(This is a transparent attempt to tempt people into supporting my Kickstarter for the new Marla novel Bride of Death.) Here's the story (and an author's note at the end)!
ILL MET IN ULTHAR
"His name is Roderick Barrow," Dr. Husch said. "He’s what we call ‘exothermically delusional.’"
Marla Mason, twenty-two years old and by her own reckoning the deadliest mercenary sorcerer on the east coast, propped her feet up on the doctor’s desk. "Good thing he’s locked up in the nut hutch, then."
Dr. Husch made a small expression of distaste and shoved Marla’s boots off the desk. The doctor looked like a sculpture of a classical nymph that had been brought to life, her hair bound up in a tight bun, and the whole dressed in an impeccably tailored gray suit: lushness tightly contained. "Alas, that’s where the ‘exothermic’ part comes in -- his delusions are becoming more and more... aggressive."
"Yeah, I don’t know what that means."
"I’ll show you." Dr. Husch rose from her desk and led Marla out of the room, down a hospital-clean hallway -- which made sense, as they were in a hospital, of sorts. The Blackwing Institute didn’t treat diseases of the body, but it contained the diseased in mind -- specifically wielders of magic who became a danger to themselves, and others, and occasionally reality. The Institute was funded by prominent sorcerers, who recognized madness as an occupational hazard, and knew they might find themselves in need of treatment some day too.
The corridor was lined with iron doors, some acid-etched with runes of calming or containment. Dr. Husch stopped about halfway down the passage and slid aside a metal panel covering a square eye-level window in one of the barred doors. Light flared out, like someone had lit a strip of magnesium, and Dr. Husch wordlessly handed Marla a pair of sunglasses. Squinting and cursing, Marla pulled on the shades, then looked into the room.
A shape writhed in the air, sinuous and sparking, like a boa constrictor made of lightning instead of flesh. The serpent hovered in the air, and as its jaws snapped open and shut, Marla tried to count its fangs; she gave up after a dozen. The only part of the serpent that wasn’t made of pure white light was its eyes -- they were black pits of absence, but strangely aware. The serpent noticed them, and smashed itself against the door, sparks showering up around it. Marla jumped back, drawing her magical cloak around her. The cloak showed its white side, now, and protected her with healing magics, but with a thought she could reverse it, and make the bruise-purple inner lining switch to the outside. When clothed in the purple, Marla was possessed by vicious battle magics that made her essentially unstoppable -- though at the cost of losing some self-control. There were those who said Marla was an amateur, and that only the cloak made her dangerous. The people stupid enough to say that in Marla’s presence got their asses kicked, but only after she removed the cloak first, just to prove them wrong. But she was glad to have the cloak on now; there was no such thing as an unfair advantage when you were dealing with flying electric hover-snakes.
Dr. Husch slid the panel over the window shut as the beast continued battering against the door. "Don’t worry, it can’t get out. The interior of the room is lined with rubber, reinforced by magic. We used to keep a paranoid electrothaumaturge locked up there. There are no electrical outlets or light fixtures, either -- when we found the creature in Barrow’s room, it had smashed the light bulbs, and was suckling at the outlets like a hamster at a water bottle."
Marla took off the glasses and rubbed her eyes. "What is that thing?"
"Barrow calls it an arc-drake. They live in the haunted mountains known as the Lightning Peaks, north of the Sea of Surcease, a vast lake of liquid suffering."
"You sound like the trailer for a bad fantasy movie," Marla said.
"Appropriate, as Barrow was a fantasy writer. Though he wasn’t a particularly bad one, especially by the standards of his time. He was a pulp writer, mostly, published alongside the likes of Clifford Simak, Doc Smith, Sprague de Camp, Marsham Craswell -- did you ever read much science fiction and fantasy, Marla?"
"Not really. I was too busy smoking and having sex with boys. I was always more interested in this world than in imaginary ones."
Husch sniffed. "As a sorcerer, you should be ashamed. Magic is the act of imposing your will on reality. But without imagination, what good is even the strongest will? So what if you can do anything, if you can’t think of anything interesting to do?"
"I manage to keep myself entertained," Marla said. "But I gotta say, I’m getting a little bored right now. So this Barrow, what, wrote about the arc-drakes in a fantasy story, and then somehow brought one to life?"
"Oh, it’s so much worse than that," Dr. Husch said.
"We have won through, Lector," Barrow muttered, his eyelids twitching rapidly. "Though our allies and retainers fell, you and I have reached this cursed plain, and now we need only -- "
Dr. Husch thumbed off the intercom switch, and Barrow’s voice cut off abruptly. Marla leaned against the window, taking in the view on the other side. Barrow’s room was small, furnished with a hospital bed and not much else, but it didn’t lack for items of interest: A pile of weirdly ridged skulls heaped in one corner. What looked like a lion pelt draped over a chair. Scorch marks on one wall and part of the ceiling. Barrow himself was a white-haired old gent with a wild beard, dressed in a hospital gown, lips moving as he muttered, hands occasionally clenching and unclenching.
"He’s been like this for, oh, twenty years," Dr. Husch said. "He suffered a nervous breakdown thirty years ago, was comatose for a decade, and then... he began to speak. Since then, he doesn’t eat, drink, or eliminate waste, and he doesn’t age -- as best I can tell, he’s sustained by psychic energy. That’s when his regular family doctor made some inquiries and had him transferred here, since we’re better able to care for... unusual cases."
"So he wasn’t a sorcerer? Just a writer?"
"As far as we know, he was unaware of his own latent psychic abilities, though the uncontrollable power of his mind may have caused his breakdown. His chronic alcoholism might also have been a factor."
"What’s he babbling about?"
"That’s dialogue," Dr. Husch said. "He seems to be inhabiting an epic fantasy story of his own creation. The only glimpse we used to have of that story was the bits of dialogue spoken by his -- narrator? Character? Avatar? Barrow is playing the part, living the part, of a mighty hero, on a quest to win a great mystical treasure. Delusions of grandeur. But recently he’s been... exothermically delusional. His hallucinations are starting to break through to this world. The skulls of slain goblins, the skinned hide of a manticore -- those apports were certainly of clinical interest. But when a live arc-drake appeared in his room yesterday... I grew more concerned. His dialogue indicates that the goal of his quest is to win a magical Key that will allow him to move between worlds at will."
Marla whistled. "So you think he’s in a real place?"
Dr. Husch shook her head. "I think he’s in an imaginary place, which his psychically powerful mind is making real. And if he completes his quest, and breaches the division between reality and the contents of his own mind..." Dr. Husch shrugged. "Giants. Demons. Monsters. All of them could come pouring through my Institute. What if the triple suns of his fantasy world appeared in our sky? The gravitational consequences alone would be unfathomable."
"Gotcha," Marla said. "So you want me to kill him?"
"I am a doctor," Husch said severely. "I want to cure him. Bring him back to reality."
"I’m not much good at talk therapy," Marla said. "I’m more of a punch-therapy girl."
"My orderlies are capable of checking Mr. Barrow’s vital signs," Husch said, choosing to ignore Marla. "As you may know, they are not human, but homunculi, artificial beings of limited intelligence."
"I bet the poor bastards don’t even make minimum wage," Marla said.
"The sorcerers who fund the Institute don’t pay me enough to hire human employees," Husch said. "So I have to grow my staff in the basement, in vats. But they get all the lavender seeds and earthworms they can eat. At any rate, the orderlies can go into the room and check on Barrow, being mindless, but no human can go near him, not safely. Anyone who enters that room -- who comes into contact with the author’s psychic field -- is pulled into Barrow’s delusional world. His brother visited once, and we had to bury the poor man out back. Barrow attempts to incorporate anyone who enters his world into his storyline, and let’s just say he enjoys slaying the villains they become."
Marla stared at her. "So you want me to go in that room, and get sucked into his fantasy world, and... cure him? Like, make him realize his world is imaginary?"
Husch shook her head. "I doubt you could convince him. He’s been the hero of that world for years. It’s more real to him than this world ever was. No, I want you to go into his fantasy world, and make sure his quest fails. I want you to be a villain he can’t defeat. One theme recurs constantly in his speech -- his destiny. He is destined to win the Key of Totality, it seems. His fate has been ordained. He’s been chosen by the gods. He thinks he’s invincible, unstoppable, and right. If you defeat him, I think it might be the shock his system needs -- a failure, after years of nothing but success, could force him to question his awful certainty. If you can jostle him out of his comfortable place in that world, I might be able to reach him, and bring him back to this reality."
"Huh," Marla said. "Why me, though? Why not one of the bigtime psychics?"
"I only know of one psychic more powerful than Barrow," Husch said. "And she’s comatose, too, mentally traumatized and locked up in another room at the Institute. I don’t need a psychic, I need a pragmatist, a tactician, a fighter -- someone who never backs down, never gives up, and never stops. You have a reputation among the sorcerers who fund this Institute. They say you are a formidable operative, and you don’t know the meaning of the word ‘failure.’"
"Yeah, I must’ve skipped school the day they taught us that one. It probably doesn’t hurt that I’m an independent operator, and nobody will get too upset if you have to bury me out back, too, huh?"
"It was a factor," Husch said. "And the fact that you possess a cloak enchanted with battle magics also helps. But mostly, it’s because of your will. Everyone says you’re pigheaded in the extreme -- that an almost complete lack of magical aptitude hasn’t stopped you from becoming a formidable sorcerer, because you want it badly enough. That gives me hope that you might be able to stand up to the force of Barrow’s vision."
"And if I can’t -- what, do I get stuck there, in half-assed Narnia?"
"If you have not accomplished your goal by morning, or if you show any signs of distress, I will have one of the orderlies drag you out of Barrow’s sphere of influence. Just be sure to mention if you’re about to be murdered, hmm? I should hear your ‘dialogue’ as well as Barrow’s."
"All right," Marla said. "It’s a deal. Assuming you can pay my price?"
"I was told you don’t want money..."
"Don’t need money. My price is you telling me a secret, and teaching me a trick."
"That is acceptable," Dr. Husch said.
"All right," Marla said, and grinned. "I always wanted to be a villain."
Barrow of Ulthar wedged the butt of his great spear Ghostreaper into the stony soil of the Plains of Lengue and peered up at the towering heights of the Citadel of Bleeding Glass. He had been born only two leagues from this place, in the kingless kingdom of Ulthar, and his life’s journey had taken him across the great seas of the world, through the haunted forests, beneath the stony earth, only to return him here, to the Citadel that had shadowed his boyhood village -- the dread fortress he was finally hero enough to brave. The cyclical nature of his journey was further proof he was walking the inescapable path of fate. "My destiny awaits within, Lector," Ulthar rumbled. "Do you have any final advice? What dangers will we face within?"
Lector, the Living Book, was bound onto Barrow’s back by chains of silver, iron, and bronze. The mouth gouged into the book’s wooden cover spoke in a voice of riffling pages: "There are three Gates: a Gate of Knives, a Gate of Light, and a Gate of Wind. Pass through those, and you will confront the dread Chasm of Flies, which no living man or woman has ever crossed. The Key of Totality awaits, but first you must confront the guardian -- "
"What, you’re not going to mention me? I’m not enough of a danger for you?"
Barrow crouched, readying his spear. A woman sauntered around one of the skull-shaped boulders -- the fossilized remains of giants who’d fallen to the Lengue Fever millennia before -- and grinned. She was young, though not especially pretty, and she wore a cloak of rich purple, which shifted like a living shadow around her, as if possessed by its own dark intelligence. "Lector, is this one of the dread witches of the North?"
Before the book could speak, the woman laughed -- not a girlish laugh, but a harsh and grating sound. "Nah, I’m from the east coast, Barrow."
The east coast of the Sea of Surcease was home only to the wretched Mirror City, populated by the living reflections of those poor unfortunates who died and subsequently had their mortal remains reflected in glass, their souls reversed into evil and decadence, trapped in mirrored form on this mortal plane. "Mirror witch," Barrow said, raising his spear.
"She is no reflected spirit," Lector said. "She is mortal, but... I do not... she is not in my index. I do not see her among my manifests. I do not understand -- "
"Do you mean to hinder my quest, witch?" Barrow bellowed.
She clapped her hands. "You got it in one, Barrow-boy! Hindering’s my business. Right up there with usurping and frustrating. I have to tell you, you look a lot better on this side. A little rugged for my taste, I mean, your muscles have muscles, and personally, I like my boys a little leaner -- but you’re not the dried-up white-haired husk you should be. That’s some sweet black magic you’ve got going on."
Barrow frowned. "I -- I have sipped of the waters of the Vital Sea, but not from vanity. Only to restore my strength. My quest has taken longer than the three score years allotted to every man, but it was no foul magic -- the Green Goddess herself blessed my undertaking -- "
"I can hear you capitalizing things. It’s really irritating. So this Key we’re looking for is up there in that ugly castle, huh? Who’d build a fortress out of volcanic glass? I mean, it’s impressive, but it’s not practical. See you inside?"
"The Key is mine to win," Barrow said. "Be you Mirror Witch or Northern Witch or Graveworm Witch -- "
"Always some kind of witch with you, isn’t it? Maybe I’m a barbarian warrior like you."
"I am not a barbarian," Barrow said, with great dignity, "though some call me such. It is only that the customs of my village differ from those elsewhere in the world -- "
"Those fur boots and the snakeskin pants tell a different story, but whatever. There’s a Chasm and a Key and all that good shit waiting for us. Race you."
"No," Barrow said. "We will finish this here. I wield the enchanted spear Ghostreaper. It is a fell instrument, but if you do not stand aside, I will have no choice but to turn its dark magics against you."
"Knock yourself out," the witch said.
"Tell her what fate awaits her, Lector," Barrow said. "I do not believe she understands what I hold in my hands."
"The spear Ghostreaper is tipped with the fang from a murdered god of death," the book said, voice carrying over the cool stillness of the plain, despite the whispered timbre. "When the spear strikes its victim, it does not pierce flesh -- it snags the soul, tearing the spirit loose while leaving the body a mindless, empty husk. The soul dissolves like fog in the sun, denied any afterlife. This spear brings the death of all deaths, and the empty bodies left behind are pressed into service to follow the spear’s wielder, an army of the walking dead."
"I don’t see any zombie horde here," the witch said. "Are they hiding behind one of these head-bones?" She kicked the gray stone skull of a giant.
"They were all lost in the crossing through the Lightning Peaks," Barrow said. "And I was not sorry to see them go -- their silent shuffling is a grim reminder of the dark acts even a hero must undertake to meet his destiny. I would not add your body, however comely it might be, to my retinue. Please, stand aside, or I will have no choice but to thrust my spear at you."
"Ha. Thrust away, then. Good luck ripping out my soul. I think mind-body dualism is bullshit."
Barrow lowered his head briefly, sorrowful but determined, then stepped forward, driving the hungering spear before him.
The witch moved one way -- and her cloak moved the other, lifting from her shoulders and taking wing. It was no cloak at all, but a living thing, a creature of hungry shadow, and from within its shroudlike form a dozen red eyes blinked. The cloak flew at Barrow’s face, and he gasped, trying to turn his spear thrust against it. The witch stepped in close to him and chopped at his arm with her hand, an expert blow that struck his nerves and made the arm go limp. The point of the spear dropped to the ground, and the witch --
The witch stomped on the spear’s shaft, snapping it cleanly down close to the spearhead. The hero stood, stunned, looking at the shattered weapon. "The point might be a god’s tooth," she whispered in Barrow’s ear, "but the shaft’s just a piece of wood. Shoddy work."
Barrow knelt to grab the spearhead, but the cloak wrapped its tendrils around his arms and dragged him back. While he struggled against the cloak’s soft but unyielding grip, the witch picked up the spearhead, plucked a feather from a pouch at her belt, and swiftly tied the feather around the spear point with a strand of her own hair. She murmured a brief spell of some kind, opened her hand, and the spearhead rose up, up, up into the sky. "Bye, bye, birdie," she said. "That’ll just keep flying until it hits the -- well, one of the three suns up there. Excessive. You’d think with three suns it’d be warmer."
Barrow cried out, and called on the might of his totems -- the bear who’d given its fur for his boots, the great serpent who’d given him the skin for his leggings, the wolf who’d provided the leather for his chest-harness. The power of the animals surged through him, and he tore the cloak, ripping great shreds in its fabric. The cloak fluttered away from him, the rends in its body healing instantly as it lowered back onto the witch’s shoulders.
"Huh," she said. "I always thought this cloak had a mind of its own."
"You consort with demons!" Barrow shouted, still thrumming with animal energies.
"What, you heard about the incubus? I wouldn’t call it ‘consorting,’ exactly, it was one of those things where we were kind of using each other for sex -- "
Barrow roared and lunged for her, but she somersaulted away from him. Such acrobatics should have been impossible in a long trailing cloak, but her demonic garment moved out of her way as she rolled. Instead of turning to face him in battle, she ran, covering ground in great strides, without even looking back.
"Coward!" he bellowed. "Face me!"
"She’s going to the Citadel," Lector whispered from his back. "She’s going to get there first."
"Fuck me," Barrow of Ulthar said, and ran after her.
The highest towers of the Citadel of Bleeding Glass were jagged onyx, their spires piercing the soft blue belly of the great slumbering sky-goddess, her divine blood running down the fortress’s walls to pool on the ground, where malign flowers sprang from the combination of cursed soil watered by divine essence. Barrow thundered up the hill toward the gate, the tall red-petaled flowers turning their heads to watch his approach. Lector jostled hard against his back, and the hero felt every ache and pain of his long journey. The spear Ghostreaper must have lent him magical strength, or else the effects of his last visit to the Vital Sea were beginning to fade -- he felt tired, at a time when he should be thrumming with power on the cusp of triumph.
The witch was dozens of yards ahead, and the flowers lifted their viney tendrils to block her approach. She shouted out a strange word, presumably an incantation of power -- "Deadhead!" -- and fireballs bloomed from her outstretched hands, searing the plants and making them scream. The unique stink of charred goddess blood filled the air: the mingled scents of burning sugar and opened entrails. The witch ran through the arching gateway and into the darkness within. No gate or guards prevented entry to the Citadel, for this place did not discourage visitors: it welcomed them, as the lion welcomes its prey.
Barrow hesitated on the threshold, even his legendarily keen eyes unable to pierce the darkness within. "Lector, you must give me counsel. Who is this new foe, and how may I defeat her?"
The Living Book was Barrow’s greatest weapon, for it knew all the secrets of the world, and would reveal any mystery... if Barrow could only compose the proper question.
"The woman is not mentioned in my codexes or concordances," Lector said. "I cannot tell you how to defeat her."
The hero’s heart lurched in his chest. Lector knew the weaknesses of every man and god and beast that had ever lived, or had a semblance of life, and that wisdom had aided most of Barrow’s triumphs. "But... you know all the truths of the world..." Barrow paused. "Do you mean she is... from outside this world? From another place, some realm of demons? That would explain why she, too, seeks the Key of Totality -- perhaps she wants only to return to her rightful home. Witch!" he shouted. "We need not fight! I will gladly open the door to your homeworld, once I have recovered the key!"
She did not answer. Barrow steeled himself for further battle, and stepped through the towering arch.
The darkness within the gate was actually solid, a membrane like the scum on pond water, clammy and vile, but he was through in a moment, wiping ectoplasmic residue from his eyes and looking around for the next inevitable threat. He stood in a vast and gloomy hall filled with jagged columns, not unlike the Temple of the Bile-God in far Paradyll, but vaster by magnitudes. The columns glowed with a reddish inner light.
Something fluttered down from the ceiling toward him, and Barrow drew his hand axe. This was no magical weapon -- but well-honed steel and a comfortable grip had a magic of its own. The fluttering thing was the witch’s cloak, its red eyes gleaming, its purple-shadowed tendrils reaching out for him. He danced back as it tried to strike him, his axe flashing and tearing a long rent in the cloak’s body. But where was the witch --
Something wrenched at his back, and he howled as the fine chains cut into his flesh, and the weight of Lector left his back. He spun, but the cloak tried to strangle him, and by the time he’d hacked its tendrils free and sent it fluttering back toward the ceiling, the witch was halfway up a column, perched on an outcropping as casually as Barrow might sit on a fallen log, Lector held open in her lap as she flipped the pages. "So what’s the deal with the bleeding sky?" she said.
Before Barrow could curse her, Lector answered -- as he would answer any question posed by his holder. "The Citadel is made of eldritch glass, sharp enough to cut even the divine, and so it pierces the belly of the great sky goddess."
"Wait. The sky is somebody’s stomach? That’s... it’s... what?"
"Everyone knows of the goddess," Barrow shouted. "The triple suns are the jewels in her navel! The rains are her sweat! She lays close to her lover, the goddess of the Earth, but they can never touch, for the sins of man keep them forever separated!"
"Sorry, I’m not from around here."
"I know that," Barrow said, and held up his hands in a placating gesture. "Witch -- no, warrior -- you have proven yourself my equal."
"Equal? Don’t flatter yourself. The clothes off my back can kick your ass."
Barrow pushed down the rage the seethed within him. "Though you cast away my spear, and stole my book and bosom companion, I would still be your friend. We stand a better chance of winning our way through the Citadel together -- "
"You don’t get it, Barrel-of-laughs," she said. "You’re done. Your part of this story is over. Do I have to take away your snake pants next? Leave you naked and tied up for the flowers outside to eat?"
"I have a destiny," Barrow began.
"Well I don’t. But I have a job to do, and that job is keeping you from getting the Key. You’re not the hero here. Let me show you something, this chasm thing."
"The Chasm of Flies? But before we can reach that, there are three gates -- "
"The Gates are no more," Lector said. "The outsider witch has destroyed them."
Barrow shook his head. "The Gate of Knives? The Gate of Wind? The Gate of Light?"
"Sure," the witch said. "Charm of rust, spell of stillness, tincture of darkness. It’s taken me longer to get through airport security than it did for me to rip through those gates. The magic here, seriously, it’s weakass shit, and I beat things up for a living. But, anyway, this chasm." She dropped from the column, and Barrow roared and lunged at her, axe in hand.
She stepped around him, graceful as a dancer, and hooked her ankle around his foot as he went by, sending him sprawling, his axe skittering across the smooth black floor.
"Are you done?" she said. Her cloak drifted from the ceiling and settled down around her shoulders again. His face burning in shame, Barrow got to his feet. He left his axe on the floor, afraid of what she might do if he tried to retrieve it. If she attacked, he would fight ferociously, but she was just standing there, looking a little impatient, and even a little bored. Barrow had never before doubted his fate -- he was a hero, and though the way was long and full of trials, he would win the Key, the greatest magical item in a world full of magic, the item of power no human hand had ever touched before. His allies respected him, and so did his enemies -- but this witch from Outside toyed with him and taunted him, and he could not fathom how to strike her down.
So he followed her, through the hall and down a series of winding corridors, past the shattered remnants of the three great Gates, deeper into the red-black heart of the Citadel. Perhaps this is the part of my journey where I am humbled, he mused. Mayhap this witch will show me something important about myself, something to aid me in --
"The Chasm of Flies," the witch said, shouting to be heard over the horrible buzzing that filled the Citadel, and gesturing at the vast space yawning before them. As wide as the Citadel itself, stretching as far as he could see, the Chasm was a great pit seething and alive with millions upon millions of churning insects, black flies and richly green flies and even the snow-pale flies who carried the Unsleeping Sickness. "Lector," the witch said, patting the Living Book tucked under her arm. "What are those flies feeding on?"
"Heroes," Lector replied, and the witch laughed and laughed.
"I had no idea that’s what fly shit smelled like," she said. "But when you multiply one speck of bug poop by about a trillion, I guess it gets noticeable. Whoo. Anyway, check out this spell. I learned it off a bruja when I was living in a really nasty squat last year, there were bugs everywhere. Normally it just clears a room, but I’m pretty sure I can amplify it..." She took a deep breath, then shouted, "SHOO, FLIES!"
The insects rose up in their millions, a black and green and white cloud, and revealed below them... a mass grave. A great tangle of men and women and the other races capable of heroism -- the Grievous Ones with their spiny flesh, the Original Men with their snake’s eyes, the amorphous Unshaped -- all broken and bloodied and rotting and emptied of their souls, made into nothing but a feast for flies. "See there?" the witch said. "That’s what happens to heroes. It’s nothing personal. That’s what happens to everyone -- no one lives forever, and even the gods can bleed. But heroes tend to die unpleasantly, far from home, without any friends."
She slid close to Barrow as he gazed at the bodies, wondering how many of them had famous names, how many had been sung about in stories every bit as loudly as Barrow had heard his own name sung -- and, worse, how many of them were not remembered in song or story at all anymore. "But you thought you were special?" she said. "You were going to be the one who really made a difference? In your heart of hearts, you thought you were going to be the one that lived forever, didn’t you? You’re all excited about having a destiny. Big deal. So did they. There are enough magical weapons down there to fill a war god’s armory, and enough heroic stories to fill even this weird talking infinite book I stole from you. I’m not saying there’s never a good reason to do great things, Barrow. But doing it for the sake of being a hero is bullshit. I mean, I have just one question -- "
The buzzing of the flies suddenly went silent, though the insects themselves continued to bob in the air, and a new voice spoke: "I will ask the questions here." That voice was beautiful, cool, and serene, as was the speaker. She walked across the Chasm on the floating cloud of flies as if their hovering bodies were paving stones, a perfect blonde dressed in little more than three clusters of diamonds that did the minimum necessary to protect her modesty, with a diadem of white gold upon her brow.
Barrow’s heart grew lighter when he saw the witch narrow her eyes, her demonic cloak writhing around her body. She didn’t like the look of this woman, which meant Barrow did.
"I am the Mistress of the Key," the blond enchantress said, standing just a few feet away on a platform of white flies. "You have breached the Gates, and come to the edge of the Chasm, and now, you have the chance to win the Key." She glanced down at the open grave beneath her feet. "Or to join the others who have tried in the past."
Barrow went down on one knee and bowed his head in respect. "Mistress," he said. "I am eager to meet any challenge you care to set."
"So Keymistress," the witch said. "You look a lot like this woman I know. Any chance your last name is ‘Husch’? You could be her twin sister."
"I was not of woman born," the Mistress said, her voice as clear as fine crystal. "I have no sister, or mother, or father, or daughters. Do you, too, come to try and win the key?"
"Sure," the witch replied. "So what’s the challenge? Mortal combat with Barrow the Barbarian? Staring competition? Or should I just guess what you have in your pocketses?"
"You need only answer my question," the Mistress said. "And if your answer satisfies me, the Key is yours."
The witch snorted. "Let Barrow go first. He’s been waiting for this a long time."
The Mistress turned her head to Barrow, and bade him rise. He stood perfectly straight. He had supped with kings, seduced queens, and counted gods among his close friends and dire enemies -- but the Mistress seemed like something else again, something greater than the gods, or perhaps merely apart from them. "Barrow of Ulthar," she said, "Tell me: why do you desire the Key?"
Barrow blinked. He wanted the Key because that was his quest; because the swamp witch in his childhood village had seen a vision that he would someday seize it; because the diviner-in-chief for the great Stone King of the Inverted Mountains had declared that Barrow was destined to wield it; because his own dreams were almost nothing anymore but endless wanderings through black hallways filled with locked doors he could not open. He considered coming up with some more elaborate answer, something about breaking the shackles of tyrants, or opening new pathways of opportunity, but he feared the Mistress would sense dissembling or exaggeration. Truth had always served him well, and he would continue to serve truth. "Because it is my destiny," he said. "Because I am the one who has been fated to win the Key, where all others have failed."
The Mistress inclined her head. "And you, Marla Mason of Felport? Why do you desire the key?"
"Where I come from, there’s a saying," Marla said. "Anyone who wants to be president should be disqualified." She nodded at Barrow. "Anyone who thinks he deserves to have the most powerful magical artifact in the world just because it’s his destiny should never be allowed to get his hands on it. I want it to keep it away from him, and people like him, who want power for its own sake."
Barrow took a step back from the edge of the chasm, suddenly dizzy. "But I don’t -- I don’t want it for anything bad, it’s just -- "
"It’s just your MacGuffin," Marla said, not unkindly. "You didn’t think it through well enough, is all. It’s not your fault. You’ve been telling this story for decades. It’s no wonder it’s starting to run a little thin. That’s always a problem with an ongoing series."
"You have answered well, Marla Mason," the Mistress said. "You may have me."
"What do you mean I may -- "
The Mistress leapt up from the flies, and floated toward them. She began to glow, first faintly, then as brightly as the brightest of the triple suns, and then --
She vanished, and a key of shining diamond fell to the floor. Marla Mason knelt and picked it up. "That wasn’t so hard," she said. "Then again, I got to skip to the last chapter, which is hardly fair to you."
Barrow licked his lips, eyes fixed on the key. "What will you do with it?"
Marla shrugged. "Open a door." She squinted, then stabbed the key at the air, and gave it a twist. A rectangle outlined in white light appeared in the air, and she tugged the door open. Barrow expected to see something amazing -- a heavenly universe, perhaps, or whatever dark pit her demonic cloak hailed from.
Instead, the door just showed a room, with an old white-haired man sleeping in a bed. A woman who looked a bit like the witch Marla Mason was stretched out on the floor in one corner, and through a window, another woman was watching -- she wore spectacles, and had a tight blond bun, but she looked so much like the Mistress of the Key, who really was the Key --
"Want to come in?" Marla said. "See the world?"
Barrow recoiled. What trickery was this? The witch had stolen his destiny, and now she offered him a dirty room, an ugly bed, a smeared window, a living artifact transformed into a nurse --
"Never!" he shouted, and leapt into the Chasm, to join the other fallen ones. He might die, but he would die a hero, which was better than living as nothing but a man.
Marla stepped through the door, and immediately rolled over on her side and vomited, which was weird, because she hadn’t been lying on her side, she’d been walking through a door, except now she was on the floor, and --
"Oh," she croaked. "I woke up in my own body, huh?"
Dr. Husch opened the door, and a doughy orderly hurried in and helped Marla to her feet, then pulled her outside, to the safety of the observation room. "In your hand," Dr. Husch said. "What is that?"
Marla looked down at the crystal key she was holding. "Oh, this, it’s -- you, I think, he must have seen you at some point, because he sure as hell fantasized about you, or... wait." She shook her head. Marla knew she’d just done something, gone into a weird fantasy world and said some cold-hearted shit to a crazy man’s mental barbarian avatar, but the details were fading fast. "Why can’t I remember?"
"It can be difficult to remember dreams," Husch said, plucking the key from Marla’s hand. "How much more difficult must it be to remember someone else’s dream? But you did what you were sent to do. You showed Barrow he is no hero of destiny. You broke the spine of his story, and you took away this key, which is, I think, a rather potent artifact -- either great magic he willed into creation, or some existing magic he managed to grasp with his psychic abilities."
"Artifact, huh?" Marla said, plucking at her cloak, which was also an artifact -- an object of unknowable age and great magic. An object with motivations, however inscrutable they might be to their wielders. For some reason, wearing the cloak was making her skin crawl even more than usual today. Its malign intelligence, always a presence deep in the back of her mind, seemed more active and agitated, now, like a cat who’d spent hours watching squirrels frolic safely behind a pane of glass. "Think we can sell it?"
"I believe I will hold onto this key," Dr. Husch said. "For the very reasons you so neatly articulated while you were unconscious."
Marla waved her hand. "I don’t need to know what I say in my sleep. I’m sure it’s embarrassing. But... why isn’t Barrow waking up? Wasn’t busting up his delusion supposed to cure him?"
"I don’t know," Husch said. "I’d hoped, of course, that he would become lucid when you proved his delusions of grandeur were false -- I didn’t expect him to be cured, but if he could hear me, then therapy might be possible. He’s not speaking, though, so I don’t know what he’s experiencing now..."
Barrow did not die in the pit. He lay among the filth for a while, then began to search the corpses. As the witch said, there were magic weapons there, countless ones, and he chose some of the most deadly for himself. He climbed out of the pit, hauling himself and his implements of war to the Citadel’s floor. Lector, the Living Book, rested on the stone, left behind when the witch departed.
"Lector," Barrow croaked. "Old friend. Tell me. Do you know spells to raise the dead, and send this pit of fallen corpses into battle?"
"I do," Lector said.
"This Citadel," Barrow said, licking his lips. "Has it ever been held by a mortal before?"
"It has not," Lector said. "Only by gods."
"Ah," Barrow said, flexing his fingers. "Then I will have to become a god, then."
Lector seldom spoke unprompted, generally limiting himself to answering questions. But he spoke now. "Barrow of Ulthar... what are your plans?"
"If I am not a hero," Barrow said, "Then I must be... something else. If I do not have a destiny, then I must make a destiny of my own. If I cannot unlock all the doors in all the worlds... Then I must tear holes in the walls. If I cannot save the world -- "
"Then I must conquer it," the old writer shouted beyond the glass, and Marla winced. "I will have my revenge!"
"He’s gone all Dark Lord on us, hasn’t he?" Marla said.
Dr. Husch sighed. "It seems so. His story is taking a darker turn. He’s making himself into an anti-hero."
"I can’t imagine there’s much of a market for stories about those," Marla said. "So... did we make things worse? Is he going to start trying to reach this world now? Are there going to be, I don’t know, hordes of orcs and black dragons who breathe napalm and dust storms of living anthrax popping randomly into existence? Aren’t you afraid he’s going to find another way in, and that he might bring an army next time?"
"Possibly," Dr. Husch said. "Loathe as I am to admit defeat, I think it’s time to take extreme measures. When therapy fails, sometimes the only solution... is isolation. Fortunately, you brought me a key, and keys aren’t just used for opening doors -- they’re also used for locking them." She cocked her head, considered the door before her, and slipped the crystal key into the lock. Which was quite a trick, since the key was way too big. Nevertheless, it fit, and Dr. Husch twisted it, resulting in a click as loud as a thundercrack. The door began to change, transforming from beaten-up metal into black volcanic glass. The change crawled up the wall and across the window until the entire room was an unbroken sheet of stone. "There," Husch said. "Locked away." She tucked the key into the pocket of her suit.
Marla whistled. "When you do solitary confinement, you don’t fuck around."
"Your payment is due," Dr. Husch said. "A trick and a secret, you said?"
Marla, who’d been staring at her reflection in the black glass, blinked. "Uh, yeah, right. The trick -- I wanted to know how you managed to bind up some of the most powerful people you’ve got here. Agnes Nilsson, Elsie Jarrow, that caliber. From my researches, they should be impossible to hold. Then again, that was before I saw you do this."
"It’s a rare patient who provides the key to his own security," Husch said. "Barrow is a special case. The bindings on Jarrow and Nilsson are a bit involved, and I’ve had a trying day, but come back next week, and I’ll take you through the sigils and incantations."
"Fair enough. As for the secret -- I hear you’ve been running this place for decades, and you don’t look a day over twenty-five, no matter how you try to old yourself up with the dowdy hair and clothes and bondage hair. Even if you have one of those spells where you don’t age when you’re sleeping, that wouldn’t account for this kind of youth. So what’s the deal?"
Dr. Husch patted Marla on the shoulder. "Oh, Marla. Your mistake is in assuming I’m human."
Marla frowned. "Don’t tell me you’re... an artifact in human form?"
"Of course not," Dr. Husch said. "I’m a homunculus, just like the orderlies. Except my creator -- he’s gone now -- made me much smarter than they are, and my tastes go beyond meals of lavender seeds and earthworms. If I were human, I would have been able to go into Barrow’s dreams myself, and seen to his therapy directly. Of course I’m not human. Why else would I have hired you, dear?"
Marla frowned. She had a memory of Husch, telling her this already -- "I am not of woman born" -- but, no, that wasn’t really her, it was Barrow’s version of her. The old writer was psychic, so maybe he’d seen into Husch’s mind and found her secret, incorporating her true nature as a magical inhuman thing into his fantasy world. If he could see into Husch’s mind, then...
"Next time, hire someone else," Marla said. "Barrow’s bad for my mental health."
That night, Marla stopped by a used book store and pawed through a crate of yellowing old magazines. After half an hour of searching she finally found one with a story by Roderick Barrow, called "Shadow of the Conqueror!" -- complete with exclamation point. She paid for the magazine with pocket change.
She read it in her tiny studio apartment south of the river. Barrow wrote a lot like he talked. The last two pages were torn out, but it was pretty clear what was going to happen: the hero would thwart the villain, free the slaves, and get the girl, who was dressed in golden chains and not much else. Nothing in the story really rang any bells, and her memories of the experience in Barrow’s mind didn’t come any clearer, the details turning to mist whenever she tried to focus on them. Ah, well, screw it. She tossed the magazine into a corner. Who needed fantasy stories, when she had asses to kick and secrets to learn?
That night, Marla dreamed of a house of endless black hallways. Every corridor was lined by dozens of doors, some marked with numbers, some with letters, some with runes or mystic sigils. She tried all the doorknobs, but none of them opened -- none of them so much as turned -- and though she pressed her ears to the door, she couldn’t hear anything. She just kept walking, until she reached a door made of black volcanic glass, with no knob at all, but something on the other side was pounding, and pounding, and pounding, as if trying to break through --
Marla woke, sweating, and scrambled to the enchanted wardrobe where she kept her white-and-purple cloak. She pulled the garment down and wrapped it around herself, crawling back into bed. Marla didn’t like wearing the cloak when she slept -- she felt like it tried to communicate with her in her dreams -- but even the dark whispers of her artifact would be better than the risk of falling prey to Barrow’s psychic grasping. She could all too easily imagine her body left breathing in her bed, but her mind torn out of her body, wriggling on the end of a spear, trapped in a Dark Lord’s realm...
Her dreams that night were horrible, but they were her own.
Note: "Ill Met in Ulthar" is directly inspired by the story "Dreams Are Sacred" by the great (and sadly late) Peter Phillips, about a reporter who goes into the fantasy dreamworld of a pulp writer -- though for different reasons, and with radically different results. I made the connection semi-explicit by mentioning the name of the writer from the Phillips story, Marsham Craswell, here. Of course there are homages to Fritz Leiber and even a dash of H.P. Lovecraft in this, too.
I'd like to write more stories set in the fantasy world Barrow inhabits. I recently wrote a story featuring the spear Ghostreaper -- transported to our world, and falling into the wrong hands -- which I just sold to a publication this morning.
(If you liked this, consider donating to my next crowdfunded Marla novel, Bride of Death.)