During the great war across the unknown sea against the abominable kingdom of the Rhexellites the legions of Dyrezan, marching eastward toward the distant enemy citadel of Tsathgon, entered into a dreary region of stony mounds and sheer ravines which, so the furtive natives informed, were called the Hills of Yost. This was unpleasant, barren, dead terrain, a region not to be conquered but passed through as quickly as possible on the way to more fertile lands and glories. Early in the afterdawn, in a steep declivity beneath jutting cliffs, a Rhexellite host fell upon a detachment of Dyrezanian soldiers and their accompanying Peoki allies; attacked in force with spears of iron and long range bombards and discomfiting magic. The half-naked Peoki tribesmen, armed only with their rude, barbarous weapons, broke and ran, and the situation looked perilous for the stout, mailed swordsmen of the western empire until reinforcements arrived in the form of more men and leaders skilled in the arcane arts. From the cliff overlooking the battlefield the titular commander of the expedition, scholarly Lord Nantrech, acquiesced to the counter-strike directed by his nominal subordinate Lord Morca, Captain of the Royal Guard.
Magicians all, the nobles of Dyrezan rapidly implemented the hasty plan. Nantrech conjured a screen of dry mist that blinded the enemy who manned the machines that belched fire and massy stones. Captain Morca wove from among his private spells a blast of invisible heat that stymied the Rhexellite advance, left them confused and uncertain while fresh Dyrezanian troops came at them unseen from the left. Then Morca donned his armor, galloped down to join his men in their victorious charge that slew or scattered their opponents.
Later, standing amidst the bloody debris, Morca said to Nantrech, “The road lies open before us once more. The handful of those creatures who escaped fled to the north.” Nantrech replied, “That is well. I would proceed without delay for Tsathgon, lest we fall prey to further ambushes in these nasty hills.” But staunch Morca said, “Nay; truly, the army must march-- there I see your way-- yet I would not allow their survivors to haunt our procession, possibly to harry us from flank or rear. By your leave, I take a troop to pursue them, that I may collect their heads.” Nantrech agreed to this.
Then Morca laughed, saying, “Who cometh?” A great beast approached, a huge black tiger, the pet and companion of Morca, with red stains about its heavy jaws. Its master cried, “Why, Treenya, my girl, I thought to have lost you. Have we enjoyed fine sport today?” Treenya growled, rubbed blood onto his steel-clad hip with her head, gutturally purred. He declared, “You will come with me. I can use your keen senses.”
Captain Morca took with him the ebon tiger and a party of twelve, six armored Dyrezanians and as many dusky Peokis hungry for revenge. That they might move quickly they took to horse, trotted earnestly into the northern hills, soon losing sight of the army already in motion. Treenya sniffed for them the retreat route of the Rhexellites, which wandered aimlessly up and down the many anonymous rises and through sere gullies. As morning gave onto afternoon Morca spied something ahead.
“That is a town,” he observed, “unless I mistake myself, in the direct track of our foes. They make for that place.” Fenji, a wild Peoki warrior who had mastered the rudiments of his allies’ tongue, responded slowly, “Not Rhexellite-- not like their villages-- strange village.” And Phillipan, Morca’s young lieutenant and aide, seconded this: “A far cry this is from the ugly obsidian cubes of the Rhexellite dwellings. I see a fair town of white, possibly of marble. Who hereabouts rears civilized habitations?”
Said Morca, “We shall see.” With Treenya loping easily at his side they rode onward, topping a slope in the space of an hour that delivered them to the precincts of the unexpected town. Surely it was remarkable to come upon such a sight in those forsaken Hills of Yost where nothing lived save lizards and spiders. Surely also they had underestimated its magnitude. Beheld they a compact but impressive city, walled in white-veined granite, with a cluster of indubitably marble towers looming beyond that barrier, surrounded by orchards and flowing irrigation ditches topped by hedges.
Said Morca, “A pure spring feeds this wonder, a patch of life defying the leagues of death about. ‘Tis a pretty place. I see no trace of the Rhexellite yoke here.”
Phillipan soberly mused, “The black magic of the Rhexellites subdued all the lesser folk of this land. If goodly people subsist here, it is by way of stronger arts. Let us not assume gentle welcome.” Lord Morca saw the sense in his words, insisted that they approach warily the gate.
Indeed the gate stood open, on the other side of a drawbridge. Before this lay a well designed garden of unfamiliar palm-like plants, so high as a man, sprouting in obscure geometrical arrangements. Amongst these plants lay bits of curious litter. Said Fenji, “Filthy Rhexellites come, drop things. Weapons, clothing, food, all here. Why they that?”
“Perhaps they bathe in the canal,” suggested Phillipan.
“They are not there now,” Morca noted with a frown. “Save for their rubbish, it is as if they vanished within the compass of those plants. What tells it?” Treenya went forward, smelled at the wavy fronds, growled low in her throat. Morca rode among the plants, leaned down to scrutinize. “Let us enter the city. Draw your swords, hold high your shields.”
They rode through the gate. No one met them. They entered a charming white court with a playing fountain, an heroic statue of a robed sage, and many of the unknown palms. Lord Morca called to the walls. Fenji shouted in his tribal speech. Echoes answered. A proud, wide avenue led off from the court.
“Yonder lies a great house,” Phillipan indicated. “There we meet a man of worth, possibly a noble of the city. Shall I go forth to parley for us?”
“We stay together,” commanded Morca. “We all will indulge in his hospitality.” So they cantered to the gate of the house, where they gazed on a green lawn with numerous palms. The troop dismounted, tethered their steeds. Crossing the lawn, they reached the main door, which stood open also. Muttered the Dyrezanian lord, “They fear no thieves.” Having detailed guards about the yard, and ordered Treenya to wait for him, he entered the grand abode with Phillipan and Fenji.
The interior was beautiful, ornate, spotlessly clean. Exotic furnishings graced with gold, silver, and brilliant gems met the eye in each room. It all appeared oddly unused, as if for display rather than occupancy. No one was about. The extreme tidiness suggested a tenant, but nothing else did. Nothing, that is, until they peered into the spacious dining hall, found it lighted by lamps, and the large marble table set for a banquet.
“Food for kings!” Morca declared. “Xenophor’s mercy, gentlemen, snub we not our unseen benefactor. Fenji, call in Treenya, that she join us. We eat. The other men I will bring in threes after we dine.” They relished the bountiful repast, baked meats and stewed birds, and sliced melons washed down with wines light to the palate. Even enjoyed they feasting with utensils of precious metals and dishes of fancy ware. Treenya gorged on her large portion from a platter set for her on the blue tiled floor.
All the men took their turns, save one, Tollas the swordsman, who failed to appear when called. Lord Morca investigated. The man was not to be found. He did not reply to barked orders. “This is unseemly,” snapped Morca. He directed a search of the grounds. All they found were the odd palms. Those grew in the rear yard as well, tall shrubs with fat boles, heads from which dangled little wormy tendrils, and the broad green fronds that rustled lightly in the breeze. A back gate gave onto a lane which ran from the city wall into the depths of the city. At the edge of the lane, at the foot of a palm, they found a swordsman’s accouterments scattered on the flag stones. “He has been taken,” announced Morca.
A Peoki whispered darkly. Though his allies somewhat grasped the sentiment, Fenji translated. “Brutish Rhexellites strike not so silently.”
Morca nodded. “Tollas went as did our enemies. The pattern is the same. We must comb the city. I will not leave until I find him.”
That constituted a weighty issue, for shadows had grown long, and the warm sun had sunk low behind the city walls. Time pressed. Having remounted the men, Morca divided his force into teams of six, Phillipan leading one, and separately they plunged into the heart of that peculiar city that rose mysteriously from the grim Hills of Yost. Lord Morca took his five, and Treenya, on a direct course to the center, while he sent Phillipan on a circuit of the walls. Morca discovered clean lanes, big houses of marble, small dwellings of limestone, and a sprawling structure at the core boasting the highest towers that might have been a temple. He did not find his man, nor did he meet any native human beings. The sole living things within the confines of the city were the ubiquitous, monotonous plants, which clustered thickly about the plaza facing the temple.
Treenya’s behavior distressed him. She growled nervously at nothing, or more often at the plants, and once she yowled angrily, as if menaced. Her roar generated harsh, jarring echoes. Morca remonstrated with her strongly, but she was in no mood to be soothed or heeled, not even by him; most uncharacteristic of her. Morca’s instincts warned him, via a tingling of the spine, of subtle danger.
In the encroaching gloom he and his men sat on the temple steps. He ordered a trumpet blast that called to Phillipan, who appeared with his men and reined by as night closed in. “Nothing to be found around the city,” he reported, “save those cursed plants.”
“In this great structure we rest,” said Lord Morca, jabbing his thumb at the big temple. “Tie the horses outside. We will be safe within its massy walls. Also, within I may learn secrets of this city. Too much now mystifies. Effort must be impelled by knowledge.”
Within they entered into high-ceilinged halls and corridors of purest white marble, all spotlessly clean and grandly furnished. Oddly, this one structure, of all those examined, was vacant of the elsewhere teeming palms. On a dais in an alcove of the largest hall, however, squatted a statue that might confirm the accuracy of Morca’s assignation of temple to the building. It was not the statue of a man, so it must be the likeness of a god, but it was a curious and repellent representation. The very materials of its substance were unusual, for amidst the glamor and costly excess of its milieu the statue demanded attention by the grotesque squalor of its fabrication. Bigger than a bear, it was an unrespectable, lumpy compound of dirty clay, dried mud, and rusted iron, all of this crudely pushed together by unskilled hands into an eidolon of that which no son of Dyrezan had ever beheld, or imagined in the foulest dreams. Toad-like, its flaccid, spreading bulk seemed to drip without motion over the lip of the dais. Most of its ill-defined corpus consisted of a species of satire on the concept of face, though hints merely indicated bulbous eyes-- possibly too many-- and a slobbering mouth. Inscribed on the platform beneath-- no, scratched there with deliberate rudeness-- was a short series of unpleasing symbols, which Lord Morca struggled to decipher.
“I wish Nantrech were here to see this,” he muttered. “He knows more of foreign lands, their quaint ways and ideas. This writing does not reproduce the Rhexellite tongue, so far as I can make out, yet it employs variations of their characters, in a simpler, possibly antique form. I translate it as a single word: Blug. So the hasty inscriber styled this deity.”
Replied Phillipan, “You’d have to break my knees before I’d bow down to that.”
Lord Morca nodded, saying, “’Tis odd for a god. I detect in this loathsome pile no majesty, no inspiration of awe, nor even reverential terror. This is a master to be despised.”
The men camped in the smaller chambers outside of the Hall of Blug. They ate their trail rations, composed bedding from the fancy wall hangings, thus spoiling the unmarred, timeless quality of their weird lodgings. Sentinels were tasked into the connecting corridors, to be relieved at intervals, and one man assumed station at the outer door, to watch their steeds and look out for movement in their direction from the city surrounding.
Morca, after the briefest nap, busied himself before the statue of Blug with strange ministrations. Soldier he was, yet wizard too, acknowledged one of the finest produced by Dyrezan, which meant great indeed; and he would seek through his arts the solution to the olden mysteries that clustered about that forlorn, impossibly durable city in the Hills of Yost, and learn if he might the answers to the riddles that still plagued the locale, questions involving the disappearance of his man and maybe those whom his squad had pursued thus far. Via magic he explored these matters. With Treenya looking on, her great black head resting on her large paws, he spread a colorful curtain of geometric pattern on the cold stone floor, laid out such tools and materials as he habitually carried with him on short journeys, mixed in a small ceramic urn odoriferous powders that smoked and seethed in contact, and recited a spell of wisdom and mystic vision handed down to him from a long line of sorceric fathers. The smoke rose into his eyes; it stung, but beyond his momentary blindness he saw, as through rippling waters, images of long ago.
There rose before him green hills crowned with tall trees, with valleys below luscious with pastures and fields. Why did this scene press itself on his heightened consciousness? He knew not this land, yet it struck him as familiar. Yes, of course: that well defined peak with the hooked, granite crag; it loomed not a league from where he crouched in the big hall of the temple. These were the Hills of Yost in yester-time, a long gone age when this was a lively land. And there was the city, with its gushing springs that fed the green and golden valleys, no trace of deadening desert in view.
There too its people, as he saw them suddenly at close remove. Not Rhexellites these-- assuredly not as he knew them in their modern decadence-- though mayhap as they once were in better days of yore, or their fairer kin. These folk looked goodly and proud and vital, industriously dwelling amidst bounty that promised eternal.
Morca the mage carefully whispered convoluted syllables he once wrung from the unquiet denizen of an ancestor’s tomb, then said aloud, “Show me what this foretells.”
The rippling eddies washed the pretty scene away, to replace it with another. There, in the very chamber in which Morca brewed his magic, a striking man with white hair, in white robes, harangued his people, well fed and smug of face, who thronged the hall, he gesticulating with sneering face at the stupendously beautiful statue in marble in heroic, godly form that occupied the dais. Morca did not understand him-- the words came faintly, as if called from a far mountain top-- but he sensed a vociferous argument. Then the crowd cheered, screeched virulent approval; men dressed as priests were slain by bare, clawing hands, and the magnificent statue toppled. Now more hands pressed into Morca’s vision, hands dripping mire and encrusted with wormy filth. Hands, hands, they pushed at and into a globby mass, shaping it at the beck of the white-haired, white-robed grandee, who continued speaking, shouting, waving his arms. A new shape grew on the dais. It was the eidolon of Blug.
Said Lord Morca, “Shades of the ages, speak to me of Blug.”
Knowledge poured into his brain like a sickening poison. The people of the ancient city, at the behest of a revered wise one who had wandered far into unknown realms, rejected their fair god and replaced him with another. This god, Blug, was not comely to look upon, but He was supposed to be the primordial essence underlying all life and truth in the universe, and it was bragged that from Him flowed all valid insights into ultimate reality. So the folk of the city accepted Him, and bowed down, and worshipped cringingly before His frightful image.
The very notion disgusted Morca, who bowed only to great Xenophor, Creator and Destroyer, Lord of All Things, the First and the Last, the god of his people since the founding of Dyrezan. Like most educated men in his circle he tolerated the beliefs of other folk, which he professed to view as debased if well meaning parodies of the genuine faith, but this cult of Blug was a negation, a base rejection of cosmic value. As onto a golden throne the people of the city raised up specters of squalor, disease, decay and despair, icons of faith, the vital components of the human condition as they chose to perceive it. This they did. They believed it, and it changed them.
Morca viewed more scenes, fleeting images of the city past its prime, decadent, degrading. He absorbed sensory impressions of willful misery, the stultification of mind, the extolling of standards abysmal or nonexistent. The folk degenerated rapidly, alarmingly. Their numbers dwindled. He guessed that the outside world shunned them. Then came the final change. In that long ago time a sooty nimbus played about the misshapen head of the revolting statue. Its mud features cracked into a horrible crevice of a grin. The uneven eyes blinked. The change occurred: a hot wind scoured the green from the Hills of Yost, and the remnant population of the city vanished, and the city transformed, became unaccountably pristine, an oddly shining jewel amidst the deterioration; only the people were gone. In their place stood the strange palms, in numbers precisely equal to those of the last inhabitants. So ended, it appeared, the worship of Blug in those parts.
The smoke of Lord Morca’s magic dissipated. He started at the touch of something against his cheek, but it was warm and soft, and it was Treenya, eyeing him with that worried expression of nonhuman intelligence that felines exhibit so well. “Fear not, my dear,” said Morca. “To some degree I grasp the peril here. I know enough to realize that we must away at once.” And he departed the hall, studiously refraining from looking upon the statue of Blug.
He called to the sentinels and roused the rest, all except two men, including a Peoki, who were disturbingly absent. Phillipan sleepily asked, “What goes?” and Morca replied, “We do. There is danger afoot beyond sword or mere magic. This city is accursed.” “Should not we continue the search?” “That is useless, and while we remain, more are lost.”
The men trooped querulously out of the temple into the night, Morca in the lead. At the foot of the steps descending to the plaza they spied by moonlight two more plants where none had previous stood, with armor and loincloth and weapons lying about. Treenya growled angrily. They untied the horses, saddled, filed across the open space. Morca explained to Phillipan what he had seen, what he deduced. “It is a kind of trap,” he said. “The beauty of the city is the worst sort of lie. Here is concentrated the deepest ugliness knowable to man, and still more. Some are prone to this evil, are swayed and captured by it. Those men we have misplaced were, I reckon, poor specimens, the least of our race and of our allies. They were quickly taken. I fear, however, that none are immune. The fell influences may beat down the best within us, render us finally less than human.”
Phillipan said, “I fear no plant.”
Fenji, who rode near, cried, “I fear losing my soul in one.”
“That is a consideration,” Morca agreed. “I pray that is the only mischief here.”
As events soon proved, there was rather more of outright menace present. The city had let them in readily enough, but shortly a festering of unwholesome activity suggested that regress was another matter. The soldiers were riding stolidly down a dark lane overhung by a fat, round tower when the thing started. It was the metamorphosis of the palms. They grew and mutated into shadowy shapes that horrified because at first glance one likened them to true men, while a second revealed the nauseating departure from anything approximating normality. Shafts of moonlight showed them for the awful, the impossible refugees from the charnel house that they were. On the instant the horses shied, reared, grew hopelessly unmanageable with mindless terror. The men dismounted hastily to avoid accidents. Like a shot their animals galloped away into the darkness, neighing piteously.
“The pure essence of rotten souls!” Morca shouted as horrid things limped, shambled, or crawled toward them. There really was not much human about them after all. “Their master means to detain us. Out with your swords, lads. Hew your way!”
Then it was battle, though not the kind most of those men were accustomed to waging. Heretofore they had fought for glory, or for honor, or simply to slay their foes. None of those factors reigned now. The despicably decrepit antagonists confronting them were not such as to be bested or killed-- more than phantoms they surely were, yet less than alive-- nay, to thwart them and win free was the sole option, for the putrid monstrosities could not be slain.
Stinking, bony fingers clawed at their faces. Blades slashed through the air, bit into animate tissues desiccated or engorged with ichor. Chunks flew off the things, which kept on coming so long as mobility remained, and that meant plenty, for the loss of an arm or a head counted for little with voiceless creatures that need not breathe. Treenya roared her battle cry, leapt upon an attacker, made to maul it, gave back squalling and spitting, only to gamely pounce at another that shambled forward. The melee grew chaotic, a man was dragged down to pavement, then another, screaming in pathetic, agonized tones for mercy. Lord Morca rallied his troops, formed them into a wedge, ordered them to face shields and charge. He bawled charms of life and strength while he battered at the shapes blocking him. The stampede of armored swordsmen and spear-wielding warriors broke through. Fenji’s spearpoint impaled the thing that grappled with his leader’s neck from behind, pushed it down. He stamped on its sodden head, crushed its skull. It writhed, crept forward on malformed hands and fleshless knees. The men raced into the courtyard before the gate.
A tall figure stood swaying before them, next the fountain, before the white statue of the great sage, its unbearable leanness shrouded in soiled, tattered white, with scanty white hair hanging in lank wisps from its bony scalp. It waved shriveled arms and worked (a process painful to see) its corroded, lipless mouth, revealing hideous stumps of teeth. “If you be he,” bellowed Lord Morca, “who inflicted Blug on your fellows, then you have nought to say to us!” and he swiped with his sword, sending spinning into the fountain pool the head with its sightless eyes. As Treenya rushed after the bouncing, blackened oblong Morca ordered his men through the gate, hanging back to see them safely past the irrigation channels.
Dawn was well advanced when the shaken, reduced party halted a few furlongs away to recover themselves. Treenya came trotting up presently, thoroughly drenched, carrying a grim trophy in her dirty jaws. Morca snapped, “Throw it away, girl. Let him keep his head, much good it ever did him. That is the way-- no, no kisses for you, not until you drink-- here, from my cup.” Bright beams cut through a gap in the hills, bathed the scape of the mockingly beautiful, forever nameless city. He said, “Aye, a lovely vision, though false as the fair daydreams in Hell. I shall report of our excursion to Lord Nantrech, though I doubt the wisdom. That scholar will wish to return here with a bevy of mages to plumb the secrets we scarcely touched.”
Said Phillipan, “We must seek him first.”
“That is so. The army has gained on us, and fresh perils lurk ahead, of that you may be sure. These Hills of Yost conceal certain marvels and foes; there are other realms to the east, likely as strange and soaked in ancient magic, which will make demands on all our powers. Let us hurry on foot as best we can to rejoin our friends. Up and away, men, stamp your boots in time, back to the road. By my side, Treenya, and keep alert until you see faces familiar and human.”
© Jeffery Scott Sims 2012
Jeffery Scott Sims is an anthropologist with a penchant for fantastic literature. He lives in Arizona, which forms the background for many of his tales. His recent publications include a novel,
The Journey of Jacob Bleek, and the short stories "Sedona", "The God In the Machine", "The Love of Jacob Bleek", "The House On Anderson Mesa", "The Nasty Club", and "The Mystery of the Inner Basin Lodge". More of his work can be viewed at http://jefferyscottsims.webs.com/index.html.
Lillthan watched the moon-washed forest canopy below as she paced the rampart. Her grip tightened on the sword hilt as she waited for them to come.
The Fastness of Samoree was quiet. Only night birds broke the silence. Her ears strained for the sound of Kooroo's shrill warning cry, or the telltale scritch-scratch of chitinous legs on stone walls. It seemed to her she had spent every night of her life this way, waiting for blood-red monsters.
Indeed, she could remember nothing else. No childhood, no parents, no evenings of wine and music. The healers blamed the monster's sting -- and the fever it produced -- for that.
She sighed. Far below, the river was a silver ribbon glazed by the always-full moon. Breeze-stirred branches stretched as far as she could see. It was a landscape to inspire poetry, made for quiet walks with lovers. But Lillthan had no time for that.
She heard a footstep -- a man's, not a creature's -- and turned toward the shadows of the arched doorway. She knew who was there even before she saw the smirk that sometimes showed when parting clouds flooded his hiding place with moonlight. And she knew he would vanish before she took even one step toward him.
Lillthan had seen him much of late, a man gazing upon her from the darkness, then vanishing into it as though he were part of it.
But this time he stayed.
He stepped forward. Moonlight fell on a face darkly handsome. Carefully trimmed hair and beard adorned features that were a tad arrogant, and somehow familiar to her. His clothing and manner spoke of nobility, but he was not of the House of Samoree. She knew everyone in this unchanging place.
Lillthan wasn't sure why she wanted to smile, but she knew sentries don't grin at strangers in the night. "Who are you?" Lillthan made it more demand than question, and punctuated it with a raised sword. And even as she fixed her attention on the shadow-man, her ears listened for Kooroo's warning cry.
"I am Gadhill, fair one," he said, bowing deeply though keeping his brown eyes upon her. "I am a mage of considerable power, and I am completely at your service." He grinned as he rose; a practiced gesture, more theatrical than natural.
"I've seen you about, lurking, for several nights now," Lillthan said. She wanted to be angry, but somehow couldn't. She sensed no harm from him, and he at least was something new in this wretched place. The mystery of him intrigued her. But she was a warrior, a guard, and her inclination toward easy acceptance of him angered her. "You're a spy, or you're a..."
"A friend, milady," he said, and she wanted badly to believe him. "From afar, yes, but a friend no less. And a powerful one, too." Again the smile, and the glimmer in his eyes that said she was supposed to swoon. "Come now, don't you find me appealing?"
His manner irritated her, and reminded her of her duty. She had no time for courtiers. And whatever else Gadhill was, he was a wizard and thus a liar. She'd heard many a sorceror's boast, but never yet seen the mage who could combat Samoree's nightly terrors.
"Well, friend Gadhill," she said, aiming the massive sword at his breast. "Get the hell out of Samoree." She put steel in her voice that shamed the gleaming metal of her blade.
Gadhill awakened with a start, and ran hands across his face. Sweat and the hot air he gulped told him he was back in sun-drenched, sand-raked Krivell. Lillthan's rebuff felt like a kick in his gut.
He rolled slowly from the cot, his bare knees thunking on the dirt floor. His belly heaved, and the heat wrapped him like a blanket.
"You dreamed of it again, Gadhill?" The voice came from Salmad, who was repairing a saddle. Gadhill tried to breathe shallowly; everything in this wretched abode stank of camel.
"Yes," Gadhill said, rising on shaky legs.
"She was there?" Salmad's eyebrows arched lasciviously as his burly arms tugged at leather straps. "The blonde one with the flashing eyes and strong arms that could squeeze a man to delirium?"
"Yes," Gadhill said tersely, staggering toward the water jug. "Just as I imagined her." He gulped deeply; the water was warm, but helped erase for a moment the taste of air clogged with sand-dust and animal stench.
"Then why so glum, Gadhill?"
"It was more real this time, I mean, more solid," Gadhill said, leaning on a bench littered with hammers and hobnails and odd straps of leather. "It was all as I wanted it, all as I dreamed it. Lush, beautiful, green even by moonlight, and cool! A breeze, Salmad, not a hot raking wind but a breeze!" He was lost in the memory, and almost forgot the rivulets of sweat running down his naked chest.
"But she was more wondrous than any of it," Gadhill said. "Lillthan. Glorious, magnificent, incomparable Lillthan. I was there, too, I mean fully there, in Samoree. I could have touched her. I spoke to her, Sal, and heard her voice. Music, it was."
Then he remembered what her musical voice had said. "But my dream girl doesn't love me."
Sal's jaw dropped as his eyebrows shot up. "No?"
"No." Gadhill lifted a clay vial, and stared at the sticky blue stuff that clung to the rim. "I ran risks, great risks, to acquire this dream-stuff." Indeed, Gadhill had risked his life to acquire the potion. He had used it to dream himself a paradise and a brave, strong woman to share it with him. "Salmad, she doesn't want me there."
Salmad shrugged. "Who can understand women?"
"She's a dream woman!"
Salmad laughed. "The potion makes dreams real, yes? And who can understand real women?"
"But she is exactly as I imagined her! In every detail -- save that she doesn't love me." Gadhill dropped the vial and covered his face with shaking hands. "Gods, am I so pathetic even my fantasy rejects me?"
"Here, Gadhill." Sal handed him the flask he kept in his leather apron.
Gadhill took a deep swig of soora, then told Salmad of Lillthan's cold look and harsh words. "I was stunned, and lost all words -- me, the poet! -- and then I was back here. Here, to repair more saddles and live next to a stable and hope Greinius the One-Eyed doesn't learn who stole the recipe for his dream-stuff!" He smacked the workbench.
Salmad put a hand on Gadhill's shoulder. "What will you do?"
Gadhill lifted another vial, and sniffed the cork. "I'll do what we all do, Sal. I'll keep dreaming."
Lillthan yanked the blade free of the gigantic, twitching red corpse. Kooroo's cry had warned her, and she'd been waiting when the thing topped the wall. The battle had been no fight at all; one swift pounce and the great sword's point plunged through the carapace, into the soft creature within.
A small one, this, and still its arcing tail had towered over her head, dripping venom that glistened in the full moonlight.
Kooroo winged across the lunar face, and Lillthan blew a kiss to the bird. Then she placed a foot upon the dead thing, and with a mighty effort sent it hurtling from the rampart to the ground far below.
She could not count the number of these things she had killed in her life. Every night, they came. Samoree had lost many soldiers; those left were spread thinly along the walls. Most worked within call of help, but Lillthan had assigned herself this remote post, for she had Kooroo to warn her when the scorpions came.
Someone cleared his throat behind her, and she whirled.
Him again. Gadhill. She had wondered if he would return after the way she'd treated him, and could not decide if she was glad he had.
There was gentleness within him, she sensed, but he buried it beneath pretension and swagger. He attracted her as much as he annoyed her, and she'd sent him away as much to protect him as to quell the allure of his presence. She glanced down at the dead beast's blood, a grim reminder of why she had no time for Gadhill's flirtations. "Go away, and stay away," she growled.
Gadhill breathed deeply of the cool air, and caught a scent of sandalwood -- his favorite, of course -- as Lillthan approached. Golden hair spilled from beneath her helmet. Blue eyes challenged him. He admired the lean muscles, the strong shoulders, the sheer presence of her. He had composed a few lines for her, but saw now they were totally inadequate. He would revise.
Relax, he reminded himself. You are not Gadhill the saddle mender in this dream place. You are an archmage! Behave like one! He held out his arms to her, and grinned as he savored his own dream-bolstered physique. He was a being of power, fit for Samoree. Fit for Lillthan.
Her words indicated otherwise. "Go away, and stay away."
"I told you to be gone, Gadhill." Her tone was as hard as the flagstones her boots clicked upon. He stammered something unintelligible. He had dreamed of a woman with a warrior's bravery and the soul of a poet -- where was the poetic part? He found her take-charge manner enticing, in a way, but...
She was supposed to love him. He'd dreamed it that way.
Gadhill noted the ichor that clung to her blade.
"Lillthan... what has happened here?"
"What always happens here. Vanish while you can."
He looked into her eyes, and saw the sadness behind the anger. This was his world, his dream... how could she be so bitter? He had not dreamt that. And whose blood smeared her sword?
"Where are your soldiers, Lillthan? Why do you stand alone?"
"There are precious few fighters left. We spread ourselves along the walls as best we can. But we can do without magecraft. I've yet to see an adept who could do anything but make false promises."
That came as no surprise to Gadhill. He had invented this world, and had made certain he would be its only true mage. "Lillthan, whatever troubles Samoree, I've come to help." He gave her a reassuring smile. "And a great help it will be." He pulled the dagger from his belt, and instantly the flames curled around the length of its blade. The fire burned white, then orange, then green fading to blue. "Show me your enemy, Lillthan, and I will lay his head at your feet... along with my heart."
"Fool." It was a whisper, and Gadhill hoped he had not been meant to hear it. He thought he saw, at least, a glimmer of what he'd always hoped to see in her eyes. But she spoke again, and louder: "You would lay my enemy's head at my feet? You could lay dozens of them dead before me, and dozens more would take their place before the bodies stopped twitching. Samoree is damned, Gadhill, cursed. You can come and go as you please, apparently, so go."
"You'd refuse my aid? Lillthan, I'm a mage of consequence, truly!"
"I've met too many who've made such a claim," she said. "Fakes, all of them. No use against these things."
"Just go, Gadhill. You don't belong here."
"If anyone belongs here, I do," he said quietly. "And as for flummery, milady, I'll show you..."
A shrill cry interrupted him, and Lillthan moved like silent lightning. She ran to the rampart, and a swift bird darted past her head. She looked over the wall, then leapt back with sword raised. She gave Gadhill a fast glance, then turned her attention toward the approaching horror.
Gadhill saw the tail first, curling above Lillthan's head. A wet bead gleamed from its spear-like tip. Then pincers framed her, and snapped at her as she fended them with her sword. Then, as Lillthan backed toward him, the entire monstrosity climbed onto the battlement. Spider-like, it loomed before the warrior woman. To Gadhill's eyes, Lillthan suddenly seemed frail. And his own flaming dagger seemed a mere matchstick.
He recognized it at once, as a crimson son of the yellow demon that had haunted his nightmares since boyhood. It approached, and his knees buckled. The dream world he'd invented spun around him...
It loomed over her, blocking the moonlight. Its hard legs surrounded her like cage bars. But Lillthan was precisely where she needed to be.
The tail could not lash at her here, nor could the pincers reach her. The scorpion dashed and whirled madly across the flagstones, its legs tapping a staccato rhythm. Flecks of venom hissed and smoked on the flagstones. Lillthan, hunched over, scurried beneath the monster, waiting for the moment when she could plant her feet, aim the sword and...
She rammed the blade upward, and the thing's crimson shell crunched and cracked and splintered as the keen blade sank to the hilt. Green, gummy ichor spewed from the wound, knocking Lillthan's helm to the ground and drenching her in gore that stung her eyes and turned her hair into a clinging blindfold.
She dropped and rolled, and the thing's legs gave way. It plopped, twitched and died.
She rose, and marveled at the gore. It glowed weirdly in the moonlight.
No sign of him.
A brown blur flitted past her face, then Kooroo perched on her shoulder.
"I'm alive, birdie. I'm alive. No thanks, though, to the mighty Gadhill, wizard of consequence!"
"Gods, Salmad! I couldn't do a damned thing! I stood there, trying not to piss in my fine new garb, while the thing towered over her!"
Salmad placed a damp cloth on Gadhill's head. "You've a fever, Gadhill. Hot enough in this place without that."
Gadhill saw the worry in his burly friend's eyes. "You don't believe me, do you?"
Sal shrugged. "I watch you sleep, I watch you toss about, then you wake up and tell me of beautiful women who don't love you and gigantic scorpions who want to eat you. You've been guzzling that wizard-brew, and now you have fever. Beyond what a man sees, what can he really believe? But I'll help, if I can."
Gadhill's jaws clenched. "It's a real place, Sal, I swear it, and Lillthan's a real woman."
Salmad indicated their tawdry dwelling with a wave of his hand. "This is a real place, too, Gadhill, and we have nice little scorpions you can crush beneath your heels and women you can pay to love you, at least for a while. You should forget Samoree."
Gadhill laughed bitterly. "I created Samoree! Every dew-wet leaf, every windblown cloud... and Lillthan, too. Gods, what of Lillthan?"
Sal looked puzzled. "If you created it all, where did the scorpions come from?"
Gadhill hung his head. "From my mind, Sal, my own fear-wracked mind. I was a boy, and I awoke once to find a scorpion on my chest. A yellow one. Horrible. It stared me in the face, and its tail flexed and oozed poison... I couldn't move, not a muscle. My father..."
Gadhill choked on the rest of the story. His father had snatched the thing, and taken a sting. Father's death had been horridly painful.
"The dream-stuff... it built a whole world from my dreams. And my nightmares. It filled in the details I'd not thought of, such as a foe for my mighty warrior lover. Oh, capricious gods! And... gods! The dream scorpion was red, Sal! But there's a yellow one. There has to be a yellow one..."
"Listen, Gadhill. It's all dream stuff. Not real at all. Stay here, write more poetry and bed the local girls. You're a good man, Gadhill, there'll be girls enough for you here."
"None like Lillthan." He stared out the window, where hot winds stirred sand across hard-baked streets.
Gadhill's brown eyes flashed far less bravado this time, Lillthan thought, and he ran a nervous hand through his dark hair.
She greeted him coldly. "Has the mightiest mage in Samoree come to help me in battle once again?"
"It is true you are a mage of consequence, Gadhill. I never saw a man vanish so quickly." She had rehearsed that one in her mind, and enjoyed how the sting of it made him wince.
He fixed his eyes on her, and held out imploring hands. "There is much I have not explained, Lillthan. I have power, indeed, but I cannot always choose when I must go from Samoree. I..."
Her glare was like a sharp edge against his throat. "I saw your eyes, craven, when the thing came. I saw your wobbly knees!"
"Lillthan, you wrong me." He straightened, and thrust his chin forward. "I had to go... but I've come back."
She laughed bitterly. "Why?"
"I could not let you face those things alone." The words were a whisper she scarcely heard.
"You mean you could not let me face them alone again," she said, turning her back to him.
"The thing caught me unaware last night," he said. "I didn't expect... that. But I know now. I've steeled myself. I want to face it with you."
"Why?" She did not turn around.
"Why? Don't you know, Lillthan?"
She answered him with silence. Gadhill breathed hard behind her for a long while before he spoke.
"I've dreamed of you, Lillthan. Always dreamed of you."
Somehow, it was the answer she'd expected. Despite her anger, she wanted very much to trust Gadhill, to believe his claims of power and accept his help. But her anger was strong, particularly her anger over her own sentimental weakness.
She was about to send him away when Kooroo's treble cry ripped the silence.
Gadhill watched the three of them crawl over the wall. These monstrosities had plagued his sleep since boyhood. He had already felt the hot venom flow into him a million times, and been ripped apart by cold pincers a million more.
Everything in him wanted to run.
But Lillthan stood before them, sword high, as dauntless as he'd always dreamed her to be.
"Inside, Lillthan! We'll bolt the doors!"
Her eyes blazed, her breath came hard, but she managed to shout a word or two with each blow she dealt. "Can't... kill them... if I... hide!"
Lillthan's muscles rippled as her sword hacked through a leg, and she rolled hard to evade the stinger that stabbed at her. Her helm clattered across the stones, and her golden hair whipped about as she moved with lithe grace as pincers snapped at air where her lovely head had just been.
Her sword rang off the hard shells as often as it sliced through, and the monsters seemed tireless. Lillthan backed away, and slashed viciously. She was being forced toward the wall, toward the edge.
It's all a dream, Gadhill told himself. Not real. Wake up, go home. She can't really die. You don't really love her.
He took up the flaming dagger. His knees shook as Lillthan leapt upon one of the great stone blocks that crowned the rampart. Pincers lunged at her throat, and she took them off with a sweep of razor-honed steel. But she could back away no more, and all three horrors yet lived.
Gadhill growled to clear his throat of the fear that choked it. He aimed the dagger and shouted the words of command. "Thorzith xandra!"
The words gathered power from the world around him. That force flowed into him, and from him into the weapon. Searing green fire flashed from the dagger, washed the sky with eerie emerald light, ripped into the carapace of the nearest scorpion, burned it, crisped it and turned it into a rain of cinders.
Lillthan nearly toppled as her eyes went wide with amazement. She parried a pincer, and bent her powerful legs. Then, leaping almost vertically and shoving her free hand down upon a monstrous head, she rolled down the back of her foe. Gadhill marveled at her impossible athleticism, then remembered she was the stuff of dreams.
And now, so was he!
Lillthan landed on her back beside her enemy, and chopped another leg with a savage blow that sent shell bits and green spray flying.
"Do that again, mage!"
Gadhill filled his lungs with the chill air, and spoke again the killing words. The two remaining beasts rushed him, and panic almost choked the spell. But he had seen for himself now the power he wielded. Had he not dreamed this world, and dreamed himself to be a force worthy of the greatest love in it? Power surged within him, and another blast of emerald fire ripped the scorpions into wind-borne ash.
Lillthan's blue eyes stared at him, and a smile played upon her lips. She huffed, but managed to speak. "You... are a mage of consequence!"
Startled, Gadhill almost forgot to play his new role. He bowed, then blew out the flames on his dagger as though he held a candle. "Indeed."
With a wave of her hand. Lillthan presented Gadhill to Lord Tal of Samoree. "A true power, my lord. I've seen it with my own eyes. He left three of the scorpions little more than ash."
Murmurs of respect rose from the men-at-arms arrayed in uniformed splendor throughout the magnificent Red Hall.
"We are in your debt," said Lord Tal, wide eyes showing his amazement. "You shall have lands, riches and more! From where do you hail, Gadhill?"
"Far from here, lord." Gadhill's bow was slow, courtly -- and reminded Lillthan strongly of the swagger that had irritated her so. For moment earlier, she thought, he had seemed almost human. Now Gadhill's tone, indeed his entire manner, oozed with conceit. He tossed her a glance and a smile that no doubt were designed to make her knees weak. Lillthan bit her tongue; annoying he may be, but Gadhill could save Samoree.
Lord Tal smiled. "You will stay with us? And fight the scorpions?"
Gadhill raised his palm. "Magic is a mysterious thing, lord. I cannot stay here always."
"He's prone to sudden vanishments," Lillthan said.
Gadhill continued. "Yes. I will be in my own domain while the sun shines, gathering the powers cosmic that fuel my scorpion-killing blasts."
Lillthan rolled her eyes. Gathering the powers cosmic? Was he trying to sound pretentious?
The mage continued. "But I will return at night, when the scorpions come. You may consider them as dead. I shall blast each one that dares scale your walls."
Lillthan's heart drummed in her breast. "No!"
Lord Tal and Gadhill looked at her as though she were a fool. She stepped forward. "Shall we spend the rest of our lives killing scorpions one at a time?" She turned to face Gadhill. "What salvation is that, archmage? Can you guard every wall? Will you fend them off night after night, while we who have fought so long try to recall what it is like to spend an evening listening to music, or kissing a lover?"
Gadhill's jaw worked up and down and his eyes dashed back and forth, but no words came out.
"No!" Lillthan looked upon the soldiers gathered in the Red Hall. "We'll take this weapon, this mighty mage, and seek out the nest of these vile things. We'll crush them all in one terrible blow. We'll do it today, and have no more nights of terror in Samoree!"
Swords lifted. Affirming shouts echoed in the Red Hall. Lillthan raised a fist, and turned toward the mage who had made this day possible.
His knees were shaking.
Gadhill muttered prayers, and tried to concentrate on the runes rather than on the fears swelling in his mind.
A nest of them? Was Lillthan mad?
It was one thing to stand on a rampart and wait for the damned things to clamber within reach of his slaying flames; it was something different to seek out large numbers of them. Scorpions skittered across his thoughts, surrounded him, overwhelmed him, crushed him. And one of them was yellow.
He cursed. He remembered how good it had felt when Lillthan smiled at him, and how low he had felt when that smile faded at sight of his quaking knees. He'd told her it was a lingering effect of the magical forces he'd summoned. He wasn't certain she'd believed that.
He bent to the runes again, to spy out the location of the scorpion lair. He'd earned only blank stares upon telling the assembled soldiers he had no idea where the scorpions nested. Scorpions were desert-dwellers, and in this dream-world of his there were no deserts.
He gathered the runes again and dropped them slowly upon the marble table. The sound was not unlike the tapping of gigantic, chitinous legs on flagstones...
"Found them yet?" It was Lillthan, entering the sanctum Lord Tal had provided for his new archmage.
"I think so." He hoped he sounded brave. "I'm consulting again, to be sure."
"Sorry to interrupt. You've been at it a long time. I brought you mead, and cakes."
He looked up into her smile. His heart melted. "Thank you."
"Thank you, Gadhill." She kissed his cheek, and left.
He held his breath a long while, and looked down upon the stones. One hand moved them about on the table; the other gently touched the warm spot her lips had left on his face.
Lillthan halted her stallion to let it drink. A crystalline stream flowed over rocks of jade and amber hues, in sunlight that turned it all into a dazzling, beautiful array. It belonged in a song, or a poem, she thought. She couldn't remember ever being here before, and looked forward to returning when the scorpions were dead. She looked forward to many things long denied her.
"Is it much further, Gadhill? We must reach it before nightfall. There are but a hundred of us, and in such open land..."
"I know, milady," he said. "Trust me, I know we must not face them in this terrain. It's not far. Follow the river." His face was ash-white.
"Are you ill?"
"No," he said hastily. "No. Gathering my powers. Readying myself for the slaughter."
She laughed. "Don't kill all of them, mage. Save a few for me and Kooroo."
She waved her hand, and the column moved forward. It felt so good to be doing something at last, something that might end the endless waiting and fighting. She glanced upward, where Kooroo darted against billowing white clouds. She wondered if the world had ever seemed so lovely to her before the venom-fever purged her memory. It all seemed new.
Gadhill moved through a verdant landscape culled from every sweet dream he'd ever known; indeed, it sprang from his own poetry. But he noticed none of it.
His eyes could see nothing but looming doom. He thought of his body sleeping back in that desert hell, and hoped fervently that Salmad would ignore Gadhill's demand not to be awakened. How Lillthan could sing at such a time...
Fear rose in his throat, choked him. The runes had shown him visions -- nightmare visions -- of a dark cave where scorpions clambered by the hundreds. They crawled upon one another, climbed the walls, crouched on ledges. And they paid obeisance to one greater than them all.
A yellow one.
A yellow one, like the one that had frightened him so as a boy. A yellow one, such as had killed his father. A yellow one that glowed.
He'd told Lillthan: "I think she's the mother of them all. Or their god. If she dies, perhaps they all die. Or so the runes say. But she won't come out."
"Then we'll go in," Lillthan had answered with a hard smile.
And so Gadhill's hopes had died. He'd made himself believe he could perch somewhere near the cavern, and roast scorpions one by one as they skittered out of their lair.
But Lillthan was going in there, to seek the yellow one. And Gadhill was going with her. He hoped she would not have to drag him.
Lillthan addressed her men and pointed to the yawning cavern entrance. "Gadhill believes this to be the only way in or out. Gadhill and I will go in, and this is where the scorpions will emerge if we fail. We don't know how many are in there, but you'll have an advantage as they must emerge single-file. If the mage and I fail, your duty is clear."
Pride rose within her as she saw the many nods, the steely eyes, the steady hands.
"If we learn anything inside that forces a change in our tactics, we'll be back," she said. "Else, you'll not see Gadhill and me again until we drag out the corpse of the yellow one!"
Gadhill stayed close to Lillthan as they stalked in the dark corridor. His upraised palm held a soft glowing light; their own long shadows danced on the moist walls like... gigantic scorpions.
Lillthan turned and whispered. "What did you say?"
He tried to pull some of the strength in her deep blue eyes into himself. "Just an utterance, to maintain the protection spell," he lied.
"You are certain that will work? They won't sense us?"
"Of course I'm certain," he said, wishing he were.
"Then let's proceed." Lillthan continued into the darkness. It was all too much like walking down the throat of a monstrous snake, Gadhill thought. He turned the dagger nervously in his hands, and reminded himself he would have to take care not to blast Lillthan in his fright if something came racing toward them.
She turned, lifted a finger to her lips. The conspiratorial look in her eyes would have aroused him at any other time. Now it made him shiver.
Lillthan pointed ahead. The corridor widened, the ceiling lifted and massive boulders covered the floor. He lifted his illuminated palm a bit higher. The boulders, hundreds of them, glinted redly. And some of them moved.
"Scorpions," Lillthan's lips said silently.
Gadhill's mind screamed: Run!
Lillthan crept forward. Gadhill followed her, his mind focused on the magic that would let them pass unnoticed -- he hoped.
They moved slowly. Around them, scorpions slept or moved lazily. Gadhill's ghost light caught lifted tails, and he could see the globules of venom shining on the spear tips. His boots slid on a floor slick with poison, and an acid reek assaulted the air. Countless crimson giants surrounded them, but Gadhill's spell kept them unaware.
He became aware of another light. A corn yellow moon seemed to rise slowly in the distance. Towering tails stretched and curled as it approached, and Gadhill heard much skittering as the red scorpions turned and raised pincers in homage to the yellow one who approached.
Lillthan knelt, kissed the flat of her blade, then lifted it. She crept forward to deliver the killing strike. Gadhill had to will himself to follow her, to keep precious Lillthan within the sphere of protection he had woven.
It seemed, almost, as if the yellow one stared at him.
Closer, closer Lillthan crept. He tried to watch her instead of the horrid glowing monstrosity. He watched the muscles in her arms and legs writhe as she coiled herself to spring. Lillthan drew nearer, near enough to pounce, and he saw her powerful legs flex.
Then a braying from hell screamed in his ears, and the whole world spun.
Lillthan jumped. The plunging spear-tail glanced off her helmet. She regained her feet and saw the yellow scorpion's glow brighten as it turned toward her. Its legs lifted, spider-like, as it approached. Behind her, she heard ominous scratching on stone, like a million bony fingers scraping a coffin lid.
She spun. The yellow scorpion's light fell upon a forest of raised pincers, lifted tails. That forest was closing in on her rapidly.
And Gadhill was gone.
"Salmad! By all the gods and devils damned! What..."
The camel lurched, toppling Gadhill's cot. Gadhill fell, naked, onto the hot, sandy floor as the braying beast knocked over a workbench and Salmad fought to tug at the reins.
"It kicked down the door!" Salmad tripped over fractured timber. "Help me get this thrice-damned stubborn bitch back in her stall!"
Gadhill ran toward his own work table, and nearly caught a kick in the head as the camel whirled like a hairy storm.
"Salmad, I will blast you and the camel into burnt, crispy motes!" He snagged the vial before the camel's gyrations sent the entire bench tumbling. Gadhill ripped the stopper away with his teeth, spat it at the camel, and gulped the dream-stuff as though his life depended on it.
But it was not his life that depended on it. It was Lillthan's.
Lillthan hacked, and stabbed, and danced, and whirled. Gore splashed around her, drenched her, blinded her. Pincers clicked on her armor, ripped at her hair. Wild shadows spun around her as the dread yellow glow waxed and waned.
She wasted no breath cursing Gadhill. She had little enough left, anyway.
She rolled beneath a large scorpion, stabbed upward and prayed it would not crush her when it fell. Its body would be her shield from the rest of them, and she wondered how long it would avail her.
Not long, she knew.
Gadhill found himself once more staring down the dark throat of that tunnel. Deep within it, the yellow glow told him the mother scorpion still lived.
He saw nothing to tell him Lillthan still lived.
Gadhill gathered his courage, and swallowed the thoughts that came to him: She's not real. She's a dream. You can go home, dream some more. No need to plunge into peril.
But his heart drummed against his ribs, and his ears strained to hear her voice, and he knew he had to help her. Real or not. He had to help her, or die trying.
He ran forward. Shadows lurched, sometimes blocking the yellow beacon he approached. He could not see Lillthan anywhere in that twisting mass of scorpions.
His glowing nemesis fired like a desert sun, and raised its spear tail. The yellow one rushed him, skittering on the backs of its red minions. Its pincers snapped at the air, and its nova glow burned his eyes.
But Gadhill had a fire of his own.
The flame, jade-green and sun-hot, leapt from his dagger. It enveloped the yellow scorpion, turned it green, lit raging fires deep within the beast that radiated through a million cracks as its carapace flaked, then melted.
He thought of Lillthan, and turned the blast on another, and another, and another. Smoke and stench rose as scorpions burned, and they clambered over one another to escape the flame that doomed each of them, the power that Gadhill determined now to turn upon himself, the creator of this nightmare that had taken away his dream girl.
But not until his vengeance was complete...
Something gripped his leg in an iron grasp. He looked down upon a horrific image that dripped gore and smelled of venom, something that looked as though it had crawled up from a grave. Then bright blue eyes reflected his magical flame, and a beautiful smile appeared in a face plastered with wet hair, caked gore and sweat.
"Slay every damned one of them! You hold the exit, and they've nowhere to run!"
Relief nearly overpowered him, then became a fuel for power itself. Raw energy surged inside him, consumed him. He let it fill the cavern with death. It became a cauldron, hotter than any fever dream he'd ever had in sun-weary Krivell.
Lillthan acknowledged the anxious gazes by lifting her sword to the sky. "It is done!"
Cheers erupted, and Kooroo swooped down to perch on her shoulder.
Lillthan would have jumped in her joy, cried cheers to Gadhill -- but she could barely stand.
She gave Gadhill a stabbing look that said her blade would soon follow. But he stood there, cocksure, and stared at her with those brown eyes.
"You're bleeding, and covered with... whatever that is... and we must know if you've been stung," he said. "You've so many wounds from those damned pincers you'd never be able to feel it." He pointed toward the river. "Strip, jump in and bathe like your life depends upon it. It very well may."
The thought of poison in her veins spurred her. She wanted no more fever dreams, no chance of losing the memory of this victorious day. She dropped the sword as Kooroo squawked and rose, and she did as Gadhill commanded. Cool water stung her many scrapes and cuts. She grabbed handfuls of sand from the riverbed and scrubbed herself as hard as she could. She did not believe the green slime would ever come out of her hair.
"Here," Gadhill said, spreading a saddle blanket as she emerged from the water. She looked down upon her skin, and was thankful that the numerous cuts and scrapes were not deep. "Lie down," the mage commanded.
She did so, and saw the leer in his eyes and the way his pupils swelled as he looked at her. "If you enjoy this for even one heartbeat..."
"You pain me, fair one. It is your life I am concerned about." His hands prodded her skin, lifted her legs and arms, rolled her onto her back and belly as he searched for the puncture wound that would indicate she had been stung. "I will concern myself with your absolutely magnificent body later."
She knocked him on his ass.
Gadhill's fingers explored his stinging jaw. He'd meant the remark to be witty, flirtatious. After all, he'd saved the day and Lillthan was his dream woman. Wasn't she supposed to laugh at his jokes? She was made to love him!
The glare in her eyes told him to apologize -- now. But his inner arch-mage, the man who had vanquished Samoree's enemies, told him to show no weakness. Lillthan the warrior could never admire weakness.
Lillthan rose, wrapping herself in the dripping wet blanket. She tried to control the fury inside her.
"Of all the arrogant, ego-mad..."
Gadhill smiled. "Adoring, lovesick..."
She turned away from his laughing eyes. "Where is my damned sword?" Soldiers backed away, and pretended they were busy with other things.
"Lillthan, I love you."
She froze. There it was again, that something in his voice that made her want to forget all about peeling his skin away with her fingernails. She turned on him.
"Love? Listen, Gadhill. You've done great service for Samoree, and for me. I won't forget that. Ever. I'd have died in there if not for you. But if you think your deed has cleared the path to my bed, you are sadly mistaken and more full of yourself than I imagined."
"No, Gadhill! Do not speak to me of love. I've had no time for love, only fighting, but I've dreamed of love. I will have a quiet life now, music, poetry and -- one day, perhaps -- a gentle man to rub my feet. But I'll not become a quick hero's reward for a pompous mage!"
She turned quickly and stomped away.
Salmad shook his head in wonder. "An amazing tale, truly. You should write it all down. A tragic poem of battles and lost love."
"I haven't the heart," Gadhill sighed. He swigged warm beer from a dirty wooden bowl. "I create a dream world, a dream woman, a dream self... and still I'm a failure, Sal. Utter, complete, ultimate failure."
"You look bad. In the eyes, all wild." Sal poured more beer. "Drink more. Then we will go out, you and I, and I will buy you a woman for the night."
Gadhill nodded slowly, but it felt as though he was handing his soul over to a demon. He stared off into space for several minutes as Salmad puttered about the room talking of good liquor and beautiful dancers. It all sounded so empty.
Gadhill shook, gritted his teeth. "No, Sal. Love does not quit. Better to keep trying and keep failing than to give up."
"She's just a dream," Sal said pointedly.
"She's the woman I love," Gadhill said quietly. "Dream? Reality? Who cares? Who can tell?"
"If you keep making that potion and drinking it, you'll waste away. You lie there and sweat. I've seen you," Sal said. "I think you could die. Where is your dream then?"
Gadhill watched Sal's lip quiver, and forced a weak smile. "I'll keep trying, until I find a way to stay there. Don't worry. I'm the greatest mage in Samoree, remember?"
"You are one fine poet right here, Gad. This world is not so bad. I'll show you tonight. I'll find you a woman, one who will love you for your poems, just as you are... for a night, anyway."
Gadhill dropped his bowl on the table. "What did you say?"
"A whore, Gadhill. I'll buy you a whore. You remember whores, don't you?"
"No! I mean, yes, I remember..." Gadhill struggled to compose his beer-soaked thoughts. "Love me for myself, you said. Gods! What an utter fool I am!"
Then he laughed, and danced, and Salmad scurried away from the stream of beer that flew from Gadhill's bowl. "Are you mad, Gadhill?"
Gadhill ran to his friend and kissed him. "Mad? No! I was, but no longer! Do you not see?"
Salmad's shrug and wide eyes said he did not.
"Oh, my friend, victory may yet be mine, despite my own foolishness! I created a dream woman for myself -- a woman who could love me, then I foolishly turned myself into someone else entirely! She is made to love me, but she hasn't even met me yet! She met some arrogant, powerful archmage! All I must do is make her see. But I will make her see, Salmad, I will!"
Salmad frowned, and Gadhill filled his bowl anew. "I will prevail, Sal," he said, reaching for ink and quill. "She wants poems and foot rubs and quiet walks. I can do that! I have an entire lifetime of experience being exactly the sappy dreamer Lillthan wants!"
© Steve Goble 2012
Steve Goble's sword-and-sorcery fiction has appeared in numerous venues: Flashing Sword ezine, All Possible Worlds, Amazing Journeys Magazine, GrendelSong magazine, Sword's Edge e-zine, Down in the Cellar e-zine and more. One of his short stories — "The Gods-Forsaken World" from
GrendelSong # 2 — was an honorable mention in “The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2008,”edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant
April 2, 2012
Welcome to this third installment of Swords & Sorcery Magazine. We have two interesting stories this month for you to enjoy. They are very different in style but both feature magic and action in equal measure.
“Love and Scorpions”, by Steve Goble, is a swords and sorcery love story in which dreams are very real.
“In the Hills of Yost”, by Jeffery Scott Sims, is a horror-fantasy adventure set in a strange oasis in the midst of a wasteland.
I have been very happy with the quality of the stories that I have been able to publish in Swords & Sorcery Magazine so far but publishing great swords and sorcery and traditional fantasy stories is only one of the goals I have for the magazine. The other is to foster genre-friendly criticism. I am seeking non-fiction in the form and reviews. I also welcome comments on anything published here either in the archive, which is formatted as a blog, or on our Swords and Sorcery Magazine Page on Facebook. Please be polite but any opinions you express in your comments are of course, your own.
There is one more thing I should mention. Swords and Sorcery Magazine may need to change its name. It has been pointed out that our current name is too similar to that of another publication to which we have no connection except for an interest in the same genre. I’d be happy to hear any suggestions. I am looking for a name that describes what we publish.
As always I can be reached with comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
Until next month,
Editor, Swords and Sorcery MagazineSword & Sorcery Magazine
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