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.