A Romance of Mhu Thulan

Joshua Abramsky

Millennia of civilisation, countless cycles of ease and pomp beneath a lushly warm Miocene sun that still warded Mhu Thulan against the slow white serpents grinding down from the pole, had gently soothed the cities and empires of that northerly peninsula into a decadent, languid torpor. Even the necromancers and adepts of Mhu Thulan, the sorcerers and diabolists who commanded the terrible demons of flame and sea and invoked the dreadful gods who precede the formation of Earth, had succumbed to the rot of centuries. Where their masters retired to great grim castles bleak as the mountains from which they were hewed like man-made caves, admitting only a few solemnly sworn initiates, those very apprentices now drugged and debauched in diabolic revelry in the self-same citadels where they had previously suffered austerity and worse than austerity. Where the elder wizards had forsworn the touch of woman in favour of the icy and iron-bound discipline of arcanic study, the present generation conjured succubi expressly to serve their own jaded lusts, and did not on that account deny themselves the embraces of earthly concubines. In this deplorable atmosphere of liberality and licentiousness, it had been easy for Azordin, archimage of Mhu Thulan, to introduce Tharaxa, a young and beautiful princess from a southern kingdom, to the rites and incantations of the mantic sciences.

Without objection or even mockery from the mire of laxity that was Mhu Thulan, his youthful acolyte had swiftly and thoroughly attained a prodigious skill in the terrible arts familiar to Azordin, filling him with a paternal pride that added extra savour to her charms – and a love that extended beyond them, that exalted and enthroned her above all other women of all kingdoms, terrestrial or extramundane. But he knew that Tharaxa herself, although her gratitude and respect were profoundly pleasurable and her inclinations to intimacy even more so, did not reciprocate in any wise the depth of his own affection; nor was she aware of it, having gained little knowledge of love from her previous life of barbaric seclusion. When he had first become cognisant of his unfamiliar predicament, he had naturally suspected her of some malign witchcraft; but no less a lamia than a daughter of Lilith, ineffably bound to a single veracity, had confirmed that no unnatural magic had ensnared his heart. His lover, who alone among women had summoned the terrestrial demons and those beings that are darker than demons and who hail from interstellar hells, had no use for the petty charms and curses practiced by sinful queens and hard-eyed courtesans among piles of pillows in close-aired harems. Not idly had Lilith’s daughter ended her brief servitude with a smile of evil irony: it was he who stood in need of the services of her kindred.

Now, in his castle of ice-white granite gripping the black peaks verging the glaciers with adamantine talons, the northward walls whitely afire with the doubly reflected light of the midnight sun, Azordin brooded on these matters in the silence of his silver sanctum. The room was small, coldly cavernous; it was buried deep and windowless in the vaults of the pale fortress, lit timidly by a tiny fire-spirit cowering in its centre, seven feet from the floor, whose fearful flickering made the smooth walls wink with dancing pale light. Directly below the pitiful little thing was a huge golden sigil traced in lines straighter and sharper than mortal hand could carve; Azordin, clad in blood-hued robes, overlooked the glyph from his jewel-set orichalcum throne, set in a shrouded recess in the northern wall, filling his chamber with the darkness where he dwelt like an incarnate shadow descending on the world. All the accoutrements of his sorcery were hidden from eye and grasping hand in similar alcoves in the other seven walls, shielded imperviously and invisibly until his rescinding command. Mighty in his wizardry, infernally wise in all forbidden matters, Azordin alone was master here. But his thoughts, as they turned to his apprentice, slipped more and more from mastery. His citadel was empty now of all other women; his lore lay dusty on silver shelves; the unholy rune before him was silent and still, half-starved for lack of sanguine provender. Knowing all these things with a cold appraisal that had survived his infatuation, he was aware that he faced the greatest threat of his existence.

Azordin raised his right hand, five onyxes flaring, and the wretched imp that spun and grovelled before his throne, a luminescent jester before an emperor of night, roared into a raging inferno that pulsed with unearthly flame from the still-beating heart of a distant star. Hungrily it licked the silver walls with tongues of alien warmth; and with primal fury it assailed the darkness fringing the feet of Azordin where they touched the mirrored floor; but exiled Aldebaran, ripped from its death-dance of millennia by the power of evil sorcery, remained on its choking leash. It could only howl impotently for its cosmic abode with the feeble voice of long-enslaved fire; and in so doing, fulfil the first purpose of its unnatural and blasphemous binding: an ineffable summons of his servants to the presence of its master.

Tharaxa made commendable haste to his chamber, and he watched her walk without hesitation into the star-born flame; as she advanced it receded an inch before her and instantly reformed no further behind her back. Those who came before the seat of Azordin did not forget their place in the workings of the infinite cosmos, which only a few may command at their will. But now it was no longer the great powers of sorcery, but her bravery and beauty in the Tartarean universe that had heretofore been his sovereign sanctuary. The wizard gestured with his right hand, and the blaze again became a wretched round gremlin hanging in the air. Tharaxa stood before him, hair black as the stretch of space above a midwinter of the magnificent austral pole, eyes green as the emerald icebergs of the eastern seas. Concealing his emotion, Azordin spoke. “Did you succeed at the task I set you?” Tharaxa inclined her head respectfully. “I invoked the demon you named.” “The entity is powerful and particularly malignant. You are to be congratulated on your ability.” His apprentice seemed to detect something in his voice, for she raised her head and glanced at him oddly. Her astuteness fuelled his emotion, inflaming his bitter pangs; suddenly, his intellectual and abstract fear and pain became wholly real and his need to defend himself urgent, deadly, as with the sharp bronze swords of a reactionary priesthood at his youthful neck. Outwardly calm, in a cool detached frenzy half-severed from love and thought alike, Azordin instructed: “Raise the demon again; ask any question of it you choose, and grant the boon it will ask.” Tharaxa seemed puzzled, but obeyed without protest. She stooped to the great golden rune, drew her glyph-stamped knife of Cerngoth copper and the tin of a southern isle, and nicked her white flesh along the light blue vein snaking from her graceful hand like sky come to snow, on those polar days when even the brash sun of Miocene years blazed whitely and purely and with devastating cold from a pearly azure-tinted heaven. Warm blood welled over her wrist, kissed the aurumate design with soft wet drips; it shuddered into life, wriggling in its hard metal edges like the evil spirit of a dull yellow river. Azordin watched, his heart roiling, as she pronounced the necessary rites and spells with a confidence and competence far beyond his own at a similar stage of his sorcerous education. At length her chant was complete; and the rune became lighter, less solid, evaporating from heavy gold into a metallic vapour that swept and swirled above the empty graven maze of angles on the floor of the sanctum of Azordin like little whirlwinds in a dark white desert. An evil whisper, the hard grinding of gold and the light cruel laughter of a harsh desert breeze fused into one, emerged. “You have summoned me again from the entourage of my master in the winds of Earth, which now are ours to haunt as we will; and I will temporarily forsake the custom of my kindred and prophesy truly without charge or evidence of sin: this conjuration will bring you nothing but ill fortune. Now, ask your question, and I shall name my boon.” Azordin knew well the singularly inauspicious nature of any unbidden speech from an infernal evocation; and he almost trembled with pride to see Tharaxa maintain the calm visage of mastery that must always prevail in the chamber of sorcery. “I have bound you with unbreakable bonds.” “You never shall again.”

“Whence originates this threat?” The air-demon coalesced into a whirling pillar of refulgent gas, glowing dully with the gold of Azordin’s rune, that whistled and crackled with cacophonic mirth from carved floor to mirrored vault. With wicked mockery, with unholy amusement at simian strangeness and comic bizarrerie, the spirit replied, “I answer your divination with great gratification, as it has come too late: it was born thousands of millennia gone, in the primordial swamp of terrestrial evolution, in that unhappy hour when the crawling things of this planet bifurcated in their unnatural fashion into those complementary and antithetical exemplars that represent them in the present company.” Tharaxa was momently silent, as if frozen by a sudden fear; Azordin felt gripped by the fluxing tension of the moment. “Now I claim my compensation. Since no doubt my prophecy was mistaken, and I shall be summoned here many times to come, I will make myself a little gate to my master’s abode, so I can respond more readily.” And with the termination of the binding spells, the spirit became a rushing gust issuing towards the ceiling of the chamber, past the sad little sphere of living flame obliviously rotating seven feet in the air, shedding the rune of Azordin like the moulting skin of a clockwork snake crawling with lead-tipped fangs in the garden of a southern sorcerer. With a howling blast, it pierced the ceiling of the chamber; and as Azordin stood frozen and Tharaxa looked on in dread, it bored through stone and metal until, in a violation without precedent or propriety, the midsummer sky of an Arctic Eden was beheld in his lightless sanctum. The sultry star that still kissed Earth with the full power of its youth penetrated the darkness of wizardly mystery.

Azordin, later, would wonder at his prolonged inaction; no wizard was prone to freaks of foolish terror. But as the rude and vital rays swept his silver floor, he did nothing as they touched his cowering celestial slave; and only as they began to strengthen and pulsate with fury could he begin to recover his wits. Only as the wrathful sun began to break his brother’s magical chains could the wizard prepare his incantation; and by then, of course, it was useless to battle the might of his tutelary gravitational deity, so all he could do was raise a powerful charm against fire. Tharaxa, ignorant of the higher arcana of astronomical lore, which Azordin had planned to teach her shortly, finally understood what was occurring and did likewise to the best of her ability. Then Aldebaran broke free of his final bond.

As a raindrop to a raging ocean, as a black pebble in a nomad’s hearth to the mountains that grimly guard the austral pole, is an earthly firestorm to a flickering tendril of the smallest star, fuelled by the fundamental energies of the mortal universe. A ruddy giant of atomic flame rose in horrific fury between the cowering sorcerers, and growing to unholy magnitude bathed the citadel of Azordin in extrasolar incandescence beyond the power of planets, making of the tiny cavern of terrestrial life a joyful wasteland of elemental power, a momentary glimpse of the wild majesty of empty immensity, the true blank face of an infinite universe ignorant of green or blue or merry yellow except as burning gas in black vacuum. With fires of eonic fusion, with the eternal coldness of the endless desert inhabited by presumptuous mankind, Aldebaran engulfed the white castle and all the plain that lay before it, razing it with heat and with other evil forces commanded by stars from which Earth has won momentary respite, purging with his intolerable purity the castle and the grey hills it commanded and all the cities, towns and fortifications that spread out before it. But as a guest and grateful debtor to his rescuer the sun, Aldebaran spared the wider globe and the ice-sheets of the north, affirming his brother’s sovereignty over his own vassals of rock; and suddenly, as swiftly as he had destroyed, he flowed into Earth’s sky like a blazing red river of incarnate doom, beginning his long journey back to his appointed place in the spheres, dimming himself slightly so that he might not outshine his yellow host.

Azordin, warded well by his mighty spells, sat dazed on the scorched wasteland that now marched for all their length on the peaks restraining the glaciers of the northern pole. Casting his eyes down from the terrible luminescence filling the sky, knowing in his wisdom that it shared the deadly qualities of the sun, he caught sight of Tharaxa lying before him. As he instinctively reached forward and touched what he judged her upper body, she crumbled away before his fingers. But he was nevertheless favourably impressed by the potency of her magic, which had allowed her to maintain more than a semblance of corporeal integrity in the face of an inferno of the universe. And, despite the disaster she had brought on her people and her planet with her dabbling in arts beyond her competence, which with the fear of fire had entirely extinguished Azordin’s previously overwhelming passion, he found himself able to retain a little affection, along with his sincere professional respect.

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