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by Davide Mana
They took us out of deep freeze and put us back to sleep because there was something weird going on on the other side and they wanted us to take a peek.
Chances were, it was seeping through to our side, too, or the paper-pushers would not have bothered to momentarily forget about the last shootout and give us rubber badges and carte blanche again.
But we jumped at it anyway.
It was good being back in the field.
It did not stay good for long.
There was a board nailed over the gutter.
It read 'gurgling stream'.
The water was dark, thick and slow, chunks of gray rock surfacing along its course.
Around us, the landscape was flat and bathed in the unflinching light of a copper-ball-like sun.
A pair of clouds ran far on the too-near horizon, clearly in a hurry to vacate the premises. The air was still and smelled funny.
A plank was placed over the stream, and on the other side there was a blank wall with 'baroque ornamentation' scrawled over, and a rusty iron gate with a 'garden' plate.
Our steps lifted small clouds of dust.
"What kind of place is this?"
My voice sounded muffled, somewhat dampened.
Val shook her head and turned, taking in the little there was there to take.
In the mid-distance, a huge, highway-style billboard carried the 'hills vista' script in washed-away block capitals in a white field.
We both felt the distinctive lack of pattern, a broken feeling permeating the whole area.
The stuff dreams were made of was wearing off.
She crouched down and took a handful of the cinder-like soil, rubbing it between her fingers.
"You ever been to Ib?" she asked me, standing up and passing the hand on the leg of the trousers to clean it.
We both wore ill-fitting, rough hewn one piece suits and sandals.
"Is it like this?" I asked. Ib is not exactly high on my list of dream spots.
She sucked her cheek in. "Not this bad, but similar."
She stepped over the plank and stood by the gate.
"The same feeling of consumption, of fading away."
On the other side of the wall there was a large upturned crate, with smaller boxes around it.
The dining room, I guessed.
The other wall was blank again, two skewed squares drawn on it, each framing the word 'window'.
"What of the people that lived here?" she asked.
A chunk of something crumbled under my foot. "I just hope they were out when whatever it was hit this place."
I bent and picked up a smallish square of paper, folded.
There were more scattered around.
We got out again, not that there was that much difference between that and the inside.
The clouds were gone, the sun was in the same position.
The gutter had completely bogged down.
Val closed her eyes, her breath slowing, getting more regular.
"There's no carrier," she said after a few seconds.
It was easy to see the thing did not please her one bit.
"This place is slowly unwinding away into nothingness."
I pointed to the blank wall.
It now read 'squiggly thingees'
"Not that slowly."
The billboard was barely visible, hazy for the distance.
'humps', it read.
"We better wake up."
Her tone was urgent.
I could only agree.
We took a walk along the riverbank.
Geese were doing their bit down by the water, while joggers and mothers with kids in perambulators passed us by.
It was a good place to talk over matters of some import, as nobody would pay us more than some cursory attention.
Val dropped her jacket on the rail and leaned on it, watching the brown water running.
A quarter of a mile upstream, a blue-tinted barge was moored to a rickety landing-stage.
Someone had scrawled 'E. SALGARI' in red paint on the side of one of the boat's floaters. It reminded me of the stretch of dilapidated 'Land we had visited the night before.
I sat on a bench there and took another look at the skimpy file they had dropped on us.
Our betters called the effect 'disruption'.
"That's crap," she said, reading my mind. "Disruption was what that freak Moore-class bastard did two years back to the seaside quarter of Thalarion. Here the structure just wound down like a spent spinning top. The pattern was not disrupted, it was just plain taken out of the picture altogether."
"Which is not an easy thing to do."
A shrug. "The backlog's just too much."
She popped a chewing-gum in her mouth. "It's no longer possible to kill the dream by killing the dreamer most of what's being dreamed right now belongs to dead dreamers anyway."
A blonde in blue stretch pants and tank-top passed us by at a cantering pace, accompanied by the buzzing of a walkman.
"So," I asked, standing up again, "What are we dealing with exactly? A rogue dreamer?"
"More like a dreamkiller."
It felt cold all of a sudden.
"Did not know we had such a thing in our book."
She visibly shivered.
"Neither did I"
We landed in Hlanith under a pouring rain and it was clear the Dreamkiller story had been around a while on its own and grown in the ripe pickings of word of mouth and disinformation.
So much for slow communication in low-tech societies.
People in the streets talked about it, huddling around market-stalls and under the canopies of public wells.
You could feel the low steady murmur rising from taverns and think-tanks along Charlatans Street like waves of a distant sea, rumbling.
Or maybe it was just the rain.
And the customers at the Croc were whispering about it over flagons of spiked wine.
We went upstairs and I had a pair of braziers brought up to dispel the cold while Val, one hand undoing the laces of her street dress, with the other divided the sheaf of freshly transmitted reports into two neat piles.
We spent the rest of the evening sifting through hearsay.
Ten hours later the usual combination of unsolicited information, irrational hunches and professional follow-ups put us on Val's beetle car to an out of town destination.
It was hot and the countryside was silent, the road deserted.
She had Grace Slick on her stereo but I was not listening, browsing through the file a scooter-boy had dropped at my apartment at lunchtime.
"A painter?" she repeated, eyes on the road.
I nodded, the thin folder in my lap regaling me with a shot of the man, white hair and very black brows shadowing gray eyes.
She glanced at it briefly.
"Nasty," she said.
I gave her the lowdown, summarizing the twenty or so pages of the report.
Former seminary student in the '50s (but he wrote 'spretato' - defrocked priest - in his somewhat informal CV). Self-styled occultist through the '70s, nailed a pair of times for breach of peace and obscenity as he led hip 'black masses' in the chestnut forests west of town. The usual 'Satan, Speed and Strumpets' affairs that the Turin upper class seemed to relish back then, and probably still did under another management. A stint in the Socialist party in the '80s, nominated for the City Council. A later charge for possession of cocaine.
Val was grinning.
"Every crackpot of the country sooner or later crawls in this town," she remarked, ignoring the fact that we were thirty miles away from home.
We entered the faux medieval gates of the village and looked for a parking in the square beyond. Then we negotiated the two blocks to the Town Hall and the annexed kindergarten, closed for vacations and currently hosting our man's personal.
A smiling woman in a yellow dress gave us brochures at the gate and wished us good day, going back to the cheap shop-girl romance she'd been reading.
Not exactly crowded, this place.
The Dalai Lama in oils and acrylics was smiling at us from the opposite wall, a little worst for use but still recognizable.
Val made a face. "I expected something wilder," she said.
"Our man found God early in the '90s."
Another grin. "Better than finding the cops at home and face knavery charges like his Socialist pals, eh?"
We passed in the first room.
We confronted a few Himalayan landscapes painted in a rather didactic hand. The guy was evidently no Roerich.
"He spent some time in Nepal," I informed her, taking my cue from the brochure. "Between '92 and '94."
More surreal fare came after that, a dozen or so canvases on rickety easels, landscapes and vistas getting increasingly twisted as the artist was improving his technique.
A pair of highly explicit flagellation numbers greeted us in the second room.
"Old habits die hard," Val commented.
The place was crowded with more of the same.
The caricature-like women, all flaring hips and thrusting bosoms encased in spiky leather and abusing each other with abandon in pairs and threesomes contrasted strikingly with the naif-stile paintings on the kindergarten walls, purple bunnies and smiling red apples teaching the kids the basics of spelling.
"This guy's got problems all right," she sentenced.
Val chuckled. "Not me. Not of this kind at least."
"But you have to admire the technique," I observed.
She wet her lips, chuckling. "Very funny," she said.
Then she stopped, stared and went back to the large canvas we had just passed.
"Look at this place," she said, pointing.
It was a darkly draped room, with two large windows overlooking moonlit hills in the distance. Between the two windows, something looking a lot like a dog-headed satyr was engaged in a stand-up routine of the non-stage variety with a piercing-riddled woman of Oriental beauty.
The baroque curls and leaves of the wall's ornamentation at her back were barely visible in the black-on-black background.
We exchanged a look.
We found two other paintings directly connected with the disruption site, one catching the mansion by the stream-side and its gardens in the light of two moons, and a dining room scene that made us cancel our plans for a dinner on the expense fund on our way back.
I put down a pair of tenners and the woman in yellow smilingly sold me a freshly-printed catalog.
The paintings were part of a ten pictures cycle, done in mixed media, inspired by dreams on a moonless night (it said it so right there) and executed earlier that year. Black and white shots of the other seven failed to do them justice; all were labelled as 'Privately Owned'. The three remaining paintings could be acquired by burning about one million each.
Cheap, all things considered.
The time-frame was uncertain, but we had clearly a case going.
Then we froze.
A huge canvas dominated the wall by the exit, the vista of a tall green marble tower and surrounding hanging gardens.
The moon hung enormous in the blue sky, a pale, almost transparent warty-faced orb on which it was almost possible to make out cities and roadways.
A single multicolored bird hung in the foreground, a thin purple tongue snaking out of the tubelike beak to steal nectar from a huge orchid-like flower.
There was something unusually lyrical in the painting, as if the crudeness of the hand had been bent and subjugated by the beauty of the subject, the painter forced to restrain his penchant for the vulgarly sensational by the power of his model.
Val sighed. "Oh, shit."
I did not recognize the place, but it was clearly something drawn from experience. Somewhere in Lomar, by the size of the moon.
Val was clearly more familiar with it.
"Olathoe," she whispered, lightly touching the sculpted frame. "The bastard hit Olathoe."
Val was silently crying as we went through the ashen ruins in the heart of Olathoe.
It was my first time in the city, but I had experienced the starry-eyed longing in the travelers' reports about the fabled northern town more than once.
Heartbreakingly beautiful, filling the spirit with nostalgia and one of those damp and limp feelings for which Germans probably have a long tongue-twister of a word.
Not my kind of thing, and a bit scary from my point of view.
There's spells enough waiting to prey on a man's mind in Slumberland without the ones you go and seek for yourself as an aesthetic experience.
But Val had been there once, before her service days,and now she was trampling the cinder-like ground, the jaw grimly set, and tears ran down her face.
The marble tower at ground zero was no more, replaced by a tall pole supporting a thin and long banner on which the words 'Green Tower of Olathoe' were printed.
The thinning shells of outlying edifices leaned to each other for support, lacking features beyond gaps for doors and rough holes for windows.
Boxes full of crumpled newspapers stood for potted plants and flower edges.
Dead animals, and grotesque mannequins littered the streets.
The place looked like bomb site.
It was as if bags of caustic lime had been dropped from the sky.
Our contact had led us here, whispered a benediction and departed silently. At the margins of the blasted area, the town was still standing, guards cordoning the streets off and casting cautious glances at their back, towards the devastation.
No clean-cut transition, there. The warping sort of faded away, through a hazy halo of nondescript buildings and featureless streets.
There was no proof the thing was spreading, but fear was still rampant, and trains of people leaving Olathoe behind passed by the hour through the city gates due east.
"About six blocks in every direction," I told her, trying to give her something to grasp, something to lift her from her silent grief.
"About as much as it was captured in the painting," she replied.
With a sigh, a nearby building folded, regressing to the state of a map sketched out in the ground by scattered piles of gray debris.
I looked up.
The 'Tower' banner was getting frayed at the edges.
I was painfully conscious of my silver buckles getting tarnished by the minute and Val's hair, unpleasantly opaque, slowly escaping her coif.
No time to linger.
"Any idea of how he does it?"
She shook her head.
From witnesses we now knew the hit was sudden, crippling the area and killing most of the inhabitants, and afterwards setting in as a steady degeneration whose effects we had seen already and were seeing again.
"He somehow unravels the pattern," she said, looking distract at her fingernails.
"Part of his creative processes?"
It was frustrating to know so little about the place in people's minds that generated all that was around us.
Or, we were learning, sometimes destroyed it.
"We might as well ask him, don't you think?"
The main guest was not at home when we arrived.
He lived in a lonely little house out in the woods, along the road to the sky resorts of the upper Susa Valley.
Two story thing, built in mock-Tirolean style, crouching half a mile away from modern civilization - this being a FINA gas station and a DESPAR supermarket on a small ledge overlooking the valley.
The back door gave at the first attempt.
No dogs, no alarms.
We passed through the kitchen and entered the wide room beyond the swinging saloon-style doors.
There were a lot of Tibetan masks hanging around the walls, dancing Kalis on pedestals and cross-legged Ganeshas littering the place.
Bronze incense burners were sitting on low tables, strategically placed as the lights were, for maximum effect and minimal practicality.
Quite a change of style for someone that supposedly had owned the Hand of Glory and led his very own high-income cult.
Bells tinkled in the breeze.
There was an unpleasant mix of incense, half-Tuscan cigars and something else. Something illegal.
I went through the library downstairs while Val took a tour of the artist's attic studio.
While I was browsing through countless nondescript books about a dozen contrasting versions of the Truth, she hit jackpot almost instantly.
We stood in the middle of the attic and looked around at the chaos of weird Buddhist paraphernalia intermingled with art materials in various state of discomfiture. There was more Tibetan exotica scattered through the room - scrolls hanging from the walls, more masks and musical instruments, framed photographs of places I did not recognize.
The weirdest bit was a statuette in a corner, sitting on a stool and watching us with eyes painted black.
"Ugly little fucker, eh?"
Hard to disagree.
It was a curiously snouted animal, sitting on its haunches and with the left forelimb lifted in a sort of greeting.
I was reminded of a twisted Maneki-neko with the head of a tapir and uncannily human hands. It was sculpted out of a strangely veined chunk of old dark wood and polished to a shine.
An incongruously large-beaded rosary hung from its neck.
Incense smoked in front of it.
"Looks like that creep Sadoqa," I observed.
"Well, sure it ain't Tibetan," said Val.
I got closer and studied it some more.
It had a pair of small, abortive wings on its back, and a curled little tail.
The incense smoke made me cough.
"Anything else?" I asked, walking away from the Tapir God.
We'd have to go deeper on that one.
"Lots of sketches, mainly female naked bodies in a variety of postures."
She pointed to an easel, carrying a large folder from which a few sheets were escaping. "Looks like the Young Man's Guide to Counter-Natural Copulation."
Right under the skylight was a huge circular cushion, red and gold and fluffy, the kind used for meditation, a small wood and mother-of-pearl octagonal coffee table beside it. She opened a drawer, picking up a plastic bag.
"Nepalese Temple Dope, full leaf." She shook her head. "This guy must think he's Keith fucking Richards."
I accepted her expertise on the subject. The floor was sticky with a number of layers of spilled paint as I walked around.
"And he does portraits too," she went on. She lifted a Fabriano F4 sheet with a competent sketch of someone I recognized from the telly.
"He's still close with former party fellows," she grinned.
"Maybe he took it off the tube," I offered.
"Sure, or maybe he's researching an equestrian portrait."
She dropped the sketch on a table and moved on.
She raised a hand and pointed at a large canvas covered with what looked like a dirty old blue brocade coverlet.
I lifted the thing and cursed.
It was only sketched out in carbon over a blue cloud of foundation brushwork, but it was unmistakable.
The Turquoise Temple to Nath-Horthath.
I whistled in awe.
Val nodded as a car's engine coughed in front of the building.
"Fucking Celephais Central."
The old occultist stood in the doorway and looked at us.
He wore a frayed sweater over a checkered lumberjack-style shirt and carried a brown paper bag from which a celery protruded like a runaway snippet of Malaisyan jungle.
I tried to imagine him thirty years back, leading some VIP-saturated satanic orgy, and failed. He was the kind that curses the referee watching a football match on TV while chewing a sandwich, or that spends his evenings dancing polka to the sound of accordion and clarinet is some dinghy ballroom.
Not exactly the Herald of Darkness he had strived to be.
His worn corduroy trousers were baggy at the knees.
I gave him a flash of my card as Val slammed the door at his back and met his turning gaze with a smirk.
Something wet was painting the corner of the bag a darker shade of brown.
"Be seated," I told him as Val took the bag off his hands and dropped it on a chair.
"Who are you?"
I got the impression of a very weak old man finding strangers in his house and little else.
No repressed power.
No focused guilt.
His lower dentures were loose in his mouth and made him hiss as he spoke.
Either he was a first class actor or time had passed him by.
I gave him again my rubber Carabinieri - Art Frauds Section patch.
"You have no right….," he protested, but he looked very much like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an incoming truck.
"We have duties," Val broke in, insouciantly, stepping closer.
He retreated, as if she were some kind of dangerous reptile.
Her lips curled in a cruel smile. "Aren't you a little shy for someone peddling porn as art?"
He looked at me sheepishly.
The roles having been established, interrogation could now begin.
But he knew nothing.
It took us about two hours to fully debrief and test him.
He did not register on the Myers-Bloch scale, a weaker dreamer than the average Joe. No dream chromatism, no deja-vu or flashbacks, no control over the experience.
No hypnagogic state capability.
An amateur would do better.
We looked at each other as the implications hit us.
He was a poseur.
An ignorant git.
A man steeped in a very personal vision of the universe, in which having failed to achieve what he desired by serving Evil, he was now striving to conform to an image of Good that gave me the creeps.
After about one hour Val stood up with a grunted curse and went out on the balcony for a smoke, looking at the earlier lights in the shadowed valley down below.
I kept talking with the old man.
It's never good to feel compassion for a subject, but here it was hard not to.
He was serving his Buddha with the same blind, pig-headed lack of comprehension he had put in the service of his darker masters of old.
Rituals performed in order to pay a price and receive a desired award.
Two hours of meditation each morning, sitting cross-legged up in the attic.
A strict vegetarian diet.
I looked at the celery on the nearby chair, the wet brown paper bag slumped un one side.
Each day he sang the mantras that his Nepalese friends had taught him and every Sunday he drew a mandala out on the balcony, only to wipe it out at sunset.
Poor old fool.
We moved on to other matters.
The weird wooden idol upstairs was a lucky charm, he said, brought back from Nepal in '94.
He failed to recognize Sadoqua, Tsathoggua, Sadogui or any other of the dozen-or-so names by which the Great Old One was known to Wake- and Dreamworlders.
He was mechanically following a skewed set of instructions.
And yet, he was getting results.
His painting style was getting better, more realistic even when he concentrated on the most outlandish subjects. He painted as someone possessed, he said, high on his Nepalese stuff and wielding his brushes like the claws of predator.
Maybe it was there, the connection.
Partial phase-out, like a stationary walkabout.
But he did not perceive it like that, and he had no control over it.
Places would flash in his mind and he'd put them on canvases.
He was adamant.
His Buddha was paying him back.
He talked like someone in a fever, eyes lost somewhere over my head.
I looked at Val out on the balcony and she looked back, and we both were asking ourselves the same question.
The gun in my raincoat pocket weighted a ton.
We nailed him for possession.
He went upstairs slowly, his back curved, to put some clothes and stuff in a bag before we brought him to the local Command.
"He's an habitual user with a long track record," she explained to me as he went. "We'll get full rehab for him, in a community center."
We heard drawers being slowly open, the man moving, dragging his feet.
"Chances are," she added, "in a controlled environment and without his dope and mantras he'll be unable to phase out again."
There were holes in the whole story, but as a short term solution it was better to cripple his belated artistic career than to retire him. Let him live his last years in peace, while we followed up his involvement.
Val punched a number on her cell phone to summon a cleanup team.
Get everything packed and labelled.
We heard bed springs groan as he sat down.
Our choice would also please the paper-pushers no end, as it would provide them with a new test subject now the Yanks had walked out on their deals.
I nodded again.
A loud bang ringed out.
The cats gratified us with their dignified indifference.
Nothing beyond repair yet.
We followed the naked man's track from the Flowers Plaza, where he had dropped and killed a man by grasping him, away along the winding streets of Ulthar.
The body had been covered and left for us to examine, two militia men charged with the unpleasant duty of keeping watch over it, but there was little to find in the crumbling sand-like sculpture under the white sheet.
The bailif pointed us in the direction in which the naked man had gone. It was an easy track to spot, staggering its way out of town.
Where his feet had touched the flagstones, the massive greenschist had somewhat lost color, assuming a spongy, pulverulent consistence.
The imprint of a hand had unnaturally smoothed the naturally curved veneer of a wooden door.
Knoc knock, nobody home.
For him, not.
Further on he had leaned to a wall, deleting the fine network of cracks in the stones.
He had tried to drink from a fountain, leaving consumption marks on the stone where he had supported himself, burning his mouth and fouling the water. Stumbling on a fruit stall, he had robbed the apples of their color, turning them into crumpled papier-maché globs smeared in crayons.
Glass still flowed like thick honey in the window frame he had watched through, looking inside, calling for assistance.
Around us, as around him, the Ultharians were tight-lipped and reserved as usual. They had witnessed the portent, not the first in their land, and likely not the least, and had kept their distance, more uncompromisingly extraneous than a pitchforks-and-torches, Hammer-style crowd.
There would be time for cordiality and welcomes next time, for us.
Now something had perturbed the city's routine, and had to be taken care of.
Once out of the city gates, past the warped planks of the drawbridge, we simply followed the track of dead weeds and papery flowers.
The cats watched us go, and their amber-eyed indifference walked with us towards the woods.
We finally found him two miles up the Skai valley, in a small clearing on the left river bank, where the river makes a turn and willows and birches leave the place to older, sterner trees. He was heaped in the center of a small clearing, a gray circle of death spreading around him, dusty gray wisps carried by the breeze.
On a large flat rock a stone-throw away, half a dozen bearded mink-like creatures surveyed the scene with their obsidian bead-like eyes.
She hates Zoogs.
"You look him up," she said as we got nearer. "I'll take care of the psi-rats."
She walked on, the Zoogs jostling around on their stone stool, tentaclets waving.
I stopped at the margin of the burned out zone.
A bird of some kind had flown over it, precipitating in a heap of feathers, strings and corks, a broken simulacrum on the concrete-like ground, now regressing to a cardboard-cutout consistence.
My shadow fell over him and he turned his head, gray matted hair dropping over his eyes.
He was naked, mad and filthy.
Thick perlaceous mucus dripped from his mouth and nose, a physical reaction to panic.
He coughed, scattering some of the stuff around.
He looked at me with rheumy eyes and I still wondered if he recognized me as the intruder in his house or if what was left of his mind, too busy trying to find somewhere to run, just registered me as an unknown human in black and silver.
"What….?" he croaked.
I was suddenly conscious of the silence growing around us.
Not even the river made any sound as it flew downhill.
Slumberland was waiting.
At the margin of the clearing, Val was keeping up her staring contest with the Zoog elder.
"What hell is this?" he finally rattled.
I looked around at the emerald and citrine forest, the deep velvety shadow and the slow course of deep blue Skai.
A clear sky stretching over us in the early afternoon hours.
But it all ended at the sharp limit of the burnout area, a span away from the tip of my shoes.
He tried to pick himself up, crouching on his hands and knees.
He coughed again, more foul matter dripping forth, forming a slimy pool between his hands. His nails where broken, fingers scarred raw by his attempts at digging in the dead earth, looking from an escape route somewhere.
"What pain….?" he went on.
He rolled again in fetal position, a low hum escaping his dry lips that finally erupted in hysterical crying.
It would not take long, now. The field was waning, the umbilical soon to be severed forever.
"What…. did I do," he tried, shaking,"to deserve…. this?"
I would have liked to tell him.
Look, I would have liked to say, you have put a stupid Spanish gun to your temple and pulled the trigger. You know the thing, cheap and silver-plated, you were keeping it in your nightstand drawer, under a Pitigrilli novel, together with your thermometer and a box of Aspirine. Confort made to measure for each kind of distress.
But being an old creep, I'd add, you failed to kill yourself. The weak 7.65 bullet is now firmly lodged in your brainbox and your carcass is stashed away in an emergency ward, the docs trying to keep your body going, puzzling at the weird patterns of your alpha waves.
But there is no refuge here for the likes of you. No freedom.
So it's sort of a due to be paid, you see. I'll have to pull the plug on you here, so that the scan gets flat and the boys in white can get hold of someone with legal authority and turn the machines off.
I would have preferred to be able, and tell him.
A man deserves to know why he is being killed.
But his mind was choked with concepts like sin and retribution, cracking under the weight of misplaced guilt and the pressure of environmental rejection, and he would have failed to appreciate the facts as he was failing to appreciate the scenery.
I still wondered at his unseen masters, the people setting him up.
As a weapon?
We'd be kept wondering.
Val was coming back, the Zoogs gone.
The burned out area was slowly creeping under the tips of my shoes, spreading steadily.
So I stepped in the circle and cut his throat.
(C) Davide Mana