Because in formative years I spent most of my time in the jungles of Africa generally finding lost cities, and did quite a bit of freebooting in the Hyborian Age as a reaver and a slayer, the first story I wrote which exceeded a hundred pages began as sort of a tribute to those experiences. Jules Verne stories fascinated me. The descriptions of the caves in JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH and of The Nautilus in 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA worked like magic on my imagination. At the time I wrote OMANDRUIN I was also reading a lot of Joseph Campbell, and was very aware of THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. I've edited the story drastically down from its original length. It's a more innocent story than what I usually produce, and in that respect skews younger. I consider it foundational to the mythos of the Humbaba County cycle. Currently revising the final chapters. Enjoy your underground adventure! You should probably bring a few sandwiches and have some other provisions available.
THE STEEP THATCHED ROOF and low peat walls of the old man’s hut rose in Uly’s view as he trudged up the slick rolling slope. Clouds as gray as the bundle of cold oak limbs he bore on his back gathered on the mountains, and the dark smell of rain was in the wind. It had been some days since Uly brought the old man wood, but he took the chore upon himself as often as he was able now that the days were getting shorter and the nights were getting colder. Cold enough to keep white caps on hazy peaks. Soon the rain would hit, and then the rain would turn to snow. High in the mountains without a good supply of wood the old man would feel the bite, even if he did have ice in his veins.
When he topped the rise the first thing Uly saw was a huge gray wolf. Uly was no stranger to wolves. He had seen them since his infancy loping through the black pines at night in silent packs. In Uly’s experience, wolves were wary. But this one was different. It was alone and it was unconcerned. Beyond the wolf, barred from his home, stood the old man, frozen, gaunt, gray as a wolf himself, his long white beard like lightning in the wind. A shiny cracked leather satchel hung at his side and he stuffed this with all the acorns he could find plus a smattering of fat mushrooms. He had only just returned to his hut himself, and was about to chance a show of force with his favorite walking stick when Uly appeared and took matters in hand.
Uly dropped the load, pulled a hatchet from his belt and made noise to scare the wolf away, shouting, “Be gone, longtooth!”
Spittle flew from the wolf’s bared teeth as it snapped, foam flecking at the pulled corners of its snarling mouth with pine tree-white teeth. Then, just as quickly, the wolf leisurely trotted away, casting casual sidelong glances as it meandered up the rocky hillside. When it reached the top of the hill the wolf looked back, lightly panting, now joined by two more high above that raised their ragged heads.
“We’ll kill you, old man,” the wolves seemed to say with their red glowing eyes. “We’ll chew you and the boy into bits, and drop you both back out on the snow.”
“Not too frightened, that one,” the old man said as Uly re-stacked the bundle. “These wolves are getting bold.”
For once the old man seemed thankful, and this thankfulness was shown with an impatient gesture of his bony hand indicating Uly was to bring the firewood inside. The old man knocked a chair aside with his walking stick to make way, and shoved stacks of books into more accommodating positions. Books with planets on them, unrecognized by Uly as such, lay stacked on volumes open to pages with arms and legs outspread in the center of a circle, a long scroll propped up depicting a man in flight wearing a unique apparatus resembling great bat-like wings, and a series of intricate prints of mushrooms and their cross-sections.
Uly had never been in the old man’s hut before. He looked around as the old man made a fire. A thin trail of smoke rose from a small pile of ashes on the floor, looking like a little mountain, and wound its way slowly toward a hole in the roof of the old man’s stone cottage. Framed outside in the open doorway squatted a still and silent raven in a barren tree. Nearby, a strange glow coming from an open door revealed a small room, somehow incongruous with the rest of the humble surroundings. Stepping toward it, Uly looked inside.
“Get out of there!” the old man exclaimed. Then, perhaps remembering his manners, he seemed to change his mind. The wincing expression on his face told Uly to go ahead and look inside.
The door was smooth and cool to the touch, made of a material unknown to Uly which emanated a dull green glow. On one wall there was a large mirror. Uly had never seen a mirror, only burnished brass, such as his mother had used. Against the opposite wall there was a wooden bench.
“Such a room as this,” the old man said, leaning on top of the cane which he kept in his hands, for he had approached and seemed interested now, “and there are none like it, has the power to change the world.”
“How?” Uly asked.
The old man lit a pipe. “You have heard of the Host of Darkness,” he said, “of the one called…Cernan?”
“Many times I have heard ghost stories.”
“This is no mere ghost story,” the old man said. “The Host of Darkness is a real force which sleeps. When the Sleeper wakes, it will herald the end of the world. What is more, signs indicate the Sleeper stirs.”
Uly followed the old man outside. “What signs?” said Uly.
“It wasn’t always this way,” the old man wistfully sighed, the gleam of dusk light on his face and in his eyes. “A sense of evil grows upon the world. People are fearful, and filled with more than natural hate.” The old man paused to puff away at his pipe. “Then there are the birds of night that hoot at noonday, and petty chieftains that war. Of late the winters grow long, and wolves increase. They grow bolder, as you see.” High on the hill, the wolves watched, upright sphinx-like heads over forward-pointing paws. The old man eyed the sky in a westerly direction, as though he could see over the mountains and straight to the ocean. Puffing his pipe thoughtfully he added, “And there are other signs.”
Uly’s face took on a faraway expression. The old man tapped out his pipe. “I am afraid,” he said, “I am an old man who believes in ghost stories too much.” He said no more on the subject.
Uly returned the next morning with a load of firewood, sooner than was his custom. And he called out for the old man, but found he was away, no doubt gathering acorns and mushrooms in his shining oilcloth pouch. Uly, being naturally inquisitive, longed to see the room.
Stepping within he found that the door to the curious room was slightly open, as the old man had left it. Uly set down the wood and called out for the old man, then peered inside the room. In the dull green light emanating from the walls and the floor and the ceiling he saw, above the wooden bench, something which he had not noticed before: it was either a helmet with a mask, or a mask with a helmet. He sat down on the bench. From this position he could see his head in the darkness of the mirror. He slid the door back and forth, amazed at how easily it rolled. Suddenly the door shut with a click, fitting seamlessly, and the moment that it shut there was a profound rattling of chains. Something tugged at the room, causing it to violently rock. Then Uly felt the disturbing sensation of dropping. There was a blur on the other side of the dark mirror, and the mirror was hit with a great splash as the room slammed into a body of water.
Water lapped on the other side of the mirror…
The room was moving…
Uly was stunned to find he was being carried away in an underground river!
Frantically he searched for a way out. He tried to open the door and a voice appeared behind him:
“Be careful, Uly.”
Befuddled, Uly glanced around. Then he looked at the mask on the wall. It smiled. “You should see your face,” it said, mimicking Uly’s wide-eyed expression.
“What is this?” Uly yelled.
“What?” came the reply. “Not what, who!” Uly took the mask down from the wall, as though he expected to see a hole for someone’s head to poke through. The mask continued speaking in Uly’s hands.
“I am called Peykin! A mask to some, and perhaps the voice of reason. To look through my eyes is to see what lies behind all masks.” Slowly, Uly raised the mask to his face, positioning the helmet over his head. When he donned the mask, instantly the dull green glow of the strange material was replaced with perfect clarity, as though the room were lit with clear light.
Uly saw both in the water and out, above and below the lapping waterline. He tried to touch the mask and felt only the contours of his own face. He put a hand to the top of his head and discovered only his own hair. Yet when he reached to remove the mask, he found it in his hands.
“You travel in a boat, like the gods and the stars and the kings of old. You ride in Omandruin, the Drifting Room. You have been given a great opportunity. In all the world, you alone ride the rivers of the caves.”
Wind whistled deep in the distant darkness of the unending river. Massive spires stretching down from the ceiling and up from the water resembled grotesque faces. Waves of shrill pings and pops overlapped as bats filled the catacombs with a palpable shocking shriek. At the room’s approach there was a din of leathery wings as the night fliers poured upriver.
Inside Omandruin Uly saw long combs of limestone nearly reach the river, hanging like an ice castle’s portcullis. A dip in the river added momentum and there was a glassy snapping to wake the dead as the Drifting Room mowed a swath, shearing brittle wonders which splashed about on all sides and collected in crackling heaps up top.
Stalagmites rose below like spires in an undersea city. Peering against the window, Uly saw not the mask that he was wearing, but his own face staring back at him. When he removed the mask, the dull green glow of the room returned.
“What the old man told you is true,” Peykin spoke in Uly’s hands. “The Host of Darkness has many names. Cernan, we will call him. Somewhere in these caves he sleeps. The day that he awakes will herald the end of the world.”
Dark shapes slid toward the window and wavered.
“Omandruin is the cave of caves. Here you need no food. Here you need no sleep. So long as you do not open that door, here you will not age.”
“Then how will I ever get out?”
“Try looking up.”
With the mask on, Uly saw a rectangular outline in the ceiling. Standing on the bench, he pushed against it and it swung back, exposing a hatch. Nimbly pulling himself up and out, he stood on the top of the room.
Uly ducked to avoid a stalactite, flattening himself to the silvery outer surface of the room with legs and arms outspread like a water beetle.
“That one nearly got you,” Peykin said.
“There’s nothing to hang onto!” Uly cried to the mask on his face.
“What are you going to do?” Peykin asked.
“Now that I know I can get out, I’m going back in!”
Uly groped for the lip of the hatch and pulled it shut after him as he slipped down and dropped inside.
“A wise choice,” Peykin said.
Omandruin drifted beneath a sky of stone. Glistening dampness traveling down from the topsoil collected at the tips of innumerable stalactites; on each of these the moisture swelled into a dot; the dot into a drop; mineral-laden drops splashed into the river, and on the banks, where innumerable mounds of limestone developed into stalagmites. Where these formations met their source, columns were formed. Water shadows rippled on the rock as Omandruin passed.
“How do I find this sleeping evil?” Uly asked, looking out the window.
“I do not know. You will have to find that out for yourself.”
The wild man was on his belly, kicking his feet in the slush. He did not think of himself as such, not as a wild man. Alone in the dark, with a rag of filth around his loins, Calab did not question his relation to the animals. It was Calab who was lord. He told this to the water lizards.
“Yonder crab knows his master. See how ill at ease he is? Yonder crab fears Calab. And well he should. What couldn’t Calab do to him, should Calab choose?”
A filthy hand with ragged nails clutched the nearest lizard. Calab squished it in his grip till its tongue bulged, and nipped free the wriggling tail in his teeth. Grinning, he chewed. “It is Calab who is master here,” he reminded, tossing the mangled lizard to the crab.
Suddenly Calab froze. The knotted muscles of his back tensed. He scampered from the bank and hid behind a rock as he watched the Drifting Room approach. “What is this? What is this?” he whispered in a low foul breath.
Inside the room, Uly saw thin lines spiraling down in the water like dangling strands of spider web. He watched as a small fish swam too close to one of the tendrils. Sucked into the spiral, it was pulled down further than Uly’s view afforded.
“Whirlpools,” Peykin said.
Uly pushed open the hatch, pulled himself up and sat down at the edge of the hatch so that his legs retained a grip inside. Uly saw from this vantage that ahead the river was pocketed with whirlpools of greater size. He reached out and grabbed a passing stalactite. Though the current was not strong, it pulled the room so that it tipped beneath him. Uly clung to the stalactite, wondering what to do.
Omandruin was not far from the bank. Between the bank and the room more stalactites dipped, some of which were low enough that Uly thought by pushing off from where he clung he could grab another, and repeat the process until he could reach the bank where the current was weaker. There he would at least be able to catch his breath and devise a plan.
Shifting the room as best as he was able in the direction that he wished to go, he pushed away from the stalactite and readied himself to grab the next one. His plan succeeded; yet here the force of the current was stronger than he reckoned, requiring greater effort to hang onto both the spire and the room, which, due to the increased force of the current, now tipped further than before. The river was close to entering the room through the open hatch. He did not need Peykin to tell him that if the room filled with water it would sink.
Then an idea struck him. Carefully withdrawing one leg from the hatch, he crooked the other around the end of the stalactite and with his hands freed quickly slipped off his tunic. He tied a sleeve to the tip of the spire, wrapped the other sleeve around his hand, and swift as a cat, dropped down into the room, tipped as it was, at arm’s length where he grabbed the wooden bench and knocked a plank free with one kick. He tied his sleeve around the middle of the plank, then positioned the plank lengthwise against the opening of the hatch. The room dipped and bobbed in the current, temporarily moored to the stalactite.
“Well done,” Peykin said. “I would not have thought to do that.”
Through the angled window Uly saw a figure standing on the bank throw a length of rope which snaked over the water.
“I thank you for your help,” Uly said when he had secured the room in calm water against the rock.
The wild man regarded Uly’s offered hand with tentative suspicion, extending his dilating nostrils in a quick sweep toward it, then retreating with a furtive step backward. He pointed to the Drifting Room.
“What is it?”
“Boat,” the wild man repeated, bobbing nervously. “Yes, boat. It is a strange boat.” Suddenly he stiffened as if seized with an idea and barked, “It is Calab who is master here!” His defensive manner, at once both menacing and pleading, reminded Uly of a hand-shy dog. Encouraged that this statement went unchallenged, Calab added, “All of this, everything, Calab is master! You will come to Calab’s home where Calab lives. Calab saved you! Calab let you use the rope. You owe! You will be Calab’s guest.”
Loathe to turn away in fear, Uly followed the wild man to his lair. He remained on his guard, marveling at the wild man’s repulsive strength as he padded through the crannies on his naked feet.
“It is dark,” Calab coaxed, glancing back continually at Uly. “Come, come, Calab has a torch in his home. A torch for lighting.” Well it was, Uly knew, that through Peykin’s eyes he had the advantage. For all his familiarity with his haunts, Calab groped practically blind in the pitch-black gloom removed as they were from the dull shimmer of the river.
They came to a cave strewn with filth and bones. “A torch,” Calab coaxed, “come in, come in, I will find a torch for lighting.” The gleam on Calab’s sightless face as he fished in the dark toward a pile of rubble did not go unnoticed by Uly. His own eyes rested on incongruous objects commingled with the refuse. Halberd, jerkin, buckler, sword, sundry chests. Comforted with his advantage, Uly dropped his guard for but a moment, taking in these treasures, and in that moment he was met with a resounding blow struck from behind to the top of his head, or rather on his helmet. Such was the protection that the wondrous mask called Peykin afforded that the blow glanced harmlessly, clanging as though it had struck an anvil.
In a flash Uly turned and smote the wild man with all the strength of his young fist on the side of the face. The blow sent him sprawling. Dazed, Calab apologized, even as he groped for the huge bone that had been knocked from his hands at the impact of the buffet. Uly saw the wild man’s hand as it lucked onto a rusted hilt and a battered blade rose from a heap of grime. Calab gained his feet. Hefting a squat iron-bound trunk with both hands over his head, Uly heaved it with a grunt full into the brutish chest of his treacherous host, flattening him in a dazzling spray of blood and gems. Uly wrenched the sword from Calab’s grip where he lay gasping his last. A swift stroke ended his misery. The head rolled into a heap of bones and bumped into the skull of some hapless guest from a bygone day.
The wavering aurora hung like a nimbus over the pool. Groundwater slid down rim stone dam stair pools. Honeycombs streamed. The sisters of the crystal lake laughed lazily as they went about their languid ministrations, and their laughter was like the musical murmur of the trickling rivulets that replenished the water’s gentle flow.
“I will race you to the pools below the mountains which flash firelight.”
“Come with me instead to where the course extends wide beyond the brooklets. There new forests grow.”
“Nay, all! Look at the cave-mist rising from the river that feeds the lake. Let us thread the mist through the spires!”
Slowly the Drifting Room appeared.The sisters of the crystal lake scattered on light feet, hiding in the gypsum flower and behind the splashing springs.
Uly emerged from the hatch encrusted with the mire of the wild man’s lair and traces of gore that remained from the recent battle. Slipping into the water, he maneuvered the room to the edge of the lake, then sat down on a rock and stretched his limbs. The exhaustion of his efforts had caught up with him. It had been no easy task to haul the room around the whirlpools. More than once the slimy banks had afforded so little purchase that he was very nearly dumped into the funneling drink, but with one hand wrapped with the wild man’s rope and the other clawing at the rock, inch by inch he pulled the room, cursing the vortexes until they were well beyond his sight and he resumed his venture in the craft.
Outside the room, Uly was famished. Yet though a growing hunger gnawed, the thought of meat seemed unappealing. He scrubbed dried blood from an otherwise excellent appropriated blade with his tattered tunic.
“I never killed a man before,” Uly glumly lamented. “Killing is a dirty business.”
“More than one stand to die should you falter in this task,” Peykin advised.
Uly studied the sword at arm’s length, swung it in a hissing arc, and gazed at it intensely. “I will not falter.” Then he stepped from the rock bank and waded in the water. Bearing the blade with outstretched arms he named his sword Anadrathul, “hand of the river.”
Removing his remaining garments--high-strapped sandals and a loincloth somewhat worse for wear--Uly swam in the clear water and cleaned himself of the muck. When he emerged at the edge of the lake, sweeping his long hair from his eyes as he did so, there appeared six strikingly beautiful women, the likes of which he had never seen. They gazed at him in wonder.
Uly’s startled exclamation evoked even greater surprise from the curious women, who vanished in a flash with cries of, “He is a man, and yet he sees us!” Uly stumbled from the water, dripping. Hastily he donned his garments, sheathing and buckling his new-named sword. Though flustered at the unexpectedness of his modesty revealed, Uly was anxious to take up pursuit.
“Do not bother,” Peykin said. “These are daughters of the water. Never before have mortal eyes met their own. You will never find them.”
Scanning the lake, Uly called out, but was answered only by the echoes of his voice resounding in the stillness of the chamber. After waiting for a time, reluctantly he left. In the room his hunger abated, and yet he was consumed with his desire. Iridescent fish flitting in the window seemed to capture his attention.
“If I don’t get some food,” he said, “ the next time I leave the room I might collapse from hunger.”
“Indeed,” Peykin said. “How do you propose to catch them?”
“I will find a way.”
“You will find a way to forget the task if you are not careful.”
“I’ll be careful,” Uly said, climbing out the hatch.
The grotto was walled by towering cliffs lost in a blackness impenetrable even to the powers of the mask. Uly explored the slim bank with a hand on his hilt in the advent of danger, heedless of several small but tasty-looking fish which he might have deftly skewered where they hovered in deep nooks. Down a narrow corridor branching from the chasm a green glow issued from a fissure.
Uly entered an emerald chamber. Vast green veins laced the walls. Smooth emerald slabs leaned like huge flakes of flint in haphazard fashion, each one bigger than the next. Uly’s hand happened on an angular chunk. “With this,” Peykin said, “a man could buy a small kingdom.” Uly left it where it was and pressed on.
A profusion of vines, stemming from the highest reaches, hung before the entrance to a cave. Yet just as he started to step inside, an instinct told him something was wrong. Hearing sudden sounds of stealth behind him, he turned around in time to see a huge hand just before he was knocked unconscious.
A giant hand, covered in hair except in the callused palm, plucked a fan-shaped scallop of lichen from a steep rock wall. The large square teeth that chewed the lichen were set in a pair of equally enormous jaws. The nose was flat, and the low forehead slanted back to a conical head which capped the gargantuan shoulders of a heavily-muscled body not less than nine feet tall.
Such was the sight that met Uly’s eyes when he awoke with a ringing head from the black void of a dreamless slumber. This and half a dozen other giants, each with long flat breasts and disproportionately long arms, milled about a natural amphitheater grimacing with mouthfuls of lichen in an increasingly agitated manner.
The walls of the amphitheater were high, and though Uly had no doubt they could readily be climbed, he was just as certain that he could not climb even the easiest route faster than he could be caught and dashed to the rock below. This much he gathered in a quick sweep, not daring to rise to a sitting position and call attention to himself. The hand at his side gripped the hilt of his sword where it remained in his scabbard. That the creatures had not taken his weapon confirmed his suspicion concerning the degree of intelligence confronting him.
One of the giants, with Uly’s staff in hand, made a mad dash for the wall and hammered away at the cliff face in a paroxysm of rage. Uly was amazed to see that the staff did not splinter under this assault, as surely would have been the case with a hardwood limb many times its size. Perhaps no less surprised, the giant flung it high into the upper reaches of the vault. When it came down with a clatter, another of her kind snatched it on the hop. Staff held high, she sprang toward Uly and prepared to land a crushing blow.
The nine foot frame seemed to hang like a gathering storm. Uly saw the massive arm come down even as he wheeled; no sooner had he spun than he was on his feet, hissing sword in hand, all the work of the same motion.The curving arc of his upraised sword met the wrist that held the staff; for a split second the wound did not bleed; then a red fountain sprayed out like an opening fan; his own free hand grabbed the knotted top of wood even as the giant crashed, and on the instant it was as though a team of horses pulled him upward, high above the gnashing teeth and flailing arms, a team of horses whose reins were the staff itself.
Yet as quickly as this feat occurred, Uly found himself suddenly descending to the lip of the cliff. Arms and legs windmilled as he strove to light atop the bluff. There was no time to sheath his blood-stained blade. He hit the edge of the precipice with both hands full, and the force of the impact nearly made him lose a split second’s tenuous grip, but he managed to retain his sword arm at the top while he clung some sixty feet above the giants.
The severed hand still clutched the staff. Repulsed, Uly shook it free. It landed at the giants’ feet with a dull thud. The owner of the hand, unaffected by her dripping appendage, strove with the others to climb the rock. Summoning his strength, Uly hauled himself to the top of the cliff and took great gulps of air with blazing eyes. He positioned himself in striking distance of the first to reach the summit just as a huge head gaped at his feet. Through the open mouth shot the shining steel, and the teeth clamped like a vise. He yanked Anadrathul loose and stabbed the giant in the face with a series of forward thrusts, yet still the creature clung, and it was only by pivoting and sweeping the blade sheer to the vertical bank that the body toppled with a severed arm hanging at the elbow by a hairy flap of skin.
Another face appeared, and again the process was repeated, deftly and with grim precision, this time taking out another giant following too closely below. Then the rage of the pursuers was redirected as those that remained vied in vehemence and tore the bodies of the slain and maimed in a savage orgy.
Shaken and exhausted, Uly stumbled upon a meandering creek and followed it until he reached the river. This sight alone was welcome enough, but his hammering heart nearly burst through his chest when he found, directly ahead of him, the strange and otherworldly Drifting Room he sought. No rope moored it, yet it remained close to the bank, gently bobbing.
Inside, Omandruin was garlanded with vines. In an open chest, on a bed of gems, there was placed a magnificent conch shell. "Gifts of the nixies," Peykin surmised. Uly closed the hatch and the room was borne downriver, led for a time by a school of fish in shades of neon glittering more colors than Uly knew existed.
Towers of stone rising out of the river were lost in heights too vast to estimate. Uly found that by shifting his weight and subtly shaking the room he could maintain a good deal of control what direction the window of the room faced when traveling downriver.
Uly felt strangely calm, despite the abrupt and total absence of the sun. In Omandruin he remained perpetually interested and energetic. He never tired. He felt as though he were moving fully conscious in a land of dream. Outside of the Drifting Room, after some exertion and an unknown span of time, sleep came to him in what seemed irregular intervals and when he awoke it was with a disconcerting sense of the strange monotony of his surroundings. No new dawn greeted him. There was only the silence and the vastness of the caves, as though he were never asleep, and yet as though he were never awake.
“The river branches into many channels,” Uly said, standing with his arms folded across his chest.
“The room will take us where we need to go,” answered the magic mask Uly wore which called itself Peykin.
“I should like to fly again.”
“Mayhap you will.”
“It is magic?”
“Like all you see around you, that flying staff you found is the product of a science of an elder day, kept perhaps for the right hand at the right time.”
“Its power worked for me but once. I do not know how to use it.”
“Think back. What did you do?”
“I do not know. I should like to try again.”
Ever downward drifted the otherworldly room, Omandruin, over falls and under arches, past submerged recesses where dark shapes retracted and watched the room with eyes like white disks flanking wide mouths shot with teeth like quills and daggers. Falls that would have crushed an ordinary craft left the room but barely jostled. Above and below the waterline, Uly viewed two worlds at once.
The craft slowly sank and rose through an underwater darkness broken only by occasional stretches heavy with the blue neon glow of bioluminescent algae, passing through gloomy expanses where few formations grew, and stretches rife with fantastic features.
A commotion on the bank suddenly caught Uly’s attention. What it was, Uly could not tell, as he caught but a glimpse in the forest of stalagmites, nor was his question satisfactorily answered when in the next moment there came a resounding splash as a flurry of limbs churned and thrashed in full view of the room.
Two figures were locked in a life and death struggle. One was of gigantic stature. Like the creatures of the amphitheater, its body was covered in hair. The other was less easily identifiable. The body was that of a man; yet where there should have been a head there was instead a nightmarish mass, a bloated sac which pulsed. At the lower extremities of this, two black plates which must have been the thing’s eyes were pulled closer to the struggling giant by a pair of rubbery appendages where there should have been arms. Between the thing’s eyes a fold of flesh widened from which a horrific beak extended, opening and closing as it sought its prey.
All this Uly saw in an instant, and in the next he was out the hatch, Anadrathul in hand, diving headfirst in the river. The point of his blade found the bloated mass, yet the rubbery flesh was stubborn. A harder shove and the blade went through, sending an oily black billow where brains should have spilled. The thing loosed its grip on the giant and turned its attention toward Uly. Cold gelatinous arms entwined themselves around him. With both hands on the hilt he kept the thing’s head at arm’s distance, jamming the sword repeatedly until it poked out the other side. Bubbles of air escaped his lips as he desperately strove to kill the thing before he drowned. Then a surge of water passed him as the clinging thing was yanked by the feet from the river. Gasping, Uly stamped the thing’s head flat with a sandalled foot as he pulled his sword free and hacked at the rubbery arms. Even when severed, the arms clung. The undersides, Uly saw, were lined with semi-translucent cups which stretched until they popped loose from his bare legs and back, leaving red rings on the skin.
Uly did not know what prompted him to act on behalf of the creature so closely resembling those of the amphitheater, but whatever reservation he may have had was immediately lost.
“You saved my life,” the giant deeply intoned. “This I shall not forget. I am called Yawg. What manner of craft is this that carries a man to the land of the Omu?”
“Well, I do not rightly know myself,” replied Uly. “It is called Omandruin, the Drifting Room, and it has led me to this place through many strange wonders as though by a will of its own. I am told that it is not of earthly origin.”
“Who told you this?”
Placing both hands to his face, Uly carefully withdrew Peykin. “Without my mask, I cannot see. It too was in the room. It speaks to me. How it does I do not know.” He returned the mask to his face and it disappeared.
“You must be no ordinary man, for I believe that you are here for no ordinary reason. But this is not the place to talk on such matters. If you will let me, I will take you to my people. There is one among us with knowledge you may do well to gain. You will have to leave your craft here.”
Uly shook his head. “I cannot.”
“The way is difficult.”
“I cannot leave it.”
“Very well. Come with me then, and decide for yourself. As for this,” Yawg said, indicating the corpse at his feet, “I have never seen the like, and will have to bring it, too.” He gathered the shriveled ankles in one hand and slung the corpse across his back.
Trotting on the rugged bank with his grisly burden, Yawg kept pace with Uly perched in the open hatch of the Drifting Room.
“It is here,” said Yawg at a bend in the river.
Lowering himself inside, Uly prepared to moor the room. Yet before he could retrieve the rope, he saw through the window that the room had spun at a right angle against the current, and now faced a submerged aperture in the smooth cliff wall. Omandruin bounced against a narrow vertical cleft apparent at the waterline, jittering like a drop of water just before it falls. As a precaution Uly closed the hatch, and the moment that he did the room suddenly submerged, stuttering along the rock of the sunken cave before popping up again like a cork on the other side. Then Yawg appeared, hideous cargo in hand, and Uly met the hairy giant on the shore of a deep lake in a vast grotto, prepared for whatever might follow.
Precipitous walls dotted with caves fringed the lake some hundred yards from the water’s edge in a sweeping half-circle. On the other side, the walls were equally high, yet no cave-mouths dotted the stone, which rose straight out of the lake and bore no sandy shore.
Yawg let out a long, echoing whistle, and hardly had the echo ceased reverberating than a score of Omu appeared in the mouths of caves high above.
“You will be a curiosity,” said Yawg.
At the base of the cliff Yawg began his ascent, his free hand and toes finding minute imperfections in the vertical face which he showed no trouble scaling even burdened as he was with the ghastly thing which flopped. Whether Yawg merely assumed that Uly was equal to the task, or whether he planned to make a return journey carrying Uly like a sack of meal, Uly did not know. Wishing to avoid both prospects, he withdrew his staff from the sling across his back. Neither did he convey his intentions, unsure as he was of the outcome.
“It worked before,” he said under his breath as he clutched the knotted top. Then he shot his fist upward in a gesture of exultation not inappropriate for the subsequent result. In a flash he had overtaken his agile host, and at the moment he was opposite the mouth of the cave toward which Yawg climbed, he struck his staff-arm forward. Relaxing his effort as he entered, he lighted within on ready feet, showing no evidence of exhilaration with his success.
“Let us hope,” Peykin said, breaking his usual silence in the company of others with a remonstrating tone, “Yawg is not prone to fainting with astonishment. You nearly hit him.”
Uly peeked over the dizzying edge. “You’re right,” he said, relieved to see Yawg still managing the climb. “Nor do I relish the thought of chancing the flight down. What if the staff doesn’t work?”
“By the spirit!” Yawg exclaimed as he entered, amazed with Uly’s display. “By the spirit! You are no ordinary man indeed! We will celebrate a feast in your honor!”
Uly sheathed his staff. “To the contrary,” he said, humbled. “Ordinary is all that I am.”
Yawg introduced his daughter, whose name was Syna, as she brought Uly food. A full head taller than Uly, and possessed of a remarkably powerful build, she was nonetheless still considered of practically a tender age by Omu standards. “Thank you,” he said, cordially receiving a large bowl which had formerly served a tortoise as its shell. Syna squatted daintily on her haunches and watched Uly select a tasty-looking morsel. He was unaware that he had chosen the plump larva of a beetle.
“Father says you are a man.”
Uly nodded, chewing. “That’s right.”
“You have come from far away?”
“Where do you live?”
“I live--” Uly paused as he considered the difficulty in trying to explain the concept of an outer world, then decided it was not for him to say. “You have seen the vessel in the lake? That is where I live.”
“That is a small place to live.”
“Well, not that small.”
“I have seen that you can fly.”
“Can you show me how?”
“I suppose we could try.”
She watched as Uly selected a mushroom. “Are you here to find Taruk?”
Uly was on the point of saying that he did not know Taruk when Yawg appeared from a chamber in the recesses of the cave.
“Taruk is my son,” said Yawg, placing a hand on Syna’s head. “He is lost, but he will return.”
“I will see you at the feast,” Syna said to Uly. When she had left, Yawg turned to his guest and said that it was time. The one called Idd waited to see Uly.
Thin veils of vapor rising from a depthless vent in the center of the room fluctuated like an ethereal vision. Half a head taller than even the colossal Yawg, Idd sat silent as a monolith, the silvery hair of his venerable frame rippling in distortion as he mulled all that he had heard.
This much so far Uly learned: Yawg’s son Taruk, investigating a recent rupture in the side of a cliff during a hunt, was lost in a cave-in. Whether crushed inside the tunnel, or trapped on the other side, Yawg had no way of knowing, though he held out hope for the latter. That this event was somehow tied with the now-disposed body of the thing in the river, Uly felt certain, although this connection remained as yet unclear. To his hosts he had conveyed everything he knew, omitting no details from the course of his travels and his troubles, and through it all they remained impassive, though from the start at the name of Cernan Uly thought he detected in Idd a grave and heavy interest.
Now the silver giant broke his silence, slowly intoning words never before made privy to the mind of mortal man.
“He sleeps a deathless sleep, and yet his sleeping evil infects the upper and unknowing world. So strong is his power that his underworld is kept alive, hidden and forgotten, as time stands still to those who were swallowed with the city in the battle for the first city of the world.
“In the days before the Anunnaki, the Omu lived without the power of speech. When the Anunnaki came it was as though the Omu were awakened. Then men appeared, and they honored the Anunnaki. Using methods of construction which the Anunnaki taught them, men built Shun Dun, the first city of the world. In its towers and its halls the Anunnaki strode well-pleased with the efforts of their creation. Yet even as the city flourished, the Anunnaki worked on labors of their own. Gradually they left, until in time but one remained, and the one that stayed became corrupt. He wanted men to serve him as his slaves.
“He who was said to be the first of men led a great rebellion, and that revolt became the battle of Shun Dun. Of all the Anunnaki, the one that remained had the weakest power, and of the men that rebelled, he who was the first was the strongest of them all.
“It seemed that the forces were evenly matched. Then the Omu aided men, and the tide of the battle was turned, but he who remained summoned all his strength, and the city fell into the world. Not all men were taken with it; so too with the Omu. It is said that men forgot Shun Dun, that for those that remained the memory is like a dream, and that for the Omu of the upperworld the power of speech was lost, and they returned as they had been before the days when the Anunnaki came from the land beyond the stars.”
When the feast was prepared, Uly ate and drank with the Omu, who lounged on stone couches and disappeared in the shadows. They offered Uly the meat of a boar and that of a sea turtle, both of which had cooked in pits near hot springs, so that when the feast was ready the meat was rich and steamed with mingled flavors.
There were bizarre insects offered as well. One that Uly ate was white and curled up like a pill bug the size of a big goose egg. In taste it was similar to varieties of shellfish, yet had a striking aftertaste like the smell of carnations and burned the tongue so that Uly slurred for awhile as he talked too fast and stumbled around. In a quiet corner away from the drums, Uly spoke with a large fish.
In a cave behind a waterfall the Omu shared tales with Uly of fire-drakes on hordes of battle-gear and war-might, bright bucklers and the gleam of the hand, slaughter-shafts of ash and iron. Late into the revel, Uly withdrew the staff from the sling across his back. Quietly he turned it in his hands, examining as best he could through blurred vision the fluctuating rings and bands of grain. “I shall name you Ekkaculu,” he said, balancing the cunning sky-shaft at arm’s length gently in his upturned hands. “Ekkaculu, the lightning branch.”
When the reveling was done, and it was time to go, on the shoulders of four Omu the Drifting Room dripped, though whether it was borne on their shoulders like a throne or a funeral casket it was not for Uly to decide. His attention went to Syna, who squealed with delight high above the sandy shore. When she had been gracefully deposited at the feet of her waiting father, with cries of, “Again! Again!” Yawg calmed her with a hand on her shoulder, and told her to be good while he was away, for he had determined to aid Uly in his quest. They would travel down the river on the other side of the mountain. The river was not far away, but in the minds of the Omu the channel that it cut marked the limit of their territory, separating them from the flat gray expanse of the opposite bank which they deemed a wasteland. In an indulgent display which Uly could not resist, he flew to the room and lighted on top, carried away like a conquering hero, or perhaps a sacrifice.
Across a level plain dotted with low boulders the otherworldly room progressed, carried by slow current in a deep and narrow channel. Far ahead, a great rise in the ground broke the plain, spilling one side down off to the right, where a huge canyon stretched like the bed of a dead ocean. A coil of rope pinched in place by the weight of the hatch waited for use at a moment’s notice should the craft require mooring. There was no need, Uly felt, to ride in these conditions, and preferred conversing with his companion.
“Look down that gully,” Uly said, indicating the vast sweep far away to the right where what looked like monolithic statues towered, corroded and covered with masses of spires which Uly guessed must have taken many ages to accumulate, so that the statues appeared like figures standing in waterfalls or tall grass. In the greater distance beyond, a high flat hill could be seen from which a section was missing, as if chipped away by some cyclopean hammer and carried off or crumbled into dust. Of the origin of the statues even Yawg could not hazard a guess.
“Somehow the sky seems larger here than it does in the upperworld.”
“You must miss your home. I have been there before. How strange a place it is! But then to you the land of the Omu must seem no less strange, indeed, this land without sunlight.”
Then Yawg noted that the area they were in was good for catching a rare variety of mussel attached to the rock underwater. Yawg jumped in, heedless of his huge splash. Uly used his staff to glide toward the room. Floating overhead he saw Yawg in the green water wrestling with a monster-sized mussel, as big as Uly’s midsection, clinging with the giant suction cup of its muscular belly to the surface of the rock. He saw as Yawg twisted; once Yawg got a piece of the mussel’s lip lifted, he twisted the thing completely away. Yawg showed Uly how to kill the mussel and use a shard of its broken shell to cut away slices of the rubbery, nutritious flesh.
They came to a wide lake canopied with a low ceiling. Uly crouched on the room as Yawg clung to it with one hand while treading water. Cave paintings appeared on the walls. Bull and bear silhouettes leaped along the rock. A standing stag danced.
“It is said that before the Anunnaki came, there were men like the Omu. The Anunnaki altered them.”
“What happened to them?”
“They became like you.”
Uly and Yawg walked along a bank dotted with ponds covered as if by thin ice with smooth layers of lichen growths. Uly lost his footing briefly and skidded down to the brittle surface just in time to crack the ice-like crust and see something darkly ooze from the ruptured well as the power of his staff carried him free. Then they decided to return to Omandruin, which drifted in the river at walking pace, with the plan in mind of Yawg clinging to the room and Uly using his staff.
The ordinary flow of water dripping from stalactites high overhead in a semi-constant musical patter increased to a steady rain. Soon the rain became a deluge, sheets pouring in torrents through cracks and fissures all along the channel. It was all Uly could do to stay close to the room. So hard did the water fall, thundering on the roof of the room, Uly could not make himself heard to Yawg, who struggled to cling to Omandruin, to be wary of what Uly thought looked like massive, long-legged bears on the rocky banks of the narrow gorge, although he saw but glimpses in flashes.
A slight widening of the channel seemed to mark the point at which the deluge ceased. Yawg hauled himself to the top of the room and stretched out, his weight submerging the room completely by a few inches. Uly spun slowly in an effortless circle over the river. A low ribbetting sound developed. This was in turn followed by occasional plopping noises. Then there were a great many splashing sounds and a cacophony of ribbets as masses of toads fell from dark fissures spilling in wet avalanches of bony baggy springing lumps. Through this mass they made their way as quickly as they could, with Yawg hanging onto Uly’s free arm with one hand even as he kept a grip on the room. At a bend in the river the room picked up speed and soon the deafening ribbets of the toad-swarm lessened to fading echoes.
They came to a place where a shelf formed in a small lake, marked by a narrow cleft. In this cleft the room passed. Yawg waded knee-deep in the water.
“There are salmon here,” he said.
“Yes, I see them on this side, too. Let’s catch some.” Yawg was already stooped with hands out, slowly following one, waiting for the right moment to strike. Uly quietly slid waist-deep into the river and wedged the coiled rope retrieved from the room in a cranny to moor it.
Yawg stopped in his tracks and lifted his head. His face took on an intent expression. “Listen,” he said in a hushed tone. “Did you hear that?” Forgetting the salmon, he moved in the direction of the sound that he heard.
Uly rounded a bend and came to a place where spectral vapors seeped and hung in low, cloying clouds. Before him, the thin straps of a silvery garment were slipped from a perfect pair of delicate shoulders. The garment dropped into the mist. Uly saw a beautiful woman, standing behind a low fence, such as might gird a small garden, yet intricately wrought and gleaming as if made of gold.
She outstretched her arms. “Remove your mask, my love.”
Uly stepped toward her, obeying her request. He placed his hands to his face. Yet in the moment the mask was being withdrawn, he saw not the eyes of a beautiful woman, but the gaping sockets of a corpse. Worms squirmed. The full red lips revealed were the receded flesh of a corpse flecked with yellow pus. As the outstretched arms came forward, crawling things spilled from rents in the cadaverous shoulders.
Uly shook off the enchantment with an effort of will even as Anadrathul cleaved the rotting neck as easily as the blade of an axe passes through dead wood. With a horrific shriek the carcass slumped in a pile of rags behind a fence of bones. Instantly Uly rushed back to the river, suddenly aware that Yawg had ventured up the opposite bank.
From the summit of a slope Uly saw Yawg caught in the coils of a gigantic serpent. The serpent’s slavering head hovered with distended jaws.
“My son,” said Yawg in a faraway voice, “at last I have found you.”
Like a bolt of lightning Uly shot with staff in hand and upraised sword. The snake whipped its colossal head as the shining length of steel sank into an oval pupil with a sickening crunch. Uly wrenched the blade free from the hindering bone in a ragged spray of pulp. Sizzling with fury, the serpent lashed, but its hissing jaws snapped on empty air as Uly darted toward the upper reaches of the vault, hovering in a clump of spires.
Spiraling coils left Yawg’s limp body and rolled into a striking posture, scales grating on the rock. The gargantuan head crashed through the stalactites like a battering ram in a thicket. Struck on his upraised shield by the butt of a plummeting spire, Ekkaculu was knocked from Uly’s hand. He fell beneath the pig-like snout straight into the open jaws.
The serpent whipped in a frenzy. A whirlwind of coils twisted and contorted before sprawling in a titanic heap. From the massive head again and again a sword-point emerged, and the giant body quivered.
Uly knew that he was dreaming.
He saw himself approaching a well. There was a scale nearby, and on one side of the scale there was a bucket which he knew contained exactly four gallons of water. One for the north and winter, one for the east and spring, one for the south and summer, one for the west and fall. At the edge of the well two buckets waited, each empty, and he knew that one could hold not more than five gallons, the other not more than three. With these buckets he knew that somehow he needed to balance the scale with exactly four gallons of water.
His first thought was to approximate pouring the five gallon bucket four-fifths full. But this idea he quickly discarded, for he knew that an approximation was unacceptable. Then he saw himself lowering the five gallon bucket, filling it, and filled the three gallon bucket with the first, leaving the first with two gallons. He emptied the three gallon bucket, poured the two gallons from the five into the empty three, then refilled the five gallon bucket and from it carefully poured the three gallon bucket full. Now he knew he had exactly four gallons in the five gallon bucket. When he placed it on the scale, as he knew he could now do, the scale balanced, and when it did a voice rising from the well asked him what he sought.
“I seek that which sleeps in the Forgotten City.”
The voice returned that Uly balanced the clean against the poisoned, yet he would balance a larger scale, that the cost of this knowledge was great, and to attain it he must sacrifice the hut which separated him from the material world. Only with this sacrifice might he encounter forbidden knowledge.
He saw himself with heavy heart release the room, and watched it drift downriver until it was lost from sight. Then the voice told him to travel through the pass between the rocks behind the well. Only at the right moment would he be able to enter.
Then a coffin appeared before him. As though he were swimming in grave-soil he passed inside, and poking his head into the coffin from below he rested in it up to his elbows. Arising through the occupant’s pillow he looked at the body that stretched before him. Grinning, he kicked his legs and said, “How likest thou thy ride, my passenger? No earth-waves rise as we pass, no furrowed wake, no hint of us, yet see how we fly forth now,” as the casket shot out of the grave-soil over a gray cemetery at the edge of a forest. He looked down and saw a headless man upon a horse tromping under boughs of oak. And then he was in the coffin. The feeling of freedom had passed. He was surprised to see neighboring corpses about him glowing like dim lamps through windows in their caskets, and in the casket closest to his he saw an occupant motioning to him. The corpse was gray and shadowy, with boiled-egg eyes which swelled in sunken sockets. On its head it bore a jagged crown, sticking up like an enormous splinter, either growing from dead flesh or working down into the skull. Slowly the corpse mouthed words and scratched at coffin glass. All was silent, but he could see the dead mouth move: What . . . are . . . you . . . doing . . . here . . .?
Uly awoke and saw he was in a place of dripping roots. Glistening with groundwater, they dripped into a steaming pool. Roots like vines, roots like trees, dangling in tangles where they curled and clung. Long thin strands wavered gently in the rising steam. Now fully conscious, Uly sat up from where he had been reclining in the pool.
“You have returned,” Yawg said.
“Where is the room?”
“Nearby. As are your staff and sword. Do you remember what happened?”
“That I do. I had fallen in the mouth of the dragon. So the thing had a brain after all.”
“Indeed. And I too remembered the feel of its scales when I awoke, yet I found you next to the body of a hag. She was missing an eye. You had brained her through the mouth.”
Uly surveyed the wild array of roots by which his outspread limbs were held encircled. As if sensing his will to be released, the vines seemed to loosen.
“It must have been her sister that I slew—witches of the upperworld, both,” Uly said, rising from the pool, unaware that he had vanquished the witch-twins Adpa and Apda, crop-ruiners, storm-causers, wielders of locusts and hornets and rats and toads, and things far worse, famed across the gulfs for tastes and spites so foul as to blanch the staunchest audience.
“Where are we?” Uly asked.
“Not far downriver. I used a little of your healing salve on you.”
“How did you know this place was here?”
“I heard it. Pools such as this are sacred. Their waters have the power to heal.”
Uly donned his weapons. Buckling his belt he slapped his stomach. “I’m starved.”
Yawg produced a fish which he had caught and cleaned, and as Uly munched away his mind ran through his dream. Then he came to a reluctant decision. Loathe to part company with Yawg, he nonetheless felt doing so to be correct. His instinct told him that whatever dangers were ahead were to be faced by him alone.
When he told Yawg of his decision, the giant reluctantly agreed, adding however that if he could cross the chasm nearby he would be in more familiar territory and could easily return to the land of his people.
Such was the power of the nixie’s gift that Uly was able to sustain a low hover over the giant’s head, as Yawg grabbed Uly’s proffered arm and found himself being slowly lifted up from the rock, floating toward the edge of the cliff, and over, the giant’s great weight sagging somewhat the slow, careful journey over the bottomless black void below.
“Twice you have saved my life,” Yawg said solemnly when they had made it safely to the other side of the chasm.
Uly respectfully nodded. “An honor returned on both occasions.”
Then back across the chasm Uly quietly flew. Before rounding the bend around the corner in the cave that would lead Uly back to the room in the river, each gave a parting wave. Drifting downriver later Peykin said it was best not to dwell on long good-byes.
Stalagmites rose from deep regions in the slow blue river, laden with layers of lives. The garlanded room drifted like a bed of lotus. In the strange still silence there hung the low constant hum of the illimitable void. Uly’s memories of displeasure and discomfort concerning life as he had known it all of his days in the upperworld of old fell completely away, and in their stead stood images of happy times. Now Uly saw all the good things about his life he had taken for granted, and he longed to return. Uly opened the hatch and climbed out.
“All matter is solidified thought,” Peykin said. “As the ice becomes the water that becomes the steam that freezes, so too everything is made of different forms of thought. You are made of thought, I am made of thought. Most of what exists is thought which is not solid matter. Dreams, in fact, are more real than anything else.”
Hardly a ripple stirred as the room moved forward, the green light of the interior leading the way. There were black lakes beyond, hints of covetous eyes in the dark.
“Maintain your current course. Travel the right channel in all you do. Let nothing distract you. See the moment you are in. To see the one true and only constant moment as it exists is to see the beginning of all things and the end, for the two are the same. All things are united, and each affects the other. The pattern of life is interwoven. Disregard vitality substitutes, external validation, in yourself and in others. See what is there. Above all, do not fear the universe.”
Claws slashed and jaws snapped along the shore. Rock walls constantly revealed new angles, new faces which seemed to turn toward Uly as he traveled down the river in a perpetually unfolding panorama. Water dropping from stalactites high overhead felt like quick fingers unexpectedly tapping him on the back. “It is as if the cave itself is alive,” he said, “and keeps a watchful eye.”
Where a hundred springs united in a pool, swelling waves rolled overhead. A soft lulling sound between cliff and cleft filled the spray-drenched air from the bottom of the stone forest gorge to the giant peaks capped in shadow. Down stone dell and down stone dale reverberating acoustics played, like those that inside triumphal arches perennially ring.
On a smooth mud bank in a steaming shallow pool there appeared to Uly’s sudden and riveted attention a huge manner of fish, petrified, yet somehow looking as though it were merely resting, with a great wide gaping mouth. Its mouth and large oblong eye sockets were an empty blackness. In mass it must have been roughly equal to a full-grown steer, the bulk of it all being up front—basically a head, which quickly tapered down to a long tail, much like a tadpole. Also like a tadpole it bore four squat, semi-superfluous legs. A trim, fan-like ridge ran down the lower extent of its back. The thing’s scaled shone, flickering in the steamy light. The dark slits of tremendous gills seemed to quiver lightly in the vapors of the hot yellow pool.
Slowly, the room drifted past. The water darkened to its former blue, yet a yellow glow still filled the air. Omandruin passed in between, bathed in an ethereal green.
The room bumped into spires and off of the cave walls. Small falls developed which the room crashed over. Bigger falls came. Down and down went the room, crashing and splashing, bumping and thumping, until the room landed in a fast branch of the river running down the steep channel of a vast gorge.
Over a huge waterfall the room shot, bouncing among the craggy outcroppings of a ravine--back and forth the room bounced off the walls of the narrow cleft, ceaselessly skidding and mercilessly grinding on the dirt and bare rock. The room slammed its way down the mountain spinning in every conceivable direction in a continual sudden jarring commotion, walls slamming, the changing view of the spinning window--emptiness emptiness emptiness--followed by hard bare rock coming up and hitting. Then the room hit water from such a sheer height with a final hop from the cracked side of the black cliff that it sank to the bottom of the river, and when it hit it tipped the window-side all the way down against the rock. Uly saw his reflection like a mirror on the flat dark rock bed of the river, until like the lift of a lingering kiss the room shot back up, and Uly put the things that fell about back where they belonged while the room slowly drifted.
Down an avenue of giants ran the room, waterlights glinting and playing far into a stone forest. Drop-offs below in the winding riverbed held monolithic shapes resembling remnants of ruins which now housed strange things that hunted and waited and slept.
Gradually the profusion of giant columns dwindled. Imperceptibly the riverbed had dropped beyond sight, as had the walls of the tunnel widened. To either side at a great distance could be seen shores of solid stone where the rock dipped before it dropped off in a sheer cliff underwater.
Something heavy hit the top of the room. A tail whipped the window, then an unidentifiable neck or back emerged. As the beast swam off the room spun, allowing a clear view of the creature’s head at the end of a sinuous neck--in its mouth could be seen the struggling legs of the gigantic spider whose net had briefly caught the room. It never was dislodged. It had clung to the room all along. An involuntary chill of revulsion ran through Uly as he envisioned poking his head out the trapdoor to the spider.
More and more strange creatures gathered. Dragons with flippers swam among nicors with legs and the waves roiled as the room was swatted and battered in an ever-growing mass of scales and claws and razor-lined mouths. Uly did not say it but he knew that the Host of Darkness sensed his approach.
Now the room was pulled under the waves, suction-cups of tentacles contracting and expanding against the window; now the interior of a gigantic mouth came into view, rows of teeth peeking through the massive mouthflesh to successively greater extents leading to serrated triangles, each bigger than Uly’s splayed hand.
The room spun as though caught in a maelstrom, flattening Uly against the wall. A sandy gray shore appeared. Two monolithic rocks loomed. A channel developed, leading between dark cliffs.
Uly said, “I have seen this place in my dreams. This is it. The land of the dead. From here I go on foot.”
“You are certain?”
“I am. I will take what I need from the room.” Uly’s actions were swift. In a moment his gear and provisions were packed. Then he was on the shore. With a heavy but resolute heart Uly watched as Omandruin spun slowly into the channel through the cliffs until it was lost from sight.
Staff of flight in hand, Uly came to a barren gray land dotted with few formations. A thin trail wound through a forest of stalagmites. High over perilous peaks and fissures Uly followed the winding curves.
He emerged through a crumbling aperture far above a wide plain and lit in a casement. Over the edge of the antique crumbling stone, Uly observed a wide panorama. To his left far below filed a procession of figures led by hosts in silver robes. At the center of the plain, over the horizon, there was the smoldering red glow of a vast recess lit by an unknown source.
Like cattle the figures marched, gathering on the plain below. From somewhere in the distance came the sound of pounding drums, and an eerie cacophony of howls.
Limned against the smoldering throb of the horizon a chariot appeared. Eight squat-legged dragons in harness stopped on a low hill at the edge of the plain, reined by a dark rider in a blood-red cloak. Servants in tow restrained great packs of snapping dogs, dogs which bore what looked like bundles on their backs.
The dark rider swung off his crimson cloak and brandished the sweeping curve of a jewel-hilted blade above his head. “It is the will,” the rider announced in a leaden tone which rang throughout the cavern, “of your Everlasting Lord, that the life-seat his property unlawfully holds henceforth be returned!” At his command the dogs were loosed, springing into the air with a leathery clatter of unfurling wings like those of monstrous bats. The chariot rumbled down like a tidal wave into the panicking throng.
Hacking left and right, the dark rider carved a swath through the center of the crowd. Those fleeing nearest the chariot ran pell-mell with strides not immediately checked by swift decapitation in the blade’s relentless sweep. At the base of the cliff the dark rider wheeled his scaly blood-spattered steeds. The dog-things’ wings flapped like black smoke billowing overhead as they herded the bulk of the multitude with frenzied snarls. In the trampled disarray, the spinning spokes of the chariot caught limbs, twisting mutilated bodies in sudden and grotesque convulsions.
The carnage was the work of moments. Yet even as the rider cut the packed crowd down like ripe corn, a gaping lackey pointed high in the air and screamed. Thus forewarned, a blow that would have left the chariot rolling with a headless rider broke the upraised jewel-hilted sword in two as a brawny figure struck him like a missile.
No sooner had Uly risen to his feet than the jaws of an air-borne dog clamped on his staff-hand. The knotted end took the brunt of the vise-like grip, which to the beast must have felt like champing an iron rod, but a good bit of Uly’s hand was in the bite as well. He pumped his sword through flailing legs and managed to yank his hand free before the hell-hound’s innards hit the hard ground with a flat wet slap. Then two more were on him. In the wild whirl of his blade blood-mad growls turned to yelps cut short with meaty thuds. Orders were yelled and hands laid on him. Somewhere in the tangle Uly lost his staff, but he waded through the rush, pulling the men with him as he slashed. With two feet of steel hanging out a man’s back he reached the rider and knocked out teeth with a fist to the mouth, but sheer force of numbers eventually prevailed.
“This one lives! Take him alive!” the dark rider bawled, smearing the blood from his gums with the back of a trembling hand. “Bind him! Bind him!”
The task proved easier said than done, for even outnumbered as he was Uly fought like a mountain lion, but at last it was accomplished. When he had been tied with lengths of rope formerly used to rein several of the winged hounds he butchered, Uly gave a grim smile to a man whose tongue was severed by his own teeth with an uppercut to the chin. Venting an inarticulate oath, the other sought to kick Uly where he sat propped with his hands behind his back. Uly leaned backward and thrust his bound feet forward, meeting the upraised foot with his two, and sent the man sprawling to the general amusement of the others. Without being detected, Uly managed to reach the healing balm tucked into a fold of his loncloth and apply a small amount on the wound of his hand. Immediately the pain ceased.
As the score of men that lived scavenged equipment from the bodies of their comrades, Uly wondered if those that fell should rise again, for he had seen the dead, the remainder now utterly dispersed, imbued with unnatural animation before the fray began. But man and animal alike remained where they had fallen.
Now the chariot came round to where the rider waited, suffering his wound with a hand at his mouth, and the squat-legged dragons were allowed to quarrel over such morsels as they liked, with the exception of numerous severed human heads. These were strung about the chariot in grisly decoration.
Uly watched the rider don his scarlet cloak with a flourish. Unlike the others, this one kept a shaven pate, the only trace of hair on his dark parchment-like skin being the slim eyebrows set high on a narrow forehead. His nose was sharp, and in his ordinarily thin lips, now fattened and bloodied, there was a stamp of severity in keeping with his cold dark eyes, which conveyed the cruel and stately air of one accustomed to being obeyed. A wide band of red cloth girded his lean waist. His entire build was trim, giving him the appearance of being taller than he was. At his whispered bidding a small case was retrieved from the chariot, from which he produced a curious cylindrical device. This he pointed at Uly. Uly noticed that the device was composed of a silver substance similar to that of the Drifting Room, but he gave no hint of this as he eyed the rider coolly with a level gaze of contempt.
At the touch of a thumb a mechanism flipped a cap on the end pointed at Uly, revealing the multi-facets of a crystal. As if by a caprice, the device was swiftly turned away at the moment before a growing glow emanating from the crystal sprang into a burst of light. On the instant that this flashed, a small section of cliff at which the device had been carelessly aimed exploded in a spray of rubble. The rider capped the device and returned it to the case.
“You will soon wish your end had come so quickly.”
The stone road was lined with headless and impaled bodies in advancing stages of decomposition. Variegated shades issued from an unknown source gave the impression of marching toward the setting sun. The rider, whom Uly heard addressed as Kuchyllex, had declined dragging his captive into the city, preferring to save him for less tender engagements. Uly’s hands remained bound behind his back, to which chains were added, as was a length between his ankles, allowing short steps at a pace quickened by the prod of a spear and handlers on either side tugging lengths of chain around his neck and midsection.
Uly kept an eye on his weapons in the chariot ahead, waiting for whatever opportunity might arise. To this end he adopted an attitude of indifference, all the while gathering information and taking careful note of the most vulnerable areas of weakness in his captors.
The party was not well-armed, and of the group four had remained to stake the slain. That the men had grown accustomed to a certain degree of laxity was evident, although by their banter Uly gathered that on rare occasions they met a spirit of resistance. These exceptional instances, in which an unarmed and unaware former denizen of the upperworld was harried like a beast of prey, lent a glint of glamour to the occupation. Uly was consoled with the thought that perhaps somewhere in the labyrinth his parents yet roamed.
Due to corrosive processes received by various parts of the caves at various times, some of the stalactites hanging above were as hollow as rotten trees. Uly noticed that many served as ready-made dens, not simply for bats but for a variety of rodents, rats primarily, as well as nests for snakes. Where the dead and porous rock, weakened by corrosion, failed to hold the burgeoning strain, broken stalactites fell the long way down to the rock floor. These stone bombs spattered their contents in writhing heaps. Serpents struggling at the top dropped like meat from a butcher’s grinder.
The marching guard reached a tract of sand which ran in a broad swath through what may at one time been a wide riverbed or delta. A flat expanse of sand now separated the banks on either side. With a deliberate slowness for which Uly could not account, the guard marched in single file, apparently low-rankers first. Kuchyllex paused to let these ones pass. Two or three had tentatively crossed over a third of the way when one of them suddenly sank into the sand. A deep funnel immediately developed, into the bottom of which the man fell, screaming. The hole widened, dropping under the feet of two more, looking like the sand that falls through an hourglass.
The men in back were waved forward, giving the sinkhole a wide berth. When they had made it across without event Kuchyllex waved the rest on.
On the other side they rounded a bend and came to a dark gully. Steep hills on either side stretched far ahead. So far did these hills extend that they nearly reached the vaulting arch of the ceiling.
The base of the gully was littered with broken boulders and rubble. Small animals stirred behind cover. The dragons of the chariot were lashed to discourage interest in these scurrying enticements.
A noise came from high above. Something up the hill moved. It was coming toward them--rocks, picking up speed--boulders rolling--so quickly did the avalanche fall that the sound of screamed orders was immediately drowned in the tumult. Two of the men holding Uly’s bonds dropped them and ran ahead in a panic. The other two hesitated a moment, then followed suit. Uly looked up the hill and saw a huge boulder careening down. He leaped to the side as it hurtled past with a gust and collided into the opposite bank in an explosion.
The gully had become a gauntlet. Whatever or whoever had set the avalanche off did so up and down an enormous causeway. Only those men at the front of the guard and at the back were able to race beyond danger faster than it came down. The boulders rolled into each other, colliding in sprays of rolling shards. One such shard whipped straight into a man standing near Uly, the last of the guards to fly away in a panic. The sharp flint cut into the man and spun nearly unimpeded. Uly caught a glimpse of the avalanche thundering down as he leaped forward toward the low gully wall.
A wave of rock swept over Uly. The boulders crashed and bounced up the opposite slope, rolling back down and into the onrush again. Uly skittered to avoid one such boulder bouncing back his way in time, then took cover behind it, but by then the avalanche was spent. Only a thin layer of rock and dust rippled down.
Orders were barked. A head-count was tallied. Kuchyllex was among those at the head of the procession close to safety. Those who had fled and survived hurried back to their positions. With his arms still bound behind his back and his legs impeded by a length of chain it had been all Uly could do to avoid being crushed to death. Several of the men around him quickly grabbed the chains about his waist and neck which had been dropped in the panic.
The march resumed. Underneath a calm exterior every fiber of Uly’s being remained focused, alert, ready. Always keeping an eye on his weapons, Uly bided his time.
Eventually a panorama of mountains perforated with spacious porticoes and triumphal arches appeared over the rise. The city rested in a huge hollow. A ring of ruins littered the outskirts, yet inside this ring, evident from a distance, the city remained perfectly intact. At the forefront of a kaleidoscopic riot of images were enormous fragments of stone ruins, evidence perhaps of long-dead gardens, and the giant sandaled foot of a colossus, broken at the ankle. Obelisks towered beyond, as well as scores of what might have been temples or sundry forums. In the background of this display loomed a magnificent palace. The entire city was lit by a low, red, omnipresent smolder, as of either dusk or dawn, a perpetual red twilight nonetheless, cast by unknown means.
After pausing to relay an order, Kuchyllex rode ahead, passing through a great arch on which lifelike friezes depicted scenes of battle. Uly had no choice but to wait until the opportunity presented itself for the recovery of his weapons, and the shapeshifter’s revivifying flask hidden at the bottom of the sling which he had constructed for his staff of flight. If the object of his quest could be completed without his weapons, however, so much the better.
The unnatural pall of dull fire deepened into the forbidding shadows of the great arch. High above was carved from the stone the giant glowering head of a ram. Entering the city seemed to Uly like walking into the huge jaws of death itself.
Uly was taken into a tower and led down steep dank and winding stairs to a cell. There ropes and chains were traded for shackles, monstrous iron rings set into the great stone blocks of the walls. The guards were strangely uncommunicative toward one another now, and did the business of opening and closing the heavy iron doors with a greater degree of strictness than Uly had seen from them during the march. When the shuffle of sandals echoed away, Uly heard a deep voice coming from a cell further down the row. “Do not bother trying to escape. It is impossible. We will die for the glory of Entu on the Field of Despair.”
Uly addressed this unknown speaker, evidently a fellow prisoner in a separate cell nearby. “What is this Entu?” he said. “I have heard this name before.”
“You are a stranger to the city,” the voice in the cell replied, “for to those in Shun Dun Entu is God. They say that he rests somewhere here in the city. I believe that this may well be true, for tales of a force that sleeps in a forgotten land are known to my people. But we do not worship Entu as they do in Shun Dun. To us he is known by another name. Whatever the name, the power is real, real enough to sustain this loathsome hole. It is said that here the people do not age, and require neither food nor drink. They are themselves the walking dead.”
“Your people--by what name are they known?”
“I am of the Omu.”
Uly suppressed his amazement. “Then your name is Taruk, is it not?”
There was a rattling of chains as Taruk jumped up. “Who are you? How do you know?”
Then Uly told Taruk who he was and why he was there, how Yawg had helped him in his quest, and that on finding the place that he wished to go, his task had all but come to ruin.
“There was more truth to the stories than I knew,” said Taruk, sitting down in the center of his cell. “They brought me to Shun Dun. They caged me with their monsters. I was to be put to use as one of those, a punishment wheeled into a slaying arena. Not long thereafter I broke my silence to the taskmasters of the creatures of the arena. Shun Dun’s high priest decreed I was a criminal. So now I wait for the games they will play on the Field of Despair.”
Beyond the long ramp which led to the palace, past the colonnaded entrance to the grand court, where extravagant draperies and elaborate arches shone with solemn splendor, Drusus Tolan Homusian sat upon the throne of Entu couched in a cloud of redolent fumes spumed from censers swung by votaries in silver robes. Kuchyllex, Hunter of Souls, stood with scarlet cloak thrown back and the many severed heads of innocent masses carried behind him by his servants. “The life-seats you require in the name of Entu, my lord.” Drusus accepted the payment with a disinterested nod, his own shaved head gleaming in the haze like a miniature exterior of the gold dome which towered above him. Deep-set eyes augmented by cosmetics flickered with a mixture of curiosity and menace. His long thin hands, protruding like sticks from the folds of a shining silver robe of greater magnificence than those of the fawning votaries, turned the knotted wooden staff formerly belonging to the heathen of the outer reaches in a show of contemplation.
“It is a mystery to us how an obscure barbarian commands the power of flight.”
Uly was led from the dungeon up to the glow of the city, the city red as hate, amid the clink of mail and long-drawn notes of enormous trumpets propped on parapets.
He found himself taken to the field.
The field was surrounded by an elliptical circumference of tiered seating, beginning some twelve feet up, backed by columns at regular intervals. The prisoners were shackled to a long line of chain at one end of the field. On the opposite end the continuity of the seating was interrupted by a great aperture twenty feet in height, barred by an iron gate. At the center of one side of the field an ornate section of seating was demarcated from the rest. In the middle of it all, plain hard-beaten soil, packed by long use and stained with more than the crimson nimbus which hung above the city, presented the prisoners with an ominous tableau.
Spectators in fine garb filled the stands like vultures on dead limbs. Little there was even of chatter in the audience of the First People of the World, for whom even watching others die was a boredom to be endured--endured, that is, until at the first sight of a victim awaiting his fate the people’s blood rose.
A rattle of drums and blaze of fanfare announced the imperious presence of Drusus to resounding acclaim. His niece Ryenda arrived behind him, as did Kuchyllex, whom Uly saw bore his weapons like a hero’s trophies. When the crowd had at last subsided, Drusus stood with outstretched arms and presented an announcement.
“Ours is the glory of the one and only power, ours is the will of the just and gracious Lord. Glory of Entu be praised! All-powerful Entu! Everlasting Lord! You who choose to levy justice, grant this gift to the First and Only people! Do the people accept the gift of the Lord?”
Thousands of mouths voiced thunderous acclaim.
“Then lead forth all criminals to the Field of Despair!”
One was removed from the chain. The iron gate was raised. Two huge shaggy beasts, such as Uly had never seen, with upward-curving tusks and long flexible snouts, were led by whip and spear lumbering onto the field. Slowly the beasts were positioned facing in opposite directions with the guarded prisoner between them. As lengths of rope were slipped around the necks of the mountainous animals, the crowd realized what was to come and began to applaud. The ends of the ropes were wrapped securely around the prisoner, one end to his lower half, the other to the upper. Then with whip and spear the animals were prodded, and as the slack was taken up, so too was the man. The face of the man turned black with blood as the taut rope bunched his flesh, and the crowd roared with approval to see his elongated torso suddenly torn at the waist.
The animals were led away as another prisoner was selected. The guard Zaparius addressed a man standing next to Uly. “Let’s go, Wixer.”
The one called Wixer was released from the chain, then quickly bound at the ankles and the wrists with his hands behind his back, so that he struggled to no avail as two guards pulled him bodily to the center of the field. Short stakes were driven into the turf to keep him from rolling away.
Again the iron gate was raised. A creaking wheeled platform bearing a bloated mountain of hair was pulled, and those who drew the platform did their best to hold their breath, for the load they bore was the decomposing carcass of one of the tusked beasts, laying on its side.
When the apparatus was pulled within a sufficient proximity, positioned so that the distended underside of the creature faced the prostrate captive, all of the guards scattered save one, who held a long lance in both hands and maintained a posture ready for flight. Light prods of the lance on the sparse fur of the swollen belly elicited an eerie ripple beneath the rotting flesh. With a quick slice of the lance the guard ran, yet even before he had taken a step there sprang from the carrion something huge, and in the red light, pink, glistening, the great flat folds of which landed on Wixer.
The giant worm roiled, wadding its heavy body as it oozed in an endless undulating stream from the widening slit of the soft carcass. Helpless beneath this pulsating surge, the screaming captive jittered as if electrified, affording the thing greater access as it whipped its mass of folds around his body. Once latched, it clenched like a knotted fist and retracted itself, man and all, back into the carcass to the roars of the excited crowd.
“All right, heathen,” Zaparius sneered as he turned the key that unlocked Uly from the chain, “you’re next.”
Uly weighed his options as he was led by spearpoint to the center of the field. That he could disarm one of the guards he was certain, but to accomplish this before one of the remaining three could retaliate was impossible. Here for the first time he was at least unshackled, and to remain that way he resolved to avoid any premature recourse which would compromise this advantage.
From the far end of the field, a deep, rumbling roar reverberated behind the iron gate. A hush fell over the crowd. Uly prepared himself for the encounter. Yet before the gate was raised, a voice rang off to his side.
“Let the stranger face Kuchyllex!”
Uly turned to see Ryenda, standing upright with a regal air, once again pronounce the challenge in a tone that all could hear. “Let the stranger face Kuchyllex! Let the Hunter of Souls repeat his performance and show this heathen of the outer reaches the mettle of the First and Only people of the world!”
Ryenda’s warlike words met the thunderous approval of the crowd.
“Bring me his head,” she said to Kuchyllex, and doffing his cloak he rose.
The appearance of Kuchyllex on the Field of Despair was the cause of much tumult, such was the valiant figure that he cut manning his war-chariot behind the hissing team of squat-legged dragons which circled the field twice with appalling speed before coming to a halt. At his side was Uly’s sword, worn as if in preference to the jewel-hilted blade that Uly broke, and the Hunter of Souls raised the weapon to the delight of the crowd. Yet before he could bear down, the crowd’s delight became a gasp of consternation and confusion as the princess of Shun Dun leaped to her feet and hurled an object to the heathen with a defiant cry of encouragement never heard in the city before.
Uly saw his stolen staff of flight spinning in the air, and the moment that its knotted end reached his upraised hand, the mouth of the crowd fell to their collective feet. Now the barbarian relieved a startled guard of his spear, now he sank it in the neck of another, always moving, always striking, and in the bewildering flurry a set of keys was passed even as the guard Zaparius clutched his spurting neck and lurched to the dirt.
With an exultant cry, Taruk of the Omu vent his giant wrath on a hapless pair of guards whose helmeted heads collided in his hands with a sloppy crunch. Panicking spectators tumbled from the stands in a mad rush to escape, clawing over one another and landing at the feed of freed prisoners.
In the chaos Uly focused on two purposes, the first presenting itself when he saw the Hunter of Souls, jolted in his chariot by the erratic disorder of his team, fail to sheathe Anadrathul. Whether purposely discarded or accidentally dropped, Uly neither knew nor cared, but as quickly as it was in his hand, having swooped upon it like a bird of prey, so too did the fumbling fingers of the Hunter of Souls find the deadly crystal device stored in the case that was kept in the chariot. Hard target that he was, what little concern Uly felt toward this weapon was removed altogether as he saw Taruk plow full tilt into the chariot with a rending crash that sent Kuchyllex sprawling, the crystal device loosed from his grip. There was a burst of rubble as elsewhere on the field another of the devices was fired at a band of blood-mad prisoners, and from the broken wall half a dozen tusked beasts charged trumpeting.
Uly swept down on the imperial seating, brushing away robed votaries with wild swipes of his brawny arm, and emerged with the arms of Ryenda clasped as tightly around his neck as his own encircled around her waist. Another burst in the wall and Taruk was free, crystal cylinder in hand, riding the back of a trumpeting charger, which dwindled in Uly’s view as he soared with the princess of Shun Dun deep into the winding cavern...