By Julio Toro San Martin
Xulthal, the Fearsome Planet, was situated by the dim shade and senescence of a dying sun, in the time of the star-forging races known as the Atudiani Collective, masters of All-Space.
Anathema was the rocky orb to the Atudiani in the dim reaches of space and many cursed themselves bitterly when, by accident, their long ships found themselves within a light year of its noxious fumes. Then they would halt suddenly their ships and plow deep their metaphorical oars, opening their brake ports to let escape in trailing mists their anchoring exhausts. Most unfortunate was that person then, who, after mooring and after libations were spilled into the dark aether, because of tradition and rites of strange sortilages, was chosen as sacrifice to the God Lord of Xulthal, who sits and grins on his colossal throne of black gneiss. Unhappy were the eyes of those who countless times witnessed their star-pitching vessels leave and terrible the mien of they who knew themselves marooned and abandoned forever, on this, the penultimate boundary marker and farthest delimitation of the known universe.
And so, heavy with the weight of years on them did those abandoned, in sad aeons, await in hopeless hope word from the empty skies of rescue. As each generation of star-cartographers kept watch, little by little was forgotten all knowledge of space and was lost the lust of voyaging into elder gulfs. Civilisations rose and fell and the watch-towers slowly crumbled into decay, until each new tale brought forth from beyond by the recently abandoned was met with incredulity and laughter. Always, throughout this degenerative passage, the foul eidolon sat, eternal-wise, dreaming and grinning.
Great with cheers and pennants rode forth the 450 soldiers of the High Emperor, Galahir, from his decadent city by the Iglios Mountains, in the 7th cycle of the Empire of the Crushing Hand on Xulthal. With him rode the necromancer, Vesenthal, and the infamous barbarian from the mists of Calahar, Udian Andkar.
Pale shone the sun on the massive colonnades of the far city behind, when the army stopped and the necromancer turned to his toad-like master and said, “Galahir, High Emperor, your cruel yoke straddles the land as is fit for one of your station, but I fear even these scores of gimmaled men may be no match for the Dark Lord upon whose true empire we tread. Your empire is this corner of Xulthal, but his empire is the full circumference of this baleful and ribbed world. Behold: Yon far Iglios Mountains of vast, nubilous peaks are but the turrets of his walled fortress. Even should your men overpass his craggy citadel, what then? What if the Sleeper should awaken? Evil auguries warn that someday, our All-Master shall ope his Stygian eyes, when the powerful spells that keep this Old One buried wither and dissolve into a mist. Doom is prophesied for Xulthal then, when the stars are right. What if this venture is precursor to that foresaid day? Rather would I listen to him when he communicates to us in dreams than hear one word of his spoken to us from his actual lips. Rather would I marvel at that miles-long, baffling, incomprehensible jester of grinning stone by the mountain than behold his true quickening horror. It is not too late and I counsel we return.”
Galahir threw an angry look at his bug-eyed vizier, while flicking his tongue. Removing one hand from his fat paunch, he placed it hotly atop the gilded hilt of his Friezun sword. Then, gently stroking it, he said, “For long years you have mocked at my indolence, necromancer. Now, when a deed of valour may be done, you shrink away in cowardice. Go back and sit upon my purple couches and drink from the high viands your yellow mouth often scorned to touch. I will go on. When I return in glory, be sure to know your head will be the first to roll.” Finishing, he turned towards the haughty barbarian by his side and asked sarcastically, “And you – do you also wish to stop?”
Udian Andkar’s eyes narrowed into two black marbles as he spat and said, with cold ferocity, “The sons of Calahar were born to plunder. Rue the hour you say, fat king, ‘Halt! We must return!’ Lest I turn on that hour and slit your throat.”
Pleased with the barbarian’s answer, Galahir laughed heartily.
“I fear we will witness many prodigies from here to our fate,” Vesenthal added.
“I welcome it,” the barbarian said. Taking firm the reins of his eight-legged warbeast, he shot first into the wastes.
On the fifth day, with gleaming armours and hard hauberks, the company, arrased in royal blazonries, hilted blades wrought of pearl, battle axes, crested helms, pikes, and heavy maces, rode war-rigged beasts full speed onto the long-dead road that would lead them closer to the parapeted mountains. To left and right of them stretched in unfathomable distances the silent mountain ranges and ahead loomed the tall peaks that legend said housed the Old God.
Legend also said the foul idol of the stars had fallen from black worlds beyond the sane universe and, at its plunge, had cast upon itself huge mountains with its multifoliate snaky arms and built itself a subterrene kingdom, full of the outer laws from whence it had come.
The descendants of the marooned whispered this around broad campfires and dwelt on it when they travelled, canopied with golden helms, to far lands. None knew whether these myths were true or not, since these events were rumoured to have occurred in the long years before the advent of any tongue to speak of it. They could only wonder at the rude and ancient shape of doting gneiss carved on the side of the mountain, representing it, and marvel at its unknown provenance from the perspective of eternity. Many averred it had been deathly old even when the first dwellers had come.
Whenever Galahir thought of the legends, he grimaced with disgust and laughed inwardly at his fellow countrymen’s ignorance and superstition. He knew the secret that what dreamed behind the mountains was not, in truth, a god and deserved no worship or veneration. It was, instead, an evil entity from beyond the skies that dreamed only to return thence again and resume its once-cosmic debaucheries.
Vesenthal had told him this secret, for Vesenthal was old and the last so far marooned on this planet, nearly two millennia ago. The necromancer had helped his ancestors build their mighty empire. They had esteemed his powers, but, most importantly, they had believed his stories of the outer dark, as now Galahir did.
When the High Emperor was young, he would often loaf, a flaccid toadman on soft divans, and often ruminate on the false god of the glaciated peaks. Of all the First Emperor’s progenitors, he was the lowliest and basest and most industrious to vice. A noble thought had he none, but indulged he instead in all voluptuousness and every carnal sin of the flesh and mind, until, one day, total madness engulfed him. In this madness, he decided to blot out the vast image from the mountain. Slowly, he grew to hate it, since he could suffer no other power higher than himself to live.
Past molten rivers of refulgent flames the columned coursers marched and ever up volcanic rocks the broken path took them. Crooked and scattered ghoul-like trees that grew sometimes on this dismal world, bleak and wild, they passed, until a great, trembling earthquake hampered them.
Mighty warbeasts fell. Stalwart men and thick, robust shields and scabbards hit the jutting ground. Some animals frightened into a frenzy rushed into rivers of raging fires and were lost, as beast and man burned and screamed in hopeless mania.
“By the great dark that at all times surrounds us!” the barbarian yelled. “Keep tight your reins and stand your ground! It is said in Calahar that ground-shakes are but the batting of an eyelash the Old One makes in his slumber! I scorn to be afraid of so small a thing! Keep to your senses!”
Bringing themselves to order again after Udian Andkar’s loud command, and seeing no further auspicious prodigy emerging, the army, after Galahir’s order, began once more their hellish ascent.
After awhile, Vesenthal turned angrily towards the barbarian and whispered, “When the time is right, kill him, as we have agreed. Then the throne of the Crushing Hand will be yours. Only then shall we return alive from this madman’s quest. Few will weep for him; believe me. Do not shrink away from this great enterprise that I have placed before your feet. With you, the empire shall once more be feared and not be laughed at by our enemies.”
“I will kill him even if the God Lord of Xulthal stood to defend him, old one.”
“Let us hope we never make it close enough to find out.”
As the ancient and dying sun shone pale on the rock floors, from which fissures mawed and great heaving tentacles and serpentine appendages issued, the barbarian found himself hewing and hacking furiously. The army was now by the first low foothills of the Iglios Mountains. Already, many dangers had they passed and many men had been lost.
As the battle raged outside, Vesenthal chanted alone in a shadowed cave. His hood was off, revealing his shiny carapace and insectoid eyes and mandibles, common to those life-forms of his former planet, Socchid. His long locust arms were curved as in prayer. He chanted over a strange, obelisk-shaped metal.
He had found it, buried for millennia, in the southern deserts. When he saw it, he knew the thing for what it was: a teleportation mechanism, built by some mad, unfortunate soul out of nearly impossible-to-find materials and long-forgotten technology. He knew that only the right words and right posture could activate it. Over the years, he had said every word in every language out of the thousands known to him from the Atudiani Collective, tried every bodily position, uselessly. He had never been able to make it work. More than likely, neither had its original creator. Nothing on this planet seemed to work when it involved escape. Even all the former civilizations, as far as he knew, seemed to have mysteriously crumbled once their people had reached the rudimentary knowledge to begin to dream of charting accurately their knowable cosmos.
Now he chanted furiously and thoughtlessly to escape the battle and hopefully, this world altogether.
Looking outside the cave, he saw how the huge slimy appendages grabbed, encircled, and crushed or crashed against the strange scum flesh of Galahir’s army. The creatures, the god-forsaken races, the descendants of the discards and refuse of a thousand and more far-flung planets, fought bravely and desperately to withstand this latest onslaught, they were sure, from their All-Master. Mindless saurian warbeasts, the strongest and fastest known to the Crushing Hand, rammed or tottered by the dancing tendrils, as vegetable and biological life slithered or crawled, jumped, flew, ran away, or rushed headlong into the melee. Blades slashed, shields clangoured, and weirder noises sounded from things that needed no exterior weapons to fight. Here and there, in places Vesenthal could not tell apart in the darkness, the shambling races and slugging things fled from the snakish attackers.
Then hell-born laughter assailed his ears as he saw the barbarian, smeared in gore, enter carrying a vast, twitching tentacle. In his other hand he carried the bloody squamous head of the toad-like emperor, Galahir. Great terror was writ on the head’s face. Still, its round eyes rolled and its emerald mouth moved unwittingly in nervous ticks, gurgling gibberish commands from its mangled voice-box.
Throwing the head at Vesenthal, the barbarian yelled, “I have changed my mind, necromancer! We shall continue to the God Lord’s lair! I shall rule the Crushing Hand and also be thought its greatest emperor, when I bring back news of the slumbering Old One’s defeat! The woman! The woman will explain more!”
“What woman?” the necromancer shouted back, puzzled. Yet, almost as soon as he finished his question, from behind the barbarian Vesenthal saw a womanish shape begin to materialise. As she floated towards him, slithering, he was shocked to realise the mist-shaped thing developed fangs and, also, sinister and hypnotising, yellow, reptilian eyes.
“I came from sky-flung towers,” the serpent woman, who was named ‘Aesika’, said from her abbey by the mountains. Near her, around a table, set with common food and drink in wooden utensils, sat the barbarian, resting his head on a huge clenched fist and also near her sat the necromancer, deep in thought. “Still, I dream of those towers,” she continued, “reared by my serpent people on that young earth, on a continent now dead hundreds of millions of years ago. Now it has fractured and pieces of that once-mighty continent float slowly on deep waters around the planet – a planet now ruled by a creature called ‘Man’, a creature that did not even exist, whose ancestors had not yet crawled from the muck when my people first looked and took to the stars. I helped rear those Babelian towers in the youth of my world. I knew their first architects and now I am trapped here, as you are, while aeons have passed at home and in the universe at large. The Dark Lord of the Stars has given me the gift of immortality to merely weep like a caged, eternal bird, while he slumbers days and years away. I am tired. I want to fly. I want to leave. I ask again: Will you help me?”
Vesenthal, the addressee, looked at her hard, as if searching for signs of any trickery on her face, and then replied, “The God Lord of Xulthal is powerful. Even now, he watches us from his dark halls and knows everything we do. I do npt know why he has not deigned to come against us, but I do not wish to find out and neither do I crave to feel his wrath.”
“He sleeps and dreams, insectoid, as I have also slept and dreamt at times these uncountable years. He found me while I dreamt and brought me here. I travelled through vortices of time and gates it is not proper now to speak of, to be his slave, for then he was amused by us lesser life-forms. However, I know now he has forgotten us – I am certain! For aeons, his thoughts have been elsewhere in the universe. Like specks of dust we are to this mighty being. When, in truth, is the last time in living memory that anyone has had commerce with him? Those creatures you have fought are not he but his worshippers that fell to this planet before you. He has forgotten us. Let us escape now while we can and are able to get close to him to work our magic. You may never have this chance again, necromancer. What do you say?”
He looked at her more closely now. Realising that she was telling the truth, that this might indeed be his last chance to leave the unholy planet, he answered, “Let us go, then.”
From beneath four dead and lustreless moons, the necromancer and the barbarian saw the beasts, which the reptile woman had summoned, land. The beasts would transport them over the Iglios Mountains. Only the three of them would travel – the rest of the army now being unnecessary.
The beasts landed by thrawn and black trees. Two big, ice-pale and transparent, vermes things, like maggots or inchoate nightcrawlers, they were, with long, gangly wings and two bird-like legs. From their nauseous mouths, below their prostomiums, dripped slime and came unsettling croaking noises.
Once airborne, the barbarian and the woman, both on one beast, led the way.
Peaks and valleys passed before them and still larger peaks of mountains and lesser volcanoes loomed. Wind blew threateningly.
Soon, Vesenthal thought he could touch the four moons of Xulthal. Below him and above him was only darkness and then he saw the tallest apogee of the mountains.
“Look,” Aesika said to the barbarian. “Who is that who sits and slumbers?” She then laughed. She pointed at this zenith to show how, directly below it, was carved the gargantuan form of the Lord of the Planet on its throne of black gneiss, with its many snakish arms and body stretching thousands of miles downwards.
Vesenthal shut his eyes in fear as the thing’s huge top loomed before him and then vanished as the worm-bird flew over and past the tallest peak.
“Such a large image could not have been sculpted by mortal hands,” Udian Andkar said.
The woman from behind him answered, “No, darling, only his gigantic ancient priests, who perform his secret rites under the ground, could have done such a wonder.”
Passing the highest summits, they saw now how peaks of smaller mountains awaited them, curiously placed as if in a circular pattern, like living earth walls.
Atop three of those mountain peaks, the worms circled and dropped their riders, each vast distances apart, and then flew away. The three humanoids were placed in a triangular pattern on the circle of mountains.
Not the wastes, thought Vesenthal, of this fearsome and always-savage world of Xulthal, with life flitting and death near, of mostly rocky terrain, molten and hot and – in places – demon cold, of few comforts, small oceans, raging weathers and frightful fears, and illumed by the cold light of a dim star, could strike his heart with such tremors as now he felt, atop these dark-wooded, desolate, rock-ribbed steeps.
Below him, he knew not how far the abysses plummeted. Above him, the stars and moons seemed bigger and bloated.
He knew that somewhere, in the far black mountains, like dots connecting a triangle, the barbarian and the woman stood atop their own blasted pinnacles.
Near him was a stool of stone, butting against the pine-bending winds that blew from the gaping chasm.
With growing trepidation, he soon listened to the sorcerous woman say, “Do not be alarmed that you can hear me across these tremendous distances. The technology of the Elder Ones was such that even the Atudiani Collective would marvel at it. Those stone markers that you see, inscribed with strange hieroglyphs of an antique world, are the high places from which the long-gone Elder Ones first grabbed and imprisoned the Lord of Xulthal and pulled him forcefully from the stars. Step at my word on top of them quickly to see and marvel at what happens. But do not step off them at any time, for then the spell will be broken and all shall be lost.” Then she commanded forcefully, “Step on the jut of stone now!”
Vesenthal did so, with blood beating fast, and instantly felt dizzy. The world seemed to move, the wind blew harder, strange buzzing noises assailed his ears. From the fathomless pit between the circle of mountains, a light of various colours shot out and engulfed them all. The distances seemed to – and yet, at the same time, did not – come together. He could see Udian Andkar and the female serpent where they were on their own obsidian stones. The great spiralling mountains encircled him, yet with this new distortion of vision, he could see them clearly, vast and yet near. Then, from the profundity of the abyss, he saw a great storied throne emerge, whose towering crest touched the sky, on it sitting the eidolon of horror, its zenith touching the stars.
Such a monstrous thing, the necromancer thought, as he looked up. It was higher than a mountain, was undefeatable by insects such as they were. He regretted now his foolhardy decision and wept at his certain death. Indeed, the throne and the creature on it dwarfed the tallest peak. It was a miles-long hologram.
“See that I was right!” he heard Aesika scream gloatingly. “He sleeps and pays no heed to us at all!”
The necromancer was shaken out of his fear by these words. Slowly, hope crept back into his heart, as, with each passing moment, the figure on the throne remained idle and aloft of any mundane occurrence. It was a king of eternity and its thoughts dwelt only in those spheres.
“Now, necromancer!” the abbess yelled urgently. “Place the teleportation mechanism by the Sleeper!”
Vesenthal was now wide awake to the plan they had agreed on. He did not know if it would work, but, with vital and renewed hope, he placed all doubt aside. The woman had said she had fixed the mechanism. Even though they had not tested it, out of the faintest fear its power might attract the Old One’s notice before they had a chance to use it, now with confidence in the woman, the necromancer moved to place the object in front of the Sleeper. The woman had said that what the entity’s devilish image felt likewise affected the Sleeper under the planet. They hoped that the teleportation mechanism, enhanced by the cosmic powers of the old builders of the prison, would teleport the beast far from them.
Magically, as he moved his hands closer to the abyss, they grew distortedly bigger. Even though he remained the same size, his hands and the object grew huge and became a part of the hologram, scaled so that the object looked what it would be like if it were an imp-sized thing by a throne.
Amazed, he took his hands away. They shrank to normal size. He then began to modulate his voice and say the words they had all agreed would activate the mechanism.
But nothing happened.
Except for the first movement of the Dark One on his throne.
Then, frenzied, the barbarian took his heavy sword out of its sheath, panther-quick, and heaved his arms in an arc so that its cutting edge might cleave the monster by its top. The sword grew massively large, because of a distortion of vision and matter, while it swung ever forward over the great chasm in the midst of the sentinel of mountains, becoming mysteriously part of the hologram, until the barbarian saw he carried a mammoth, miles-long blade in his hand. As it moved in less than a second towards the entity, the barbarian anticipated joy to think it could cleave a mountain. But, quick as he was in his wild lustful rage, the tentacle appendages at the sides of the Sleeping One were quicker. Before he could finish his shout, a tentacle blocked the sky above him and others thrashed before him, with lance-sharp teeth within the maws at their tips, one limb knocking the impossibly large sword out of his hands, sending it careening down the Iglios mountainside.
He looked not at the blade, though, but in awe instead at the flailing, planet-thick limbs, like constellations, which seemed to come shy of brushing against the stars above.
“By the lesser gods of Xulthal!” he yelled, “what have we awakened?”
On the Old One’s holographic trunk, eyes – or what seemed eyes or something else; Vesenthal was not sure – opened like voids in the dark, while he saw the gigantic blade of the barbarian fall. The creature turned its uppermost top, which culminated in craggy peaks like a crown, towards him and motionless remained with potential energy.
His people, aeons before, had mastered words which could command matter for short periods of time. With this skill, the necromancer began to construct an insectoid, a feat which had earned him his title, since the ignorant races of Xulthal believed he, in fact, resurrected the dead. Sand, atom, bark, stone, and pebble morphed into molecule and organ, as, little by little, chitin, limb and carapace joined until a wailing, gumless wraith emerged from the blood-red dirt and stood by Vesenthal on his stone-stool. It hurled itself forward. This motion caused a gargantuan representation of it to form, which began to grapple with the other thing on the peerless throne.
Seeing this, the barbarian, after tensing his muscles while remaining on the stone, with thought-intent also threw himself against the waving tentacles. His hologram hit the thing as a tree hits a solid wall. Hologram hands grabbed tentacle and feet kicked alien flesh as he manoeuvred on the stone. With each movement, the scene shifted before him in impossible views, while his representation fought. He saw, inexplicably, both through his own eyes and through his hologram’s eyes. Mountaintops moved from north to south, coalescing then separating from each other. First, he was in front of the thing, then in back, then on top, bigger than a moon. So, the fight went on, as the serpent woman also joined in, wielding a dagger with which she tried to stab the monstrosity.
The two males and the female fought bravely until flashes of extreme energy hit them where they stood and their battling images crumbled. A power held them to the stone, paralysed, while the shadowed entity on the throne, now undisturbed, stretched its many tentacle arms into the sky and began to spin them. Helplessly, witnessing forces they did not understand, the three felt and saw as wind coalesced above the tentacles. Air as wind swept past them, drawn like a magnet, and trees and detritus were pulled towards the epicentre, while clouds also closed in and spun, and great lights tore the black sky above. The mountains rumbled and shook while a massive whirlpool or maelstrom formed above them all and the thing on the throne sat in massive splendour, connecting earth with the heavens now opened, within whose spinning was reflected an alien sky.
Then they felt in non-sounds, yet knew it was happening somehow, a great laughter from the god. With it, only now did the three come to ultimately respect the true dimensions and cosmic power of the thing. Their mouths were allowed to scream as realisation of their doom hit them.
The teleportation device suddenly became operative and flashed a beam, which the Old One drew to himself. With greater power, he directed it out towards the open hole in the sky, as other beams hit the three and they felt themselves drawn into the light. Then they saw themselves above the Old One, coursing away as the hole in the sky closed below them.
Vesenthal, between gasps of fear, wondered desperately while he was being teleported through hyperspace whether the grinning thing – for now he could recall dimly a slit that seemed to grin where its nose should have been – had, in its cosmic power, actually granted them their escape. But then he remembered from legends how even its pleasing rewards were monstrous and alien. So, he screamed more.
And screamed he still as his mind melted and was lost in the mind of a dumb sea-beast on a far planet of water.
The serpent woman, whether in reward or punishment she never knew, found herself alone in hyperspace, in which for aeons she would float, not knowing either light or rest.
And as for Udian Andkar, he, years later, proud and battle-scarred and the first High Emperor of the Atlanteans on a planet named ‘Earth’, sat on a throne in glory by a wide ocean, with white-and-black hair falling over his face. He wondered thoughtfully at his life and at the strange enigmatic turns it had taken. He thought also of his former companions on Xulthal and if they had been as fortunately rewarded as he. It was a reward he was granted, he was sure, not because of laws regarding punishments fitting their crimes or of rewards justly dealt, but because of incomprehensible judgements based on pure cosmic whimsy.
Bio: Julio Toro San Martin resides and grew up in Toronto, Canada, and has had short stories published online in Innsmouth Magazine and The Lovecraft Ezine, and also in the print anthologies, Historical Lovecraft and Future Lovecraft. He will have a short story published in the upcoming Fungi anthology.