Ghoul Picnic

On a beautiful starfilled midnight, in a clearing surrounded by trees with stable root, the Night People gathered for a meal.

Illivant squatted and warmed himself by the fire, inhaling the rich aroma of the spitted meat. Not long before, Illivant had been resigned to roots and leaves instead of proper food, but a stray current had brought a brace of drowned fisherman to shore.

One of the pups saw them, and raised such a commotion that Arka ran to investigate. By the time she arrived, Ghost had already calmed the youngster and dragged the two bodies up onto the riverbank. Arka shouldered one and climbed up the bank to where the Night People were. She deposited her burden next to the other, for of course Ghost got there first.

Graven scurried away to gather herbs for seasoning the fresh meat, and Stoll with his brother Skowl assembled the wood into a triangular shape, to burn the sugars to the surface. Ghost coaxed the fire from the wood.

“Night People hunger,” explained Skowl. “No time to cure sugars out of the meat. Fire will bring them out for sweeter meat.” This was not unknown to Illivant, but merited the saying at any rate. The truth is always welcome.

Ghost took his small engine out of his pouch, assembled and adjusted it, and set the meat to turning just as soon as Illandra had dressed and spitted it. We Night People enjoyed the songs of the wood, the melody of the beasts, the trees telling mournful tales of days past as the chill wind whistled through their boughs. The running river nearby related the events that had occurred upon its shores, and the stones of the earth echoed in their plodding refrain.

It was good then. Stoll fetched the moonwine from where he’d hidden it from the pups, and we adults drank to our good fortune, Stoll breaking into a little song. Skowl his brother patted a rotten stump with his leathery paw, and Graven produced her pipe and accompanied them until Arka shouted that the meal was ready.

Everybody, from Ghost on down to the smallest pup, ate their fill, and some was left. Illivant carefully wrapped the pieces in leaves, and put them in pouches, and strung the pouches over the backs of the carrier beasts. For the enchanted wood is beautiful and dangerous, and the Night People are wise. Illivant then joined Ghost and the brothers in the little grove next to the river, where they could lean their backs against the boles of trees while their bellies digested the meat. From where he sat, Illivant could see Illandra, his mate, and the pup. The pup was combing the tangles out of Illandra’s fur. Illandra caught Illivant looking, and lowered her eyes coyly. Then she looked up and winked.

A light blinked on, up in the sky. Something was wrong with the color of it. Illivant had not before beheld that hue. There was something of the shade of the sun over the red sands of the wild desert in it, and something of the tint of the amethyst towers of the old cities of men. The color brightened as it stretched to include the rest of the night, and the ground shook as something collided with it. Illandra shivered, and called out. She had a touch of the second sight, and liked the event not at all. Illivant gathered her to him, and harkened to her murmur.

“There has been a color like that before,” began Ghost. He is the eldest of the Night People, and conversant with many hidden ways of the worlds, for he is tireless and swift, and endlessly curious. He will speak with any travelers the Night People encounter, and trade stories. “I recall the nights not long before Stoll and Skowl were birthed, when the skies rained men, and there was much feasting for the Night People and for the rest of the Folk. Twice it was that the event occurred, three days apart. That color was in the sky then. And my father told me of a similar time, when he was a pup. The odd color, but no men from the sky. He told me that tidings said it was a event from the waking world.”

“The cloud of Death!” cried Illandra. “Ware! It creates a breach between the spheres!”

Down the hill from the gate of Mordiggian came a tumult as legions of men in strange mail descended quickly from the caves to the valley below. They rode machines that belched smoke and fire, and cried out in weirdly liquid tones as they rushed into the plain.

The Night People retreated into the wood, wary of the mobile plants and other creatures that stung and bit if one was not careful. Arka and Graven held the forepaws of the pups.

The object from the sky had landed in the plain, and was clearly the object of concern for the legion.

Ghost came back from where he’d been. “These are beings of Science,” he said. “It is not seemly that they should issue from the caves of the Folk, and disregard the warning of Father Mordiggian that reserves those caverns for the Folk.” Ghost had patiently tried to explain the principles of Science to the Night People, and had not met with much success. Thinking about it made Illivant’s head hurt, and he did not pursue that understanding further.

“If this is Science,” remarked Illivant. “Then Illivant wants no part of it. The smoke is dust in the throat, and the fire is not contained or tended. See, the trees retreat.” And it was so. The very trees of the Enchanted Wood were inching away, toward the shoulders of the mountains. “It is one thing to employ the small clevernesses of Ghost, and another to do what those beings are doing.”

Ghost nodded. “Aye, that’s true. They have set the very wood on fire with their passage. There are wrongnesses all around them. They should not be on this plane. For these creatures are from beyond the waking world. I fear that they are more than machine users, that they are machinery themselves. Look-they tire not, though they move at speed.”

This was a new idea.

“Men of machinery?” Asked Arka. “Beasts of metal that spout flames? What has happened to our world? Things never were this way.” She held the pups very close. “I’m frightened,” she whispered.

Skowl nodded. “It is a thing of fear. I too feel the wrongness of these beings, but the greater wrong comes from the object that fell from the sky. For it has a large power.” This too was apparent. The power that the object held could almost be touched. The very air crackled with its presence. Illandra cried softly, her paws on the shoulders of her pup while Illivant tried to comfort them both.

Stoll spoke. “This is a tale growing in the telling. We must not look away, though the viewing is not for us. We watch something new in the world.” This was so unusual coming from Stoll, normally placid and not given to puzzles, that Illivant eyed him suspiciously for a time. “Aye, Illivant. Old Stoll has eyes too. And ears. He begins to understand some of the things that have passed from ear to ear in the past, and likes not what that understanding tells him.”

Illandra and Arka began leading the pups back to the great doorway. Graven hesitated for a momnet and followed. We four remained.

Ghost spoke again. “It is good that the females have taken the pups to what shelter there is at the mouth of the caves. For we can speak freely of what we observe, and my belief is that that talk is not for their ears.” This was agreed upon, though Illivant privately thought that Illandra would have been better present. Still the pups were the tomorrow of the Night People, and needed safeguarding. A difficult choice. Illivant kept silent, intending to relate the conversation to Illandra before the night was out.

The trees were now so distant that the song of the wood was stopped. The lamplike eyes of Zoogs could be seen peering out briefly from the boughs, from the protective dark.

Skowl voiced a question about the safety of the caves. Ghost replied that Illandra would not have gone if she felt any danger from within.

“But what,” began Illivant. “If there is so much evil in the area that she cannot feel it from the caves?”

Ghost volunteered to investigate, and departed. Illivant watched the machine men erect pedestals on the plain, arranging them in a circle. Upon these pedestals were placed statues, the likeness of which could not be determined. Even the sharp eyes of the Night People could not find any detail in the distance and the brightness.

Ghost returned. “There is an evil within the caves. Illandra can smell it, but it moves not. She wants to stay where the Father of us can watch over them. But she asks that we not tarry here overlong, in case it emerges from hiding. Arka desires to make for the other portal, at the other side of the marshes. It is not the worst destination, when we are satisfied with observing this scene.”

“But to go through the marshes would be a danger also,” said Skowl. “I like that not either. But I agree that it is best that we quit this part of the wood. The trees begin to crowd closer each night, and they whisper queer songs. The other beasts are as secretive as the Zoogs.”

Illivant thought it over. “Perhaps this is best. Might we return to the doorway of the Father, and lead the females and the pups to the other doorway, and then return here. For this activity shows no sign of changing or abating soon.”

The four of us moved back to the caves. The carrier beasts were already in harness, the skins of moonwine draped over their backs, and the pups sitting on the skins. The beasts hissed and stamped, and flapped their tiny wings. The details of our intention were imparted, and the Night People ventured forth.

Leaving the shadows of the wood behind, we made our way around the marsh, staying near the edge of the reeking water where solid footing could be found. The plants of the marsh rustled as we passed, and tentacles came from the water now and again, once narrowly missing one of the pups. Arka grabbed the pup as he rolled from the back of the beast, and Ghost rescued the skins of moonwine as the tentacles made a second pass and captured the carrier beast.

The beast squealed in terror as the tentacles bore it into the swamp, the screams turning to gurgles as it disappeared below the surface. The tentacles quested forth again, but by then the Night People had hurried far beyond their reach. Stoll fended off a hostile plant that had fastened to his fur, tearing the creature in half with his claws. The creature was retrieved by a web-footed wamp that scurried out and returned equally swiftly.

The remaining beast broke its teachings and ran off. Fortunately it shed its burden of meat as it dashed madly off into the wood. Illivant took up the meat and bore it to the foot of the mountain, where the Night People stopped to rest.

Marks of the hooves of the Folk lay all about the doorway. “The Folk have fled,” said Graven. “We should follow.”

“Likely this is true,” replied Ghost. “But we will not. For this is an event that needs eyes upon it. The world is changing. I hold that the changing of the sky is a portent, and that the worlds of waking and dreaming are closer to one another this eve. Otherwise I don’t understand how the machine people can live.”

“I will remain,” spoke Stoll. “For one of us should, and two of the pups are my offspring and my responsibility to guard. Let Graven accompany you in my stead.”

This was deemed wise. Graven’s pup had been lost the year before.

“However, we should take another route back to the riverbank,” said Ghost. “I propose that we go over the mountain, and watch from the peak. We can move down the hill to the bank if it becomes necessary, but the idea of the higher ground appeals to me.”

This was also wisdom, and we moved at once. Night People move rapidly and silently, and are sure-footed. No incident arose during the climb, for the faceless black titterers had quit the area to swoop overhead. Their winged shapes could be seen against the backdrop of the stars, for the skies had returned to their customary hue.

From the summit of the nameless mountain, the fires could be clearly seen. The machine men were still speeding to and fro, describing complicated routes that were as hard to follow as the path of the nectar beetle back to its nest. The wood had been burned all about them, and the embers still glowed. Illivant watched for a time, getting some idea of the purpose behind the ceaseless activity.

An extremely large and complicated mechanism was brought from the edge of the clearing, hoisted by several of the flame-breathing vehicles, and set down over the circle that contained the fires. The metal men began chanting, loudly, in unison. Illivant did not understand their language, but the meaning seemed clear. The machine men were trying to summon something, which would be contained within the machine around the fires.

“Half-life,” cried the machine men. “Ionic transposition. Basic transmutation effected. Continuum regeneration begun.”

The big machine began to gurgle and click. The metal men swarmed over the face of it, saying to each other in their strange voices “No reading-radiation neutralized. Decontamination completed.”

The air began to scream as a black vessel appeared at the north end of the valley, coming between the rocks of the chasm delved by the Skaith in its passage to the sea. Huge wings were at either side of the vessel, constructed of a black wood, and it sailed through the air. A huge Gug manned the rudder, and the vessel was steered by a being that reflected no light. This being appeared in man-shape, and could be discerned only because its shape blotted out the objects behind it. A buzzing arose as the vessel came to rest in midair, and the dark shape hopped from the deck to the ground below.

The buzzing grew louder, and words began to form in Illivant’s head as the figure reached the surface.

“Men of metal, how come you here? For this clime is rendered free of Science!’

The metal men replied aloud. “Lord, we are here to repair a grievous mistake. A weapon from our space has been brought to this clime and detonated. We are trying to undo the damage.”

The dark Lord developed great black wings, which flapped in the sudden silence. “I am aware of your origins. How came this device, and who is responsible for its use?” The being grew tentacles that lashed the air restlessly, thwip, thwip, thwip.

“Lord, it was those from Yuggoth who pilfered the device and fetched it here. They are attempting to open wide the rift that was opened when the waking world used the primal matter to destroy cities. Please, Lord, our work is near finished. We will depart immediately thereafter.”

“See that you do. For though it is not known well, these lands are under my protection, and I would not have them spoilt by the plans of those from the outer planets. It is good that you have mended these spaces, and I am not displeased with your labor, or you would have been…dealt with in my own ways. But tell me more of the plans of the Fungi from Yuggoth-why is it that they have become concerned with the rift? For it is guarded by my ancient foe the lord of the fires, and I would concern myself with His doings.” The peculiar buzzing increased in volume. “Especially as they involve lands under my wings!” This last echoed in the faraway mountains beyond the Skaith and the swamps.

“Lord, it is said that the master of the flame has allied with those from the ninth planet, seeking greater knowledge. He seeks to renew the hostilities of old and attempts to open the Gate between the Outside and these planes, desiring dominion. Lord, we seek no conflict with you. We are mindful of the dominion of the Lord Nyarlathotep and want only to repair the damage caused by the Mi-Go in this attempt.”

Nyarlathotep thundered. “It would be well for you if you speak the truth. For if not, I will come for you. The weapons of which you speak are not to be used in these lands or any others under my dominion. I will not suffer the use of them again. You will not under any circumstances re-enter these lands once the task is finished. I shall set a guard at the portal to watch for you.”

“Lord, it will be so.” The machine man began to take apart their apparatus. The dark Lord spread his wings and regained his vessel.

He called to we four observers. “People of the night-I spoke of a guard, at the portal built by the first of you, when your Father and Patron, the Lord Mordiggian, first came hence. Know you that the caverns can no longer be your home. There is a hole within, a hole between your lands and the lands of the waking world. I charge you to stand watch over that portal, and to maintain that vigil at all times. The balance must be maintained, do not allow any that emerge from those caverns to remain alive.

“In return for this service, and your worship, for you are of my assemblage now, you will feast every night, and the moonwine will be all the sweeter. I will give you power sufficient to accomplish this task, and tokens of my authority have been provided. Your Father Mordiggian will not interfere or object, for we are united in this. Now go to your mates and your young, and fare well in my service. For know this-Nyarlathotep has been and will be a friend to the Folk. He has his eye upon your people, for you will have a great role in events that are still to come, far greater than the role you have now.”

The air began to scream again as he sped away, up and up and up until the gigantic black ship disappeared from view.

The machine people departed also, and we four remained standing at the peak of the mountain.

Illivant could not understand what had occurred, other than the fact that he could not enter the caverns that had been his home, and was to guard against intruders from within. His head hurt from the unfamiliar doings. He wailed from the pain, and from the weight of the burden that had been placed upon him, to remain outside and guard the doorway of his former home. Graven and Skowl were locked in an embrace, weeping and gnashing their teeth.

Ghost alone stood silent and thoughtful. “We should not tarry,” he whispered, and led us down the mountain toward the Gateway of Mordiggian.

Arka and Illandro had unwrapped the leaves and were building a clumsy structure for the fire. The pups were bringing such wood as they could carry. Stoll nodded as we approached.

“We know,” he said simply. The Night People made a silent meal. When the meal was finished, and the bones were being gnawed by Night People with full bellies, Illivant made his way to where Ghost sat alone, thinking, and began to ask questions about Science. Shortly thereafter, they were joined by Illandra and the pup, and talked until the twin moons appeared over the horizon.

part two coming soon

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