FIRST CAME THE DREAM. Then came the nightmare.
The dream came to Jason Tregardis as the fulfillment of childhood fantasies, of hero worship, of a thirst for danger in extremis. He found this fulfillment in his career as a firefighter, a vocation he won, after months of applications and testing and demanding training, some half dozen years ago. He entered into his new assignment as the rookie on a veteran crew of hardened firefighters in downtown San Francisco, enduring the predictable amount of trials and hazings and reservations undertaken against any outside novice attempting to gain access into a circle of established kinsmen. But finally, over weeks and months of hard learning and gaining of on-the-job experience, he had proven himself capable and dependable enough to become one of the crew.
The dream encompassed all of his youthful longings; all that he had revered as a child about the fire service, about conviction and duty and integrity and courage, about being in the midst of calamity and doing something to help, he was now able to experience on a daily basis. The reality, however, was that of course most of those days were filled with an unending stream of the routine – mundane medical or service calls, insignificant fires burning in trash dumpsters, stove tops, automobiles, or in the urban patches of vegetation that grew sporadically around the city.
But the nice things about the fire service was that at any moment the routine could burst apart by moments of sheer exhilaration – when the mundane became the massive. Huge warehouse fires, cliffside rescues of careless adventurers, the rare medicals when Jason recognized the spark of life glinting back into the eyes of a flatliner after intense minutes of CPR. These were the moments he lived for – when Jason Tregardis, firefighter, truly made a difference. Those are the moments he could call his own, that allowed him to go home proud and fulfilled and confident. He loved the fact that when he went to work, absolutely anything could happen. He wouldn’t want it any other way.
But that was before the nightmare. It had landed on him hard during the most recent interruption of the mundane by the massive. Two nights ago there was a terrific fire in a row of shops and apartments that went horribly, awfully wrong, and the nightmare had seized Jason Tregardis the same way the smoke and flames from that fire had gripped his partner, firefighter Devan Farnsworth, and burned the life out of him in an immense inferno of heat and flames.
Jason had barely escaped himself, his sense of direction stifled by the blinding smoke and the unusual maze-like confines of the curio shop in which he and Devan had been waging an unsuccessful interior attack against an inferno of far greater malevolency than they or their Captain had at first realized. Jason had witnessed Devan being swallowed up by a sudden, massive eruption of thick, undulating smoke and soul-piercing heat, and then, as that same oscillating mass of roiling smoke and licking flame had come after him, Jason had found a window and dove through it, barely escaping the exploding flames as they launched after him. Together with his Captain and their engineer, Jason attempted to regain access to the interior to rescue Devan but each time that roiling, blistering black and orange cacophony of raging combustion had driven them back. Jason remembered thinking, for a moment, that it looked almost alive.
By the time they and five additional crews had finally controlled and quenched the blaze and they could get back in to retrieve their fellow, all hope had gone, and so was the life of his partner and friend, the once irascible Devan Farnsworth, firefighter.
They called it a Line of Duty Death. Somehow, that placed a higher regard upon it, even though Devan was as dead as he would have been if he’d simply been run over by a city bus on his day off. But, because it was the fire that had taken him instead of some careless transit coach, Devan had crossed over into a unique pantheon of heroes, shared only by firefighters, law enforcement officers, and emergency medical personnel. His life had been lost in the performance of duty on behalf of the citizens of San Francisco, and he would be honored for paying that price. But with that expense, all of Jason’s dreams had crashed in upon themselves, sucked into the same smoky vortex that had inhaled the life of Devan Farnsworth, as all of the rewards of a longed-for career of saving lives faded into ashes in the guilt of losing one, and all of Jason’s motivation became incarcerated by the nightmare.
The memories that floated through that nightmare were tangible only in fragile wisps, moments in time passing through his mind but given little regard in reflection. The moment he and the others carried Devan’s body out of the smoking shop, the moment he noticed the scent of burnt wood – so often a sensation that filled Jason with wonder and pride – had mixed with the unpleasant odor of smoldering flesh, and had nauseated him. The terrible moment of meeting Devan’s wife at the morgue, helplessly trying to comfort her racking sobs until the department Chaplain arrived to assume that thankless duty. And two days off of vague existence, sitting in his lonely apartment and reliving those final moments in the curio shop, its distorted aisleways walled by towering shelves once filled with misshapen objects of uncertain origin and esoteric appeal.
Now it was all ashes. Ashes and guilt. A terrible, suffering guilt that Jason couldn’t shake, and which had finally driven him to return to the deserted ruins of that curio shop. He was standing before it on the sidewalk, staring at the twisted, blackened shapes of bend and broken wooden timbers, crumbling, half-standing brickwork, and a thick carpet of soggy ash spilling across the floor.
The front door was burned off and Jason ducked beneath the yellow safety tape and went into the shop. He stepped slowly through the ash-filled, smoke and water drenched vestiges that once were shelves and counters and Objects d’Art. What he could make out of them seemed more like Objects d’Bizarre. He hadn’t noticed them in the fury of the firefight two nights ago, but now they stood, silent and clear event in the dimming twilight. Strange, stone figurines of lumpy, winged creatures, melted ornamentation oozing over squat, stone-carven bodies. Even without the damage from the fire, they looked… wrong.
The shop was one of four or five shops crowned by overhead apartments that had been destroyed in the blaze. The fire investigators had pinpointed the fire’s origin to this shop but had been unable to specifically determine what sparked the fire. But that didn’t matter to Jason Tregardis at the moment, as his off-duty tennis shoes sloshed through the wet piles of ash and charred wood that littered the floor. He gazed about the place, uncertain what he was looking for or even why he was here. He was absorbed by the crushing burden of his own guilt, the wretched desolation that had brought him back here; as if he were somehow responsible for his fellow firefighter’s death, if for no other reason than he had survived while Devan had not.
He bore grief not only for Devan but also for the demise of his own job satisfaction, suddenly immersed in the suffocating crush of failure. And that, indeed, was the bottom line. Failure. He had failed. By his very job description, Jason as a firefighter was supposed to save lives, and here he had failed. He couldn’t save Devan, and the weight of that failure against his convictions filled his heart with more grief than he could bear.
He tottered against the side of a bookshelf, his shoulder fracturing its brittle, burnt braces, causing several old and large books, black as the ashes into which they fell, to drop onto the floor. Jason glanced at them, then squatted onto the floor and buried his head in his hands, sobbing uncontrollably.
There is a joy in grief, in the simple ability of humankind to express grief through the pure physical act of crying. While it does not remove the pain, it inaugurates the healing process by exorcizing some of those tortured emotions, shedding them through tears and verbalized anguish and the physical outpouring of desperate sorrow.
Jason allowed himself to grieve in that manner for several minutes until he was spent. He spat the tears out of his mouth, took a deep breath, and stood up, blinking the water out of his eyes. The shop was gloomy, the daytime having passed away, acquiescing to the emergence of dusk. The ceiling of the shop and all of the apartment above had been burnt away except for several pair of charred cross-timbers, but the cloudy sky and growing darkness let little light into the shop with its haphazard array of tall shelves and cornucopia of counters.
Something caught Jason’s eye. Something shiny that contrasted with the predominant dull ashy black of the ruined shop. There was a small pedestal standing in one of the shelves across the way, and on top of the pedestal something was… gleaming. But not the bright gleam of reflected sunlight, since the shop was now entirely dark, but rather a dull, throbbing gleam as if the object were creating its own internal glow.
Jason stepped over to have a closer look. It was a dark, milky crystalline stone, a glimmering orb of unremarkable shape but hypnotizing translucency. About the size of a small orange, it was slightly flattened at each end, and it rested solidly upon the small, black wooden pedestal. It was not transparent even though it shimmered with a crystalline depth, but it radiated an intermittent glow that seemed to emanate from within its own cloudy and changeable structure.
Jason was as amazed with the peculiarities of the crystal as he was with the fact that it had not burned, in fact showed no signs of soot or ash or scorching of any kind, even though the ebony pedestal on which it was fixed had been clearly charred and still captured a residue of black ash. The crystal had somehow, miraculously survived the conflagration.
He picked it up and gazed into it, as if his eyes could somehow penetrate its crystalline microcosm. As his gaze bore into the translucent stone, it almost appeared as if its colors, its hues, the very depth of its mass were changing, shifting, growing deeper, thicker, as if he could gaze into endless fathoms existing in the confines of the fistful of marble of rock resting before him. He set it back down on its little plinth, and continued to watch it.
As he stared into the undulating shape in the crystal, he felt himself being drawn inward as the ash-covered remnants of the curio shop and its charred walls and roof-timbers passed away, all of Jason’s sensibilities being drawn into the murky depths of that misty orb. He lost awareness of his surroundings, all consideration of his environment and point in time faded into a sensation of rapid movement, of an increasing forward descent of his senses, as if he were sinking into the endless leagues of some cosmic sea, except it was the crystalline ebony into which he plummeted, body and soul, as the elliptical sphere began to sparkle and glimmer with sourceless reflections and precious oscillations of its own manufacture.
Uncertain moments later his vision and senses cleared, and he became aware of new surroundings. Gone was the ruined curio shop. Gone were the sounds of the urban night. Gone was any semblance of what he knew to be San Francisco. He was standing in a darkened chamber of some wooden structure than smelled of antiquated chemistry. Eerily quiet, only distant echoes of indiscernible sounds came to his ears like the distant moans of seagoing vessels. It was a thoroughly new environment to him, yet even as he apprehended that notion, Jason Tregardis had that foggy sensation again, and suddenly he became aware of a familiarity of this place. He certainly could have never been here before, because this was surely an environment of some previous era. But somehow he knew this place. He recognized its sculpted panels of mammoth ivory and tables of thick, dark wood into which grotesque ciphers had been carved, and he knew he was in the antechamber of Zon Mezzamalech, a student of ancient lore and a sorcerer of Lanamir in Mhu Thulan in ancient Hyperborea, that ancient land that predated times immemorial.
And he understood, also, that it was Zon Mezzamalech who had acquired the stone into which Jason’s gaze had brought him this distance and given him the understanding of where he was. He also understood that the Hyperborean sorcerer had acquired the orb through dubious means from some boundlessly ancient and distant place; acquired it for purposes of sinister intent as he sought to gain forbidden knowledge of elder times.
For a moment Jason feared that he had become the ancient sorcerer, had been somehow sorcerously transmutated into the wizard’s own antiquated self through some mystical magic embodied in the face of the crystal. But as he looked about the great chamber he realized he hadn’t, for he could see, aided by the dimming light that seeped in from a high window above an alcove in the stone wall, the figure of Zon Mezzamalech seated at the large, graven table, staring into a murky, grey crystal that was recognizably the same one that had led Jason on his journey to this place. Jason initially assumed he was only visualizing all of this in his mind, some unbidden out-of-body experience facilitated by the strange glassy orb, until he took a step and his footfall echoed through Zon Mezzamalech’s chamber. Jason Tregardis was physically present in this primordial place.
The sorcerer paid no heed to the sound of Jason’s entrance, enraptured as he was by the crystal into whose clouded depths he was gazing. Perhaps, Jason wondered, that crystal had taken Zon Mezzamalech into his own journey into the past, a journey with which he had no need of his genuine body. Perhaps Jason’s own body, clad in jeans, his department sweatshirt, and his ashy tennis shoes, still resided inside the burnt San Francisco curio shop, staring into the same murky crystal while this part of him that was both spiritual and physical was existing untold ages in the past, in a small town named Lanamir in the upper reaches of Mhu Thulan in northern Hyperborea, that ancient land of the far north that had passed into legend numberless millennia before the first Ice Age.
Zon Mezzamalech being unresponsive before the crystal, Jason walked out of the wizard’s chambers and into his living quarters, passing shelves of archaic, ancient books that brought to mind some of those he’d knocked off the ashen shelves of the curio shop. Here, they were shrouded in dust rather than ash, although layers of fingerprints marred the dust on their spines, as if, although residing on these shelves for many years, they had been frequently and repeatedly examined. Jason glanced at the titles, but could make little sense of them…. The Book of Eibon, Ruminations of Nyolothep, Pnakotic Manuscripts… names that although unfamiliar to him filled him when he read them with an terrifically unsettling dread, as if they contained portals and portends of awful and archaic truths.
Leaving them on their shelves, he passed through the anteroom, opened the front door, and stepped out into the streets of Lanamir.
The city was a maze of cramped stone structures, braced with wood and black brick. A pair of oblong stone basins were situated in the center the street, filled with water as though serving as a trough for thirsty animals and men alike. It was dark but decidedly hot, the very antithesis of what this antediluvian country would endure in the coming centuries of glacial domination. There seemed to be little sense to the organization of streets and alleyways, and no distinction between public buildings and private. Many of the buildings seemed to take on unusual angles and dimensions if he looked at them too long, as if he were staring at them through a distorted lens that was being slightly tilted or revolved. There were few people about, and most whom he saw were cloaked or robed and wore unpleasant expressions beneath low-brimmed hats, hoods, or ruffled, wiry hair. These denizens of Lanamir paid Jason little heed as he strode about the dusty, darkening streets.
He wasn’t sure where he was going, but something compelled him to stray from the house of Zon Mezzamalech just as his growing fascination with this ancient place compelled him onward. Each corner proffered a new view of the most impossibly distorted construction, as if emanating outward from the sorcerer’s house the surrounding architecture by degrees grew steadily more perverse and irregular. At the same time, the populace increased the further away he strode from the house of Zon Mezzamalech.
The windows and doors of most habitations he passed were closed or else their recesses too dark to discern any detail. But he soon came upon an open shop whose front edifice had been drawn back to reveal displays of a great variety of items both curious and profane. Jason stared at one shelf that contained what first brought to mind the shadowy crystal into which his gaze has brought him to this place. But on further inspection he found that they were not crystals but small carven figurines, graven from some earthy black stone. He was instantly reminded of the carven trinkets he’d seen in the ruins of the curio shop. The majority of the minute statuettes here captured the same likeness, that of a crouching, toadlike figure whose furred, hunched back sprouted a pair of folded wings, like that of a bat. Its carven face was given to the most unpleasant and malevolent expression one could convey upon an image of stone.
Something vaguely recognizable, or familiar, passed over him as he stared at the face of the figure, and its tiny carved eyes seemed to bore directly into his own. He lost awareness of the shopfront and its surrounding buildings while the shape of that iniquitous toadlike face loomed larger, exuding a volume of thick, black smoke that poured into his lungs while a growing cacophony of shrieks began to resonate loudly in his ears.
Jason looked up, and the choking smoke and throbbing dissonance dissolved and he could once more see the shopfront, and the figures displayed on the shelf. A coarsely wrinkled and vastly aged man stood behind the countertop, indicating the figurines with a wave of his robed arm.
“Zhothaqquah,” the old man repeated. “Twelve flegurs.” He motioned toward another set of figurines, resembling a kind of amorphous blob that looked like it would have pulsated if it had not been carved from stone. “Ubbo-Sathla, twenty flegurs,” the man said, naming a price and hoping for a sale. Jason was staring at the latter figurine and for a moment, he felt the same way he had when he gazed at the Zhothaqquah sculptures and could almost perceive the shape of the nebulous, unstructured organism shift and undulate before his eyes.
A distant cry broke him out of it, and caused him to turn away. A crashing roar sounded from blocks away, punctuated by shrieks and yells. Looking at the surrounding rooftops, Jason could make out a glow reflecting off the stone edifices of buildings a street or two away, and even through the darkening sky he could discern the unmistakable shadow of billowing smoke. Something was on fire.
At least this was something familiar to him in this extraordinary environment. As he instinctively began running toward the location of the fire, Jason began to realize that in this antiquated community there probably was no kind of organized fire service. What was done when a house caught fire? Who existed in this obliquely constructed community of Lanamir to render emergency aid in such a case? Perhaps, he wondered as he turned a corner and ran toward the end of the road where he could see flames and smoke spurting out the windows of a large building, that was why he was here. Perhaps he could make amends and assuage the guilt that had immobilized him inside the San Francisco curio shop.
As he approached the burning structure, it suddenly became clear, even through Lanamir’s unfamiliar, skewed architecture and the belching smoke and the roar of increasingly violent flames, just where he was. This was the home of Zon Mezzamalech. And it was burning ferociously.
The few people who stood on the street all kept their distance, staring curiously at Jason as he ran boldly toward the burning building. He mused that some impossibly potent accelerant must have been involved for the fire to have gained such an intensity in such a short time. There was no sign of any constabulary or local government representative, no attempt or visible method of extinguishing the fire, which continued to erupt with a vast heat. Less than a dozen folk stood at opposite corner, standing and staring at the flaming surf that spewed out windows and the foundry-like belch of black smoke that rose from its roof.
Zon Mezzamalech was inside, Jason realized, probably still lost wherever that crystal orb had taken him. Jason ran to one of the men standing across the street, watching the fire. After muttering “excuse me” in a pitiful attempt to be less rude – as if anyone in this ancient land understood modern English – Jason yanked the robe off of the man’s shoulders before he could protest and wrapped it about his own. He grabbed a metallic bowl he found left outside the door of a nearby building and inverted it onto his head, then drenched his garments with water from the stone trough in the center of the street. Suitably attired in this meager semblance of protective firefighting garb, Jason mounted the stone steps and entered the home of Zon Mezzamalech.
A maelstrom of falling timbers and glutinous, churning smoke raged throughout the room, as wavelike flames eagerly devoured the ancient grimoires and manuscripts and cabinets and shelf beams that had been in the wizard’s library. The din of the destruction was tremendous, the fire creating its own sustained roar, punctuated by frequent pops and snaps and louder crashes of broken timber and falling stone. Crouching low and moving fast, breathing in shallow gulps, his head drawn close to his shoulder – “protect your airway! protect your airway!” came the voice from his fire academy training – he made his way into the great chamber where he had last seen the sorcerer.
Zon Mezzamalech stood before the huge, carven table but he was no longer unmoving and was no longer staring into the crystalline orb. He was backing away from it, pushing past his fallen chair and bumping up against the stone wall adjacent to the worktable, coughing gutturally and holding up his robed arms to shield himself from the flames and smoke that seemed to be detonating from the table itself. Even while doing this, Jason could hear the sorcerer expressing incantations and gesturing with his wrists and fingers, as if trying to ward off the flaming geyser with a variety of antediluvian spells.
As he came closer, Jason realized that the source of the flames and smoke was not the table but the crystal orb itself, a powerful rush of blistering energy with the volume and force of water rushing from a firehose, except that it was of flame and smoke, gushing out from the center of the orb to expand and splash violently against the engraved ceiling above. The area directly in front of the table, including the stone wall against which Zon Mezzamalech stood, was thus far unburned as the fire expended its energy upward and against the ceiling and surrounding walls. Still, the smoke was recoiling thickly throughout the room and Jason knew they would soon be overcome by smoke and lack of oxygen. He rushed up to the wizard and threw half of the drenched robe over his shoulders, then propelled him forward against the unburned wall, forcing him to crouch low and run towards the front room.
They were blocked by falling roof timbers and the debris of cabinetry from the sorcerer’s library. As they maneuvered around it, Jason heard a tremendous roaring sound – far too guttural and animal-like to emanate from the fire itself. He turned back toward the table, where the crystal shook and vibrated as the tremendous surge of pressurized flame spewed out of it. The smoke swelled and rushed at him, like an amorphous entity separate and distinct from the cacophony of flames discharging from the crystal, a shapeless, twisting, pluming mass of particles and expended energy that suddenly opened its mouth and with a tremendous roar, lunged at him.
Jason yelled an oath, pushing Zon Mezzamalech ahead of him and ducking down into an alcove. The bowl helmet fell from Jason’s head and clamored onto the floor. The smoke swelled into the space where he had been, then reformed with a cadaverous howl and confronted him again. Through the roiling smoke there suddenly came visible the distinct features of a face, a malevolently grimacing, impossibly wide mouth set in the smoky shape of a monstrous toad-like face.
“Zthothaqqua!” cried Zon Mezzamalech, again gesturing and succeeding the verbal appellation with a stream of alien syllables Jason could not begin to comprehend. But the malevolent creature in the smoke continued to expand and spew its visage around the blazing room. Jason again grabbed Zon Mezzamalech and maneuvered once more through the debris that littered the floor, this time finding his way to the front door and racing with the sorcerer, shrouded by smoke and steam rising from the robe they shared, out into the street. The face in the smoke fumed after them until, with a tremendous crash of timber and stone, the entire home of Zon Mezzamalech collapsed in on itself, smothering the fire with its own ruination as walls and roof and rubble crumbled into an ashy, smoking heap, tremendous billows of smoke and dust forced out in all directions like a pervasive wake.
Jason and the sorcerer stood, panting with exhaustion, against the water trough in the street. Jason pulled the smoking robe off of their shoulders and let it fall onto the street. The handful of people who had been watching began to approach, then recognized the figure of Zon Mezzamalech standing next to him. They quickly backed off and the streets were soon empty, echoing only with the final fiery snaps and crackles of the final bits of burning timbers beneath the rubble of Zon Mezzamalech’s home.
The sorcerer cast a gaze at Jason, noting with curiosity his sweatshirt with its unusual markings, “SFFD” printed in a large arc across his chest, his jeans and tennis shoes, then looked back at his collapsed residence, and then, oddly, gazed up into the sky.
“Zhothaqquah Cykranosh,” he muttered to himself, and then quickly receded from view.
In actuality it was Jason who was receding, and suddenly the scene before him began to dissipate, as if he were being yanked back into the distance at a rapidly increasing velocity, the rush of wind filling his ears with a roar and finally his vision obscured by blackness.
He next became aware of a cool breeze blowing in his face, stirring the acrid smell of charred wood and ash. He was standing in the burned curio shop in downtown San Francisco, the crystalline orb before him on its ebony pedestal. Its inner iridescence was gone, and it shone no reflection and bore no illumination. Jason shook his head and marveled. The sky beyond the crosstimbers on the roof was still darkening, as though no time had past since he lapsed into reverie, gazing into the crystal. Perhaps he had imagined it all, dreamt his adventure in time-lost Mhu Thulan. But as he took a step back, he realized his clothes were soaked, still dripping with the waters from the street trough in Lanamir.
He had no clue what had just transpired, but he realized that his grief was now tempered with a touch of his old confidence – the dream impinging against his nightmare. Whatever had happened, he had managed to save a life. The sorcerer Zon Mezzamalech was not killed in the fire that demolished his house, nor had he become prey to whatever being existed in the midst of the smoke, whose essence had either been crushed in the collapse of the structure or had been sucked back into Zon Mezzamalech’s crystal orb, back to whatever distant origin it heralded from.
Dreamt or real, the end result was one that filled him with regained confidence. His grief over the loss of Devan Farnsworth had not diminished, but he now felt that his dissolution over his abilities, his perceived failure as a firefighter, were indeed groundless. He took a step toward the door, ready to make his way back home.
And the crystal orb behind him burst with an impossibly loud crash, followed by a outward rushing of air. Jason Tregardis turned about in time to see the maliciously scowling face of Zhothaqquah, shrouded by the blackish, viciously swirling smoke that geysered forth from the crystal of Zon Mezzamalech while the curio shop suddenly burst into flame anew, its charred timbers and walls broiled by a massive wave of sourceless, flaming heat. In a moment he was engulfed by the smoke and the fire, incredible pain searing into and through him as he was lurched back toward the orb, the thunderous howl of the creature Zhothaqquah roaring into his ears as he realized there was a cost to thwarting the toad god’s intended sacrifice, a price to be paid, as the geyser reversed and Jason Tregardis merged with the flames and the smoke and all were sucked back into the crystal orb of Zon Mezzamalech. The orb which, long after the rekindled combustion had demolished whatever remained of the shop and its neighboring stores, remained undisturbed where it lay, now on the watersoaked, ashen floor beside its charred, wooden pedestal, untouched by the dust of ash or cinder, and pulsing with an inner glow that had no source in this age.
Randall D. Larson has been writing about weird fiction since the 1970s when he began publishing the small press magazines Fandom Unlimited, Threshold of Fantasy, CinemaScore, CineFan, and others. His Lovecraftian fiction has appeared in Eldritch Tales, Dark Fantasy, Space & Time, The Arkham Sampler, Etchings & Odysseys, Fantasy Tales, Shudder Stories, and other small press tomes of terror tales well told. Randall has been most prolific as a non-fiction writer and interviewer in the realms of fantasy/horror literature and film music (he writes a regular soundtrack interview column for buysoundtrax.com and has authored more than a hundred soundtrack album liner notes, most within sf/horror genre); he has authored a trilogy of reference books about author Robert Bloch, including a Reader’s Guide, Bibliography, and book of Collected Interviews. He has reviewed books and horror-related soundtracks for Cemetery Dance Magazine for many years. The 2nd edition of his book on film music in fantasy/sf/horror cinema, Musique Fantastique, is due out later this year from Creature Features.
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