was never a serious proposition anyway, a money-making gimmick, undeniably tawdry. I focus more on essentials now, the actual as opposed to the virtual. The Sedona House, too, will be closed. I expect—intend—to vacate all my holdings. They aren’t required for the future I have in mind.
“I embark soon upon a great journey. From it I do not expect to return. It will represent the culmination of my researches, the pinnacle achievement. It is an unusual trek I contemplate, one that shall blast the barriers of time and space… yet I need help. You, Fontaine, possess the special skills I must employ.”
I leaned back into the comfy chair, smirked over my glass. “So, my invitation wasn’t a casual one after all.”
Tharaspas laughed again. “No. You’ve a reputation for being hard to deal with, Fontaine. I had to get you here in order to ‘put it to you,’ as they say. Rest assured, in your case I have a business venture in mind. Vorchek and his assistant, of course, lend their aid for other reasons.”
“Assistant?” I cried. To Vorchek I queried, “Oh Lord, is she here, too?”
In bland tones he responded, “Miss Delaney necessarily offered me her support in this undertaking. You may look forward with eagerness to renewing your acquaintance.”
Take that as his idea of a joke. Theresa Delaney and I didn’t quite get along. A beautiful girl, and a snappy dresser, this private—very private—secretary of his… but snooty? So I didn’t move in her elite circles. So I didn’t measure up to her hero the professor. So I was dirt! I’d settle for a little civility.
“Okay, Tharaspas,” I sighed, “let’s skip the tedious build-up. What do you want from me?”
He stood, strode to the massive fireplace, crooked a finger to beckon me over. “See this, Fontaine?” he asked, indicating an especially ornate and intricate gew-gaw occupying one end of the marble mantel. “It’s an original time piece designed by Albrecht of Dresden. Seventeenth Century. Of the mere three he created, the only one extant. Savor the elements of its composition, this object fashioned for the king of Saxony: gold, Fontaine, silver, platinum. Inlaid with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, stripes of turquoise. Have you ever seen the like? Worth, I’d say, half a million on the open market.
“I’ll make you a swap, Fontaine. The clock is yours, with a clear title, if you deliver into my hand the Seventh Scroll of Artocris.”
While the big boys were busy, I had the tumultuous pleasure of sharing lunch with Theresa Delaney. She failed to pretend joy at meeting me again.
“For God’s sake, what are you doing here?” she exclaimed.
“Our companions,” said I, “amuse themselves by surprising us. Your old buddy does, anyway.”
A lovely girl, with magnificent golden locks and soft, perfect features. She always gadded about like a fashion model. I don’t know what she saw in an old guy like Vorchek, but that’s one of the peculiarities of liking. I guess she admired his brain.
We were sat at opposite ends of the table in a kind of breakfast nook, she daintily nibbling a small sandwich, I shoveling one piled high. “Listen, babe, I’m not out for trouble,” I said around a mouthful. “Why not keep your fireworks damp until we wrap this up?”
“You’re more likely packing heat.” She sniffed. “I just know you mean bad news.”
“Nothing of the sort. Tharaspas is taking a long trip, you see, and he needs a scroll. Who wouldn’t? He asked me to pick it up for him. No big deal.”
“Either you’re being a jerk, or you know nothing.”
“One of the two, sweetheart.” I peered for the waitress. “Hey, we got anything to drink here besides orange juice?”
“He wants you to steal it.”
I grinned, adding around a mouthful of roast beef, “Tharaspas doesn’t care how I acquire the scroll, so long as he winds up with it. No questions asked, that’s the rule of my game. As for what I know… well, maybe Tharaspas plays by the same rule. You tell me: where’s he going?”
“Some place out of this world.” She said it with an air of mirthful seriousness. I’m not naive, such words could have legitimate meaning with these fellows. I figured I’d be told, sooner or later, what I needed to hear, if anything. Meanwhile, I had a job to do.
One way or the other, I intended to earn that clock.
Item acquisition procedure, I call it. That’s the process of laying my paws on a thing that isn’t mine. There are so many ways to get stuff, the right method being dependent on circumstances. The latter, in this case, stood thus: Alfonso Monteca owned the scroll, millionaire and self-proclaimed high priest of a particularly whacked-out spiritualist cult. It was his prized possession in fact, and he’d never tell how much money or throat-cutting it took him to get it.
Nor, the grapevine warned, would he ever consent to sell, loan, or in any fashion whatsoever surrender his rightful sovereignty over it for a moment. The mere request, I deduced (and tenuous feelers to third parties confirmed), would cause Monteca to lock down his treasure that much tighter. I didn’t need that kind of headache.
Despite the suggestion inherent in its name, the Seventh Scroll of Artocris was one of a kind. I knew all about it, from shop talk. Scratched on papyrus back in those heady pharaoh days, by a famously brilliant or foolish master of the esoteric arts, it was supposed to contain spells or formulae which open all sorts of doors that duller and wiser heads would prefer kept shut. The details escaped me, as I guess they did most people, but they were fancy and important and dangerous secrets that some would kill for, or even put to use if they dared. Maybe Monteca would dare.
Tharaspas certainly would. Well, I’d give him that chance.
Let’s skip the minutiae of the operation: those intricacies are a tale in themselves, possibly boring to the layman, and besides I’ve a penchant for sitting on trade secrets. I researched, calculated, observed, chose the moment, acted.
Monteca had, I got.
Two weeks after I left the Sedona House, I returned bearing a triple-locked satchel. Shortly after arrival at mid-day I handed over satchel and keys to Tharaspas. He already had the clock boxed. I appreciated his confidence in me.
“Thank you, Fontaine,” he said. “Quick work. No come-backs, I take it?”
I assured him on that point, and surmised aloud that delivery concluded our business. Brusquely he indicated otherwise. As he scurried away, clutching the satchel to his chest, he called back, “No indeed. Stick around. Talk to Vorchek. He’ll tell you—” Tharaspas was gone.
The professor and Theresa had set up office during my absence, converting a disused bedroom into their private study. When I intruded, precious payment under my arm, they were huddled over a pile of type-written papers. The girl eyed me warily, Vorchek drawing easily at his pipe as he stated rather than asked, “It is done, then.”
“That’s right, Vorchek. He got his, I got mine. That’s the finish as I see it. Any reason I shouldn’t dash with the loot?”
“You’ll miss all the fun,” Theresa said mockingly.
Vorchek didn’t smile. “So to speak, sir. Shortly, I expect, our host shall commence his grand project. He requires aid in order to inaugurate his passage. You may contribute further.”
“Gobbledygook, Vorchek. I don’t lift a finger without due cause, which means information and compensation.”
“True to form,” Theresa sneered.
Vorchek glanced at his companion, rose from his chair. “My dear, be so kind as to complete the preparation of this report. Mr. Fontaine and I will go for a little walk.”
We took a stroll through the beautiful grounds of the Sedona House. It was like walking through expensive Hollywood sets for an epic movie combining Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and God knows what else scenery. Vorchek spoke in a muse, as if to himself. “She died, you see. The wife of Tharaspas passed beyond the veil, after bitter illness, and he could not accept that. His whole life, Mr. Fontaine, dedicated to rending the curtain concealing the secrets of the eternal mysteries, yet her death reduced him to despair. What meant his achievements, his discoveries, if they availed him nothing in her case?
“Let me tell you—and I beg you not to tax him on the point. He first gave himself over to wild schemes for raising her from the grave. He indulged in scholastic reveries, mining the works of bizarre thinkers among the ancient and medieval masters. His researches, necessarily, led first to wariness, then negation. He even perused the anecdotes recorded by Jacob Bleek concerning Josiah the Hebrew and his consort.” He saw my blank reaction. “Really, sir, your education lacks depth. Tharaspas borrowed those documents from my files. I must show them to you one day.”
At the far end of the walled property we skirted an aquamarine pool inhabited by large, multicolored, bewhiskered fish, mounted a stepped dais bearing a pink-veined marble statue of some long-bearded worthy. From there, with the house behind us, we gained a stunning panorama of the glorious red stone bluffs looming near and sweeping away in a receding semi-circle, a majestic amphitheater ordained by time and geology.
“At any rate, that story, among others, warned him of tragedy. Our host, therefore, has settled on another tack. He can not safely return his beloved to the land of the living? Then he wishes to enter, alive and bodily, into the realm of the dead! Yes sir, he would join her there, united as one, for all time, in what he imagines for her sake is a paradise.”
Vorchek rested, leaning his back against the smooth block at the statue’s sandaled feet, gazing intently out at the lovely vista..
Okay, so now I knew. “Incredible, Vorchek, preposterous, stupid, and insane. Pick any three, and throw in the fourth as a free bonus. He’s heading for a fall, a big one. And for this I purloined the Seventh Scroll of Artocris? Jesus, Vorchek, do you have any idea what would’ve happened to me if I’d been caught?”
The professor chuckled. “You surely knew he desired it for spectacular ends.”
“Yeah, well, no matter. The discontinuing adventures of Gregor Tharaspas don’t include me.” I rapped the package still under one arm. “I’m taking this ticker and finding a buyer for it. Adiós.”
He rested a hand on my shoulder. “Tharaspas asks of us, of you, one more little thing. A trivial favor. The procedure he devised requires special ceremony. He could not complete it alone; possibly with three, but four would make a difference. Participation, he guarantees, carries with it no risk, and demands only a further twenty-four hours of your life. Is it so much? That intriguing clock of his will still have you sitting pretty tomorrow.”
There was that. I confessed to myself a mild curiosity. Also, should it not come off (extremely likely), a sheepish Tharaspas might fondly remember my selfless cooperation, which could pay handsome dividends down the road.
Back in the house, Tharaspas waited with almost touching anticipation. “The professor told all,” I said. “Count me in. I’m here to help.”
Tharaspas seized both my hands, cried, “Great days! You won’t regret it, Fontaine. You’ll see marvels, you will, and learn of mysteries that place you above the wisest occultists of our times.”
Thrills. For the moment, I chose to look forward to a nice dinner. But while that was being prepared at length, and while Tharaspas was no doubt laying an esoteric table of his own somewhere for later, I took advantage of a few hours convenience to hop behind the wheel and buzz my prize into Sedona and back, entrusting it to the overnight attentions of the most resilient looking bank in town. If there was one thing I’ve learned in my years in the field, it’s not to consider any artefact claimed until you’ve got it where the last owner can’t lay their hands on it again.
He served caviar, the rare Kaluga variety, he boasted. I hate caviar, but I ate it anyway, just to say I did. I still hated it, the first helping and the second. I washed down that, and the rest of the sumptuous meal, with a bucketful of pricey wine, quaffed from a crystal goblet, the elixir fetched from private stocks aged over a century.
Tharaspas proposed a toast. “To ineffable bliss,” he said, saluting with his glass, “that endureth forevermore.”
Things came to a head at the darkest of night, when the slender moon had ducked behind the mountains, chased by its fading glow. Only we four remained, for Tharaspas had permanently dismissed his staff, softening the unexpected blow with hefty cash stipends. We descended a steep flight of steps roughly chiseled from bedrock to a subterranean chamber beneath the house a cramped cube, perfectly square—no, with its walls just aslant—and devoid of electrical or other connections.
It contained only those few furnishings that Tharaspas had placed there, perhaps for this sole purpose: a plain oak table, four unfinished workman’s stools grouped around it, an oval arrangement of candles on the top. The candles, besides illumination, lent strangeness to the scene. A score or more, each one burned with a unique hue, creating an eye-taxing, flickery rainbow effect. They smoked more than they should, and they smelled vile.
Tharaspas bore an oblong leather case under his arm. After asking us to sit he, remaining standing, opened the case and removed from it the infamous scroll, a sheath of papers, and a thin, smooth glass decanter partially filled with a brownish-green fluid, which he placed on the table before him.
“Friends, my moment hastens. With the scroll of Artocris, I may proceed. Even it would fail me, had not fortune led me to this special place, for reasons I now count as inconsequential and inane. That I might tap into cosmic power, I raised the Sedona House atop a vortex, a focal point for mystical and monstrous energies flowing into our mundane universe from problematic spheres and entities beyond.
“It is the Old Ones, I think, who foster that power. The great wizards of long lost Dyrezan thought so, as did Artocris and Jacob Bleek in their later eras, and my studies confirm their beliefs. Xenophor Himself, they claimed, the Creator and Destroyer, erupts into the world via the hyper-dimensional angles of the vortex. At this spot, then, armed with the scroll, I may speak to Him, and He may heed.”
He passed a sheet of handwritten lines to each of us. Slowly, with loving caution, he unfurled the scroll, yellow and frayed, rolling out long and covered with minute scribbling that, I reckoned, only a handful of scholars could decipher. Idly I recalled the leathery feel of the antique fabric, wondered of what it was made.
“I shall read,” declared Tharaspas, “from the spell contained herein. When I pause, recite one line from your pages, beginning at the top. Examine them before we start, for they were not designed for English speakers. Perhaps not for human.
He took the slim decanter. “This is for myself alone, rendering possible my physical translation.” He popped out the stopper, raised glass to lips, and gulped down its contents. He dropped the glass to the floor, I heard it break, and Tharaspas sat heavily, gasping. Theresa and I made as if to rise, but he motioned us back. Professor Vorchek, I noticed, never budged.
Tharaspas looked sick, his eyes gleaming moist in the spooky light. It took a while before he breathed regularly. Then he said, “The first stanza of Artocris,” and commenced to read. The ceremony was underway.
“Xenophor, Lord of All Things, harken to this debased one, begging as he does for the crumbs swept from Thy banquet…”
It ought to have been worth something to me to mark his words, and the antiphonal responses at appropriate moments we three mouthed, but I confess that it’s mostly gone out of my head. Maybe the acrid candle fumes fogged the brain, or something past the natural in the atmosphere, or maybe I was just too creeped by developments. Whatever, the words entered me, went through me, then dissolved or took wings, or shot out my backside.
Though, Tharaspas read directly from the scroll, unlike us three he spoke his lines in English. I recollect useless fragments, stray phrases that tantalize without enlightening.
“Take me into Thy substance, mote by mote, until the change come, that I may thrive in Thy kingdom…”
“Open the gates into that shining realm, where the glorious stride renewed and refreshed…”
“Bear to me, across the ages and the stadii, the one I seek…”
Most of it sounded, frankly, gibberish. Great One, command it of Astrodemus. Turn the Rhexellite Key. Olden Nantrech lights the path. And so on. Apparently it didn’t matter if I understood it.
But I’ll bet Vorchek did. During his recitations he twice smiled knowingly and once looked unpleasantly startled, finishing the line after a sharp intake of breath.
This much I do remember. Once we got going the candles sputtered wildly, without wind. Once they went out while Tharaspas spoke, he staunchly continuing from memory, then came back, crackling and sparking as if on cue that we might resume. I heard, felt, a rumbling, a groaning, a shaking from beneath my feet. Ghostly pale light appeared to shine from odd corners without cause. I saw or imagined hints of motion in shadows, as if several beings small—or one very large—crowded into that tight chamber to lurk above or at our backs. I know, as I know my name, that I sensed abnormal company. Rills of sweat dripped down my neck.
Came a blinding flash, a period of light which rendered nothing visible—quite the contrary, I saw a brilliant blankness—followed by low, harsh muttering. I didn’t recognize the words, nor the voice; was that really one of us? Then the blazing radiance vanished, and we four sat stupefied, regarding one another across the fizzling candles.
Tharaspas, scroll in hand, sprang to his feet. “It’s done!” he bellowed. “We have made the passage. My translation is complete. Come, let us go upstairs, and behold!”
I didn’t know what to make of him. I mean, we obviously hadn’t budged. Theresa frowned her puzzlement. Vorchek’s firm-set features betrayed none of his thoughts. Our host pressed the scroll on the professor, saying, “Take this, you’ll need it,” then bolted up the steps, his shoes clattering vigorously on stone.
We trooped after him, with much less alacrity, shortly emerged into the portion of the house we’d previously left. Tharaspas was stomping about, looking around and touching things. “I’m here,” he cried, “I did it! It works, and if I’m here, so must she be!”
Theresa stared at him for a moment, eyes wide. Slapping a palm to her creamy cheek, she whispered to us, “Okay, so somebody here’s crazy. Maybe it isn’t me. Professor, that was a spooky ritual and all, but it didn’t work. Has he lost his mind?”
I added, “Seconding the question, Vorchek. Nothing here has changed. We didn’t move an inch.”
He raised a hand to quiet us. “A great deal has changed. How much, my friends, we shall shortly learn. I request that both of you look around you carefully. Do not settle for seeing, but observe as well.”
Since that wasn’t asking too much of me, I clamped on my thinking cap and studied my surroundings. It took a while for me to get the point, but I discerned a subtle difference. The room, and all its contents, appeared as if viewed through a wispy film of gauze. It wasn’t much, but it seemed to distance me from the scene.
Scratch part of that: the professor and his girl appeared normal to me, as did what I could see of myself. Tharaspas, however, belonged in this new milieu.
Something about that bugged me.
Having spoken my thoughts, I demanded to know what it meant. Tharaspas heard me, calmed himself, rejoined us. “We have indeed traveled,” he asserted, “farther than the boundaries of the Einsteinian continuum. The Sedona House, its foundations planted deep into the substructure of the vortex, constitutes the threshold, thus the illusion of near normality. It’s image moved with us. Let us away to the viewing porch, that we may gaze upon fresh spheres of mystery.”
This we did, following him through corridors and rooms familiar but slightly off kilter, until we emerged into the open air. He thrust aside a curtain—I made out a deep, darkling red glow—pushed aside a sliding glass door, and rushed before us. We followed, slowly.
When I got my look, I leaned on the granite parapet, gaping.
I guess we had skipped through a few miles.
The scenery of midnight Sedona, with its myriad lights and twinkling gems of stars set in darkness, had vanished, replaced by a nearly featureless tableau of dim, red-litten landscape. Hints of dark, craggy mountains thrust into a murky crimson sky. Close at hand, below the porch, I glimpsed barren, rocky soil. For the moment that was all: no movement, no living things, no lights, no stars nor breath of air.
Vorchek observed, “It does not invite, Mr. Tharaspas. I gather that dawn overtakes us—the light brightens perceptibly—but I know you expect more.”
“Of course, Professor. I unleashed the mighty engines of the vortex, that its fantastic energies could propel me to wonder and joy. Dawn brings them to me.”
Vorchek nodded. “Truly incredible energy output, according to my calculations, yet the spell of Artocris granted you little control over them. In retrospect I am surprised we survived the passage.”
Tharaspas laughed. “The dimensional blast fueled my translation. I absorbed the power. That’s why I’m here, and why you’re still alive.”
“Time out,” Theresa snapped. “Listen, mister, if you were talking about a book or that scroll, I’d get you, but what’s all this ‘translation’ business?” I was glad she asked the question bursting out of me, so she could sound like the stupid one.
Tharaspas responded, “I have made the crossing into this plane, permanently, have become one with a world within which no living being may exist for long. You three traveled with me, that you may see and report—but you aren’t part of this place, nor can you remain. When the time comes, Vorchek, aided by the scroll, will guide you back. That door remains open a crack, briefly. He knows what to do. You will go. I stay.”
Thought I, Suits me, pal.
Meanwhile, the feeble glow intensified somewhat as we watched. We called it the dawn, but saying nothing, I wondered. It reached a level similar to that of deepest twilight, then attained a gloomy stasis. It hung there, with the building of tension that may only have been bubbles in my blood. I grew impatient, checked my watch, and found the hands didn’t move, nor did I detect the tick. It would be that way.
Tharaspas croaked an exultant noise, shot out a finger at the end of a rigid arm. An enchanting white globe of light moved out from behind an obstruction, advancing toward us. It came slowly across the broad open space, and I saw clearly enough now to marvel at the unusual features of landscape, the oddly sculpted rocks, the fluted columns of stone, the gravity-defying peaks knifing the dark sky. It caused me to think of Sedona and its country, as if that patch of our world were a weak reflection of this.
Yet I spied no vegetation, nothing suggestive of life, save that glow floating across the bare surface. The moment demanded silence, or I would have openly questioned this portrait of heaven.
Tharaspas stood poised, ready to leap down from the parapet, Vorchek stock still, eyes intent, Theresa (I noted with pleasure) in a half crouch, peering from behind the professor. The glow came nearer, resolving into a definite image. By God, a woman! A woman, bathed in splendid white light, wreathed in flowing robes, her perfect features stamped with joy and longing! This had to be it. Tharaspas had hit the mystic’s jackpot!
She spoke—made music of—the name, “Gregor,” and Tharaspas screamed an inarticulate emotional release, propelled himself over the edge in a bound.
I stared, fascinated to the point of idiocy, as he dashed toward her opening arms. Did I see other movement out there, beyond that unearthly glow? Did dark shapes begin to ring the pair?
Tharaspas sobbed a name, “Vanda!”
It was his moment—the only one as it happened.
The light winked out. He screamed again, this time a shriek of horror and disgust. He drew away, and in stepping aside revealed to us what he confronted.
The image—the illusion, the imposture—of a beautiful woman had gone, as with the ripping off of a mask, disclosing the actuality of the beckoning entity. She wasn’t just dead, she wasn’t just not a she—nothing indicative of humanity dwelt within that seething, pustulating mass of hideous, misshapen morbidity.
I choked back vomit, tried to avert my gaze, dared not.
It squirmed, it spouted ooze and steamed glistening vapor, and incomprehensibly it still spoke. A muddy bubble swelled from one heaving lump of filth, popped with an ugly sound, and from the filling hole squirted in slimy tones the cruel jibe, “Welcome, Gregor Tharaspas, to our abode. Your place with us has been long prepared. Through the years we called to your questing mind, until you freely came. Through the eternities to come, we shall relish your companionship.”
Things closed in on Tharaspas then, other shapes, dissimilar yet equally monstrous, and right then and there I cracked and turned tail, fled blindly back into the house. Within an inner room I halted, gasping, shuddering with paralyzing fear. Endeavoring to take heart from the relatively normal trappings of the Sedona House, I quailed on the remembrance that this terrestrial chamber signified nothing, that it mocked a piece of that desired world so far away that it made distance a worthless concept.
The professor and his girlfriend charged in, not faring any better than me. “It’s gone wrong, Vorchek!” I shouted in senseless anger. “It was all a trick to bag him, and they’ve bagged us, too. Now how in hell do we get out of here?”
“Fear not,” stated a tired, toneless voice.
I turned, stunned to see Tharaspas standing in the doorway. He looked a dead man, or one of the living who has plumbed the pits of terror. He continued calmly, speaking with mechanical precision. “The gates of hell haven’t opened for you. Vorchek, I beseech you learn from this episode. Regardless, you know what must be done. Return to the ritual chamber. Say the words, carefully, in the proper order, with scroll in hand.”
Vorchek said stiffly, “It will be done. What of you, Mr. Tharaspas? May I act on your behalf?”
Tharaspas grimly shook his head. “No escape for me. Like I told you, I belong here. I set it up that way. Holy God! Great Xenophor!” His voice broke. He started as we heard pounding near at hand, the noise of shattering glass. He added quickly, “I go to face them. Perhaps, despite these hideous revelations, she is out there somewhere. It will cost me nothing more to seek!
“Make your exit now, Vorchek. The reverse transition involves no new energy; the celestial door will simply close behind you. Beware the blow-back, however. Dimensional pressure will slam that door. Once on the other side, make haste.” In his abrupt passing from the room, I saw the last of Gregor Tharaspas.
In a plaintive whine Theresa asked, “Is there anything keeping us here?”
Without delay, Vorchek ushered us through the glories of the faux Sedona House and jostled us down the stone steps to the bleak room of magic. It was pitch dark in there, but at his command we clustered together, arms wrapped over shoulders, and so linked he hoarsely thundered the requisite words, from memory no less. These were pure gibberish, scarcely the pretense of human speech. That blasted scroll he tightly clutched, knuckles awhite, scraped my cheek.
For an instant came a furious pounding or heaving at the door.
Then the chamber lurched, rocked, my legs rubberizing. I sagged against the table, pulling my companions with me. They offered no support and we went down together. A vibrant roaring, like the ocean in a seashell grandiosely magnified, assailed my ears. The heavy door at the top of the stairwell crashed open, throwing a shaft of light. Above the mounting din Vorchek declared, “We have succeeded, I believe we have. Miss Delaney, Mr. Fontaine, we must run for our lives.”
“What’s up there, Vorchek?” I cried.
“Nothing but home, I trust; but this structure will not last. Hurry, before the gate seals!”
I didn’t need to hear that twice, and nor did Theresa, who beat me to the top.
A hurricane howled through the halls of the Sedona House. Papers flew on wings of wind, priceless ornaments toppled, rare paintings leaped from the walls. Which house was this really? It looked right, but I craved certainty. We passed a window which blew outward a second later. Through the shards I spied golden daylight.
God bless, this house was the real deal!
We stumbled outside. No thought of diverting to the garage and the cars, we just ate up the yardage by crazy bounds until we reached the property wall, which we frantically cooperated in scrambling over. A spiteful gust hurled me face first into the red dirt. Behind that barrier we paused.
We timed it right. Imagine this last glimpse of the Sedona House: there it stood stoutly, a king’s palace, the trees swaying and snapping like angry spirits. Then it… compressed. Forces unseen, impossible, squeezed it, as if an invisible fist scrunched a sponge.
And, as the papers say, it blew up.
You know, I really can’t complain. I got my clock, the sale of which paid for a sporty new coupe and much else besides. I’ve lived on easy street for a while, enjoying throwing money around like a big man, something I can’t always do in my business. My secretary Angie got her night on the town, and several more. When Professor Vorchek and his hot number invited me to dinner at a ritzy restaurant, and I even picked up the check. Blue moons come round occasionally.
During this tête-à-tête, conversation turned to a shared topic. Theresa, whom I grudgingly admit may have more than a mere pretty head on her shoulders, opined simply, “There’s just no point in looking for trouble, especially when you don’t find out you can’t swim until you’re nose deep. Think about it, Professor. Tharaspas warned you.”
“So he did,” the man soberly replied.
I wasn’t satisfied, though. I knew Vorchek had managed to escape with the scroll of Artocris, had heard of him bragging about its latent possibilities. Something bugged me, had bugged me for a long time. Now I blurted it out.
“All right, Vorchek, here’s what I don’t get. I operate on the fringes of this weirdness, for the sake of turning a buck. That I understand, that’s normal, healthy. But you, Tharaspas, all the wise guys, what motivates you? I’ve met enough of you boys, learned enough of your histories, to know that dabbling with the creepy stuff never works out. It always ends like this case. Why didn’t Tharaspas know that? Why don’t you?”
The professor smiled grimly. “That constitutes a mystery, Mr. Fontaine? You disappoint me, sir. It is the human condition, acted and played out according to our individual desires. Some aim low, some shoot for the skies, we few for beyond the stars.
“The fate of Gregor Tharaspas illustrates the point with remarkable clarity. We all seek that which we do not have—money, power, knowledge, a lost and beloved wife—and perhaps that which we can not have. We accept the risks, dare all for the sake of the dream.
“For that which really matters, there may be only one way to find out… and no second chance.”
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