A Dark Day in Zothique (A round robin in progress)

Divers Hands

Dramatis Personae (So far)

City of Orcros    City of Mutang
Shiron Hierophant    Montige High priest
Ashfall Ruler    Aroc King
Toe Cutter Orctosian Mercenary    Abocarge Former High priest
Uadroma Slave in the House of Laur-lamma   
Ganjuth Byraz Head of the House of Laur-lamma   
Avathool-Chan Merchant Prince   
Sathlath-Chan Heir to Avathool-Chan   
Xeon Servant to Shiron   


1. Morning Boyd Pearson (16 June)
2. Dark Magic Afoot James William Hjort (8 July)
3. The Offering Jonathan Burns (20 July)
4. The Magicians Laurence J. Cornford (31 July)
5. Uadroma Boyd Pearson (12 August)
6. The Bastard Dwarf James William Hjort (30 September)
7. The Lords of Phantasm Jonathan Burns (21 October)
8. The Darker Way Laurence J. Cornford (21 December)
9. The Beginning of the End Boyd Pearson (1 March 1999)
10. James William Hjort
11. Jonathan Burns
12. Laurence J. Cornford
13. Boyd Pearson

Chapter 1. Morning (Boyd Pearson)

As the first fingers of dawns ruddy sunlight stretched themselves on the landscape; streaking the field with juxaposed light and gloom; all was silent. Mist clung to the ground like mould on the floor of eternity's sepulchre. The sun's rays seemed unable, or perhaps unwilling, to disperse its concealment and reveal the fields contents. Even the wind could only whip up small eddies of white dankness, which danced contemptuously over the scene.

This was a dawn not heralded by the usual chorus of birds, and scratching of waking wild life. For life was a stranger in this place today, and even the dead kept silent. The previous nights carnage had been swift and total. Two armies fought and died together under the pale illumination of a full moon. To a man they died in the pursuit of ideologies not of their own making. Only two men new why.

From the east came the hierophant Shiron. His tall gaunt frame casting shadows as long as are tall, the black towers of Orctos, which was his home. He moved with an unnatural fluidity which from a distance made him appear to float, not step, over the hidden bodies. A great cloak shrouded his frame. A cloak made from the hide of two giant bears that had once domiciled and hunted in Orctos' neighbouring hills. A cloak that hid his form from his approaching rendezvous.

* * *

Orctos leaned against the eastern foothills on the isle of Cyntrom. Ruled by the black dwarf Ashfall, it was Zothique's southern capital of vice and corruption. A once great mining city supplying iron ore and steel to half the region, now, it was a center of decadence and slavery. A place were sin was sought not shunned, and vice nonpareil had become a virtue.

Orctos it self echoed the activities of its citizens. Like some twisted symbiosis its once grand marble towers now leaned menacingly, blackened by the soot of the smelters. Aeon old fretted facades and arabesque encrusted spires were left to crumble in to so much dust. While once grand, tree-lined avenues that had been paved with the red clay bricks of Tosk, were now more pot-hole than surface.

Of Orctos' population, two thirds were slaves of one sort or the other, subjugated by the ruling elite who wielded a cruel eldritch magic in order to maintain the status quo. A magic born of human sacrifice and other blasphemous offerings to the dark lord of the seven hells - Thasaidon.

Upon every new moon, while the slaves cower and quiver in the dark, rat infested, crumbling dungeons that were once the city's catacombs, the feast of Thasaidon takes place. Each of the hundred noble households is required to perform vile acts of incest and self flagellation in order to receive the blessings of the black god. The apex of the evenings' festivities is the blood sacrifice of one of the households members. It is by Thasaidon sardonic will that no slave can be offered in place; for the law states that only one of noble blood is acceptable to appease the dark lord. And it is for this reason, and the pleasure of the patriarchy, that each household keeps at least twelve slave girls in a permanent state of pregnancy.

Ashfall himself, was the bastard child of a black cannibal slave woman from Ullotroi. As for the father, two rumours were whispered behind closed doors, either he was some foul nether world demon or a citizen of Mutang. While the telling of the foremost rumour is punishable with death the latter sentences one to be eaten alive by maggots. In either case, it is said that after his conception the mother inflicted a savage wound, rendered the father incapable of ever reproducing again.

* * *

From the west travelled the high priest Montige. His head held high a crown of blond hair, a trait of the royal family of Mutang, which glowed like spun silver under dawns rising sun. And although, forced by the sun's illumination of his elfin features to squint as he gingerly plucked his way between the massed cadavers in a futile attempt not to step on any of the assembled dead, he carried himself regally. He was a young man, barley in to his third decade of life, and still held much of the idealism of youth.

It was a singular event in this land that one so young should achieve such status, even though, by chance of birth he was of royal blood. His predecessor, the reverend Abocarge, had served the peoples of Mutang for more than a century having only achieved his post at the juvenile age of 99. However, due to the recent, accidental and untimely, demise of his predecessor, Montige had acceded to the mantel of 'High Priest of Mutang'.

Mutang lay on the western coast of Cyntrom isle. This self proclaimed last center of Zothiquen civilisation, has become a Mecca for artisans and performers of the four corners of Zothique and beyond. All of whom came to seek favour and fortune in this so called enlightened city. Each was expected to perform for the court of King Aroc, who was the last philanthropic patriarch of Zothique. Dancers danced, while fools fooled, all to the beat of some ethereal musicians drum. Only a select few were rewarded with King Aroc's patronage, forcing the others to seek their living else where.

Although uncommon for a performer to catch the kings eye once taken in to service they were rarely dismissed. Over the years the numbers had grown such that it was often remarked that the palace resembled more, a menagerie of humanity, than a seat of power.

The Aroc family had sat on the Mutang throne ever since the city was founded. Nine centuries, nine decades and nine years ago. At the next new moon they are to celebrate 1000 years of rule.

A thousand years which has witnessed the slow decay of Zothitquen civilisation. As each passing year has dimmed the sun, so too has dimmed the morality and decency of its citizens. Some soothsayers have claimed that the sun dims in response to the entropy of mankind. While others believe it is the suns failing illumination that has brought mankind to its knees. What ever the truth may be, as each year dawns darker than the last, so to does mans inner darkness grow.

Perhaps it has been Mutang's self illumination that has slowed its inevitable slide in to chaos. Nearly one thousand years ago the cities founding fathers, the Aroc's, learned to harness the natural gas that rose through the ground, and which had made the region hazardous for all those who travelled in it. It was that "taming of the flame", as the event has come to be called, that cemented the Aroc's placement in history. Only they know the secret of the flame, and that knowledge is their power base.

From dusk to dawn every street and home is illuminated by dancing flame, a king's boon to his subjects. It is said, that the day when dusk fall is not accompanied by the lighting of the flames, the following dawn will herald a new master - Thasaidon - the preferred god of worship in every city under the Zothiquean sun, bar one.

However, even eternally illuminated Mutang struggles against the rot that creeps across the lands. Its white slate palisades crumble faster than the stone masons can repair them. While the city's prisons overflow with criminals, and so many have been banished that Mutang's satellite hamlets have more citizens than Mutang it self. And then there is Thasaidon's influence.

The worship of the dark lord of the seven hells is a capital crime in Mutang. Followers are thrown in to the Eternal Flame that burns in front of, The Palace of Illumination, the Aroc family home and center of power. However, the effectiveness of this punishment has diminishes as the years have passed. And ever since the widespread discontent from the last purge, in which several of the most influential business leaders and artisans were incinerated, King Aroc has dared not put any others to the flame.

* * *

"Was it necessary?" Montige asked Shiron as they meet amongst the mixed cadavers of the Orctos and Mutang armies.

"Necessary? What is necessary, Is it necessary for us to live? To breathe? Nothing is necessary." He retorted contemptuously.

After a pause "Well, was it beneficial to our mutual cause?"

Eldritch laughter pealed across the plane, Shiron's lean frame shook with uncontrollable myrrh. "Oh Yes!" He cried, "By Thasaidon, Yes!"

Chapter 2. Dark Magic Afoot (James William Hjort)

Movement in the dim distance never escaped the periphery of Shiron's awareness. Shadows in the early morning mists, some lumbering, dragging like the amputees they were, and others, scurrying from corpse to corpse without heed of their erstwhile competitors, busied themselves with the guerdon. There would be much more at hand this ensanguined morn than their meager leathern pouches and sewn sacks could contain. They ambled unspeaking and wordless, oblivious to efforts of others meager feet away. And, unlike earlier days, threats of recompense and the far scent of the pits perpetually stoked beneath the walls of the bastard monarch Ashfall, impeded them not in their errands. Hands of the leutenants and deputees, if any remained unsevered, would be far too full than to expend energies seeking retribution from corpse-robbers such as they.

Indeed, the gathering numbers did not go unnoticed.

"I expected them to take much longer." He glanced at the bloody fingers of dawn dispreading outward from the horizon like the grasping digits of The Dwarf. Few black shapes spiralled above. "Even the carrion eaters have barely caught the scent. It must have been a hasty slaughter."

" We shall speak of that, much more later," he stated quietly. " On more private and suitable ground."

"After you, then..." Montige regained his mount, who sniffed uneasily at the scent of carnage rising rapidly about them. A grin curved its way upwards from one corner of Montige's mouth. "And take no offense, dear Shiron. But even amongst sycophants such as these, I must maintain a certain reputation as to whose company I am wont to keep. Rumors of heresy spread quickly."

The hierophant squinted his left eye, at the slight, good natured, or ill. Striking bargains and consorting with those more honorable than he always proved to be irksome. With those who were aware of it, even moreso. Montige would be privy only to as much as he would chose to allow.

The younger Montige, whose mane would be visible from afar, glanced once more over the field and what had been wrought there. He had not witnessed the like.

Shiron, conversely, cared nothing for the pain and suffering of the pawns. It was necessary, as he had asseverated erstwhile. Wives without husbands and children without fathers, and wenches without someone with a fatted purse to lay against their breast...These were thoughts for others. Not him. More important sorceries rendered the sacrifices necessary. Much moreso than those commonly offered unto Thasiadon.

Before vanishing, he glanced downward at the extremeties of his cloak and thought of the skinless and flayed bears who contributed to his prize. Gouts of blood like ebon rubies already found grasp there. The oozing remnants of an eye orb, moreover, clung to the hair. Its twin, yet occupying its hold in the smashed skull of a nearby soldier, glowered wordlessly back at Shiron from a shadowed socket.

He added, muttering, halfways to himself. "This will be a she-bitch to clean. "

* * *

"Dark magic afoot! Dark magic afoot! " said the dwarf, barely able to maintain grasp upon his alms cup. "Dark magic afoot!"

The one he followed finally turned, more intent on ridding himself of the nuisance than anything else. He fumbled a few coins into the greasy tin. "Shut up, you little half-man. Don't think that Ashfall smiles on you because of your size. He'd as soon turn you into a half-half man on his racks."

The dwarf peeked into the cup with his good eye, and upwards again at his benefactor. "Dark magic afoot! Dark magic afoot!" he resumed, until his cup again found a contribution, this one more to his liking. With that he vanished into one of the alleyways that serpentined through this part of the city. They ran like so many cadaver veins between the brothels and taverns and nameless places where nameless things were done to nameless people.

It suited the one they called "Toe Cutter." He was home. With that, he was pleased. The scent was wafting on the wind. It was invigorating.

But after the encounter with the askerman dwarf, he was less pleased with the condition of his purse. "Ahh. Life in the big city," he said aloud to no one, although he well knew there were those who heard. He was not the only one who sensed something impending in the air. He, like others, had been drawn here. Exactly for what, he was unapprised at the moment.

Wizards and their secrets. Wizards and their devil-deeds. He cared little for thrice layered conspiracies and pending betrayals. Life proceeded beyond or beneath their purview.

Revelers proceeded with their reveries, lovers with their lovemaking, thieves with their thieving. Many sensed something wrong, cowered and prayed, crossing themselves with sigils of the more honourable deities. The quickly closed upper window-shutters attested to that, along with the garlic laden scents co-mingling with that of sweat and urine, and leftover scraps tossed from the self-same windows scant moments before. Many others in the city would remain blissfully ignorant until the final falling of the scythe. A few would turn the situation to their advantage.

The dwarf had been right. Indeed, Dark magic was afoot.

* * *

" Royal blood, eh?" Shiron mused, grasping the wrist of his younger companion, who offered only an involuntary twitch of resistance. "Does it feel any different pulsing through those veins?"

If he knew not better, Montige might have taken the slight grin as that of a vampire considering his next victim. He broke contact only long enough to glance about, seeking the low bloused maid who promised to bring them their libaton. The chamber was well suited, shadowed and dim, and of far greater dimension than its outer entranceway promised. A den of thieves, and perhaps an ill-choice.

The elder displayed little compunction. "Royal blood co-mingling with the priesthood is a pouch of addars waiting to share their venom."

"You in Orctos have little room to speak." And as though he had given it no consideration before, the import of that touch now send a shiver through his frame. " How much royal blood have those hands been baptized in?"

"Now, now." Shiron's incisors now revealed themselves. " We agreed not to criticize each other's Religion." The wine they finally received assumed a deeper hue. "But the answer lies in the rivers that flow out of the foothills, tainted by ichor of today's slaughtering field."

"My responsibility bears no reverence or conncetion with your dark god Thasaidon."

Shiron nearly choked on his latest quaff, then loosed again with another of his disconcerting laughs. "You have much to learn. I thought those in the fast dimming City of Light were more enlightened. Do you think Thasaidon gives the anal cavity of a rat whoseblood is offered unto him? Blood is blood. Life is Life. Sacrifice is Sacrifice. His penchant for royal blood is a ruse foisted upon the king and lords long ago to ensure their own power-hold. You have only to view what generations of inbreeding has wrought, a class fit for naught than to spend every waking moment in satiation, libation and reverie."

Montige was content not to respond. The allusion of rivers clung with him. He imagined the morrows dawn, far downstream. A scene to be repeated and multiplied. Women and their waifs would be at water's edge, baskets of clothes washed and waiting to be washed. The smell would not reach them first. Only the slight tint in the water, then ribbons of crimson snakes, followed by a piece or two of broken axe or spear, then various remnants of others who fell in the battleground upstream, a hand, an arm, a bobbing torso. There would be screams, outcries, and plaintive wails. Trembling hands would tend to the sudden usherings of young ones away from view.

And in the Palace of Orctos, the black Dwarf Ashfall would be enveloped in fits, screaming imprecations, and lopping off not a few guests' appendages, if not heads. Every able-bodied man, every wheel-cart and horse, every bucket on a rope and cripple who yet could hobble would be pressed into service. Whether to inter them in a mass hecatomb on the battleground, or transport their remains back to saner cemeteries, Montige could not fathom.

Shiron continued unabated. "Spare them your conscience and guilt. The age has waxed old and corrupt. It is decrepit as the toothless hags who inhabit the deeper alleways, offering their lips and throats to libertines grown fond of their unique services...

"Zothique dims like the sun, and is close to extinguishment. It is collapsing all about us by the weight of its own sin. What we seek to accomplish will only hasten the inevitable. As much as you might find it momentarily distasteful, we are yet in need eachother. What of it, if in the end the motives differ? For the time they are concurrent."

Montige's silence was taken, perhaps, more as a response than words.

"You do not think to withdraw now? After all the sacrifice?... which is yours as much as mine?. What other hope is there for your precious fires?" Exasperation was growing like a subtle sore.

Their eyes locked. The blond one's glowed with an inner electrum. "I have consented to the death of an army. They have been laid on the altar. And I am here."

"A toast, then, to the Bastard Dwarf and the end of all things as they were! and are! and shall never be!"

Chapter 3. The Offering (Jonathan Burns)

The Sun, having drawn scarlet veils about her, descended upon a plain of blood. When in the memory of Zothique had it not been so?

For this brief time, there was a hush in the human clamour from the eastern shore of the isle of Cyntrom to the west, when young women promenaded unafraid on Orctos' dusty avenues, and in Mutang the street-singers set contest aside, joining soft and plaintive voices in evensong. When had it not been so? Immemorially, each community of men and women showed of their best toward the Sun, as to entice her to the world another day. For in this age there was no surety in the heart, that tomorrow would see her return.

Leaning dangerously on an iron balcony of a blackened tower of Orctos, the get-slave Uadroma looked out across the crimson hills and smiled, savouring the weight and the first small movements of the child who swelled her belly. Beyond the hills, savagery had ruled this day, and now the carts, which earlier had been driven out in haste, had crept back laden horribly with the wastage of the city's manhood. Soon the night would be down, and there would come the wailing of the widows, and the chanting of priests before the smoking pyres, and the laughter of harlots freed for a while from the usage of men, and the rapine of houses undefended.

Behind her, a key turned in the iron lock of the chamber, once opulent, long neglected, in which she spent her days confined. Entered the aged physician of the house, peeping from his enfigured robes, then his apprentice with lamp and taper, to light the chamber's caged lanterns. Aloof, unconcerned for modesty, she presented herself for withered fingers which tested her pulse, and calipers which gauged her ripe distention; while the two muttered between themselves.

"I find her somewhat advanced for her time", the elder opined, "since our Lord seeded her but thirty weeks and four ago; still the get will be sound, I doubt not. Soon now, we will have it, and well in time for Festival." So saying, the two physicians went out, and turned the key, and left Uadroma alone to remember and to smile; while in the streets below began the outcries of the criminal night.

But on another night, when the moon was high over the stained towers of Orctos, and round as a coin of tarnished bronze, another had come to visit Uadroma, stealing into the dormitory where slept a score of the slaves of the House of Laur-lamma; a youth, brown-skinned and green-eyed, who put a finger to his lips conspiratorially, in token of silence, as the girl started awake at his simple presence. It seemed only natural to Uadroma, how all the rest lay still as if entranced, and how the iron girdle fell open on the couch, and every other lock and bar opened at once to the beautiful boy, while he drew her from that room, down ancient stairways, and at last to a garden, on a roof or terrace of the great house, secluded from any window, where a pleasant lawn grew lush and aromatic beneath the little cedars of the isle of Cyntrom.

Eyes wide, daring one another to look more deeply. Hands reaching, softly provoking, but then seizing, craving, clinging. What need of words, while the yellow moon lighted the feathery grasses, and a million stars tangled in the black shadows of the cedars? He was brown-skinned adventure, he was green-eyed laughter, and hour upon hour they climbed, or fell, back and back as it seemed to an elder age, when the heavy clouds, great as mountains, had freely ranged in mighty herds across a fertile Earth, and drenched it green from sea to sea.

Scarcely did Uadroma now recall, how finally he left her, fulfilled, vibrant, and wholly at peace, but in all other ways as he had found her; while those other slaves lay yet in trance about her. Nor from that time had this dream of peace forsaken her. Some few nights later, when the Lord of the House of Laur-lamma had called her, and set himself of necessity to the production of the ritual gift which his line must give as due - she in the jewelled silver mask of a meadow-sylph, he behind the iron mask of Thasaidon - the same peace suffused her still.

Therefore, as the widows of Orctos wailed in the claws of grief, and their daughters screamed in the streets, and in the unmastered houses was a breaking of doors and shattering of ancient glass, did Uadroma smile. And the robed physicians passed like shadows down the marble stairs, and beneath the columned porticos, and past the tall narrow doorways, until they came to the Great Hall, where Ganjuth Byraz, Lord of the Glorious House of Laur-lamma, paced up and down in a fine good humour, a great wine-goblet to hand, as he reviewed the industrious preparations of his courtiers for the Festival of Orctos and of its Dark Emperor.

That a generation of the city's youth was charnel for the crows, what cared Ganjuth? Sailors of other lands even now unfreighted fat swine of Ul-om-bar and black antelopes of Zyra, that should be slaughtered in sight of his guests, and their roasted flesh hoist on golden platters to the tables. Across the Southern Sea, ships came bearing the amber wines of Yoros and the purple wines of Xylac; and the orchards of Tasuun were plundered, orange trees dug up whole with their roots, and lifted onto great wagons to be shipped for the banquet.

Busily did Ganjuth Byraz oversee the foremen, who oversaw the slaves, who clambered on scaffolds in the dimness overhead, and scrubbed clean the capitals of the ancient marble columns. In a mellow mirth he berated the carpenters who now erected the stage, as broad as those columns were tall, on which captured warriors from the cold canyons beyond Tasuun would be set to combat, and slit-eyed pearl-skinned women of ever-clouded Mihroam set to dancing.

And in the midst of this, came his physicians, informing him that the Offering was near to ripe, which should be offered up to the Lord of Seven Hells at the climax of His Festival. And to this Ganjuth attended, and absently nodded, and sent then away; then called for his cup to be filled, and for the merchants of silk to display the billowing curtains, indigo and scarlet, as wide as the sails of ships, which should veil his great hall, with the bright lamps glowing through them like the baleful suns which were said to illumine the sumptous meadows of the Dark Emperor's buried dominions.

Even thus, as the speck of grit which spurs the oyster is enveloped, layer on gorgeous layer by its burgeoning pearl, the singular reason for this great banquet was in unquestioning haste occluded and passed over. Yet, even had he made severest minute enquiry, Ganjuth Byraz would not have come to suspect that the child now approaching its birth and doom, requisite sacrifice to Thasaidon the Pitiless, was no offspring of the line of Glorious Laur-lamma.

Chapter 4. The Magicians (Laurence J. Cornford)

The dark, greasy night had begun to slide into a dull, sienna dawn and the purse of Toe Cutter grewn ever less burdensome. But as its weight decreased a brooding weight settled in its place. Soon the warrior would have to replenish his fortune. He did not wholly know why he had been summoned back to his natal city. He knew only that magic was at it's heart and that mighty wizards cared little for the sacrifices of their pawns. Throughout his life he had lived by his quick wits, but he knew that in Orctos one false step could cost him his life. He wished the wizard would show himself and make his need plain - unknown geases were a tribulation that Toe Cutter could do without.

Toe Cutter was in no wise a fearful man, his appellation came from his gruesome habit of collecting tokens of the successful missions he had been sent on, and he wore the title with a quiet pride that even he was now troubled to recall his given name. He had first adopted the habit when working as a scout in the untidy wars between Xylac and Yoros, when he had been paid per body. Toes were lighter than heads, less peripheral than ears and fingers, which a man might loose without much inconvenience, and less messy than scalps. A fine selection of mummified toes hung were strung on a long, looped cord around Toe Cutter's neck, like some obscene set of prayer beads, and when touting for work he would tell the histories of the more interesting toes. He had plied his trade as a torturer, assassin, thief and sword for hire in the days following upon the ceasation of the war, and had even travelled among the archipelagoes with a buccaneer crew. There were few tasks he had not and would not perform. Now he was back in this rat's nest of a city - yet he knew not why. He had never planned to return. The nobles of the isles might regard him as the lowest of the low, but Toe Cutter believed himself to have now grown beyond the meaningless cut-throat, animal violence of life in Orctos.

He gulped the last of his Illarian brandy, and savored the aftertaste for a moment before rising. He glanced around at the beady, sullen eyes of the ashen skinned men who silently surveyed him. Toe Cutter weighed up the likelihood of being assailed, but the tavern had emptied of most of it's patrons when the corpse barges arrived and judging by the screams and wails from the street, there were richer pickings to be had this night.

He headed for the door.

* * *

The two hierophants drank in silence for a moment. Montige glanced out of the fishing village tavern at the sullen black ocean upon which white shapes shimmered and bobed as the waves caught the moonlight. A black night for black deeds, the priest mused. They had come here to converse without distractions or fear of being observed and not to socialize. The thought of sharing a table with the black sorcerer was quite aborent enough for Montige.

"So let us get to the point," he said, wishing to curtail the meeting, "What is your plan?"

"It is time for the Lord Thasaidon to reap the crop he has sown on Cyntrom," Shiron leaned close with a conspiratorial air which almost made Montige wretch. "The chaff he will throw to the winds, were, lacking in the weight of service to the Dark Lord, they shall be blown, and if the Flame takes them, Thasaidon cares not. The remainder, the good harvest, they will become the sustenance of our Lord as is their destiny, saving those he shall resow for a new crop."

"And what good does this do Mutang?"

"A field which is not harvested will run to seed and become of no worth. My Lord will have his harvest, do not think the sad gods of Mutang can do anything to prevent that. Who do you think it was that put the thought of a crusade into the mind of Aroc so he would order his army to march against Orctos and thus march into the trap whose results you have already witnessed."

"As for Ashfall, if he knew the truth of it he would don a motley and jingle his bells and make pratfalls before me, rather than put the crown on his head. He believes he rules because Thasaidon enjoys the jest he plays unwittingly."

"Again, I see not where my aid is required. March your army against Mutang, now that you have crushed ours. I will do nothing that aids your black lord, just as you would wish to snuff out Mutang's flames."

"I see idiocy is still a prerequisite for the priesthood of the Church of the Flame! To leap a short way is less exciting than to leap a long way. We are two poles with a world between us. My Lord seeks to win the souls of those who are furthest from his glory. A man inbred into His service is a soul already won. But to break the barren piety men hold for petty gods, that is good to Him! And you, where would a god of light be without darkness? What worth your fortitude if it has nothing to oppose and test itself against? Thasaidon does not seek Mutang's destruction, for there is always more darkness than light. In all of the heavens, the light is but tiny pin-holes in the darkness! Darkness will win out, let him gather and save as many souls as he can before that inevitable victory. Thasaidon wants your people to flourish - once Orctos has been harvested he wishes you to re-inhabit the land, and he will let it lie fallow so that it will give an ever greater harvest in years to come. This is what I am offering you. Mutang could stand for another thousand years."

Ever temptation, Montige thought.

* * *

Toe Cutter found a doorway to slumber in until the dawn light grew too strong. He was always quick to rouse from slumber. He tasted the smoke on the air, not the wholesomeness of baking bread, but the sweaty stench of tallow and burning dung.

At the approach of a lean, scabby and verminous dog, Toe Cutter decided to move on and try to locate some of his former friends, if they still lived.

The sense of an approaching storm crept over him, raising his heckles. The streets were nearly deserted after the night's debauchery, and the cold town was dominated, in the harsh grey morning light, by the huge, black palace fortress, like a brooding volcano, waiting to rian death upon the citizans, and the warrior made out that the battlements were decordated with the hanging ornaments of severed body parts about which birds clustered for their breakfast. A sooty darkness seemed to cling to everything issuing from the smoky palace.

The brandy had dried Toe Cutter's mouth, and his stomach grumbled and wined for sustenance. While carion birds grew fat men grew lean in Orctos.

"You there," a strident voice from the upper storey of a house cut through his thoughts. "Are you a sword for hire?"

"I am," said Toe Cutter, "but at the minute I am hunting breakfast."

"I need a bodyguard. Will you listen to my proposal? And for listening you may have breakfast with me, whether you take the job or no."

Toe Cutter could see no harm in it. The man was a slack jowled merchant of declining years, not a warrior, and he would have wholesome food behind the padlocks of his manse. Toe Cutter assented. The merchant's head disappeared from the window. As Toe Cutter watched he thought he saw a second figure at the window, standing further back in the shadows - a young and handsome man who stared placidly down into his eyes. Then the clank of the outer-gate being opened distracted him from the boy, and he entered the house.

When a large plate, heavy with food, was laid before the merchant and his guest, the merchant began his bargain:

"My name is Avathool-Chan and I am one of the master guildsmen of this city. It was my forebears who founded this city and worked the mines and smelted the metals. My blood is as noble as any in the palace, but I care more for profit and loss than I do for gods. I have let another branch of the family take the title and the obligations it demands.

"However, I do still have obligations as guildmaster, and one was to provide a levy for the army King Ashfall ordered raised a scant two days ago. Having no others to offer, I was obliged to place my own bodyguards among the militia who marched against the invaders. Now I have news that both armies were destroyed and that barely and handful of men survived. Some citizens have seen this as an opportunity to attack defenseless houses. Therefore I am in desperate need of a guard to protect my house and family."

"Your family?"

"My wife, and my son and heir. My son is young and fit, but he cannot defend the whole house from a mob. I am thinking that you are well used to close and bloody combat - do not take offense! But why else would a man hang such particular trophies about his neck?"

"And suppose I now took my ax and worked my way through your house?"

"Then I would have to say my skills as a salesman have rusted."

Toe Cutter laughed heartily. He felt the crossbow bolt pointed at his back as surely as if it were poking into his ribs. No doubt the son was on the other end of it.

"I paid six men two coins a week each; I offer you six coins as I feel you are worth three men."

It was handsome money, but it was too much for a bodyguard, even one who had to protect a large property alone. Surely they were not trying to buy his loyalty? So, they planned to use him for some unguessed at task beyond that of a guard! If they were to use him then it was not enough money. And clearly he expected to haggle.


"I cannot."

Toe Cutter rose to his feet and turned to leave.

"Your skill at bargaining is poor," the merchant said mater-of-factly and raised his wine glass to his thin, pale lips.

"Not so poor. Twelve or nothing. I'll get work somewhere else. I can always defend myself."

Toe Cutter's arm shot out toward the wall. It connected with the crossbow which just protruded through a small apiture in the wall. Gripping the crossbow he pulled it forwards. A loud thump proclaimed that something had collided with the other side of the wall. The crossbow couldn't quite fit through the hole, so Toe Cutter took the bolt from it and let the weapon drop.

"I could even sell this information to your rivals and join the team which raids this place," Toe Cutter continued as if nothing untoward had just taken place.

Instantly the door opened and the young man entered, angrily. Blood trickled from his nose, a deep red river traversing his bronzed skin. Brilliant green eyes sparked with hate for Toe Cutter. But he was wise enough not to succumb to his anger, but insted he glowered at the shabby warrior.

"That demonstation has proved you worthy of the twelve coins. I accept your service," the old man said, quietly, with a hint of amusement. "May I introduce my son, Sathlath-Chan, who, I fear, is more of a sorcerer than a warrior."

So, thought Toe Cutter, was it this lad who had summoned him over half the world?

Chapter 5. Uadroma (Boyd Pearson)

Dawns stealthy egress in to the blackened tower broke Uadroma's fitful slumber; Its ruddy light barely warming her skin. While her fellow get-slaves slumbered, she lay awake, listening. Through the chintz curtains of the Laur-lamma harem, she could hear the waking sounds of the street below. Merchants plying their wares - sex, slaves and the other stable gluttonies of Orctos. While no individual voice reached her ears, she was aware of the elevated hum of speculations upon the events recently passed.

Her swollen belly made rising an effort, but with the dream's memory still sharp in her mind, she felt safer on her feet. Walking to the balcony, as was her morning habit, she noticed ropes tied to the railing. Looking down she could see a man suspended in a harness scrubbing furiously at the towers aeon stained masonry. But before the unusual site could be mused upon, breakfast arrived.

Uadroma ate alone, not being one for the idle prattle that her imposed companions mistook for conversation. She watched the former rural peasantry and urban riffraff eat and laugh as if their present situation was no hardship at all. Perhaps, for them it was not, she thought - food and lodging in return for "servicing" the men. Of course there were the bruises, and the disappearances - three to four girls a year. They were however soon replaced by virginal farm girls, goggle eyed, at the opulence of their new clothes and home. At least they quiet down after the first night with one of the Laur-lamma clan, she snorted to her self, yet still never lose their naiveté.

Soft salty tears began to run down Uadroma's dark olive skin. I'm not like them, she moaned to her self, am I not a princess of the seven atolls of Yumatot? Yumatot lay to the North-East of Cyntrom at the outer edge of the lands that make up Zothique. Uadroma's royal barge was captured by slave traders who had been blown of course in the unpredictable waters of the Ilozian sea. All but a dozen of the barge's crew were slaughtered. After months at sea the ship arrived at Orctos' port were Ganjuth Byraz brought the tall dark beauty to fill a recent vacancy in his harem.

One of the new girls sat down next to her and began to wipe the tears from Uadroma's cheek. While barley a teenager she carried her self with a sultry self-assurance Uadroma had not seen since Yumatot. "Why are you crying?"

"I had a dream." Uadroma replied, with a frankness that surprised her.

In the months since her arrival, only the tranquillity bestowed upon her by the green eyed boy, had kept her sane - that was until the dream.

"Tell me."

"I walk across a floor with out substance, my feet wrapped in pale damp mist. As I walk small eddies whirl around my ankles. My body shrouded in a shimmering white silk robe which presses against my otherwise naked body. It offers no warmth as my skin is alive with goose-bumps."

"The corridor is lined with huge pillars of flame which disappear in to a star-less sky. They burn with the red and orange of a driftwood fire. And, although seemly within touching distance, they offer no heat and make no sound, but bathe all in their cool orange illumination."

"As I continue down the pathway I become aware of a sound. A vibration like a thousand voices calling out in collective suffering. Looking between the pillars I notice cages filled with, rag covered, screaming men woman and children. Eyes filled with immeasurable suffering. But I cant reach them, my feet carry me ever forward. Then I see her"

"A naked black woman. Illumined by the pillars of flame as if she were their apex, or perhaps the base upon which they stood."

"Her face was a faceted oval. The dark pits that were her eyes held a soft yearning, that, somehow I felt compassion with. In the whites of her eyes the pillars of flames were reflected and bowed, framing her bark brown irises. She wore her nakedness with the dignity and poise of royalty. Her arms held outstretched as if in welcoming a long lost lover. "

"As I stepped towards her she brought her hands down to caresses my blotted stomach. They roamed over my thinly covered skin with the precision of a doctor and the gentleness of a mother."

"Then, agony froze me to the spot as her hands passed though my flesh. If it weren't for some eldritch power rooting me to the spot I would have collapsed from the agony. I could not move nor scream as I felt her hands pulling my child out of me. Out it came, covered in blood and mucus, screaming and kicking."

"Her full pert breasts, with auburn hard nipples, were that of a young woman; but the hands that took the child showed the deep grooves and ridges of an old maid. She held the child up and cast a critical eye over him, before cradling him to her breast."

"The baby turned to look at me, its green eyes had an ethereal quality that soothed the agony that wracked my frame. Then I notice that his lips are stained with ruby dark blood, and a rill of it rolls down his cheek. I see more blood dripping for the woman's nipple from whence the boy was suckling."

"Darkness falls, and I return to a fitful slumber"

Her tale over, Uadroma turned to the, now ashen faced, girl beside her. Without a word the teenager rose slowly and walked to the balcony, there she cast a brief terror filled glance back at the still seated Uadroma, before flinging her self at the streets below.

Much commotion within the house followed. Both the doctor and Ganjuth Byraz spent a full hour questioning the girls as to the particulars of the incident. Uadroma said as little as she could, claiming it was the weather the two had been talking about before the accident.

"I wont bars on this window, by sun fall" Ganjuth screamed at his nearest retainer. "I cant afford any more of theses sorry retches to sabotage our lords feast, that wench which thought she was a bird had only just been pronounced seeded. Luckily I have spares"

By noon the work men had already begun. A scaffolding was erected around the small balcony in preparation for the arrival of the iron bars. Iron bars forged by one of Orctos' few remaining smelters.

As Uadroma watched, she planned. She did not know what the dream meant, but was sure of one thing, she must escape the household of Laur-lamma before the next new moon. At all cost she must protect her son.

By sun set only half the bars had arrived, only vice worked on time in Orctos.

By midnight Uadroma had constructed a rope. A rope made by hours of quietly tearing the curtains in to strips and then tying the lengths together. In addition she used pieces scavenged from the less critical sections of the scaffolding. Once completed, she tied one end to a recently cemented bar and lowed the rest of the rope down to the street below.

In the shadow of the street below she was unable to determine if the rope had reached the ground, or if it would hold. No risk to great for my bastard son, she though to herself, as she began her slow painful decent.

As she reached the damp cobble stones of the street a shape detached itself from a doorway shadow. Uadroma turned at the sound of his breathing, so familiar she though, but from were? She held her breath as he lifted the hood of his cloak, reviling his unforgettable features.

"You?!" She wailed and fainted in to oblivion.

Chapter 6. The Bastard Dwarf (James William Hjort)

'Two birds from one perch." Ganjunth was beside himself, leaning from the window. His heart was aflutter, dreading the aftermath that surely would follow when news fell upon Siron and The Dwarf. He debated to himself which of his retainers might best bear the bloody brunt of their forthcoming wrath, and which he might or might not spare to lose. "These wenches, consecrated or not, can sleep on bare floors, and bare skin for a week!"

* * *

Earlier that evening, Montigue found himself in the uncomfortable position of disguising his features with the coarse raiments of a lesser monk, tagging behind Shiron, mimicking his moves from shadow to shadow until they had arrived at one of the High Priest's uncounted hidden entryways into the Palace. Various guards had long ago been enspelled by Siron's sorceries so as to render him unseen and undetectable in this goings and comings. But he was unsure how far the aura extended to companions or guests, rare as they had been.

The chamber wherein they now stood was sparse and barren save for an ornately carven table and silver filligreed lamps which Siron soon enkindled without the touch of his hands. A divan of sumptuous adornment began to emerge from the shadows as their eyes accustomated more and more to the interplay of dimness and light.

"A discreet man of the ladies?" Montigue mused at his elder, who returned the phrase with the rictus of a corpse.

"Of the ladies? Ah yes, betimes. And rare ladies they are."

It was then that Montigue noticed the long dried residue of something pooled before the couch. Its edges did not curl like that of dried gouts, nor spread thickly like the congealed jelly of heart blood. It had the aspect of something else, and the faint odor of things associated with those from the outside.

Montigue allowed the subject to remain unexplored, but changed his approach. "What is all this nebulous talk of the winning the souls of men, the corruption of the good? Of turning them to Thasaidon? "

"Just so much blather."

"You are testing me?"

"Your devotion, perhaps. Soon I shall tell you the secret of the gods. And the secret of corruption. If already you do not know. But there is a matter to which I must first attend regarding the forthcoming Festival."


"Nothing to concern yourself with."

Shiron gesticulated and Montigue became aware of a heretofore unnoticed shelf of disarrayed tomes and papers embedded in the wall to his right. "While the time. You shall find some interesting volumes and observations of mine amid the worm trails. There should be a bottle of unstaled wine there as well."

When Montigue turned his gaze back to Shiron, the elder Heirophant had vanished with no more trace than the misty residue of a vampire.

* * *

Those in the catacombs beneath the city groaned.

* * *

Those in the hallways of Ashfall's Palace groaned.

Ashfall the Bastard Dwarf, groaned. The hoarseness of his vocal chords would allow no other.
Still, his anger was not wholly spent.
He paced.
What had the generals told him?

Merchants and lords were not alone in their fear. Ashfall himself felt its gnawing. Now his authority would be in question. He would have to recruit another army, from outlands, from the dregs and vestiges of Zothique's once gloried cities. And this one would not be so loyal. So willing to lay down torso and sword, sacrificing themselves, tasting the battleground at his whim. Where was that damnable priest, anyway? This was all his doing. And where was that damned bootmaker? The soft leather of his heels protested when he walked across the floor, clinging to various body fluids that inevitably found their way to the tiles.

He foisted himself into a chair at the Great Table, not his usual, but one reserved for a lesser lord. For uncounted moments he surveyed the silent feasting hall. His realm, his kingdom. His showplace. The Grand Chamber was in disaster and disarray. None had desired or dared to share presence with the Dwarf after the previous carnage.

More and more, now, he felt strangely subdued, his tantrums spent. The evidence, or remnants yet spattered the walls. His rage at losing an army had been stupendous. It had the makings of legend. Embroidered arasses and plicated curtains yet displayed what appeared to be gouts of cerebral matter. In dolorously slow fashion like the marching of charnel worms a lingering piece was losing its sticky hold in front of him, and was creeping down to the flagstones beneath.What had he let this Priest talk him into?

Shapes moved at the periphery of vision. The Dwarf was not unaware. The strays and greyhounds, slinking at first, had now grown bolder. They began cleaning more than mere table scraps off the floor. Contrary to his usual demeanor, he allowed their entry without his boot sending at least a few slinking off to nurse broken ribs.

In response to the heavy breath and tongue of more than one of the beasts, someone protruding from beneath a longtable roused from a stupor. The Dwarf weasled out of his chair and summarily cudgled him with his wolfwood staff. The hapless guest screamed in pain. Another swat silenced the nobleman, while the wolf stick howled on and on. Ashfall slammed the staff against the table, sending vessels of porcelain and silver clanging to the floor. He knew that the stick posessed a vestige of sensation. "Silence! Or I shall have Shiron morph you into picks for teeth.!"

Ashfall felt the chill and breath before the words arrived.

"What would you have me do?

To Ashfall, Shiron seemed to float ever closer in his disconcerting fashion. He replied hoarsely to the wizard. "I sent two summons out into Orctos, to find you. Only one deputation returned. My men desert me, even as we speak."

"They did not desert you, but you do not want to ask of their fate."

"The Army of Mutang is gone. Yet so is Orctos'. What now? And where is this Renewed Flame you promised?"

"You have been questioning me again," Shiron glowered. "Have I not told you the cardinal rule of conflict?"

The Dwarf stammered. "Know.."

"Yes, know your enemy. Abide your time. Render him impotent. Have we not accomplished that, you and I? Their army is done with. And their High Priest is where I want him. He is at my beck. Ahh, I have plans for that one. "

Ashfall had the look of one who has swum halfway across a river. Regarding the shore behind and the shore ahead. Pausing uncertain and unsure, only to find a serpent easing toward him through the darkswirl.

"My dreams return." Ashfall muttered weakly.

"The air is full of dreams, and the night full of eidolons."

"No, I dream of her. " The Dwarf remembered the night. The sweet flesh. Not like these whores and libertines and vixens. A sweet virgin. And moments all too fleeting. And he despised anew his wretch of a body, the trap of flesh he found himself in.

" You made promises. You must grant me another night of freedom with your arts."

Shiron's smile was as unnerving as his movements. "Does the heart of a youth beat in that withered breast of yours?

That one night has wrought more than you imagine."

The import of the dark priest's words grew wildly.

"Change me." Ashfall demanded.

"You would not wish to see her, even were you able. She is ripe and ready to burst for the Offering unto Thasaidon. And if the babe is not yet born, then the vessel that carries it and the babe unborn must die together." Shiron's enjoyment of the moment was undisguised. The timing was premature and not precisely as he had planned, but he had waited long for this instant of revelation. He hummed, nearly to himself. "Even now, the knives are kissing the whetstones, the altars wiped with urine, and scrubbed with tallow soap."

The Dwarf stumbled on his shriven legs. "Change me now!!"

Shiron continued to ignore Ashfalls pleas. "Do not I and I alone have Thasaidon's ear? He has whispered to me."

A shudder fell across the dwarf.

"There are changes to be made. Befitting the Honor of this Occasion. Befitting the Breadth and Height and Depth of this coming Sacrifice. He is pleased with our preparations. But demands more." Shiron's breath fell hotly on Ashfall, the wizard's arm upon his shoulder. "I must whisper them to you..."

The Wizard drew close, close enough for Ashfall to see that no sweat beaded the pores, and no hair grew from the skin of his cheek. Tiny veins, like spiderwebs crossed and did battle there. And Ashfall swore they traced patterns in the wizard's flesh like runes carved upon temple walls, bearing secret meanings known only to the initiate.

He felt something. Like a serpent tongue, like a blade dispatched quickly into his abdomen and then suddenly withdrawn. Yet no blood poured forth, no crimsoning of his outer or inner garments. A dizziness unlike any other seized him. He staggered backward to the floor.

Shiron rose above him tall and sere. "Beware of what you wish," he stated coldly. "Now I shall change you."

* * *

"Babies, babies babies. " old Xeon muttered to himself. He descended deeper and deeper into the bowels beneath Shiron's portion of the Palace. It was the oldest and most extensive of the constructions, dating back to before the founding of the City Proper. And Xeon knew it had to have been constructed with hands unhuman.

He had served since youth, and yet he himself had never been given access to the chambers to which he wended. He only hoped he could recall the proper incantation for egress, or he might find himself trapped until Shiron ventured forth to seek him.

The bottles were arranged as he had been told. Babies floating in vari-colored fluids, babies well-preserved, and others bearing the aspect of fish whose skin floated in tatters about them. Generations of babies. Kept by generations of Shiron's forbears. Kept for this One Occasion. Kept for the Millenial Dawn. Kept for the ultimate Homage to Thasidon.

Chapter 7. The Lords of Phantasm (Jonathan Burns)

It was a pale, clammy, sexless thing, that hopped and awkwardly plunged through nighted catacombs where dreaming spectres moaned; and thrashed with its flippered forelimbs, and snapped with its toothless maw, at the phantom masks which thronged its way.

At that, Ashfall was not so greatly changed from what he had been.

"Shiron!" he mouthed, "Come back!" But if the sorceror were visible in this darkness, he was obscured by the glimmering swarm.

* * *

The secret of corruption, read Montige in an age-brown book, is that a man will run for leagues after a dream, before he will take two steps up the slope of harsh reality. Know his dream then, and set yoke upon his will.

"But this is simply trite, Shiron" he murmured. "That it accounts for commonplace folly, I grant - but where are your prodigies of evil in this, demanding the blood of armies?"

* * *

Sathlath-Chan was awakened from an accustomed dream, by a commotion out in the street. Irritably he wiped himself clean, pulled on his clothes, and went to investigate.

At once a great scarred hand closed on his mouth. "Softly, lad, your father bade me protect you", the Toecutter whispered. "I have these wretches' measure."

"Fool, you'll need -"

"'Gainst slaves off the leash, unschooled to combat, thinking the house unguarded! First charge will break the pack; then who'll first face this axe? Hold still, I'll be brief."

Toecutter slipped downstairs, to a door which he silently unbolted, to steps beside the house whence came the mutter and clank. This door he thrust wide, and with a savage roar leapt from the steps to the street; then drew up short, as one who adds a second thought to his first.

For these, ranked in the dimness, were slaves who customarily worked the docks and foundaries of Orctos, and twenty strong, and each armed with a wrought iron bar.

* * *

"You", sneered Uadroma, as her captor's head bobbed up from some chamber below. "Do you think Lord Byraz won't carpet a pigsty with your hide for this, you creeping, clout-sniffing relic?"

"Might have kept to his protection, if that's what you believed! But fat Ganjuth will vex you no more, nor me." The relic giggled. "It is Shiron the patient, Shiron the sure, to whom we must bow henceforth."

This ancient took a key to the manacle fastening her to a carven block of stone; and there were many such altars, encirclng a well in the floor of this wide lofty chamber: source of its only light, a many-coloured upward-shining beam. "You may call me Xeon, and you shall come peaceably, else I shall stun and drag you a second time, and you'll awake in such restraint as will fit you - more closely."

So compelled, Uadroma preceded him, down stairs turning thrice down the well, until the many lights arrayed on the deeper chamber's floor were revealed; and thrice more through the air before they touched floor. Very loath was Uadroma to descend those stairs, for where they ended, the well continued into a bottomless blackness; whence there ceaselessly arose a myriad voices in one chorus of utmost woe; so she doubted not, that shaft plummeted straight to Hell, and stumbled from it in a sweat of terror.

"This place ... ?", was forced from her dry throat.

"None but Shiron's sanctum, lady, and your every night in Orctos, you slept above. It happens that Laur-lamma was built overhead, so while playing Ganjuth's physician it is easy for me to perform my true attendance. But may you please to regard the treasures stored herein, which even I am only now permitted."

Then Uadroma discerned what things they were, that floated in crystal vases, of rose, of amethyst and ultramarine; and clutched her heart, seeing how the nearest blinked open their eyes, staring with infinite sadness.

"Babies,", the aged Xeon whispered in an ecstacy, "such special babies - and your own to complete the communion!"

* * *

In a night of dreams and eidolons, Ashfall came to a stream, and lapped there with eel-like tongue. There was blood in it, washed down from the middle plain of Cyntrom; even the blood of those whom he himself had ordered to their deaths. It strengthened him; his limbs tumesced, his own blood warmed.

The dreaming phantoms drank there too, and became strong and bright, their forms bursting into extravagant mutation: into trees of faces, into confections of jewels, congeries of barbed weapons, of swollen organs, of parts mechanical - into anything, save the key to their own self-made maze of metamorphosis.

Above, Ashfall's sharpened vision now discovered a spot of opalescent light; and shattered blocks in a wall, which once had been stairs. He set himself to climb.

* * *

Even in like wise, Montige read, the gods themselves continue, bound and addicted to that which they have partaken upon the Earth. Therefore find ye out his earthly indulgence, so shall a god be broken to your harness.

"Now this is a large claim, Shiron" said he, judiciously. "With all a heaven of mythic vision to enjoy, what shall entice a god to this dull and wasting world?"

* * *

By simple butchery Toecutter stayed alive a minute, but he was going down dazed and bloody, his only thought for the work his axe did on flesh; when a clear voice rose in chantery from the steps behind him.

Six words, three times repeated. And terror struck.

They had never thought, those slaves, how the rusty spires of Orctos resembled the fingers of upraised hands; nor imagined how those fingers might slowly bend and close. They had never thought how many generations had died, and been buried in the ground beneath them, so that the ground at last was wholly made of the matter of the dead. At this moment, they stared about in dread, and saw the towers against the sky, leaning to crush them into the graveyard earth...

And in the midst of their screaming flight, Toecutter felt a horrible squirming and clutching, all about his throat, and grasped at it with his free hand, and did not believe what he felt. His necklace of severed toes was come to avenging life, and with uncanny malice now locked itself about his gullet and squeezed! In a cold sweat, he wrestled his fingers beneath, and with his axeblade sawed until the thong finally parted, and the ghastly collar flew off onto the cobbles - where it gathered itself like a tarantula, ready to spring again!

As swiftly as it had come, the panic miasma dispersed. The horrid necklace lay inert. A dozen robbers were running up the street; the rest lay dead or bleeding. Some decent instinct made Toecutter dispatch these last before he turned to the house; where on the step stood young Sathlath-Chan, green eyes blazing; and a smile on his lips which transparently asked, Well, Father, am I not a clever boy?

Toecutter threw down his axe. "You idiot!" he bellowed. "If you can aim no better than that, stay out of my fights! Throttled - by a brace of toes! Your father may keep his coin, I'm away!"

The smirk only deepened. "Why, calm yourself, good fellow, 'tis over. You need patching, and strong drink; so come back in! As for the money, 'twas well-earned for such a roaring show, and why forego it?"

Toecutter picked up the necklace, dangled it in this fingers, dropped it, sighed, and went up the steps.

* * *

"No Shiron, you blaspheming hound - never! never! never!"

Montige hurled the book against the wall, where its dreadful cuneiforms yet lay clear to his sorcerous insight. It was a very ancient book, in the oldest writing of wholly human invention, and in it these words were inscribed:

And the sons of the gods laid with the daughters of men. And there were giants in the earth in those days.

* * *

"This art, good Toecutter, I learnt from the testament of a people who once inhabited this island, who used it freely. The secret is simple, verily. In every mind there resides some weakness - fear, sloth, or whatever; the seed of a dream to snare it. In your own, perhaps lurks old guilt for your victims, which set about avenging itself by way of your trophies."

"They could all do it?" mused Toecutter, rubbing his throat. "What became of that race?"

"They purposed to depart into their dreams entirely, and leave this weary world behind. Perhaps they succeeded; who knows? But join me in another toast to our victory."

* * *

She had screamed, she had wept, she had fought; but now Uadroma awakened on pelts of giant sable, the only furnishings there. She recalled that she had wandered in a lucid nightmare from vase to glowing vase: a living babe in every one. Some rightly human; some bearing aspects of beast, or fish, or mutations without name; and there were thousands.

Xeon still scampered among the bottles in unfading delight, cooing and whistling to his treasures. He had not troubled to restrain her; where could she run? Uadroma drew up her limbs around her child, and stared into the dark.

And at that moment, a white paw groped up from the lip of the central pit.

A paw, an arm, a great forehead that bulged over eyes like shelled eggs; a yard-wide panting flabby mouth.

It raised itself whole from the groaning shaft of Hell, this white abhorrence, in which the frame of some titanically overgrown toad was combined with the in-curved shape of the human embryo; and came in crippled shambling hops toward the paralysed girl, to bathe her feet with lolling tongue; while in the jellied eyes was adoration mistakeable.

"Away from her, Ashfall", said a voice of flint and ice. "She was never yours."

Without warning, there stood the master of these halls, tall in his shaggy cloak, and the lines of his vastly aged countenance woven in an hieratic mask. "Great Shiron!" came Xeon's gasp, as he hastened between the vases; and the monster turned toward this figure, snarling.

"I did but lend you a dream", quoth Shiron, "that charged the very night, when 'twas enacted in truth by the lady and her brown-skinned paramour. A dream by which I caused you to say the words, change me, and to empower me to restore your rightful shape."

Such hatred did Ashfall glare upon the sorceror, that any man should have fainted in fear; and he saw not that between his feet light outrippled, to surround him in a glimmering circle.

"But who?" pleaded Uadroma. That others spied on her congress, what of it? But to know her child's father!

"A petty noble, meaning but to spite a rival house. Think no more -"

Then Ashfall sprang for the wizard's throat; but streamers of crackling light burst from the circle to restrain him. The harder he fought, the thicker grew the searing sparks, till he lay groaning, flesh smouldering, in the prison ring.

"But how you cling to your chains, Ashfall!" Shiron chided. "If I made you dream you bedded a goddess' virgin daughter, what is that against the reality, that you are the son of a god? And greatly do you resemble your foresire, the divine Tsathoggua, whose rule was before Man. As you, Madame, do favour your ancestrix - dread goddess of Yumatot, she who is called The Mother of Cannibals."

Shiron gestured about. "Behold: the last of the lines of the Old Gods, begun when this world was young. Now the grapes are trampled in the press of war, and with this blood I revive the powers of a race of fools, who thought to escape into their dreams. At the New Moon comes the Final Phantasm, when Thasaidon shall set his crushing heel on every godling head, so all may see that He alone shall rule the Last Aeon."

Uadroma set her arms protectingly about her womb. But where, in all this accursed city, was there hope?

Chapter 8. The Darker Way (Laurence J. Cornford)

Darkness had stalked across the moorland which lay like a grey-green table between Orcros and Mutang, and with it came a whispering breeze of bitter cold which crept under doors and rattled at windows. At first nothing was noticed among the clinging mists and the shadows, but in time the watchmen of Mutang divined the lineaments of faces and limbs among the wisps which piled before the limestone walls. They picked out pale, bloodless faces and empty hollows where eyes should lie.

Then there came the sound, like the dull clamping of a weary multitude, the moan of the weary. White phantom forms gathered, sliding across the black soil of the moorland. The threads of mist conjoined again into cohorts. Soon, sergeants were summoned from their firesides by the watchmen, and they too gawked in bewilderment as the army of the dead gathered in spectral ranks before the city.

That evil which had been thwarted in life was seeking toward fulfillment in death.

* * *

As the wine infused his limbs, good humor returned to the Toecutter. So, he thought, the boy is no mere conjuror, but a sorcerer of real mastery, despite his tender age. If he was the constructor of this geas then at least Toecutter was the puppet of a worthy mage. He gulped down the last of the ruby wine and felt the sweetness of its fruits succumb to the tartness of the cask. He reached to refill the goblet. Sathlath-Chan watched him closely, and with a slight gloating pride.

"How is your head now?"

"It is nothing. It doesn't even need stitching. Once it turns white it will be no more prominent than the others."

"I can heal it so no scar shows."

"Least ways not on the outside, eh? No, I've known a few sorcerers in my time and the scars they wore on the inside were worse than any I wear without. I don't like wizards. I'd sooner weld the torturer's pincers than a wizards wand."

"Your crude honour is most amusing," Sathlath smiled broadly, showing a set of perfectly white teeth which shone from their brazen setting.

"See those toes out there?" Toecutter gestured toward the street, "I don't carry them from shame or guilt. They came from murderers, rapists, cut-throats, usurpers and generals, aye, princes and necromancers. To any man who asks I'll tell the story of any toe there. I'll also tell if their owners squealed for mercy or spat in my eye as I took it from them. Some of them I'm proud to have fought and beaten, for they were great warriors. Others, I'm glad to have shortened the lives of, for they left nothing but woe where they passed. Some I helped die with merciful haste, and others lingered through tortures I'll openly tell you I'd not have withstood. So this is what those toes are: they are a testament to my days and deeds. If it hadn't have been me that did the deeds another would have been in my place. I sleep at night. Let wiser heads debate the machinations of the gods. Let them ask what course history would have sailed had I lost one of those combats. All I know is I fought as well as I could. To me what's done is done. And if those toes had killed me just then, revivified by your sorcery, the gods would have been laughing as you scotched for own scheme. Maybe my ghost would have been laughing with them. The best I can hope is that when someone takes my life he will know how to tell of my fame as I do their's.

"Now, all this talk has made me parched and my axe was deprived of it's promised fill, so tell me what you've brought me here for and let me get on with it. When I rethread that necklace I want it to be a few toes longer."

Sathlath laughed, "Quite so!"

But before his could continue he was caught in a reverie, like a dog hearing an unheard sound. Toecutter strained his ears. The hackles on his neck rose, but there was no physical danger. Something less worldly was unfolding before the sorcerers gaze. Then Sathlath blinked.

"We cannot go by the streets," he said, and Toecutter was not even sure that it was to him that the boy spoke.

The two rose to their feet and the young sorcerer moved to the door and Toecutter gathered up his axe. When he reached the youth he was entering the warehouse building at the other side of their compound. A light flicked amber shards in the darkness, and as they approached they saw the bent figure of Avathool-Chan hauling up a thick, grimy trapdoor. A musty darkness lay below.

"Come," Sathlath spoke, "there are catacombs beneath the city which are known only to the guilds. We must travel through them."

"I know the way," whispered Avathool-Chan turning to Toacutter, "you guard our backs."

Taking up a bundle of unlit torches the old man descended, then the boy. Toecutter looked around him and the shadow laden warehouse. Having no time for more elaborate plans, Toecutter scooped up dust in his pot-helmet and as he pulled the trapdoor shut he threw the dust high in the air, hoping that it would settle enough to hide the trapdoor.

His eyes took a few moments to accustom themselves to the gloom. At the foot of a cellar was a second trapdoor, little more than a paving slab which the merchant had prized up, and beyond that, a narrow earthen shaft, pitted with cracked masonry blocks. Again they descended, deeper than Toacutter knew you could descend, and found themselves slipping into a muddy cavern.

The torchlight barley touched the wide arching walls, just enough to sketch outlines from the shadows. The chamber was ice cold and liquid dripped and plopped into unseen pools. The air was heavy, turning breath to steam, but it was clear of the stale odours of crowding mankind which clung to Orctos above. Toecutter stared around at the ancient masonry of tombs, decayed to flinders, who's names and memorials had been erased by the ages.

"Where did these tunnels come from? In my youth I was apprenticed to the thieves' guild, and they knew every bolt-hole and drainage pipe in Orcros, but they knew nothing of these wide thoroughfares."

Avathool-Chan looked back at the warrior from under the flaring light of the torch,"Had you shown great perseverance and risen to high office you would one day have learned of them. All the master guildsmen know of these tunnels, and I believe the Guildmaster Thief did make use of them once. But there is a beast which dwells here, a nightcrawling thing which feeds of the dead and on those creatures that prey upon the dead in these catacombs. No man knows what this thing is like — least ways, no living man. That is one reason why we needed your strong arm. If the beast should scent us out, then you shall defeat it."

Toecutter felt that the phrase "buy us enough time to escape" was more fitting for what the merchant had in mind.

As they progressed Toecutter observed the many monuments which lined the walls. In places bones were piled in recesses in the walls. As the walked Avathool-Chan related the history of the catacombs.

"These were built by the former inhabitants of Orctos before they passed out of the knowledge of men, and when they were gone, their slaves became the masters, and chaos reigned. Yet, the new masters neglected their work, and soon the city lapsed into ruin. The ex-slaves drifted away and the city passed into memory. Then men found wealth in the ground around Orctos, and unaware of what had been before, they built a new city upon the foundations of the old. They even used the tumbled stones of that former metropolis, without giving much thought to why so many good blocks lay about. Then the descendants of the slaves came back to the city, and founded the guilds. They remembered — but they kept the knowledge from the new lords of Orctos and blood oaths were made by the guildsmen that the secret would not pass beyond the guilds. Those who have found the secret have died. Do not scowl, Toecutter. You are a man of honour. You will not spread our secret, I am sure."

* * *

King Aroc looked out from the battlements and the silent chill army of phantoms gathered up in ranks in the cloaking twilight. He held his face rigid as he observed the masses, but in his heart he shuddered. One minute the shapes solidified into ravaged bloodless flesh, the next they sharded into slivers of white mist, mingling with their fellows to reform again into human shape and reveal again the hideous injuries of death.

The king turned to his generals, "They do not attack."

"But I fear they will. They only await the command, and I dread to think what devil will be their general. I do not think we will be able to hold them off until dawn."

"Then let us stoke up the fires of Mutang. I think light will be of more good to us than reliance on the bravery of soldiers."

* * *

After what seemed like an hour of walking through the bone strewn catacombs, passed shattered marble tombs, the three men came suddenly upon rockfall which blocked the passage from side to side. The roof support had cracked and given way under the strain of countless centuries.

"This way was clear last time I was here?"

Toecutter examined the rubble, "You must have played here as a child. This has not moved in years. Look, the dust has solidified."

The wizard was silent. Toecutter climbed the mound. A thin, cold blast stirred his hair.

"There is a small opening at the top. I'll see if I can widen it."

He squeezed his fingers into the gap and began to pry the rocks loose. Before too long he had opened a gap wide enough to crouch through.

Toecutter went first. Instantly his senses warned him, and before a torch illuminated the passage beyond, Toecutter had unhooked his axe and was peering into the sheer wall of blackness. A pool of faint light was cast through the hole, from the gap behind him, and Toecutter saw something vast and glistening poke into the out radiance of the pool. Without thought he struck, knowing that an instants delay would be fatal. The blade bit into something solid, hard like tree-bark, which yielded to a fibrous core, and a mass moved to envelope him. Glimpses of long ivory teeth flickered as the mass advanced, forcing him back into the shadows. A bellow thundered, reverberating off the walls. Toecutter almost felt the shape of the room from that blast.

He slashed out again, the blade cut again, warm liquid spurted over his legs. Something like a tail slid into the light, which grew momentarily brighter. Either claw or foot pressed into his stomach, digging into the toughened leather of his armour, pressing the breath from his chest. He pulled back and to the side, slipping past the talons and hacked out at the limb beyond it. Again, the creature bellowed and shifted. Something struck Toecutter's head. Instantly stars flashed before him and his brain slipped into half-consciousness. Only instinct operated.

An arc of light flashed into the chamber, cutting a monstrous titan shape from the darkness. Now he could see brutish craws and glimmering eyes. The light struck the beast and sent fire through its veins. Toecutter instinctively pressed forward with his attack, running the axe backwards and forwards, cutting through layer upon layer of pink wet flesh. Then he burst into an inner cavity of the beast. It's innards slipped from it on top of him, but he fought on.

While the thing twitched in its death-throws, the sound of tumbling rocks came to the ears of Toecutter. He lay still for a few moments while sense return to him. Then slowly crawling from the entrails, soaked in gore, he climbed to his unsteady feet.

"It was waiting on the other side for use to come though," he muttered, as the others descended the rubble.

They gave the beast a cursory look, confirming that it was dead, then looked for the way ahead.

Toecutter kept his gaze on the behemoth a moment longer, then he looked around the chamber. The area was like a subterranean plaza, with three more wide tunnels joining the partly blocked one they had passed through. Four tall, ornate pillars held what remained of the roof in place, and set into the walls between the pillars were shattered sepulchres of pale stone mottled and stained with damp and mould. The most notable feature was a statue which stood upon a pedestal in the centre of the plaza. The head and arms were absent from the statue, but the head lay near the foot of the pedestal, its face turned upward. Toecutter kneeled before the head and studied it.

"This way, warrior," called the old man, as he noticed the absence of the warrior and looked over.

Toecutter came over to them, "I thought you said the guildsmen are descendants of the slaves, yet it looks like one of the masters found his pleasures in lower castes."

"How so?"

"That statue could almost have been carved from Sathlath here, yet it must be thousands of years old. And who makes statues of slaves! An ancestor, to be sure."

"No, Sathlath is no ancestor of the subject of that statue," Avathool-Chan spoke.

Toecutter narrowed his eyes. There was something Avathool-Chan was not saying.

Chapter 9. The Beginning of the End (Boyd Pearson)

King Aroc watched as from between the mist enshrouded assembled cadavers - one stepped forward. He wore the flesh of one only lightly caressed by the grave worm. A few strands of earth caked hair still clung to the purple blotched flesh of his skull while its socketed eyes writhed with maggots.

With the wind whistling though his time blackened sepulchral teeth the ghoul spoke. "Greetings and salutations to my former brother breathers and blood-pumpers at large."

"Shoot it." Cried the King in a fear addled voice, turning to the nearest bow-man.

With a moist thud the arrow slid in to the soft flesh of the creatures chest.

Pulling out the protuberance it replied. "Have so many moons passed that you do not recognise your former spiritual leader and high priest of the flame?"

The ghoul's head rested grotesquely against his right shoulder giving him the appearance of a circus freak or contortionist. Three smashed vertebrae were visible though the flays of flesh which still clung to his neck. Partially Covering the bloated purple flesh was the funeral garb for a priest of Mutang.

"The living have such short memories, and the dead envy them for it. I too would prefer not to recall the day in which one young pup full of idealism and self importance lured me to the dark basement in the Place of illumination, and there, sent me to my death. Too young to die, at a mere two hundred and fifty years old."

"Your nephew was he not? My dear former King."

Aroc began to tremble. Steadying himself on the rampart he whispered "Abocarge," sotto voce to himself.

"Yes! So you recognise your former high priest."

Aroc strengthened with knowledge but filled with questions called forth "But .. How? And why?"

"By the grace of gods and to save your miserable lives. Now let my army in and all will be explained."

"Your highness, you can't open the gates to theses .. things." One of the generals pleaded. The general was an old man, with face encrusted with white whiskers. His flesh wore the scars of one who had lead a century of battles, but even he had not seen an army the likes of the one now assembled outside of the walls of Mutang.

"Open them oh King," the mocking voice of Arbocarge rang out, "Or have them opened for you. The armies of the dead outnumber the living ten to one. And besides, we really do come to save you."

"Open the gates!" Aroc cried out in a tone for many years unheard. Even the weakest can find strength in moments of such portent. Or perhaps he simply saw no value in delaying the inevitable.

As the iron banned, foot thick, gates swung open the assembled protectors of Mutang collectively held there breath. They were the few who had stayed behind to guard the city while the main army marched forth to their mutual destruction against the forces of Orcros'. Only the old men and the young boys, whose offered protection was more symbolic than actual, had been kept back. Montige, after all, had promised certain and total victory against their life long enemies.

At a silent command the army of assembled dead marched forward. They came six abreast through the cities gates. The raised portcullis hung above them like a set of steel capped incisors ready to bite.

Those on the walls either cried or held the heads in shame as they watched such a ghastly army walk in unopposed. Those not busy sobbing began to whisper of Aroc's last act of madness, the one which would doom the entire city. Some were even herd to mention treasonous proposals.

The throng marched in perfect rhythm, perhaps to the silent tune of some ethereal drummer boy not long of the grave. In front were the most recent dead, those who still held the semblance of humanity. Purple putrefying flesh still adorned their bones which was clothed in the shreds of battle garb, from two opposing armies.

Following them, in increasing decrepitude, were dead in their thousands. Their eternal slumber broken by the siren call of an eldritch power. Whether they be cooks, thieves, musicians or farmers they came. Grudgingly but beguiled all had come.

Aroc watched as the ghouls' shadows, cast by the pillars of flame that illuminated the city by night, danced and writhed in an obscene rhythm. The echoes from the skeletal feet of those near the back clicking and clacking against the broken paving stones could be herd throughout the city. Many of the citizens arose to that sound and stared with much wonder and even more fear at the strange site.

As the first of the cadaverous army marched in to the atrium of The Palace of Illumination, in which center burns the Eternal Flame, Abocarge raised his right skeletal arm halting the assembled army in its tracks.

From palace to gate the army stood motionless. Six abreast the eerie army stood; the only motion, that of the wind ruffling the few rags which still adorned the troops. Their collective presence casting a miasma over the still, mostly, sleeping city.

Abocarge, without formality or even invitation, began his forthright march though the palace. Many heads appeared, and then quickly disappeared, from doorways and cubby-holes. What ever the commotion was, few wanted to be involved. Especially when it appeared to involve those who should be, by all rights of nature, earth enclosed.

Abocarge swept in to the King's audience chamber. A chamber usually full of gaiety and laughter; naked serving girls and clowns, now almost empty. The King slouched on his throne surrounded by a hand full of soldiers. Soldiers who stood in two clumps, for mutual protection, on either side of the throne, all wishing they were else where.

"Your city decays alone with its citizens," Arbocarge began his oratory. He stood so close to the throne that all assembled could smell the putrid flesh of his bones. "While you surround yourself with jesters and dancers. A thousand years of folly and inbreeding has brought you all to the brink of destruction. Your a fool King Aroc; a fool in a court of fools."

"How dare -." The kings face flushed scarlet, matching the spots on his poker-dotted robe, as he attempted to rise from his throne.

"I dare," continued Abocarge, "as high priest of the flame by right and saviour by necessity."

"What can we.. do?" The king whimpered, shrinking in to the cushions like a chastised school boy.

"Thinking for a change? Well that's a start. The progeny of my masters must be rescued from the hands of Shiron and that former pupil of mine, your nephew, Montige. Then Thasaidon will come here, to the temple of the flame, and we shall truly see how powerful the black lord of the seven hells is."

"But how can we enter Orcros to perform such an escapade?"

"We don't have to, my masters have another who will do it for us, with out even being aware of the import of the actions he takes. All we have to do is . . . wait."

"Then why all the dead?"

"Messengers and representatives from the multitude of Zothtiqueian gods, all of whom will be subjugated or destroyed if Thasiadon's plan comes in to fruition."

With those words still echoing in Aroc's ears, he slipped into a fitful slumber.

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