Something I recognised crouched by the Treasure. The powerful reptilian legs and clawed arms. The thick black spidery hairs sprouting from farthing-sized pores. The dead gaze from full-moon eyes.
Willie fell dead on the cold stone floor. MacGregor fell to his knees and began to babble fearfully. Elias just stared at the profane creature, mouth gaping, feet glued to the floor.
The Treasure was a gate between worlds, I realised suddenly. The creature had travelled through it and was dazed by the journey. But it was going to wake up, and it probably wouldn’t be friendly.
On the night the Laird read to us from The Clavicle of Moses, hose many years ageo, the book I held tightly to my chest, he had given one passage particular emphasis. “If ever you go too far,” he’d said, and we’d laughed heartily at the idea. “I know what intelligent, curious young men are like,” he insisted. “If ever you summon, by accident, that which you cannot put down, then remember this.” He held up his right hand: the index finger extended up, the middle finger pointed forward, and the thumb was out to the left, making three right angles. His comically portentous seriousness burned the image onto my impressionable mind. “The sign of the N’beros. If you remember only one thing, then remember this. If it doesn’t work, nothing will.”
So, as the creature began to stir, looking around and standing up fully, I made the sign of the N’beros and held it out before me. The abomination lurched back, and let out a scream of two piercing pitches, a harmony that neither Pythagoras nor Bach ever imagined, and with such intensity that the left lens of my spectacles cracked right across.
It held its talons up to its face, as though to shield its eyes from the enthralling gesture, and a memory from my University days appeared in my mind. Over the course of a week, the Professor dissected a corpse before us in the high, foetid theatre, peeling back layers like a macabre onion. The first to go was the skin and fat, revealing the brawn beneath, and the many muscles of the calves and forearms, when limp and devoid of skin, seemed like a network of ship’s rope, or the dangling fruit of some fleshy vine. The arm that the creature revealed to me had the same quality, and through a slit in its hide one could see not only muscle tissue but bone also. I wondered at the construction of the foul brute I beheld. Was this creature of a race created in mocking mimicry of Man? Or was the terrible truth that this, in fact, was the blueprint from which we were adapted?
“Sweet Jesus, Willie!” MacGregor laid his long bony hand across the dog’s tiny ribcage and bowed his head. “He’s dead…”
“It’s trapped!” Elias exclaimed, and nervously drew a step closer to the circle. The creature gnashed and paced at the boundary of its magical trap. “Where did you come from?” he asked it, and it stopped and stared straight back. “Why do you prowl the estate? What do you seek?” The gaze was bible black and inscrutable. Elias raised his torch, and the light moved across the back of its eyes and bounced back out at us like the reflector lamps of a motorcar. “What are you?” The reply, when it came, was a guttural, inhuman growl.
While holding the sign with my right hand, I drew my revolver with my left and held it out. “I can’t stand like this forever, Elias.”
He grasped it, checked the chambers, and then took aim.
“We cannot allow it freedom!” I cried.
The abomination stared blankly out, rendered somehow pathetic in its invisible prison. The gun shook in Elias’ hand.
Suddenly, he gasped. The pistol was lowered softly to his side. When he spoke, his voice was low and firm.
“No. I won’t do it.”
“Then give me the gun.” As I reached for it, Elias landed a punch on my jaw with remarkable force. I staggered back in pain and surprise, and my hands went reflexively to my face, releasing the sign.
The creature was free. It let forth a snarling, wailing scream which set my hair on end, turned to the Treasure which still hung in the dark like a phantasm held in the imagination and made real with heroic concentration, and stepped out of this dimension. It was gone before the echoes died away.
As always, the return journey seemed much shorter. We climbed the ladder into the folly in silence, and said nothing as we carefully locked the door. Back at the House, Mrs. MacGregor was waiting with tea and blankets and whiskey, and burst into thick sobs when her husband carried his grim parcel inside and took it downstairs. Elias and I fell into the seats around the drawing-room fire, silently sipping at our drinks against the chill that had penetrated the very marrow of our bones.
“I’m so sorry, Henry,” Elias said miserably after a time. “Please forgive me, Henry. It was the only way…” He bowed his head shamefully as though about to cry.
“What happened back there, Elias? In God’s name, what were you thinking?”
“You don’t know?” he moaned. “Didn’t you see?”
“You must leave all of the decisions to me from now on, Elias. I’m sorry, but you’re just not yourself. We must block up the tunnel.”
“No. We cannot disrupt my father’s work.”
“His work!” I cried, standing. “What are you talking about? Elias, grief and shock have affected you deeply. You’re not in your right mind anymore.”
“The face, Henry! Maybe he got what he wanted!”
Elias’s eyes blazed wildly. “He wanted immortality, Henry. Perhaps he got it.”
I looked at my friend, and saw a stranger. “Why did you hit me, Elias?”
He looked up, revealing an expression of such gut-wrenching sorrow as I have only seen equalled in the inmates of insane asylums. “How could I let you kill my father?”
I staggered back, grabbing the door-handle to steady myself. A terrible realisation washed over me as I recalled the staring eyes. “That was your…?” The creature’s face was a hideous distortion of one that we had both loved. A reflection, as through a glass darkly, of the face of George Lindsay.
It hit me like a kick in the stomach. Somehow, the thing had possessed him, perverted his body and destroyed his mind. The creature was George Lindsay. And I had nearly killed him.
“What are we going to do, Elias?” I whispered.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. But the Folly stays as it is.”
After another hour of awkward silence, we retired to bed. Elias looked exhausted. His hair was wildly dishevelled, and his eyes burned with sorrow and mysterious purpose. I wanted to take him by the shoulders, tell him that things would be all right again, but I found I could say nothing.
I hardly slept, for every time I closed my eyes the terrible images played in my mind again. I imagined too that hellish beasts were rattling the window frames and battering at the door. I am a rational man, but I am not ashamed to admit that I prayed. I could only hope that things would not seem so black in the sharp light of morning.
After a breakfast of eggs, bacon and tattie scones, I stopped shivering. There was no sign of Elias, and I feared he was moping in his room, trying to avoid me. A cursory discussion of an item from that morning’s Scotsman lightened the mood, but neither the MacGregors nor myself were prepared to broach the subject of the night before.
At noon, worry overtook tact, and I knocked on Elias’s door. There was no reply, so I opened it and peered inside. There was no sign of him. His bed had not been slept in. I ran through the house, calling his name, but he was gone.
Elias will not return; nor will a body ever be found. He has, I fear, followed his father, through the Treasure gate, into that other dimension, older and crueller than ours by far, where different Gods reign.
I telephoned my driver to pick me up, and packed up my things. Having received an emotional farewell from the MacGregors, I rode back to Edinburgh in a fitful state, vivid and horrible images running like a magic lantern inside my mind. I am told that my driver had to carry me upstairs to my bed, as I was by then tightly gripped by fever.
That was thirty-six hours ago. The fever has broken; but Elias has not returned. Come the morning, I will telephone the police, if they have not come already. And I will present them with this document, my honest testimony.
I know that they will think I am lying or mad. But I am resolute in the knowledge that two beasts will be roaming Blackford tonight. Worst of all is the thought that Elias was not strong enough to resist being consumed by that dark power that his father stumbled upon, forty summers ago.
(Happy New Year, everybody!)