Years upon years ago, they came from the air. On wings and not-wings, crawling and skittering and slithering across the clouds, even as the wisps of moonlight bled red, they came…
Years upon years ago, they came from the ground, dragged and drained from the waters and mud to slosh and slip across paths and roads, as the land seemed to shrink from them, dim and deaden until only the foulest of plants would grow and thrive.
Years upon years ago, they came… and they never ever left.
--written in faded black ink on the inner cover of the journal of J.H. Watson, MD
There once was a man named John who was fairly intelligent and respectable and had an honest face. He died under the hills in Afghanistan and the things that heard his screams had no mouths of their own to repeat them.
That would be the simplest story, and sometimes the simplest story is true. However, the world is anything but simple, and so instead the story goes like this.
There once was a man named John who was fairly intelligent, yet not intelligent enough to stay away from the Army. Medical school had not been hard, only time-consuming. It was filled with explicit lessons in of allowing any incurable or inconvenient illness to be alleviated permanently by a visit from one of the Queenkin, and long lectures by wise men explaining each green-tinged anatomical drawing, as well as offering the most convenient methods to “release” a patient that had wandered astray of a shoggoth or Mi-go. John had found himself at loose ends upon graduation and happily enough followed the suggestion of Professor Henry that someone with his steady manner might do well fighting overseas.
(That a “steady manner” was simply another way of suggesting that John’s mind seemed hardy enough to resist madness at the first glimpse of an Old One did not occur to him until much later, a realization that caused John to break into an unending bout of horrified laughter, great gasps of it until he cried, bolstered by the welcome weight of Sherlock’s hand on his shoulder.)
John was respectable; though in London society that was simply well-known shorthand for being someone who kept his head to the ground, inspired no intense feelings in the positive or negative, and offered as few original thoughts to his fellow citizens as possible. He was never sought out by his fellow physicians, nor specifically avoided. These nondescript characteristics usually guaranteed one's safety, for the most part. Indeed, John’s parents and sister followed these behaviors to the letter, though they had vanished into the streets of London while he was gone. He hoped that they had moved and were now living healthily, if not happily, though he feared (knew) that one can be respectable and safe up until the moment that an Old One’s interest is piqued. He’d seen too many abandoned rooms and abandoned bodies to think otherwise.
He had always been told he had an honest face and could dimly remember seeing its calm and relatively innocent gaze reflecting back from looking glass and shaving mirror. That honesty drew men to him, his commanders claimed, and so the Army promoted him, pushed him up the ranks with little fanfare and littler reward until he led a squad of fifty into the hills, scurrying and clawing into the mountains.
Their mission began with a clear order to search the caves, but it ended with a fierce and unnatural enemy seeking them out instead. John knew the creatures were an enemy because they fought back before provoked, quickly and violently, and John knew they were unnatural because no wound dealt by a man left such marks.
In their squad of fifty, only three returned to be bathed in the bloody sunlight again. Cadet Nolan died moments later, still dragging fingers through his eyes long since blinded and torn, screaming that he didn’t want to look, sir, please don’t make him.
Captain Ross appeared from the cave opening, looking remarkably hale and whole in body. After the polite and professional debrief, he calmly saluted his superiors, slipped a Bowie knife into his pocket and proceeded to the officers’ mess, where he began carving whole slices of his skin off and offering them to the men at his table with all manner of solicitude until he fainted from blood loss.
Major John Hamish Watson was reported missing in action after two days, presumed dead after ten. On the thirty-seventh day, a gaunt, wild-eyed skeleton crawled out of tunnel 221B, his right leg covered in weeping sores and small incisions that (the men whispered later) looked like mouths wide open in a scream.
The man who had been John could not walk unaided, his leg would not bear his weight, and it took five men to gather and bear him to the medical tent. Another three had to tie him down as the doctors debated whether it would just be kinder to let him die.
Mike Stamford, a medic newly arrived in-country, argued most persuasively for Waton’s care. Without his support, John is sure that he would have been given an overdose of morphine and a posthumous medal. Instead, he was left crippled and scarred, shaken in mind and soul, but alive, at least in the conventional medical sense.
It took them three weeks to stop John from screaming every moment he closed his eyes and when the drugs ceased their function they shook their heads, offered suggestions for quiet and rest and large amounts of alcohol and packed their problematic patient back to London.
There once was a man named John and he was fairly intelligent—though now he could barely keep ahead of the way his thoughts raced and gibbered and rambled—and respectable—though once he mentioned that he had been in the Army, people melted away and refused his gaze, fearing such a stark example of Old One exposure—and he had an honest face—though the frighteningly ancient eyes that glared back in the mirror no longer seemed his own. Much of him died under the hills of Afghanistan and he always woke with a scream echoing his rooms and another locked in his throat, shivering hard against the vision of the mouthless yet ravenous things that had slithered and slipped through the dirt.
The first boarding house gave way to another and yet another as more complained of the noises, the screams. The looks of pity gave way to frustration and avoidance and finally John sat huddled against a moldering alley wall near the St. Giles Rookery. He wondered what walked here that he could not see, what evil slept without dreaming beneath the cobblestones. That was where Stamford (about business more seditious than licentious) found him, recognizing the Major he’d known in the lost man on the cobbles.
The man who died under the hills went with the man who saved him deep into the basements of the university. There, they met a man who was sharply intelligent, not very respectable at all, and who had a face that said being honest wasn’t the same as being kind. He’d had many names, he said, but the first was Sherlock Holmes.
The limping doctor smiled.