Whether the wind was alive, or not, Rainbow Jones didn't know. Didn't want to know. He and Twilight Smith had been wandering the Cold Waste for near a month now. In all that time the wind had never been absent. Gusting alien melodies, echoes crying inside darkening canyon walls. Walking, Jones would suddenly look up, sure a ghostly voice had called him. Only the wind, with Twilight Smith glancing at him curiously. The Cold Waste was like that. Part dream, part chilly reality.
It was night in the Cold Waste now. Above the two adventurers' campfire a billion frozen stars shone silently. Safe in the warmth of his campfire, Jones listened to the wind. It left him after a while, going its own way in the night.
Lirazel Twilight Smith, asleep in their sleeping bag, mumbled goodbye. Jones smiled. Did dreams have dreams, then? For Lirazel Twilight Smith was literally a dream. His dream, to be exact. Or so she had told him that night in Arizona when she'd walked out of the twilight and into his arms. By campfire light they'd made love; the next thing he knew he was awake in the Dreamlands; a somewhere or someplace or sometime which was definitely not Earth. When he finally accepted this, he'd asked her how sex had accomplished that. Why, she'd told him demurely, you entered into your dream.
Jones finally slept. When he awoke, the Cold Waste was bright with dawn. Snowflakes drifted over his head; he caught one, marveling at it's size, it's ever-changing geometry. Frost crystals caught the sun. Getting out of the bag he and Lirazel shared, Jones pulled on his boots and walked down to the pond as the morning began warming. The Cold Waste was mostly flat, cold desert; broken here and there by huge canyon systems. In those towering onyx canyons water could often be found.
Scattered shards of diamonds sparkled in the early morning light around the pond. Jones was filling the canteens when a face appeared on the pond's surface. Lirazel's beautiful face, long dark hair flowing in the wind blowing back at their campsite. Her way of saying, hurry up, breakfast is ready. With his free hand he rippled her image away.
"Jimmy!" She was, of course, delighted to see him. She wore a deerskin outfit she'd taken great pleasure in obtaining on Earth. It fitted her small, slim, strong body perfectly. While he ate he watched his beautiful dream girl break camp. In the first months after his arrival in the Dreamlands he'd followed her blindly, hoping she'd bring him back to Earth. Instead they'd fought their way through a series of wild adventures. Becoming heroes to some; outlaws and rebels to others.
Lirazel's dark elfin beauty had earned her the nickname "Twilight." Somewhere he, Jimmy Jones, picked up the nickname "Rainbow." Had that been given to him by the High Cat of Ulthar? A feline jest, then, for his mountain-man build and rugged features hardly fit the name. In any case, Rainbow Jones and Twilight Smith was now how they were mostly known.
Noon found them back in the open desert spaces. Onyx sands sparkled black, reflecting cold Dreamland sun. Magicians, a few brave prospectors, no one else came here. Why was Lirazel here?
A few miles later Jones had his answer. Pulling in daylight, devouring it; the black temple seemed at first no more than a shadow. Only when they drew closer was its full enormity seen. Just stone, Jones thought to himself, just stone. Never mind it gives me the creeps and is ten stories high.
When they approached closer he saw there was a symbol carved on the temples' great door. A dragon, ripping itself to pieces. Jones cursed. He'd seen that symbol before. On a tomb hidden in the darkness of Dreamland's moon. The demon, Azathoth. The madness at everything's core.
Jones turned to Lirazel. Her face was set in cold, knowing fury. "What . . . ," he began' but before he could get the words out she had walked through the closed temple door. No magician, Jones could only pull on the handle. It opened. Cursing even more, he stepped inside the temple.
It stank inside, stank of strange darkness and still darker nights. Yet he could see; he was standing in a narrow corridor, dim puffy illumination dripping from the walls. Where was Lirazel? He'd been just a heartbeat behind, yet she was nowhere in sight. For all the vast size of the temple, this part of it resembled a mine shaft on Earth. He hurried down the corridor, alert for danger, shotgun steady in his hands. Was this really another realm, even stranger than the Dream realm? Why had Lirazel led them here? Where in hell was she?
It didn't take long for Jones to find someone. The corridor led into a large circular room. The room was filled with thousands of lit candles, arranged in rows before another dragon symbol at the far end of the room. An old man in priestly robes sat before the statue. There seemed no other exit or entrance to the room. Weapon ready, Jones walked over to the priest.
The old man did not bother to look up. He was pouring black grains of sand out of a leather pouch; blowing on them in an apparent effort to get them moving. Nothing. Keeping one eye on the priest, Jones examined the statue. The dragon motif, again. Jones picked up two of the books laid before the statue. Alice in Wonderland. The other, a textbook on quantum physics. Strange. He'd gotten his weaponry at the bazaars of Ulthar. Items of Earth, books included, could also be bought there. But why were these particular books here?
"Rainbow Jones, welcome. Welcome in the name of the true god, Azathoth." The old man's voice had a pleasant New England accent. Whether Earth or Dreamworlds New England Jones couldn't guess. The priest ceased his futile task and rose slowly to his feet. Jones backed away.
"I came here with a woman friend. Where is she." He raised his weapon for added impact.
The priest smiled. "I serve Azathoth, Rainbow Jones. He has touched me, as he has touched you."
Jones spit. "I have never . . ." Jones began, but the priest interrupted.
"All things grow old, and that is Azathoth's touch. As for your friend, she is his enemy. You did not know that? She has been less than honest with you! If you want her, you must meet Azathoth. Shall I summon him for you?"
A small knot of fear grew in Jones' back, spreading tightness outward. No, he thought to himself, don't. But outwardly he merely nodded.
The old man sat down again. From his leather pouch he poured out still more grains of black sand. There was still no wind, yet they never reached the floor. Instead they swirled in the air, shadows pooling beneath them.
"Watch the shadows," the priest intoned, "Azathoth will meet you there."
The shadows grew, a black pond growing deeper even as he watched it. Suddenly Jones was again on Earth; all of seven years old, alone in his bed in a cold moonlit room. As it did each full moon when Jones was seven, the shadow by his bed began to move, to rise, to stand up on great furred haunches. The child Jones screamed, but this time no lights went on in his parent's room. The shadow beast threw back its head and howled. In the Dreamworld Rainbow Jones fired his shotgun. The priest collapsed, flames erupting from inside of him. He was utterly consumed, yet the black flames burned on. Mouths and eyes appeared, shining inside the fire like fish underwater. A flickering cat's head appeared and disappeared. In dry crackling sounds the flames began to speak.
"All things are in me, but not I in them. I exist without the illusion of self. In the Dreamworlds I am Azathoth. On Earth I am the madness in the center of all things. The madness at the bottom of the well." The crackling sounds laughed. "Just thrilled to meet you, Jones!" The black flames danced, the eyes spoke, and the black mouths watched him hungrily.
There was a timid knocking sound to his left. Barely turning, Jones saw there was now a door where no door had been. The sound came again. Not taking his eyes from the flames, Jones went over to the door.
"Open me, please," a young girl's voice asked.
Smith did nothing.
"Open the door, please," said the flames.
"Jones! Goddamn it! It's me, Lirazel! Open the door!"
Knowing better, Jones threw it open anyhow. A small, young, blonde-haired girl in a summer dress was there. A large rabbit walked in behind her.
"Time for tea ", said the girl, "His endless eyes are blind, but they see all. Azathoth is the madness in the center of the well."
The rabbit and the small girl walked into the waiting black flames and were gone. Somewhere Azathoth smiled.
Smith was heading out the door when the door was no longer there. His nose felt like it might be broken.
"I need you. You must return to Earth," the flames behind him said, insect-voiced now. "To preach my quantum gospel. Time for tea."
Azathoth is me, thought Jones. The black flames are me. Azathoth is the madness at the center of the well.
At Jones' feet a tea service appeared, gleaming silver lit, by darkness. Jones poured himself a cup, as he was destined to do. A snake tongue of black fire detached itself from the flames, slithering over the floor till it reached the tea pot. "Sugar?" the snake of black fire inquired politely. Jones took two sugars, as he was destined to do. Then Jones smashed the full cup to the ground, for Azathoth was changeable. "All things serve the Lord," the black flames remarked mildly. "Madness is change, thus from madness comes Time. Remember that on Earth, won't you? Hey! Watch this!"
Inside the black flames countless universes appeared and disappeared. Jones fainted. He awoke to a Cheshire cat smiling at him. "Your Lirazel is angry with me because I destroyed her family," the cat remarked. "But what does time not consume?"
There was another knock on the door.
"Don't bother," said the flames, using Jones' own voice. The door opened. Azathoth stood there, in the body of Lirazel.
"I am the wind through empty branches," said the body of Lirazel. "I am the madness at the center of the well," the Cheshire cat replied. Both laughed with insect sounds. Rainbow Jones leveled the shotgun at the cat, aware of the ludicrousness of his action. The cat nodded approval. "How Zen," it remarked.
All at once the true Lirazel was there, disheveled, face bloodied. But the fire in her eyes was her own. "The Pnakotic Manuscripts, Jones! In this temple! They can destroy Azathoth!"
The Cheshire cat only smiled, eyeing Lirazel greedily. Something unseen touched Lirazel then. She writhed in its grasp, breaking into screams. Jones again leveled the shotgun at the cat. Whatever had touched Lirazel moved away. The Cheshire cat leapt into the flames.
"Forget the godamn book, we're leaving!" Jones screamed at Lirazel, but the door would not open.
"Here are the Pnakotic Manuscripts," said the flames, extending an ancient looking book held inside a tendril of fire.
Before Jones could stop her, Lirazel leapt forward and grabbed the book. Sunlight stung their eyes. They were back in the Cold Waste. The black temple was gone.
Rainbow Jones eyed the desert around them. Sunset was coming. He sighed, imagining the night hike back to their campsite.
Lirazel looked up from her study of the Manuscripts. "Better than being lonely on Earth, isn't it?" she asked sweetly.
He grinned. They walked slowly back; Smith still reading, Jones watching the stars as they came one by one, patternless into the sky.
Created: April 10, 1998