From the Archives: Sign of the Usurper

From 1998, here’s one of my early attempts at an H.P. Lovecraft-style story.

I failed.

Not only did I fail, but I failed so badly that I KNEW I was failing while I was still in the process of failure. ;-)
So I said “to hell with it” and quit.

Still, there are some interesting concepts in here. This was going to be a part of my “mythos” which was to rival Lovecrafts’s Cthulhu stuff. This “mythos” ties in heavily with October Falls (Shhh!, The Inquisitors, and Heavy) although you can’t really see a connection at this point. If I had continued along with my grand design, you would have seen the Dark Books turn up in October Falls and in several other seemingly non-related tales. Heh… one of them you actually HAVE seen. Sort of. Because, as you know, pretty much EVERYTHING I write is related in some way.



Sign of the Usurper

My purpose in writing this is two-fold. First, it is an attempt to explain, no, to justify my actions since my return. Strange though my recent actions may be, they are quite firmly rooted in the terrible truth that I have come to know as reality. For many weeks prior to my… containment… in this place, I refused to enter any church or other place of worship. But over time, I came to the conclusion that my foolish boycott was not enough. The truth is known to me and, quite possible, to me alone. I could not, and still can not, abide the presence of the vile thing that is… But I’m getting ahead of myself. The truth, or at least as much of it as I dare reveal here, shall be given in good time.

As I said, my presence is two-fold. My second intention is to implore any man, rational or insane, NOT to perform the rituals in the Dark Book. Do NOT foolishly seek out the knowledge that I sought. For the sake of your own sanity, and that of the entire world.

I have mentioned the Dark Book. The vile tome came into my possession by accident through mechanisms that I know nothing of. The loosely wrapped package was found on my doorstep by my wife, Hedda. It was addressed to the previous owner of our simple home… a strange man who left no forwarding address or any other means of reaching him. It is a matter of record that his belongings… which included many queer things that I will not mention here…had to be removed at our own expense. The house itself was purchase from the bank, which had foreclosed on the property after the owner’s considerable absence. As you have guessed, I am not going to reveal the name of this man. Simple caution and some strange, irrational fear prevent me from doing so.

The package was bulky and somewhat flat, and it was wrapped in stained brown paper that bore no return address. Being an avid reader, I quickly surmised that it was some kind of book, but the contents shifted in odd ways, as if the book had broken its binding. I shelved the package, unopened, for further study. I thought of it no more until my wife’s mother took sick and I was left alone while she took care of her. On my second day alone, I rediscovered the package during a casual search of the bookcase. (At this time I might mention that, though I cannot remember where I had stored the package previously, I do know that it was NOT in the bookcase. Perhaps my wife relocated it without telling me…)

I examined the package once more, even going so far as to sniff the wrapping. The moldy, acrid smell tickled my nose in the most bizarre fashion. Without the slightest thought of hesitation, I attacked the wrapping, ripping at it until the vile book was at last revealed.

I say it was a book, but in truth it was, (or ‘is’, since I am sure that it still exists in the musty void where I left it), a collection of ancient papers (parchment perhaps?) collected under the title of “The Dark Book.” Judging from the copious margin-notes of the collector(s), I was now in the possession of a portion of one of the grandest, and most closely guarded grimoires in history. The notes went on to say that the original texts were penned eons ago by authors unknown, and had, down through the ages, been suppressed, decried, discredited, hidden, and all other manner of indignity that man heaps onto works whose existence he cannot bear. The entirety consisted of five chapters or parts, each written by different authors. However, that portion that was delivered to me made up only one and one-half sections. Examination of the notes (which go on to say that a sixth section is believed to exist), revealed that the entire grimoire had not been held by one man since the original was destroyed(?) in ancient Egypt. Since then, many men have sought the book’s secret. It is my opinion that the strange man who inhabited my house must be in possession of at least some of the remaining text. Perhaps all of it. If that is true, then this man would be the most dangerous man on the planet… But I digress…

As I flipped through the pages I was struck but the maddening detail with which places and events were described. Even though the translation was extremely poor in places, it was obvious that these were not the insane ramblings of a lunatic. The section of the book that was whole was inscribed with the title: “The Book of Dark Places.” Its pages described in vivid detail an entire miasma of places both foul and sublime. The author spoke of his travels at first in body and then in spirit, apparently returning every few years to record his findings. I shall not describe the least of these places, save for the one that is necessary to my tail, for fear or arousing too much curiosity in the reader. It is sufficient to say that there is more…indeed, MUCH more… to existence that what meets our feeble eyes. There are entire universes unseen by man. Most remain unseen save for the lone author of the Book of Dark Places. As I read, I was struck with wonder that such places might possibly exist, even in HALF the splendor with which they were described. I had to know for myself if the words of the Dark Book were true.

The portion of the book that was incomplete was entitled: “The Book of Dark Signs.” At first glimpse, I figured it to be a book of prophecy, but I was incorrect. The Book of Dark Signs was a book of power, listing all kinds of arcane symbols through with a man might affect reality and protect himself as he traveled across this world and many others. The signs were intricate to say the least. Most could be drawn in ink or blood, but some required special metals or wood grown under unique conditions. Each drawing was accompanied by instructions and dire warnings concerning it’s proper (and improper) use. As I flipped through the fragmented book, several symbols caught my attention. One was the Sign of the Dark Traveler… a twisted variation of a pentagram that was supposed to open door through which a man could travel physically to other worlds. Another was the Sign of the Song, which supposedly expanded the human mind so that understood the ‘language of the ancients.’ The text explicitly avoided discussing exactly who the ‘ancients’ were. (I was to find out later that this omission was intentional.) The Sign of the Nomad was supposed to shield the wearer from the hazards of travel. Another symbol of protection was the Sign of the Hidden. Margin notes lauded this symbol as a nigh all-powerful form of protection, but unfortunately the manuscript was torn right through the center of the illustration. All I was able to see was the top half of the symbol, which was quite useless to me by itself.

As I revisited the worn pages for a second, third, and fourth time, the notion seized my mind that I must put newfound knowledge to the test. I could neither eat or sleep; my very soul was consumed with what I had discovered. For two days I tormented myself… my logical mind urging me towards reason, telling me that I had discovered nothing more than a madman’s ravings. But my heart yearned to know more. I returned to the Dark Book again and again, adding my own sweaty fingerprints to the centuries-old stains. The secrets… oh, the secrets! I suppose now that it was just a foregone conclusion that I was going to test the Book’s dark secrets for myself.

So on the third night after the vile book was delivered to me, I set up a small altar in the basement of the house. The ‘altar’ was nothing more than a card table on which was placed a backpack, knife, flashlight, notepads and pencils, and my copy of the Dark Book fragments.

The Book of Dark Places described a hundred destinations to which I could travel. I had no idea where to begin, so I chose my destination in the most logical method possible. (Logic… I laugh at the term now…). Some of the translations were incomplete, or were thick with words that I knew nothing of (perhaps they were explained in other portions of the Book). Not wanting to step completely into the unknown, I scratched these possibilities off of my list immediately. Next were the places whose descriptions hinted of dire warnings and consequences of treading there. These places were apparently safe to visit only in spirit form, and unfortunately I lacked the proper Sign to achieve that particular mode of travel. These places were scratched off of my list. I scanned the remaining entries, and my eye fell upon a place that for which the various note-takers and translators disagreed. Some named the place “The Sacred Land.” Others called it “Waste-land,” or the “Valley of Dust.” The description was short, but it spoke of a place filled with dark secrets and things forbidden to know. Apparently, all who sought power through the Dark Book eventually visited this “Valley of Dust” to learn what secrets it had to give. Thought I had no pretentions of great and dark magery, I knew that this was the place I would visit.

With great pains to assure accuracy, I drew The Sign of the Dark Traveler upon the floor. I shall not endeavor to describe the design here, nor shall I repeat what vile ‘ink’ in which the sign must be ‘drawn.’ It is enough to say that, by now, I was hopelessly insane with a yearning that would justify any lengths… any methods necessary to achieve satisfaction.

With the Sign complete, I cleaned the filth from my hands, dimmed the lights and then began the sacred chants.

The next minutes and hours became a blur as I chanted the strange, guttural words over and over. Repetition was the key to opening the portal; words and phrases had to be intoned again and again, over and over. The doctors tell me that what followed was a hallucination, that my chants placed me in a hypnotic state in which my mind amused itself with impossible flights of fancy. If only that were the truth.

With the chants completed, I stood expectantly outside the Sign (contrary to popular belief, the traveler must perform the ceremony while standing OUTSIDE the sacred Sign, not inside). My brow and clothing were soaked with sweat. My heart thumped in my chest. I felt, and most likely looked, as if I had just ran a marathon. At first I was convinced that nothing had happened, that I had somehow misread the chants or that, worse still, I was a gullible fool who had worked himself into a frenzy over the vague ramblings in a old book.

But then I felt the slight breeze against my skin and heard the whistling of air. I looked, and saw that my endevours had indeed been a success. Floating in the air at about eye level in the center of the infernal sign was what I can only describe as a ‘hole.’ The opening was perfectly circular, and was about the size of a quarter. As I watched in awe, it slowly began to widen and increase its diameter until it reached from the floor to the basement ceiling. Beyond it, I could see a gloomy, grey landscape that was illuminated by some unseen sun. In the not-to-far distance were the jagged ruins of an ancient city.

Without hesitation, I gathered my belongings, including the fragments of the dreaded Dark Book, and tossed them into my backpack. I then slung the pack over shoulder and stepped through the portal and into another world.

The air was so dry that it was nearly unbreathable. I felt the moisture leave my skin and the delicate tissues of my throat. I gasped for breath after breath, but the dessicated air of the Wasteland was like sand to my human lungs. My mind raced… the portal stood gaping behind me, but I had not performed the profane ritual just to be driven back by the very air itself. I unslung my pack and pulled out my copy of the Book of Dark Signs. I flipped through the pages of strange designs and antiquated script, looking for the salvation that would allow me to continue my quest. I found it…

The Sign of the Nomad… simple, yet profanely powerful. With my knife, I scratched the sign into the flesh of my hand. The wound was not deep, but the blood flowed freely as was required for the proper activation of the Sign.

The air changed instantly. At least it seemed as though the air had changed. Perhaps my amazement at the wondrous Sign’s effects should have been lessened by my previous success in opening the portal, but indeed I stood amazed. I breathed deep lungs-full of the previously poisonous air, only now it nourished me instead of bringing me one step closer to the abyss of death.

I re-packed my bag and returned it to its place on my shoulder. Then I started off toward the broken city that loomed into the horizon.

The Book of Dark Places called this realm the Holy Land, (among other names), and as I stood on the brink of its only city, I understood the reasoning behind its sacred appellation. The architecture, though broken and razed by centuries of neglect, was like something out of the ancient histories of man. Images of the holy cities sprang to mind as I saw the high, arched doorways framed by powerful obelisks and columns. Each stone building stood like a grand temple unto its on long-forgotten god. The sizes and geometries were of the most unique designs that I had ever seen or heard described. Huge rhomboids and trapezoidal towers stretched toward the gray sky like hypnotic skyscrapers. Some of them were broken off about midway, but my eyes strained to see the top of the structures that were still whole, and in some cases failed entirely to catch sight of the taller peaks. Nestled between these were dozens, and some cases hundreds of smaller structures that were so diminutive that I dare say that they seemed the like the play-houses of small children. And scattered amongst those were more buildings of a more familiar size, although the curious star-shaped designs and oddly sloping roofs were constructed to lengths and angles that defied rhyme or reason. These three types of structures seemed so different from each other that I could not help but conclude that they were build by entirely different cultures, and perhaps different species! Three cultures, each built among the ruins of the one before. But which came first? Each culture’s remains seemed equally aged. And through them all ran the Grand Road… a single, flat and utterly desolate path that pierced the grotesque city through its very heart. The bizarre buildings rose up on either side if it, but the path itself bore not one single stone or pebble. Smaller thoroughfares branched off of it, but these tributaries quickly vanished in the jumble of buildings that surrounded me.

This was the road upon which I stood. And, though the curiousness of the buildings urged me to investigate, there was some secret, inaudible call that beckoned me down this one path. I stared down it’s length until it disappeared from sight, and I knew that I would not leave it until I saw what was at this road’s end.

And so I walked. I carried myself through the strange city like a pious monk on holy pilgrimage. I became aware of a gigantic tower that lay directly ahead of me. Its size dwarfed even the largest of the skyscrapers that I had seen so far, in fact it seemed as wide as the others were tall. Was this what lay at the end of the road? What was its purpose? Only time would tell. As I continued deeper into the city, the structures I passed became more and more odd. The three basic types still remained, however their relative numbers changed radically. The tiny buildings slowly petered out, and eventually vanished altogether, while the odd, star-shaped huts became more and more numerous. The towering geometrical obelisks remained about the same in number, although I noticed that fewer and fewer of them were broken the further I progressed. Eventually, these towers began to squeeze out the smaller buildings. They grew closer and closer together, until I finally found myself standing between two, nearly- solid stone walls that ran for as far as I could see. This distance was but a fraction of what it had been earlier, because now the light from the grey sky was blocked almost entirely by the unseen tops of the skyscrapers.

Undaunted, I continued. I removed my sack once more and produced my flashlight. Its beam was clearly visible, reflected as it was off of the volumes of dry dust that my lone footsteps kicked up from the silent road. The electric light seemed almost a sacrilege against the ancient city. I wondered what types of light the inhabitants used… or did they even have eyes at all?

At long last I came to the end of my journey. The road took a sharp downward turn, and I found myself walking down a steep incline. It was then that I found that the huge building that loomed ahead of me was indeed the end of the sacred road. The nearest corners of the obelisk were lost to me; they were too far away to be seen. The road led directly up to the gaping arched doorway that itself could swallow some of the other large buildings I had seen. In truth, it seemed as if the entire city could itself be contained within this one holy structure. As I entered, the top of the arch disappeared from view. I was surprised to see that I did not need my flashlight any longer, as the wall seemed to glow with a strange luminescence. I switched off my light, and was instantly wrapped in Stygian darkness. What had gone wrong? I re-lit the light, and then extinguished it again. It seemed that the glow I had mistaken for luminescence was but a bizarre reflection of the light I had brought with me. The stone walls caught and magnified the feeble beam until it seemed as if the entire structure was aglow. I nodded and cursed myself for not bringing any extra batteries. I had no idea how long I had been in the city, or how long it had been since I was forced to use the flashlight. Would its power fade at the last moment?

I did not care. I had reached the sacred temple, and now I would know its secrets. I walked for what seemed like hours just to reach one of the walls, and for the first time, I ran my fingers across the surface of the stone out if which the entire city seemed to be constructed. I was surprised to find that it was not as smooth and seamless as it had first appeared. A closer inspection yielded a complex menagerie of symbols, line drawings and pictographs carved into the stone. Like the buildings of the city, these writing ranged in size from the smallest, barely visible scribblings to huge carvings, a single character of which reached to more than twice my height. They existed simultaneously, one type of carving was done on top of the other, sometimes completely obliterating what had been carved before. I held the flashlight upwards and at arms length, and saw that the ancient script continued up the wall for as far as my eyes could see. I stood in awe, not knowing what to think. How could an ancient people scale these huge heights to leave their mark? And what did it all mean?

I selected a singular block of stone that was crammed with script, and sat about trying to make sense of it all. The drawings were crude, and showed a variety of figures engaged in activities that I assumed were associated with the worship of whatever gods inhabited this temple. The figures themselves were quite striking. First were what looked like animate, round-bottomed trees which possessed long tentacles that sprouted from their trunks at irregular intervals. Next were small star-shaped creatures with a single, reptilian eye bulging from their centers. Finally were the bipeds that I mistook at first for humans, but the odd proportion of their limbs and queer elongation of their heads revealed them to be something else entirely. I assumed these to be the builders of the three distinct types of structures in the city. Each of these races had, at one time, walked the very same path that I had just travelled. Their hands, or other manipulators, carved the drawings that were now being illuminated by my light.

And yet I could tell almost nothing about them. The writings of the different races were so jumbled together that I couldn’t make any sense at all of them. Even the clear illustrations were so… abstract… that I could only derive the most rudimentary meanings from them. I took my flashlight and explored

[end of file]

Like I said: Epic Failure.


2 Comments

  1. nate, September 17, 2007:

    I disagree. I don’t find this a failure, but an interesting introduction that I fervently wish had been finished. It does closely resemble some of HPL’s stories, but was much easier to read and follow.

  2. DarkIcon, September 17, 2007:

    Thanks.

    I remember writing this story took a lot of effort. I had to force my wording to sound “lofty” and “Lovecraft-ish”… which is not my normal style at all. I have the same memory of writing the flashback sequence in Inquisitors, which was supposedly done in the same style as this fragment. I guess its akin to having a lengthy conversation while using a fake accent. It can be done… but only with effort.

    And everybody knows I’m a lazy bastard.

    The “mythos” is alive and well, and what I was trying to do with this story will get done in other tales, hopefully.

    There’s no guarantee that I won’t finish any of the abandoned projects I’m posting here… but if they haven’t been worked on in years, the probability is pretty low.

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