I found the old hermit sitting like a stone in the desert. His skin was grey as granite, pitted by the timeless winds. His ramshackle hut stood between two boulders deep into the great, dry plain where the pale-skinned invaders never go. I drank the last of my water the day before, and I was thirsty. The old man gave me wellwater and dried lizard flesh. He seemed to know why I had come.
As I rested in the shadow of the boulders, he brought me a small vial carved of black stone, perhaps basalt. A curiously shaped pebble served as a cork, and the symbols of a language I had never seen wound across the container’s smooth surface. I gave thanks to the Great God, but the old man did not seem to like that. He covered my mouth with his gnarled, dusty hand and whispered a single word in my ear. A word that I had never heard before, yet one whose meaning I understood. It was the secret name of that which I sought.
Weariness overcame me, and I fell asleep in the lee of the big rock. When I awoke the moon had risen, and the old man was gone, his hut abandoned. I think he wandered deeper into the desert. But he had left a canteen of water for me, and it sustained me until I made it back to the outskirts of town.
The pale devils in their green-and-brown uniforms stared suspiciously at me as I passed, shifting the weight of their machine guns on their shoulders. How I hated them. They were from a land far away, where green things grew everywhere and water flowed so freely that they wasted it. They were the conquerors of my land, the unworthy inheritors of our empire of sand and sun. How ironic that they could never survive more than a few days in the desert, never understand the rules of life here among the people born to this harsh and beautiful land. Yet they came years ago with their bombs and their guns and their bone-crushing machines. With their shackles of steel on our wrists, they call themselves liberators. Pale devils.
When I reached the small, filthy room that I called my own, I ate sparingly and washed the desert from my skin. Then I opened the stone vial that the hermit had given me. I sniffed at its open mouth, smelling strange, faraway odors. A sweet decay filled my nostrils like the thick smoke that pours from a bombed-out apartment building. Then, without another thought, I drank the tasteless fluid within, pouring the last of its oily drops down my throat. A great wave of fatigue swept across me, and I lay down on the worn cot that served as my bed. The room began to spin, and I smelled the distant odors again. I fell deep into slumber.
I opened my eyes in a flame-lit cavern, surrounded by walls of gleaming subterranean rock. Figures of gods and monsters spilled across the cavern, visions of an ancient world carved by ancient hands. Twin braziers of dancing flame hung from golden chains, and at my feet lay the moldering skeletons of two men, their beards and hair still growing from desiccated flesh. Their robes had once been rich, the color of silver and gold, now faded to the shade of dust. One of the dead men held a jeweled scimitar in his bony fingers. I would need it more than he, so I pried it free and took his leathern scabbard as well.
The old man’s potion had worked exactly as I had been told it would. I stood at the threshold of a strange and wonderful place. Beyond a broken set of sphinx-carved doors, a stairway wound downward into darkness. Without a torch, I followed the stairs deeper into the dreaming realm, aware that it was not my physical body that descended, but a living manifestation of my very soul. My skin tingled with excitement in the dream, and perhaps it tingled as well where my body lay on that cot in the distant waking world. If this much were true, perhaps the rest of it would be. Perhaps the one I needed to find lay somewhere at the bottom of these winding steps.
Passing through another shattered gate, I emerged in a twilight realm of waste and shadows. The husks of trees lay about me like the bones of fallen giants. A sweet-smelling wind blew across the remains of a once-mighty forest. Something had crushed this wilderness, and a sea of rotting leaves spread across the devastation like a brown blanket. Here was the source of the strange odors I had smelled from the stone vial: the decaying remnants of a land ripe with death-colored fungi. The full moon floated above like a golden sphere, obscured by vapors of green and violet and scarlet, the shifting auroras of an unearthly sky. Alien constellations glittered, and a stray comet passed across the inky vault, a streak of burning sapphire.
I walked through the remnants of the dead forest, where not a tree remained standing. Shadows swirled from the rotting leaves, watching me with luminescent eyes. Perhaps they were the ghosts of the creatures who once lived among the colossal trees. Eventually I came to a great hill, and I climbed through drifts of grey dust until I stood at its summit. I stared across the vast lands beyond.
What I saw reminded me of my homeland so impossibly far away. A sweeping landscape of dunes. Yet these sands were pale as powdered bone. A black river wound like a snake through the withered field, and I could tell that this land had once been green and fertile, perhaps not so long ago. Like the shattered forest behind me, it had once been a paradise to rival the ancient realm between the Tigris and Euphrates. Now a cold wind filled the air, and the stars quivered as if touched by a nameless fear. I saw a great bat glide across the moon, or something similar to a bat whose body was distorted and swollen beyond all proportion.
I walked into the rolling fields of white sand and saw the skeletons of men and women lying half-buried in the drifts. I headed for the black river and the sand-choked ruins of a small town. Two more sets of ruins sat further along the river’s course, so I made my way toward the nearest.
A thing like a crippled spider rose out of the sand, staring at me with the head of a small child, eyes swollen like boiled eggs gone rotten. Mandibles clacked in its distorted mouth, and it drooled a dark fluid. The tips of its eight spindly legs were the hands of infants. I raised the stolen scimitar as it scuttled toward me with a cry of desperate hunger. I slashed it with the weapon, and it fled across the bone-colored waste, a trail of steaming blood in its wake. I was glad it had feared me, for I was not sure I could have killed it. Yet still I heard its horrible, whining cries ringing through the waste as I approached the ruined town.
Cottages and warehouses had crumbled inward or fallen to splinters, and sand filled the basins of dry fountains. Gardens floundered beneath thriving curls of thorn and bristly weeds, and fruit shriveled into black husks along bony vines. Human skulls littered the streets, alongside the smaller bones of delicate four-legged creatures. A black shape leapt from the shadows to perch on a block of crumbled masonry. Immediately, I knew what the smaller skeletons were. A lithe, black cat stared at me with piercing eyes of green. It hissed at me. I could see that it was starved, for its skin stretched tightly across its protruding ribs. I don’t know why I pitied the poor creature, but I did. I discovered that I carried a pouch of dried fruits, so I gave the cat half a fig and poured a little water from my canteen for it to drink. I noticed the canteen in my hands was the same one that the old hermit had left for me in the desert of the waking world. As I moved through the dead village, the cat followed me like a shadow in the pallid moonlight.
I reached the river, where the sluggish current barely moved. The dock was splintered, and a riverboat lay shattered on the bank. Three emaciated villagers in rags rushed toward me from the shade of the broken vessel. One carried a twisted staff, one was an elderly woman, and one was a boy barely old enough to shave. The stink of death hung about them. I thought of the refugees who fled across the deserts of my homeland to escape the wrath of the pale devils.
“Hail, Man of the Waking World,” said the staff-bearer. By his curious beard I could tell he was a priest. “Long has it been since your kind walked this way.”
“What happened here?” I asked. I hoped they would not ask me for food or water, for I did not have much to give. The black cat leapt onto my shoulder, as if it had belonged to me for years.
The bearded priest lowered his head as if reluctant to speak. The boy hid behind his mother. I knew then that the youth’s mind was not intact, for his actions were those of a frightened child.
“Once, in a kinder age, this was the sweetest of towns,” said the priest. “Peace, prosperity, and wisdom ruled here until…”
I stepped closer to him. “Tell me,” I asked. My eyes commanded him.
He turned toward the river, which reeked of dead fish. “See now the River Skai, once a font of crystal clear waters. See how it carries the black blood of the Dreamlands along its length. See the distant, frozen slopes of Mount Lerion, from whence the river flows. Once the mountain was green and fertile, as were all the lands here: Bold Hatheg and Solemn Nir. Those who survive say even bright Celephais has fallen to ruin. Along the southern river route, the towers of mystic Dylath-Leen have crumbled, and that city’s far-ranging galleons sail no more. Now only the spirits of roaming dead live in these lands. So it has been…since he came.”
“Of whom do you speak?” I asked.
“His names are many,” said the priest. His voice was a rasping whisper. “But should not be uttered. He is the Lord of Endings.”
I remembered the single word the old hermit had whispered in my ear.
The woman and her dim-witted son wept softly now. I took pity on them, and gave them each a fig from my pouch. With such kindness I pried more information from the bearded priest. He told me that the Lord of Endings came bearing the wrath of the Outer Gods, those ultimate beings that dwell beyond space and time.
First, the Lord of Endings came to the monolithic palace in distant Kadath where the Gods of Dream lay in decadent splendor. For their arrogance, or perhaps on a cosmic whim, the Lord shattered the castle of the dream-gods, and strangled each of them. One by one, the Lord broke their bodies against the stones of their fallen palace, and he scattered their bones to the wind: Karakal the Fire-god, Nasht the Wise, Tamash the Trickster, even Zo-Kalar the Master of Life and Death. Lobon, the God of Peace, died on the Lord’s flaming spear. And there were many more whose names I do not remember.
Without the power of the gods to sustain their green and fertile domains, the Dreamlands began to wither and decay. The bones of the slain gods turned to dust and fell from the clouds to bury the land. This was the source of the white sand. The rivers all ran black with the blood of dead gods, deadly poison to drink.
“What of the Lord of Endings?” I asked. “Where did he go when his destruction was complete?”
“Men say he raised a palace for himself in the West, among the Gardens of Nightmare. There, a legion of spirits and fiends flocks about his eminence. They say he awaits the coming of something, or someone. Perhaps he waits for this land to be reborn, that he may one day destroy it again.” The priest looked at me with a glimmer of hope in his sad eyes. “But I see a strange fire burning in you, Dreamer. Do you seek the Lord of Endings?”
I nodded, and the bearded priest smiled.
“Cross then the black river,” he said. He grabbed my shoulders, stared deeply into my eyes. Then he saw the scimitar I had stolen from the dead man whose beard was similar to his own. “You bear the power of the Waking World within you,” he said. “Avenge us, Dreamer. Be our champion, Man of the Waking World! It is you the Lord waits for, I know it. He waits for his own ending. Go now, seek the Gardens of Nightmare. There you must slay the Bitter Lord with this holy blade that you bear, the Sword of Kaman-Thah, whose bones now rest in the Cavern of Flame. Go and avenge us!”
The old woman kissed me and the mindless boy hugged at my waist. The three pitiful survivors wept as I walked down to the black water’s edge. The cat screeched and leapt from my shoulder as I waded into the River Skai. I was careful not to drink any of the black water. There was almost no current, and I could see dimly the grey waste of the far shore. The swimming was easy, but I felt massive, slimy forms brush against me under the waters. Once, a tentacle wrapped about my leg and threatened to drag me under, but I pierced its spongy flesh with the scimitar, and it let me go. I reached the western shore exhausted and lay down on the bone-colored sand to sleep.
I thought of the Lord of Endings as I lay there, and of the single word the old man had whispered in my ear. I wondered if, when I slept here in the dream-world, I would awaken in my squalid room and have to start my journey all over again. But the potion I had drunk was powerful. I awoke from a dull oblivion to find myself hot and dry on the western shore of the River Skai.
The sun had emerged from roiling clouds of blood and soot. The heat shimmered across the blistered bone-sands. Accustomed as I was to the stifling heat of my homeland, this did not bother me. I drank a bit from my canteen, ate a tidbit from my pouch, and began my walk into the West.
I passed armies of skeletons fallen across the sand, both human and demonic of aspect. Carrion birds the size of men picked at beasts whose blood had dried to crimson powder. I walked among the husks of broken cities, pillars of graven gold smothered in the dust of godly bones. In empty lakebeds I saw the skeletons of fantastic serpents and fish-bodied men. Trees stood here and there, petrified into obelisks of black stone, hanging thick with dried skulls like over-ripened fruit. I wondered who had left such grisly totems, for there was no sign of anything living about me.
Mine was a timeless journey through a land of murdered beauty. Had the old hermit traveled here years ago, when these barren wastes were luxuriant forests and plains of golden wheat? Had he drank the alien wines of these broken cities and frolicked with veiled dancing girls between columns of veined marble? The ghosts of dead dreams flickered in the air, lost and abandoned on the hot winds. Whole families lay fleshless and scattered across the dunes. Bones rattled and tumbled. I wept often during this journey, cursing myself for wasting bodily fluids. How long would this endless day last?
Finally, when my food and water were long gone, the sun completed its trek across the grey sky, and a bloated moon rose to replace it. I stared into the depths of its vast craters, where shadowy beasts moved and flourished among cities of lunar fungi. So far away seemed the golden moon, and beyond it the swimming stars of the dream realm.
The strain of an eerie music roused me from my moon-reverie. I stood, staring across the dunes, and saw a mass of dark shapes moving through the night. Hunched, twisted, and clawed, these marchers plucked bones from the sand like a maiden might pick the brightest flowers from a meadow. The procession sang a mournful song of low pitch and deep timbre, a dirge that chilled me to the bone. It called me toward the grotesque marchers. I walked toward the singers on numb feet as the chill of night sank deep beneath my skin.
Beneath the murky melody of their song I heard again the words of the bearded priest: “Avenge us! Avenge us!” I heard, too, the forbidden word the old hermit had whispered into my ear back in the waking world.
The marchers stared at me with phosphorescent eyes. Many wore tattered robes like shrouds robbed from graves. Their faces were the heads of great worms, eyeless and dominated by mewling, dripping mouths lined with yellow fangs. Others stood taller than a man, yet were bent and terribly malformed. Their apish arms and giant hands plucked skulls from the sand and stuffed them into ragged sacks. Still others in the procession were lovely skeletons wearing the crowns of ancient empires. The flames of forgotten sorceries burned in sockets that living eyes had long abandoned.
In their midst, borne on a palanquin of dried skin hoisted by hulking, headless demons, sat a bloated entity wrapped in silvery silks. From the deep shadows of its hood, crimson tendrils snaked and waved like the feelers of an insect. These appendages seemed to conduct the procession in its somber song. When the hooded face, thankfully hidden from my sight, turned toward me, silence replaced the weird melody.
My hand went to the hilt of the scimitar. It seemed the spell of the music was broken. I expected the bone-gatherers to leap upon me, to tear me limb from limb and throw my bloodied pieces into their bulging harvest bags. Yet the thing on the palanquin merely quivered its scarlet tendrils at me in some curious pattern, and the lesser creatures motioned me to follow them across the cold sands. As they picked up their low song again, I found myself trailing behind them. Phantoms swirled about us as we walked, moaning in accompaniment with sad harmonies.
The procession topped a high dune, and the moonlight showed an expanse of dark vegetation. Stooping willows waved in the absence of wind. Enormous blossoms lifted their stamens to the light of the winking stars. Winged clusters of barbed flesh flitted through the air like desert bats. The great oasis did not smell of leaf and petal, but reeked of musty tombs. In the center of the valley stood a fantastic palace carved from massive blocks of ruby, emerald, opal, and beryl. It gleamed like a castle of Heaven, surrounded by the waving stalks of the nightmare gardens, and it sparkled with the refracted light of moon and stars. I followed the singing bone-gatherers toward its gates.
As they walked, the singers fed the hungry, grasping blossoms with treats from their bags of bones. Great petals closed to crunch skulls into powder. Claw-like appendages reached forth from behind black leaves to grasp eagerly at tossed bones. The sweating trees quivered, their trunks gleaming like mottled serpent-skin, branches waving like the tentacles of sea-creatures. The severed and living heads of beautiful women hung by their hair from the branches of twisted willows, gasping like fish to draw air into lungs that no longer existed. Their bulging eyes stared at me as I passed, accusing me of crimes not yet committed. They wept tears of blood which fell to the ground and fed the roots of the sighing trees.
Finally the singing procession led me to the threshold of the jewel-palace, a great portico surrounded by a mass of grinning skulls. The palanquin-borne creature gestured at me, and the singers divided about my person. Each of the fiends motioned me to enter. Could it really be this easy to find and enter the domain of the Lord of Endings? Perhaps the slayer of gods expected me, as the bearded priest had thought. Perhaps he had guided me all this way.
I drew the Sword of Kaman-Thah and walked through the skull gate.
A vast, domed hall opened above me, where the light of stars pierced the diamond-carved roof. Splendid women danced within, their naked skins all the colors of the rainbow, their veils translucent, their bodies virginal and pure despite the lewdness of their dancing. They swirled about a central dais where sat a throne of black metal. Chained to the throne’s base were several dying men, their flesh ripped and flayed, filling the chamber with the stink of rotting flesh and feces. The dancers moved not to the dictates of any ethereal music, but to the invisible melodies of the prisoners’ suffering, which hung thick in the starlit air. A great weariness fell upon me, and I shivered with the scimitar clenched tightly in my fist.
On the throne, draped in robes of spilled blood, sat the Lord of Endings. A giant he was, his skin pale as that of a maggot. He wore a crown of bleached skulls with living eyes that glanced nervously about the hall. The Lord himself had neither eyes, nose, or mouth. His mighty head was faceless, featureless, smooth as a pearl. His great, claw-tipped hands gripped the arms of his throne. The faceless head turned almost imperceptibly toward me. I felt his gaze despite his lack of eyes, for it fell upon me like a great heat or a freezing wind.
Again I heard the voice of the bearded priest in the back of my mind: “Avenge us! Avenge us!” I ignored it.
I spoke the word that the hermit had whispered to me in the waking world.
I spoke the secret name of the Lord of Endings.
“Nyarlathotep…” I laid my sword at his feet and bent to kiss the bloody floor.
He spoke to me then, in words that no living ears could ever hear.
At last, the gateway opens, said the Lord.
“Give me the strength I need to do what must be done,” I begged, weeping before him. The dancers swirled about me like a flock of restless spirits. They were so beautiful, their feet stained with the blood of the chained and dying men.
You shall have it, said the Lord.
I bowed low, offering my life to him.
I awoke back in my tiny room, a terrible taste in my mouth. The stone vial lay empty beside my cot and sweat drenched my body. I stood, filled with a dizzying strength. I retched violently, spewing sickness from the pit of my stomach.
I vomited forth a black puddle of viscous liquid. It spread across the unclean floor of my room. Again I puked, unleashing more of the noxious stuff. And again, as if I were going to spill my guts across the floor. Eventually the retching subsided. The pool of black slime bubbled and swirled before me. It rose, taking the shape of a dark-skinned man. He smiled at me, no longer eyeless, and I praised him once more with his secret name.
His caress sent electricity running across my skin.
I found for him a fresh robe and a white turban. As he dressed I sent word to my brothers. When it got dark, they came and took him away, showing him a deep respect that came unbidden into their hearts. They took him into the desert, where he could begin his duties as their new leader.
Early the next morning, I carefully strapped to my body the explosives my brothers had left for me. Then I prayed, not to the Great God, but to the Lord of Endings, using his secret name. I asked him to provide my brothers with the great strength he had given to me.
I put on a long coat to hide the explosives upon my chest. I walked down the street to the hospital where the pale devils, the invaders, constantly stand guard. I saw one of their large, green trucks there, so I knew there would be many of them inside at this hour.
I walked into the waiting room and took my place among the wounded and ill. In the corners, pale faces stared at me from beneath desert-brown helmets. Piercing blue eyes that should never have looked upon our sands. I noticed a live newscast playing on the television.
A man wearing my own white turban spoke loudly on the screen. He spoke of striking against the invaders, of liberating our homeland from the pale devils. Of our Holy Crusade against the infidels.
Through the glare of the television screen, his glittering eyes stared directly at me. He was the Lord of Endings, and he announced his presence to the world. He had come to lead our struggle. Now the waking world would know his power as the dream-world had.
I watched his entire speech, sitting alone in a crowded hospital.
Now it is time.
I stand and pull the pin on the device strapped to my chest. As the hospital turns to flame around me and the screams of the dying fill the air, I whisper his blessed name one last time.
John R. Fultz’s novel SEVEN PRINCES comes out in January from Orbit Books (US, UK, and Australia). His short stories have appeared in BLACK GATE, WEIRD TALES, SPACE AND TIME, LIGHTSPEED, WAY OF THE WIZARD and CTHULHU’S REIGN, as well as indie pubs like TALES OF LOVECRAFTIAN HORROR, CRYPT OF CTHULHU, and AL AZIF. His website is: johnrfultz.wordpress.com
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Illustration by Mike Dominic.