The Eldritch Planet A round robin story

Divers Hands

This work was in the beginning very loosely based upon the adventures of the Alcyone and her crew. The Clark Ashton Smith stories that deal with the Alcyone are, Marooned in Andromeda, A Captivity in Serpens / The Amazing Planet and The Ocean-World.
Completed on: Friday, 12 December 1997.

Chapter 1. (Boyd Pearson)

Captain Volmar's cold steely eyes peered uneasily at the radar-scope as small white specks darted in and out of focus on its periphery. The space-flyer Alcyone had left earth over three decades ago to, 'boldly go were no man had gone before', or some such marketing hype that the captain had done his best to avoid at the time. Volmar however, had his own agenda, but that was not important now. What was important was the meteor swarm approaching at near light speed.

Volmar slammed the 'red alert' button with such force that if the siren had not risen the crew of six the vibrations would have. First on deck was Idanvey, a slim black haired woman, whose powerful muscular body and prodigious skill with a plasma rifle had saved the crew from several otherwise fatal terrestrial encounters. Following her in a somewhat somnambulistic fashion were her five crew mates.

As the meteors started to thump in to the ship's defence shield the crew settled in to their gray titanium seats. There was no need for orders, the seven highly trained individuals new exactly what to do, and they did it with the precision and accuracy that their lives depended on.

The whole ship shuddered as it was hit by two meteors in quick succession, crumpling the rear half of the space-flyer as if it were tin foil. Every alarm and warning light on the flight deck wailed and flashed as those crew members not properly strapped in slammed screaming against the bulk heads. As the ship began to spiral uncontrollably towards a planet whose very existence was either their doom or saviour - the watcher grinned with inhuman mirth.

Chapter 2. (Ron Shiflet)

Shandor-Khall waved his thick, obscenely fat, fingers before the "sphere of seeing," causing the image of the plummeting craft to dissipate into a white, milky haze. He turned to the small, dwarf-like creature that had been peering over his shoulder and in a seductively soft voice, issued a brief instruction. "Awaken your brothers and inform them that we will be having guests."

The dark and misshapen creature scurried from his tall, master's chambers and began to descend a twisting, onyx stairway to do as Shandor-Khall instructed. He clasped his strangely elongated fingers in glee, anticipating a continuance of the dark rituals that had all too soon been terminated on the planet Yutran, from which his dark lord had been forcibly banished. His strangely formed brethren would be ecstatic at the thought of once more engaging in the deliciously perverse rites which had once filled their days and nights.

In the topmost floor of his dark citadel the possessor of strange power shuddered in delight at the prospect of instituting the worship of his lord, Chor-Tal, on this wild, seemingly primitive world to which he had sorcerously teleported when events had spun out of control on his native planet. The politics of Yutran had resulted in a horrific inquisition against the followers of "The Laughing God" making Shandor-Khall's hurried flight a necessity of the highest order. So hurried was his departure that his destination was more a matter of chance rather than deliberation. Still, this world seemed an ideal place from which to establish his supremacy in preparation for his eventual, triumphant and bloody return to Yutran. His success would indeed be assured if Chor-Tal was kept satisfied and amused.

Shandor-Khall gazed at the reflection of his pale, doughy face in the crystal sphere and contentedly sighed. The poor, unsuspecting travelers, even now crashing into the nearby marsh, would surely provide great amusement. The unfolding of this day would indeed be interesting.

Chapter 3. (Jonathan Burns)

In two moments the Alycone was no longer a controlled instrument of exploration but a gyrating pandemonium of screaming wind and clashing metal, as every loose object on the deck fell or rolled toward a lowest point which veered from one direction to its opposite.

Abruptly the shriek of air escaping to vacuum ended with a reverberating crash, twice echoed as bulkheads closed and sealed the spaceship into airtight sections. Back in the blasted holds lay stores of food and workshops, a hundred necessities of space travel, taken for granted until they were gone. Worst of all, perhaps, the miniature garden with its cosseted orchids and bonsai shrubs, its trellises of Martian lichen, and the tiny pond: all the private corners blessed by moments of respite from the endless monotony of interstellar flight, obliterated in a moment.

Paragravity righted itself momentarily. Mahmoud Ali Fakhoum, the crew's head eco-biologist, scrambled for his seat. From ahead, as he locked the acceleration harness about him, he heard...

"... off-axis thrust, we're precessing."

"I hear you, Captain ... bringing Engine Three beneath us ... terminal airspeed and can correct ... Attitude stable, Cap'n."

"... looks be a river delta. Ground speed four hundred, over it on count thirty..."

"Bringing the nose up on count five. Brace for it ... three ... two ... one and Go!"

"Gods of the Infinite..."

"... two eighty ... "

"... flat swamp, is our only chance. Keep horizontal, Pilot."

"... two forty ... two hundred ..."

"Spacemen, prepare for impact!"

The harness crushed Ali's chest like a demon hand, as there came a clap of thunder from ahead, and from aft the awful groan of ton upon ton of metal tearing. Planetary gravity asserted itself with a jolt, and there was stillness.

"As God wills, so let it be", Ali breathed.

Chapter 4. (Laurence J. Cornford)

With that titan impact thunder ripped the air over the surface of the delta, heralding a great growling, churning wave which broke against the rushes and weeds, and lapped at the edges of the delta many kilometers away. Then a clammy, revenant of cloudy steam rose up and spread out masking the impact point from any gaze. The waves sloshed and plopped into calm and the mist dissipated into the gentle rattle of unnatural rain.

Then, like a held breath before it is released, a pressured silence descended, cloying and deadening shocked ears. Then the planet's breath released and sound returned with the sigh of the ether-ship rising up through the marshes to float on the surface of the water, rendered lighter than water with the aid of the Paragravity Generator.

For the crew a moment longer was needed for their assaulted senses to recover. The Captain's voice boomed through the flight deck, demanding status reports. With the speed of the well drilled crew an assessment was quickly made. The ship was badly damaged, and the chance of aid from this unknown world was unlikely. Volmar chose to divide the crew into a repair party and an exploration party. Without the ship they were trapped, but they could not leave the planet for some time and survival demanded that they expore for food and aid.

Jasper the Mate, Deming and the Engineer would remain with Volmar to repair the vessel, whilst Roverton was put in charge of the landing team consisting of Fakhoum and Idanvey.

Opening the metallic hatch Roverton looked out over a dour sea of dirty ochre water. He lowered a dirigible boat into the water and inflated it with a gas cylinder. Gradually the boat was loaded with packs of equipment and supplies. Then they pushed away from the Alcyone and watched it recede into the remnants of the mist which hung over the water.

As they found themselves alone on the surface of the marsh strange deep orange plant structures rose up around them. Some form of flying thing passed rapidly overhead and dropped into the water, but it not seem to come up again, as if it shared the water as easily as the sky.

The team pressed on.

Ahead a tangle of great bushy growths or trees rose from the marsh, brilliants in golden hues deepening with age to blood red, their upper branches shimmering with tiny bronze leaves and their knotted lemon yellow roots sucking at the murky water. From this direction curious animal cries could be heard. Roverton turned the boat towards them and soon finding himself channeled into thin passages of water among the bows and overhanging branches. Then a bank of dry black earth appeared ahead, so Roverton pulled the boat up to the land and disembarked. With firm rich earth about their roots, the trees where straighter and the foliage more lush and abundent.

"Unload the boat," commanded Roverton, looking down at his compass

"Wait," whispered Idanvey, clutching her plasma rifle at the ready and staring intently at the shadowed undergrowth.

Roverton looked cautiously about and strained to listen. It took a moment to pick out — something was pushing through the plants towards them.

Chapter 5. (Edward P. Berglund)

"All right, people. The initial damage assessment has been made. You know which areas of the ship are the most important for getting us off this planet. I want a reassessment, with an time estimate for repairs for each section."

The other three crew members scurried off into the bowels of the ship, as Volmar eased himself into his captain's chair. He flicked on the computer monitor and brought up the navigational program. Judging by the star charts, they were extremely lucky. This was a very unusual system, in that there was only one planet. When the interstellar matter finally coalesced into the star at the system's center, the matter left over was only enough to form one planet. And judging from the gravity, it was just a little larger than Earth. If they had been hit by the meteors in any other part of this system, they would have been finished.

"Call it extreme luck," Volmar mused to himself as the other two crew members came back and reported.

"Most of the damage to the interior of the ship can be repaired once were in space again," Jasper reported.

"Those section which were sealed off prior to our entering the planet's atmosphere, were the result of adjacent rupturings from where the meteor's struck us. They'll have to be fixed before we can get back into space."

"Thank you, Deming," Volmar said. "Engineer?"

"Shouldn't be too much of a problem, Cap'n," he replied. "We need to fabricate some new pieces for replacement. While I was back in engineering, I ran a mineral scan and there are some deposits fairly close to the surface. Overall, everything should be able to be done in our workshops. But it won't be like on Harma IV where we had access to the technology of the inhabitants."

"And we'll have to see if we can find something on this planet to replace some of our food stores," Jasper added as an afterthought.

"Let's get to it, then," Volmar said. "Hopefully, Roverton's party will find the items for the stores replenishment."

* * *

Whatever was in the undergrowth was pushing through it cautiously. Roverton laid a hand on Idanvey's shoulder, letting her know that she shouldn't be trigger happy. Fakhoum hung back from the other two. There was no sense in getting the Idanvey's line of fire — or the line of fire from the underbrush, if ... whatever it was ... should happen to be armed.

What emerged from the undergrowth appeared to be a straggly young man with long blond hair. His clothes were in tatters and it was obvious that he hadn't shaved or washed in a while. And he was unarmed.

Roverton put his hand on the barrel of the plasma rifle and pushed it down toward the ground, saying, "I don't think this will be needed."

The man's eyes widened in surprise. He started to speak, but his voice cracked, as if he hand't used it in some time. He finally managed to get out, "You speak English?"

The three crew members of the Alcyone visibly relaxed. Roverton could hear the breath being let out of Fakhoum's lung, which he had been holding.

"Who are you?" Roverton asked as the man came within three feet of them and stopped.

"My name's Alsace ... Gordon Alsace. My ship got hit with a meteor and I crashlanded here."

"Are there any inhabitants?" Idanvey interjected.

"Not natural inhabitants, but there is a structure that looks like a medieval castle about three kilometers to the east of here. As far as I can tell it is inhabited by some dwarfish creatures."

"What do you mean 'not natural inhabitants'?" Roverton asked.

"The structure wasn't here when I crashed. It just seemed to have appeared about a year ago."

"How long have you been here?" Fakhoum asked.

"I've been here about five years now — well, five years as far as the orbit of this planet is concerned."

"You better come back to our ship, Alsace. I think our Captain will want to talk to you."

Chapter 6. (Boyd Pearson)

Volmar's uneasy contemplation of the ships plight was interrupted by a soft tapping on the outer hull. As he hurriedly searched for a weapon a gruff inhuman voice called out. "My master wishes to offer thee his assistance." Volmar grabbed a spanner from the tool kit and slowly peered around the half opened hatch.

Sitting on the expanse of dirty ochre water were four rafts. The rafts were made from a patch work of smooth octagonal plates joined at the edges by a flexible translucent membrane which allowed the surface to adjust to the occupants' movements. Each raft was octagonal in shape with an exposed surface three meters in diameter that curved gently from the waters edge to the domed centre. Volmar thought that he could see movement in the water under the rafts but in that swirling mire he could not be sure.

Upon each raft stood a being unlike anything that Volmar had ever encountered before. They where humanoid in only the loosest sense of the world. Their over all height must have been less than a meter but it was the proportions that Volmar found most sickening. Their legs where thick stumps less than a fifth of their over all body length, while their arms reached all the way to the ground. On top, where Volmar presumed the head to be, sat a sickly green-brown blob which seemed to writhe and bubble of its own volition. Volmar had to swallow hard to stop himself from gagging at their hideous visage. An animal skin covered most of the body, for which Volmar was thankful.

"Please don't be alarmed" the lead creature mouthed "Our benevolent master the honourable Shandor-Khall has sent us to escort you to his domicile. It is a short distance towards the setting sun. And I would advise you to make haste, the predators of this planet are nocturnal."

As the azure sky darkened overhead, a number of unearthly creatures could be seen circling above. Volmar quickly recovering from the shock of his initial encounter bellowed orders to Deming, Jasper and the engineer to join him on deck.

"What's your name"

"On'lfiretsh" came its reply and as the sun began to drop below the hills. With the lights departure the ever present hum of wildlife became a directionless cacophony of cries and howls.

"Well On'lfiretsh, some of my crew is out there" Volmar intoned, pointing in the opposite direction to the scouting parties sojourn. "So we are unable to take your master's kind offer up at this time" Volmar knew that help from these creatures was vital if they were ever to escape this eldritch planet, however he was always cautious of natives with dinner invitations, in case being invited to dinner became an invitation to be dinner. And besides, how could he trust anything so hideous.

As the three crew arrived On'lfiretsh whispered "My master knows of your three roaming companions and has sent a number of my brethren to escort them in a like fashion. Please we must go soon before we all become a meal for.. " as if on cue one on the circling animals dived towards the group with an ear splitting cry, it was only a swift strike from one of On'lfiretsh's companions muscled arm that saved Volmar from being impaled upon a meter long beak.

Volmar quickly ordered his apprehensive crew on to the assembled rafts. Although uneasy at this turn of events, the alternative of becoming a meal seemed even less desirable. With the crew onboard the rafts, without obvious compulsion from their riders, silently began to propel themselves in an easterly direction. They traveled in a silence that all knew was necessary to avoid becoming a meal for the myriad of life forms which where awakening to a new night of feeding.

The onyx dark citadel squat ominously on the horizon, its square featureless mass punctuated by a single central spire thrusting heavenward. The crew disembarked upon a small square land, an oasis of solid earth in a desert of water, set against the citadels high outer wall. As the rafts moved off a section of wall opened to reveal a dimly lit entrance way.

Chapter 7. (Ron Shiflet)

Shandor-Khall smiled malevolently as he intently gazed into the crystal sphere before him. On'lfiretsh had succeeded in his assigned task and even now was leading the marooned space travelers into the citadel. The tall, but obscenely bloated sorcerer would soon have the necessary sacrifices-- and without bringing the ire of this world's primitive and superstitious savages down upon his head. With "The Laughing God's" blessing he might even manage to paint himself and his followers as saviors of the planet.

It would be no great feat to convince the natives of this world that the unfortunate space crew had come not by accident but by design. With the proper amount of truth-twisting and some not so subtle displays of power, Shandor-Khall would make this eldritch planet into a religious stronghold for the ancient and sadistically humorous diety's worship. In but a handful of nights the exiled sorcerer would be fully prepared to summon Chor-Tal into this realm. At such time it would be most unwise to provide a less than satisfactory sacrificial feast. The stranded space explorers should do nicely in this regard.

Shandor-Khall was suddenly interrupted in his devious musings by the arrival of a loathsome minion. The repugnant creature drooled and slurped in a noisy fashion as he vainly tried to speak in the manner of his master. He clumsily waved his abnormally long arms in a frustrating attempt to convey his message. Shandor-Khall's pale, bloated face reddened in anger as the pathetic creature almost smashed a grotesquely sculpted statuette of Chor-Tal.

"Damn you to the pits you uncouth fool!" cried the wizard. "Would you bring his wrath down upon us?"

The chastised follower's mockery of a head bubbled and spluttered as he struggled to speak. "Glubb...Glub..Glub-Glub..."

"Shut up damn you!" railed the wizard. "I know they're here, I saw them in the sphere!"

The unsuccessful messenger stopped his thrashing about and awaited the instructions of Shandor-Khall. The corpulent mage dismissed the wretch with a gesture and a curse and made some minor preparations before descending the citadel's stone stairway to greet his guests.

Chapter 8. (Damian Adaszynski)

The bloated, protoplasmic entity known to some as Chor-Tal, was deep in hibernation. Away from the turmoil of meterorically disturbed galaxies and comet-bombarded cosmoses, here in his own dimension all was amorphously serene. To those who know of its existence, it is a plane unlike any other, being solely the creation of Chor-Tal, the laughing god. No mortal could breathe in the amberesque slimes of varying qualities and potencies, and live. For slime is what the first plane of Dnehr-Thosla is made of. Dnehr-Thosla, as known by the rictous worshippers of Chor-Tal, is a form of heaven to them. All worshippers, including Shandor-Khall, believe they are linked somewhat telepathically, pehaps even astrally to this artificially-conceived realm. But to attain the honour of Chor-Tal's presence and sorosis, there are rituals one must perform beforehand. These rituals were the cause the Laughing God's worshippers were hunted down, by the Imperial Inquisitors of Yutran.

Firstly, a sacrifice must be presented upon a venerated onyx-table, at the centre of the samite circle of runes, thrice sanctified with the blood of a virgin ghell-goat. (Male or female) Secondly, the incantations of Pralx-Ll'orgêsa must be invoked six times over, without cessation, for this is the obsequiousness required to open Chor-Tal's malefic eyes. Thirdly, the summoner must then offer a live sacrifice, preferably sentient to appease the now-awakened deity.

How the live sacrifices are ensnared and presented is a matter completely under the wont of the priests themselves. A group of associates, non-believers of course, perhaps enticed to a meal or social gathering. Preferrably within the priests secret temples, guised as their abodes. Then a poisoned or drugged goblet of liquer should do the deed well, or if the priests are of a violent disposition, forceful seizure of the sacrifices. How the sacrifices are taken means little. Only to have them at the rituals is of vital import.

Once Chor-Tal's interest is aroused, the summoner(s) then proceed with the long, and arduous torturings of many facets. Ultimately, the choice of torture is up to the summoning party, but some included are the stretching of the sacrifice upon racks, the ropes being embossed with adamantium shards. Some prefer to flay the victims with 'spheres of Magmmon', great firey, levitating orbs, telekinetically controlled by the priests of Chor-Tal, that orbit the sacrifice, terrifyingly searing skin from flesh. These are but a few of the mutitudinous hurtful ways the priest of the sadistic Laughing God exact their worship upon unfortunates who blunder into their clutches. Once the ear-rending laughter of the detached entity are heard by all, only then will the priests pause for further praise and offering their sacrifices to the one above. Then finally, the Laughing God, Chor-Tal himself, will materialize to devour the offerings, and hearken to his children's pleas and desires.

But for now, the Laughing God sleeps in his dark repose, awaiting a new sacrifice to devour and cackle demonically at the misfortunes of lesser beings...

Chapter 9. (Jonathan Burns)

"Alsace, you're a long way out for a castaway", said Roverton, as the raft picked up speed. "We'd been pretty well making a bee-line for the Rim, by now I thought we'd be as far from Sol as anyone gets."

"That's a long story", the young man replied, "and one I thought I'd put well behind me. The end of it was, though, that there was only me to man a ship, and no future for me in society. I threw my fortune on the star-winds, and they blew me here. There are freakish ether-currents out where the stars are thin, you know. They can supercharge engines somehow, remove all resistance to motion. The catch is, they can burn engines out too.

"But listen, you should know the nights are dangerous here. The swoopers will be out at sundown, and the marsh-crabs will be waking. Can we reach your vessel by nightfall?"

"Near enough." Roverton unshipped the two-way radio set, and stood to unfold the antenna. "I'm calling the Captain, that we're coming in. Idanvey?"

"Soon as said, Ro." Already the black-haired adventuress had her rifle out, and was in position to cover the widest range of fire. "Sorry, our manners are rusty: Well met, Gordon Alsace. This is Roverton, Master Spaceman; and Ali Fakhoum, scientist. Call me Idanvey."

"Goodwill!" the biologist chimed in. "Have you been living off the land then, for five years?" Alsace nodded. "What a blessing! I'd been afraid we would have to trace the "food-chain" from the bottom up; and I didn't fancy..."

With a loud splash, something exploded from the swamp and arrowed at the raft. Roverton glimpsed a winged shape which drove itself forward, slapping the water with a powerful tail, and then it was upon him. With a curse, he groped for a hold on anything not barbed.

But in the same second, Alsace dived forward, grasped the leathery creature fore and aft, and hurled it from the craft. As it hit the water, a triple bolt of ultra-high-tension plasma tore it to tatters. Idanvey and Alsace exchanged approving grins.

"And that's typical", Alsace said with a shrug. "I call it a skipper-ray. Think of them as sharks, or cobras; usually avoidable - but forget they're there and... Well shot Idanvey! It would have recovered."

"Sharp reflex!" she muttered.

Fakhoum spoke up. "What is its usual diet?"

"Mostly gliding tree-frogs and rock-polyps. The animal life here all derives from mollusks. There are all sorts; they put on quite the tournament of evolution."

"Fascinating! How big do they get?"

"In this swamp, about twelve feet; at sea, no limit. I've found very old skipper-ray spines, suggesting a twenty-foot wingspan. Their bigger cousins may have ruled the seas once. But something else does now."

"And what's that?"

"I don't know. But there are odd lights, far out. And things I thought were islands, except they weren't there next day."

Idanvey sat alert, relieved not to talk. There was an appeal to Alsace,, and she knew just what kind. He was simply the first, in several thousand light-years, who registered a woman when he looked at her. It recalled years when family, and company, and the Solar Marines, and most especially men, had all sought to bind her to their own perpetuation.

It had taken a long and bitter struggle, to realize what she called "My Vector --- Out!", her need to live at the periphery of civilization; and longer to find companions who respected the vector, having the same motivation. Somewhere among the stars, she had forgotten the art of the "brush-off", being spared the need to exercise it.

"Odd" came Roverton's voice. "We ought to be picking up the transponder, at this range. But we're not."

The sun was now low and red through the autumnal vegetation. Safetying the plasma rifle, Idanvey fished out photoelectronic goggles and pulled them on. "Watch out people, thirty seconds while I adjust to infra-red."

At the twentieth second she heard Fakhoum say, rather quietly, "'Vey. Ahead and fifteen degrees right."

"Damn." Amplified colours flashed across her vision, then settled into focus. "It's a raft. It's not ours. There are ... bipeds on it. They have lanterns. They don't seem to be armed. Hang on. Safety, off. Ready and armed."

"They're in our way", Roverton said. "The ship is another six hundred yards on. I'm moving in."

"They're waving", Idvadney continued. "Not armed, unless those lamps are. Gordon! Short legs, long arms, low, domed, sort of squishy head. Friends of yours?"

"I don't know what's living in the castle."

The occupants of the other raft came into view, in the dying light. Wrapped in what resembled lengths of kelp, they gave the impression that pinkish-grey snails had been compressed into midget humanoid moulds.

Then one clambered forward, and commenced to make sounds, as if a child were trying to make music by chomping vegetables - but which were English words.

"Am ptake you pfreeeind. SAFE place. Pleashe to poFollow. Am pFriend. You to be pllbPlease SAFFFE."

Roverton had been in tight spots, in his interplanetary wanderings. At need he could take command. He did so.

"Ali. There is no significant belt of debris in orbit around this planet, right?"

"That is what the Captain said."

"What are the odds, of a meteor waiting for us, _exactly_ where breaking our current would bring us to a dead stop in the planetary field?"

"As one grain of sand, on a very long beach."

"How about two meteors?"

"The same, squared. We were shot down."

Roverton nodded grimly. "That's what I thought. Very well, shipmates, until we learn more, our diplomatic policy is, we harm nobody without cause - and we trust nobody."


"Idanvey, stand ready to put a few kilovolts across their bow."

Chapter 10. (R S Cartwright)

Dark and primal, formless, yet sentient, It moved through solid rock - passing through the core, then outer core, of the planet as if through the vacuum of space. It grinned a formless grin, then laughed at the thought. Vacuum I am there, have been there, and shall be there.

It was eternal and infinite; still, outside of time - beyond time. It had existed before time, before matter. It had touched a thousand worlds, blackened a thousand million stars, and...would do so again. But It had grown weary with its toys, its games, and had retired to the spiraling primordial dust and hydrogen soup of a forming star system. It took refuge, a wont of silent solitude deep in the plasma core of a forming planet. And It waited.

Now It had awakened, moving, gliding effortlessly through rock, through pockets of molten ocean floor forming magma. Then the rock and magma were gone, replaced by the darkened depths of ocean. Still It glided through the water, moving upward toward the surface. Far above the soft orange light of the setting sun glistened softly, a sun It knew It could touch and make go dark.

But it wasn't the sun which had awakened It, caused It to reach out - to touch, to tease, to play, to destroy. It was something else - patterns of thought that had echoed through Its mind, thoughts of places and beings that had come and gone since It had retreated to the peaceful solitude of the planetary core of an insignificant solitary planet in a remote and darkened corner of the material universe.

It broke the surface of the vast golden ocean and rose into the azure-purpling sky. It slowed Its ascent and hovered above the waters, Its mind reaching out to probe, to know, to learn, to understand. It felt, touched, experienced a myriad of impressions simultaneously. It saw the great black stone structure of a single towering spire on the small island in the great sea, saw an impending confrontation in the distance - an impending confrontation between beings just barely risen from the primordial slime of the evolutionary cesspool.

It's mind reached out and touched others, touched primitive minds of ill-knowledge and superstition, primitive minds of predatory habit, primitive minds of chaos and no self-awareness. It watched as great winged beasts in the sky cried out, banked and rolled, then flew away as if the beasts knew of something dark and terrible. Its mind probed the scant land masses, moving amidst the foliage, seeking, touching, learning. The native creatures of night in those lands felt and sensed Its coming and moved into the shadows in a depth of fear never before known, giving the probing mind ample room to pass and move on.

And finally, silently and unknown to them, It touched the minds of those of the impending confrontation - and It learned terms, words - places and names. Its mind read and reflected on those thoughts, those names. Shandor-Khall, Idanvey, Yutran, On'lfiretsh, Volmar, Earth, Chor-Tal, Alcyone, and so many others. This will do, It reflected as It withdrew Its thoughts, recoiling back upon itself.

A sudden movement caught Its awareness. It turned Its mind to the ocean below, saw the dark forms, the black masses slowly rising toward the surface. Dancing across those forms were myriad colors of twinkling lights. And again It grinned a formless grin. Soon my children, It thought as the black masses of twinkling lights rose slowly toward the ocean's surface. Very soon.

* * *

"Wait a minute!" Alsace, standing behind Roverton, suddenly shouted.

"Idanvey, hold your fire!" Roverton exclaimed as he spun around to face Alsace. He noted Alsace's gaze into the sky. Roverton followed his gaze, watching the great winged beasts crying out on their hurried flight toward the dwindling sunset. "What's wrong with them?" Roverton questioned, turning his eyes back to Alsace.

Alsace paused, his eyes wide as he glanced at Roverton. "I don't know," Alsace replied, his voice soft. "They're afraid of something."

"Afraid of what?" Roverton asked.

"Good question," Alsace replied. "The point is, in five years I've never seen them afraid of anything!" Alsace paused, trying to make sense of the sudden fear exhibited by the great winged beasts. "Something is very wrong here. Horribly wrong."

"Look!" Idanvey suddenly shouted, pointing to the distant ocean horizon.

Far out on the horizon black shapes had suddenly broken the ocean's surface. And in the dwindling light of dusk, a multitude of colored lights danced across them.

Chapter 11. (Laurence J. Cornford)

The strange creatures started to gabble incomprehensible and agitatedly abandoned the rafts.

Roverton watched the flickering lights far out in the delta for a few minutes, then turned his attention to the pinkish grey creature standing on hand.

"Ali," he said over his shoulder, "is there any way we can talk with these things?"

The creature before Roverton gibbered on regardless of his speech.

"I think he is speaking a kind of English, but how he comes to know it I've no idea."

Roverton listened hard and caught the words "water" and "danger". Then the creature raised its elongated arm and pointed inland.

"I think he wants us to go across land. If they came from that castle Alsace mentioned then we have a walk on our hands."

"I'll try to make better conversation with them," added Ali. "Once I have the measure of their accent they might become more coherent to me."

With a last glance back at the bubbling, glowing water the party gathered up their kit from the dingy and headed off through the curious orange hued trees.

Night came on apace and with it the animals grew bolder. Bestial cries pieced the darkening night and branches cracked and swayed at the passing of unseen creatures. The squat escort peered cautiously about with the small watery eyes and gripped tightly to staffs which they carried. The white sun had sunk low on the horizon and a second dull red glow of a nearby red giant star made half the night sky a muddy brown colour.

Ali theorised that the planet had a high iron content to explain the preeminence of reds among the plant-life. Soon the trees thinned out and the group found themselves on a rocky badlands of potted gulches and hills. A fresh cool air ruffled their shirts and cooled them after the heavy humidity of the waterside forest.

The rocks were stratified and weathered into spurs, dark plants nestled in crevices reaching bony dark branches into the sky. Mosses and fungi grew in shadowy places, picked out by the bright torches of the humans.

Progress was comfortable for the humans, for the stout legs of the other creatures could not achieve a great speed. The strange creatures had become much quiter, only from time to time chuntering quietly to themselves.

"You say that these creatures are not native?" asked Roverton, as Alsace clambered up a slope beside him.

"I've not seen them before, and the castle wasn't there when I first arrived here. I can't keep my eye on everything, so I don't know for certain how long it's been there. The planet seems to have no intelligent native life. There is a curious marsupial creature which has a basic social structure, but they seem only capable of simple problem solving. These creatures are far more advanced."

"And the lights?"

"I don't know. This planet has an unusual orbit. You see it orbits the main sequence star like most other planets, but that star and its planets fall within the gravitational pull of a second star, the more distant red giant about which it revolves. So, you see, this planet has two seasons, one for its primary star and one far longer cycle around the red giant. The planet is about to reach its appelhion to the red giant. Last time that happened humans had only begun to dream of space travel. What changes will occur are unguessed. Perhaps the lights are a product of that. As the radiation from the red giant bombards the planet it ignites gas on the water surface, maybe?"

"Hmm," Roverton thought it unlikely.

He was distracted from his thoughts by the sudden calling of the lead creature.

"Coth'kosramoft says that we must be watchful" said Ali.


"Yes, I think that is the leader's name."

"What does Coth'kosramoft think the problem is?"

"He's not got English names for all the creatures around here, but there are packs of something he calls hunters around here. I assume its some sort of desert dog."

"Not quite," uttered Alsace with a smile. "They are a kind of lizard, as far as I can judge. But caution is needed. The life on this planet is almost without exception savage."

Suddenly the air was filled with the sound of leather beating air. At once the chocolate sky was filled with black rectangles, shapes like flying manta-rays swooshed out of the sky. Panic errupted. Black tendrils drapped down and stung those they touched. The squat creatures thrust their staffs into the air and where they made contact with the flying rays they flashed blindingly like lightning. Trumpeting sounds filled the air but still the things circled like vultures around carrion. Idanvey's plasma gun flashed a seering stream into the night and one of the rays fell in two. But tentacles enwapped Roverton, and a sucker-like mouth gripped on to his shoulder. A great force pulled up on him and before he knew what had happened Roverton rose into the air and his carrying ray departed from the melee. Another beast, and another shot after him.

Alsace cried, "They've got Roverton and Idanvey."

The shapes scattered, their task accomplished.

Then Alsace slipped into the darkness after them. "I'll see where they go!" he shouted.

Before Ali could respond the squat creatures surrounded him. They were not going to let their one remaining guest escape also.

A couple waved their long forelimbs and called Alsace back, but he paid them on heed and he leapt among the rocks.

"Quick," coughed Coth'kosramoft, and prodded Ali in the other direction. All he could do is look back at Alsace as he shadow moved over the skyline.

He wondered what would become of Roverton and Idanvey. Would Alsace catch them up, or were they destined to die in the jaws of those flying creatures? He could only speculate. Now he could do nothing but get the castle as quickly as possible.

Chapter 12. (Mik Clarke)

The squat, dwarven creatures herded Ali between them along a narrow gully. Moving as quickly as their short legs would allowed, they shuffled along, leading their captive through a labyrinthine network of low gullies and canyons. In a few places they were was able to see the ancient castle, looming above them, festering in the moon light.

The castle was big. Very big. Although at first glance it looked medevil, the closer Ali got the more apparent it bacame that it was something else. It squatted and brooded over the landscape. Weathered, but still somehow not quite fitting. There seemed to be a certain otherness about it. For all its ramparts and towers, there was an unsettling organic feel about it.

As they neared Ali came to understand its true scale. Blocks of stone maybe 6 meters high comprised its mighty walls. Its battlements were easily 150 meters above the ground. The main doors, also made of stone, were 30 meters high, opening 9 meters to each side. It looked like a castle made for giants. A castle made for mad giants. Everywhere upon its surface there were grotesque carvings, depicting demonic creatures engaged in foul, unfathomable activities. A thousand stone faces screamed from the walls, an expression of abject dispair and terror upon each one.

With little ceremony they rushed through the vast doors, their feet slipping on the wet, slimey flag stones beneath them, echoing footsteps bouncing from the distant inner walls. Behind them the gate guards, more of the squat, ugly dwarves, heaved together to fasten the massive protal.

They slowed and stopped, in an emense hall, pitifully illuminated by a bonfire and some small torches. Darkness echoed above them. The lead dwarf whistled sharply and the guards from the gate gathered around them, nervously looking into the darkness. 'Watch around, human, we not alone.' Ali looked into the darkness, becoming aware of sibillent and slurping noises emerging from the hollow spaces around them.

From above their came a great screeching, rending shriek. Looking up in panic he saw a large, square cage dropping rapidly towards them. The dwarves were packed in around him, so he could not flee. The cage fell to the ground, its fall arrested by stout ropes attached at its corners. The dwarves bundled him into it and it started to rise. Looking down, Ali caught a glimpse of something loathsome and unspeakable slithering towards the remains of the fire.

Chapter 13. (Boyd Pearson)

The entrance way was a high roofed rectangular room some ten meters long by three wide. Its walls were made of a seamless ebon black material, which seemed to adsorb the light cast by the four silver braziers which hung in the corners. The door closed silently, sealing them both physically and audibly from the outside world. With the cacophony of cries and howls deadened, Jasper the Mate, Deming, Volmar and the Engineer, could not but help feel entombed in this rectangular sarcophagus.

"Cap'n" came the muffled voice of the engineer, who was standing with check pressed against the wall. "I'm not sure what theses walls are made off, but from what I can tell there is a possibility that the same material could be used for repairing our ship." After a pause the Engineer continued.

"I don't know if I should mention this Cap'n, its rather strange, but, it sounds like they have an Ion Drive in the basement."

"What are you talking about man" Came Volmar's reply as his cold steely eyes peered in to the engineers.

"Well Cap'n, I have worked with Ion Drives all my life and I know what the sound like even through a dozen walls, they have a singular resonance that I have never herd given off by any other machine, and I'm feeling it now." Ion Drives where first developed in the late twentieth century and perfected in the twenty first century, every manmade interstellar craft used them for propulsion.

"Look at this" Deming, who was examining one of the braziers, said. "It's fake, the chain is one solid piece, and inside its some kind of light bulb."

It was some moments before the otherwise occupied crew noticed that a section of the wall had opened. There stood Shandor-Khall. Shandor-Khall's bulk filled the doorway, his bloated features, while less disturbing than those who brought them here, still filled the party with a queasy unease. Jasper was reminded of the bull sea lions he had seen in the zoo as a kid and noted that Shandor-Khall's girth could not possibly allow him though the human size aperture.

"I am Shandor-Khall" its thick lips moved like trembling blubber. "Welcome to my home, I am sorry that you where not meet properly but my servants brought you to the wrong entrance way. Please come with me"

Volamar and the others steeped in to the opulently adorned room, its vaulted ceiling and a huge open fire place were reminiscent of some Earthly mansion of a bygone era. In the centre of the room, a wooden oblong table was covered with a myriad of food stuffs which gave of a plethora of rich odours.

At Shandor-Khall's invitation the men found chairs around the table, each introduced by the captain as they took their seat. Having lived on a diet of space rations for the past six months they where more than eager to take in the offerings before them. Even Volmar put aside his ever present unease to sample some of the nameless fare.

"You hospitality is most generous Shandor-Khall, but may I enquire as to the whereabouts of the rest of my crew?" Asked Volmar in a tone that even surprised himself for its civility.

"Do not worry my good captain, my sad excuse for servants have probably got lost in the dark again, I'm sure their arrival will be momentarily. They are a dim mutant species that I breed some centuries ago for my personal use."

"How is that you have come to speak English?" Asked jasper between mouthfuls of some unknown sweat meat.

"My home planet of Yutran has monitored your earth's transmissions for many centuries, and in doing so learnt your language." Came Shandor-Khall's reply. His consumption of food had been constant since the party had seated it self, resulting in a semi-circular clearing in front of him.

"Why is then that you have not made contact with us before?" Jasper asked.

"It is not in the nature of my people to interfere with the development and growth of another species. We believe that all life should be allowed to grow of its own accord."

"I felt a strange vibration coming from below when I entered, can you tell what that is?" Scientific curiosity over ridding caution for the engineer.

For some time Shandor-Khall continued to eat. "Oh that, my mutant servants perform their rituals around this time, and you must have felt their drumming, they are very primitive even after the many years I have worked on them." He then gave a piercing cry that brought one of his dwarfish servants scurrying in to the room, a silver platter held at arms length above his head.

"Your favourite master." The creature mouthed in barely understandable English tones, as it placed the platter in front of Shandor-Khall, before leaving it gave the covered dish a half turn.

The assembled crew stared in stark horror as Shandor-Khall unveiled the platter contents. For there sat, nestled in the bed of some green vegetable, the head of their crew mate - Mahmoud Ali Fakhoum the Alcyone's eco-biologist and friend to them all. The top of his skull had been removed exposing his gently steaming brains, while his poached eyes stared blankly at his crew mates.

It was not until Shandor-Khall turned the dish around did he realise what had frozen his guests in such horror stricken countenances. Doing so afforded Volmar the opportunity to leap to his feet. Physically grabbing Deming and Jasper he started to pull them towards one of narrow doorways, glancing back he saw the engineer rise to join them.

Volmar lead the flight, choosing one of the narrow passageways in order to cut them off from that bloated amorphous evil Shandor-Khall. He did not stop to contemplate the curious mis-match between the citadels design and its occupants, for even if theses passages were for those hideous dwarfish creatures it would not explain why the ceilings were lost in shadow, some dozen or so meters above. Nor did he pause when the placatory words of Shandor-Khall reached him; 'Mistake my ass you bloated bag of puss' thought Volmar. Ever downwards they fled through narrow twisting tunnels whose smell was of rotting flesh and excrement. Their destination secondary to the distance they put between themselves and the fate of Ali Fakhoum.

Chapter 14 (Jonathan Burns)

In the minute of its emergence, the Core Dweller had surveyed the simple brains of every creature in a thousand miles. Minds were active in some of them, mostly occupied with plans for staying alive; all as expected.

The interesting exception was the brain of Shandor-Khall. The Dweller analysed it at leisure, cell by cell, finding a network of telepathic connections, and traced them. Through the unwitting medium of the priest's mind, it looked upon the Laughing God; and the God looked back.

What can human words say of transcendent communion? As much as mice might say of an encyclopaedia? Perhaps only, that the two entities loathed each other on sight. The loathing between them could cause cancer; drive a race to war; abort a star in a nebula's womb, or blast the crust of this planet to volcanic ruin. That it did not do any of those things, was only because one found this planet too useful, and the other too amusing, to be cast aside, just yet. As easily as one sets the phone down, then, they broke off.

The communication did have one effect, however. In the brain of Shandor-Khall, there was stimulated a runaway proliferation of teleferent nerve-endings.

Of all this, the pale priest was oblivious. He dipped his prehensile tongue deep between the hemispheres of Fakhoum's brain, and giggled, serenely unguessing what extrasensory horizons would presently open before him.

One hundred meters below, the spacemen made their hesitant way among walls of black stone, moulded into bulging, writhing shapes by some inconceivable form of life. At times, the echoes of a liquid slithering drove them this way or that; for a while they hastened through a lighted hall, whose painted friezes showed many and monstrous an alien creature, each one apparently subject to the most elaborate devices of sadism. Once they halted at the door of a chamber where white and glistening flatworms, the size of pythons, hung in membranous bags and peered incuriously at the intruders. All the while, the drumming of the buried ion engine rose and fell.

"If we get to the drive, there must be workshops!" said Packard, that taciturn man usually known plainly as the Engineer. "Then we can do things!"

"Yes, at the least we may find something to hold to ransom", Volmar nodded grimly. "I'd say we'd be doing the universe a favour, just bringing this place down around their ears."

But it was no workshop that they discovered finally. A narrow corridor brought them to a balcony, some ten meters from the floor of an immense cylindrical chimney, rising into darkness. Brazier bubbles dotted the wall, casting a pale light on the floor, which apparently was a single disk of onyx, embossed in white metal with the lines and arcs of some transdimensional astrology. The pounding of the great engine was overwhelming here, proceeding from the black disk and resonating the height of the cylinder, and a static charge lifted their hair.

Sharp-eyed Jasper pointed across the chamber. Higher on the curving wall were other balconies, where crowds of the midget slug-men were pushing forward large machines; unfolding structures of cranes, cables and clamps. From above them as well, the explorers heard the shrill cries of the creatures.

Then ion thunder drowned all other sound. Electrical discharges crawled across the disk. Space contracted and expanded in pulses; the opposite wall seemed to leap forward and fall back, as the arcs on the disk warped and flowed in the figures of an impossible topology.

And as the thunder died, the giant rasping howl of a demon wrenched in agony from its hell-pit echoed throughout the cylinder; and the disk was vacant no more.

There stood on six mighty legs an alien beast, shaggy black and hugely horned, like some hybrid of woolly mammoth and mountain goat, great yellow vertically-pupilled eyes glaring about in bestial panic. Its forward and middle pairs of legs had the girth of ancient oaks; but these were merely the delicate balancing members for the gargantuan pillars of flesh which were the driving hind legs. The convoluted masses on horn upon its head would have made an armoured tank for size.

A wild gabbling came from above, one word only squealed plainly over the rest. "The GHELL! The GHELL!" On the further balconies, the pygmies were rolling their grappling cranes forward. The shaggy thing crouched back on its haunches. It pawed the air with its hooved front feet, and roared.

Then Packard gripped Volmar's shoulder, and pointed down. The lowest doorways, set around the floor, were becoming shorter. The explorers crowded the parapet, pale and wide-eyed, as their vision confirmed the dreadful truth. Slowly, the whole black disk was rising toward them.

While amid the splendour of his dining hall, Shandor-Khall lounged in his chair, and raised the half-emptied cranium of the scientist in one hand, and contemplated its eyeless sockets. "Alas, poor Ali! I knew him well!" The thought came out of nowhere, and the Priest of the Cosmic Jest shook with laughter, thinking it the approval of his God.

The door flew open, and On'lfiretsh burst in. "Master! The Ghell is here!"

Chapter 15 (Ian Davey)

Awareness came with the flapping of wings and Roverton thought for a moment the dark shape that held him in its grasp was a vision from a nightmare, but it was reality, and the great flying Mantis-Ray held him in its tentacular grasp. No matter how much he struggled he couldn't free himself, though he could move enough to see the ground moving rapidly beneath him and to one side, another Mantis-Ray, with the unconscious Idanvey secured in its mass of tentacles.

"Idanvey!" Roverton gasped, his voice barely audible as his breath was all but squeezed from him, "Wake up!"

That was sufficient though, for Idanvey lifted her head to reveal she wasn't unconscious as she had first appeared. This slight movement revealed another, that of her hand creeping up, her plasma rifle held firmly in her grasp. Though Roverton knew she wouldn't dare fire it up here, they were too far from the ground.

"Roverton," Idanvey called, "get ready to roll."

Without further pause she lifted the rifle and Roverton was shocked to find it pointed directly at him. A fraction of a second later though its point had ascended and a single seering shot cut into his bearer, there was a barely audible screech and Roverton felt the tentacles stiffen about him. He only had time to let out a brief curse before he was plummeting downwards, Idanvey parting words in his brain as he struggled to turn the Mantis-Ray beneath him. The ground, which had previously seemed so far away now seemed far too close, and every second he saw his broken form falling onto the rubble below.

Luck must have been with him that day, for he was able to turn the Mantis-Ray beneath him, just in time for his collision with the strange trees that populated the planet. They broke beneath the combined weight of man and beast but left him merely a little shaken upon contact with the ground.

Roverton quickly made it to his feet, looking up to scan the sky for Idanvey. He saw he quickly enough and saw she was using her rifle to maximum effect, it was horrible to watch, the woman could be quite ruthless when she wanted to be. She was directing its deadly beam onto the tentacles of the Mantis-Ray, burning them off whilst holding on to the ones which grasped her, slowly but surely drawing the agonised creature towards the ground. Roverton actually found himself feeling some sympathy for the hideous thing, but to see Idanvey safely on the ground was more of a relief.

"Idanvey, you nearly killed me! What were you thinking?"

"I got us down didn't I? Come on, I noticed a castle on the horizon while we were being carried by those things, though they were carrying us away from it. I think we should head there, that's where the action's going to be."

"Idanvey, you're crazy."

"Tell me about it, now come on."

A distant shout caused them to turn, it was Alsace, running as fast as his legs could carry him and looking on the verge of collapse.

"What kept you!" Idanvey shouted, her hands on her hips and long black hair blowing about in the wind.

Alsace gave a gesture which, for diplomatic reasons, had long been outlawed on several planets. This gave the three grounded members of the crew the first real reason to grin in hours.

* * *

Volmar froze at the sight of the Ghell, the distance between them and it closing as the platform slowly rose, little could stand against that grotesque presence. His feet though refused to move even though he wished more than anything to flee. The sensation of Packard's hand on his shoulder was the only thing that kept him in touch with reality.

Packard tugged and Volmar found himself able to break out of the fugue, they retreated away from the pit, finding themselves surrounded by the dwarves, who were all frozen by a fear that held them with a fascination every bit as great as that of Volmar's.

There was an entrance way, small, but large enough for them to fit through at the back of the cavern. They pushed there was towards it, though even as they did a solid metal door slid down to close the exit. The same was happening to other doors around them and they realised they were being deliberately trapped. The appearance of the Ghell had not been accidental.

The beheld it now, and even though they stood well back the stench was overpowering, primal and cloying, it filled the air and made every breath an agony of nausea. The two men pushed themselves through the gathered dwarves and only the adrenalin kept them from succumbing to the smell. If they could only reach another higher platform...

Then the sound of a plasma rifle cut through the confusion, and above them they sighted the welcome presence of Roverton and Idanvey, moments later Alsace joined them. The three of them were frozen for a moment, for they too had noticed the Ghell. Not for long though, Idanvey wasn't legendary with a plasma rifle for nothing.

Rather than wasting her time shooting at the Ghell, which looked as though it might resist even the searing beam of a plasma rifle, she fired upwards, at the platforms on which the dwarves gathered. The dwarves were able to flee, but the machines they held teetered on the edge of the broken platforms and felt with devastating force into the pit. A scream that set all their souls on edge wrought the air as the huge metal machines pummelled into the creature below.

Chapter 16. (Damian Adaszynski)

The Ghell, though being mighty and heinous in all of its shaggy splendour, fell crashing to the cold ground whence it stood. The clamorous machines had plummeted straight atop its horned skull and though it was thick and strong as neutronium steel sheets, the sheer mass and crushing power the curious gravity this planet provided proved stronger.

With a final, phlegmous sigh of expiration, the immense but prostrate Ghell slumped its cumbrous head upon the floor, now pooled with bile-like blood. The exhausted, and silent crew of the Alcyone watched with incredulous fascination at the proceedings that evented next. The rapidly expanding pool of the goat's blood had reached the rune-adorned edges of the great platform, sinking coagulously into the carven sigils, filling them rapidly. Abruptly, searing, white light immediately blasted forth from the blood-filled runes encircling the fallen beast's cooling carcass to which all jolted in surprise.

The weird, enchanted lights cast the spidery rune-shapes upon the shadowy roof, thusly creating a cage of lights around the circle that gave off a dull and directionless droning rumble. Then something happened to the body of the silent, hooved gargantuan held within the light-caged chamber. The mass of putrid, reeking, shag-like flesh and horns began to smoke, first at the tips of each individual hair that carpeted the monster, but ultimately the whole body was enveloped in black smoke. And suddenly, all went silent - the lights, the drone, the noise. The corpse the size of a mid-class scout ship had disappeared, without trace.

Alsace's voice broke the silent reverie of the onlooking space-farers.

"My esteemed victims, all has proceeded accordingly as I had wished. No, better, for you yourselves swiftly took from my capable, but already full hands the burden of disposing of the pestful ghell-goat, simultaneously performing the first rite of summoning." All eyes turned and fell upon Alsace's grinning, now somehow different face.

Jasper spoke, a tone of indignance manifest, "hey, what in the cosmic cooties has gotten into you? I think all this excitement has gotten to our castaway friend here."

"No, look!" was the wide-eyed Volmar's reply, gloved finger pointed at Alsace's face.

To everyone's disgust and shocked surprise, the face of Alsace was changing. With an audible slurp of liquid flesh and bone, Alsace's visage melded and coalesced into an amorphous blob of meat and blood-plasma. The splayed body writhed and it too was shifting and morphing. The slimy globule of gibbous volume had now expanded and a corpulent belly lolled forward, along with lengthy, spindly arms that sprouted out from the unknown mess. Slowly and horridly, the sight of Alsace's familiar, humane features and form disappeared, replaced instead with the nigh-sacriligious, bloated shape of none other than Shandor-Khall.

"Idanvey, quick!" Roverton blurted out in urgency. Not wasting a second longer, the lithe Idanvey swung her plasma rifle up, taking aim at the hideously laughing Shandor-Khall's fading form. A blast from the rifle surged forward, but passed through the translucent belly of Shandor-Khall and sped across the chamber, smiting a nearby dwarf instead, dashing the head from its shoulders in a searing cacophony.

With a parting cackle of gelatinous virtues, Shandor-Khall laughed, "you primitive humans weren't prepared for anything such as us, were you? It is folly to assume anything on the Eldritch Planet! Know this before you perish at the hands of Chor-Tal: I, the twin entity of Shandor-Khall, have succeeded in ensnaring a sacrifice for my god, the only god! You are the sacrifice, all of you! You will each meet your end by being slowly devoured by the Laughing God, but only after you have been further prepared for his holyness."

"You bastard!" was all Volmar could manage to scream in anger and frustration.

Then finally, the blurred image faded from view, leaving the doomed party to their own devices, a horde of the stunted dwarves swiftly closing in on them from all sides; each one armed with multiple barbarous torturing devices.

Idanvey's plasma rifle registered 'low power'. Things aren't looking up, thought Volmar, grimly.

Chapter 17 (Laurence J. Cornford)

When the Core Dweller broke the surface of the golden water it uncoiled its limbs, thrust up its body and swelled, causing the sea to quake. Its power seared out, atomising the water so that it ignited and burst and glowing light rippling about the bloated body. The hibernation was over and the Spring light of the Red Giant was changing the surface of the planet. Now the Core Dweller could quench its burning hunger!

It had scented all the minds on this world — a few inadequate parasites -- only ravening hunger made them even slightly appetizing. No, the Core Dweller found only one life-force worthy of being termed a meal — the mind of Chor-Tal. The Dweller's children could take the parasites — Chor-Tal alone was worthy prey.

Once this thought focused the Core Dweller turned its eons unused flesh to the task. It unfolded its strange flesh and groped and gasped in the morning sunlight.

* * *

Shandor-Khall peered into his crystal sphere, a wide toothy smile splitting the fat rolls on his face. Within the sphere the dwarvish slugs inched forward, savouring the anticipation. Indavey swung around, letting the plasma rifle spray the approaching creatures, but Shandor-Khall only laughed the louder at this carnage. His lips twiched now as he uttered the last canticle of the Incantation of Pralx-Ll'orgêsa for its sixth and final time.

Suddenly, shockingly, the building convulsed violently. Shandor-Khall was thrown from his papal throne and crumpled obscenely on the floor. The crystal bounced and rolled across the chamber floor, the image it contained pitched and rolled and Shandor-Khall watched as the slug-people fell down as they rolled away from him.

Was this the coming of Chor-Tal? But he had never come in such a manner before. The Laughing God seldom appeared the same way twice, but this was uncharacteristically ominous for him.

* * *

When the shock passed the humans climbed to their feet. Noticing that the slugs were splayed about the floor, less agile than themselves, Volmar and his crew quickly moved from the circle of sluggish torturers toward a passage leading from the pit.

Volmar thanked the stars, for that shuddering had come at just the right moment.

Quickly the crew headed for a corridor leading deeper into the castellated vessel.

"Captain," said the Engineer, "we've got to get the Alcyone up and running again as soon as possible. If we can find some sort of workshop or engine room I might be able to rig something up. I don't fancy staying here much longer."

* * *

On'lfiretsh entered the throne-room with Coth'kosramoft trailing closely and timidly behind him. Shandor-Khall had recovered the globe and observed with obvious displeasure the creatures rising slowly to their feet. The humans were nowhere to be seen.

"My Lord, we are under attack!" slobbered the On'lfiretsh.

Shandor-Khall fixed the creature with a piecing gaze.

"I think they are the creatures we saw last night, out in the delta — the lights!" there was almost superstitious awe in On'lfiretsh's tone.

Shandor-Khall looked deeply into the crystal and the image disolved and reformed into an areal view of the castle. Outside the planet had changed startlingly. Vast new plant growths had suddenly sprung up from the airid earth. Great red flowers had sprouted from freshly grown shoots. Vast tangles of vine-like plants had closed in around the castle. Clouds of flying creatures circled like swarming insects, crushing them in their limbs and letting the blood and pulp drip into its orifice. As he watched he noted that the plants were animate and reached to catch at the animals about them.

But what arrested the attention of Shandor-Khall was half a dozen creatures the likes of which he had not beheld before in all his sorcerous wanderings through ethreal space. About one hundred meters in height and nearly forty wide, the things were vast masses of fibrous vegetable matter, glistening like massive towers of damp sea-weed and from the top of these domed and animate mounds extended thick prehensile fronds which thrashed out at the dark stone walls.

Again the building shook, less powerfully, in time to this monstrous onslaught.

* * *

The crew rocked from side to side as they advanced up the dark corridor, but the crew were used to the roll and pitch of a starship in a meteor storm and took it in their strides. The dim artificial torchlights which punctuated the corridor flickered, but held true.

At the end of the corridor Volmar reached out a hand and opened the sidling door on its greasy rail. Beyond lay a dark chamber, reeking of oil, lined with long, pockmarked work benches of a deep stained wood. Many instruments filled crude shelves above the benches.

Packard moved quickly to the nearest bench while Idanvey swung round to cover the door.

Much of the equipment on the shelves was mostly for the maintenance of torture equipment, but the Engineer soon found engine parts. He piled them into a leather sack which Roverton had brought with him.

"Any power packs?" called Idanvey.

"Sorry," Packard called back, "they don't seem to go in for plasma rifles."

"That's a shame. Once they catch up with us we wont stand much chance."

"I don't know," added Volmar. "I don't think that jolt was planned. I think Shandor-Khall may have something else on his hands."

"Right," Packard sighed. "Lets go. We must be near the engines."

The crew gathered together and headed for the door at the other end of the room. This door also slid on a rail, showing a warren of dark and rust gnawed crawlways emerging into a wider walkway. The crew stepped inside and walked slowly forward.

Again the castle shuddered then a chorus of protesting groans issued from the fibres of the castle.

* * *

Shandor-Khall's vast bulk quivered with raged. This was not supposed to happen in the middle of his ceremony. Within the sphere of his crystal ball the weed-creatures pressed about the citadel. New branches burst from green buds and sprang out to encircle and climb the castle walls. Three of the plant-things were gradually growing into one another. The other continued their devouring of the animals they could catch.

Then Shandor-Khall caught sight of a long dark shadow, cast by the morning sun, which obscenely dwarfed all the creatures before it. He focused his mind to shift the gaze of the scrying glass towards the shadow and its source. At once he recoiled, the crystal closed with a blink. The monstrous half-vegetable shape he had witnessed was a thing which should not be looked upon, and a weaker mind than his might have collapsed before it. But Shandor-Khall had witnessed the grimiest jests of Chor-Tal and was made of stronger stuff — and the fit it produced lasted only a few minutes.

On'lfiretsh eyed the door with longing. He never enjoyed being the object of his master's wrath. Coth'kosramoft raised his eyes in sympathy, but help his cowering posture. Perhaps Shandor-Khall had made a poor decision in coming to this eldrtich planet to build a new powerbase for the Cult of Chor-Tal?

"Chor-Tal," said the obese priest, in a startling echo of the thoughts of On'lfiretsh, "will manifest soon and will seek sacrifices. If the chosen are not present then He will seek substitutes."

The slug-things squirmed under the wizard's gaze.

"The Laughing Death is a wonder to behold, but less glorious to suffer."

He watched his servants scurry quickly from the chamber, down the onyx steps.

What was this terrible thing? But the god Chor-Tal was stronger and would rescue his most loyal servant from this horror. Wouldn't he?

* * *

The Core Dweller paused to admire its spawn feeding on the crawling animal life of this planet. It could spare a moment in its stalking of Chor-Tal.

Its prey was hiding within the artificial structure. It would need to be approached with some care, lest it slip through the demensions and make a chase of it.

It shuddered and seeds sprang from their pods and fell like rain around the citadel. Some landed on the ground and sprouted among the roots of the other plant things, but some fell within the windows and among the battlements of the citadel and they too rapidly began to germinate, even on the barren stone.

* * *

Plasma spat from the muzzle of Idanvey's rifle as the slug-things poured out of the access tunnels with a rustling slither, but as one fell dead the pipe filled with a replacement slithering forward.

"Run" shouted Volmar.

Roverton lead the group forward, leaping over the slug-bodies as they hit the ground, taking advantage of his great agility. Their footsteps echoed on the metal like dull hammer blows.

As Roverton turned the corner he saw a great set of double doors ahead, pained with brilliant yellow symbols, and before which stood a hoard of the slug-things, each wearing a leather harness and domed crash-hat. Many held whips and other snub-noised weapons in their pudgy paws.

Without a thought Roverton rolled himself into a ball and carried by the momentum of his charge barrelled into the surprised mass. With a sick feeling the pulpy bodies pressed against him as the creatures fell like nine-pins.

The rest of the crew took advantage and had crossed to the great doors heedless of what they trod on.

Volmar Packard and Deming put their shoulders to the door, while Indavey blasted off at the front runners of their pursuers.

The doors swung inwards to reveal a vast tower of light, glass and gleaming metal which stretched up the center of the tower.

This was the core of the ion drive — a vast vat of ionised particles smashing around within the field of the containment cylinder

As the others forced the door closed again, Packard stepped up to the machine and slid the ion generator unit from its shielded casing. At once he pulled it free of the machine, which changed its flashing mercurial light and fluttered at this violation.

"Now we've got to get out of here!"

"We can't go that way!" spoke Idanvey, as the metal of the door cooled where it had been fused by her plasma blasts.

"Up then. There should be an access further up the ion core."

Wearily the crew began to climb the shallow stepped ladders which spiraled to walkways higher up.

"Look," said Packard, pointing to a thick metallic tube which ran from the ion core to the wall of the tower. "This is probably a major duct leading to the outside. If we follow it we might get out."

"Its worth a go," said Deming, grasping at any plan in favour of wandering aimlessly.

They did so, soon finding themselves back in the mock stone of the main castle area, but the conduit was still visible, if now it resembled a column running across the vaulted ceilings. As they walked, ever watchful for the slug-creatures, all sense of orientation left them. One grey corridor became like another, one spiral stairway was much like another. Their only guide was the ion conduit.

The conduit ran between two pillars and passing beyond the crew found themselves in a vast chamber of polished onyx engraven with the dark symbols of ancient sorcery. Frescoes of torturings were here also. A raised dias at the far end was surmounted by a large black stone block, which seemed almost to swallow light.

"Well, the pipe went in two directions and we seem to have gone in the wrong one, deeper into the ship rather than out of it," muttered the Engineer. "But why on Earth does a massive ion conduit vent into a temple?"

They approached the altar, each feeling the prickle of preternatural fear. They fought off the urge to run and climbed up the steps.

"Maybe we can find out what secret lies at the heart of this strange castle?" Volmar stated.

Deming, Roverton and Volmar looked at the altar, while Idanvey took her customary postion as guard.

When Volmar looked around he noticed that Packard was still interested in the ion pipe which ran towards a curtained area at the back of the chamber. As he watched Packard parted the curtain and stepped inside. Volmar started to move towards the curtain when a raucous laughter came from beyond. Then Packard emerged again from the curtain, his back to the group. Clearly it was he who was laughing, his body shaking as he stepped backwards and now all the crew stopped their examinations and looked towards him.

Packard turned. He was buckled over with laughter, his chest heaving. Tears ran from his widely buldging eyes and his jaw was stretched wide open. Uncontrollable laughter racked his body. As the crew watched, Packard's jaw dropped even further open, the flesh tearing at the corners of his mouth. Among the spittle he was coughing up their came red foamy blood. His chest heaved and a curious sick pause punctuated the laugh in which a painful intake of breath was gasped. Then an evil cracking sound came from Packard's rib-cage. His mouth laughed on, but as his tear-ducts ran dry Volmar saw that his eyes were filled with terror!

With a gasp Packard fell forward, face down onto the floor and lay silent.

Cautiously Volmar approached the body. He reached out his hand, but there was no life to detect in Packard's body. His heart must have given out.

Volmar raised his eyes towards the curtain and wondered what could be beyond it to do this to a man?

He turned back to look at the others. In shock he almost didn't register the tall shadow standing at the back, its lick flabby arm around Idanvey's throat, a long rune-carved scimitar in its other hand

Suddenly Shandor-Khall spoke, "O Chor-Tal come forth! The Sacrifices are here!"

Then, as Idanvey struggled helplessly in his mighty grip, he too began to laugh!

Chapter 18. (Boyd Pearson)

Shandor-Khall's laughter reverberated through the temple as he watched the unfolding of his life's work. Millennia of clandestine research and planning had gone in to this day. A day which had only been awaited the required sacrifices for its plans to come to fruition.

It was with much glee that Shandor-Khall observed the misfortune of the Alycone, a misfortune which provided the necessary antecedent for the summoning to take place. Now the moment was at hand. The moment in which Chor-Tal would rise from slime filled Dnehr-Thosla and rightfully enthrone Shandor-Khall as high priest to the Laughing God.

In the past magic would have been used to give form to the otherwise formless Chor-Tal, but in theses enlightened times, Shandor-Khall preferred science. With a gurgle of a command the Ion vents opened - spewing Ionised plasma in to the air above the dais. At the same time the artificial lights changed from orange flame to spectral purple. The chromatic purple hue would make his form bearable to mortal eyes, at least in theory.

"Come forth Chor-Tal! I have a gift for thee" Shandor-Khall cried out his grip on the struggling Idanvey never lessening. The rest of the crew stood motionless; in the purple gloom, not even Captain Volmar, veteran of many a space adventure, new what action to take. Packard killed in a fit of rib cracking laughter and Idanvey in the slimy clutches of Shandor-Khall, what more could happen.

The metallic shimmering gas began to twist and fold in surrealist patterns. From the curtained area a translucent slime oozed in to the circle. From its native slime Chor-Tal arose to take form in the ionised gas provided him. A form of such otherworldly horror, that without the filtering purple film, would have ripped the viewers asunder with grotesque laughter.

The far wall exploded, spewing rock fragments as sharp as needles across the room. The crew were knocked sprawling to the floor, while Shandor-Khall's mass kept him, and by virtue of his clinging arm, Idanvey, on their feet. A mass of vines, trunks and other blasphemously formed vegetable matter slithered in to the chamber. Occupying the entire wall its appendages writhed in some demonically sentient way. The Core Dweller had arrived.

Chor-Tal and the Core Dweller observed each other. It was animus from the first moment of contact, for their very natures were in opposition. Chor-Tal who dwelt in the otherworldly slime of Dnehr-Thosla and whose being was so utterly alien to this realm that ones only response was laughter, a laughter so vivacious as to rip a mortal apart. The Core Dweller on the other hand was native to this universe, was the essence of this universes, and like a territorial animal - did not look kindly on interlopers.

For a consciousness on such cosmic scale, the Core-Dweller took much amusement in the small. The small life forms that team this planet; the small 'god' called Chor-Tal. It could afford the time to play, for it was outside of time; it could afford the energy, for the universe was its dynamo.

* * *

Shandor-Khall and Idanvey joined the rest of the crew on the floor, as the vibrations from the cosmic sport began to shake the castle apart. Scrambling through the now dust filled gloom, Idanvey recovered the rune-carved scimitar.

Shandor-Khall flailed and howled with rage as his lives work crumbled round him. He did not know what it was that broke though the wall only that it was not good. Like a beached whale with arms, he began to drag himself towards the nearest exit. Perhaps, he thought to him self, I can try again in another thousand years or two.

Idanvey had her own thought on the matter, and that was one of revenge. Revenge for the slaying of Mahmoud Ali Fakhoum, revenge for the gruesome slaughter of her lover Packard and most importantly, revenge for being touched by those slimy maws. With breaker zeal Idanvey plunged Shandor-Khalls's own blade in to his bloated form. Again and again she struck with cold malice and total indifference to the events taking place around her. Like a lanced boil the amorphous form began to collapse, oozing vile vitriol across the flagstones.

The broken blade of the scimitar continued to strike the gore stained stone which was all that was left of Shandor-Khall. It took the combined effort of Volmar and Jasper to lift the screaming Idanvey to her feet. Shielding their eyes from the hideous events taking place in the centre of the room the five remaining crew members of the space-flyer Alcyone fled.

* * *

Doors, stairs, rooms, all blurred in to one as the adrenaline filled crew ran. Direction was a secondary consideration to distance. Their flight took them through marbled labs, wooden kitchens and steel lined machine shops. The dwarfs they passed were indifferent to the speeding humans, falling over themselves their malformed bodies were unable to stay upright amidst the onslaught of organ pulping vibrations.

They stooped, panting, in the penultimate doorway. Their long ragged breaths tore over their dust coated throats. Mentally and physically exhausted they stared dumbfounded towards their goal. The bonfire illuminated hall way was 100 meters of damp flagstone long, at the far end stood a giant set of double doors. They were open, just. Behind them the walls of the corridor collapsed inward, entombing them in a sarcophagus, being shaken apart by gods.

With a -whoosh- great chunks of rock and plaster began to fall from the ceiling ahead of them. Clouds of dust blinded their eyes and shards of stone stung the flesh. The site of their salvation lost in a mire white dust.

"We run" Volmar shouted over the noise of a building slowly tearing it self apart. There was nothing left to say and with that last uttered syllable Volmar sprinted towards the doors. With in five paces he was lost from site the dust fog enveloping him. The remaining four looked briefly at each other, silently acknowledging that this may well be the last adventure they shared. With a cry of bravado, four frail human bodies torpedoed towards freedom or death amidst the onslaught of tons of falling rubble.

* * *

As each crew member was struck down by the falling ceiling they were enveloped in a cool white light. From charging through a mist of searing rock fragments as the roof collapsed upon them, they were transported to another world. Mentally aware but bodiless, they drifted in mellow weightlessness. "Greetings and salutations Earthlings" Came a voice with out direction within a landscape of similar description. It was a not a voice that the ears listened to, rather one beamed directly in to the mind.

"Do not be alarmed or fearful for you have done us a great service and we offer you only assistance and gratitude in return. We can feel your many questions, but let us tell you our story, and in doing so your queries will be answered."

"We are the council of Yutran, and we have teleported you from Shando-Khall's place of exile to our chambers. Had we not done so you would have been crushed to death"

"Shandor-Khall was exiled from Yutran for the practising of blood rites. Rites of our distant forefathers who believed that Chor-Tal was a means to the creation of a great Empire, and to mastery over this plane of existence. This was a dark time in or history, a time when we fought amongst our selves in petty squabbles that nearly obliterated Yutran. That was many millennium ago. Now we are a peaceful race with strict edicts against violence and heathen worship of all kinds."

"Shandor-Khall was captured and imprisoned for his crimes. However, before we were able to send him to some barren world, he escaped. Breaking in to the museum of ancient history, he used its teleporter to send it and himself to a planet on the other side of the galaxy. It was because of this distance that we were unable to bring the building back, and Shandor-Khall himself was protected by his occult science. You however we could teleport, once you were at a safe distance from the melee."

"The museum served as a reminder of our past. It held exhibits on our early superstions and genetics research along with examples of architecture and early technologies. It is unfortunate that it could not be salvaged."

"Because of our edicts we were unable to directly stop Shandor-Khall. However, we were able to bring about the misfortune which forced you to land on the planet. Yes, we apologise, but it was necessary that if Chor-Tal was to be summoned it was at a time of our choosing. A time that gave us the opportunity to ensure its demise. The Core-Dweller awakens and feeds only during certain planetary alignments, one of which was occurring as you ship entered the system."

"We had hoped that the ensuing conflict between the Core Dweller and Chor-Tal would result in the death of Shandor-Khall, we are pleased that the element of doubt has been removed by the actions of Idanvey."

"As for the Core-Dweller, it continues to play with Chor-Tal, when the game is over it will be consumed, let us hope it is a big enough meal"

"As for yourselves, we shall return the five of you to your ship which we have repaired and placed on the outskirts of your solar system."

* * *

As the familiar hum of ships engines filled their ears, the five crew mates turned to look at each other, and the two empty stations. It seemed as if an aeon had passed since they last beheld the interior of the Alycone in flight. It had however, only been two days.

"Set a course for home" came Volmar's command, in a voice softened by two very long eldritch days.

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