Strangers were rare in Celephais on moonless nights. This particular stranger was tall, muscular, dark featured, dressed from head to boot in werewolf leather. There was a subtle violence in his movements, in the way he opened the tavern door, which suggested to the tavern owner that the tall stranger was a dreamer from the dimension called Earth. It didn't matter. On moonless nights in the port city of Celephais nameless things crept out of the ocean; fresh blood was always needed for their worship. A few patrons got up and left. The rest settled back to enjoy the show.
The tavern keeper took out a flute carved out of black coral. He blew a low, outgoing tide of a note. If the tall stranger heard he gave no notice. Rather, looking down at the harbor, he seemed engrossed in the fishing boats which, lamps flickering here and there, sought safety from the night by being tied to the docks.
In response to the flute, three rubbery night gaunts leapt into the room. Taller than the stranger, their flexible bodies mocked and improved on the human form at the same time. The stranger turned towards them, losing nothing of his calm.
He's mad, thought the tavern keeper to himself. Outloud, he mockingly said, "O honored guest, you aren't as pretty as that hellcat bitch who came through a week ago, but at least you're big enough to catch."
Then the night gaunts leapt so quickly upon their prey that the fastest of them actually impaled itself on the shotgun which had appeared magically in the stranger's hands. The creature hadn't time to scream before the weapon went off. Splattered blood blinded the other two for a moment and in that moment a revolver in the stranger's right hand had blown their heads off. Like beheaded geese their bodies flopped about till they smashed into a window and toppled down to the fishing fleet below. The tall stranger then blew the tavern keeper's head off for good measure. His gun hand tracked the surviving patrons as they fled out the door.
The tall man -- now the only entity left alive in the room -- walked over to the remains of the tavern keeper. Reaching a gloved hand into the blown-open skull, he pulled out a squirming, many legged, fast-fading dream. The dream, like all dreams, was still clinging to life. Inside of it was the beating inner eye which was the tavern keepers' soul. The tall man stuck a gloved finger into the eye. "And just where," said the stranger, speaking slowly and clearly, "is that hellcat bitch right now?"
Just now, the very same hellcat bitch was walking through a twilight-lit ghost forest on the southern edge of the World's End Plateau. Pale leaves, still faintly glowing with the departed rays of the sun, drifted all around her. She paused for a moment, removing her pack and going over to a small pond where star moths added their reflections to the rippling water. Perhaps she'd stop here for the night. Winter winds were best, but even now, in autumn, the sound of the wind in the ghost trees was wonderfully spooky. Instead, she shouldered her pack and moved on. The pleasures to come would be even greater. For someone, anyhow. The Dreamlands knew her as Twilight Smith, adventuress and formidable troublemaker. Few knew her as Princess Lirazel, heir to the throne of all Faerie. She was buxom, raven-haired, and beautiful. Far more beautiful than the sun, moon and stars. Far more beautiful than the ballads sung of her. Still, she loved hearing them sung anyhow.
By the time the Night Star again rose in the sky, Lirazel had come to a large clearing in the forest. A small waterfall ran beside a cabin there. Galaxies of star moths brightly glowed above the falls, adding their colors to the pale images of the water. Uncharacteristically, she knocked on the door. A man's eager, nervous voice answered.
Inside, a man, tall, thin, with night-shaped eyes, looked up at her from his writing desk. Distant jagged black mountain peaks filled the window above him.
"Hello, Howard," she said cheerfully, tossing her pack beside a fireplace in which old logs were becoming purple yellow flames. "Ready for bed?"
Next morning brew fair. Nine months of the year it is autumn in that clearing, otherwise there is one month each of winter, summer and spring. Lirazel had expected the beauty of the new day. While Howard lay sleeping, she had slipped out at midnight, searching on her own for the subtle paths which might lead her to the Casket of Stars. But nowhere in the night sky or in the winds which flowed down from the peaks of World's End could she find any trail. And so, she had jumped back into bed and softly interrogated Howard again. Now, warm and snug beneath the blankets, she watched, a little annoyed, as he gleefully made coffee. Exactly what pleasures did he love the most, anyhow?
Howard proudly brought her a cup of black coffee; she accepted it dutifully. The feel of warmth in her hand never ceased to amuse her, though the actual taste meant nothing to her. Is this coffee what you mortals call death, she had onced asked him, for the taste of that first cup was dark and bitter. No, he had replied. Do you mortals then drink it to remind you of death? she asked. Strangely, he had not answered, and she had become preoccupied by the colors that swirled in her cup if she caught the light just right. Since then she had come to understand that death, and the passing of time that lead mortals to death, were not proper topics of pillow talk.
"All right, Howard. I travel three more days through the ghost forests, following sun's path to the onyx cutter's gate. Then up into World's End on the onyx miners' trail you told me about. Then
. . . ?"
"In a glade of fever trees you'll come to a confluence of four streams. The first stream holds ice, for it comes from the highest peaks. The second floats yellow flower petals. The third flows slowly with green summer leaves, while the fourth reflects fading autumn. All that water gives those fever trees their glow, of course. In the center of that confluence is a plunge pool thirty feet deep. Crystal clear to its onyx bottom. Stand on the summer side of that pool and hike upward. In an hour's climb you'll come to a small glacial valley. It holds a Guide's cabin, much like this one. Abandoned long ago. To tell the truth, it might be nothing but ruins. Anyhow, search there for the Casket of Stars. Inside will be the jewel you seek."
"The jewel we seek," boomed a deep voice from the door. The tall man dressed in werewolf leather stood there. On his left shoulder sat a large black cat. The cat wore a collar of gold and a diamond bracelet on each paw.
"Most High Cat Shakti, Chief Cat of Celephais," cried Howard with genuine delight. The cat nodded regally in reply.
"Jones." Lirazel's voice held ice. "This is a solo quest."
Rainbow Jones only shook his head and walked toward Howard. Howard, hideously aware of the two pillows and sex toys on his big double bed, nevertheless managed to take no more than three steps backward; at the same time mumbling aloud, "It's true, Rainbow. She's on a voyage of ah . . . self discovery."
Jones laughed derisively. From the bed he picked up a rubber tentacle. "Which one of you plays Great Cthulhu?" he inquired.
Howard turned red.
"For shame, Howard, for shame," said the cat. It spoke perfect English, with a faint New England accent. "You are a Guide. An inspiration to all. You give out a hint here, a riddle there. Guiding seekers a distant glance at a time. You don't give away the treasue map to the first woman who blows you!"
Howard turned redder. Lirazel, ever helpful, chose that moment to slide out of bed and stretch her nude, flawless body. Jones shook his head and poured himself some coffee. He plopped down in the chair overlooking the window. He eyed the peaks, then his cup.
"Horse feathers, Howard. She just wants some more jewelery."
Golden-hued, the sawtoothed peaks of the World's End range soared a constant 23,000 feet straight up into the everchanging sky of the Dreamlands. Only Mount Kadath itself, star-lonely in the desert of the Cold Waste, stood taller. Unlike the Cold Waste, however, the lower realms of World's End hold, below the snow mists, lush green valleys and countless beautiful, if frigid, glacial lakes and streams. Onyx craftsmen and yak herders, as well as soma gatherers, safely cross mountain passes during the snow free month of late summer. Most unlike the Cold Waste, World's End is remarkably free of horror filled legend. Except, of course, for one place.
"Except, of course, for one place," the High Cat of Celephais was saying cheerfully to his two companions. Not so coincidentally, they were all staring exactly at just that one place. The abandoned Guide cabin Howard had told them of. Thin, wind-stunted trees grew all about it. A pond filled with floating ice reflected morning sunlight. Wildflowers were everywhere. The windows of the cabin were all gone and the darkness in the open doorway hadn't changed with the sun's movement.
Jones scowled. The cabin resembled a madman's grin. He cursed Howard who should never have told Lirazel the cabin's location. He cursed himself for taking up with a cat, however imposing its position in life. Yet only cat magic could have gotten him to Lirazel in time.
"Rainbow Jones and Twilight Lirazel Smith! I salute you! You two go first."
Lirazel headed off eagerly, moving like an eagles' shadow across the grass. Jones gave the cat the evil eye and took off after her. Amazingly, she was waiting for him at the open doorway. Together, they stepped inside. A layer of dust, lacquered with sunlight, was everywhere. Except on the Casket of Stars. It floated a foot above the floor, jet black in color, square in shape, covered in runes.
"Trap," Jones said.
Lirazel wasn't listening. Whatever was inside washed her face in colors as she opened the box and looked in. She squealed with delight. Her barely closed fist came out holding a jewel shining with every color of Dreamland's rainbow. Amethyst, emerald, ruby, sapphire, opal, diamond, onyx. A stone, all that and more, glowed inside her hand.
"Jones . . ."
"Lirazel . . ."
Opal-diamond light, flashing out of Lirazael's hand, ignited a fireplace log.
Uh oh, Jones thought. Uh oh.
The red flames twisted, one flame weaving itself into an old woman's withered arm, a bloody scythe held in its hand. A second flame turned into an arm holding a long knife; a third flame became an arm holding a noose. Still another flicked a whip. The final arm held shackles. An old woman was there, multi-armed, red-skinned, dressed in a sari. From her ears dangled baby skulls. Her grinning, ugly face showed yellow eyes above teeth the size of icicles. She sat astride a tiger as big as a yak. Jones aimed his shotgun at the tiger, but in the next moment the tiger was soap-bubble gone.
"Kali Ma, Kali Ma," the old woman chanted. Her huge tongue flicked into her mouth and then back out again. A baby bunny sat on it. Within seconds the rabbit aged, soft grey fur turning dark brown, then brittle white. The rabbit sank down on its haunches and died.
"Kali Ma. Kali Ma," the creature screamed again. Jones' skin soaked itself with ice-water fear. The Goddess of Time.
"Vamonos, Lirazel!" Jones shouted.
But she just stood there, lost in the jewel's colors.
Kali Ma heard though. "Lirazel," she said. The name melted on her lips, as though she were sucking all the sweetness out of it.
Jones unsheathed his knife at the lustful hunger in the old hag's voice. She seemed not to notice his movement, yet her scythe and knife spun a thousand and one dances at once in the air.
"Lirazel. At last you are mine."
The elfin princess seemed not even to hear. Kali Ma's whip lashed out. Its tip momentatily kissed Lirazel's closed hand. Lovely green eyes flashed into awarness, then annoyance. Ever so reluctantly, Lirazel turned her face away from her new toy and gazed at Kali Ma.
"You old whore," she said. "Haven't I warned you before about sticking your clock-ticking nose all up in my business?"
Kali Ma roared. "Elfin Princess!" she screamed. "I have trapped you. You are mine!"
Jones took that for his cue. The shotgun roared and Kali Ma burst apart like a blood gorged leech. Jones was disgustingly shaking guts off his hat when he realized he wasn't in the cabin anymore. In fact, he wasn't even Jones anymore. He was . . . no, he wasn't . . . no, he wasn't . . . wasn't . . . anyway he wasn't anything anymore.
He was in a space that was infintesimally small and yet infinitely large at the same time. Sure felt shitty. All at once there was a pinpoint glowing of yellow light and out of it, out of nothing and nowhere the tiger appeared. Its yellow eyes grinned.
"Say you're sorry you killed Kali Ma," it advised in a friendly voice.
"Eat me," Jones replied.
The tiger just smiled. A monstrous Cheshire cat, it began to disappear till only the striped face was left. "Have it your way," it growled, "but now you're just Void and I'm still a tiger!"
Things became strange after that. "Say your sorry, Jones," shrieked a voice that could only be Kali Ma's ghost. He didn't listen to that. But then he heard the voice of Lirazel giving the same advice. So, eventually (wasn't that just like women; everything stops until you say your sorry), he mumbled his apologies.
Instantly he was back in the cabin, sitting on his ass beside the smoldering fire. Kali Ma and Lirazel were staring into each others eyes. Jones was shocked to see that, for the first time since he had known her, Lirazel looked in trouble. There was sweat on her face, dark strands of her hair were matted to it. Kali Ma was holding a hand out to Lirazel. There was an apple in it. Her voice was soft, seductive. It weakened even Jones, who was not its target.
"Taste the apple, Lirazel. Taste Time. Taste and for the first time you touch for a moment. Taste."
Lirazel's soft mouth was slightly open. She seemed almost hynotized.
Jones tried to rise to his feet, but he couldn't move. That damned jewel, he thought suddenly, it had weakened Lirazel, drugged her!
Lirazel bowed her head and fell to her knees.
Kali Ma's laughter shrieked out. "Elfin princess! Too long have you been uncollared by me. Chains for you, Elfin princess! Time's chains for you! Shackled and nude you shall enter my service. Pain shall be your punishment and your lover and your teacher, your guide and your master. Time shall be your punishment and your guide and your master! Submit to me and you will stay young. Defy me, and I shall turn you old and withered."
Again, Kali Ma held out the apple.
"Taste it," she said.
The elfin princess gave Kali Ma one last helpless, pleading look. Then, obeying, she bit into the apple. Tasted it and swallowed.
Jones looked away.
Kali Ma cackled. "Time is your slave collar now, elfin princess. Time is the drug I will use to break you. As long as you worship me I will keep you as young as you are, my pet. As long as you kneel to me and kiss my feet you shall stay young. Kneel to me now, naked except for your dark hair and eyes and your hunger to stay beautiful! Kali Ma, Kali Ma! Defy me and you will crawl back to your man grey and withered!"
Tears welled in Jone's eyes. Through them he saw Kali Ma fade into thin air with her new slave. He rose to his feet, blinded by his tears.
"Perverted old bitch, isn't she?"
He spun around. Lirazel stood there, grinning at him. In her belt pouch her new jewel shone.
"Christ! How . . ."
"Oh, just a simple elvish illusion. Her Lirazel will turn into a yak the moment Kali Ma straps on her . . . oh, never mind! Look at this jewel! We're out of here!"
The High Priest agreed the jewel was quite nice. Why not offer it to the Shrine of the Primal Cat, whose temple was in Celephais?
Created: October 5, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004