by Jeffery Scott Sims
Jacob Bleek, wanderer of a benighted age, was a scholar of strange and forgotten lore, and his studies had trained him to sniff out the furtive signs of the uncanny and the arcane. As he rode his tiring mare along across the steep, densely forested slope of the rough trail, an inner sense told him — not in words, but clearly and unmistakably — that a dark presence lurked nearby. A force beyond that suggested by the gloom and chiaroscuro of the wild landscape. Somewhere south of him, perhaps this side of an evening’s ride, lay the wide Danube, and Bavarian towns with civilized folk and lights and comfortable inns, but here, at this moment, he beheld the rude world as it had been since time’s dawn, and felt the breath of undefined, mystical menace. Yet the first sight of interest formed a wholesome image, scarcely evocative of threat.
Coming round the slope, a gap parted in the pines ahead, revealing the stark outlines of a very high hill or low mountain across a little valley. It was cloaked in trees, save where ragged crags of black basalt protruded and atop the pointed peak of dark, bare rock stood a simple white cross.
To be sure, Bleek’s inclinations toward esoteric knowledge were such as to alarm or offend the religious authorities of many lands through which he had traveled, and as he advanced southward he learned that toleration for his intellectual oddities markedly declined. Still, he knew that this unadorned symbol was not the instigator of his developing unease.
The horse too sensed something. She balked at continuing along this course, so he used the lash and she proceeded then, though eager to display unwillingness at any opportunity. So by fits and starts Jacob Bleek descended the trail, encouraging and cajoling his beast as need be, until he reached bottom where a placid, shadowed creek forlornly trickled.
He followed the gentle flow until the forest drew aside to make way for tilled fields and pasture, which in turn stood aside for a narrow lake that curved closely around the wooded cliffs at the base of the notable mountain. The trail soon became a cart path. At the end of the lake he observed the earthen dam which provided sure evidence of human construction, with confirming glimpses of solid habitations shortly downstream. In another minute he entered the village.
The furtive hints of evil remained, though there was nothing in this fresh scene to justify disturbance. It was a tiny, backward and slovenly place, hardly promising for a night’s rest, yet of a type familiar. There the church, the only building that stood out above a huddle of thatched cottages and anonymous wooden structures, and there — over there, to the right — maybe an inn. He would investigate that.
The citizens of the village came to Bleek in the street, to hail this stranger, with his pale face and dark robes, formal bearing and educated manners, and to inquire of his business. Little information he offered, save that he was a scholar of antique rarities, but he asked after their hospitality, and they proved good-natured enough, perhaps because a reading and writing man demanded their respect.
It was Herr Tollmann, a portly fellow with an easy smile, who said to him, “Welcome to Ganich, good sir, and well met I say, for the shadows grow long, and the clouds gather over the Schwartzenburg. If you seek to stop here, I beg that you confer with me. An inn for the gentleman traveler we have not in these parts, nor will you find one this side of the big river, and ere the moon rises the ferry will cease to run; but I own the public place, the only one in Ganich, and I can arrange accommodations which shall not distress. Say the word, sir, and I and mine are at your command.”
Bleek grinned to himself, answered appropriately, and was beckoned down the lane to the building previously noted. Herr Tollmann spoke truly when he refrained from describing it as an inn. A tavern, yes, with a cramped dining hall and bar drawing several patrons, some sort of kitchen, and store rooms and closets in back. One of these, as it transpired, would be cleared for Bleek’s benefit.
The traveler, with weary geniality, expressed satisfaction with the arrangements. The landlord’s beefy son Dieter saw to the mare; Tollmann’s stout wife Olivia concocted a filling stew; his daughter Merta, not yet in her prime, eagerly served Bleek at table, bearing steaming bowl, a wooden spoon, an earthenware cup and a tankard of amber beer. Bleek gave thanks for small favors, relinquished a couple of coins, and thought himself decently disposed.
With his belly replenished, he thought to stoke his mind. Something in or about Ganich nagged at his brain. Bleek commenced artfully jovial conversation with his host, asking of conditions thereabouts. That man gave commonplace, unconsidered replies until Bleek, in praising the local scenery, opined that fine views might be had from the heights that loomed over the village. At this Herr Tollmann paused uncomfortably, stared intently at nothing for a spell, and answered after inordinate hesitation. “One does not climb the Schwartzenburg.”
Bleek casually contested this, alluding to the cross mounted on the far peak. Someone, he suggested with a fey shrug, had planted it up there. The topic seemed to make Tollmann nervous. He said shortly, “You will find a pretty walk along the stream and by the lake. The lake path is a popular favorite with the young. I can recommend a stroll so far as the Vendras Gate; thus far, no farther. Beyond that, on the black mountain, lies unrewarding country.”
Herr Tollmann announced himself called away at this juncture. Bleek was left alone to finish his repast and muse over these tidbits of information. Though he did not show it– not so much as by the flicker of an eyelash– the reference to “Vendras” confounded him, for he somewhat knew the term from his scholastic delvings into the darker arts. The Vendras Circle, as he understood it, was a cult of degenerate priests who, in a former century, had practiced abominable rites devoted to objectionable gods. Tales of their bizarre enormities formed the stuff of nasty legend, and served to justify historical anecdotes of their vicious suppression. Until this moment Bleek had heard of them solely in a past context.
By degrees he managed to quiz the rest of the Tollmann family. Little Merta, while clearing the table, admitted that she dared not approach the gate, for fear that ghosts would clasp her there or come to her by night, but that her parents went there on days of the saints to lay charms on the steps to ward off those who dwelt beyond.
The mother Olivia intruded, chased away her daughter, apologized for her fanciful stories. The laying of charms, she averred, was a harmless local conceit authorized by the church. She closed the subject with a certain asperity. Dieter, leading Bleek to his room, had more to say when asked about the route to the top of the Schwartzenburg. He said, “The black mountain is forbidden to men. Our priest tells us that evil lives there, old evil which is wont to invade our homes when disturbed. We do what we can to ward it off. I have helped lay charms at the Vendras Gate with my father. Always I carry one with me. Here it is.” Dieter drew from his pocket a purplish oval stone cut in the fashion of an eye with a minute cross etched in the pupil.
Slumber tarried in coming to Bleek in his rude lodgings that night, and when it finally did it brought a peculiar dream. He found himself in darkness, with the impression of dank walls enclosing him. Out of the oppressive black miasma he spied a glittering yellow orb, then another, then many, countless pale ovals tightly grouped, suspended in nothingness. He realized they were eyes. Eyes without face, or with face unseen, but surely a presence of bulk and substance occupied the indeterminate space with him. Watching. Observing. Calculating.
He sensed a baleful, pitiless intelligence that scrutinized, seeking his sum as it prepared to act. Then the eyes rushed forward, wrapped him in greedy, hungry vision. He awoke. He fingered the ornate gold talisman hanging at his throat. Fashioned in the shape of a rhombus, it enclosed the image of a grinning skull with green eyes of jade. Herr Tollmann had looked askance upon this item, been fobbed with a lie pertaining to a collegiate club. Bleek thought to himself that his studies had granted him knowledge of magical charms surer than those of the villagers. Dream it may have been, but Bleek suspected that he had experienced a close call.
Come the morning, Jacob Bleek would not go. He allowed that he would spend the day partaking of sylvan pleasures, and tasked his host with making up a pack of food and drink. This modest request apparently troubled Herr Tollmann, who urged his guest, “for God’s sake,” not to wander too far afield. Bleek left him to his simple task, and concealing his necklace within his cloak sought the priest in his church, the only stone building in town.
That worthy served alone, as was customary in such a small village, eking out a bare but earnest living from sporadic donations. He crossed himself when asked about the Schwartzenburg, did so again at pointed mention of the Vendras Gate. That term meant nothing specific to him, though in his statements the priest clearly treated that location across the lake as the edge of decent and healthy territory.
But what of that obvious cross on the peak? Here Bleek heard a remarkable story.
The priest told it this way: “The cross dates from the time of my father’s grandfather. In former years there were bad men who lived up there, worshipers of the devil I fear, who plagued damnably the honest folk of the valley. Their fell cravings instigated frightful murders and inexplicable disappearances. Finally the king’s men marched against them, slew them or drove them away. So it should have been, only there remained influences, presences barely seen, if commonly heard at night. Still there occurred occasional atrocities, committed now by no men known to be living. My ancestor was also priest. One sunny day he scaled the heights with two companions, bearing with them materials for a standing cross, previously bathed in Holy Water. They gained the top, planted the cross, made their way down. During the descent something happened. One man did not return. The two survivors refused to explain. They said he was dead– as the tale came to me, they hoped he was dead– but they would not describe his end. Sad to relate, their godly quest was for naught. The cross stands, but the black mountain reeks still of evil. Just last year a boy vanished from our midst. There were screams from the high forest that night; screams, and laughter. I tell you, sir, that was never human laughter.”
This was, for Bleek, an entertaining and wholly absorbing tale. He returned to the tavern to collect his pack, fending off Herr Tollmann’s questions and smiling at his heartfelt advice, and with staff in hand set out through the village to the lake. He crossed over the foot path atop the dam, made his way onto the lonely east side where the rocky roots of the black mountain extended dark fingers among the reeds.
In time a cliff barrier rose up at the shore, and the trail ascended a flight of rough-hewn carved steps up the face of the stony mass to a narrow gap barred by a heavy oaken, iron-bound door. This was none other than the ill-spoken Vendras Gate. On the ledge fronting the weathered door lay a scattering of crudely made amulets of purple, semi-precious minerals carved into simple shapes. There were crucifixes, but not in plenty; the eye images predominated, many with superimposed crosses situated so as, he reasoned, to blind the eyes. Bleek remembered his dream and wondered which was cart, which horse.
The high door creaked open at the touch of his staff. There was no lock. Having passed the gate Jacob Bleek immediately experienced an intensifying of the gloomy sensation that had assailed him since entering the valley. Truly, he thought, ominous powers dwelt here. The rock path that scaled the basalt barrier, led him into shadowed forest which knew not the kiss of the axe. A furtive breeze rustled the needles of the pines. His boots squeaked as he trod earth and stone. Otherwise, silence reigned. The mountain seemed devoid of life.
In lieu of better choice, Bleek directed his feet toward the cross way above him on the highest crag. He marched without formal direction, but the vague trail led ever upward, which took him the way he wanted to go. He climbed swiftly, pausing at times for a gulp of water. Once, between a thinning of branches, he spied Ganich below, already appearing small and forlorn. Then the forest swallowed him.
The path (trodden by whom?) practically gave out as he stumbled amidst the loftier crags, where the wind commenced to howl. Unfazed he continued for now he had a sure shot of the white cross directly ahead, framed by the trees, and centered squarely on the utmost pinnacle of a blocky mound of pitch basalt. A deal of huffing and puffing got him beyond the tree line and to the top, and there he momentarily enjoyed the sweeping view of the slender valley, the sullen loop of lake, the toy village and its patchwork fields.
Bleek examined the cross with care. Taller than a man it stood, of lovingly planed, white-washed lumber. An inscription in clumsy Latin evoked the mercy of God, pled for release from undefined peril. So much he expected. What intrigued him was the apparently subsequent, corollary inscription, in better Latin, partly scratched over the original. A thin, claw-like instrument had written, “As the world endures, so reigns Xenophor, He of the Thousand Eyes.”
This was meat indeed to a scholar who hungered for knowledge of the mystic and the arcane. In a cloistered monastery the student Bleek once perused an incomplete illuminated manuscript which dared relate, in halting, fragmentary paragraphs, the abysmal legend of Great Xenophor, Lord of All things, Creator and Destroyer, the focus of a primordial religion sinister and secretive, old when the Egyptian sorcerer Imhotep planned the first pyramid. This marked a curious intrusion of theme. Bleek connected his discovery to the Vendras Circle, the details of whose worship had been a mystery to him. More he understood now. But who had scrawled the words?
He garnered no sense of protection from the cross. He thought that another power ruled the black mountain. At present it seemed that his explorations were at an end, that nothing remained but to descend the steep trail and return to the village bearing augmented mystery. In this he was mistaken. Picking his way carefully down the crags and between black fingers of standing stone, with the lively wind frantic to pluck him into deadly space, Jacob Bleek noticed regularities among the dark rocks to his left. He veered to investigate. Those rectangular openings in the basalt truly resembled windows. He circled a difficult tongue of rock, faced a larger, cone-shaped opening through which a man could readily enter. This Bleek did.
From supplies he brought with him he made a torch, which he lit and carried before him into the interior. Bleek entered a series of spacious chambers chiseled out of the living rock, a sequence of rooms connected by short corridors and radiating from a central hall. Bare of furnishings they were– save for infrequent heaps of smashed or burned debris– yet expansive enough that he likened them to the chambers of a small castle gouged from the stone, rather than built on it. The dusty stone floors were perfectly level, the ceilings high and sooty. The walls were adorned with paint; red and yellow ocher on stone that still kept their vibrant colors despite the uncounted years of neglect. Several images were defaced. Bleek hazarded the obvious guess, based on the priest’s account, that the king’s men of long ago had sacked the place when they raided the mountain retreat of the evil ones. They had overborne that which was material, that which would fall before sword and pike.
The paintings interested him exceedingly. They consisted mainly of clustered yellow eyes enclosed in nebulous red forms, no one quite the same as the other. The insidious glare of those eyes, so artfully rendered, held him aghast. Bleek really felt as if he were being watched from all sides. There were inscriptions here, too, in Latin and the common script, praising or imploring Great Xenophor. Still more inscriptions were entirely indecipherable, but he supposed the meaning of a certain recurring group of letters or runes writ large.
The big room at the heart of the complex contained a kind of altar; a massive slab on which stood a heavy basalt basin. Around this were flat-topped stones arranged like seats. The basin was encrusted with gritty, odorous black powder. Within and around it were a surprising number of disarticulated human bones. They were hacked and scorched. They were also much too recent to constitute evidence of ancient ritual or conflict. The smaller remains, those of a youth, were appallingly fresh.
At the realization Bleek staggered under a wave of dread. An induced fear was funneled against him by enemies unseen. He gasped at the psychic weight of the cruel torrent. So the powers that haunted the Schwartzenburg were aware of him, knew his location and knew, possibly, the contents of his mind. Ethereal tendrils plucked at his consciousness. He felt them and through their sudden emanation sensed the invisible embodiment of that which had not died nor been extirpated, but lingered on, less active in this wilderness waste but scarcely dormant. The spirits of the Vendras Circle lived, clinging to their gathering place of old, craving as ever the sacrifices by which they adored and propitiated their awesome master!
With a smooth mental effort he turned aside the ghostly emotional weapon. He was not to be mastered that way. Not for nothing had Jacob Bleek dedicated his years to uncovering the secrets of the weird and macabre forces that swirl around the blandly materialistic shell of life. He muttered certain words and motioned with his fingertips; via these simple means surmounting the moment.
This revelation of ability did not pass unnoticed by the invisible enemies infesting the place. They redoubled their efforts. This time they presented him with images. Of a sudden, a gory tableau was enacted before him in which he was granted audience to a scene of supernatural sacrifice, possibly the most recent carried out in that chamber. Bleek beheld misty forms pushing and dragging a cringing, screaming lad to the altar; pressing him down onto the stone; the startling gleam of a big, hazy blade; a gurgling shriek, gouts of blood.
This was more information than Bleek desired. He intoned a stronger charm that wiped away the brutal vision, leaving him alone in the empty stone room, but he wondered now if his quest for forbidden knowledge had led him astray on this occasion. These doubts were reinforced when the attack against him assumed a more solid, less psychic character.
This time the fear he felt was not entirely due to an exterior funneling. He heard a hoarse, guttural chanting, punctuated by fiendish laughter. A pale yellow light permeated the chamber. It coalesced into a foggy mass, which then splintered into a hundred or a thousand twinkling sparks. These faux stars subsided into a dire suggestion of many disembodied, unwinking eyes. Then they zoomed toward him, dashing at his face like a swarm of angry bees. He heard the raucous cry of “Xenophor!” and at that instant the hateful eyes disappeared. The priests of the Vendras Circle stood before him, seven of them, clad in robes of black and crimson, knives in hand, their faces covered with scarlet masks through which glared their implacably hostile eyes. They stepped forward.
Jacob Bleek ran, ran madly, but not away from his foes; no, he dashed at them, head bowed, clutching at the odd golden talisman that dangled from his neck and swiping wildly with his staff. He heard the terrible sound of blades ripping through air, felt the bite of razored metal at his shoulder. He hit the floor, rolled, came up at the altar. He tore the talisman from its chain, planted it on the altar, thundered the monstrous word Astrodemus. The chamber rocked with the frightful echoes.
Astrodemus — an old designation for a power that haunted the spheres outside of stale reality — an aggressive, blighting force that ate into and nullified other, competing powers. Astrodemus, to whom Bleek had called during a particularly dangerous experiment that he might further his studies into the darkest principalities of ancient lore. Astrodemus, whose essence dwelt in the magical talisman. This he carried with him always against special peril. This he now employed in desperation to negate the concentrated evil surrounding him, by planting it squarely in the heart of the menace.
His cry or prayer was answered. The fruits of his arcane scholarship held good. He felt the opposing force diminish. It indisputably weakened, but only by degrees. The dead priests of Vendras, servants of Xenophor, hesitated and gargled screams of rage, but then they came on again. Bleek swung with both hands his stout staff like a club, bashed through to the door which led to the outer chambers. He fled frantically through these to the outside air. The priests and their knives did not follow. Did the talisman constrain them? It might be so, but the wind howled a gale, and black clouds scudded across the sapped sun, and the very crags shuddered as with strange fever. Bleek noticed the cross above swaying on its stony perch. He practically hurled himself off the ledge and into the trees.
He found the path, a thankful blessing, but he was, so to speak, not yet out of the woods. The obviously faltering force threatening him was scarcely obliterated. Its fangs, blunted, were still long and sharp enough to inflict damage, perhaps lethal. The journey down the mountain seemed impossibly longer than the weary trudge up. The trees bent toward him, clawed his flesh and clothing with spiky branches. Stones thrust themselves at his ankles. Thick shadows — not robed priests, mercifully, but something more tangible than wisps of darkness — stepped out from the corners of his vision to grope at him. Twice an influence swelled in his mind, demanding that he return and retrace his steps to the heights of the mountain, where he should acquiesce in the justice of unhallowed vengeance. This he did not do. The strength of the talisman defended him at a distance.
Once he passed the Vendras Gate the persistent low level onslaught ended. Bleek realized he was trembling, bathed in oily perspiration. He could feel still the unpleasant emanations from the upper crags of the Schwartzenburg, but they were latent now, relatively harmless. Either the force of the talisman was conquering, or the contest of powers up there was muting the evil radiation. Which ever the case, the festering mood of darkness which he had sensed since approaching the black mountain had definitely lessened, to the point that he felt no longer a perilous presence waiting to pounce.
Of this development he informed his hosts in Ganich, and grateful they were, as well as astounded. Said Herr Tollmann, “Never thought I to behold you again, Master Bleek, this side of death. I suspected your destination, deplored what I deemed your recklessness. I should have reckoned that a man of books and letters would know more of these matters than we.”
His wife said, “Miracles are cause for celebration. This day we shall feast you, at no expense to your purse. Would there were more we could do in your honor.”
The priest sought him out, came to him and said, “It is necessary that I understand. Before you leave us, tell me all. This knowledge I will inscribe, against the growth of fresh terrors.”
All this was nothing to Jacob Bleek, who treated with them all on their terms, and made the most of bounty bestowed. When he left them the following morn to continue his journey he did so replete with satisfaction at the wisdom accrued, which he vowed should soon direct his studies into profitable channels. The acolytes of the Vendras Circle, whether living or dead, were capable of instructing him in a great deal of peculiar insights. He regretted, though, the loss of the talisman of Astrodemus — a potent tool sacrificed in order to save his life and soul.
That gold emblem had been his most costly possession, and one acquired through extraordinary difficulty, for he had paid much for a devious and greedy agent to purloin the thing from the rotted neck of a long dead wizard buried in a guarded tomb. It would not be easy to replace. In his quest for unearthly lore he would surely stumble into dire circumstances yet again. Before that happened, he swore to himself that he must be well armed.