by David Barr Kirtley
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of Weird Tales, and was reprinted in the anthologies Dead But Dreaming, edited by Kevin Ross and Keith Heber,
and New Cthulhu, edited Paula Guran. It also appeared as Episode 48 of the Pseudopod podcast. The illustration is by Allen Koszowksi. Learn more about the story here.
Professor Carlton Brose was evil, and I adored him as only a freshman can. I spent the first miserable semester at college watching him, studying the way he would flick away a cigarette butt, or how he would arch his eyebrow when he made a point. I mimicked these small things privately, compulsively. I don't know why, because it wasn't the small things that drew me to him at all. It was the big things, the stories people told as far away as dear old Carolina.
You heard the name Brose if you ran with any cults, and I ran with a few. Society rejected us, so we rejected them. The more things you give up, the less there is to bind your will. There was power there, we were sure of it, but it was damned elusive.
I used to shop at an occult bookstore in Raleigh. A friend of mine worked there, and one day as he was shelving books he told me, "These guys you hang with, them I'm not so sure about. But Brose, he's the real deal."
"You believe that?" I said.
He stopped and got a slightly crazed look in his eyes. "I've seen it, man, personally seen it. Flies buzz up out of the rot and swirl in formation around him. He can make your eyes bleed just from looking at him. The guy's tapped into something huge."
I was skeptical. "And he teaches a class?"
"Not just a class, all right? It's this special program. Only a dozen or so are admitted, and they get power. I've seen that too. Then they go away. Every spring."
He shook his head. "Damned if I know. Places not of this world. That's what some people say."
"I don't buy it," I said. "If he's got so much going for him, why's he working a job at all? And what kind of school would let him teach it?"
My friend shrugged. "I don't know about that. All I know is that Brose is for real."
"Then why aren't you in his class?"
He scowled and went back to shelving. "Brose wouldn't take me. Said I had no talent, no potential. It hurt like hell, but that's another reason you know he's legit -- what kind of fraud would turn people away like that?"
I had no answer, and I'd known a lot of frauds.
I traveled to Massachusetts, to the university where Brose taught. I sought out his office in a secluded corner of the Anthropology building, then sat on a bench in the hallway and pretended to read.
Finally the office door opened and Brose emerged. I glanced up, as if accidentally, as if his movement had caught my eye.
He stared back at me with eyes the color of a tombstone, and smiled knowingly. The shadows seemed to lengthen and darken as he passed. I shuddered, because I was sure just from that look that it was all true. Brose practically radiated power. On that day my initial skepticism transformed into the most helpless adoration. I enrolled in the school.
In the winter, I met with Brose for the first time. The inside of his office was like some terrible jungle -- loose papers drooped from the shelves, and a filth-choked and apparently unused fish tank cast a pallid green light. From my seat, I could look out the window and see the lonely stretch of grey-green woods that was called the Arboretum.
Brose sat behind his desk, in those shadows of his own making, and said, "So you want to join the program?"
"Yes," I whispered.
"Why should I accept you?"
"I'll do anything," I said. "No hesitation. No regret."
His lips curled into that now familiar smile. "And what will you be bringing to the program?"
I knew he meant power. "Nothing. Not yet. But you can--"
He shook his head. "If nothing's what you have, then nothing's what you get from me. Go back to literature. It's really--"
"No!" I broke in. "I don't have much, that's true. I've lost things in my life, so many things, but I've gained something too -- this rotting emptiness inside me, and I can use it. I swear I can use it. All the loss, it can't have been for nothing." I added softly, "I won't let it be."
He watched me for a long time. Finally he nodded. "All right, you'll do. I'll get the form."
I leaned back in my chair and let out a long sigh of relief as he disappeared into a back room.
Something on the shelf caught my eye. A black statue. Like Brose it seemed wrapped in strange shadows. I rose from my seat.
The statue was a foot tall and depicted a creature resembling the head of a man, but with a beard of tentacles. The thing's eyes were utterly empty, and it had no body, only more tentacles.
I went to pick it up and study it closer, but when I lifted it I gasped. The thing was unearthly heavy -- heavier than anything that size could possibly be, heavier than I could hold in one hand. It tore itself from my fingers and lunged for the floor, where it thudded and lay still.
From behind me came Brose's voice, "Don't touch that." I started.
He placed a shoebox on his desk, then lifted the statue with two hands and returned it to its place on the shelf.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I..."
My voice died in my throat as Brose reached into the shoebox and lifted out a small white mouse, which squirmed and flailed and sniffed.
"What's that?" I said.
"The form. The application form." Brose paced over to that gruesomely overgrown fish tank and removed the lid. He offered me the mouse and I took it.
He nodded at the tank. "Fill out your application."
I stepped forward, the mouse nibbling gently at my fingers as I held it over the foul water.
This was a test. Of what? My willingness? My resolve? I let go. The mouse plunged into the water, then thrashed and screamed, clawing at the sides of the tank. Water soaked its fur and garbled its cries. Then it died and floated there, spinning slowly, its four pink legs hanging down, its tail trailing after.
"Congratulations," Brose said. "Your application's been accepted."
Our first class convened in a sprawling old house on the edge of campus, down in the dim cement cellar. The room had no windows, and its walls and floor bore eerie dark stains. There were thirteen students, mostly male. All had sallow flesh and haunted eyes.
Brose crucified a cat, right on his desk in front of us. The animal howled and squirmed, but the nails driven through its limbs held it fast. Blood trickled from its paws, and
Brose stanched the flow with a cloth.
He said, "The most important thing you must learn is to bind your will to that of another. Pain is conspicuous, it'll point the way, but don't depend on it. There are greater things than cats you must connect to, greater things than you, and they have never felt pain."
He turned to me. "Make it bleed again."
I was filled with an aching desire to prove myself. I wanted him to think I was his most talented, most dedicated, most favored student. I would have done anything, endured anything, to make him adore me, the way I adored him.
I whispered desperately, "I don't know how."
He turned to another student, a tall guy with dark, scornful eyes, and said, "Make it bleed."
The guy never even glanced at the cat, but instantly its paws began to bubble and ooze and spurt.
"Good." Brose nodded. "Very good."
At the end of class, he admonished us, "Tell no one what you learn here."
The next day we packed up our things and moved into the house. My room was a small square chamber with hardwood floors and peeling white paint. When my new roommate entered, I recognized him instantly. "Oh," I said. "You're--"
"Adrian," he replied.
"--the one who can make the cat bleed," I said.
"Yeah," he said, turning away, setting down his bags. "I can do a lot of things."
He began to unpack, saying nothing.
I said, "Maybe sometime you can--"
"Look," he said over his shoulder. "Let's get something straight. I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to learn. No distractions. So just stay out of my way, and we'll get along just fine."
I was silent.
"Nothing personal," he said. "But I'm here to excel. To make Brose notice me. To be the best."
I felt a stab of jealous rage. I couldn't believe it was an accident, the way his words seemed calculated to tear at my greatest longing: to be favored, to be adored.
I said, "That's why we're all here."
"Yeah," he said. "Sure."
"I mean, you did well today," I said. "But there's more to this than just cats."
He said coldly, "You think I should try something bigger?"
Then I felt a wetness on my lip. Turning to the mirror, I saw blood leaking from my nose, streaking down my chin. I grabbed a towel and pressed it to my face, leaning my head back.
"Don't lean back," Adrian said. "Keep pressure on your nose. The bleeding will stop."
I tried so hard, but it did no good. With each passing week I lagged further behind Adrian in absorbing the macabre lessons we received. Adrian was right. He was the best. Adored by the class. Brose's favorite.
If I could not be favored by Brose, I would have preferred to be disfavored, to be his enemy. In truth he was indifferent to me. I was not important enough for him even to despise.
As I walked the shaded pathways of the campus, I pondered the strange role that Brose played here. It was obvious that the other faculty suspected the dark nature of our program.
They kept their distance, and shot us looks full of fear and hostility, but they made no effort to disrupt us. Were they simply afraid of Brose? I couldn't decide.
As the semester wore on Brose grew more and more agitated, his lectures increasingly frenzied and mad. He raved of nothing but the binding.
"You must learn faster!" He pounded on his desk. "The hour is near. It has all led up to this." He took a deep breath. "You must bind yourselves to the impossible mind of the
Traveler on Oceans of Night, the Stepper Across the Stars. If you ingratiate yourselves, you will earn a place as His favored disciples and journey with him forever to those places only He can make by his dreaming."
I glanced at Adrian, but he kept his eyes fixed straight ahead. So now we knew our fate. We would gain the ultimate power we sought by pledging ourselves to this ultimate being.
Brose reached into his briefcase and pulled out the black statue, darker than any earthly object could ever be -- the tentacled man-thing with its empty eyes. Then I saw something
I'd never noticed before. Among its many limbs clung tiny human figures. That almost made me dizzy, for it meant that the creature must tower to unimaginable heights.
The Traveler on Oceans of Night. The Stepper Across the Stars.
It was Him.
That week I dreamed murky dreams of upside down cities built from granite and slime. One night I awoke to find Adrian lying on the floor and whimpering. He stared up in terror, as if something horrid hung from the ceiling.
"What?" I said. "What is it?"
"Oh God," he wailed. His usual swagger had vanished. "Can't you feel it? Are you blind and deaf and numb to everything? His boundlessness reaches across the void to poison our dreams."
Then I knew he wasn't staring at the ceiling, but at the sky and the stars and the dark emptiness beyond.
"The Traveler on Oceans of Night," Adrian whispered. "He's coming."
I had failed to win the adoration of Brose, but who was Brose, compared to all this? Compared to this great Traveler? Brose was nothing. He was a small man who lived a small life, pointing others along an exalted path that he himself dared not follow. I had found an object far more worthy of veneration. To be a disciple to such power, to be favored by the Traveler!
I would not fail this time.
The night of the binding arrived. The Traveler was near, his imminence palpable. The air crackled with magic. I looked out over the forest, and the trees themselves seemed to tremble.
My classmates and I donned black robes, and Brose led us into the Arboretum. We passed beneath withered branches and trod faint trails that wound between mossy boulders. Brose held the dark statue before him, and we didn't need light to see because the statue seemed to suck the shadows from beneath our feet and pull them into itself.
In the deepest corner of the woods, within a grotto of gray stone, sprawled an ancient shrine overgrown with rotting ferns. Brose set his statue on the ground, and we settled down to wait.
I don't know how many hours we lay there. Then a breeze came, snatching up damp leaves and flinging them about, raising them into columns in the sky. The wind blew faster and louder until it seemed to shriek in pain.
I was struck by a maddening sense of dislocation, a nightmare cacophony of unbearable sensations. Then the shadows leapt from beneath the trees to block out the starlight and wrap themselves around our throats and sink behind our eyes.
The Traveler on Oceans of Night was there, his form stretching upward to infinity. All of him was far away yet somehow pressing close all around us. He was so enormous, so horrible, and so magnificent that we collapsed and wept helplessly and without shame to behold Him.
Through the confusion came the voice of Brose screaming, "Bind yourselves! Do it now!"
Adrian was first. He rose off the ground, arms outstretched, robe whipping about him, face full of ecstasy. One by one my classmates lifted from the earth until they circled around that great being. They were like flies, I realized suddenly. Like flies rising from the rot to swirl around Professor Carlton Brose.
I looked at him, and his expression was one I had come to know too well: Indifference. Something was horribly wrong. I imagined I saw that same indifference mirrored on the incomprehensible otherworldly face of the Traveler.
I would not bind to Him. I crawled until I found a rock to hide behind, then I screamed to my whirling classmates, "We're the flies! Oh God, we're like the flies."
The Traveler made one ponderous motion with a million of His slimy tentacles, and He stepped away toward another star, another dimension, another world He had dreamed. Then the night was silent and empty.
Brose strode toward me. He said darkly, "You failed the binding."
I lunged at him, startling him. I grabbed his throat and forced him down against a stone.
"You lied," I said. "You said you'd make us His disciples."
"The Traveler on Oceans of Night is a great vessel," he whispered. "I would put you aboard."
"As what?" I said. "A rat in the hold? Or rather, a flea on a rat."
I imagined I saw the dozen bodies of my classmates, sucked away into the bitter black void between worlds, their frozen forms twirling slowly in an endless dance among the stars.
Then Brose seized my temples with his muddy fingers and made me look down into his cold, tombstone eyes. My own eyes began to bleed. I knew he meant to kill me.
As I flailed, my fingers fell upon the statue, and I lifted it with two arms and brought it down on Brose's forehead. The statue sank without resistance until it reached the ground.
When I pulled it away there was nothing but a gaping hole where the face of Professor Carlton Brose had been.
The empty eyes of the Traveler could see things that humans never dreamt of, but He was blind to the pain of this sad world.
You were the best, Adrian, better than me. Better at a lie. Are you proud?
Today a student came to beg admission to my special program. He stood at the fish tank and clenched a mouse in his fist. Then he held it underwater until it drowned.
"Congratulations," I said. "You've been accepted."
I do this initiation -- as I'm sure Brose did -- to ease my conscience, to reassure myself that my students are cruel, and deserve their fate.
The college hates the program, but they know it's necessary, and after Brose died I was the only one who could replace him. New England has some dangerous people lurking about -- ones who've latched onto darkness, or might -- and they need to be dealt with. The harmless ones I turn away.
I've learned the truth that Brose knew: it's best to be a big fish in a small pond. Fish can't live outside the pond, and being a fish isn't so bad. Every spring, before I send them off to die, a new class studies with me. They are enthralled by my meager powers. They long for my briefest attention.
They adore me.
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