HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
A Night at the Tarn House
Through the purple gloom came Molloqos the Melancholy, borne upon an iron palanquin by four dead Deodands.
Above them hung a swollen sun where dark continents of black ash were daily spreading across dying seas of dim red fire. Behind and before the forest loomed, steeped in scarlet shadow. Seven feet tall and black as onyx, the Deodands wore ragged skirts and nothing else. The right front Deodand, fresher than the others, squished with every step. Gaseous and swollen, his ripening flesh oozed noxious fluid from a thousand pinpricks where the Excellent Prismatic Spray had pierced him through. His passage left damp spots upon the surface of the road, an ancient and much-overgrown track whose stones had been laid during the glory days of Thorsingol, now a fading memory in the minds of men.
The Deodands moved at a steady trot, eating up the leagues. Being dead, they did not feel the chill in the air, nor the cracked and broken stones beneath their heels. The palanquin swayed from side to side, a gentle motion that made Molloqos think back upon his mother rocking him in his cradle. Even he had had a mother once, but that was long ago. The time of mothers and children had passed. The human race was fading, whilst grues and erbs and pelgranes claimed the ruins they left behind.
To dwell on such matters would only invite a deeper melancholy, however. Molloqos preferred to consider the book upon his lap. After three days of fruitless attempts to commit the Excellent Prismatic Spray to memory once again, he had set aside his grimoire, a massive tome bound in cracked vermillion leather with clasps and hinges of black iron, in favor of a slender volume of erotic poetry from the last days of the Sherit Empire, whose songs of lust had gone to dust eons ago. Of late his gloom ran so deep that even those fervid rhymes seldom stirred him to tumescence, but at least the words did not turn to worms wriggling on the vellum, as those in his grimoire seemed wont to do. The world’s long afternoon had given way to evening, and in that long dusk even magic had begun to crack and fade.
As the swollen sun sank slowly in the west, the words grew harder to discern. Closing his book, Molloqos pulled his Cloak of Fearsome Mien across his legs, and watched the trees go past. With the dying of the light each seemed more sinister than the last, and he could almost see shapes moving in the underbrush, though when he turned his head for a better look they were gone.
A cracked and blistered wooden sign beside the road read:
Half a League On
Famous for Our Hissing Eels
An inn would not be unwelcome, although Molloqos did not entertain high expectations of any hostelry that might be found along a road so drear and desolate as this. Come dark, grues and erbs and leucomorphs would soon be stirring, some hungry enough to risk an assault even on a sorcerer of fearful mien. Once he would not have feared such creatures; like others of his ilk, it had been his habit to arm himself with half a dozen puissant spells whenever he was called up to leave the safety of his manse. But now the spells ran through his mind like water through his fingers, and even those he still commanded seemed feebler each time he was called upon to employ them. And there were the shadow swords to consider as well. Some claimed they were shapechangers, with faces malleable as candle wax. Molloqos did not know the truth of that, but of their malice he had no doubt.
Soon enough he would be in Kaiin, drinking black wine with Princess Khandelume and his fellow sorcerers, safe behind the city’s tall white walls and ancient enchantments, but just now even an inn as dreary as this Tarn House must surely be preferable to another night in his pavilion beneath those sinister pines.
Slung between two towering wooden wheels, the cart shook and shuddered as it made its way down the rutted road, bouncing over the cracked stones and slamming Chimwazle’s teeth together. He clutched his whip tighter. His face was broad, his nose flat, his skin loose and sagging and pebbly, with a greenish cast. From time to time his tongue flickered out to lick an ear.
To the left the forest loomed, thick and dark and sinister; to the right, beyond a few thin trees and a drear gray strand dotted with clumps of salt-grass, stretched the tarn. The sky was violet darkening to indigo, spotted by the light of weary stars.
“Faster!” Chimwazle called to Polymumpho, in the traces. He glanced back over his shoulder. There was no sign of pursuit, but that did not mean the Twk-men were not coming. They were nasty little creatures, however tasty, and clung to their grudges past all reason. “Dusk falls. Soon night will be upon us! Bestir yourself! We must find shelter before evenfall, you great lump.”
The hairy-nosed Pooner made no reply but a grunt, so Chimwazle gave him a lick of the whip to encourage his efforts. “Move those feet, you verminious lout.” This time Polymumpho put his back into it, legs pumping, belly flopping. The cart bounced, and Chimwazle bit his tongue as one wheel slammed against a rock. The taste of blood filled his mouth, thick and sweet as moldy bread. Chimwazle spat, and a gobbet of greenish phlegm and black ichor struck Polymumpho’s face and clung to his cheek before dropping off to spatter on the stones. “Faster!” Chimwazle roared, and his lash whistled a lively tune to keep the Pooner’s feet thumping.
At last the trees widened and the inn appeared ahead of them, perched upon a hummock of stone where three roads came together. Stoutly-built and cheery it seemed, stone below and timber higher up, with many a grand gable and tall turret, and wide windows through which poured a warm, welcoming, ruddy light and the happy sounds of music and laughter, accompanied by a clatter of cup and platters that seemed to say, Come in, come in. Pull off your boots, put up your feet, enjoy a cup of ale. Beyond its pointed rooftops the waters of the tarn glittered smooth and red as a sheet of beaten copper, shining in the sun.
The Great Chimwazle had never seen such a welcome sight. “Halt!” he cried, flicking his whip at Polymumpho’s ear to command the Pooner’s attention. “Stop! Cease! Here is our refuge!”
Polymumpho stumbled, slowed, halted. He looked at the inn dubiously, and sniffed. “I would press on. If I were you.”
“You would like that, I am sure.” Chimwazle hopped from the cart, his soft boots squishing in the mud. “And when the Twk-men caught us, you would chortle and do nothing as they stabbed at me. Well, they will never find us here.”
“Except for that one,” said the Pooner.
And there he was: a Twk-man, flying bold as you please around his head. The wings of his dragonfly made a faint buzzing sound as he couched his lance. His skin was a pale green, and his helm was an acorn shell. Chimwazle raised his hands in horror. “Why do you molest me? I have done nothing!”
“You ate the noble Florendal,” the Twk-man said. “You swallowed Lady Melescence, and devoured her brothers three.”
“Not so! I refute these charges! It was someone else who looked like me. Have you proof? Show me your proof! What, have you none to offer? Begone with you then!”
Instead, the Twk-man flew at him and thrust his lance point at his nose, but quick as he was, Chimwazle was quicker. His tongue darted out, long and sticky, plucked the tiny rider from his mount, pulled him back wailing. His armor was flimsy stuff, and crunched nicely between Chimwazle’s sharp green teeth. He tasted of mint and moss and mushroom, very piquant.
Afterward, Chimwazle picked his teeth with the tiny lance. “There was only the one,” he decided confidently, when no further Twk-men deigned to appear. “A bowl of hissing eels awaits me. You may remain here, Pooner. See that you guard my cart.”
Lirianne skipped and spun as on she walked. Lithe and long-legged, boyish and bouncy, clad all in gray and dusky rose, she had a swagger in her step. Her blouse was spun of spider-silk, soft and smooth, its top three buttons undone. Her hat was velvet, wide-brimmed, decorated with a jaunty feather and cocked at a rakish angle. On’her hip, Tickle-Me-Sweet rode in a sheath of soft gray leather that matched her thigh-high boots. Her hair was a mop of auburn curls, her cheeks dusted with freckles across skin as pale as milk. She had lively gray eyes, a mouth made for mischievous smiles, and a small upturned nose that twitched as she sniffed the air.
The evening was redolent with pine and sea salt, but faintly, beneath those scents, Lirianne could detect a hint of erb, a dying grue, and the nearby stench of ghouls. She wondered if any would dare come out and play with her once the sun went down. The prospect made her smile. She touched the hilt of Tickle-Me-Sweet and spun in a circle, her boot heels sending up little puffs of dust as she whirled beneath the trees.
“Why do you dance, girl?” a small voice said. “The hour grows late, the shadows long. This is no time for dancing.”
A Twk-man hovered by her head, another just behind him. A third appeared, then a fourth. Their spear points glittered redly in the light of the setting sun, and the dragonflies they rode glimmered with a pale green luminescence. Lirianne glimpsed more amongst the trees, tiny lights darting in and out between the branches, small as stars. “The sun is dying,” Lirianne told them. “There will be no dances in the darkness. Play with me, friends. Weave bright patterns in the evening air whilst still you can.”
“We have no time for play,” one Twk-man said.
“We hunt,” another said. “Later we will dance.”
“Later,” the first agreed. And the laughter of the Twk-men filled the trees, as sharp as shards.
“Is there a Twk-town near?” asked Lirianne.
“Not near,” one Twk-man said.
“We have flown far,” another said.
“Do you have spice for us, dancer?”
“Salt?” said another.
“Pepper?” asked a third.
“Saffron?” sighed a fourth.
“Give us spice, and we will show you secret ways.”
“Around the tarn.”
“Around the inn.”
“Oho.” Lirianne grinned. “What inn is this? I think I smell it. A magical place, is it?”
“A dark place,” one Twk-men said.
“The sun is going out. All the world is growing dark.” Lirianne remembered another inn from another time, a modest place but friendly, with clean rushes on the floor and a dog asleep before the hearth. The world had been dying even then, and the nights were dark and full of terrors, but within those walls it had still been possible to find fellowship, good cheer, even love. Lirianne remembered roasts turning above the crackling fire, the way the fat would spit as it dripped down into the flames. She remembered the beer, dark and heady, smelling of hops. She remembered a girl too, an innkeeper’s daughter with bright eyes and a silly smile who’d loved a wandering warfarer. Dead now, poor thing. But what of it? The world was almost dead as well. “I want to see this inn,” she said. “How far is it?”
“A league,” the Twk-man said.
“Less,” a second insisted.
“Where is our salt?” the two of them said, together. Lirianne gave them each a pinch of salt from the pouch at her belt. “Show me,” she said, “and you shall have pepper too.”
The Tarn House did not lack for custom. Here sat a white-haired man with a long beard, spooning up some vile purple stew. There lounged a dark-haired slattern, nursing her glass of wine as if it were a newborn babe. Near-the wooden casks that lined one wall a ferret-faced man with scruffy whiskers was sucking snails out of their shells. Though his eyes struck Chimwazle as sly and sinister, the buttons on his vest were silver and his hat sported a fan of peacock feathers, suggesting that he did not lack for means. Closer to the hearth fire, a man and wife crowded around a table with their two large and lumpish sons, sharing a huge meat pie. From the look of them, they had wandered here from some land where the only color was brown. The father sported a thick beard; his sons displayed bushy mustaches that covered their mouths. Their mother’s mustache was finer, allowing one to see her lips.
The rustics stank of cabbage, so Chimwazle hied to the far side of the room and joined the prosperous fellow with the silver buttons on his vest.”How are your snails?” he inquired.
“Slimy and without savor. I do not recommend them.”
Chimwazle pulled out a chair. “I am the Great Chimwazle.”
“And I Prince Rocallo the Redoubtable.”
Chimwazle frowned. “Prince of what?”
“Just so.” The prince sucked another snail, and dropped the empty shell onto the floor.
That answer did not please him. “The Great Chimwazle is no man to trifle with,” he warned the so-called princeling.
“Yet here you sit, in the Tarn House.”
“With you,” observed Chimwazle, somewhat peevishly.
The landlord made his appearance, bowing and scraping as was appropriate for one of his station. “How may I serve you?”
“I will try a dish of your famous hissing eels.”
The innkeep gave an apologetic cough. “Alas, the eels are . . . ah . . . off the bill of fare.”
“What? How so? Your sign suggests that hissing eels are the specialty of the house.”
“And so they were, in other days. Delicious creatures, but mischievous. One ate a wizard’s concubine, and the wizard was so wroth he set the tarn to boiling and extinguished all the rest.”
“Perhaps you should change the sign.”
“Every day I think the same when I awaken. But then I think, the world may end today, should I spend my final hours perched upon a ladder with a paintbrush in my hand? I pour myself some wine and sit down to cogitate upon the matter, and by evening I find the urge has passed.”
“Your urges do not concern me,” said Chimwazle. “Since you have no eels, I must settle for a roast fowl, well crisped.”
The innkeep looked lachrymose. “Alas, this clime is not salubrious for chicken.”
“From the tarn?” The man shuddered. “I would advise against it. Most unwholesome, those waters.”
Chimwazle was growing vexed. His companion leaned across the table and said, “On no account should you attempt a bowl of scrumby. The gristle pies are also to be avoided.”
“Begging your pardon,” said the landlord, “but meat pies is all we have just now.”
“What sort of meat is in these pies?” asked Chimwazle.
“Brown,” said the landlord. “And chunks of gray”
“A meat pie, then.” There seemed to be no help for it.
The pie was large, admittedly; that was the best that could be said for it. What meat Chimwazle found was chiefly gristle, here and there a chunk of yellow fat, and once something that crunched suspiciously when he bit into it. There was more gray meat than brown, and once a chunk that glistened green. He found a carrot too, or perhaps it was a finger. In either case, it had been overcooked. Of the crust, the less said, the better.
Finally Chimwazle pushed the pie away from him. No more than a quarter had been consumed. “A wiser man might have heeded my warning,” said Rocallo.
“A wiser man with a fuller belly, perhaps.” That was problem with Twk-men; no matter how many you ate, an hour later you were hungry again. “The earth is old, but the night is young.” The Great Chimwazle produced a pack of painted placards from his sleeve. “Have you played peggoty? A jolly game, that goes well with ale. Perhaps you will assay a few rounds with me?”
“The game is unfamiliar to me, but I am quick to learn,” said Rocallo. “If you will explain the rudiments, I should be glad to try my hand.”
Chimwazle shuffled the placards.
The inn was grander than Lirianne had expected, and seemed queer and out of place, not at all the sort of establishment she would have expected to find along a forest road in the Land of the Falling Wall. “Famous for Our Hissing Eels,” she read aloud, and laughed. Behind the inn a sliver of the setting sun floated red upon the black waters of the tarn.
The Twk-men buzzed around her on their dragonflies. More and more had joined Lirianne as she made her way along the road. Two score, four, a hundred; by now she had lost count. The gauzy wings of their mounts trilled against the evening air. The purple dusk hummed to the sound of small angry voices.
Lirianne pinched her nose and took a sniff. The scent of sorcery was so strong it almost made her sneeze. There was magic here. “Oho,” she said. “I smell wizard.”
Whistling a spritely tune, she sauntered closer. A ramshackle cart was drawn up near the bottom of the steps. Slumped against one of its wheels was a huge, ugly man, big-bellied and ripe, with coarse dark hair sprouting from his ears and nostrils. He looked up as Lirianne approached. “I would not go up there if I were you. It is a bad place. Men go in. No men come out.”
“Well, I am no man as you can plainly see, and I love bad places. Who might you be?”
“Polymumpho is my name. I am a Pooner.”
“I am not familiar with the Pooners.”
“Few are.” He shrugged, a massive rippling of his shoulders. “Are those your Twk-men? Tell them my master went inside the inn to hide.”
“Three years ago I played at peggoty with Chimwazle. When my coin ran out, I bet myself.”
“Is your master a sorcerer?”
Another shrug. “He thinks he is.”
Lirianne touched the hilt of Tickle-Me-Sweet. “Then you may consider yourself free. I shall make good your debt for you.”
“Truly?” He got to his feet. “Can I have the cart?”
“If you wish.”
A wide grin split his face. “Hop on, and I will carry you to Kaiin. You will be safe, I promise you. Pooners only eat the flesh of men when the stars are in alignment.”
Lirianne glanced up. Half a dozen stars were visible above the trees, dusty diamonds glimmering in a purple velvet sky. “And who will be the judge of whether the stars are properly aligned for such a feast, or no?”
“On that account you may place your trust in me.” She giggled. “No, I think not. I am for the inn.”
“And I for the road.” The Pooner lifted the traces of the cart. “If Chimwazle complains of my absence, tell him that my debt is yours.”
“I shall.” Lirianne watched as Polymumpho rumbled off toward Kaiin, the empty cart bouncing and jouncing behind him. She scampered up the winding stone steps, and pushed her way through the door into the Tarn House.
The common room smelled of mold and smoke and ghouls, and a little leucomorph as well, though none such were presently in evidence. One table was packed with hairy rustics, another occupied by a big-bosomed slattern sipping wine from a dinted silver goblet. An old man attired in the antique fashion of a knight of ancient Thorsingol sat lonely and forlorn, his long white beard spotted with purple soup stains.
Chimwazle was not hard to find. He sat beneath the ale casks with another rogue, each of them appearing more unsavory than the other. The latter had the stink of rat about him; the former smelled of toad. The rattish man wore a gray leather vest with sparking silver buttons over a tight-fitting shirt striped in cream and azure, with large puffy sleeves. On his pointed head perched a wide-brimmed blue hat decorated with a fan of peacock feathers. His toadish companion, beset by drooping jowls,’pebbled skin, and greenish flesh that made him look faintly nauseated, favored a floppy cap that resembled a deflated mushroom, a soiled mauve tunic with golden scrollwork at collar, sleeve, and hem, and green shoes turned up at the toe. His lips were full and fat, his mouth so wide it all but touched the pendulous lobes of his ears.
Both vagabonds eyed Lirianne lasciviously as they weighed the possibilities of erotic dalliance. The toad actually dared to venture a small smile. Lirianne knew how that game was played. She removed her hat, bowed to them, and approached their table. A spread of painted placards covered its rough wooden surface, beside the remains of a congealed and singularly unappealing meat pie. “What game is this?” she asked, oh so innocent.
“Peggoty,” said the toadish man. “Do you know it?”
“No,” she said, “but I love to play. Will you teach me?”
“Gladly. Have a seat. I am Chimwazle, oft called the Gallant. My friend is known as Rocallo the Reluctant.”
“Redoubtable,” the rat-faced man corrected, “and I am Prince Rocallo, if it please you. The landlord is about here somewhere. Will you take a drink, girl?”
“I will,” she said. “Are you wizards? You have a sorcerous look about you.”
Chimwazle made a dismissive gesture. “Such pretty eyes you have, and sharp as well. I know a spell or two.”
“A charm to make milk sour?” suggested Rocallo. “That is a spell that many know, though it takes six days to work.”
“That, and many more,” boasted Chimwazle, “each more potent than the last.”
“Will you show me?” Lirianne asked, in a breathless voice.
“Perhaps when we know each other better.”
“Oh, please. I have always wanted to see true magic.”
“Magic adds spice to the gristle that is life,” proclaimed Chimwazle, leering, “but I do not care to waste my wonderments before such lumpkins and pooners as surround us. Later when we are alone, I shall perform such magics for you as you have never seen, until you cry out in joy and awe. But first some ale, and a hand or three of pegotty to get our juices flowing! What stakes shall we play for?”
“Oh, I am sure you will think of something,” said Lirianne.
By the time Molloqos the Melancholy caught sight of the Tarn House, the swollen sun was setting, easing itself down in the west like an old fat man lowering himself into his favorite chair.
Muttering softly in a tongue no living man had spoken since the Gray Sorcerers went to the stars, the sorcerer commanded a halt. The inn beside the tarn was most inviting to the casual glance, but Molloqos was of a suspicious cast, and had long ago learned that things were not always as they seemed. He muttered a brief invocation, and lifted up an ebon staff. Atop the shaft was a crystal orb, within which a great golden eye looked this way and that. No spell nor illusion could deceive the True-Seeing Eye.
Stripped of its glamour, the Tarn House stood weathered and gray, three stories tall and oddly narrow. It leaned sideways like a drunken wormiger, a crooked flight of flagstone steps leading upwards to its door. Diamond-shaped panes of green glass gave the light from within a diseased and leprous cast; its roof was overgrown with drooping ropes of fungus. Behind the inn the tarn was black as pitch and redolent of decay, dotted with drowned trees, its dark oily waters stirring ominously. A stable stood off to one side, a structure so decayed that even dead Deodands might balk at entering.
At the foot of the inn’s steps was a sign that read:
Famous for Our Hissing Eels
The right front Deodand spoke up. “The earth is dying and soon the sun will fail. Here beneath this rotten roof is a fit abode for Molloqos to spend eternity.”
“The earth is dying and soon the sun shall fail,” Molloqos agreed, “but if the end should overtake us here, I shall spend eternity seated by a fire savoring a dish of hissing eels, whilst you stand shivering in the dark and cold, watching pieces of your body ripen and rot and tumble to the ground.” Adjusting the drape of his Cloak of Fearful Mein, he gathered up his tall ebony staff, descended from the palanquin, stepped into the weed-choked yard, and began to climb the steps up to the inn.
Above, a door banged open. A man emerged, a small and servile creature with gravy spatters on his apron who could only be the innkeeper. As he hurried down, wiping his hands upon his apron, he caught his first good sight of Molloqos, and paled.
As well he might. White as bone was the flesh of Molloqos, beneath his Cloak of Fearful Mien. Deep and dark and full of sadness were his eyes. His nose curved downward in a hook; his lips were thin and rather dour; his hands large, expressive, long-fingered. On his right hand his fingernails were painted black, on his left scarlet. His long legs were clothed in striped pantaloons of those same colors, tucked into calf-high boots of polished grue hide. Black and scarlet was his hair as well, blood and night mixed together; on his head perched a wide-brimmed hat of purple velvet decorated with a green pearl and a white quill.
“Dread sir,” the innkeep said, “those . . . those Deodands . . . ”
“ . . . will not trouble you. Death diminishes even such savage appetites as theirs.”
“We . . . we do not oft see sorcerers at the Tarn House.”
Molloqos was unsurprised. Once the dying earth had teemed with such, but in these last days even magic was waning. Spells seemed less potent than before, their very words harder to grasp and hold. The grimoires themselves were crumbling, falling to dust in ancient libraries as their protective charms winked out like guttering candles. And as the magic failed, so too did the magicians. Some fell to their own servants, the demons and sandestins who once obeyed their every whim. Others were hunted down by shadow swords, or torn apart by angry mobs of women. The wisest slipped away to other times and other places, their vast and drafty manses vanishing like mist before the sunrise. Their very names had become the stuff of legend: Mazirian the Magician, Turjan of Miir, Rhialto the Marvelous, the Enigmatic Mumph, Gilgad, Pandelume, Ildefonse the Perceptor.
Yet Molloqos remained, and it was his intent to go on remaining, to live to drink a final cup of wine while he watched the sun go out. “You stand in the presence of Molloqos the Melancholy, poet, philosopher, archmage, and necromancer, a student of forgotten tongues and bane of demonkind,” he informed the cringing landlord. “Every corner of this dying earth is known to me. I collect curious artifacts from eons past, translate crumbling scrolls no other man can read, converse with the dead, delight the living, frighten the meek, and awe the unenlightened. My vengeance is a cold black wind, my affection warm as a yellow sun. The rules and laws that govern lesser men I brush off as a wayfarer might brush the dust from his cloak. This night I will honor you with my custom. No obsequies are necessary. I will require your best room, dry and spacious, with a feather mattress. I shall sup with you as well. A thick slice of wild boar would fill me nicely, with such side dishes as your kitchen may supply.”
“We have no boars hereabouts, wild or tame. The grues and the erbs ate most of them, and the rest were dragged down into the tarn. I can serve you a meat pie, or a piping hot bowl of purple scrumby, but I don’t think you’d like the one, and I know you’d hate t’other.” The innkeep swallowed. “A thousand pardons, dread sir. My humble house is not fit for such as you. No doubt you would find some other inn more comfortable.”
Molloqos let his visage darken. “No doubt,” said he, “but as no other inn presents itself, I must make do with yours.”
The innkeep dabbed at his forehead with his apron. “Dread sir, begging your pardons and meaning no offense, but I’ve some trouble from sorcerous folk before. Some, not so honest as you, settle their accounts with purses of ensorcelled stones and chunks of dung glamoured to look like gold, and others have been known to inflict boils and warts on unhappy serving wenches and innocent innkeepers when the service does not meet their standards.”
“The remedy is simple,” declared Molloqos the Melancholy. “See that the service is all that it should be, and you will have no difficulties. You have my word, I will perform no sorceries in your common room, inflict no boils nor warts upon your staff, nor settle my account with dung. But now I grow weary of this banter. The day is done, the sun is fled, and I am weary, so here I mean to stay the night. Your choice is simple. Accommodate me, or else I shall pronounce Gargoo’s Festering Reek upon you and leave you to choke upon your own stench until the end of your days. Which will not be long in coming, as pelgranes and erbs are drawn to the smell as mice are drawn to a nice ripe cheese.”
The innkeep’s mouth opened and closed, but no words emerged. After a moment, he shuffled to one side. Molloqos acknowledged the surrender with a nod, ascended the rest of the steps, and shoved through the inn’s front door.
The interior of the Tarn House proved to be just as dark, damp, and dismal as the exterior. A queer sour odor hung in the air, though Molloqos would not have ventured to say whether it emanated from the innkeep, the other customers, or whatever was cooking in the kitchen. A hush fell upon the common room at his entrance. All eyes turned toward him, as was only to be expected. In his Cloak of Fearful Mein, he was a fearful sight.
Molloqos took a seat at the table by the window. Only then did he permit himself to inspect his fellow guests. The group near the fire, growling at each other in low, gutteral voices, reminded the sorcerer of turnips with hair. Over by the ale casks, a pretty young girl was laughing and flirting with a pair of obvious scoundrels, one of whom appeared to be not entirely human. Nearby an old man slept, his head on the table, pillowed atop his folded arms. There was a woman just beyond him, sloshing the dregs of her wine and eying the wizard speculatively across the room. A glance was enough to tell Molloqos that she was a woman of the evening, though in her case evening was edging on toward night. Her visage was not altogether hideous, although there was something odd and unsettling about the look of her ears. Still, she had a pleasing shape, her eyes were large and dark and liquid, and the fire woke red highlights in her long black hair.
Or so it seemed through the eyes that Molloqos had been born with, but he knew better than to put his trust in those. Softly, softly, he whispered an invocation, and looked again through the enchanted golden eye atop his staff. This time he saw true.
For his supper, the sorcerer ordered a meat pie, as the specialty of the house was unavailable. After one bite Molloqos put down his spoon, feeling even more melancholy than he had a moment before. Wisps of steam rose through the pie’s broken crust to form hideous faces in the air, their mouths open in torment. When the landlord returned to inquire if the repast was to his liking, Molloqos gave,him a reproachful look and said, “You are fortunate that I am not so quick to wroth as most of my brethren.”
“I am grateful for your forbearance, dread sir.”
“Let us hope that your bedchambers keep to a higher standard than your kitchen.”
“For three terces you can share the big bed with Mumpo and his family,” the landlord said, indicating the rustics near the hearth. “A private room will cost you twelve.”
“None but the best for Molloqos the Melancholy.”
“Our best room rents for twenty terces, and is presently occupied by Prince Rocallo.”
“Remove his things at once, and have the room readied for me,” Molloqos commanded. He might have said a good deal more, but just then the dark-eyed woman woman rose and came over to his table. He nodded toward the chair across from him. “Sit.”
She sat. “Why do you look so sad?”
“It is the lot of man. I look at you, and see the child that you were. Once you had a mother who held you to her breast. Once you had a father who dandled you upon his knee. You were their pretty little girl, and through your eyes they saw again the wonders of the world. Now they are dead and the world is dying, and their child sells her sadness to strangers.”
“We are strangers now, but we need not remain so,” the woman said. “My name is”
“—no concern of mine. Are you a child still, to speak your true name to a sorcerer?”
“Sage counsel.” She put her hand upon his sleeve. “Do you have a room? Let us repair upstairs, and I will make you happy.”
“Unlikely. The earth is dying. So too the race of men. No erotic act can change that, no matter how perverse or energetic.”
“There is still hope,” the woman said. “For you, for me, for all of us. Only last year I lay with a man who said a child had been born to a woman of Saskervoy.”
“He lied, or was deceived. As Saskervoy, the women weep as elsewhere, and devour their children in the womb. Man dwindles, and soon shall disappear. The earth will become the haunt of Deodands and pelgranes and worse things, until the last light flickers out. There was no child. Nor will there be.”
The woman shivered. “Still,” she said, “still. So long as men and women endure, we must try. Try with me.”
“As you wish.” He was Molloqos the Melancholy, and he had seen her for what she was. “When I retire, you may come to my bedchamber, and we shall try the truth of things.”
The placards were made of dark black wood, sliced paper thin and brightly painted. They made a faint clacking sound when Lirianne turned them over. The game was simple enough. They played for terces. Lirianne won more than she lost, though she did not fail to note that whenever the wagering was heavy, somehow Chimwazle showed the brightest placards, no matter how promising her own had seemed at first.
“Fortune favors you this evening,” Chimwazle announced, after a dozen hands, “but playing for such small stakes grows tiresome.” He placed a golden centum on the table. “Who will meet my wager?”
“I,” said Rocallo. “The earth is dying, and with it all of us. What do a few coins matter to a corpse?”
Lirianne looked sad. “I have no gold to wager.”
“No matter,” said Chimwazle. “I have taken a fancy to your hat. Put that in the wager, against our gold.”
“Oho. Is that the way of it?” She cocked her head and ran the tip of her tongue across her lip. “Why not?”
Shortly she was hatless, which was no more than she had expected. She handed the prize to Chimwazle with a flourish and shook out her hair, smiling as he stared at her. Lirianne took care never to look directly at the sorcerer seated by the window, but she had been aware of him since the moment he had entered. Gaunt and grim and fearsome, that one, and he stank of sorcery so strongly that it overwhelmed the lesser magics wafting off the odious fraud Chimwazle. Most of the great mages were dead or fled, slain by shadow swords or gone to some underworld or overworld, or perhaps to distant stars. Those few who remained upon the dying earth were gathering in Kaiin, she knew, hoping to find safety there behind the white-walled city’s ancient enchantments. This was surely one of them.
Her palm itched, and Tickle-Me-Sweet sang silent by her side. Lirianne had tempered its steel in the blood of the first wizard she had slain, when she was six-and-ten. No protective spell was proof against such a blade, though she herself had no defense but her wits. The hard part of killing wizards was knowing when to do it, when most of them could turn you into dust with a few well-chosen words.
A round of ales arrived, and then another. Lirianne sipped at her first tankard while her second sat untouched by her elbow, but her companions drank deep. When Rocallo called for a third round, Chimwazle excused himself to answer a call of nature, and loped across the common room in search of a privy. He gave the necromancer’s table a wide berth, Lirianne did not fail to note. That pale grim creature seemed deeply engrossed in conversation with the inn’s resident doxy, oblivious to the wattled pop-eyed rogue scuttling past, but the golden eye atop his wizard’s staff had fixed on Chimwazle and watched his every move.
“Chimwazle has been cozening us,” she told Rocallo when the toad-faced creature was gone. “I won the last showing, and you the two before that, yet his pile of terces is as large as ever. The coins move whenever we’re not looking. Creeping home across the table. And the placards change their faces.”
The prince gave a shrug. “What does it matter? The sun grows dark. Who shall count our terces when we’re dead?”
His ennui annoyed her. “What sort of prince sits by and lets some feeble wizard make a fool of him?”
“The sort who has experienced Lugwiler’s Dismal Itch, and has no desire to experience it again. Chimwazle amuses me.”
“It would amuse me to tickle Chimwazle.”
“He will laugh and laugh, I have no doubt.”
Then a shadow fell across them. Lirianne looked up, to find the grim-visaged necromancer looming over them. “It has been three hundred years since last I played a hand of pegotty,” he intoned in a sepulchral tone. “May I sit in?”
The Great Chimwazle’s stomach was a-heave. The meat pie might be to blame, all that gristle and suet. Or perhaps it was the Twk-men he had eaten in the woods. Delicious little things, but never easy to digest. They might be in his belly still, stabbing at him with their silly little spears. He should have stopped at a dozen, but once he had started, it was so easy to think, well, one more would be nice, and perhaps another after that one. He wondered if their spears were poisoned. Chimwazle had not considered that. It was a disagreeable thought.
Almost as disagreeable as this inn. He should have paid more heed to the Pooner. The Tarn House had little to recommend it, save perhaps the pretty freckly thing who had joined his little game of peggoty. Already he had won her hat. Her boots would soon follow, and then her stockings. Chimwazle was only waiting for some of the other travelers in the common room to retire to their beds before beginning his assault in earnest. Rocallo was too dull and diffident to interfere, he was certain. Once he’d won her clothes the girl would have nothing to wager but her indenture, and afterward he could harness her to his cart an arm’s length ahead of Polymumpho. Let the Pooner chase after her henceforth, that should serve to keep those hairy legs of his pumping briskly. Chimwazle might not even need to ply the whip.
The inn’s privy was cramped and smelly, and offered neither bench nor bar, but only a ragged hole in the floor. Squatting over it with his breeches round his ankles, Chimwazle grunted and groaned as.he voided his bowels. The act was never a pleasant one for him, attended as it was by the risk of waking the imp nested in the fleshier portions of his nether parts, whose second favorite amusement was loudly describing Chimwazle’s manhood in terms of withering scorn (its first favorite amusement was something Chimwazle did not wish to think about).
He was spared that ordeal on this occasion, but worse awaited him when he returned to the inn’s common room and found that the tall magician with the fearsome face had taken a seat at his own table. Chimwazle had had enough experiences with great sorcerers to know that he did not want any more such experiences. His present appearance was the legacy of a misunderstanding at a crossroads with one such, and the imp with the loquacious mouth hidden in his breeches was a souvenir left him by the witch Eluuna, whose affections he had enjoyed for a fortnight when he was young and slim and handsome. This sorcerer in scarlet and black lacked Eluuna’s charms, but might well share her fickle temper. One never knew what small gaffes and innocent omissions a wizard might take for mortal insult.
Still, there was no help for it, unless he meant to flee at once into the night. That course seemed less than advisable. The nights belonged to grues and ghouls and leucomorphs, and there was some small chance more Twk-men might be awaiting him as well. So Chimwazle donned his best smile, resumed his seat, and smacked his lips. “We have another player, I see. Innkeep, run fetch some ale for our new friend. And be quick about it, or you may find a carbuncle growing on the end of your nose!”
“I am Molloqos the Melancholy, and I do not drink ale.”
“I perceive you are of the sorcerous persuasion,” said Chimwazle. “We have that in common, you and I. How many spells do you carry?”
“That is none of your concern,” warned Molloqos.
“There now. It was an innocent inquiry, between colleagues. I myself am armed with six great spells, nine minor enchantments, and a variety of cantraps.” Chimwazle shuffled the placards. “My sandestin awaits without, disguised as a Pooner and bound to my cart, yet ready to whisk me off into the sky at my command. But no sorcery at table, please! Here dame fortune rules, and may not be confounded by spells!” And so saying, he placed a golden centum in the center of the table. “Come, come, put in your stakes! Pegotty has more savor when gold is glinting in the pot.”
“Just so.” Prince Rocallo laid his centum atop Chimwazle’s.
The girl Lirianne could only pout (which she did very prettily). “I have no gold, and I want my hat back.”
“Then you must put your boots into the wager.”
“Must I? Oh, very well.”
The sorcerer said nothing. Instead of reaching into his own purse, he rapped thrice upon the floor with his ebon staff and pronounced a small cantrap for the dispelling of illusions and concealments. At once, Chimwazle’s centum transformed into a fat white spider and walked slowly from the board on eight hairy legs, while the pile of terces in front of him turned into as many cockroaches and scuttled off in all directions.
The girl squealed. The prince chortled. Chimwazle gulped down his dismay and drew himself up, his jowls a-quiver. “Look what you have done! You owe me a golden centum.”
“Far be it!” Molloqos said, with outrage. “You aspired to hoodwink us with a cheap conjurer’s glamour. Did you truly believe such a feeble ploy would work upon Molloqos the Melancholy?” The great golden eye atop his staff was blinking, as green vapors swirled ominously within its crystal orb.
“Softly, softly,” protested Prince Rocallo. “My head is hazy from the ale, and harsh words make it ring.”
“Oh, will you fight a wizard’s duel?” Lirianne clapped her hands together. “What grand magics shall we see?”
“The innkeep may protest,” said Rocallo. “Such contests are the bane of hospitality. When swordsmen duel, the only damage is some broken crockery and perchance a bloodstain on the floorboards. A pail of hot water and a good elbow will set that aright. A wizard’s duel is like to leave an inn a smoking ruin.”
“Pah,” said Chimwazle, jowls quivering. A dozen rejoinders sprang to, his lips, each more withering than the one before, but caution bid him swallow every syllable. Instead he jerked to his feet, so quickly that it sent his chair crashing to the floor. “The innkeep need have no fear on that account. Such spells as I command are far too potent to be deployed for the idle amusement of hatless trollops and feigned princes. The Great Chimwazle will not be mocked, I warn you.” And so saying, he made a hasty retreat, before the scarlet and black sorcerer could take further umbrage. A fat white spider and a line of cockroaches scuttled after him, as fast as their legs would carry them.
The fire had burned down to embers, and the air was growing cold. Darkness gathered in the corners of the common room. The rustics by the hearth huddled closer, muttering at one another through their whiskers. The golden eye atop the staff of Molloqos the Melancholy peered this way and that.
“Do you mean to let the cheat escape?” the girl asked.
Molloqos did not deign to answer. Soon all the veils would fall away, he sensed. The fraud Chimwazle was the least of his concerns. The shadow swords were here, and worst things too. And it seemed to him that he could hear a faint, soft hissing.
The landlord rescued him from further inquiry, appearing suddenly by his elbow to announce that his room was ready, should he wish to retire.
“I do.” Molloqos rose to his feet, leaning on his staff. He adjusted his Cloak of Fearful Mien and said, “Show me.”
The innkeep took a lantern off the wall, lit the wick, turned up the flame. “If you would follow me, dread sir.”
Up three long flights of crooked steps Molloqos climbed, following the landlord with his lantern, until at last they reached the upper story and a heavy wooden door.
The Tarn House’s best room was none too grand. The ceiling was too low, and the floorboards creaked alarmingly. A single window looked out across the tarn, where black waters churned and rippled suggestively beneath the dim red light of distant stars. Beside the bed, on a small three-legged table, a tallow candle stood crookedly in a puddle of hardened wax, flickering. A chest and a straightback chair were the only other furnishings. Shadows lay thickly in the corners of the room, black as the belly of a Deodand. The air was damp and chill, and Molloqos could hear wind whistling through gaps in the shutters. “Is that mattress stuffed with feathers?” he asked.
“Nothing but honest straw at the Tarn House.” The innkeep hung his lantern from a hook. “See, here are two stout planks that slide in place to bar the door and window, so. You may rest easy tonight, with no fear of intruders. The chest at the foot of the bed contains an extra blanket, and may be used to store your garments and other valuables. Beside it is your chamberpot. Is there anything else you might require?”
“As you command.”
Molloqos listened as the innkeep made his descent. When he was satisfied that he was alone, he gave the room a careful inspection, tapping on the walls, checking the door and window, thumping the floorboards with the butt of his staff. The chest at the foot of the bed had a false bottom that could be opened from beneath, to give access to a crawlway. Doubtless that was how the thieves and murderers crept in, to relieve unwary travelers of their goods and lives. As for the bed . . .
Molloqos gave the mattress a wide berth, seating himself instead in the chair, his staff in hand. His last few spells were singing in his head. It did not take long for the first of his visitors to arrive. Her knock was soft, but insistent. Molloqos opened the door, ushered her into the bedchamber, and slid the bar in place behind her. “So we are not disturbed,” he explained.
The dark-haired woman smiled seductively. She pulled the ties that closed her robe, then shrugged it off her shoulders to puddle on the floor. “Will you remove your cloak?”
“As soon remove my skin,” said Molloqos the Melancholy.
The woman shivered in his arms. “You talk so strangely. You frighten me.” Gooseprickles covered her arms. “What do you have in your hand?”
“Surcease.” He stabbed her through the throat. She sank to her knees, hissing. When her mouth opened, her fangs gleamed in the half-light, long and pointed. Her blood ran black down her neck. A leucomorph, he judged, or something stranger still. The wilds were full of queer things now; mongrels fathered by demons on Deodands, spawn of succubi and incubi, mock men grown in vats, bog-born monsters made of rotting flesh.
Bending over her pale corpse, Molloqos the Melancholy brushed her hair back from her cheek and kissed her; once upon the brow, once upon each cheek, deeply on the mouth. Life left her with a shudder and entered him with a gasp, as warm as a summer wind in the days of his youth when the sun burned brighter and laughter could still be heard in the cities of men.
When she was cold, he spoke the words of Cazoul’s Indenture, and her corpse opened its eyes again. He bid her rise, to stand sentry while he slept. A great weariness was on him, but it would not do to be taken unawares. He would have other visitors before the night was done, he did not doubt.
He dreamt of Kaiin, shimmering behind its high white walls.
A chill hung in the night air as Chimwazle slipped from the inn through a side door. A gray mist was rising off the tarn, and he could hear the waters stirring down below, as if something were moving in the shadows. Crouching low, he peered this way and that, his bulbous eyes moving beneath his floppy cap, but he saw no sign of Twk-men. Nor did he hear the soft ominous trill of dragonfly wings.
They had not found him, then. That was good. It was time he was away. That there were grues and ghouls and erbs out in the wood he did not doubt, but he would sooner take his chances with them than with the necromancer. A few brisk licks of the whip, and his Pooner would outrace them all. And if not, well, Polymumpho had more meat on him than Chimwazle. Grinning ear to ear, he loped down the rocky hummock, his belly wobbling.
Halfway down, he noticed that his cart was gone. “Infamous Pooner!” he cried, stumbling in shock. “Thief! Thief! Where is my cart, you lice-ridden lump?” No one gave reply. At the foot of the steps, there was nothing to be seen but a sinister iron palaquin and four huge Deodands with flesh as black as night, standing knee deep in the tarn. The waters were rising, Chimwazle realized suddenly. The Tarn House had become an island.
Fury pushed aside his fear. Deodands relished the taste of man flesh, it was known. “Did you eat my Pooner?” he demanded.
“No,” said one, showing a mouth full of gleaming ivory teeth, “but come closer, and we will gladly eat you.”
“Pah,” said Chimwazle. Now that he was closer, he could see that the Deodands were dead. The necromancer’s work, he did not doubt. He licked his ear lobe nervously and a cunning ploy occurred to him. “Your master Molloqos has commanded you to carry me to Kaiin with all haste.”
“Yessss,” hissed the deodand. “Mollogos commands and we obey. Come, clamber on, and we’ll away.”
Something about the way he said that made Chimwazle pause to reconsider the wisdom of his plan. Or perhaps it was the way all four of the Deodands began to gnash those pointed teeth. He hesitated, and suddenly grew aware of a faint stirring in the air behind him, a whisper of wind at the back of his neck.
Chimwazle whirled. A Twk-man was floating a foot from his face, his lance couched, and a dozen more hovering behind him. His bulging eyes popped out even further as he saw the upper stories of the Tarn House acrawl with them, thick as tarps and twice as veriminous. Their dragonflies were a glowing green cloud, roiling like a thunderhead. “Now you perish,” the Twk-man said.
Chimwazle’s sticky tongue struck first, flicking out to pull the small green warrior from his mount. But as he crunched and swallowed, the cloud took wing, buzzing angrily. Yelping in dismay, the Great Chimwazle had no choice but to flee back up the steps to the inn, hotly pursued by a swarm of dragonflies and the laughter of a Deodand.
Lirianne was vexed.
It would have been so much easier if only she could have set the two wizards to fighting over her, so they might exhaust their magic on one another. That the ghastly Molloqos would make short work of the odious Chimwazle she did not doubt, but however many spells that might have required would have left him with that many fewer when the time came for her to tickle him.
Instead, Molloqos had retired to his bed, while Chimwazle had scuttled off into the night, craven as a crab. “Look what he did to my hat,” Lirianne complained, snatching it off the floorboards. Chimwazle had trampled on it on his haste to depart, and the feather was broken.
“His hat,” said Prince Rocallo. “You lost it.”
“Yes, but I meant to win it back. Though I suppose I should be grateful that it did not turn into a cockroach.” She jammed the hat back on her head, tilted at a rakish angle. “First they break the world, and then my hat.”
“Chimwazle broke the world?”
“Him,” Lirianne said darkly, “and his sort. Wizards. Sorcerers and sorceresses, sages and mages and archmages, witches and warlocks, conjurers, illusionists, diabolists. Necromancers, geomancers, aeromancers, pyromancers, thaumaturges, dreamwalkers, dreamweavers, dreameaters. All of them. Their sins are written on the sky, dark as the sun.”
“You blame black magic for the world’s demise?”
“Bah,” said Lirianne. Men were such fools. “White magic and black are two sides of the same terce. The ancient tomes tell the tale, for those who have the wit to read them correctly. Once there was no magic. The sky was bright blue, the sun shone warm and yellow, the woods were full of deer and hare and songbirds, and everywhere the race of man was thriving. Those ancient men built towers of glass and steel taller than mountains, and ships with sails of fire that took them to the stars. Where are these glories now? Gone, lost, forgotten. Instead we have spells, charms, curses. The air grows cold, the woods are full of grue and ghouls, Deodands haunt the ruins of ancient cities, pelgranes rule the skies where men once flew. Whose work is this? Wizards! Their magic is a blight on sun and soul. Every time a spell is spoken here on earth, the sun grows that much darker.”
She might have revealed even more, had not the pop-eyed Chimwazle chosen that very moment to make a sudden reappearance, stumbling through the door with his long arms wrapped around his head. “Get them off!” he bellowed, as he lurched between the tables. “Ow, ow, ow. Get off me, I am innocent, it was someone else!” Thus shouting, he went crashing to the floor, where he writhed and rolled, slapping himself about the head and shoulders while continuing to implore for assistance against attackers who seemed nowhere in evidence. “Twk,” he cried, “twk, twk, wretched twk! Off me, off me!”
Prince Rocallo winced. “Enough! Chimwazle, cease this unmanly caterwauling. Some of us are attempting to drink.”
The rogue rolled unto his rump, which was wide and wobbly and amply padded. “The Twk-men—”
“—remain without,” said Lirianne. The door remained wide open, but none of the Twk-men had followed Chimwazle inside. Chimwazle blinked his bulbous eyes and peered about from side to side to make certain that was true. Although no Twk-men were to be seen, the back of his neck was covered with festering boils where they had stung him with their lances, and more were sprouting on his cheeks and forehead.
“I do hope you know a healing spell,” Rocallo said. “Those look quite nasty. The one on your cheek is leaking blood.” Chimwazle made a noise that was half a groan and half a croak and said, “Vile creatures! They had no cause to abuse me thus. All I did was thin their excess populace. There were plenty left!” Puffing, he climbed back onto his feet and retrieved his cap. “Where is that pestilential innkeep? I require unguent at once. These pin-pricks have begun to itch.”
“Itching is only the first symptom,” said Lirianne, with a helpful smile. “The lances of the Twk-men are envenomed. By morning, your head will be as large as a pumpkin, your tongue will blacken and burst, your ears will fill with pus, and you may be seized by an irresistible desire to copulate with a hoon.”
“A hoon?” croaked Chimwazle, appalled.
“Perhaps a grue. It depends upon the poison.”
Chimwazle’s face had turned a deeper shade of green. “This affront cannot be borne! Pus? Hoons? Is there no cure, no salve, no antidote?”
Lirianne cocked her head to one side thoughtfully. “Why,” she said, “I have heard it said that the blood of a sorcerer is a sure remedy for any bane or toxin.”
“Alas,” Chimwazle said, relieved. “Our plan is foiled. Back to the common room, then. Let us reconsider over ale.” He scratched furiously beneath his chin, groaned.
“Why not break the door down?” asked Lirianne. “A big strong man like you . . . ” She squeezed his arm and smiled. “Unless you would rather give pleasure to a hoon?”
Chimwazle shuddered, though even a hoon might be preferable to this itching. Glancing up, he saw the transom. It was open just a crack, but that might be enough. “Rocallo, friend, lift me up onto your shoulders.”
The prince knelt. “As you wish.” He was stronger than he looked, and seemed to have no trouble hoisting Chimwazle up into the air, for all his bulk. Nor did the nervous trumpet notes emitted by Chimwazle’s nether parts dismay him unduly.
Pressing his nose to the transom, Chimwazle slid his tongue through the gap and down the inside of the doorframe, then curled it thrice around the wooden plank that barred the way. Slowly, slowly, he lifted the bar from its slot . . . but the weight proved too great for his tongue, and the plank fell clattering to the floor. Chimwazle reeled backwards, Prince Rocallo lost his balance, and the two of them collapsed atop each other with much grunting and cursing while Lirianne skipped nimbly aside.
Then the door swung open.
Molloqos the Melancholy did not need to speak a word.
Silent he bid them enter and silent they obeyed, Chimwazle scrambling over the threshold on hands on feet as his fellows stepped nimbly around him. When all of them had come inside he closed the door behind them and barred it once again.
The rogue Chimwazle was almost unrecognizable beneath his floppy hat, his toadish face a mass of festering boils and buboes where some Twk-men had kissed him with their lances. “Salve,” he croaked, as he climbed unsteadily to his feet. “We came for salve, sorry to disturb you. Dread sir, if you perchance should have some unguent for itching . . . ”
“I am Molloqos the Melancholy. I do not deal in unguents. Come here and grasp my staff.”
For a moment, Chimwazle looked as he might bolt the room instead, but in the end he bowed his head and shuffled closer, and wrapped a soft splayed hand around the ebon shaft of the tall sorcerer’s staff. Inside the crystal orb the True-Seeing Eye had fixed on Lirianne and Rocallo. When Molloqos thumped the staff upon the floor, the great golden eye blinked once. “Now look again upon your companions, and tell me what you see.”
Chimwazle’s mouth gaped open, and his bulging eyes looked as though they might pop out of his skull. “The girl is cloaked in shadows,” he gasped, “and under her freckly face I see a skull.”
“And your prince . . . ”
“ . . . is a demon.”
The thing called Prince Rocallo laughed, and let all his enchantments dissolve. His flesh was red and raw, glowing like the surface of the sun, and like the sun half-covered by a creeping black leprosy. Smoke rose stinking from his nostrils, the floorboards began to smolder beneath his taloned feet, and black claws sprang from his hands as long as knives.
Then Molloqos spoke a word and stamped his staff hard against the floor, and from the shadows in a corner of the room a woman’s corpse came bursting to leap upon the demon’s back. As the two of them lurched and staggered about the room, tearing at each other, Lirianne danced aside and Chimwazle fell backwards onto his ample rump. The stench of burning flesh filled the air. The demon ripped one of the corpse’s arms off and flung it smoking at the head of Molloqos, but the dead feel no pain, and her other arm was wrapped about its throat. Black blood ran down her cheeks like tears as she pulled him backward onto the bed.
Molloqos stamped his staff again. The floor beneath the bed yawned open, the mattress tilted, and demon and corpse together tumbled down into a gaping black abyss. A moment later, there came a loud splash from below, followed by a furious cacophony, demonic shrieking mingled with a terrible whistling and hissing, as if a thousand kettles had all come to a boil at once. When the bed righted itself the sound diminished, but it was a long while before it ended. “W-what was that?” asked Chimwazle.
“Hissing eels. The inn is famous for them.”
“I distinctly recall the innkeep saying that the eels were off the menu,” said Chimwazle.
“The eels are off our menu, but we not off theirs.”
Lirianne made a pouty face and said, “The hospitality of the Tarn House leaves much to be desired.”
Chimwazle was edging toward the door. “I mean to speak firmly to the landlord. Some adjustment of our bill would seem to be in order.” He scratched angrily at his boils.
“I would advise against returning to the common room,” said the necromancer. “No one in the Tarn House is all that he appears. The hirsute family by the hearth are ghouls clad in
suits of human skin, here for the meat pies. The greybeard in the faded raiment of a knight of Old Thorsingol is a malign spirit, cursed to an eternity of purple scrumby for the niggardly gratuities he left in life. The demon and the leucomorph are no longer a concern, but our servile host is vilest of all. Your wisest course is flight. I suggest you use the window.”
The Great Chimwazle needed no further encouragement. He hurried to the window, threw the shudders open, and gave a cry of dismay. “The tarn! I had forgotten. The tarn has encircled the inn, there’s no way out.”
Lirianne peered over his shoulder, and saw that it was true. “The waters are higher than before,” she said thoughtfully. That was a bother. She had learned to swim before she learned to walk, but the oily waters of the tarn did not look wholesome, and while she did not doubt that Tickle-Me-Sweet would be a match for any hissing eel, it was hard to swim and swordfight at the same time. She turned back to the necromancer. “I suppose we’re doomed, then. Unless you save us with a spell.”
“Which spell would you have me use?” asked Molloqos, in a mordant tone. “Shall I summon an Agency of Far Dispatch to whisk us three away to the end of the earth? Call down fire from the sky with the Excellent Prismatic Spray to burn this vile hostelry to the ground? Pronounce the words of Phandaal’s Shivering Chill to freeze the waters of the tarn as hard as stone, so that we may scamper safely over them?”
Chimwazle looked up hopefully. “Yes, please.”
“Any. The Great Chimwazle was not meant to end up in a meat pie.” He scratched a boil underneath his chin.
“Surely you know those spells yourself,” said Molloqos.
“I did,” said Chimmwazle, “but some knave stole my grimoire.”
Molloqos chuckled. It was the saddest sound that Lirianne had ever heard. “It makes no matter. All things die, even magic. Enchantments fade, sorceries unravel, grimoires turn to dust, and even the most puissant spells no longer work as they once did.”
Lirianne cocked her head. “Truly?”
“Oho.” She drew her sword and gave his heart a tickle.
The necromancer died without a sound, his legs folding slowly under him as if he were kneeling down to pray. When the girl slipped her sword out of his chest, a wisp of scarlet smoke rose from the wound. It smelled of summer nights and maiden’s breath, sweet as a first kiss.
Chimwazle was aghast. “Why did you do that?”
“He was a necromancer.”
“He was our only hope.”
“You have no hope.” She wiped her blade against her sleeve. “When I was fifteen a young adventurer was wounded outside my father’s inn. My father was too gentle to let him die there in the dust, so we carried him upstairs and I nursed him back to health. Soon after he departed I found I was with child. For seven months my belly swelled, and I dreamed of a babe with his blue eyes. In my eighth month the swelling ceased. Thereafter I grew slimmer with every passing day. The midwife explained it all to me. What use to bring new life into a dying world? My womb was wiser than my heart, she said. And when I asked her why the world was dying, she leaned close and whispered ‘wizard’s work.’ ”
“Not my work.” Chimwazle scratched at his cheeks with both hands, half mad with the itching. “What if she was wrong?”
“Then you’ll have died for naught.” Lirianne could smell his fear. The scent of sorcery was on him, but faintly, faintly, drowning beneath the green stink of his terror. Truly, this one was a feeble sort of magician. “Do you hear the eels?” she asked him. “They’re still hungry. Would you like a tickle?”
“No.” He backed away from her, his bloody fingers splayed.
“Quicker than being eaten alive by eels.” Tickle-Me-Sweet waved in the air, glimmering in the candlelight.
“Stay back,” Chimwazle warned her, “or I will call down the Excellent Prismatic Spray upon you.”
“You might. If you knew it. Which you don’t. Or if it worked. Which it won’t, if our late friend can be believed.”
Chimwazle backed away another step, and stumbled over the necromancer’s corpse. As he reached out to break his fall, his fingers brushed against the sorcerer’s staff. Grasping it, he popped back to his feet. “Stay away. There’s still power in his staff, I warn you. I can feel it.”
“That may be, but it is no power you can use.” Lirianne was certain of that. He was hardly half a wizard, this one. Most likely he had stolen those placards, and paid to have the roaches glamoured for him. Poor sad wicked thing. She resolved to make a quick end to his misery. “Stand still. Tickle-Me-Sweet will cure your itch. I promise you, this will not hurt.”
“This will.” Chimwazle grasped the wizard’s staff with both hands, and smashed the crystal orb down on her head.
Chimwazle stripped both corpses clean before tossing them down the chute behind the bed, in hopes of quieting the hissing eels. The girl was even prettier naked than she had been clothed, and stirred feebly as he was dragging her across the room. “Such a waste,” Chimwazle muttered as he heaved her down into the abyss. Her hat was much too small for him and had a broken feather, but her sword was forged of fine strong springy steel, her purse was fat with terces, and the leather of her boots was soft and supple. Too small for his feet, but perhaps one day he’d find another pretty freckly girl to wear them for him.
Even in death the necromancer presented such a frightful countenance that Chimwazle was almost afraid to touch him, but the eels were still hissing hungrily down below, and he knew his chances of escape would be much improved if they were sated. So he steeled himself, knelt, and undid the clasp that fastened the dread wizard’s cloak. When he rolled his body over to pull the garment off, the sorcerer’s features ran like black wax, melting away to puddle on the floor. Chimwazle found himself kneeling over a wizened toothless corpse with dim white eyes and parchment skin, his bald pate covered by a spiderweb of dark blue veins. He weighed no more than a bag of skin, but he had a little smile on his lips when Chimwazle tossed him down to the hissing eels.
By then the itching seemed to be subsiding. Chimwazle gave himself a few last scratches and fastened the necromancer’s cloak about the shoulders. All at once, he felt taller, harder, sterner. Why should he fear the things down in the common room? Let them go in fear of him!
He swept down the steps without a backward glance. The ghost and ghouls took one look at him and moved aside. Even creatures such as they knew better than to trouble a wizard of such fearsome mein. Only the innkeep dared accost him. “Dread sir,” he murmured, “how will you settle your account?”
“With this.” He drew his sword and gave the thing a tickle. “I will not be recommending the Tarn House to other travelers.”
Black waters still encircled the inn, but they were no more than waist deep, and he found it easy enough to wade to solid ground. The Twk-men had vanished in the night and the hissing eels had grown quiescent, but the Deodands still stood where he had seen them last, waiting by the iron palanquin. One greeted him. “The earth is dying and soon the sun shall fail,” it said. “When the last light fades, all spells shall fail, and we shall feast upon the firm white flesh of Mollogos.”
“The earth is dying, but you are dead,” replied Chimwazle, marveling at the deep and gloomy timbre of his voice. “When the sun goes out, all spells shall fail, and you shall decay back into the primeval ooze.” He climbed into the palanquin and bid the Deodands to lift him up. “To Kaiin.” Perhaps somewhere in the white-walled city, he would find a lissome maid to dance naked for him in the freckly girl’s high boots. Or failing that, a hoon.
Off into purple gloom rode Molloqos the Melancholy, borne upon an iron palanquin by four dead Deodands.
First published in Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award-winner George R.R. Martin, New York Times best-selling author of the landmark A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, the inspiration for the immensely popular HBO series "A Game of Thrones," has been called "the American Tolkien." Born in Bayonne, New Jersey, George R.R. Martin made his first sale in 1971, and soon established himself as one of the most popular SF, fantasy, and horror writers of his generation. After a decade spent working in Hollywood as a writer and story editor for television series such as Beauty and the Beast and The Twilight Zone, Martin made a triumphant return to the print world in 1996 with the publication of the hugely successful fantasy novel A Game of Thrones, the start of his "Song of Ice and Fire" sequence. A free-standing novella taken from that work, "Blood of the Dragon," won Martin another Hugo Award in 1997. Further books in the "Song of Ice and Fire" series; A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons, have made it one of the most popular, acclaimed, and best-selling series in all of modern fantasy. His most recent book are a massive retrospective collection spanning the entire spectrum of his career, GRRM: A RRetrospective, a novel written in collaboration with Gardner Dozois and Daniel Abraham, Hunter's Run, and, as editor, several anthologies edited in collaborations with Gardner Dozois, Warriors, Songs of the Dying Earth, Songs of Love and Death, Down These Strange Streets, Dangerous Women, Old Mars, Old Venus, and Rogues, plus two new volumes in his long-running Wild Cards anthology series, Wild Cards: Busted Flush and Wild Cards: Inside Straight. In 2012, Martin was given the Life Achievement Award by the World Fantasy Convention.
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