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".