Lord Morca, exalted mage of the fair city of Dyrezan, once went forth into unknown lands in search of the fabled Scroll of Ixaltas, which delivers unto its bearer prized secrets of forgotten primordial epochs; yet he was destined not to find it-- at least not then, so perhaps another tale remains to be told-- for unplanned adventure intervened. Already steeped in the wisdom of wizardry, Morca was also a man renowned for his sword, thus when he marched for the forbidden northern fastness (where legend rumored the ruins of Ixaltas to lie) with his coterie of twenty footmen he proceeded fearlessly, assured that magic and gleaming steel should see him through to success. It ought, perhaps, have been so, but what if he were shorn of both? Where then lay his strength?
They crossed quickly the hot, red rock badlands that hemmed in the known world with sheer cliffs and unscalable peaks, filed through a close canyon (marked on a map robbed from an antique tomb) that split the Earth, made their way up to come atop a cool, forested plateau. There within the pines Lord Morca’s mystical instincts momentarily whispered to him of danger, yet he concluded himself mistaken, for on the instant the impression passed, and he felt easy in mind, and he ordered his men forward. At the end of that long day, entirely swallowed up by the shadowy trees, they made camp, and Morca slept.
The assailants approached stealthily by dark of night, surrounded the camp, charged in from all sides in overwhelming numbers. The sentries had time barely to cry out before thrusting spears silenced their throats, and immediately the wholesale butchery commenced. Morca, who rested as does the cat, awaked to the first shout, raced from his tent in his long shirt with blade in hand to marshal his force. He gathered about him a dozen swordsmen who had slept in their bronze armor, at their head attempted to cut through the ring of death. Brawn proved useless; therefore, seeing his soldiers dwindle, Morca made to thunder a spell that would overawe or repel the attackers. From the depths of his lungs he bellowed the Doom of Albragon; only nothing happened whatsoever, his last men fell, and a spear point nicked the thin silk at his chest.
A hand pushed aside the weapon. Lord Morca stared into a sea of swarthy faces, short dark men in painted loincloths, wearing ornate silver helmets and winged silver sandals. Their leader, who had spared Morca, laughed without mirth, sneered from beneath his still fancier headdress, “A sorcerer comes among us? He thinks to employ his wiles against the warriors of Taybolor. This may amuse our king. Dargalon delights in demonstrating his mastery of strange powers.”
“Who are you?” demanded Morca. “By what right do you kill my people?”
Came the cold response: “You are past debating right or cause. I, Trogas, liegeman of glorious King Dargalon, hail from his citadel of Taybolor, where now you go, to moan away your years caged as an animal. Seize him.”
When they laid hands on him Morca struggled and cursed and spat out a vicious charm that should have melted their bones, all to no effect. In amazement he realized that his marvelous sorceric skills had entirely deserted him.
They bound him in chains, hauled him away in a sling carried between two warriors. Trogas, mounted now on a black steed, rode by on occasion to taunt his captive. Otherwise no one spoke to him as the force trooped a well-worn through the woods, out onto a rocky plain of sere grass, along a listless stream, to a massive fortress, almost as big as a city, that rose up from the flat land like a gray, angular mountain.
They bore him through the big gate of basalt in the vast outer wall, passed into the enormous court where lay encompassed a large and opulent town teeming with dark folk. Morca saw warriors aplenty, the legions of a great army, manning the walls and patrolling the grounds. He saw the townsfolk, dressed in multi-colored robes, going about their business or tarrying to stare with unfriendly faces. He saw numerous slaves, lashed with whip and tongue, engaged in hard and menial labor. He beheld, too, a massy fortified palace of obsidian, a walled keep behind which loomed frightful black needles of watchtowers with windows at the bulging tops. Into this keep they took him. Armed guards stationed about the courtyard of the keep or upon the walls came running on the double. Trogas directed a squad of them, with the prisoner, into the halls of the palace. Its rich and splendid interior of garish furnishings, gold and silver ornamentation, and lurid tapestries depicting scenes of grotesque cruelty indicated great wealth and, to Lord Morca’s refined sensibilities, careless taste. They pushed him into a large chamber, more ornate than the rest.
He knew this immediately for the royal hall. Across the floor of striated marble flags rose a dais of volcanic glass, atop that perched an over large chair fashioned from or gilded with gold. Looming behind and above this chair-- this throne, surely-- Morca observed an intriguing device, a crystalline disc that spun rapidly without any hand laid upon it. It whirled in its circuit faster than the eye could see, emitting a high-pitched atonal music, flashing luminously all the colors of the rainbow; nay, more, for it seemed to possess within its substance colors unknown to the Dyrezanian mage.
On the throne, amidst his fawning courtiers, hunched a man wrapped in fulsome robes bedecked with costly uncut gems. Taller than most of his kind, with shaven head and piggish eyes, he leaned forward, leering darkly, coldly queried, “Why, Trogas, bring you me this scum?”
The officer replied, “Great One, I offer for your entertainment a wizard of the south lands, who dared intrude unbidden into your preserve. He is Morca, and his people call him lord.”
The throne-sitter laughed, chortled viciously, “Excellent! A new pet for my menagerie. Hapless Morca, do you find that your cherished powers flee from you? How can that be? It is an intriguing mystery, is not it? Know, you, that all arcane wisdom and strength in Taybolor resides in me. I, King Dargalon, am sole wizard here, and sole master.”
“A passing fancy,” Morca shot back. “I bow to no barbarian.”
Dargalon grinned evilly. He clapped his hands, pointed a long finger, barked a meaningless word. Green light dazzled Morca’s eyes, and he hit the floor gasping, as if propelled by an irresistible weight. Crowed the king, “Morca, it is my joy to crush you, thereby teaching you manners, and your new role in this world. Trogas, he looks strong and healthy, rather than bookish. I decree: the rock quarry for him. He can slave his life away enhancing my walls. So be it.”
Morca protested warmly, but the audience was at an end. His captors pushed and kicked him out of the chamber, out of the palace, into the town where, his chains removed, he received a meager, unpalatable meal before being set to work on a gang chipping granite blocks from a shelving pit in the lee of the fortress walls. He burned to avenge himself against the creatures who so abused him, but unweaponed and weirdly bereft of his noble powers, he could achieve nothing useful against the guards with their spears and the taskmasters who hovered about with whip and insulting horn of command. Therefore he worked, exhausted though he was, all that long day, muttering and cursing under his breath, until darkness dropped down, the last horn of evening blew, and iron points prodded him into the pens that lay beneath the palace within dungeons of dry, cold masonry.
He discovered there many hundreds-- no, several thousands-- of slaves locked in numerous communal cages for the night in conditions of unimaginable squalor. The overwhelming majority were akin to the folk of Taybolor, with a sprinkling of outsiders from various races. They bedded on dirty straw mattresses amidst filth after accepting the pitiful evening meals vouchsafed them. Tired and desolated, Morca collapsed into numbed sleep, yet he woke naturally with the unseen dawn, strove to learn from his fellow prisoners what pertained in Taybolor.
He demanded of them, “Who is this Dargalon? What knows he of magic? Who stands by him, and what are his weaknesses?” To these and other questions he garnered vague, weary, and hopeless responses. In former times Taybolor had been ruled by a conclave of wise sorcerers, until Dargalon, leader of the city guard, had somehow overthrown them all in a single night, killing or enslaving them and their followers. At the same time acquiring awesome magical powers himself, he instituted a reign of terror based on his control of the army, and the mass graves and the slave pens multiplied hideously. Spear and magic assuring his domination within Taybolor, most of its citizens acquiesced in his harsh governance, which brought them the treasures plundered from their neighbors in rapacious raids.
This Morca learned, not all at once, but during the days, then weeks, that he miserably existed as a captive of cruel Dargalon. Witnessed and experienced he the beatings and other callous brutality, looked on with pent fury at the killings of those who faltered. And imperious Dargalon visited the pens on occasion, or the work gangs in town or the fields beyond the walls, delighting especially in taunting Lord Morca of Dyrezan who was once high and mighty mage, now dirt ground underfoot. “You strode among the clouds, man of the south,” jeered he, “your mind free and soaring like a bird on wing, yet now you grovel on your fleshy belly to me.” And Dargalon made passes with his hands, and Morca would grovel against his will, tasting dust, hissing futilely his helpless hate. Morca, however, noted that certain others came in for the same treatment. One typically vile evening, after observing such a sordid display, he contrived to approach the latest recipient of Dargalon’s vituperative attentions, that he might question him.
That one, old and frail, sighed, “Oh Morca, Dargalon who calls himself king hates me, because I once was great, and worthy of better than he. I am Tamagenes, formerly an adept in rare magic, and member of the decimated council that ruled Taybolor when sanity and peace dwelt here. Cunning Dargalon stripped me and my comrades of our arcane power, to a degree gathered it to himself-- without agonized effort, without endless study!-- and beat us down, to become master of all that is greedy and spiteful in the land. He allows we few survivors of the good days to linger on Earth, that he may continually relive his incredible triumph.”
Morca said with feeling, “’Tis a hard fate, ancient one, to be stripped of life’s beauties and cast into the muck. I can not, though, grasp how such horrors be. I seek to plumb the mystery of which he boasts. He took your magic, Tamagenes, and he stole mine, without any awareness on my part until it was done. Before I die I would understand this ethereal thievery.”
Tamagenes cackled until he came near weeping, and said, “That is no secret, not to we few who remain and remember. In a sense it was our own foolish doing, for we fabricated the dire contrivance that he wielded against us to our unmitigated sorrow. I speak of the wheel, man-- that which is now styled Dargalon’s Wheel-- the most pernicious specimen of sorcery ever to disgrace our art.”
A recollection struck Morca. “Do you mean that instrument he keeps in his hall, behind the throne? I refer to a disc of crystal that spins unceasingly, emitting a radiance of strange colors.”
“Aye, that is the wheel, a fell creation, intended merely to safeguard our people from outside menace. By the Gods, but in retrospect the perils are all too plain. We conjured its unique properties: that of absorbing the magical essence of others, while concentrating the purloined powers in the hands of he who controls it. Truly a fearsome weapon! We hoped never to use it. Lowly Dargalon, however, discovered its existence, learned enough of its function and import to conceive his daring conspiracy. That night he led his soldiers in breaking into the sealed chamber where we hid it from mortal gaze, conveyed it to his domicile, animated the mechanism, turned it against us. We were as chaff that crumbled between his fingers! Thus he conquered. You know how he rules.
“So long as the magic wheel spins, that long is Dargalon king. He and his henchmen acknowledge no boundaries to their actions. Why should they? Via the destruction of the good folk, and bribery of the peasants, they have established an unassailable reign.”
“It logically follows, then,” mused Morca, “that this Wheel of Dargalon must be destroyed.”
In the miserable days to follow Lord Morca, who tarried in this world as a lowly beast in Taybolor, returned to this theme again and yet again, speaking when he could to Tamagenes, conversing with others who possessed knowledge or who maintained physical strength. Hopeless men all, they feebly sought to dissuade him from bold measures, dreading the expected horrific reprisals attendant upon certain failure. Morca persevered, coaxing, wheedling, prodding, haranguing whenever the guards were beyond earshot. In time, against the prisoners’ fearful inertia, his investment in scheming paid profit. More and more the slaves, bowing meekly their heads by day, raised their voices in anger by night, as they grew convinced by degrees that what they currently suffered exceeded death by far, and that any chance, however slender, was preferable.
Came the day for which Morca dreamed. The previous afternoon had seen the departure of much of the army on yet another foray; critically, for the time being half the spears propping up Dargalon would be absent. As ever the guards led out the slaves in their companies in the chilly dawn. Several allotments of slaves went forth to their onerous tasks before the Dyrezanian’s group was called. Spears drove them into the courtyard of the keep, where they would be delegated as required. Trogas, Morca noted with grim satisfaction, remained behind from the latest military adventure, strutting with his few warriors along the walls of the palace. There were so many guards about-- more than usual-- but plans were set, and Morca braced himself. At the first instant of smug inattention, he struck.
Morca lunged, darted quick as a snake, yanked a spear from unresisting hands, drove it through the body of its owner. Morca the rebel cried to his tense host, “Kill them all!” The slaves hurled themselves at the guards. Many unarmed men perished on the spot, but the nearest guards went down, trampled and clawed. Morca seized the horn from the lifeless hand of the taskmaster, blew a reverberating blast that echoed for a league in waves of rage. The slaves of Taybolor, every last one of them, turned on their oppressors.
Butchery commenced, on both sides. The townsfolk ran screaming, never daring to enter the fray, but then they had never formed the bulwark of Dargalon’s power. The guards of the slaves, and the relatively few warriors, rushed to battle with a will, assured of easy victory, delighting in dealing death. The slaves grabbed at spears and knives as they could, fought recklessly, heedless of life, willing-- eager-- to give all, that they might earn the possibility of paying back their tormentors. There was death, mayhem, chaos, for a red span nought more.
A solid phalanx of spearmen blocked the palace doors. Morca, weapon in hand, bounded up the stone stairs of the keep wall, found none other than Trogas charging down at him. “I shall quell this refuse, slave,” he shrieked, “when I hold up your severed head from the ramparts!” He tried to make good his boast. He sprang with his spear. Morca, knife in hand, dived low, came in under, thrust upward. Trogas toppled off the stairs, gasping in maddened rage and stunned disbelief.
Morca kept going, scarcely pausing to smile at the end of that hated one. He slew a warrior at the top. Gazing down into the main complex of Taybolor, he beheld the immense tableau of disorganized struggle, the knots of combatants hacking and stabbing, the stupendous welter of blood. He screamed over the uproar, “Free men, march on the palace! Come to me!” Before he turned to pressing matters, he saw them coming, in their hundreds.
Pressing him were the many warriors rushing along the walls at him from both sides. One died immediately for his pains, the second gurgled and spat through crimsoned teeth, but he clutched at the knife, which Morca lost, and no time remained to take up spear. Morca dashed away from his nearest pursuer, saw his escape to the stairs closed off by more warriors. He looked down into the great open expanse beyond the wall, the hard surface thirty cubits below. To jump meant a species of suicide-- a mere broken bone would finish him-- and then, down there, a tired guard committed the unpardonable error of resting against the wall, directly below the desperate man.
Morca leaped. Knotting his muscles, he plummeted. He impacted, feet first, the unwary guard. Morca dragged himself upright, mastered his pain, staggered away, picking up speed. His body intact, joints sound, he stormed back into battle. Behind him he left a crumpled heap, oddly departed from the conventional shape of a human being.
He joined the crazed, blood-mad throng surging through the keep gate. Warriors stabbed at them from behind, but that counted for nothing now. Within the keep numbers told, with the guards at the palace doors mobbed and rent into fragments. Elderly Tamagenes, who had somehow eluded death thus far, hobbled to Morca over the visceral debris, croaked above the din, “Yet must we face Dargalon. All this he can undo at a single word.”
“Only while his wheel turns,” pointed out Morca. “I seek him now.”
“I come with you.”
So did other slaves, every man bearing a blood-stained weapon prized from loathed dead hands. Two more guards surrendered their lives, a few more precipitately fled. Courtiers scattered, wailing their fright. Morca and his people approached the royal hall. With callousness borne of grim, practiced tactical insight he ordered forward his band of spear carriers. They charged, shouting, into the chamber, Morca behind them at a calculated distance.
A hot wind-- an inferno of yellow flame-- and the leading slaves died, crisped and bubbling, the lucky few recoiling in terror. Lord Morca rolled into the chamber, hurling himself sideways from the door and thence to the edge of the dais, but the one within was quick to spot him. Dargalon, standing stiffly by his huge throne, stared down at him and sniggered odiously. Cried he, “Wherefore this idiotic riot, Morca of the muck? Have not you labors enough to keep you busy, that you annoy me with the loss of this handful of surplus liegemen? My magic burns yet with unquenchable fire. Here ends the comedy, dead man.”
And the wheel spun, spun, whining its music, streaming its terrible colors, gushing out the relentless power behind that throne, and Dargalon fixed his contemptuous eyes on Morca, and he raised his hands, turning them palms outward, and his lips moved. Issued the first syllable... and Tamagenes lurched into the chamber, hauling himself over the pretty marble flagstones, with his paltry strength casting a small knife erratically at the king. It bounced ringing from the golden throne. Whispered he, “Face me, Dargalon, who abominates your nasty, worthless soul, and who enters this exalted chamber to tread on the reptile that defiles it.”
“Tamagenes!” Dargalon barked an amazed laugh. “Ancient bundle of sticks, you dare buzz about my brow? Dance into your grave, old fool.” And Dargalon did something unspeakable to the aged mage, relishing every moment of his pathetic, grisly annihilation.
This marked the gory pinnacle of Dargalon’s career. He heard an astonishing sound behind him, turned at the noise, saw that which wrenched from his lips a screech of animal panic. Lord Morca’s brawny arms, flailing madly, crashed through the singing wheel behind the throne, knocking it from its iron supports even as the disc of crystal disintegrated into a million iridescent slivers. Morca held up his gashed arms, droplets of his blood falling and mixing with the lovely wreckage, roared, “There is no magic inherent in your brain, Dargalon, nor do I require my own to dispatch you. Consider this payment in full for your generous hospitality.” Morca reached out his strong hands, closed them about the squirming king’s throat, and squeezed.
In this fashion ended the reign of Dargalon.
With the shattering of the wheel Morca felt the essence of mystical vitality surging into his mind and nerves. He strode from that chamber of death, making a mental note to mourn Tamagenes-- who willingly sacrificed himself that Morca might succeed-- when time permitted, pushed past the cringing survivors in the corridor, marched forth from the palace, where the battle now ran bloodily against the cornered slaves. The warriors of Taybolor had forced the gate of the keep, were preparing to initiate the final slaughter. Lord Morca, wizard of Dyrezan, raised his bleeding arms to the heavens, invoked the blessing of great Xenophor, chief God of his people, and in a voice to terrify even his allies called down arcane doom upon his enemies. The soldiers of the deceased king in their packed ranks drooped like a field of grain wilting in a hail storm, fell to the ground writhing and shrieking. Death came to them quickly, but the victor felt no magnanimous need to make it easy for them.
A number of the revolting slaves within Taybolor still lived, and others who had fled without the fortress walls returned to join in the hunt of vengeance. The absent warriors of the king, eventually returning in ignorance from their raid, surrendered their arms to the bitterly hostile insurgents, many living to regret it as the winners cheerfully paid off old scores. A trio of the ruling mages of old survived too, to direct the gruesome balancing of accounts. All hailed Lord Morca, and they threw themselves at his feet, and they begged him to stay as their new king. He, wearied of the whole affair, replied to their urging and flattery, “No, it is enough. I came as a passerby, bound for other climes. The deserts of the icy north beckon with their mysteries, yet before I seek knowledge there I must return to my own land, that I may begin anew. Make of Taybolor what you will. Surely you could not do worse than your late master.”
To the native wizards he said, “Regained have you your power. Heed my advice: never again package it as trinkets for the benefit of those who know least how to use it. Let wisdom guide your might. That is a chancy way, but I fear it is the only way.”
© Jeffery Scott Sims 2012
Jeffery Scott Sims is an author devoted to 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 "Queer Musings On Reality", "A Critique of Vorchek's Holobiologia", "The Witch's Cave", "A Little Peril In Brisbett", "In the Box", and "In a Tight Place".
So Lord Nantrech, noble wizard of glorious Dyrezan, would go forth into the world unknown to seek marvels in its far reaches, that he might enrich his store of knowledge and wisdom. Having decided this, he set out with his devoted colleague Lord Harmon, an impressively sensible if lesser mage; Captain Phillipan of the Royal Guard, strong of arm and hot of head; and a train of Nantrech's liegemen: scribes, armed retainers, and bearers. They journeyed long into the west country, beyond the icy mountains and the trackless forest, experiencing amazing and informative adventures on this trek that filled the tablets of the scribes with curious lore and entertaining anecdotes concerning the various peoples they met and the unusual sights they observed.
Thus came they to Brisbett. Neighboring folk (in this region short, lean brown people, with shaggy black hair and limpid yellow eyes) spoke of the place with big eyes in low whispers, made mention of power and affluence, referenced also fear. Lord Nantrech wondered eagerly at all this, as was his wont. “We come into these bare mountains,” he mused, “where the villagers scratch a living from berries and rare game, yet they proclaim to us, in an irritatingly oblique manner, what sounds a princely city nearby. Curiosity tickles my mind.”
“And frets mine,” retorted Lord Harmon sourly, though that meant little, for always he spoke so, as was his nature, to frown when his friend would rejoice. “Mysteries commonly prove ill,” he added, his favorite axiom.
“Say not so. Mysteries are my life.”
“Let them be not our deaths,” interjected Phillipan, examining the keen edge of his short sword. “Investigate as you will, but let us proceed warily until we have pierced the darkness of ignorance.”
Nantrech could not object, harkened to their advice, then drove forward with haste his band. By a rocky and winding goat path they climbed a big ridge and passed through a saddle of these dry mountains to descend into a narrow valley where a ribbon of green below indicated lonely fertility. Their poor road wound down around the base of a rugged slope to the woods lining the trickling brook, then followed the stream until interesting views revealed themselves.
“Behold Brisbett,” announced the local man who had agreed to accompany them this far in exchange for a gold piece, utterly pure as all the coins of great Dyrezan. Then he absconded with his prize, leaving the party to gaze in awe at the strangeness spread before them, for it was like nothing they had expected. In the valley's plain, straggling along the burbling waters, sprawled a miserable heap of huts and hovels populated, so it appeared, by the most wretched of humanity who dwelt in disgusting squalor. High above them, atop a sharp peak, glared a shiny white citadel of polished, angular stone, its many surfaces reflecting the bright rays of the hot sun as does glass.
What lay in between the majestic heights and the lowly bottom lands, spread out across the steep slope almost to the foot of the dazzling citadel, sparked most comment. Indeed, Brisbett could be described as a fine and ornate city, with its intricate walls and lanes, towers and spires, its palaces grand and colored garishly as the rainbow; only it was a city in miniature, resembling a vast playground as for the children of a king— a toy city! Into a quarter of a league up that rise had been crammed in small the splendors of an entire city state, its loftiest pinnacles perhaps the height of a tall man, the work maybe of a master craftsman or magician who delighted in childish things.
Nantrech clapped his hands with joy and cried, “By great Xenophor's glory! I shall hear the tale of this. Come, let us speak with these folk by the water.”
“Aye,” said Harmon, “sad folk, I swear. How mournfully they stare at us!”
Trooped the band from Dyrezan across the pitiful foot bridge that spanned the brook, accosted they those who dwelt in mud and stone shacks beneath enticing oddity. These people, otherwise resembling those of the other villages thereabout, proved irksomely furtive, aloof, nervous of manner. “Shun we trouble,” they said, shaking their shaggy heads and hiding behind one another. “Do you the same, as you value life and the dregs of contentment. The great sorcerer of the blinding citadel, Subaros, lowering from on high, commands all in Brisbett with sneers and cruelty: our bodies, the few effects he leaves us, and every stone and weed. Do not risk his wrath, which is capricious. Flee from here, lest you unwittingly anger him and become instruments of his amusement.” Little more would they relate, avoiding especially reference to the beautiful sculpture of the tiny city. Indeed, that subject caused them to visibly quail.
“I like not this,” said Phillipan.
“We risk here a tyrant's wrath,” posited Harmon, “one a wizard as well, of powers undetermined.”
“Perhaps this great one does abuse his peasants on occasion,” conceded Nantrech, “scarcely a rare failing at home, though the intense dread I detect here pains me; nevertheless, I withhold judgment. According to common courtesy, Subaros ought to welcome others of his kind. A nicely flagged road curves round this magnificent mock and to the citadel. Also from courtesy, we must pay him a call.”
Phillipan bowed his head and swore under his breath; Harmon muttered and rolled his eyes; the party marched, good-natured Nantrech in the lead. The road did circle the knee-high wall of the toy city, then switch back and forth until it terminated on the granite ledge at the foot of the harshly bright citadel. Nantrech rapped with his staff on the large oaken door, beseeched admittance. It required another series of knocks to garner attention. A pale, gray-bearded face appeared over the parapet, eyes squinting with suspicion. Nantrech asked after the master of the keep.
“I am Subaros,” said he, “and I tolerate no disturbance. Be gone.”
Startled and discomfited, Nantrech gamely persevered. “I be Lord Nantrech of Dyrezan, the land which shines like a jewel in this world, and these be my friends and servants. We come in peace, attracted by your charmingly fey fabrication of a metropolis. I, a fellow scholar of the arcane arts, would converse with you, O Subaros, on matters intriguing to us both. Tell your people to open the door.”
“I have no people,” growled Subaros, speaking to them in a voice that vomited bile and scorn, “nor require I any, when my powers assail and defend better than an army of bodies. In solitude I concoct and conjure, drawing wisdom from a thousand unique volumes penned by mages of old, finding therein power sufficient to maintain supremacy in Brisbett by will alone. Fey, you style my model? True, I made it out of the whimsies of my mind, in an instantaneous blaze of creation, that it might serve as the plan for the illimitable kingdom to come when I extend my reign, yet it has served other purposes. And I know you, Lord Nantrech, Lord Harmon, the soldier Phillipan, these others, and from where you hail. I sensed your coming, read of you on my crystals. Grandees of Dyrezan, come to steal my secrets. Have you so little that you be greedy for more?”
“We are not thieves,” snapped Harmon. “We ask for nought but refreshing talk and the generosity of the master to travelers.”
“Nor are we accustomed to insult,” Phillipan said warmly, “we men of Dyrezan. I have a score of swordsmen at my beck, in company of two noble sorcerers. Do not, I pray you, spit your words at us.”
“I prefer that calm heads prevail,” advised Nantrech.
Subaros threw up his hands, palms outward, shrieked, “Threats and defiance! The folk below, my cringing slaves, could have cautioned you. Do you match strength with mine?”
“Only if we must,” replied Nantrech, “yet I assure you—”
“You must,” cried Subaros. “I send you to the doom of all who oppose me.” He snapped fingers to palms, uttered a complicated, unintelligible word. His eyes blazed, and before his hearers could react a stunning, fiery red light blanked out all sight.
And blinking, massaging their temples, and spewing puzzled oaths, they all, the band from Dyrezan, regained sight, to behold a different scene. No, it was not a frightful dungeon, with moldy skeletons in chains amidst lurid instruments of torture, nor a dark, steaming presentiment of hell; quite otherwise, for they found themselves standing within a massy chamber, finely apportioned and appointed, with furnishings and colorful tapestries of the costliest material. Phillipan, recovering quickly, ordered men to scout the doors, subsequently informed his masters that they had, via some untoward method, entered into the precincts of a grouping of spacious marble apartments, so decorated as to suggest the rooms of a fair palace, one that would not shame Dyrezan herself.
“No one appears to be about,” he said, “friend or foe.”
“Well, that satisfies me,” declared Nantrech, “for the nonce. I would collect my wits before I spar with the inhabitants.”
“Had you collected them before,” fired Harmon, “we should not be in this muddle, however pleasing to the eye. Think of how we came here, where ever here be.”
“Quite so,” granted Nantrech. “To confess, I credited Subaros with too much inherent good will. Still, perhaps we cannot judge him too harshly. This does not resemble punishment.”
“I fear the worst.”
“As do you always, Harmon. It is your weakness.”
“In listing yours, Nantrech, I could fill a scroll. Where are we?”
“And what matters it?” asked Phillipan advisedly. “For no rational reason—nay, out of the madness of untrammeled power, feckless suspicion, and self-imposed seclusion—Subaros counts himself our enemy. Our transference to this fancy domain does not constitute, in his mind, a reward. We must be on guard.”
“I accept that,” replied Nantrech. “I refuse to deduce more, however, until we explore. I see a city scape through yonder window. Let us go forth anew, meet the people of this realm, find our bearings, learn where we stand. Phillipan, detail the men.”
In a compact body, its extremities bristling with blades, the group departed the castle via a grand hall which gave onto a flight of wide marble steps leading down to a broad plaza. In the center of the plaza played a pretty fountain spouting from the mouth of a bronze nymph, the waters splashing back into a circular pool rimmed with more marble, this of rosy hue. There they halted to study their surroundings. Exclaimed Nantrech, “Wonders compile! This monumental city, its mighty structures all of marble and granite; see how they rise above us a league or more, tier upon tier of titanic effort, sweeping artistically up the steep slope of that impossible mountainside. It pains me to admit, but our Dyrezan might pale in comparison. And beyond the city walls, so high as to be misty to my sight, looms that colossal white castle, a towering edifice itself big as any mountain I hitherto kenned. How could this be new to me, that I cannot indicate its geography on any map? Debate the reasons, gentlemen, yet grant that we have been propelled into a land of enchantment.”
“It is a remarkably clean place,” observed Phillipan.
“Aye,” responded Harmon shortly, gloom weighing his voice. Then: “'Tis surely unlittered by people. The sun hangs high, but this outwardly pleasing square attracts no strollers, no hawkers, nor men on business of state. We see them not, hear them not. What means this city of silence?”
“Not so clean,” muttered Nantrech. “There, against the lee wall of that building, I make out scattered rocks. That area needs tidying. Continue we our studies over there.”
This casual investigation of odd minutiae yielded an unexpected result. Phillipan poked with his sword at the crystalline cobbles. Nantrech eyed them intently, seemed to rebel against a conclusion, then nodded. He said, “My dear Harmon, consider carefully these stones. Bring to bear your knowledge of minerals. Deduce you as I?”
Harmon stooped, hefted an angular cobble with both hands, growled an imprecation at his traitorous back, steadied upright to examine the thing. “I do. Wholly common, yet rarer than diamond. Good Phillipan, behold a gigantic grain of sand.”
“That does not make sense, my lord.”
“It is bigger than it should be, by all rights, according to the rules that govern Earth. Nantrech, have we been thrust into an elsewhere plane?”
“I reject that conception,” retorted Nantrech. “Mystery abounds, yes, but not enough mystery for that. We shall proceed, explore the avenues leading from the plaza. We will find someone who can fill the gaps of our knowledge. Every material fact has an explanation.”
Thus they dived into the intricacies of the weird city, the band ever in a formation of readiness, weaving among the grandiose architecture that flowed without break up the heavens-scraping mountain. The several levels they scaled by means of artfully curving ramps or wide, easy stairs. They passed edifices noble and wondrous, palaces and courts of white marble, gray marble and pink, massy granite forms too, many of them colorfully painted, the whole—structures and streets—adorned with statues of bronze, marble, even at whiles of gold. Investigations of the insides of the buildings disclosed impressive furnishings but no occupants nor their private belongings. In time they grew tired of the interminable journey. The men, increasingly skittish at the appalling emptiness and silence of the great city, grumbled among themselves. Lord Nantrech, freely perspiring, blew out his breath and called a halt. He rested with his two companions on the flat stone banister of a ramp, while his liegemen took food and drink from the carried stores. The noble trio refreshed likewise. Nantrech shook his head. “Information accrues,” said he, “to little purpose. How to locate the key to unlock this puzzle?”
Came the key, and the first turn of the lock. The sound of horrified screaming swept upon them, attended by the noise of running feet. From around a corner at an intermediate distance burst into view a man in flight, a brown-skinned man in rags, his shaggy hair black and yellow eyes wild, jerking his head back in frenzy as at that which closely pursued. He saw them, froze uncomprehending, piteously wailed, “Save me! Save me from the curse of Subaros!” A dreadful monster appeared behind him, entirely black, disturbingly larger than any natural creature should be. In the sudden fraction of an instant it pounced, a whirl of manically flailing hairy legs, stabbing fangs and glistening dark eyes, enfolding its shrieking victim within its hideous embrace.
Nantrech cried, “Take cover!” Phillipan, duty ingrained, assumed charge, ushered all down the ramp and into the interior of the nearest building, the men employing windows as well as doors to escape the peril. The agonized screaming stopped, replaced by a different sound, one plainly indicative of imbibing. Presently they heard that no more.
Nantrech, still somewhat rattled by developments, shortly queried his crouched together comrades, “Opinions, gentlemen?”
Phillipan quickly replied, “We be in a trap of Subaros, fashioned by his arts.”
“That be plain,” said Lord Harmon, with a dismissive flick of hand. “Subaros willed us here, to this far realm, as he did that poor native of Brisbett, sent that repulsive beast to slay. Did you attend, Nantrech? That was a spider, a spider bigger than the elephant that roams the south lands.”
“I saw it,” whispered his colleague. “An ugly possibility begins to fashion itself within the halls of my brain. I connect discordant data. I discover a way to rationalize events. Harmon, I recoil from my thoughts.”
“You will have it so. Concede Subaros to be a learned wizard, that by his arts alone he holds the folk of Brisbett in bondage.”
“Elementary,” sneered Harmon.
“True, but the basis of what follows. I shall argue that Subaros transported us only a little distance, that the evil nature of his spell upon us takes a more shocking form. Consider the known facts: this beautiful but desolate city, the mountain that dwarfs any peak our scribes have mapped, that incredible white castle at its top. Ponder as well the unusual stray stones we found in the plaza and elsewhere, then think deeply of the atrocious monster that stalks and slays here. Wise Harmon, you keep quiet; have I said not enough? Add to all the curious city sculpture on the slopes above Brisbett.”
“Of course!” cried Harmon, clapping his hands, overcome by a species of glee. “Difficult to accept, I swear—really, Nantrech, in our familiar forum I could not condone your daring surmise—but the evidence fits. The disparate indices form a whole. That has to be the answer.”
Moaned Phillipan, “I beseech you, my clever lords, reveal to me the boon of your wisdom.”
But just then the key turned its final click. Illumination dimmed as a shadow darkened the windows. A ghastly screeching voice thundered down on them from on high, each spiteful word rolling like far thunder. “Come out, come out, mice of Dyrezan. I fain would speak to you.” Though it vibrated the walls, all present recognized the greatly amplified voice of Subaros.
They crowded and jostled to the windows. Nantrech, peering upward, let fly an oath of wonder and dismay. An enormous shape rose astoundingly high into the sky beyond the buildings opposite. A grand tower in the shape of a man, wrapped in a gray robe that could shroud a castle; a man shape that moved as a man, quivering with breath; an eidolon of Subaros, speaking in his voice! It was he.
Crowed Subaros, “Of course you never would have grasped the truth of your predicament, had I not condescended to reveal myself. It is indeed I, master of your bodies and souls, supreme in my power over you. I worked the spell of the one-eyed demon Thorcipas, who haunts the lowest pits of the Seventh Sphere. I made you small, as mites creeping about my trinket city, concocted from whim long ago, a place into which I cast enemies and fools who bore me. Little men, always I fail to populate this tinkered domain, for the tiny beasts of this bare mountain will intrude in search of prey. You beheld one—an insignificant spider, a mere speck of life—you may see him again, or others as kindly. I leave you to them.”
Nantrech sought earnestly to remonstrate with the smirking giant who blotted the sun, but in this he was wholly unsuccessful, for two reasons. One, their cyclopean tormentor scarcely heard his pleas, which Subaros mockingly likened to the squeaking of bats. Two, the hateful sorcerer was not in any way disposed to pay heed to sweet words, or reason, or (eventually) harsh criticism of his behavior. With a cackle Subaros dismissed them, saying, “Figuratively, you dwindle all the more. Soon you shall literally cease to exist. I return to my citadel, having forgotten already that you ever lived. Enjoy, while you can, the commodious accommodations.”
The gargantuan form receded, the shadow passing out of the sky. Harmon sagged by the window, groaning, “'Twas a fell decision that turned us into his path.” Phillipan cried, “We must escape this pestilent jest of a city.” Others chimed in with copious expressions of outrage or hopelessness, but learned Nantrech cut through the useless chatter. “Magic drew us into this fix,” intoned he, “and magic shall deliver us. My Lord Harmon, we are still what we were in artful vitality, however diminished in size. Let us combine, incant and conjure.”
“I accept your charge,” Harmon warmly replied, “but first we must fathom the nature of the arcane force that binds us.”
“What do you do?” asked Phillipan of them both.
Nantrech responded. “We open our minds, Captain, seek the mystical emanations that certainly swirl about. I know not of this Thorcipas—”
“Nor I,” Harmon groused.
“A regrettable lack in my education, one to be remedied at the earliest opportunity. However, saturated as we are in the spell's effects, we can deduce a deal. I begin to sense the rays of a magical potency.” Then Lord Nantrech and Lord Harmon turned from their fellows, and for a terribly long span acted as if alone with themselves, muttering apparent nonsense, twitching fingers, patting each other's shoulders and forearms, at whiles nodding sagely, even grinning. The rest watched impatiently. In the end the two wizards sat back heavily, as from great strain, uttered wearied words of vague pleasure. Nantrech said, “We are one, Harmon? Good. Phillipan, slender hope obtains. On that we must count. 'Tis a curious spell, awesome in scope, yet surprisingly directional. We locate its source geographically, the indications pointing not to Subaros or his mountaintop burg, but to a location nearer at hand. Do you understand?”
“It means that Subaros, not to be further bothered with us (the insolence of the man!), delegates the power that maintains our shrinkage. If the source be destroyed or suppressed, we may snap back to normality. Captain, this do you: go forth, look up to the north and east, tell me what you spy.”
This Phillipan did gamely. He called, “There I see the tallest spire of this phony city, the needle tower with the green onion-shaped bulb at its pinnacle. Does that help?”
“Assuredly it does,” cried Harmon, rising energetically. “There we go, to master whatever we find at that height. The baleful enchantment of Subaros washes upon us from that point.”
With alacrity the band of Dyrezan formed ranks, departed their shelter, marched briskly through the streets, choosing every turn that took them north and east. That particular tower, the greatest of all, soared higher and higher over them as they solemnly approached. Closer, they discerned rare windows in its narrow circumference. “Windows suggest an inner passage,” Harmon said hopefully. “Mundane barriers will not stop us.”
Something else might. The huge spider—perhaps another one remarkably like it—skittered into view straight ahead of them, its fiendish immensity blocking the lane. “No help for it,” cried Nantrech. “We shall pass, or perish in the attempt. Phillipan, do your duty, and honor us all.”
The stout Captain did not flinch from the dire command. Gathering unto him every man armed, he led the charge into battle against the oncoming horror. And the men of Dyrezan did fight the thing, though fear of unspeakable death chilled all their hearts. Swords flashed, shields rattled, armor rang. Loathsome legs and claws and dripping fangs ripped at them. Nantrech and Harmon raised their staffs, chanted in unison, lent aid against the foe with fire balls and blinding mist. Three men died, including one heroic bearer who had no business at the front; chewed in that poisonous maw or shredded by those eight steel-hard appendages that darted and struck like hissing snakes... but scores of wounds slowed, then lamed the nightmare creature, until noble Phillipan's last thrust punctured its carapace behind the eyes, and the monster crumpled into itself, heaved once, fell forever motionless.
“Well done,” declared Lord Nantrech. “One day our people will sing of this exploit. Onward to the tower!”
Soon after they arrived at its base, a huge, blocky complex with one small door flanked by lions of gold. Into this they passed, mounted the steps of what proved an almost veritable lifetime of circling flights. Rarely they attained levels possessing chambers which opened to the world, revealing the exotic scape about them. The party paused often and long, Phillipan and the liegemen weighed down by armor, the two wizards by their years. During a period of rest the Captain opined, “Far up into this lair have we passed, without meeting prepared foe or set obstacle. At this I wonder.”
Nantrech said, “The hubris of Subaros may prove our main strength. Accustomed as he is to brutalizing the ignorant, perhaps he has not planned on such as we who think, and whose knowledge guides their actions.”
After ages more of climbing Lord Harmon panted, “Something festers in yon story beyond that railing; the ultimate story, I reckon.”
“Indeed,” replied Lord Nantrech, exhaling hard. “There be many wrongs ways, I presume, to proceed. I recommend the easiest: go boldly and confront.”
“So be it.” All present braced themselves. Gaining the uppermost landing, they clustered about the door. Nantrech would have knocked. Phillipan interjected himself, pushed it open. They entered a round chamber illuminated by a high skylight.
In the exact center of the otherwise barren room sat an oblong basalt dais, and atop this rested a large globe of sheer glass. Inside the globe, entirely filling its volume, roiled a greasy, semi-liquid mass of amorphous brown ooze, its substance in languid, churning motion. It was a dire vision, worse still when the quivering pile heaved, turning to bear upon them one big, darkly greenish, unfriendly eye.
And the thing spoke, in a dreadful voice that suited its appearance. “I am Thorcipas, monarch of the Seventh Sphere. Sent you by crafty Subaros to taunt? Beware, for despite this unjust prison into which he cast me by trick, at close quarters I can still smite with impunity.”
“Subaros styles himself our enemy,” Nantrech hastily declared, “inappropriately treating us as well; therefore we feel no ill will toward a fellow victim of his arrogance.”
Grumbled Thorcipas, turning away the eye to disclose a horrid travesty of needle-toothed mouth, “You be human. It is my eternal privilege to torment and annihilate lesser beings. In that I can take delight.”
“Not so readily would you best us,” Phillipan cried. “We trust in Xenophor, and by our faith will fight for our lives.”
“To no purpose, if I will it,” retorted Thorcipas. “You worship Xenophor the master of all, the creator and destroyer? That is wisdom. I serve Him, in my fashion. He may rejoice if I send you to Him.”
“That, also, to no purpose,” Harmon quickly pointed out, “for then we all lose. Thorcipas, you are strange to us, and I cannot read your mind by my arts—”
“It would kill you to try.”
“Indubitably. Nevertheless, I guess that you rebel against this shabby treatment—”
“Subaros gained a momentary advantage,” shrieked the squirming gelatine, “bombarding my essence with a magical sleight, to accomplish that which he must not, against which the Gods themselves ought revolt! Binding me here, to his brazen bidding; cheap commands, to include the doom woven against you; for that he has earned a thousand lives of lingering death!”
“You speak fairly,” said Nantrech, “and with estimable moderation. Might we deal, to mutual benefit?”
Thorcipas abruptly replied, “Your lives, for my release.”
“Unfortunately—” Nantrech spoke most apologetically, coughed— “your munificent offer does not suffice. I beg you to reverse the impious spell he wrung from you, that inordinately lessened our stature. On this I insist. Also—” here he nodded to his friend Harmon— “we desire entry into the citadel of Subaros, that we may revel in the concealed wonders of his arcane library and scholarly accessories.”
Thorcipas snarled, or emitted some such sound not amenable to polite classification. “You ask too much, man. Even as a slave I will not bow to your greedy yelps.”
“Then let us divide duties,” continued Nantrech. “No need that all of the burden should fall on you. Eager you are, I aver, to return to your unearthly kingdom. That I can arrange. Your material prison is mere glass, the slightest film— only enchantment holds you within—and that spell I, leagued with my excellent colleague here, can negate. Once done, you may hasten away to your realm, leaving foolish Subaros to our justice.”
Queried Thorcipas, “What would you have?”
Terms stated, all parties in agreement, having sworn oaths of honor to Xenophor, Lord of All Things, Nantrech and Harmon set to work, brewing a mighty magic, and when they were done all but Nantrech drew back, pressing themselves against the curving wall, while Nantrech advanced, spoke the words—words that rang in the ears of those who heard, though he whispered them under his breath—and with his staff smashed the thin glass globe to slivers. Nothing remained on the dais but gleaming fragments. The grotesque form of Thorcipas had vanished on the instant, though a nasty sound lingered momentarily; perhaps a laugh, were glee mixed with implacable animosity.
With another beat of their hearts the men of Dyrezan stood on rather than in the miniature city, it having appeared to shrink to its just proportions as they magically regained theirs. Several noteworthy buildings and monuments crumbled or cracked under the freshly enlarged boots of those who trod on them while endeavoring to maintain balance on the uneven surface. Phillipan, to steady himself, clutched at the slim tower in which they had lately resided. Its bulbous green top came off in his fist.
Lord Nantrech surveyed the area, the sad hovels below, the upward sweep of Subaros' ridiculous city, the bright glassy citadel atop the peak, found all as should be. Then his gaze darted down among the toy structures. “Seek underfoot, men,” said he. “One part of the bargain complete; did Thorcipas perform the second half?”
They hunted for what they hoped to find. A swordsman made the discovery of verification. Nantrech crouched down, peered with amusement and disdain at the seeming insect that stamped and squeaked up at him. He bent lower to catch the words, presently rose. “Raving madness,” he concluded. “Still our late host dreams of his pointless vengeance.”
Lord Harmon said, “The tables turn, little Subaros, thanks to the machinations of our disagreeable ally, who has fortunately fled beyond the veil without smiting us backhand. Clever one, did not your pride shrink with your flesh?”
Phillipan, stepping forward, declared, “I will stamp the life out of him.”
Nantrech demurred at this. “Nay, Captain. While such unworthy thoughts did pass my mind, I think better now, finding no glory in besting this small fry. I desired justice. What say you all, if we leave wee Subaros to the mercies of his people in Brisbett? They surely possess a catalogue of scores requiring settlement. As for me, I say make for the citadel. I wish to explore its chambers before night falls.”
With the annunciation of this pretty wish the citadel of Subaros fell, or rather it exploded with a deafening boom into a million flashing, twinkling shards which then fell like glistening snow. Its minute, former master waved its little sticks of arms, threw itself down kicking its skinny little legs, and sobbed a tinny wail of helpless fury. After a stunned silence Harmon, observing these antics, guffawed in unstately manner. Said he, “The final joke is on us. This be the doing of Thorcipas, I reckon; his parting slap at a world he despises. He denies us the library of Subaros.”
“Xenophor's curse on him,” Nantrech growled. “As payment for pains, I longed to ransack that stash of lore.” He jabbed with his staff at the air, shrugged and grinned. “Well, the dice roll for us neither high nor low. We lose nothing we had, retain our hold on life and health. What say we seek shelter this night among the folk of Brisbett? Undoubtedly they will smother us with gratitude. Tomorrow we march on. Somewhere, on the road ahead, more delectable marvels await.”
© Jeffery Scott Sims 2012
Jeffery Scott Sims lives in Arizona, which forms the background for many of his fantastic tales. Recent publications include a novel, The Journey of Jacob Bleek, and the short stories "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". "In the Hills of Yost" appeared in our April issue.
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.