This story is paired with “The Mask” from The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
As David Baum drove the Auburn convertible up the drive, Aldo Nadi studied the long two-story country house at the end. It was aglow with electric light and doubtless provided all the modern amenities wealthy New Yorkers expected when escaping the city for a weekend.
Aldo chuckled. “I was hoping for something more on the order of the castle in Mr. Lugosi’s vampire film.”
David’s mouth tightened. “I keep warning you, Maestro. This isn’t a joke.”
Well, Aldo thought, at least the money isn’t. He’d requested and received payment in advance on the suspicion that even David, who seemed an honorable young man despite his irrational terrors, might hesitate to part with such an extravagant sum after the night passed uneventfully.
David stopped the car in front of the main entrance. Aldo climbed out, dropped the butt of his Modiano on the ground, stepped on it, and stretched. Then he pushed up the sleeve of his white fencer’s jacket and wrapped a bandage around his wrist. He used a strap to strengthen his grip on a weapon, and the bandage kept the strap from cutting off his circulation.
Meanwhile, David gave him a worried frown. “I still wonder if some kind of armor—“
“Except for a fencing mask, I’ve never worn armor in my life. Doing so now would only compromise the skills for which you engaged my services.” It would also have made the present situation even more ridiculous.
David had sent the staff away, and silent house felt empty. As his student led him into a room with an imposing fieldstone fireplace, Aldo noticed a decanter of brandy and rather wished he could sample the contents. But alas, wanting his condottiere at the peak of his powers, David was unlikely to offer such a libation.
Instead, the younger man opened a cabinet and brought out a rapier. “This is it,” he said.
The sword had the Italian grip Aldo favored. He hooked his fingers around the quillions and drew the weapon from its black leather scabbard. It was surprisingly light for a rapier, and the balance was excellent. He would have little difficulty executing modern techniques, and, smiling, he thought that perhaps it was a pity he wouldn’t actually have the opportunity to use it.
Then he noticed the small symbols etched down the length of the straight, double-edged blade. He had no idea of their meaning, and they were merely combinations of lines and curves like any letter or numeral. But something about them made his stomach turn over and his temples throb.
He wrenched his gaze away, and the unpleasant sensations abated. He’d suffered from headaches all his life, and apparently, on this particular evening, squinting at tiny characters had the potential to trigger one. He resolved not to do so again.
“Are you all right?” David asked.
“Fine. Where is our damsel in distress?”
“Already asleep. Sedated.”
Aldo frowned. Farcical though the situation was, that aspect didn’t sit well with him, and the fact that David’s sister had supposedly consented made it only a little more palatable.
“It’s the only way,” David said. “If the plan doesn’t work, I mean. The women who were awake for the…ordeal were never the same afterward. Some went insane.”
“So you said. Are we guardian angels going to hover at her bedside until the dawn?”
“That isn’t necessary. There’ll be warning signs that it’s starting.”
So, as the hours crawled by, they lounged downstairs smoking, drinking coffee, and listening to The Bell Telephone Hour on the radio. Bored, Aldo pulled on his glove, held the rapier at arm’s length, and executed beats, disengages, and coupés against the empty air.
Then, abruptly, the room tilted and spun. If he hadn’t already been sitting, he would have fallen. Though he couldn’t define why, the furniture on the far end of the room looked as if it were miles away.
Yet the stars beyond the windows seemed closer. Burning a filthy yellow, they swirled around one another, unmaking the constellations and forming new ones.
Aldo told himself he couldn’t possibly be witnessing this, if only because the windows didn’t permit a view of the entire night sky, just sections of it. He closed his eyes and willed his perceptions to revert to normal.
When his dizziness and nausea faded, he risked another look around. As he’d hoped, the distortions had come to an end.
But the world wasn’t entirely as it had been before. Flickering and oozing, amber phosphorescence now stained the rapier blade, proof that something real had happened and was happening still.
Aldo drew a deep, steadying breath. Evidently he was going to have to earn his fee after all.
* * *
Five days previously, in the rooms in the Savoy Plaza he’d converted into a salle, Aldo had watched David fencing foil. For the first few touches, the young man was ahead, and then the prospect of victory turned him fearful of making a mistake. His fellow student rallied to defeat him 10-7.
Afterward, David looked on the brink of throwing his mask, a heinous breach of fencing etiquette. He managed to restrain himself but trudged to a spot removed from everyone else and flopped down on a bench. There he sat slumped with sweaty head in hand, the picture of disappointment and self-disgust.
During his childhood, humiliations on the piste had often left Aldo feeling much the same. No one had sought to comfort him, and in retrospect, he was glad. It had helped him learn to manage his emotions. But he’d come to believe the American temperament differed from the Italian, and he didn’t want to lose one of his most dedicated pupils to frustration.
He walked over and put his hand on David’s shoulder. “Cheer up,” he said, “you’re doing well. It takes several years of training simply to become a mediocre fencer. It took me that long, and I’m ‘the God of Fencing.’”
He smiled to indicate that he’d quoted Raggetti’s accolade with humorous intent. As he had, more or less. Although if one took the phrase to mean “the best fencer in the world,” his record demonstrated it was true.
David shook his head. “I haven’t got years.”
“Why not? Admittedly, you didn’t start in childhood as one ought, but you’re still young. With perseverance…” Suddenly, a possibility suggested itself. “My God, you haven’t agreed to a duel, have you?”
It seemed unlikely to say the least. The custom was dying out even in Europe, where Aldo had fought the only duel in which he’d ever had the bad judgment to become involved. But David had such an air of despair that the question needed to be asked.
And the younger man didn’t laugh off the suggestion. Rather, he said, “it’s not the way you’re…” He glanced around at the other students, some of whom were peering curiously in his and Aldo’s direction. “I can’t explain here. Could we meet later downstairs in the bar?”
* * *
The pianist was playing “Blue Monday” and doing a creditable job of it. Aldo took a first sip of his martini and somewhat regretfully shifted his attention from the music to his companion.
“Whatever the provocation,” he said, “you mustn’t duel. I’d give the identical admonition even if you were an expert fencer, because fencing and dueling are not the same. The former is compounded of courtesy, courage, and skill, the latter, of hate, courage, and blood. Which is to say, excellence in the one is no guarantee of victory in the other.”
“But isn’t there a trick?” David asked. “Some secret move that won you all those medals and that you don’t teach to just anybody?”
Aldo sighed. “You disappoint me. Surely you’ve assimilated enough to understand that there’s a science that at the highest level flowers into art, but no cheap and easy shortcut to mastery.”
“I guess I’m grasping at straws.”
“Tell me why. Then perhaps I’ll see a way to help you.”
“It’s going to sound crazy.” David smiled a bitter smile. “But being thought crazy’s the least of my problems. I just have to figure out how to begin…you know I’m Jewish, don’t you?”
“I imagined so.”
“Well, I’m sure you also know that off and on through the centuries, Jews have had it pretty rough over in Europe, and my ancestors always managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were slaughtered along the Rhine and kicked out of England and France. We lost everything over and over again.”
“Tragic. But how is it relevant to your current difficulties? Your family appears to be flourishing on this side of the Atlantic.”
“We are. But hundreds of years ago, back when people were blaming Jews for the Black Death, a Baum named Rephael living in Strasbourg realized the local Christians were gearing up for a massacre. And he decided, not again. Never again.”
“So he organized a resistance?”
“God, I wish he had. But he wasn’t a soldier. He was a scholar, a mystic, who studied Kabbalah and even stranger things. Things nobody should ever study, and that was where he looked for answers.”
Inwardly, Aldo winced. “You’re not going to tell me he sealed a pact with the Devil?”
“Not the Devil you’re thinking of. Something worse. Maybe Satan is the mask we humans hang on the things that are really out there in the universe so we don’t have to see their true faces.”
Aldo scooted back his chair. “Much as I appreciate Goethe and Gounod, I thought we were meeting in order that I might assist you with a genuine problem, not become the butt of a joke or join you on a flight into fantasy.”
“Please, Maestro! I warned you it would sound insane, but now that I’ve started, I wish you’d hear me out.”
Aldo hesitated. David actually did appear sincere, and perhaps it would do him some good if a respected mentor attempted to talk him out of his foolishness. More likely not, but at least Gershwin and cocktails made for a pleasant end to an afternoon of pedagogy.
He pulled his chair back up to the table. “Go on, then.”
“Rephael asked the spirit he summoned to protect the family, and it worked. A few days later, the townspeople burned nine hundred Jews alive, but nobody bothered the Baums, then or since. Instead, we’ve prospered.”
“But I assume from my reading of Faust and “Rumpelstiltskin,” there was a price to pay.”
For a moment, David scowled, no doubt at Aldo’s flippant tone. “An awful one. Do you know the term ‘droit du seigneur?’”
“The alleged right of a medieval lord to sexual relations with his female serfs.”
“It’s like that. When the entity sees fit, it…mates with the young women of our family. It’s…breeding us, I think. Over the course of generations, it’s gradually replacing our humanity with something else for some reason we can only guess at.”
David so clearly felt shame at this supposed defilement that Aldo felt a pang of pity. But the assertion was sufficiently preposterous that common sense seemed a more appropriate response than sympathy.
“For the product of such a breeding program,” he said, “you exhibit a marked lack of freakishness.”
“So far,” David said, “the changes are on the inside. Dreams. Urges. Thank God, most of the Baums have kept them in check, but I don’t know how much longer that will hold true. Anyway, even if we could do it forever, what’s happening is horrible.”
Slightly drawn into the tale despite his skepticism, Aldo said, “You can’t be the first Baum to believe so. At some point, someone must have tried to deny your version of Count Dracula access to its Lucys and Minas.”
David nodded. “And they always failed. Often the fathers and brothers were killed or left so mentally shattered they couldn’t even recall what they’d encountered. Over time, the family decided the entity must be impervious to earthly weapons.”
“That is inconvenient.”
David glared. “You wouldn’t laugh if…I’m sorry. How could I expect any other reaction?”
“Well, you do have the right to expect politeness. Please, finish the story, and I’ll endeavor to contain myself.”
“Fair enough. As you can imagine, Rephael wasn’t the only mystic the family produced. Down the years, a number of us studied the Necronomicon and other forbidden books in an effort to undo what he’d done. Eventually, Howshea Baum, an alchemist, believed he’d discovered the answer. He worked with a sword smith to forge a weapon that would kill the thing.”
Aldo cocked his head. “In Hans Christian Andersen, that would have led to the triumphant resolution where hero slays dragon.”
“It should have. But the visitations continued the same as before.”
“Because the sword couldn’t harm your incubus, either?”
“That’s what Howshea believed, that he’d failed. After the creature got to his daughter, he hanged himself. But I believe the sword could work, only the entity is so formidable that it would take an expert fighter to kill it. I have to believe it because the sword is still the only hope we’ve got.”
“At last I see how all this connects to your wish to study fencing.”
“Yes. We Baums can sense when the spirit is getting ready to come back. I guess it’s the taint in our blood. I’ve felt it creeping closer for a while, and I thought that if I could prepare myself…but it’s pointless. You say I’m not even mediocre, and by all accounts, some of the men who tried and failed were good.” He took a breath. “But today I realized there still might be a chance. A good chance. Hiring the finest fencer in the world to use the sword on my family’s behalf.”
Aldo blinked. “I’m sorry, but that’s absurd.”
“Because while I’ve done my poor best to listen with an open mind, it’s obvious your goblin doesn’t exist.”
“All the better for you, then. You get paid for doing nothing.”
“That scarcely seems—“
“It will work like this. When I sense the entity’s about to arrive, I’ll drive you to our country house. That’s where my sister Edna’s staying. You’ll spend the night, and if the creature appears, you’ll kill it. If it doesn’t, then the joke’s on me, and maybe I’ll look for a good psychiatrist.”
Aldo opened his mouth to insist that he couldn’t possibly take advantage, and then practicalities caught up with his scruples.
He’d always maintained that money didn’t matter. But with the coming of middle age, he’d found the notion easier to believe when he had some, and currently, he was broke. Worse than, if the truth be told.
America might be the land of opportunity, but it hadn’t turned out to be a country that took much interest in fencing. His lessons hadn’t attracted a multitude of students, the nightclubs only booked the occasional exhibition, and his meeting with Louis B. Mayer had come to nothing. On top of which, a night of stud poker with Nikos Dandolos, better known as Nick the Greek, had annihilated his bankroll and obliged him to strew “markers” in his wake.
He didn’t want to close the salle or abandon his admittedly luxurious lifestyle, and perhaps his beloved Rosemary could supply the funds to make such measures unnecessary. In his youth, that would have been fine. He’d lived off a number of women back then. But either he’d changed or finally met the right woman because he was reluctant to resort to that expedient anymore.
Such being the case, would it truly be unconscionable to accept David’s lunatic commission? The American could afford to pay, and it could scarcely be considered fraud when Aldo had made it clear that he himself didn’t credit the Baum family superstition. Perhaps his involvement would even help bring the poor deluded fellow to his senses.
“How much are you offering?” he asked.
* * *
Aldo sprang up from the couch and tightened the strap securing the rapier’s grip to his wrist. As he did, he couldn’t help reflecting that the blade might indeed prove incapable of harming the creature from Hades or beyond the sky or wherever it actually came from. If so, confronting the thing would be tantamount to suicide. With a scowl, he thrust such thoughts away as he’d always refused to contemplate failure before a match.
David rose from his armchair. “Do you believe now?” he asked, his voice shrill and breathy.
Aldo inclined his head. “I owe you an apology, but now is not the time. Does your connection to the entity provide a sense of its precise location?”
“No. I just know it’s close.”
“Then I need to place myself in proximity to Edna.”
Aldo started for the doorway that led to the staircase, pacing quickly but warily as well. He didn’t want the spirit to pounce on him from ambush.
Before he could exit the room, the lamps flickered and dimmed, their light turning the same dingy yellow that had previously fouled the stars. Behind him, David gave a strangled cry.
Aldo whirled. Nothing was attacking his companion, nothing visible, anyway, but David’s features twisted in pain. He raised his shaking hands and beat at his temples.
“Tell me what’s wrong!” Aldo said.
But David could only manage a whimper. He staggered, fell to his knees, and then his body stretched, the spine and limbs lengthening. His skin paled to alabaster stained by the filthy light. Even his clothing changed, the drape-cut suit tearing itself and shifting color to become a cloak of yellow tatters.
The transformation only took a few seconds, and then the creature that had been David raised its masklike face. The eyes burned like black stars in an otherwise featureless ivory sky. No, not quite featureless, for faint yellow symbols wrote themselves on the smoothness, then erased themselves to make way for others. They hurt Aldo’s head like the etchings on the sword. Only this time it was worse because he sensed that if he looked too long, he might begin to understand them, and that would be unbearable.
He shifted his gaze but only slightly. A duelist couldn’t afford to look away from his opponent. Meanwhile, the incubus clambered to its feet to tower over even his lanky frame, its head nearly brushing the ceiling.
“You are not a Baum,” it said. The brassy tenor voice sounded like a trumpet. It didn’t seem to issue from the place where a mouth should have been or any particular direction.
Aldo sneered as he’d sometimes sneered at an opponent in hopes of rattling him. “No. Your victims finally got past their shame and consulted a professional, which is unfortunate for you. Unlike the poor wretches whose bodies you’ve borrowed, I’m quite capable of using this sword to kill you.”
“I have no ‘victims.’ I take only that which s rightfully mine by the terms of the pact. More importantly, it is not yet time for my reign. Stand aside and you can live out the rest of your days as humans have always done.”
“What do you mean, your ‘reign?’” What are you? Why are you doing this?”
In truth, Aldo was less interested in the answers to those questions than he was in keeping the gaunt figure talking. Every moment gained thereby was an opportunity to study the way the incubus carried itself. It bore no discernible weapons, but judging from David’s stories, it was dangerous even so.
“I am a Scion of Carcosa,” the entity said, “an echo, a reflection, a shadow cast too soon while my progenitor is still at zenith. I must go into exile to ensure the stability of the throne, and so I must secure my own kingdom. But the way to Earth is too long for me to make the journey in all my physicality. The solution is to breed a vessel capable of holding my essence permanently and completely. Now that you know whom you face, will you step aside?”
“Actually, I’m less inclined than before.”
“Even though you could not slay me without also murdering the very youth who called on you for succor?”
“He’d willingly die to rid his family of you.”
“Then come and perish, if you must. My mate awaits me.” The Scion stepped forward.
It advanced without any semblance of a combative posture, arms swinging at its sides, and once again, Aldo found himself fearing the rapier was powerless against it. Rejecting the thought, he poised himself to take advantage of the creature’s apparent vulnerability with an explosive lunge.
But that was the wrong approach. Fencers could afford boldness. With their lives at stake, duelists needed to proceed cautiously. When the Scion stepped into the distance, Aldo essayed a shorter attack, one that made him less vulnerable to a counterattack. If his point reached target anyway, good, but his true intent was to test his adversary’s responses.
A long yellow tatter whipped up and knocked the sword aside, the impact clanging as if steel had parried steel. Then the strip of cloth riposted, the action flowing like a viper’s strike.
Though startled, Aldo retreated and parried automatically. When his blade intercepted the tatter, the serpentine muscularity went out of it. A mere strip of cloth again, it flopped back down toward the floor.
But an instant later, a different tatter lashed its ragged end at Aldo’s sword arm. Once more caught by surprise, he snatched his hand back barely in time to avoid a contact that he suspected would have maimed him like a cut from the toothed edge of a saw.
He took another retreat and scrutinized his opponent. All the tatters that made up the cloak were writhing sluggishly. The motion reminded him of dozens of worms crawling over one another, or a sea lily filtering specks of nourishment from the current.
Pushing down the revulsion the sight inspired, he feinted to the inside line and disengaged to the outside. Undeceived, the Scion knocked aside the true attack and riposted to the face. Aldo parried in his turn.
As the exchanges continued, it became clear that the creature could only utilize one tatter at a time, and thank God for that. Had it been capable of striking with several at once, no swordsman could have withstood it. Even as things stood, Aldo found himself hard-pressed because he couldn’t predict which tatter would attack next or the instant at which the Scion would let one fall limp and lash out with another.
But damn it, he should be able to predict it. Every combatant had his favorite sequences of actions, and every fencer learned to discern them. Aldo fought defensively as he probed, observed, and analyzed.
When he’d discovered what he needed, he eased forward in preparation for an advance lunge, the initiation of a phrase intended to enable him to score with the third intention. Then the Scion screamed.
The trumpet-like blare was inhumanly loud, and Aldo was sensitive to noise. He faltered, stumbled off balance, and a tatter struck at him. He wrenched himself aside and kept it from ripping open his throat, but it cut through his jacket and sliced his chest as the incubus pulled it back.
Shrieking again and again, the Scion attacked relentlessly, and, jolted by every new burst of sound, it was all Aldo could do to stay alive. Don’t hear it! he commanded himself. Nothing exists but your weapon and your opponent!
Somehow, the admonition worked. Though the screams didn’t stop, they dulled, lost their ability to pain him, although not before they’d scraped his nerves raw. Trembling, he struggled to recall the sequence of actions he’d had in mind mere moments before.
Then distance, or at least his perception of it, warped into ambiguity. Was the Scion five feet away? Six? Seven? Memory supplied the answer, but vision couldn’t. Even though the incubus was currently standing still, in some unfathomable fashion, its position seemed to shift from second to second.
Fencers lost bouts when they lost awareness of distance. Duelists lost their lives. Aldo sidestepped, circling, no longer blocking the doorway.
The Scion turned, keeping him in view. Despite his apparent attempt to abandon the fight, it evidently intended to kill him and so deny him the opportunity to stab it in the back.
Aldo waited until he had it in the proper attitude. Then he bellowed, extended the rapier, and ran at it.
Startled by the sudden aggression, the creature scrambled backward into the doorway, and while the ceiling was high enough for it to stand up straight, the lintel wasn’t. The back of its head thudded against the obstruction, and apparently that broke its concentration. It stopped screaming, and Aldo’s sense of space snapped back into clarity.
He lunged and extended the rapier at the incubus’s heart. A tatter flailed at the feint. He dipped the blade under the parry and thrust it into his adversary’s thigh.
The Scion staggered. While it was off balance, he pierced the other leg, and that dropped it to its hands and knees. He pressed his point against the side of its neck.
“Surrender!” he gasped. “Or I’ll kill you!”
The incubus remained silent long enough for him to steel himself to administer the coup de grâce. Then it said, “I yield.”
“Swear to leave the Baums in peace. No, swear to leave this entire world in peace. Swear by whatever a demon like you holds sacred.”
“I swear it by the Unnamable and the Hyades. By the Pallid Mask and the Yellow Sign.”
Given the blank whiteness of its countenance and the amber symbols that flickered in and out of existence there, Aldo decided the Scion might truly have given an oath it considered binding. In any case, it was either accept the creature’s pledge as genuine or slay it and David both.
“Go,” he said.
David’s limbs shortened, and his face blurred and bulged as its proper features restored themselves. Wriggling, the torn mantle knit itself back into a London Drape, albeit, one with bloodstained trousers, while the lamps flickered and then shone white.
David cried out and thrashed. Aldo gripped his shoulder. “Easy!” he said. “It’s over!”
The younger man cast about, and the absence of any looming monsters evidently reassured him enough to notice lesser details. “You’re hurt!” he said.
Aldo had forgotten. He stripped off his crimsoned jacket, yanked open the equally gory shirt beneath, scattering buttons in the process, and was relieved to find his wound superficial.
“You are, too,” he said, “but fortunately, neither of us mortally. Some first aid, a call to the local physician, and we’ll be fine.”
Aldo hesitated. “What do you remember?”
“I sensed the creature was near. After that, nothing.”
Aldo decided the list of horrors that likely haunted David’s nightmares was extensive enough without adding possession and an approximation of incest to the tally.
“I suspect your link to the thing interfered with your cognitive functioning and prevented you from retaining the memory. Happily, it didn’t hinder you in the moment. You attacked the apparition bravely even though I was the one with the rapier, and the distraction helped me dispatch it. Now tell me, are there any bandages handy, or should I tear those antimacassars into strips?”
He hoped it was the former. He’d had enough of tatters.
The phrases “hate, courage, and blood” and “courtesy, courage, and skill” are direct quotes from Aldo Nadi’s autobiography The Living Sword, my source for information about his life and a sense of his personality. I tried hard to get them right but apologize to the great fencer’s shade for any errors of fact or interpretation.
Richard Lee Byers is the author of forty fantasy and horror books including Blind God’s Bluff, The Reaver, and Dissolution. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. A resident of the Tampa Bay area, he spends much of his free time fencing epee.