On the far side of the room, Clara tapped a rook on an ivory board.
Something sat opposite her. It was a little less than five feet high, but its proportions made it look taller sitting down. The thing's build evoked an ape: it was broad-shouldered and oak-necked, and its arms shared in the general simian distortion. The left almost wrapped around the thing's lap, and the right could reach across the board without forcing its owner to get up. Every time Clara tapped the board, the thing's right hand would glide across its ghastly white face, running along a mat of curly black hair. The jewels in its eyes glinted.
"Clara," said Pth'thya-l'ya, "Stop annoying the automaton."
The tapping stopped. Clara's expression didn't change an iota.
"Surely," she said, "we didn't come here just to entertain Moxon's toy, Mother Pth'thya-l'ya?"
Pth'thya-l'ya sighed. A useless affectation retained from her surface days. Her gills fluttered, emitting soft smacking sounds. Those lidless, pupil-less eyes stared us both down. Those eyes, it was said, could glimpse the future.
"How much do you know about Game of Invocation?" she said.
The mannequin froze mid-move. Its crimson fez fell on the floor with a clop. I suppressed the flutter in my chest as best I could, and even Clara's posture subtly shifted forward.
Yes, we knew about the Game of Invocation.
The Materialization of the Herald. Azathoth's Masque. The Rite of Sacrificial Petitioners.
It was a battle royal for those tainted by blasphemous blood. Seven pairs of Masters and Servants would duel each other with armories forged in unspeakable rites. They would fight until only one pair remained…and then, bathed in the sacrificed fruit of six unholy couplings, Nyarlathotep would appear. Amid paeans of glory, he would carry the survivor's wish to the Throne of Azathoth.
Yea. Hark. Lo. Et cetera.
That was the theory. Personally, I was inclined to be a mite suspicious about anything involving the Black Pharaoh.
Moxon's automaton finally completed its move, albeit with less of a flourish than usual. Clara's hand hovered above a knight. Her expression remained blank.
"Your pardon, Mother Pth'thya-l'ya, but Fifth Bloodletting was not supposed to start for another forty years," she said. "If I recall correctly, my…arrangement with Nathaniel was predicated in part on your desire for a Marsh heir in the Game."
It was impressive, really – Clara eyes didn't move in my direction at all when she said my name. Pth'thya-l'ya's cold, white lips pursed.
"The Stars were wrong," Pth'thya-l'ya's said. "The Fifth Bloodletting has come early."
"Well, Mother Pth'thya-l'ya, if you insist on making me a widow before I marry…"
Clara shrugged. The black ringlets of her hair brushed across the lacy frills of her collar.
"It's obvious, isn't it?" she said. "The Marsh family only has two descendants at the moment. Nathaniel doesn't have enough of the Old Blood on his own, and since you have already made it quite clear that I am to be the…ahem…womb for your descendants…"
Clara set the knight down. Her hand knocked it over as she withdrew, though, and the piece rolled until it clicked against a black bishop. Clara's fist tightened against the side of her gown. It loosened just as quickly.
"Besides, Mother Pth'thya-l'ya," she continued. "My dear cousin Nathaniel specializes in this sort of—how does one say it?—troubleshooting."
She'd referred to her 'dear cousin Nathaniel' in roughly the same tone you'd mention a lamp-post, but never mind. I was accustomed to this sort of thing.
More importantly, I needed time to think.
If the Game of Invocation had started early, most of the heirs would either be too old or – like Clara and me - in their late teens.
Seven masters and seven servants. If Pth'thya-l'ya wanted me to enter the Game of Invocation, that meant six opponents. And they would be…
First, Whateley. That was obvious. As one of the founding families, the Whateleys had pretty much assured themselves a place. I knew the current scion a little, and also knew he'd be easiest to track – the Whateleys didn't pay much attention to modern technology. I had a pretty fair idea which Servant he'd choose, too.
Second, the Delapore twins. Their ancestors had also helped start the tournament. For that matter, their claim probably went back even further. The Delapores shared little else with the wizards of Dunwich, though: while the Whateleys had barely managed to shamble through the centuries thanks to degenerate cunning, the Delapores had thrived. Like wolves in a pigsty.
Third…who? Jermyn? No, not enough Old Blood left. D'Erlette? Pickman? Tillinghast? West? Carter? Blake? Waite? Munoz, even?
…Bowen. Whoever else might have entered, one of them had to be Bowen. And after Dr. Dexter's unfortunate demise, I knew exactly what Bowen's Servant would be. A second chill ran down my spine.
I asked Pth'thya-l'ya about the other three. She didn't know more than I did. Not that it mattered much – the Delapores alone would have been enough to force my hand. I tried very hard not to imagine a world where they got their wish.
Bowen, the Delapores, and Whateley, then.
"No dice," I said. "If it was just Whateley, I could probably take him myself. I'd need a Servant for the others, though, and I don't have enough Old Blood in me for that."
The slime glistened on Pth'thya-l'ya's forehead as she slowly turned toward Clara.
"Your fiancée does," she said.
It might have been my imagination, but Clara's eyes seemed to open a fraction. Indeed, her eyes had been more expressive of late – the Innsmouth lineage had already enlarged them and given her bone structure a more sunken look. As yet, the effect was still attractive. Her collar hid the rough patches on her neck where gills were forming.
She recovered quickly, in any case.
"But Mother Pth'thya-l'ya, without me—"
"Without you, the Marsh line can still survive," Pth'thya-l'ya said. "I can always come to the surface myself and try again."
The couch creaked when I leaned back and threaded my fingers together.
"She's not an assassin," I said.
"That's why you're both going," Pth'thya-l'ya said. "Nathaniel, you will handle the planning and…execution. Clara will power the Servant."
Clara nodded in what could almost have been a bow, except for the faint smirk.
"Oh?" she said. "A womb and a battery. You are indeed thoughtful, Mother Pth'thya-l'ya."
Pth'thya-l'ya returned the smirk.
"Just be sure that the second duty doesn't interfere with the first," she said.
...Our family matriarch always had such a charming way of telling us to be careful.
"And just what will I be powering?" Clara said.
Pth'thya-l'ya crooked her finger and pointed to a door. She struck a match, which cracked and fizzled, and handed Clara an oil lamp. Shadows danced through the limestone stairwell as Pth'thya-l'ya descended. We followed her. The journey took several minutes.
The vault was ancient and Romanesque, built by Anglo-Saxons long after the legions had abandoned England. Its pillars and arches bore crude tool marks, and cruder inscriptions. They named gods no Anglo-Saxon knew.
At last, we reached the base of the steps, where a jaggedly-cut stone the height of a circus dwarf awaited us. It was broad, and its swirling designs and solar symbols evoked emotions in me both reverent and disquieted. Lichens had climbed up its sides.
And in its center, a mahogany box.
"Open it," Pth'thya-l'ya said.
Clara unlatched the top. A golden something glimmered from the purple velvet interior. Clara withdrew it.
It was a tiara, tall in the front and elliptical – designed, no doubt, for Deep Ones' peculiar physiology. My initial impression had been slightly off, though; the thing wasn't gold. It was lighter and more lustrous: that unpronounceable alloy that the Deep Ones prized for their jewelry above all other metals. Tessellations scurried along the surface. Some were aquatic, others geometric in a subtly disturbing way, and still others were images of the Deep Ones themselves, a collage of fish, frog, and human.
Its surface betrayed no craftsman's marks.
Something stirred in the far side of the vault. Clara's eyes darted there at the same time mine did, but she could always see more keenly in the gloom. The tiara dropped with a clang.
A thing oozed toward the light.
Ancestral fears bubbled up. It's true that I carry the blood of the Deep Ones in my veins – on rare occasions, even proudly. But I'm also a Marsh. Every instinct screamed to run from that mass of protoplasmic tissue, slime, and temporary organs.
"Sh-shoggoth…" I whispered.
Clara's face smoothed quickly. This came as no surprise: "almost-human" covers a lot of ground, and my cousin's mortal pedigree came a distant second to my own.
…Not that this was a disadvantage. She cocked an eyebrow at me.
"My, but you're nervous, dear cousin."
I forced my hands open and let an old mantra flow through me:
Y'ha-nthlei opens for the worthy;
To be a Marsh is to walk with death
The more rational part of my mind began calculating. The shoggoth was big and scary as all get-out, but it was also unwieldy. I couldn't take it through city streets during daylight hours, and needed to tread carefully at night. Worse, it couldn't stop incorporeal Servants at all. It might take down Whateley's critter if I was lucky, but I had no idea about the Delapores.
The shoggoth bubbled; a viscous sphere of rubbery protoplasm fifteen feet across. Black, shiny liquid leaked from its pores. Vapors billowed around it. In that darkness, its tissue glowed faintly. Body parts churned to the surface of the mass, only to dissolve again. Here, a tooth. There, an eye. The latter stared at me until the blood froze in my chest.
And then, the eye turned to Clara. A mouth formed. Tremors rolled through the creature's repulsive limbs as its voice came out in a whine.
"Why Clara," she said. "I think it likes you."
Clara said nothing.
"In any case, you two have a lot to discuss."
The family matriarch nodded to both of us, and then headed for the stairway. Fortunately, she left the lamp. Her light footfalls reverberated like a kettle drum throughout the vault. Clara ran her fingers along the tiara, pressing the pits and ridges until they indented her skin. Her hands were paler than I remembered.
I cleared my throat.
"We'll set up in the Rue d'Auseil," I said. "I'll contact Veronica about my other equipment."
"And the shoggoth?" she said.
"Let Pth'thya-l'ya figure out transportation, if she wants to win so badly."
Clara's lips tightened. I paused.
"You're…uh…sure you want to go through with this?" I said.
The steady stare I received made me want to kick myself.
The year before, Clara had indulged in a brief liaison with a human. It had been harmless fun at the time, until our respective older siblings had died and left the Marsh family without an heir. Pth'thya-l'ya had given Clara a choice: bewitch the young man into falling in love another woman, or kill him. Apparently, Clara had passed her test of loyalty with flying colors. She'd never told me which choice she'd made. I'd never asked.
…Though I had my suspicions.
Clara continued to fiddle with the tiara.
"If I live, I'll complete the mission," she said. "If I die, I expect you to command the shoggoth with my corpse."
She must have seen my frown, since her eyes narrowed.
"And you?" she said.
"I'm a Marsh," I replied.
And to be fair, Pth'thya-l'ya was family. Nutty as a fruitcake, granted, but family. The mammalian part of my heritage – the rat brain, Clara had always said with a sneer – cared about things like that. Not to mention my cousin-slash-fiancée herself. May the Deep Ones have mercy on me.
"In that case, we don't have anything further to say," she said. "I will familiarize myself with the shoggoth. You may do…whatever it is you do to prepare for these missions. We will speak again on the trip to the City."
I sighed and stood.
"Fair enough. G'night, Clara."
Her crown dipped with a polite-but-bored nod.
"Good night, Nathaniel."
Clara's disinterest was just as well. I did have work to do.
As soon as I reached the main floor again (and took a few deep breaths), I summoned Veronica. She was a gray-suited, mousy sort of woman who wore her brown hair in a bun and would have slit her own throat for the Family. We'd worked together before.
The Game of Invocation started in a couple days, which meant that most of the other Masters had already departed for the battleground. That, in turn, meant that I had just enough time to dig around for information on Whateley before the fighting began.
"Check with the Dunwich post office first," I said. "Whateley might've filled out a change of address form. I really doubt he'd mention much to his neighbors, but see if he's told them where he's headed. Ditto with the untainted branch of his family."
"Of course, Master."
"Um…also, see if Whateley uses any professionals," I said. "Attorney, stockbroker, real estate broker; that sort of thing. They won't want to talk. Lean on them."
"Show them why dogs howl in the dark, and why cats prick up their ears after midnight," I said.
I opened a drawer and pulled out a jade amulet. An image in relief stared out from its surface. It depicted a pulpy, tentacled head attached to a scaly body at once humanlike and reptilian. Veronica reached for it. I slapped her hand away. She started.
A moment later, she seemed to remember herself. She dipped her head, and I muttered the Esoteric Order's blessing. Only then did I give her the amulet.
We both breathed a sigh of relief.
"Oh, and check the city assessor and court records," I said. "I have a pretty good idea what Whateley's Servant'll be, but I need a decent picture of his finances. See if he's sold his land, how much he got for it…and…um, right. Check the state DMV about his car, too."
A curt nod. My instructions translated into a flurry of taps and scribbles on Veronica's notepad.
…And now for my weapons.
I'm the first to admit that I've never cut an imposing figure. In those days, I hovered between five-eight and five nine, with my weight in the high 130's on a good day. Blessed swords wouldn't cut it. I needed firepower.
I asked Veronica to put in another order for my special ammunition: rounds laced with Ibn Ghazi's powder. As soon as they arrived, I would make the Voorish sign over them myself. I doubted that they could stop a Servant (although hope springs eternal), but they'd at least served their purpose well enough against my fellow halfbreeds in the past.
The German Shepherds were another detail. Alberich and Wolfram couldn't abide Clara, so they'd have to travel separately. Fortunately, they couldn't abide most of our opponents, either. I needed a canary in the coalmine.
As you might have guessed, my lack of Old Blood was more than an incidental source of self-consciousness. It was a weakness. Unlike Clara, I couldn't perform most of the greater rites that mark a true sorcerer. Even with my diluted lineage, though, I could still wield one supernatural weapon. In the bottom drawer of my desk sat a rosewood box, and in the rosewood box rested an ivory carving. It was a youth's head, young and beautiful, crowned with a laurel wreath.
I pocketed it.
For the rest, Wormius' translation of the Necronomicon was naturally de rigueur, though I probably would've taken Dee's version in a pinch. I arranged to put Veronica in touch with my cousin Arthur, who was working on a doctorate at Miskatonic's City campus. Admittedly, he belonged to the undecayed side of the Marsh family, but I suspected that he would get a copy for me.
Besides, I'd gotten along well with him in the past. He would want to keep it that way.
That night, I dreamed of old gardens and enchanted woods. Like a child at play, I ran along the tops of bronze walls choked with vines, and trekked through valleys of gold and shadows. Deserted temples echoed with my skipping footsteps. The southern breeze whispered invitations in my ear, and I followed these summons across a sea lit by strange stars.