By James Lecky
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In my life, I have fought with both sword and pen. With the former, I helped storm the last citadels of the Onyx Empire and brought to an end the wars that had plagued the continent of Jendia for too many centuries. With the latter, I have sought to shine light into the dark places of mankind’s knowledge and to seek answers as to the nature of this world upon which we spin.
I have ever been known as Ekarius the Scholar – sometimes mockingly, sometimes with admiration – and my services have been sought by warlords and philosophers alike.
It was in the 45th year of my life – when I made my home in the northern metropolis of Salmu Alu, the Black City – that Dar Sinnamon came to me.
That morning, I sat in my garden in comfortable solitude, as was my wont in those days, contemplating the branches and leaves of my Janifa tree, a book of arcane lore sitting unopened upon my lap.
The north suited my temperament and body: the weather was hot in summer and harsh in winter, the people amiable but not overly curious and, perhaps most importantly, my right to isolation was observed by one and all.
It was therefore with some slight annoyance that I was interrupted by my majordomo with the words:
“There is a gentleman to see you, sir.”
“I have no appointments today, Callast,” I told him.
“I am fully aware of that, sir, but the gentleman in question is most insistent and claims that you know him.”
Of course I knew him, for we had marched together under Prince Desyn’s banner. Like me, he was a man of two paths – but where I studied the world, he studied music. I remembered his compositions, the magnificent victory march he had composed for Prince Desyn when the City of Sundered Princes had finally fallen. I, no less than thousands of others, had wept with pride at its sweeping chords and melodies: I had proudly sung its refrain as we marched against the last citadel.
It was unthinkable that I should refuse to see him.
“Very well, Callast, bid the gentleman enter.”
Many years had passed since we had last seen each other, but I was still ill-prepared for the scarecrow-thin figure that made his way towards me down the garden path to the Janifa tree.
The years had not been kind to Dar Sinnamon. Where once he had been pale, he was now bronzed by the sun and his skin had the appearance of old leather. His hair was grey with only a few strands of its former chestnut colour visible here and there. And where once had had been the dandiest member of Desyn’s court, Sinnamon now wore the plain robes of an eastern nomad.
Yet, he smiled as he approached and his embrace was strong.
“Ekarius, my old comrade, it is good to see you.”
“And you,” I replied.
He touched his fingers to his mouth and eyes in the fashion of the desert peoples. “May Chaugnar Faugn never see you,” he said.
I motioned him to sit.
“A strange greeting, my friend.”
“Is it?” He shook his head a little. “I have used it for so many years, it no longer seems so to me.”
I ordered my majordomo to bring wine and we sat in silence for a while as Sinnamon refreshed himself.
Finally, he said, “I have travelled far to find you and ask for your help, Ekarius. From the deserts of Tsing to the towers of Ur Baltha, The Splendid City, and across the Flint Wastes.”
“Then your needs must be pressing.”
He laughed, a short bark that was utterly without joy. “More than you could ever imagine, my friend.”
“I have lost my muse,” he said. “Where once music flowed from me like water from a fountain, it no longer even trickles.” He reached into his robes and produced a small silver flute. Raising it to his lips, he played a short refrain.
It was terrible, lacking in inspiration, the notes shrill and wrong.
“You see. Where once I could pluck music from the very air around me, now there is nothing.
“When my muse failed, I fell out of favour at court. Even Prince Desyn turned his back on me.” He smiled wanly. “How fickle are the ways of men, even those of royal blood. My past service to him was forgotten and I was left with no choice but to leave his palace.
“For years, I simply wandered, seeking music where I could, hoping against hope that my inspiration would be restored – for it had left without reason and might as easily return. But it was not to be; even the most delicate melodies and stirring symphonies left me indifferent. At length, I found myself in the kingdoms of Tsing and dwelled there among the nomads, taking one of their women for my wife.
“And it was there that I found this.”
He produced a book from the folds of his robes and held it out to me.
It was an ancient tome; that much was apparent from first glance, bound in cracked white leather.
“Liber Atros Dies,” Sinnamon said and his voice was barely more than a whisper. “The Book of Dark Days.”
I took it from him with a mixture of disbelief and wonder.
There are few scholars who do not know of the Liber Atros Dies, but its existence had always been hotly debated, with some dismissing it as no more than mere fancy. Its contents – a history of the time before mankind walked the earth and the Old Gods held sway – were said to hold the deepest and blackest knowledge.
“Is this truly the Book?” I asked.
“The man I…the man who gave it to me claimed that it was.”
I opened it; the pages were old and brittle, not made from paper but rather a rough parchment that was somehow unpleasant to the touch. The words upon them were in no language I understood – a series of seemingly-random hieroglyphs and convoluted symbols that had been etched rather than drawn upon the page.
On the frontispiece there was a single illustration, rendered in thick black lines, depicting a desolate landscape over which two black suns cast their mordant light.
“During my time with the nomads of Tsing,” Sinnamon said, breaking into my reverie, “I heard one of their shamans play a refrain and the music stirred my senses in a way that had not happened for many, many years.
“When I questioned him, he told me that it was part of the Song of Tussagaroth, a god of the Elder Lands, older than the universe itself. He knew no more than those few notes, but I reasoned that if a mere fragment could begin to restore my passion for music, what might the whole song not do?”
“And the Book?”
“If I could understand what was written there, it may hold a key – a path, perhaps, to Tussagaroth itself.”
“So, you would have me translate it for you?”
The sun had begun to set and night was rapidly approaching. Somewhere in the city, sweet notes rang out among the towers and temples of Salmu Alu as priests summoned the faithful to prayer. I looked down at the book in my hand. What dark knowledge, what forbidden lore lay within its pages? My heart urged me to throw the book away, but my head told me otherwise and I have ever been a man who followed the head above the heart.
“I will begin in the morning,” I said.
My task was not simple, nor did I expect it to be. The writing in the Liber Atros Dies bore little resemblance to any human language: the meaning of the symbols themselves constantly changed so that their position on the page dictated their significance and even the colour of the ink, ranging from grey to stark black, gave new aspect to the glyphs.
When I slept, which was seldom, my slumber was plagued with awful visions of eldritch things and places – Nyogtha, Yhoundeh, Sodagui, Tawil At-U’mr, R’lyeh, Sarnath, Kadath – nightmares so vivid that they woke me screaming, only for their substance to vanish from my mind.
Yet, in the end, after weeks of toil that stretched my abilities and even my sanity to breaking point, I conquered the Book.
Of what it contained, I may not speak overmuch, other than to say that it was part history, part grimoire. The history it outlined was not that of mankind, but of older races that walked the earth in the time before humanity raised itself from the mire. It spoke of dark gods who bestrode both the earth and the stars; of walkers in the void; of the creatures that dwelled in the heart of darkened suns; and, in the end, of the terrible and destructive wars that were fought to banish them from this world.
More than that, it contained passages of the blackest magic, the Terrible and Beautiful Words that were capable of cracking the very fabric of reality itself and of pulling aside the Veil that separated worlds.
While I worked, Dar Sinnamon waited as patiently as he was able, trusting that I would succeed. When the translation was complete, I took to my chambers and slept for a week, my sleep assured by liberal doses of darkseed wine. And when I had recovered my strength, we made our plans.
I dismissed my servants for the night and, following the instructions in the Book, Sinnamon and I created a circle in the garden beneath the Janifa tree, marking it with the appropriate arcane symbols.
We drew on our cloaks and swords and stepped into the circle.
It felt strange to carry a blade again. I had not held a sword since the fall of the City of Sundered Princes and the weight of it was alien against my hip. Yet, at the same time, I felt elated – we were preparing to take a step beyond our own world, into the unknown, to see things that no man had ever seen. What scholar worth his salt would not savour such a moment?
Dar Sinnamon said. “Thank you for this, Ekarius.”
“I hope you find what you seek.”
“As do I.”
I spoke a word, a word so ancient and so terrible that it all but tore the tongue from my mouth, the pain excruciating but momentary.
The night changed around us. The stars above Salmu Alu vanished. The moon, which had been waxing full, was replaced by twin black suns that gave a scathing light but no heat. A fetid wind blew across an empty landscape – mile after mile of dark sand and jagged boulders, here and there the stump of a blasted tree. The selfsame place I had seen in the Liber Atros Dies.
A dead world, void of all features and landmarks.
Before us, impossibly distant yet impossibly near, stood a temple, its angles somehow wrong as if they obeyed a law of their own making rather than of my own world. A long flight of stone steps led through the centre of the building, flanked on either side by sheer walls that appeared to be on the verge of collapse. A twisted dome topped the structure, its uppermost portion disappearing into the starless sky.
And I knew, more through instinct than through reason, that this was the temple of Tussagaroth.
Neither Sinnamon nor I spoke, but by mutual assent, we started forward.
It was a world bleached of colour through which we moved; flat black shadows lay against sterile earth. Even the scarlet hues of my cloak were muted here, as if colour were a dim memory, overwhelmed by the drab scenery.
At length – whether in moments or in days – we reached our destination and mounted the temple steps.
They twisted into the gloom, so far before us that we could not see their end; as we traversed them, the toppling walls drew in upon us and the air grew thick and putrid.
Farther and farther we walked, the only sounds that of our boot heels tapping upon the marble steps and the dissonant howling of the wind through the temple’s stones.
“Ekarius! Look!” I barely recognised Sinnamon’s voice, even though I saw his lips move and knew that it was he that spoke. Like the light that illuminated our path, the sound was flat, without variant or timbre, for this was a world with no requirement for nuance.
We had come to the end of the steps at last and the temple floor lay before us – a vast plateau rendered in grey-and-black mosaic. The gloom reached out to meet us, not so much a darkness as an absence of light through which we could see no more than a dozen feet in any direction.
I placed my hand upon Dar Sinnamon’s shoulder.
“Do we dare?” I said.
“We have come this far,” he replied. “What other choice is there?”
And so, we continued on, our hands upon the hilts of our swords, our senses straining to find some point of reference in this timeless place.
Then, a shape, but unlike anything I have seen before or since.
An abomination it was, rendered in granite and basalt, with a swollen, bulbous torso, long tentacles radiating outward and a single baleful eye set at its exact centre. Below that, a sensual mouth, made obscene by its very resemblance to the human equivalent, lips parted as if to speak. Or sing.
The image of Tussagaroth itself.
Sinnamon took his flute and played a short series of notes. They were hard and trilling, more like the cry of an animal in pain than music, yet somehow utterly fitting for this place.
From the gloom, some Thing sang back in reply.
I am a man who has conquered fear many times. In the City of Sundered Princes, I willingly charged into a maelstrom of fire and steel; at the battle of Amoleth, I stood with spear and sword against the Dragon-Blood Warriors of the Onyx Empire and routed them; at Escardy Gap, I looked Death himself in the face and spat in his eye.
But there in that place, listening to the song of Tussagaroth, I knew terror and despair.
The first few notes were enough to make me clap my hands over my ears and I screamed as loud as I was able to counteract the sound.
I looked to Dar Sinnamon. He still had the flute to his lips, his fingers moving along the length of the instrument, a look of both bliss and dread on his face. Out of the darkness of the temple, a vast bulk began to stir, a creature that had waited for untold millennia for this moment.
I ran, heedless of direction, only certain that I needed to escape from that place, that temple, and from that hideous, otherworldly song. Through luck more than design, I found the steps once more and fled down them, only stopping when the temple was a distant – yet terrifyingly close – silhouette behind me.
For long hours I waited, huddled in the lee of a grey boulder, until at last, I saw Dar Sinnamon emerge from the temple. His face was drawn and haggard, pale even beneath his bronzed skin, and he clutched the silver flute to his chest protectively.
“It is done,” he said.
“Then let us leave this place.”
I spoke another of the Terrible Words and the grey of Tussagaroth’s world was replaced with the bright colours of our own.
Immediately, I staggered to the house and broke open a bottle of darkseed wine, drinking heavily from it – eager to erase the memory of the elder god and his music from my mind. Dar Sinnamon stood silently by my side.
“It was beautiful,” he said at last. “Beautiful and dreadful, all at once. The howl of an anguished god banished from his realm, struggling to return, filled with such pain and love and hatred.”
“And what of your muse?” I said. “Has it been restored?”
“We shall see.”
He raised the flute to his lips and began to play; ethereal and languid, the notes seemed plucked from the night air, sparkling like the stars themselves.
But as he played, I saw the change in him, heard it in the music he played. The tempo grew faster, frenzied, the notes barely controlled. His face warped and flowed like melting wax, bones cracking and shifting beneath the skin as the melody floated between one world and another, calling, calling. And from somewhere beyond the night, a countermelody began, drawing closer with every heartbeat.
I drew my sword and put it through his throat.
For I saw what he was becoming, had seen it in the temple in that grey, featureless world and heard its plaintive, famished cry.
The creature that fell to the floor was no longer the man named Dar Sinnamon, no longer human but a twisted parody of humanity: the torso swollen, the limbs elongating, features fusing together into a single mass. Only the mouth, full-lipped and sensual, remained recognisable.
The very image of Tussagaroth, Lord of the Frozen Dark.
I left him where he fell and put a torch to the house. I rode from Salmu Alu that very night, heading for the populous south and the Splendid City of Ur Baltha.
And there, I have lived in the decades since, my need for solitude a thing of the past. The crowds flow past my door, calling to each other in many languages, and their babble calms and soothes me. Only in the deepest part of the night, when Ur Baltha sleeps, does my fear return.
For it is then, faintly but distinctly, that I still hear the song of Tussagaroth.
Bio: James Lecky is a writer and actor from Derry, North Ireland, where he continues to make his home. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications both online and in print including, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Sorcerous Signals, Jupiter and the anthologies Emerald Eye: The Best Irish Imaginative Fiction, The Phantom Queen Awakes, Arcane Whispers 2 and Through Blood and Iron. He lives with his wife and cat and has a fondness for Irish whiskey.