David walked to his last class of the day. He’d go home, get something to eat and then head to play practice. After seeing the King in Yellow, he was a little less enthusiastic about being in a play. He’d hate for a demonic Jane Austin to show up and start sucking out people’s souls.
He heard laughter coming down from one of the side halls. Like always he was early and the halls were mostly clear. He came to the corner and peeked around.
Three guys and one girl were standing around a skinny guy with glasses. He was holding his empty backpack. His books lay scattered around his feet.
The idiots were laughing at the glasses guy. They’d probably caused the “accident.”
He hated people like that. The world was screwed up enough without intentionally making it worse. Those idiots had no idea what it was really like out there. They lived sheltered, meaningless lives and never knew what it was like to face death. Their biggest problem was that they weren’t getting 4G’s.
“Hey, leave him alone,” David said as he walked into the hallway.
They turned to look at him and saw the sneers on their faces.
“What you going to do about it?” One of the guys asked. He wore a pink pollo shirt and had immaculate hair. In short, he looked like a total douche.
“I’ll kick your ass in front of your cheerleader girlfriend.”
The man started to laugh but David could tell that it was forced.
“It takes a big man for him and three of his buddies to pick on one guy. Mighty brave of you.”
“You’re talking big, tough guy. I aint seen you in the gym,” pink pollo shirt said.
David snapped his arm out and grabbed him by the neck where the nerve center was. Pollo shirt winced and almost doubled over.
“Go away before I make you cry,” David said.
The others quickly left and once they were out of his sight he let pollo shirt go. Pollo cast him a glare that was supposed to be threatening before he disappeared.
He then turned to the kid with the glasses.
“You okay, man?” David asked.
“Sorry about that. Those kind of people piss me off.”
He looked down at the books and saw a Player’s Handbook for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5.
“You play D&D?” David asked.
“Awesome. I used to play all the time. Me and some of the other guys had a campaign going while we were over in Iraq. You’d be surprised at how many nerds are in the army.”
“I usually GM,” the guy said.
“Awesome. I usually played a cleric. Name’s David.”
“Heading to class?”
“I’m a teacher’s assistant. Going to grade papers.”
“Sounds way over my head.”
“It’s over most people’s heads," he said growing excited. "The stuff we’re doing there is revolutionary. If we had access to CERN’s particle collider, there’d be no end to what we can do.”
“Big Bang stuff.”
“But on a small scale. The stuff we’re seeing lasts so short a time and is so small, I mean, its bending the laws of physics as we know them. Breaking them in some cases. I tell you, whatever it was like in the first few nanoseconds of existence wasn’t like anything we recognize today. Anything could have snapped into existence.”
“Sounds like some weird stuff, man.”
“Very weird,” he said with a strange smile. “You wouldn’t believe what we’ve seen.”
“I bet I would.”
“I have to go. I have to grade a paper on finding dead pulsars in deep space.”
“Sounds awesome. Hey, if you ever want to start a campaign, let me know.”
They exchanged numbers and watched as Dan went on his way.
When he got to play practice he saw Beth and Gretch were already there. He went over and took the one empty seat beside Gretchen.
“You’re usually early,” Gretch said.
“Lost track of time.”
She looked at him through the corners of her eyes.
“I don’t want to be here,” she said.
“You’ll love it.”
“You think so?”
“Not at first. Maybe once you get your lines down and we start rehearsing, then perform and finish it for good, then you’ll have fun.”
She didn’t respond for a few moments.
“I was hoping you’d lie to me.”
“I’m teasing, Gretch. You’ll have fun.”
“I doubt that very much,” she said.
He saw her hands fidgeting with the script. Could it be that their all-knowing sorceress was nervous about a play? So he leaned over and whispered in her ear.
“You don’t need to be nervous. You’ll do fine. We’re just reading our parts today. Nothing else.”
She kept her mouth closed and her eyes still looked frightened, but she nodded and took a deep breath.
Then she leaned over to him.
“Tomorrow night is a lecture about ancient Roman cults and the use of advanced astronomy. I plan to attend. Are you attending as well?”
He wasn’t sure, but it sounded like Gretchen’s version of asking him out on a date. It was hard to tell.
It did sound interesting: not something he’d normally attend but with all the recent crazy shit going on, maybe he should learn a little more about ancient cults.
Also, he wouldn’t mind spending some time with Gretchen. She was pretty. She was pretty in a unique, odd, unknowable way, but still very pretty.
“Sure. Sounds fun,” he said.
“It starts at seven in lecture room 1 in main hall.”
“I’ll pick you up at six thirty.”
“Oh. Yes, that works as well.”
She then began looking at her script with renewed interest.
The practice was as he said it would be. They just read through their lines and got a basic grasp of what they were getting into.
Gretchen read her lines in her usual monotone voice but Beth said that it was perfect for the part.
His part would take a little more work.
“Remember, David, Darcy is arrogant and sure of himself. Show more disdain towards everyone around him,” Beth said.
“But that’s not true. He doesn’t disdain everyone.”
“Not in his own mind. Look, it’s complicated. But he has to appear to be a smug SOB, so act like one.”
“We’ll see,” he said, not conceding the point.
After the play practice they went to Beth’s place and did homework. His history class had a quiz the next morning so he studied with Gretch a part of the time. She either had a photographic memory or knew all of this already.
“Hey, Beth, we’re going to the lecture about Roman cults tomorrow night. Do you wish to go?” Gretchen asked.
“What? By that creepy old guy?”
“Professor Nelson, yes.”
“That guy looks like he owns an unmarked van and hands out free candy to kids in parks.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Gretch said.
“She means he looks like a creepy child molester,” David said.
“Oh. I don’t see why you’d think such a thing,” Gretch said.
“Because he does,” Beth said.
“Do you wish to come?”
“No, if I never have to see that sex offender again I’ll be happy. You two have fun learning about weirdo cults.”
That night he dreamed of the underwater city again. He dreamed that there was an earthquake that made the city rise a little higher and disturbed the sleep of some of the things that lay in their monolithic crypts.
When he woke he felt more tired than he had before going to bed.
As usual he was the first one in class and Gretchen was the second. She came in with dark rings under her eyes and half opened eyelids.
“Bad dreams too?” He asked.
She nodded and laid her forehead on her pile of books.
“Under water city?”
She nodded again.
“It’s called R’lyeh,” she said.
“R’lyeh? I’ve heard that word before.”
Back in the cemetery in Iraq the cultists had been chanting something that had that word in it. Normally he wouldn’t be able to remember a meaningless word, but that chant had burned itself into his mind and he knew every word.
“Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn,” he said.
Her head shot up from her desk and she looked at him with wide eyes.
“How do you know those words?” She asked.
“I heard them once.”
“The cult in Iraq. Why?”
“Don’t ever repeat those words aloud. Never!”
“Okay, I won’t.”
“I promise. But why?”
“It’s a prayer to Cthulhu. Our nightmares come from his dreams and you do not want his full attention.”
It felt as if he had just held a bomb with a short timer. Not saying those words again wouldn’t be a problem. If they were some kind of summons like the kids did with the King in Yellow then there’d be no temptation to repeat them.
This hidden world of the occult was far more dangerous than he realized. It wasn’t some socially awkward Wiccans burning candles in a circle, this was a little kid playing with hand grenades level of danger.
More like landmines, really, because sometimes someone could stumble upon something horrible by accident.
He got through the quiz with no problems. Gretchen finished first like she always did and waited for him out in the hall.
“I was hoping for something more challenging,” she said.
“This is a basic, beginner level class. You’ll have to wait till next year for harder classes.”
He went about his day like he usually did, but a bit more tired than usual. After his last class he took a nap before dinner. Dinner was a blue cheese, bacon cheeseburger from one of the local places nearby. Local places always trumped fast food chains.
At the appointed time he went to Gretchen’s door and knocked. Some of the girls were having a pajama party of some kind and blasting really lame music as loud as they could.
Gretchen answered the door with a notebook in hand.
“Ready?” He asked.
“I hope this man proves to be as educational as I hope he will be.”
“I’m sure he’ll be enlightening.”
He walked with her across the commons and passed the place where the demon tree with the red eyes had been. The place still felt wrong somehow, like there was an unseen stain.
He caught Gretchen looking at the same spot and wondered if she felt it too. Knowing her she probably did. Heck, she probably saw the darkness he only felt.
They arrived at the lecture hall and took their seats somewhere in the middle. The place was already filling up, but not with students. Most of them were middle age and above. They were probably the youngest in the room.
These kinds of places always seemed like the AC was broken or on overdrive. Right now it was arctic conditions in the room. Gretchen had her gray, buttoned up coat on but he just had a buttoned up, black shirt on. He’d have to invest in a sport coat of some kind when attending more formal situations.
Then one of the history anthropology professors came out and introduced Professor Nelson from NY University. The audience applauded and a middle aged man with a beard and bald head came out on stage wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbows. Really? Wasn’t that too stereotypical? He probably listened to NPR in his office as well.
The man introduced himself and began listing his credentials and holding up copies of books that he’d written. Then he began talking about where his lecture fit into the current study of obscure religions and quoting boring passages from books other people had read.
It had been only five minutes and already he wanted to go to sleep.
“Now I get to the Roman emperor, Elagabalus. Many consider him to be one of the most decadent and corrupt emperors ever to take the Roman throne. And he had some competition,” Dr. Nelson said.
The crowd politely laughed.
Now maybe it would get interesting.
“Elagabalus spent his short years as emperor sleeping with everything he could in every conceivable manner. He was so repulsive in his acts that the Romans eventually had him assassinated. That’s saying something.” Again, more polite laughter. “But what most scholars and historians refute or don’t know is that Elagabalus also set himself up as the head of a mystery cult which were quite popular at the time. After his death his cult lived on and actually grew. Apparently there was some attraction to having blasphemous orgies.”
Even he had to laugh at that one. Gretchen was expressionless but was writing down almost everything he said sans jokes.
“The cult of Elagabalus evolved over time and when Christianity became the dominant religion in the empire the cult went underground. We don’t hear of it for several centuries but one monk in Milan recorded in his “Histories of Charles the Great,” a relatively unknown and sometimes inaccurate history that “and a man of the court who was known to follow the ceremonies of Elagabulus came to see the great king and was denied visitation.” That is all that is written but it offers a precious clue. The cult was still alive during the time of Charlemagne.
“During the Renaissance the cult makes another appearance and we see evidence of it in Italy, the court of France, England and even Catholic Spain. Besides amoral orgies, what did this cult offer? To stand the test of time it had to offer something, correct? Going back to the Romans, the cult flourished in Alexandria, the center of learning. Some of the greatest philosophers and astronomers of the time were associated with the cult. And this is where it gets very interesting.”
Nelson turned on a screen behind him and a giant picture of a mosaic depicting constellations appeared.
“Here’s a typical map of the stars that could have been done in any age. But what’s different is that this map doesn’t conform to any known constellations. The Latin inscription at the bottom claims that these are the stars as seen from Yith.”
He heard Gretchen gasp at the mention of “Yith.”
“What is it?” He whispered to her.
“Nothing,” she said.
He didn’t believe it was nothing. He’d have to wait until after the lecture to get it out of her.
“And that is not all. The cult also has complete maps of the solar system, including Uranus and Neptune. They don’t have Pluto but apparently we don’t anymore either.”
The picture went to an ancient, tattered scroll with pictures of different gods.
“Each planet is represented by an illustration of a god that isn’t found in any other Roman or Persian text.”
David’s eyes focused on Venus and he clenched the arms of his chair.
Instead of a beautiful woman representing Venus, it was a cloaked figure in yellow. The symbol on his cloak was the symbol of Hastur, the King in Yellow. He recognized that symbol anywhere.
But then his eyes went to Neptune and in place of a merman god with a trident, it showed a pharaoh with skin as black as coal.