Alone, that is, save for his four-footed friend, which one might deem a pet, if one were prone to jest: the magnificent black tiger Treenya, a prize of his southern campaigns; a graceful animal despite her menacing size, devoted servant to her master, vicious enemy of his enemies. Many a Rhexellite last felt on this earth the slash of her fangs and claws. Now she licked the dry hand that caressed her, sat suddenly on her large haunches, growled demandingly.
It was hot, the landscape sere, the horizon barren. Large black birds circled. Morca sighed. He removed his broken helmet--the last of his battle armor--to wipe his steaming brow, revealing his damp, unclipped black hair and hard, unshaven hawk features. Besides the sword at his belt he carried two pouches, one for water, the other food. The former sagged, the latter lay limp where tied at his waist. He said, “Dear girl, I have nought more to give. Let us count on luck, for in this fell land effort avails not.”
So Morca clapped his helmet back on and wearily trudged onward, the big cat shortly falling in behind, occasionally growling in her throat with peevish dissatisfaction. They made as they could toward the west, where (should they get so far) they must come of times to the great sea, and should they be able to cross that, they would enter again with delight the fabled provinces of glorious Dyrezan. Such a fair eventuality seemed unlikely. This was alien territory, saturated with evil magic spawned by the ill-favored Rhexellites and other unknown forces. Since fleeing the disaster Morca and his staunch companion had experienced several encounters with dangerous weirdness. His scrolls and implements of magic were lost to him since the debacle. The hero of Dyrezan longed now for nothing more than a temporary safe haven, a place of normality where he might replenish and recuperate before his trek required of him still more heroic endeavors. Such a spot probably did not exist this side of the far off sea, and that, he feared, was simply too far.
As he trudged with dusty step Lord Morca prayed, muttering olden charms of adoration to majestic Xenophor, Master of All, Creator and Destroyer; prayed that salvation should arise before he--even he!--descended into hopeless despair. The prayers cheered him, fired his soul with fierce joy. His tired eyes, half blinded by the cruel sun, scanned the low, drab hills ahead. The scene vouchsafed him but dust, and rocks, and odd spiky shrubs. His spirits sagged. Still he peered, and he thought to see more. Indeed, this was no fever dream. Tall towers of white, thin spires of silver he saw upraised above those hills. No more than an hour’s march they lay before him.
Said he, “Treenya, something lies yonder. Make we for it. Be on your best ware, though. Know we too well that habitation in these parts means foe more readily than friend. We shall seek them, then grant them the boon of proving themselves.”
Treenya agreed, in her fashion. Morca divided the remaining water, and when that was gone they bent to with a will and increased pace. The hills rose, the beckoning towers dropped from sight. A narrow, forsaken pass allowed egress. Soon the gap through the hills widened, the lifeless mounds fell away, and before them lay their immediate goal.
Morca would not style it a city, but it was very more than a village: a fair town of stone, mostly gray limestone and pinkish granite, yet decorated with those lovely marble towers and those gleaming spires of precious metal. It looked a goodly town under the noonday sun, differing vastly from the ugly dark dwelling places of the Rhexellites. Those Morca counted as other than human, and innately hostile to his kind; these, he hoped, were folk with whom reasonable intercourse could prevail.
Entering the precincts, Lord Morca beheld at small remove examples of the citizenry, and the sight cheered his heart. They were fair like their town, and his first attempt at accosting one proved fruitful. He spied an old woman carrying water in an earthen urn clasped in her arms, to whom he boldly advanced to declare himself. “I am Morca,” he said, “lord of far Dyrezan. I beseech you to gift me of that water, and to reveal the name of this your home, for it is strange to me.” She replied, in excellent tongue that he need not decipher, “Noble man, drink your fill. This be Crost, ever friendly to visitors, seldom though they come.” Morca quaffed, and it was as if life flowed into him. Said he, “My cat, too, desires favor, if you will; a little more water.” The old woman shrank back from his companion, who growled menacingly at her; an unnatural reaction on the beast’s part, he thought, for Treenya normally behaved as trained by her master, save against definite enemies. Morca warmly chided his feline friend for impoliteness. At this she crouched submissively, accepted the cooling liquid, though only from his hands.
“I will see Crost,” he announced. Morca thanked the woman with a bow, pressed on with Treenya warily padding behind. They passed wholesome cottages of stone and thatch surrounded by expansive plots of tilled ground. Soon cottages gave way to more impressive structures as they entered the splendid core of Crost. Now public works of marble loomed on both sides of a wide lane, and the towers and spires shone and glistened overhead. The grandeur of Crost amazed Morca, given the sad nature of the countryside. How did the place thrive? Numerous pedestrians at work or play came his way, along with occasional, unhurried riders on horseback, and to them he plied his questions. “Who rules here? Who are your people? How come you to inhabit this land? Do the Rhexellites threaten?” These he asked, and more, yet though his counterparts in conversation were invariably good-natured and brisk to embrace his presence, their responses continually failed to satisfy. He received no worthwhile answers, and it displeased him that Treenya snarled at each speaker. He concluded that she was badly out of sorts, the result, mayhap, of longing for fresh meat. That craving must be sated.
He inquired of lodgings, took directions, repaired with his tiger into a side street past the long facade of a walled manor, came in good time, as shadows stretched long, to a pretty public garden containing a lively, upwelling fountain. There they drank and washed. Just beyond this they arrived at the designated inn. This was a stout, two-story affair of small blocks and sloping wooden roof, with a broad porch scaled by little granite steps that led into an inviting open doorway. Inviting also was the keeper, a big, jolly man with full beard and his head tightly wrapped in a turban like so many of his fellows. From the porch he cheerfully bawled, “Approach, esteemed Morca, enter within to seek our delights. The trail is lengthy, and cares weigh heavy, but here you will be at peace.” Morca froze at the steps, where Treenya brushed his thighs and gave throaty warning, and he cautiously observed, “Overmuch it puzzles, to be hailed by name where no man knows me.” Replied the innkeeper with a deferential nod, “So should it, except that you are our visitor, and here the infrequent visitor is loved as a guest, and the presence of such a one is quickly talked about our Crost. When, in addition, we are informed that our guest boasts of noble birth, be not alarmed when I your eager host tarry outside my humble hostelry in wait on your august appearance.”
“Well said, my man,” conceded Morca. “My needs are few. Evening approaches; already a chill breeze stirs. Bed and board I want, and shelter for my kittenish companion, who I assure is tame to my friends. A handful of coins clink still in my purse. Strike we a bargain?”
“Enter, and we will do it.” So the deed was done. Within Morca and the innkeeper agreed on easy terms. A pair of servants were delegated to attend to Treenya, her master being assured that a clean and spacious hutch in the stables--that, plus a store of bloody goat’s flesh--would hold her in content. The cat went with them, yet only when ordered directly with repeated firmness.
The main hall of the inn was a brightly lighted place of simple tables and benches, with tapestries of colored geometric designs hanging from the walls, torches between the draped ornamental sheets providing the illumination. A long counter across from the front door gave onto the kitchen entrance and racks holding jugs of wine. No request was necessary to have one of those jugs conveyed to Morca’s table. His host said, “Call me Brutan. I and my slaves live to serve you. Allow me to fill your goblet. It is my pleasure, lord. The fare, prepared by my daughter Beccal, is simple but tasty. I trust it will please your palate.”
“Bring it on, at once,” Morca commanded. Brutan clapped; a young, dark-eyed girl, elegantly dressed and most tempting to the eye, appeared from the kitchen flanked by helpers bearing steaming platters. With a winsome smile she laid utensils for his use, and then the servants deposited his feast before him. He savored the sight and aroma of fowl roasted with herbs and exotic vegetables, brown bread, and luscious fruit. Morca dived in without another word. They of the inn continued to hover near while he ate. When he had rapidly progressed to sopping gravy with a handful of bread crumbs Brutan spoke. “Beccal, our guest hungers still. Have you more for him?”
“Truly I do, Father,” replied the girl. I go swiftly to fetch it.”
“You have a lovely daughter,” Morca noted when she had gone.
“She is a sweet lass, charming and thoughtful to excess,” Brutan said proudly. “The meal suits?”
“I anticipate more, my host, with another jug to wash it down. Tell me, have you lived in Crost all your life?”
“It was a great boon to me, albeit a chancy one, to find your town. So much less did I expect on my present course.” Morca frowned. The repast had cleared his head, a welcome condition not yet influenced by wine. “I have ventured the wide world, without finding a place quite like it. I am intrigued. This is a large town, almost a city, yet it seems curiously isolated, surrounded by a realm which is practically desert. I see no evidence of trade; you speak of uncommon visitors; somehow you thrive. Does your oasis draw caravans in season?”
Brutan replied, “Lo these ages have passed away since I served a strange face. We are terribly out of the way nowadays, not like it was in the old days. We live simply and quietly now. We sleep a lot between labors. We have more time for rest than formerly.”
Second helpings of all were whisked onto the table, Beccal withdrawing with a bow afterward. Morca ate slowly, ruminating as he chewed. “My man,” he said, “this will not do. Your statements perplex. I wonder that your people are allowed to exist. I thought this land within the compass of the Rhexellites. Surely their borders lie close. Do not they vex you with demands and torment you with cruelties?”
Brutan pondered, bemused. “I know not of these Rhexellites,” he said at last. “Do you hunger for another course?”
“No,” Morca stated with a grunt. “It astounds that my mention of the Rhexellites should mystify. Until lately they were the scourge of all the lands this side of the sea. Possibly the arid barrier defied their powers (though I gave them more credit for the greedy, adventuresome fiends that they were), but you must have heard of them. Perhaps, then, you find commerce with the Peoki fisher tribes of the coast?”
“I dare say, although these terms of yours still mean nought.” Brutan commenced removing the detritus of the meal. Amidst the clatter of his efforts he said, “There is much latent magic hereabouts, which perhaps protects us from common evils. No one wishes us harm here, nor are we feared in foreign parts. Crost is a land of peace. Crost is very old; it has always been what it is, and always will be. Here one may rest without end, as within a comforting dream. Think on it, my guest, my Lord Morca, whose life is strenuous and wearying. A man must tire of always carrying the sword. Much might a man give for the peace which resides here.”
“I will take your word for that.” Indeed, weariness fell on him now like a toppling wall. He said, “I fear that Crost is too peaceful to contain me. Ever do I break out of the confines of the calm.” Then: “However, I choose the rest you offer. Give me a soft bed.”
“As you command.” Brutan clapped once more. Beccal practically raced into the hall, stood demurely in waiting attitude at her father’s side. “Daughter, escort our guest to his room. We must make him comfortable.”
“Does he stay with us, Father?”
“For the night,” Morca clarified.
“Sleep well, Lord Morca,” said Brutan, “and I beseech you, sir, to heed my words. Crost spreads wide its arms in eternal invitation to strangers. Think on this offer of mine, which is for no less than a lifetime of hospitality. Perhaps by morning you will believe what I say, and accept Crost as your home.”
Morca answered with a grin, not caring to dispute the point, which he supposed was intended well. He followed Beccal up the narrow stairs to the upper floor, along the wood-paneled corridor to the room at the end. She held the door for him. It was a fine room for an inn, not too cramped, airy with a large open window closed only by drapes. Furnishings were typically meager yet wholly serviceable. The bed, especially, invited immediate attention. Morca thought to throw himself into it at the first opportunity.
He said to the girl, “My tiger, Treenya, will miss me. She may not relish alien surroundings. After whiles, my dear, you must honor me by accompanying me to her. Would you that?”
“With pleasure,” she replied. She smiled. Beccal was truly a lovely girl. Morca speculated as to the limits of her geniality. He considered pressing the matter.
“Maybe,” he said, “Crost harbors attractions I have overlooked. Someone should point them out to me.”
“I can show you,” sad she, “after you have rested.”
He was desperately tired and, he realized bitterly, too much wine had taken its toll. He was good for nothing now. Thinking fond notions of later, he saw Beccal out, closed his door, prepared to sleep.
Twin stands flanked the headboards of the bed. One, toward the window, bore a single oil lamp, his only illumination. On the other, nearest the empty, ajar closet, he placed his helmet, his sword, his pitiful baggage. Briefly he paced to the window, pulled aside the curtain, absorbed the view. A pale thin moon hung in the darkening east over the pretty town. No one was about now, and the place was very dark. The people of Crost, he mused, were lapsing back into their dreams.
The thought reminded Morca of the nightly ritual he accepted as duty. Though his magical supplies were gone, he yet possessed his studied esoteric skills, and he charmed himself to admit only true dreams, that no lies or similar connivance should intrude on his slumber. This done, he took to bed, covered himself with thick blankets, was lost to the world.
A dream did come. He dreamed of Crost, as he knew it, and more. He saw Crost bustling with activity, thronging with people of all races, traders wealthy and mages wise and grandees glorious. He heard chanting from the towers and singing in the streets. He saw it by night, with a thousand points of light gleaming from the windows, and above the stars, organized into constellations unknown or oddly distorted. With the curious ability of dreams to see what no fleshy eye could see he beheld the venue of Crost, saw its place in a world he did not recognize. Surely there were no Rhexellites in the land; there came to him images of folk like those of Crost, towns and, yes, great cities rising from the green hills and fertile plains, and busy ports by the sea where big ships sailed. Through it all he wandered, dazed, asking ever, “What is this? Where is this?” And the people smiled and bowed, yet never said they a word.
The scene changed. Fires in the sky, portents in heaven--the Gods angered or bored, he surmised--and the green land was blasted and blighted, and the crops withered, and the dry scrub and the jackal crept in where civilization had reigned. The abandoned centers of dwelling dropped to pieces as he watched, a year flashing by in an instant, centuries in the span of a sigh. Again Crost uprose before him, and to his amazement he observed it decaying like the others. The cruel ages scoured and plucked at the facings of its stones. He saw this happening to Crost only by night. In a momentary glimpse of dazzling radiance he beheld no explicit detail, but felt with all his dream senses a strange pulsation of power, a miasma of the arcane enshrouding and concealing what lay behind or within. He strove to peer through the magical shield...
Morca started awake. Deep inside his mind a tiny voice shrieked of danger. Cheek pressed to pillow, he stared through the dim light vouchsafed by the dying lamp. There his helmet and sword and meager things on the stand, beyond them the closet door, open a thin black gap. That was as it should be. About to turn, he noticed blemishes on the wall by that door, gray stains, vague discolorations, unrecollected encrustations of what seemed dirt. He had rejoiced in a tidy room. His eyes scanned up the wall. It was filthy, reeking of squalor and decay. As he watched a greenish, dampish spot spread, exuded a yellow burst of swirling particles. A fat spider watched him from the paneling with its many hateful eyes.
He launched himself out of bed, saw by the sputtering lamp that the entire room was overlaid with grime, with fungus, that the structure about him was collapsing in on itself. The bedding, that had seconds before contacted every portion of his body, was soiled and rotten. Chitinous things scuttled on webs in the corners.
Morca cried out, seized his sword and his bags from the crumbing stand, toppling it with his forgotten helmet, fled into the corridor. The door fell at his touch. He stomped down the black passageway, risking life to walk on the disintegrating surface. He rushed down the nighted stairs, almost hurtling headlong when he stepped where a step was not, then into the main hall, cavernous, cold, littered with fallen stones, stars mocking him through great holes in the sporadic roof. He bellowed for Brutan, got echo for answer. He raced into the lane. He stood, astounded, in a street of Crost.
It was a dead habitation: a thousand, ten thousand years dead. Before him stretched a wilderness of ruins, heaps of stony debris, broken walls, weathered foundations barely protruding from rubble. Beyond, amidst a tangle of weeds and dense, ugly shrubs he spied the glint by starlight of pooled water, a pathetic spring where he had seen a fountain play. Farther still the jagged stumps of forgotten spires and fallen towers disgraced a dismal skyline. Close by nasty things slithered in the dirt.
Morca dashed to the rear of the ruinous inn. He shouted her name, heard Treenya’s furious roar. It came from behind the remnants of wall of a broken down stone compound. Morca called again, and Treenya leapt onto the wall, slid on her sleek belly down the sloping wreckage. She sprang to his side, jumped up and pressed massive paws to his chest.
“Down, girl,” he cried with a harsh laugh. “Let us frolic when the undead corpse of Crost lies behind us.” Morca filled his water pouch at the forsaken oasis; they then began threading their way between the stony trash which clogged the lanes, making for the west. They did not get far before fresh obstacles intervened.
Moving shapes swayed in the darkness. They looked passably human, until they came too close. There were two in the van, a large, bearded man horribly lacking at the extremities, with the flesh of his corpulent trunk hanging in wet folds, and a smaller form, obscurely feminine, skeletal to a sickening degree, with far too much bone revealed by the peeled-back flesh of its face. The former nightmare said, in a voice that was the ghost of Brutan’s, “You woke too soon, Lord Morca. That is not meet. Had you rested quietly, you would have joined us. Rest more, and always.” And the other whispered sweetly, “I would have come for you, Lord Morca. Magic awakened me for you; only your feeble arts hold us apart. Crost calls you to me. Come, cradle your head in my arms.” The vile apparition held out bony horrors to him.
Morca’s sword whistled from its sheath. “To battle, Treenya,” he said grimly. The huge black cat sprang, claws slicing the cold air. Morca lunged, chopped at the larger form. Chunks flew. Treenya shredded her target with claws and teeth, then recoiled from the sodden refuse, squalling and spitting out filth. “That is not dessert,” Morca cried.
More horrific shapes closed, hideous arms reaching. Morca advanced at a trot, his steel blade singing and slashing. Feline talons flexed and ripped. Then they were through the press and running, with the last corroded ruins of flesh and stone falling behind. Hills rose darkly about them. They emerged onto the farther plain as dawn woke the eastern horizon.
The first rays of the sun peeped over the world to bathe in crimson behind them the tops of fabulous towers. The needle tips of silver spires glowed as if on fire. Lord Morca surveyed for a spell the weird vision. “Does Crost think to lure me again to enchanted doom?” he asked, of Treenya or the wind. “Whatever antique powers survive here should give me credit for more sense. This way I shall not pass again, be my guts ever so empty.”
His furry companion rubbed his free hand with her massive head, gutturally purred. Morca grinned. “Got we a decent meal from this adventure,” he declared; “under the circumstances, a fair trade for a little peril.” He sheathed his sword. A warming wind plucked at the long hair of his helmless head. The barren lands stretched before.
Lord Morca of Dyrezan said, “We have a long way to go, my friend. May all our adventures treat us so kindly.”
©March, 2017 Jeffery Scott Sims
Jeffery Scott Sims has recently published a book of weird tales, Eerie Arizona, as well as many short stories in various publications. His work has appeared previously in Swords & Sorcery.