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Mr. Jones ain't got nothing on Anton Vorchek!!!

The Seal of Jacob Bleek 


Jeffery Scott Sims


     "I received today a remarkable communication," said Professor Anton Vorchek, researcher into arcane or overlooked aspects of science and history, "from a Mr. Alfonse Lorient, a gentleman unknown to me who styles himself a dealer in unusual antiques.  He wishes to buy an item from my collection which, so he says, he has recently learned has passed into my hands.  He claims willingness to pay a princely sum.  This business puzzles and intrigues me.  Here is the letter, my dear.  Read it for yourself, and make of it what you will."  The professor tossed the missive to his companion, Theresa Delaney, who had just arrived at his bidding.  She was young, beautiful, dressed to the nines (in some frothy scarlet outfit, a stunning and expensive combination of skirt, blouse, hat, boots, scarf, tasteful but dazzling jewelry) and, as it seemed, bored.  She had driven from the city of Phoenix, at his command, far out to the desert hill where stood his lonely old house-- which also served as his research library and laboratory-- in order to be present at a matter, he had hinted, of urgency.

     This letter didn't cut it.  Theresa dropped herself gracefully into a plush chair, whipped off her hat so that her golden hair tumbled out, lit a cigarette, perused the short document, threw it on the table.  "So what?" she said.  "Sell if you like, don't as you please.  You're not hurting for money again, are you?"  Theresa was extraordinarily wealthy, it must be understood, and she often imagined that Vorchek lived on the verge of poverty.

     "I assure you, no," said he, in his crisp, precise, slightly accented voice.  "Recent grants from the Anthropology Institute meet my needs, and that last check from Applied Physics should keep me jolly for months to come.  I wear this dirty smock, Miss Delaney, because I have been employed in my laboratory.  If you will excuse me, however, I will take leave to change into formal attire, for our visitor arrives shortly, having traveled all the way, so he says, from Peru."

     That was news.  While Vorchek was absent the doorbell rang.  Theresa answered, to find before her a short, dark man of uncertain extraction who announced himself as Alfonse Lorient and requested admittance as per appointment.  The girl attempted to engage the taciturn fellow in desultory small talk, with little success, until the professor returned.  In all his glory Vorchek could give Theresa a run for her money.  A tall, lean figure of a man, in his fine suit, gleaming black shoes, natty tie, and with his graying temples and clipped, rakish beard, he looked a formidable fellow, the man in charge, which was exactly the impression he strove now to create.

     The professor extended a firm hand.  "Sit down, Mr. Lorient," he said warmly.  "Will you take coffee, tea, or perhaps wine?  Miss Delaney, bring a bottle and goblets."  All present soon made themselves comfortable.  Vorchek wasted no time.  "Your offer interests me.  To begin, how did you become aware of an artifact which you believe I have?"

     The visitor, who sat in his chair at a remove from his hosts on the sofa across the coffee table, frowned, seemed ill at ease.  In a halting fashion, and with a definite foreign inflection, he said, "I expected a private meeting, sir."  Vorchek assured him that Theresa was his assistant, privy to all of his affairs, and by nature discrete.  "Very well, then," replied Lorient.  "To answer you, I've had profitable contacts in the past with Termigant, the dealer from whom you acquired the object.  When I heard, through my regular sources, that he had purchased the item, I sought him out right away.  Thus I learned that he had already sold."

     "Ah, yes," nodded Vorchek.  "Termigant is a good man.  I have not heard from him lately.  I trust he is getting along."

     "I found him most cooperative."  Lorient smiled.

     "That is good.  Now, I would know why you are so keen on this piece.  It is only a nondescript metal fragment, after all.  I can not make much of it myself; something to do with this Bleek fellow, I gather, from way back."

     Lorient leaned back in his seat.  "You are correct, Professor, on all points.  The object counts for little in and of itself.  It's a fragment of a larger whole, an embossed seal of considerable size designed by Jacob Bleek, the historian or chronicler of centuries past.  He designed it with his own hands, incorporating bits of lore that were valuable to him in his work, matters pertaining to odd beliefs of his time or former ages.  The seal, originally about the size of a notebook, was broken up after his death, and the pieces scattered.  I have managed, with much diligence, to reassemble all of the parts but one.

     "The completed seal of Jacob Bleek is an item of some historical value to scholars.  The Lima Museum of Archeology has expressed, to me, great interest in adding the seal to their collection.  They've offered to pay me for that service, and their promises are most generous.  I must, therefore, acquire the missing piece.  Since I expect to profit, I'm willing to pass on a portion of my largesse.  I will pay you well, if you have what I want.  May I see the fragment?"  Lorient leaned forward intently.

     "I keep new materials elsewhere," said Vorchek, "but I made a rubbing-- a poor one, I must admit-- which may serve for the moment.  Look at this."  He produced from his coat pocket a folded sheet of paper, handed it across the table.  Lorient eagerly opened it, studied long and quietly the smudgy markings in blue ink on the sheet.

     He frowned, his lips moving silently.  Then he smiled and said agreeably, ""I can't make out all of the detail I would have wished, but this is undoubtedly a copy of what I desire.  The name of Bleek came through legibly, and the appearance of this other word-- the meaningless syllables beginning with 'X'-- is as predicted.  I'm pleased.  I must see the original."

     Vorchek stated, with a disarming air of regret, that he was leaving town for the week, but that if his guest would make an appointment then the professor could soon display the item.  With that they got down to business.  Price was discussed, arrangements bruited.  When everything had been said that could be said, Lorient left, promising to call in a week.  After seeing him to the door Vorchek called for coffee.  "What do you think, Miss Delaney?" he asked shortly.

     Theresa threw up her hands and cried, "Take the money."

     Vorchek chuckled.  "That seems the proper solution."  He grew sober, absently jiggling his coffee cup.  "Now, I want you to hear a few facts of pertinence which Mr. Lorient left out or obscured.  For starters, it is vaguely misleading to describe Jacob Bleek as an historian.  He was, long ago, a philosopher of fearsome repute, an intellectual who, in his pre-scientific age, is thought to have unlocked many amazing secrets of nature and supernature.  By the lights of his day he was considered a wizard, a sorcerer with a penchant for the most arcane and deplorable aspects of magical knowledge.  He sought, from all the annals of history, forbidden lore of a kind that terrified his contemporaries; studied it, collated it, brought it together in one grandiose work meant to embody the greatest mysteries and marvels of the ages.  There are stories of his power and prowess, of his control over strange forces, which are simply incredible, yet the testimonies support one another in a surprising fashion.  Much of his work has been lost, but what remains bears out his impressive and disagreeable reputation.  His writings have long been sought by scholars of the esoteric-- such as myself-- and by others as well, those keen to apply his knowledge for their own purposes.  In the covert world of magical delvings there is quite a traffic in scraps and tidbits of Bleek.

     "You heard our visitor claim that he learned of my purchase through Termigant, a respectable 1dealer in unusual curios.  That intrigues me much, for two reasons of unequal weight.  One:  Mr. Termigant is famed for being a closed-mouthed fellow, not one to reveal confidential details of transactions to outside parties.  It sounds odd to me that he would have spoken so freely to Mr. Lorient, when it would be customary to refer the matter first to me.  I find that strange; however, I deduced the source when Mr. Lorient contacted me, so I immediately telephoned to Mr. Termigant's shop to demand an explanation.  I hinted otherwise to our visitor, of course.  Anyway, this leads to the second point:  Mr. Termigant is dead.  He was killed two weeks ago, murdered in fact, and the evidence (which I derive from the police report) suggests that he did not die easily or quickly.  All signs indicate that he was tortured to death."

     "My goodness," exclaimed Theresa, "that's terrible.  Do you think this Lorient guy is involved?"

     "It crosses my mind.  I have no way of knowing, at present."

     "But why would he-- or anybody else-- do it?  What've you got that's so important?"

     "That is a good question," said Vorchek.  "Miss Delaney, fetch me a cookie from the jar on the shelf."  The girl looked askance, shrugged, walked to the earthenware pot, removed the lid, fished inside.  Then she rolled her eyes, extracting something from the jar that was surely not a sweet.  "That, my dear," continued the professor, "is the current focus of interest.  I did not want Lorient to get his hands on it, nor leave it in an obvious place in case he harbored ill intentions.  Behold a veritable relic of the dark mage Jacob Bleek."

     What Theresa held in her hand was a flat, triangular chunk of grayish-black metal, rather rough on two sides as if broken from a larger mass; somewhat bigger than her palm, and about half an inch thick, heavily inscribed with tiny letters in bas relief that covered all of one surface.  Most of the letters were recognizable to a writer of English, though there was Greek mixed in, as well as a number of mysterious symbols which meant nothing to the girl, and the majority of the actual words conveyed no information to her mind.  She returned to the sofa and sat by Vorchek.  "It's gibberish," she said, "just a jumble of letters, with this queer stuff thrown in.  There's one word I can read-- B-l-e-e-k-- which must be the name of the spooky man, but I can't figure out the rest."

     "It is code," explained Vorchek, "one of Jacob Bleek's devising, and a tricky problem, I can tell you, for an amateur cryptographer.  I have been working on it.  The author did not trouble to conceal his name, and there is this other term, the X word of which Lorient spoke, which should be read as given, but the rest is intended to be hidden from the prying of uneducated minds.  As you can see it is only a fragment, a lower corner of what is possibly a square or rectangular whole."

     "Fair enough, but I still don't get it.  You think people are willing to kill for this.  Is Bleek trivia really that valuable?"

     "Not for the material, certainly, in this case.  It is composed of an unusual alloy of lead and aluminum, the latter once a costly metal, but with no intrinsic value now.  That is not gold, nor do I expect jewels inside the piece."

     "Maybe it's a treasure map," Theresa said brightly.

     "I doubt it," said Vorchek.  "Bleek's writings generally fall into two categories:  compilations of bizarre historical anecdotes, and carefully delineated statements which purport to be descriptions of intricate magical spells.  From what I have deduced thus far, this seems to be a portion of the latter."

     "And that's worth money, is it?" asked his companion.  She handed the thing to the professor.  "That's worth killing for?"

     "It might be, to some," he observed, "especially if it works.  Whatever Bleek placed on that seal, it was something he wanted to last, something he strove to render permanent.  That could be a crucial datum.  I wish I had managed to decode the message before Lorient showed up; I might have a better idea already what kind of man he is.  Still, it is a big world, full of information, and I have ways of learning.  For starters, I possess an excellent private secretary who occasionally works wonders, when her interest is stimulated."

     "What do you want me to do?"

     "Thank you, my dear.  Please perform for me the following task--"

     Four days later they met for lunch at the Calico Cat.  Vorchek ordered a soufflé, Theresa a peppered tilapia.  She said, between bites, "Here's the dope.  There isn't a Lima Museum of Archeology in Peru.  There's a Lima Anthropology Institute, but they've never heard of Alfonse Lorient.  The name Jacob Bleek didn't register with them either, by the way."

     "Tiresomely typical, that," observed the professor; "Bleek is too unorthodox a reference point for conventional wisdom, therefore he recedes into undeserved obscurity."

     "If you say so.  Well, Lorient tends to recede, too.  I couldn't match up his name or claimed profession in all of Peru.  You know, I don't think he's a Peruvian after all."

     "I never believed he was.  So you conclude that the name is spurious?"

     "It may not be phony," Theresa said, "if that's what you mean.  I came up with an Alfonse Lorient operating out of various parts of the world, with no fixed address, but cropping up here and there, involved in numerous activities.  I have him buying ancient papyrus scrolls out of Istanbul eighteen months ago; putting up money for an Egyptian excavation this time last year; purchasing old manuscripts at a New York auction just six months ago."  She removed a typed sheet from the notebook at her elbow.  "Here's a list of his reported acquisitions.  We have a Fourth Book of Artocris, sold as is, a damaged copy of The Insights of Maltheus, and a 'fine condition' Critique of Azamodias, 'complete with diagrams', it says.  Does any of that ring a bell with you?"

     "It does, rather," muttered Vorchek, "too many bells."

     "And that's not all," announced the girl merrily.  "Lorient-- this Lorient, anyway-- is connected, in a somewhat vague capacity (apparently no official title), with the Visions of Peace outfit in San Francisco.  They're a private charity with New Age leanings working off of a handful of big donations from flaky international bigwigs.  They do good deeds for sad folks, the usual stuff-- as far as I can tell they're on the up and up that way-- but I did learn something thrilling about them as well.  Their cash outlay for publicly proclaimed projects constitutes a dwindling fraction of their publicly received grants, and since they're private they don't have to declare everything, which probably makes the ratio worse.  How about that?"

     Vorchek shrugged.  "That is interesting, but scarcely ominous.  I have read stories of such organizations suffering from absurdly high overhead--"

     "Not like this one," Theresa said crushingly.  "There isn't any known accounting for where most of the money goes.  The contributors don't care-- they get their write-offs-- and these Visions characters do as they please with the income."

     "So you suspect--"

     "It's a front," she concluded.  "It has to be.  They're spending the money on something else, something they don't report, and Lorient is right in the thick of it.  He must be our man."

     "I agree," said Vorchek.  "Furthermore, I deduce that Visions of Peace is funding his purchases, along with other activities.  Yes, it is he.  Those manuscripts you listed are famous and rare magical tomes, all of them very old and very costly, when they are not treated as priceless.  Now he wants the complete seal of no less than Jacob Bleek, reputed to be the supreme wizard of the ages.  It all fits nicely."

     "He might be a collector," mused Theresa, "of the crazy variety.  We've run across those before."

     "Crazy enough to commit murder?  Remember Mr. Termigant.  I suspect Lorient of that."  Vorchek paused, fondled his beard.  "No, he is more, much more, I am afraid.  I say to you that Alfonse Lorient is a cultist, a seeker after dangerous knowledge, engaged on a mammoth project with unknown designs.  We have run across those before, too, the silly sort that is, but I suspect more in this case.  There is too much money involved; I sense too much long term planning.  I must find out what kind of cultist he is."

     "What do we do now?"

     "We wait.  Lorient calls me in three days."

     Alfonse Lorient did telephone on schedule, in order to confirm his appointment.  Vorchek casually informed him that a further meeting was no longer necessary, since he had decided against parting with the artifact.  Lorient politely urged reconsideration; Vorchek refused.  Lorient remonstrated, insinuating the possibility of repercussions.  The professor pled a prior engagement and broke the connection.

     Two days later untoward developments ensued.  While Vorchek conducted a lengthy evening seminar, on "Seminal Occult Influences Among the Southwestern Yotapai Tribe", his house and college offices were raided by unknown intruders.  In both cases nothing was stolen, although the resultant disorder and even damage were serious.  His locked collection cases and file cabinets had been rifled extensively, as if would be thieves had sought something in particular without success.  The professor guessed what that was.

     Next day, in his laboratory, Vorchek brought Theresa up to date on events, with the object of contention before them on a table strewn with various artifacts, tools, and papers.  "I left it in the cookie jar," he said, "where, as I expected, they never looked.  Poe remains a remarkable educator in the art of deception.  The system of "The Purloined Letter" truly works, and so, it appears, does that of "The Gold Bug."  I have deciphered my fragment of the seal.  Few sentences are complete, and several words at the line of breakage can not be reconstructed, but we may glean the gist of the substance, and form ideas as to the overall meaning."  He had written it out like so:

     "-- marshal the forces which revolve in the outer...

     "-- and through their baleful power seek He who lurks and watches...

     "-- three times aloud the unspeakable name of Great Xenophor of the Million Eyes, and...

     "-- cast the formulated powder into searing fire stoked in pure iron, and make the forbidden passes described in the Seventh Illumination and denounced by Aza(modias?)...

     "-- it is done, if all should have been performed rightly and sanely.  Lastly, keep the fourth level safeguards of the Rhexellites firmly at command, and haply an audience shall be achieved...

     "-- wisdom of old be true, then power and glory at His feet are assured.  My test, though constrained by caution, verifies the efficacy of the spell.  Knowledge triumphs, and the barriers of nature are overthrown and trampled...

     "-- unblinking eyes have gazed upon me, yet I live.  Gather thoughtfully the materials, and know the words by heart, and the motions of hand and body that unlock unseen doors, and one may pass through and commune with He who rules and governs all things in time and space.  So writes Jacob Bleek."

1     Said Vorchek, "Most entertaining, is it not?"

     "I suppose," Theresa replied, turning the sheet this way and that as if looking for more.  "So this is what all the shouting is about.  Professor, I'll let you in on a little secret:  I can't make heads or tails of it.  What I'm reading won't justify money, murder, and robbery."

     "It will not on its own.  Joined to the rest of the seal, much would become clear which is still mysterious or debatable."  Vorchek paused to light his pipe, puffed while he marshaled his thoughts.  He took up a pencil and began checking references on the scrawled document.  "We can learn a deal from this.  The bulk of the text constitutes a magical formula, instructions for the attainment of a mystical goal.  It incorporates special words, substances, and motions.  All together, they cause a change in the natural state, one which renders possible communication with a power from outside, by which I mean beyond the conventional realm known to man.  The spell opens a crack in the space-time continuum, as I would put it, allowing egress or regress into another plane or dimension.  In that plane resides a force, an entity of note, which one might, for dubious reasons, wish to contact.  Such communication is dangerous-- there is that reference to safeguards-- either because the cosmic powers are difficult to contain, or because the entity of choice is strong and willful; perhaps all are factors.  The intended goal, apparently, is an accretion of personal might and knowledge and possibility beyond the norm.  What one wants can be had, if the risk be deemed worthwhile.  That is how I read it."

     "But what of these weird words?" asked Theresa.  "Do you derive anything from those?"

     "Too much," Vorchek said darkly.  "The inclusion of each term is fascinating by itself, and taken together they suggest awesome notions.  'Rhexellites' is the traditional name of a lost race, thought by some to have existed long prior to the dawn of accepted history, who once mastered the fundamental secrets of the supernatural and built a globe-spanning empire on that basis.  Their best minds are said to have been brilliant, courageous, and reckless.  Legend states that their empire disintegrated due to some unbelievable catastrophe."

     "That doesn't sound promising," observed the girl.

     "It makes me think.  Now, I reconstructed this term 'Azamodias", but I am sure my footing is sound.  You are already familiar with that word."

     "Lorient bought a manuscript about that guy," she recalled.  "Yeah, it's falling into place.  Professor, what about this other?"

     "I saved the best for last," said he.  "Xenophor--"  he unconsciously lowered his voice as he pronounced the word-- "is a cultic figure obscurely referenced in texts and myths dating from all times and cropping up in furtive tales from widely scattered locations about the earth.  He is proclaimed the ultimate deity, the 'Lord of All Things', He who made all and knows all.  He is the engine of the cosmos, both creator and destroyer, as He pleases.  He observes His universe with His 'Million Eyes', missing nothing, caring for nothing save as it amuses Him.  He has seldom been considered a God worth contacting; quite the contrary, scholars of old who mention Him tend to advise avoiding His gaze at all costs, for the consequences of His attention can be severe, unimaginably so.

     "A Xenophor cult exists, however, has since time immemorial.  There have always been the insane and the narrowly wise who thought they could treat with Him on an equal footing-- often to their regret-- and there are those others, the lesser minds, who see in Him the true God, wish to bow down before Him, demand that others do the same.  These are the cultists, still with us, still active, still pretty frightening."

     "Wow!" said Theresa.  "I don't like them at all.  Lorient must be one of them."

     "I fear so," Vorchek sighed.  "These creatures turn up on occasion, make trouble, commit vulgar crimes, get themselves suppressed.  It happens that way.  This seems something more than 1a simple festering of religious mania.  I get the distinct impression that they have now organized for a great task, one which requires a vast amount of scholarly knowledge.  It could be that the Visions of Peace people are the current center of the cult.  That provides them with a firm base for operating in what passes these days for regular society.  Regardless, they have been piecing together the necessary information.  The seal of Jacob Bleek is the last required link in the intellectual chain.  Once they have that in complete form, they can proceed."

     "Proceed to do what, exactly?"

     "I do not know," replied the professor.  "They would beckon to Xenophor; that is the purpose of Bleek's spell.  They desire to converse with Him, likely for no decent or wholesome reason.  To what end I can not say, but I suspect it will not be healthy for the rest of us."

     Vorchek urged his companion to investigate more thoroughly the Visions of Peace, find out who provided the money, who actually ran the organization.  Theresa agreed-- it sounded like creepy fun to her-- and before the day was out had caught a jet to San Francisco.  She contacted him later that day to report her arrival and choice of accommodations (the most expensive in town, as he had already deduced), promising to deliver a preliminary report on the morrow.  This she did the following night, recounting her researches in a text message.

     "Dear Professor:

     "Visions of Peace is certainly a wacko bunch, the members being mainly bohemian types and foreigners.  The first are wild and crazy, spouting the usual sort of 'cosmic oneness' crap you're always sneering at.  The second are quiet and mysterious, reminding me of Mr. Lorient, and I get the feeling they're the ones really in charge or running things.  Their establishment is a big old building, very impressive, in a run down area on Water Street, not so impressive.  They have all kinds of flaky exhibits that promise a lot, but don't say anything.  Swarms of people come and go, most of them no more than tourists, who are fed the standard line of bull.  I asked some pointed questions, dropped a few names and phrases, and got a real earful.

     "They were cagey, not giving away much, but they revealed enough when I mentioned, among other things, the names Jacob Bleek and Xenophor.  They seemed to hold the former in high regard, as a kind of prophet or really brainy guy with all the answers.  My reference to that weird word made them go quiet and mysterious, but they took me aside and unloaded about a coming reign of the 'Great One', who would reward the 'anointed' with everything they asked for.  They said the dominance of the elect over the world was coming soon, and all true believers would benefit.  They hinted I might be choice material for their outfit.  Isn't that a laugh?  I picked up some worthless brochures, nothing to interest you; however, I'll bet I get the real goods before long.  Stay tuned.

     "--Theresa D."

     Vorchek wished that she had not charged in so boldly, and he wondered fretfully at the nature and number of the specific allusions she had made to them, but he hoped for the best, looking forward to more useful detail when next he heard from her.  Instead, he received a telephone call that morning, in which a hushed but possibly recognizable male voice hissed, "We have the girl, Vorchek.  If you want to see her alive again you will deliver the seal to us.  Stand by for instructions."  The connection broke off.

     Vorchek regretted this development, which seemed to bode ill for his charming companion.  He contacted her hotel, learning, predictably, that she was out.  Then he got in touch with a metallurgist he knew, a fellow employed by a major mining company who gave lectures about artistic metalworking on the side.  Vorchek called in a favor, made a deal with him for a certain assignment.  The man agreed to undertake the task without delay.

     Vorchek received a second call, for which he was prepared.  The voice ordered him to instigate convoluted arrangements which, in sum, would result in the seal being shipped to a generic location in San Francisco.  Upon safe receipt, Theresa would be released unharmed.  "Not so fast, Lorient," said the professor.  "I want to hear from the girl, know that she is alive and well.  Put her on the line."  The familiar voice-- of course it was Lorient, though he would not

acknowledge the fact-- demurred, pleading the necessity for caution.  He did offer, however, to mail express a recorded message from the captive, which would contain statements confirming her current existence.  Vorchek acquiesced with an air of concession, while in fact the offer pleased him perfectly.

     Next day he received a cassette tape, hand delivered by courier, which contained the following statement, clearly in Theresa's voice:

    "Dear Professor Anton Vorchek:

     "All is well with me, under the circumstances, although as you have no doubt deduced I     ran into a modicum of trouble in San Francisco.  I am not currently altogether at liberty, nor will I be until the package is received as arranged.  Please do exactly as you are told, and then I will see you soon, and all will be well.

     "It is Theresa Delaney who speaks to you."

     This message pleased him mightily, not only because it verified Theresa's continued sojourn among the living, but because of the amount of precise information that it conveyed.  This may seem strange, but it was so, as a result of a curious addition to the girl's education which he had once pressed upon her.  Vorchek, though he had dedicated his life to the study of strange matters, had never been taken in by the fashionable pseudosciences and odd popular beliefs which so thrilled the masses.  It had always been his goal to separate the true from the false, utilizing the tested traditional standards of science.  He had once delivered unto his companion a lengthy disquisition on the topic of mind reading, in the course of which he illustrated to her a common method of fakery employed by mentalist acts composed of dual operatives (the assistant who received the information normally, and the "psychic" who supposedly plucked the knowledge from the aether).  The subject had so amused her that he had received her full cooperation in an experiment to derive their own private form of trick, which they had used to astound her credulous friends.

     This tried and true technique, known throughout the ages, utilized a language code to convey secret information, which could be passed from one member of the act to another, a transmission unsuspected by the intended patsy.  Certain words possessed double meanings, while variations in vocal intonation indicated still more verbal concepts.  Such a code could be as complex as memory allowed, since intensive memorization was the only stumbling block.  If a secret be known by one, it would be quickly known to the other.  This system Vorchek had taught, and he had found Theresa an excellent study.  She had learned and, as he now knew, she had remembered.

     The use of his full name and title in the address immediately alerted him that she was speaking in code, as he would have guessed anyway from some of the curious pronunciations, word choices, and verbal inflections she employed.  The near duplication at beginning and end-- "All is well" and "all will be well"-- told him that the message was genuine and above board on her part, which indicated to him that it was truly spoken in response to his request, rather than a subterfuge arranged at a prior period by Lorient and his cohorts.  "San Francisco" was a base geographical point, reasonably inserted, while her tone explained that she was no longer there.  "Altogether", unnecessarily inserted, connoted the direction of "south" (or "down", as context would dictate), while the tones of that word and "package" indicated "miles" and "twenty" respectively.  "Circumstances", so spoken, suggested anything from "bowl" to "hollow" or even "valley".  The final statement, incorporating her name, indicated extreme, perhaps immediate, danger to her, although it also indicated that she was presently unharmed.

     So Vorchek analyzed, and so he read the covert bits and pieces of the message.  The girl had done well, though she laid on the intonations and odd pauses in a heavy-handed manner; astute native speakers of English might have caught on, but since the tape had been passed to him, he presumed that their secret was safe.  As he reconstructed the message, Theresa was telling him that she had been spirited away to a location approximately twenty miles south of the city, to a valley or bowl-shaped region, and that though she still lived and was in health, she existed in a state of dire peril.

     Vorchek's metallurgist friend came through for him.  Without delay the professor prepared a padded mailing box, inserted the desired contents, wrapped it, addressed it, and sent it on its way by overnight post.  Then he dressed for travel, putting on his best broad-brimmed hat,  finagled a quick flight to San Francisco on the private jet of yet another acquaintance, and within the hour was on his way.

     Upon arrival he hired a car and proceeded directly to the Visions of Peace headquarters, to discover the building closed and abandoned.  He surreptitiously broke in, finding the place practically a vacant shell, with virtually all documents and other private matters removed.  A heap of charred debris on the floor of the central hall indicated a great burning of papers.  Learning nothing there, Vorchek examined the shreds of evidence that remained-- posters on the walls, announcements tacked to a bulletin board-- then drove south in a hurry.

     He was no fool-- in fact, Vorchek was supremely clever-- and he already had some idea where he was going, beyond the general instructions slipped to him by his captive assistant.  Perusal of maps granted him knowledge of a Bonita Valley some thirty minutes drive southeast of San Francisco, about fifteen miles inward from the coast, a natural feature of which hasty thinking jogged his memory:  Bonita Valley was a special sort of terrain, a shallow, bowl-shaped hollow in the landscape not carved by the action of ancient ice or running water, but rather theorized, by many geologists, to be the result of a primordial meteorite impact.  The relic of this Permian event was now a land of forested circular ridges encompassing a grassy depression some few miles in extent, with a charming lake in the center, now the focus of resorts and vacation getaways.  Vorchek had still more with which to work, for one poster in the desolate Visions of Peace hall alluded to a retreat operated there by that outfit.  There was no mention of it being used at present, but by collating the evidence at hand Vorchek felt convinced that Theresa had been taken there.  Furthermore, Bonita Valley struck him as an interesting place for the cultists of Xenophor to congregate at this time, when their plans were coming to fruition:  a place with extraterrestrial connections, which might thrill those seeking contact with a mythical being not of this earth.

     In good time Vorchek sped through suburban sprawl, whipped by patchy farmland, then crested a wooded ridge from which he beheld the valley.  It was indeed a pretty sight, with its fringe of leafy green, its orchards and meadows, the sparkling Lake Bonita, but Vorchek had not come for sight-seeing.  He stopped at a gas station, inquired for directions to the Visions of Peace retreat.  That was no secret-- he was told it lay at the end of the road which swept round the lake-- nor, if his source be any guide, was it considered a place in any way remarkable.  The locals, it seemed, were accustomed to odd visitors from the nearby big city, judging them a positive boon to the economy.  He was also informed, much to his logical satisfaction, that an enormous number of such visitors had arrived during the previous forty-eight hours.

     He proceeded at a good clip around the lake, passing lodges and cabins, until he finally drove up short at a closed gate and small guard house.  A simple sign on a pole read "Visions of Peace".  Vorchek pulled off the road and observed, from a safe distance, in the waning afternoon light.  He saw what appeared an expansive fenced property, extending from the lake shore to the gentle slopes of the upper ridges.  Scattered trees graced a pleasant meadow, in the midst of which was situated a large, drab, functional building which must be a communal hall, surrounded by a number of smaller prefabricated structures and a flock of white tents which must constitute temporary dwellings.  Many people were wandering about within the broad enclosure.  He saw nothing overtly alarming in the scene.

     Yet Professor Vorchek knew that he had come to a place of great evil.  The cultists had developed plans of action which, however imperfectly known, boded ill for anyone not of like mind.  Even should they release the girl, he realized, safety would prove elusive until they were defeated.  He had ideas on that subject-- had already set in motion his own counter-plan-- but he was at a loss what to do now.  The conventional response at this point should be to call in the police, yet he feared the girl's instant death should the authorities clumsily intrude.  One immediate solution suggested itself, a tricky, chancy scheme which nevertheless appealed to his forthright nature.  If it failed, his efforts at rescue would count for nothing.  Nevertheless, it was a real chance, and he could not resist it.  Vorchek cranked the engine and drove up to the gate.

     He identified himself.  "I don't know you," cried the guard.  "Your not on the list."

     "I am here to meet with Alfonse Lorient," Vorchek replied casually.

     "You know him?" The surly fellow hesitated, then placed a call from his wall phone.  "Go on in," he said, emerging from his box and pushing the swinging gate aside.

     Vorchek cruised at a slow, even rate along the graded gravel road to the main building, where a herd of other vehicles were grouped in a large dirt lot.  He squeezed his car into one of the few remaining spaces, and by the time he had stepped out no less than the man himself appeared from a doorway and approached, flanked by two burly goons as dark and seemingly foreign as he.

     "Professor Vorchek," said Lorient warily, "you amaze me.  It is incredible that you tracked me so fast.  I did not think to see you again.  Your presence here mystifies me, for you must realize that you have entered a lethal situation.  Why did you come?"

     "I am not afraid," said Vorchek.  "You have no reason to harm me, or the girl.  Where is she?"

     "Where is the item of our transaction?"

     "In transit.  You may expect it tomorrow, with the first post."

     "Very good.  Men, watch him.  Professor, come inside."

     Vorchek followed Lorient, the thugs followed the professor.  They entered a building very different from the forgotten headquarters in San Francisco.  No fine furniture here, no classy fittings or ornamentation, no absurd posters, only crude wooden walls decorated with strangely abstract paintings splashed primitively on the panels, images of spirals and star bursts and-- an ever-present motif-- a myriad of staring eyes.  Slovenly types came and went, mainly young men and women of various nationalities or races, saying nothing, appearing busy and earnest.

     Lorient turned and held up a hand, signifying halt.  "You know, of course, that the arrival of any more unexpected visitors-- say, visitors with badges and guns-- will mean only your quick end, and the tragic demise of the girl?"

     "Of course.  No one comes after me.  It would be ridiculous to risk that.  They could have no understanding of what is happening here, nor could their efforts affect the outcome."

     "It is well that you see that, Professor.  I have nothing more to say to you now.  We may speak further tomorrow, before the main event.  Men, take him to her.  See that they are fed."

     The tough-looking pair led Vorchek down a narrow corridor with creaking wooden floor, stopped at a bolted door, which they opened.  They thrust him inside the room, dimly lighted by a single lamp, slammed the door.  Vorchek collected himself, doffed his hat and said suavely, "Miss Delaney, it is a pleasure to see you again."

     Theresa sprang from where she had been sitting, brooding, on a crude cot, wrapped herself around her mentor.  "Oh, Professor," she cried, "I am so happy to see you.  I knew you'd save me from this band of lunatics.  Did you receive my message?  Did you figure it out?  Wasn't that clever of me?  I knew you'd get it.  So, what's the plan?  Did you sneak in the back way?  Who else is coming?  Did you arrange a big operation with the Army, Air Force, and Marines?  How soon do they arrive?"  She patted his coat pockets.  "I'll bet you're wearing an arsenal of concealed weapons.  I'll take a flame thrower if you've got one.  Nothing is too horrid for these creeps.  Well, tell me, tell me!"

     As gently as he could, Vorchek explained the situation to her.  Theresa blanched, grimaced, rolled her eyes and stamped her foot.  She looked lovely even when she did these things, but it did not serve to tell her so, for she was furious.  "Professor, you are a ninny.  You let me down in my moment of peril.  I wanted you here to get me out, not for a fact-finding expedition.  Now they've got us both, and nobody knows we're here, and they can do whatever they like, which means we're doomed.  Thank you, thank you very much.  Have you a light?"

    She flopped onto the cot, puffing her cigarette.  Vorchek sat in a ratty chair facing her and said, "My dear, the situation is not as gloomy as you suppose.  I have set in motion a scheme of my own, although nothing of the sort you call for.  I tell you frankly that we remain in great danger, and will do so for approximately twenty-four hours, but if we survive for that span, then we stand a fair chance of leaving here alive and growing to a contented old age.  The next day is critical-- until tomorrow night, I think-- but if they do not kill us out of hand in the meantime, our distressing position should resolve itself.  Have patience, child.  I am quite eager to observe the unfolding of the final chapter in this story."

     "You would relish your own death," Theresa screeched, "if you had the chance to study it while it happened.  I'm not that way."

     "I know, but be patient.  I have planted a kernel in Lorient's mind, a seed which may bear fruit.  He wants to boast, I think, and I made clear that I grant him the opportunity.  In order to make use of that I believe he will keep me alive for a period.  If he desires my willing audience, he will naturally refrain from harsh measures against you.  All is well, you see, and we may experience together amazing events."

     This scarcely mollified Theresa, but she was a chipper sort, and there was not much she could do about it, and besides, she really did have faith in the professor.  She showed him their accommodations, spartan but mercifully including a functional bathroom.  Dinner came at last, of a quality hardly worth waiting for, yet providing enough calories to get them by.  After a great deal of quiet talk they made their beds, Theresa on the cot, Vorchek on the floor with a blanket.

     They stayed trapped in the room for hours after waking, feeling the sluggish passing of every minute.  Then two new goons appears.  Lorient had sent for them, they must come at once.  Theresa feared immediate termination of her life processes, while Vorchek mused silently.  As it happened, they were taken to a commodious suite on the second floor where Lorient awaited them alone.  He invited them to a private breakfast, which was served so soon as they seated themselves at the big oak table and the guards assumed their positions outside the door.  Vorchek and the girl ate as if famished.  Lorient ate sparingly, watching them with amusement.

     Presently he said, "I hope you are both well, and as happy as circumstances permit?  Very good.  Professor Vorchek, you are an intelligent man, a learned man, one who knows a thing or two of outré matters, although not nearly enough, I can assure you.  Nevertheless it seems a pity to destroy your magnificent brain before you have the opportunity to witness the miracle of the ages which will transpire tonight.  In a sense, both you and I have lived for that moment, though for wildly different reasons.  Mine are obvious enough-- I crave the ultimate becoming with my Lord-- but while the future, I am afraid, holds an ugly fate in store for you, you must certainly crave the prospect of the astounding revelations which shall shortly spew from the boundless cosmos.

     "Throughout time, Professor, we devoted acolytes of Great Xenophor have labored behind the scenes of history for one goal:  the introduction of the physical reign of our Master upon this world.  This is His world, as all the worlds are His, but we, His devoted possessions, crave His material Lordship over us.  Always we've sought the key which unlocks the barriers that separate us from His presence.  We knew that such a key must exist, for Xenophor, He of the Million Eyes, is the Creator God, is everywhere and always, seeing all, knowing all.  His holy substance pervades His creation, which He fashioned for His pleasure; He is here, in every speck of matter and force, and we are here, therefore it must be possible for us to reach Him.  It was only necessary for those who believed and worshipped, to learn the secret way.

     "You may ask, Professor, what do we gain by contacting Him?  Mighty Xenophor cares nothing for His temporarily animated trinkets.  He doesn't stoop to caring that we live or die.  We exist merely as elements of His eternal, cosmic Plan, the vast tale He chooses to tell.  We are as naught to Him, true, but He is everything to us.  We are gripped by the unshakable faith that He expects us to scale the impossible heights, upon which we have ever gazed with longing, and attain that pinnacle where we may prostrate ourselves before Him.  I tell you that soon the earth will form that pinnacle.  He will come, in His actual substance, and through us He will rule.

     "How do we achieve this?  One does not speak with the Most High by radio or registered mail.  The materialities of our age, the sciences, avail us not.  It is, instead, through olden, forgotten means, hallowed by time, that we must endeavor.  The ancients knew; they delved into the illimitable aspects of magic, surer guides to knowledge when wielded by the proper brains, and they initiated the process of intellectual accrual which has led us to this moment.  There were numerous superior minds that gleaned a portion of the answer.  Reckless Artocris, most brilliant of the Classical mages, guessed a part, though his clumsiness led him to grief; noble Azamodias, that redoubtable scholar of the icy north, discovered the gate, but his stupid skittishness forbade him from attempting the final step; so it fell to Jacob Bleek, he of the perfectly cold and logical mind, to sweep away the ignorance of the eons and reveal the way.  Bleek learned the secret, and for callous reasons of his own-- not out of kindness to us, I may add, for in his day he laughed at us and opposed our designs-- he sought to preserve the secret for all time.  Thus what we call his Seal of Revelation came into being, a jewel for which we have quested throughout the centuries.  At some point in history it was broken up, the fragments scattered.  We tracked them down, one by one, utilizing bribery, theft, torture, and murder, until we possessed all but one critical piece.  That piece, Vorchek, you have delivered into our hands.

     "Yes, Professor, it has arrived!  Your package is here, the contents verified by experts.  Many of my comrades were impatient; they wished to proceed with our undertakings months ago, working with what we had, which seemed to them sufficient.  I counseled patience, and a good thing, too.  Your apparently trivial fragment contains two small but critical elements not referenced elsewhere in the seal.  A rather unusual magical solution devised by Maltheus the Wise, we learn, must be heated in a container of unadulterated iron.  We had wondered what to do with that substance, the preparation of which had been clinically described.  Furthermore, the passes of the Seventh Illumination must be employed at that juncture.  We knew of them from our documents, of course, but never realized their application.  Now we know.  We know all, and we are ready.

     "Tonight we act.  A handful of hours will see the deed done.  You will be here, Professor, to observe, so be content.  Your intelligence has won you a further pittance of life.  The girl may remain as well, though I have no need of her; were she a believer, though, she might make a fitting sacrifice to Him.  I suppose you and your delightful companion will shrivel into screaming madness when those million unwinking eyes glare down upon you and wrench your souls away, but then you surely knew that a certain amount of unpleasantness awaited you.  Meanwhile, consider yourselves at liberty within the compound.  If you approach within one hundred yards of the fence or the lake, Vorchek, you will be shot down like a dog, and as for the girl, well... I am too polite a fellow to tell you in detail what my stout lads will do to her."  And he laughed.

     Afterward Vorchek and Theresa strolled about the chaos of the Visions of Peace retreat, taking care to heed their host's cautionary warning.  The place hummed like a beehive with frantic activity.  Many people came and went with great rapidity, looking harassed and important, dispatching messages or obscure announcements.  Many others, hundreds or even thousands, milled about unceasingly, breaking up into spontaneous groups to discuss arcane points of mystical lore or burst into weird chanting and strange, uncouth prayers.  Most of those present, save for those radiating official airs, were shabbily dressed, unwashed, or otherwise bizarre in appearance or manners  Said Theresa, "It's the biggest collection of freaks I've ever seen.  I can't stand it here."

     Vorchek was ebullient, leading her cheerfully about as if on a sightseeing excursion.  "No harsh thoughts, I beg of you, Miss Delaney.  Why, it is a fine day, the scenery is entrancing, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, eh?  What more could we ask for at present?"

     "Not to be murdered, for one thing.  I'll never forgive you, Professor, if I get killed here.  I'll bet these loonies are digging our graves right now."

     "They have too much else on their minds.  Your heard the kind words of Mr. Lorient.  He grants us a reprieve until the great coming, when I presume that we, along with a few billion other unbelievers, will be erased.  Until then, we live, and must be happy with our lot.  We shall have a marvelous view of the festivities."  Vorchek indicated a big wooden amphitheater, consisting of tiers of long benches, which had been erected within a dell up against a steep slope of the wooded hills.  "I presume the ceremony will take place there."

     "Is it actually going to happen?"  Theresa shook her head in despairing wonderment.  "Are things like this really real?"

     "They are.  It is a strange world, sometimes unbearably so.  Much of the strangeness is just foolishness, but a great deal reeks of monstrous validity.  This is one such occasion.  Lorient and his cohorts are willing, and more importantly able, to unleash a fiendish horror upon our planet, and a great time of trial is approaching which, if they have their way, will mean the end of everything, extinction for most, the destruction of reason and sanity for all.  There is no point in fretting about that, however.  Besides, my dear, you forget that Lorient is not the only fellow hereabouts with cunning ideas.  There is my plan to consider.."

     "I've seen no evidence of your plan!" cried the girl.  "I don't even know what it is.  It had better involve a bunch of tanks and missiles, otherwise we're cooked."

     "It does not, and we are not.  Ye of little faith, think not the old man a fool.  My arrangements advance splendidly.  I know this, for the news comes from the best possible source, Lorient himself.  He told us as much, though you did not attend."  Theresa, all excitement and glee, pressed him for particulars, but Vorchek chuckled and would say no more.  He seemed thoroughly serene and in his element, but his attitude infuriated Theresa, who tried to impress upon him the seriousness of the situation.

     All too soon the dreaded evening came.  The thronging masses discarded their common attire-- some of them nonchalantly stripping to the buff-- and donned white robes of homemade appearance.  They surged through the gathering gloom to the amphitheater, carrying torches and flashlights.  The first arrivals, the lucky ones, grabbed seats on the benches, from which they gained a good view of the wooden platform or dais at the center of the semi-circle.  The rest kept coming, however, and they had to pile up on the turf beneath the bench supports or settle themselves on nearby slopes, where their lights twinkled and glistened.  Vorchek insisted on pushing to the front, though he and Theresa were too late for a seat.  "It is for the best," he observed.  "When it is time to move, we must move quickly."  A ring of tough men held them and the other standees at a perimeter some distance from the dais.

    Alfonse Lorient appeared, wearing a white robe of professional make, flanked by six other believers similarly dressed and bearing implements, books, packages and a big iron kettle carried by two men.  Lorient spied Vorchek, brusquely directed his fellows onto the platform, strode over to his captive and smirked.  "All is in readiness, Professor.  I imagine your sojourn among us has not been too painful?"

     "We have been fed again, for which we are grateful."  Theresa snorted at this.  "We do not suffer," Vorchek continued, " and yet, nevertheless, I am prey to grave forebodings.  I think you should forego this particular experiment.  I fear that no one will derive benefit from it, including yourself.  Why not leave it best alone?"

     "Do you wish," laughed Lorient, "to trying arguing me out of the culmination of an ancient dream?  I have no time, Professor, otherwise I would treat myself by listening.  I can enjoy a good joke.  I go now.  Watch, believe, and fear.  That is all there is left to you."  He turned and pushed through the crowd.

     He mounted the steps to the dais, checked the preparations.  His assistants had kindled a fire beneath the kettle.  Lorient raised his eyes to the skies.  The sun had died, the countless stars blazed.  He nodded, faced and addressed the muttering masses, who grew silent on the instant.  "Tonight," he shouted, "we shall speak to Great Xenophor, and He shall cast His inescapable, multifold gaze upon us, and we shall know ecstasy in His sight.  If He deigns, He shall speak with us in return, and open to us the gates of ultimate power and eternal glory.  The faith of our fathers, lovingly maintained these innumerable generations, comes to fruition at this time and place.  Great is He, damned are our foes.  So it shall always be henceforth.  The ceremony commences."

     Lorient took from the hands of the man on his left a fair sized object in brown paper, shredded with his fingers the wrappings, held aloft the contents.  The crowd roared.  Vorchek immediately knew the rectangular object for what it was.  "The complete Seal of Jacob Bleek," he sighed.  "They have joined together the pieces.  What I would give for a closer look at that."

     The man to Lorient's right unwrapped a smaller package, holding it carefully in the cup of his palms, and cast the powdery contents into the reddening pot.  A flash of flame dazzled all eyes, and a cloud of dense, bright smoke boiled up.  Then began a curious sort of pageantry on that stage.  Lorient's six companions started to dance, writhing and twisting and waving their arms and fingers.  They did so according to what appeared to Vorchek's learned eye a practiced, well-honed ritual, every move of every man, however odd, connecting to and dove-tailing with the moves before and after.  Hands darted and knifed the air, fingers groped at emptiness, feet shuffled in peculiar rhythm.  They commenced a low chant to themselves, scarcely audible from a remove, something formulaic and foreign.  At a certain high note one dancer (a woman, Vorchek noticed, the only one on the dais) dropped her robe and stood naked.  She plunged her arms deep into the simmering kettle, cried out in an unplaceable tongue, and then drew forth her steaming stumps.  Theresa gasped, while other onlookers expressed joyous awe.  Lorient removed a dagger from his robes and rammed it into the mutilated woman's breast.  She collapsed onto the platform, motionless, while the chanting rose to a yet higher pitch.

     Lorient waved aloft the bloody knife and bellowed, "I pronounce the secret, sacred words of the Seal," and he spoke three sentences, strings of inconceivably alien compound words which Theresa could not follow at all, and which even Vorchek had difficulty grasping.  "One portion derives from a spell of Maltheus," he whispered to the girl, "but the rest is meaningless to me.  That seal must contain esoteric knowledge of an incredibly advanced order.  I could pen an entire treatise on those words alone.  Will I ever have the opportunity?"  Theresa stared at him as if he had lost his mind.

     And Lorient roared in a voice like thunder, "Xenophor, Xenophor, Xenophor!" at which the throng went wild, rising from their seats and stamping furiously, or pressing frantically against the perimeter guards.  Vorchek placed his lips to Theresa's ear, raising his voice so that she could hear over the din, "This is the moment, Miss Delaney.  It is best that we be gone.  They will not pay attention to us now."  He seized her around the shoulders and propelled her through the maddening crowd.

     Theresa froze and pointed up into the blackness of night.  "Professor, look!"

     "Yes, I know.  I really should study this, but it is my duty to save your life.  Keep moving."  She did, and they both hurried through the crowd, into the empty meadow lands leading to the main hall.  From here they could look back upon the gleaming, stampeding mob.  Theresa cried out again.

     "Oh, look now, Professor!"

     "Remember Lot's wife," he snapped, though he could not resist the urge to quick glances himself.  Something was happening up there in the dark, starry sky.  A hole had opened in the blackness, a curious irregular hole blacker than the aerial background, which gave an illusion of utter emptiness, an intruding void from beyond the natural darkness.  Now something appeared to emerge from that gaping maw in the heavens, a hint of formless nebulosity which grew in intensity and transformed itself into a seething, bubbling mass of green luminescence.  It glittered, swirled, and frothed; hints of definite form took shape, many tiny forms, resembling a swarm of bees.

1     "Inside," commanded Vorchek as they reached the building.  "This is as far as we get.  It had better be good enough."  In he shoved Theresa, pausing once more for a backward glance before he took cover.  He saw the amphitheater with its eager hordes, their flickering, stabbing lights, Lorient gesticulating on the dais, and he saw the thing in the sky, an evilly glimmering, ever shifting, kaleidoscopic cloud of baleful, staring eyes, from which luridly glowing, smoky streamers were descending like tendrils toward the focus of human activity.  Then he dashed inside and dived for the floor, carrying Theresa down with him.

     Came a flash of red, penetrating light-- a roar from the crowd, a cacophony of horribly different timbre from what had gone before-- a reverberating crash reminiscent of a sonic boom-- a shuddering of the earth!  Vorchek held the girl beneath him as the walls buckled, things toppled and broke, glass smashed.  Then frightful silence reigned supreme.  Vorchek took his time about rising.  Ordering caution, he crept on hands and knees to a shattered window and peeked outside.

     "What do you see?"  whispered Theresa, though her voice sounded unnaturally loud.

     "Nothing to speak of," replied the professor.  "There is nothing happening at the amphitheater.  It is not there anymore."  At that Theresa got up to see for herself.  After an eyeful Vorchek discoursed on prudence and suggested that they clear out.  They left the building, which had lost part of its roof, detoured around the wreckage and made for his hired car,  still parked where he had left it.  It functioned, though somewhat the worse for wear.  "There will be the devil to pay with the rental company," said he.

     "I'm good for it," said Theresa.

     The amphitheater was indeed gone, along with all those people who had clustered in the vicinity.  There remained in that clearing beneath the gloomy slopes of Bonita valley only a circular charred space where all trace of organic life had vanished utterly.  Even the fertile soil had gone in part, with banks of blasted bedrock protruding from the ground.  The ceremony to Xenophor was over.

     Much later, in the pleasant surroundings of her fashionable apartment, Theresa invited Professor Vorchek to tea.  As he puffed on his pipe he waxed voluble concerning recent events.  "These stories in the papers," he exclaimed; "so much they get wrong, and the uneducated questions they ask!  It is well that we remain anonymous during this nine day wonder.  Given the caliber of the reporting, I would hesitate to risk offering anything resembling the truth.  The powers that be would never forgive me.  Still, I can not complain.  All things considered, my plan worked beautifully.  The menace of the Xenophor cult is smashed for the moment, and we live to tell about it... or not tell, as we choose.  Such is life."

     "I'm sick of hearing about your plan," Theresa retorted, "especially since I haven't really heard anything about it.  It looks to me like dumb luck saw us through, and nothing more.  You were supposed to rescue me, but didn't; you should have stopped the ceremony, but didn't; and I thought you'd beat up the bad guys, but didn't.  If it was up to you they'd have gotten away with it.  Some plan!"

     "Miss Delaney," said Vorchek in mock sorrow, a sly grin breaking through as he spoke, "some wounds never heal.  I may not survive your poor esteem, therefore I must endeavor to change it.  I told you I had a plan, and I meant it.  I had worked out all of the details before ever you saw me again, and developments proceeded pretty much as predicted, save on two points.  I did not know for certain that the end of the affair would constitute so grandiose a catastrophe, although even there I realized a range of probabilities.  Also, and far more important to me, the marvelous seal of Jacob Bleek was lost along with all else, which truly is a disaster for science.  There should have been something I could do to salvage it."

     "I couldn't care less," cried Theresa, "about the seal, or Jacob Bleek, or any of those old weird guys."

     "Forbidden, thoughts, child!  You sneer at the mystic masters of yesteryear.  I will not hear your words."  He grinned again.  "Your safety was paramount, you know.  I could only hope that Lorient spared you until I arrived, but once past that hurdle I felt myself on firm foundations.  The ceremony would proceed, once the cultists had what they wanted, and it was logical that we would live until it was complete, for they had no reason to kill us then.  They thought Xenophor would handle that distasteful business for them when he exterminated the unbelievers."

     "It was a crazy risk."

     "Yet necessary," said Vorchek.  "I had to know, to see it for myself.  Knowledge is my life.  I learn or I perish.  I accomplished one, avoided the other.  I desired to know whether the great spell contained in Bleek's seal possessed genuine efficacy.  To a sufficient degree, I do know now.  I am happy."

     "You wouldn't be so happy," Theresa pointed out, "if the spell had worked the way the cultists wanted.  Yet you gave them the last piece of the puzzle they needed.  That was horribly dangerous, Professor."

     "I did not give it to them."

     "You did!  I heard Lorient, remember?  I know."

     "Not at all," replied Vorchek, and he laughed heartily, easily.  "There was one more feature to my plan.  Of course I could not allow the cultists of Xenophor to succeed.  Had He run rampant in our world, He might have acted exactly as they wished; a problematic proposition at best-- the true believers are ever too reliant on their faith-- but an awesome consideration.  I, therefore, employed a subterfuge.  I did not hand over the fragment.  I mailed to Lorient a magnificent reproduction fashioned by an expert metallurgist.  A perfect copy-- quite good enough to fool those people-- save in one small detail.  I removed from the engraved text the reference to 'the fourth level safeguards of the Rhexellites'.  I have studied this, you see, and knew those antique spells to be formulations of unimaginable power, perhaps the only safeguards which could render congress with Xenophor survivable.  Lorient and his gang did not recognize the necessity, and in their ignorance went ahead without any protection at all."  The professor paused, then added soberly, "They tried and failed, to their horrific and, I fear, eternal cost.  Xenophor is a grim God, I am told, with strange humors, and it may be that He amuses Himself still with the souls of His acolytes."