by D.A. Madigan
In the hideous, flickering glare reflected from the huge, cyclopean idol's glassy greenish surface, the swaying, heaving undulations of the gathered eldritch throngs were etched in stark relief against the backdrop of the ancient crumbling church.
From the upper balcony, where the shambling hulks bearing the three captives lurched ponderously into the horribly transformed chamber of worship, the entire ghastly vista was mercilessly displayed.
Before the captured adventurers' smoke strained eyes was spread a hellish tableau of the sort that would have sent weaker minds tottering into madness at the merest glance. There, coiling and uncoiling in inhumanly syncopated rhythm within what should have been one of humanity's holiest places, was assembled the entire population of the small town.
Cheery cheeked Mrs. Buttersbee, the captive group's erstwhile landlady was there, her pleasant blue eyes now slitted like a cobra's. In the flickering light from the awful emerald torches, her once apple-red cheeks were pallid, green-tinged and scaly seeming to the naked eye.
All the other tenants from Mrs. Buttersbee's boarding house were also there – the kindly middle aged schoolmarm Miss Spence, the retired postmaster Abner O'Keefe, the morose, taciturn traveling salesman known only as Mr. Bitters. All of them now swayed and hissed inhumanly in front of their depraved and disgusting idol, all of them as grotesquely transformed as Mrs. Buttersbee.
The leader of the bound captives, whom many mere humans of the year 1932 would have instantly recognized as Colonel Nathaniel Champion, international adventurer of vast renown, stared grimly from atop the vast, brobdignagian shoulders of the creature bearing him down the stairs from the balcony.
It took only a fraction of the formidable acumen reputed to Colonel Champion to realize what a fix he and his companions were in. Yet no trace of panic marred the noble forehead above the shaggy, greying eyebrows of the famous international paranormal investigator, nor did the slightest hint of any discomposure so much as quiver the semblance of the hard set lips framed by the luxurious silvery whiskers of one of the world's greatest heroes.
Nor was any untoward emotion betrayed by the beauteous visage millions would have identified as belonging to red haired Patricia Champion, daughter to the renowned Colonel, and similarly resolute were the aquiline features of the final captive, a bold adventurer nearly as recognizable as either Champion, the intrepid and brilliant Professor Copperton. Only Patricia's vastly heaving breasts, rising and falling magnificently like some regularly crashing tsunami of perfectly sculpted female flesh beneath the clinging fabric of the tight, now tattered blouse she had donned at Mrs. Butterbee's boarding house barely an hour prior, indicated any emotional tumult that she might harbor locked within her powerfully pumping heart.
She had absolute faith in her partners in peril, a faith fully reflected in the calm of her glacial blue eyes – eyes identical to those whose published images had snared the hearts of a million men, staring out of the covers of various glamour and fashion magazines each month from every corner newsstand in America and Europe.
Beneath Professor Mark Copperton's perfectly controlled visage, a torrent of intellectual prowess might well be raging. Copperton's finely tuned mind was doubtless hurtling through every conceivable permutation of possibility, winnowing, narrowing, refining, until at last he would formulate a series of strategems that, although each individual step might seem unlikely and even deranged by and of itself, would nonetheless, in culmination, inevitably lead to the escape of he and his comrades and the salvation of all their hopes.
Or, equally, he might simply be composing a monogram regarding the differences between the strange serpentmen who comprised most of the townsfolk here in the odd little village of Howard Harbor, and their even stranger slave race, the bulky, hulking shoggoths who currently bore the three of them effortlessly towards the hideous idol where they would no doubt be horribly sacrificed.
He might, indeed, be mentally composing the sentences in which he would describe the various human guises that nightfall had caused to slough off the seemingly human inhabitants of Howard Harbor, transforming the heavyset, slow moving farmers and laborers hanging about on the front porch of Milt's Country Grocery and Post Office into the hideously strong, nearly non-sentient hulks currently carrying he and his friends, while the remainder of the townsfolk had taken on the disturbingly ophidian aspect of ancient Lemurian serpentmen.
As the shoggoth bore their captives past an undulating group composed of the town's mayor and all four of its selectmen, the grizzled leader of the captives made his move.
Although the brainless shoggoth had searched each of the adventurers before binding them, their dull mindlessness had been no match for the driving intellect beneath the brow of Colonel Champion.
Now, as the razor blade concealed in the sleeve of his heavy cotton safari jacket finally sheared through the stout hemp ropes binding his wrists, he twisted his heavily muscled form to the side, hurling himself off of the broad shoulders of his shoggoth bearer.
As he did so, his right hand darted to one of his jacket's epaulets and tore it cleanly away, thus igniting the chemical fuse woven into the fabric there which connected directly to the detonator in the epaulet's small button, which was itself composed entirely of an artificial explosive of the Colonel's own design.
Even as the silver haired explorer landed on his side and rolled towards the church wall like a great jungle cat, he was flicking the epaulette and its incindiery button towards the main mass of shoggoths.
His comrades had needed no prompting. Taking their cue from their brilliant leader, both other captives immediately executed similar gymnastics of a sort that only Olympic level athletes in peak physical condition could even hope to perform, acrobatically hurling themselves through the air away from their bearers.
Before the slow brained occult slaves could even begin to ponderously turn on their clumsy hooved feet, the Colonel's explosive pellet detonated in their midst. Their dense, bulky bodies absorbed most of the blast, but the hideous shoggoth were scattered like tenpins, their torsos and tiny pinheads crushed and deformed by the devastating fury of the explosion.
Meanwhile, the razor still in the hands of the man called Champion had not been idle. All three adventurers lithely sprang upright again, no longer bound, and without any discussion, the younger of the two male adventurers snatched up one of the pews that had been pushed to the side of the chamber and smashed out a window with it. With hordes of ululating serpentmen slithering madly behind them, the three vaulted to freedom!
Racing through the dank, livid shadows of the horror filled Howard Harbor night without a word to each other, the three reached the front of Mrs. Buttersbee's boarding house, where they had parked their vehicle, a heavily modified Army surplus jeep.
Without uttering a syllable, the copper haired ingenue seized up a .45 revolver and one of the Springfield rifles from the back of the jeep. In addition to being a world famous fashion model and ingenue, Patricia Champion had won three gold medals in the 1932 Olympics on the U.S. women's rifle and pistols teams. Now, as the two males leapt into the Army jeep and struggled with its starter mechanism, she dropped to one knee and began to provide withering covering fire for their escape.
An occult mist had sprung up all around Howard Harbor, a defensive device used by its hellish inhabitants to protect their sinister secret. While this impenetrable mystic fog might have foiled the escape attempts of lesser beings, the serpentmen who wove it had reckoned without the intellectual prowess of Professor Mark Copperton.
The experimental compass of his own design he held in his hand, as well as his careful map making of the days before, paid dividends as the small party of adventurers hurtled off into the night, away from the little town of horrors and back towards the world of ration and reason.
* * * *
14 hours later, the town of Howard Harbor lay in smoking ruins. A battalion from the local Army post was sifting through the blazing embers that had once been the horribly inhuman township, seeking any survivors.
Occasionally hisses of outrage, quickly followed by shots that cut them terminally short, rang out through the afternoon haze.
On the fringes of the no longer existent town, the three adventurers who had so recently escaped Howard Harbor’s strange cult had set up a large tent from just outside of which they were overseeing the clean up operation through field glasses.
As the man called Professor Copperton watched, he saw an Army staff car approach the tent and come to a halt. A lieutenant emerged from behind the driver's seat, opened the door to the rear compartment, and saluted smartly.
The battalion commander, General Harderman, unfolded his lanky length into the smoke smeared sunlight and stiffly approached the adventurers' pavilion.
"All clear!" he said, snapping the leader of the adventurous trio a punctilious salute. "Most of these snake things are dead already from the fire; my boys are having no trouble cleaning up the rest."
"Yes, they're sluggish anyway in the daylight," the elder explorer agreed.
"Probably why they adopt human guise when the sun is out," his younger companion mused.
"It's horrible," General Harderman said, shaking his head. "If you hadn't gotten onto them… there's no telling what their nefarious plans may have been!Are there more of them, do you know?"
"According to our… sources…" the man known as Champion said, "this was the last enclave."
"Thank God for that," the General said."What a horrible surprise to find such things exist!"
"Yes, we were shocked," the fellow called Copperton said. "We weren't prepared for them at all." His eyes grew distant. "We all thought humanity was the dominant race on this planet," he said, his tone slow and thoughtful. "All our devices, our mighty plans…" He narrowed his eyes. "We had to improvise. They could have muddled everything up terribly."
"Yes, yes," the General agreed, perhaps somewhat pompously. "Man takes his place in the universe for granted… perhaps too much so, indeed. Still, thanks to you, humanity is safe from this horrible threat."
The two male adventurers exchanged glances. "This one, yes," the Colonel said, perhaps a bit dryly.
"General Harderman," the copper haired beauty murmured, inclining her beautifully coifed head towards the tent flap, "there is something you should see inside here, if you have a moment."
"Of course, ma'am!" the General said. "Anything the U.S. can do for you, your father, your fiance… we owe you a great debt!"
Unhesitatingly, the General, who had fought on a hundred battlefields but none anywhere near as strange as where he found himself today, followed the three adventurers into the canvas enclosure.
Inside, it took the General's eyes a few moments to adjust to the gloom. Then:
"By God!" he gasped. "Is that… is that meant to be ME?"
Stacked around the tent were four and five foot high piles of what seemed to be seed bags. On top of them were huge, purplish looking gourds of some kind; dozens of them, spilling from atop the seed bags to lie, gleaming in the dim light, all over the dirt floor.
In the very center of the tent, one of the vast purplish gourds had split open on one end, and protruding from it was what appeared to be the head, neck, arms, and upper torso of a naked man… and although the figure was enshrouded yet in some sort of silky webbing, still, anyone could see that it did indeed bear an identical resemblance to the General.
The General shot a horrified look at Colonel Champion. "Is this what they were planning to do? These horrifying serpentmen, these worshippers of ancient, eldritch deities? Replace living Americans with some kind of manufactured, vegetative slave-drones?"
"Oh, no," ‘Colonel Champion’ said, smiling reassuringly as ‘Professor Copperton’ smashed his gun butt down on the back of the General's head. "This one is ours."
Without a word, the alien wearing the duplicated form of Patricia Champion bent down and fastened a vine from the General-pod to the real General's unconscious head. Within moments, the General was no more than a hollowed out, withered husk. The three members of the alien vanguard helped their newest recruit out of the already shriveling pieces of his nurturing pod, and handed him the General's uniform. Then they carefully gathered up the seeds dropped by the nurturing pod as it withered; such seeds were vital to the plan.
There was no need for verbal communication; the four of them were one.
The General would distribute replacement gourds to each member of the battalion outside, ordering them to keep them by their sides at all times. After tonight, the entire battalion would be available to begin distributing seed-pods to all the surrounding human villages.
The seeds sprouted quickly, the new colony should be fully established within a few planetary rotations, at most. The serpentmen, whose metabolisms, and worse, whose utterly inhuman mental processes, were completely incompatible to the colony mind, could have proven a serious threat to the invasion.
But as the blossom-queen had indicated, the first three humans chosen for recruitment had had adequate individual resources to deal with that problem.
Soon, this world would belong to the pods.