A Hill of Stars, By Misha Burnett

His master who had lived countless eons lived no more! Kuush Vorbus, human servant of Vorbus the Clement would set out from the City of the Great Ones in search of his own kind only to face a peril older even than the ancient Autumn City!


For twenty-six years I was the property of Vorbus the Clement, Ninth Inhabitant of Autumn City.

On the final day of the season of morning mists, Vorbus allowed its body to grow still and consigned its mind to the Fields Celestial. It had dwelt within the City for thirty thousand years.

Obviously I was but the last of its human possessions. It had been preparing for its stillness—the Great Ones do not die in the manner of Earthly creatures, but only as an act of their own will—for longer than I have been alive.

When I was young there had been others in the household. I had been purchased with a contract for a wet nurse, who cared for me for ten years. I was trained in those of the arts mechanical that Vorbus deemed that a human could learn and in the rudiments of warfare. As the Great Ones had grown still, one after another, tribes of wild humans, former possessions as well as those born wild, roamed the plains outside the City and even made forays onto the wide empty streets, looking for scraps that their dying masters had left behind.

Vorbus had insisted that I know how to fight against wild humans, with all weapons or with none, should the need arise. Later I would come to appreciate its foresight in this matter. The man who trained me was called Kuush, which in the speech of the Great Ones means ‘handle of a tool’.

I am also called Kuush. Among humans I call myself Kuush Vorbus. I never knew my human parents to take their name. The Great One was the only father and mother that I have even known.

As the sun reached zenith on the last day of the season of morning mists, in the twenty-sixth year of my life, Vorbus the Clement, Ninth Inhabitant of Autumn City willed the eons of its life to an end.

Its vast body—lying on the stone, the barrel of its trunk was twice my height in length and more than twice my thickness. Its five flexible arms, now curled, could reach three times the length of my own outstretched arms, fingertip to fingertip—ceased the gentle whistle of breath. The dozen eyes that studded its spherical head were sealed behind its translucent eyelids. I had never before seen all of its eyes closed at once.

I had seen death before, in the animals that I had slaughtered for our meals, in humans, even in members of our own household. I had found Kuush the elder cold and unresponsive three years ago and had buried his body in the household garden to mingle his proteins with the thousands who had gone before him in Vorbus’ service.

I had expected the death of a Great One, the ending of a life so unimaginably prolonged, to be something different, grander, somehow, than the death of an Earthly creature. But in the end my master simply lay still on the stone and grew cold, no different than a tapir or a man.

You must not presume that I felt grief at the death of the one that I had so long served. On the contrary, I was filled with a savage joy at the possibilities that now beckoned from the world beyond the city walls.

Grief, I had known. I wept when my wet-nurse was sent away, and I wept again when my mentor and namesake died. At those moments I had lost ones who loved me and whom I had loved.

To Vorbus I was nothing but a tool. It was a thoughtful owner who kept its tools in good repair, and for my part I took pride in my usefulness. Love, though, was something that our species could never share—if, in fact, Great Ones could experience love at all.

Lacking sexes—the method of their generation is a mystery that may remain eternally opaque to human eyes—they cannot feel the tender affection of man for woman and woman for man. The love of parents and children would seem to be unknown to them for the same reason as well. I suspect that they share the comradeship of colleagues among themselves, respect for another’s scientific or aesthetic achievements, but that was all.

The gulf that separates their minds from ours makes such a bond between our kinds impossible. Absurd, even.

Vorbus had adjured me to remain with its body for a quarter of a day following its growing still, to insure that life did not return—a possibility, I was given to believe. This was no hardship on me, for I had already resolved to spend one last night in my chambers and quit the City at dawn on the morrow. I gave my master the quarter day’s vigil it had asked for and then the rest of the day besides. Its body grew rigid, the soft leather of its skin becoming steel. The edges of its folded wings, once so soft and thin, became like knives.

The sun sank over the Autumn City. The stillness and emptiness was so familiar to me. Often I had sat for an entire day on one of the house’s many balconies, working to dissect the intricacies of one of my master’s machines or struggling to study one of its enormous books, without seeing a single human servant pass through the many-sided plaza below. Months could pass without seeing a glimpse of a Great One.

The City was dying. My master was dead. Life, I knew, must lie outside these walls. I would go and meet with the wild humans, learn their ways, join their tribe. I was still young. I could win a mate, raise a family. The world was changing and soon it would belong to humans, not the Great Ones. I longed to take my place in that new world.

Not, however, quite yet. While I intended to join with the wild humans I was not so naive as to believe that it would be easy to find them or simple to gain their trust.

This early in the year the nights were twice the length of the days. I could have waited—should have waited—for the season of sowing, when day and night were equal length. I had no patience for prudence, however. In the morning I had my scant possessions packed and waited with irritation for the belated dawn.

The clothing that Vorbus had provided me was woven of an artificial fabric that was nearly indestructible. In addition to the trousers and tunic I wore I had two other sets. I had a pair of stout boots on my feet, a second in my pack. I had a powerful light, with a beam that could be focused to a point intense enough to ignite kindling. A compact set of tools completed my store of durable goods.

I packed as much dried jerky and hard bread as my pack could hold—not enough for a long journey, but I anticipated being able to hunt and forage along the way. Water I would have to carry with me, since I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to reach fresh waters of the ocean. The city took its water from the ocean, pumping it through vast artificial caverns, but I did not know how far our drinking water traveled on its way to reach us or how long it would take me to travel that distance on foot. Two days, I thought, but it might be three. The water bag was the single heaviest item I wore.

For weapons I took a pair of short staves, each a bar as long as my forearm made of light, hard metal, with a soft grip. Of the weapons that I had practiced, I felt most comfortable with them, and they were easy to carry, each having a sheath alongside one of my thighs. I also had a blade, half the length of the staves, in its own sheath on my belt. I considered it more tool than weapon, though.

This, I felt, was all that I could carry while still making good time on foot. I considered a cart, but those I had access to were built for smooth pavement, not dirt and rock.

At last the horizon began to redden and I left the household. I knew the streets of the City well, and it would be full light before I reached it limits.

I felt, I confess, a slight pang at leaving the only home I had ever known, but it was soon swept away by the thrill of freedom and the call of adventure.

I saw the city with new eyes, knowing that I was leaving it and might never return. The broad thoroughfares, the gently curving ramps, the myriad balconies… The buildings of three, five, or seven sides, studded with hemi-elliptical doors and windows. It was designed by and for the Great Ones, with entrances made to their scale, many of them far above the ground. Everywhere there was the echo of their five-fold radial symmetry and the gentle curves of their sinuous bodies.

Never before had I felt so keenly how my own body, with its rigid bones and bilateral symmetry and awkward upright posture, never quite fit in the City. Never before had I any other vista to compare it to.

The City ended with a wide set of terraces leading down to the plain. The western horizon was red with the dawn, the sun throwing the long shadow of the City along my path. I walked down the ramps that lead back and forth from terrace to terrace, the five sided blocks smooth beneath my feet. At last I reached the earth, stepping through wild grasses as high as my knees. I took one look back at the huge angular mass of polished stone then headed out to freedom, and whatever awaited me there.

I walked all of the first day without leaving the plains. I could see the dark line of the ocean growing gradually thicker far ahead of me and the great stone bulk of the City slowly recede behind me. Without those landmarks I would have been unable to be certain that I was moving at all. The plain lay flat and trackless, mile after monotonous mile. I had been prepared for wonder and terror, adventure and danger. I hadn’t counted on the boredom.

Insects rioted in the grass, from gnats that made noise far out of keeping with their nigh-microscopic size to slowly crawling beetles bigger than my foot. Once I saw a herd of some kind of saurs in the distance. They were miles away and never got close enough for me to identify the species, although they must have been huge for me to have seen them at all.

Other than that and the omnipresent carpet of wild grasses I might have been the only living thing in all of creation.

I walked until it grew too dark to see then sat down, took off my pack, and used it as a pillow. One spot seemed as good as another for camping.

It grew darker. Darker than I had ever seen before. And then the stars came out.

In the City there is always some light. The walls along all of the major streets are painted with a soft phosphorescence. I had seen the stars, of course, looking up into the night sky, but what I had seen before was a scant handful between the walls.

Now the sky was alive with stars. The moon was absent, below the horizon or else new. Instead there were numberless points of light. My breath caught in my throat. The heavens boiled with them, a mass that seemed more solid than the unseen ground beneath me. It seemed as if I could climb that glowing mass and reach some new world with wonders unseen.

I felt very small and alone, looking up at that mass of starstuff, foothills before an unimaginable mountain range. For the first time since the death of my master I wept, not for it, but for myself, because I was very small and very alone.

In the morning my body was frozen with pain. A day spent walking followed by a night on the cold ground left me feeling ancient, petrified. I made myself move, got to my feet and rummaged through my pack for food and water. I began walking as soon as I could see my own feet. At first it was agony, and then simply uncomfortable. By the time the sun was high in the sky, it felt good. The sun was warm, the gentle breeze cooling, and the ground soft underfoot.

Dark caught me that day close to the ocean. I would reach the beach the next morning.

I wasn’t so stiff or so sore the next day. Neither had the sky seemed so overwhelming. I had gone to sleep easily.

I had, however, been awakened in the dark by a cry from the ocean. It had been a long, low dirge issuing from the throat of something vast. I had known, of course, that there were creatures in the oceans far larger than anything that could live on land. Still, hearing the voice of such a creature in the flesh was sobering. I lay in the dark, listening and waiting, but the cry wasn’t repeated.

Once it was light, an hour’s walk brought me to the edge of the sea. I had seen maps of the world and knew that the City was at the south end of the western shore of the great landmass that covered a third of the Earth. Yet looking out at that expanse of water, it was hard to imagine it curving around to meet the land on the other side of the world.

The grass thinned out at the edge of the water, giving way to sand and rock. I took the last dozen steps cautiously. I sat down in the wet sand, removed my boots then waded out. The water was cool on my skin, but soon I grew used to it. Under my feet the bottom was smooth sand.

I left my pack and my shirt by my boots and went deeper, carefully feeling my way across the shallows with my knife in my hand. I ducked my head and tasted the water. It held a strange taste that I could not identify, but my stomach accepted it, so I filled my water skin.

There was life in the shallows, darting fish and crawling crustaceans. It was hard to see them in the flickering light that filtered down from the surface. I crouched down, my face close to the water, my knife in my hand. I had some vague idea of spearing one of the crabs and roasting it over a bed of burning grasses. Remembering the cry from last night I kept looking out to sea for larger beasts, things that might be hunting me.

I should have been watching the land.

The riders came over the grassland faster than I would have thought possible. They were mounted on saurs, lean predators twice the size of a man with powerful hind limbs and forelegs tipped with vicious claws. By the time I noticed their approach and struggled out of the water to my possessions they had formed a half-circle on the shore, blocking me from the land.

At rest the saurs reared back on their hind legs, bringing the riders’ heads to more than twice the height of mine. They were human, though slightly smaller and darker than myself.

I stood, my feet in the surf, and slowly bent to set down my knife. They were an intimidating company. They were clothed mostly in leather, a mixture of saurian and mammal. In addition they wore ornaments of bone and feather. Each carried a long spear of stout wood with a leaf shaped blade of copper or brass. The spears seemed ideal for mounted fighting, but I saw other weapons hanging from their saddles. The saddles were complex webs of leather, and I saw how they allowed the riders to shift their seating to adapt to the changing posture of the beasts.

They were all men, although it took me a moment to determine that, for they were beardless and wore their hair in long braids.

While I was regarding them, they had been studying me. Their leader was obvious—he was in the center of the company and his face was battle scarred, his braids streaked with white. Both his saddle and his clothing bore twice the ornamentation of the others. He had four men on each side of him. Nine seasoned warriors, armed and mounted on vicious looking riding saurs, and me barefoot and shirtless.

The leader smiled, and spoke. “Shipwreck fisherman.”

His words were clear enough, but his phrasing was strange. After a moment’s thought I decided that had been a question, so I answered, “Fisherman.” I gestured cautiously at my knife. “I was trying to catch a crab.”

That seemed to amuse the riders, they glanced at each other with tight smiles.

The leader spoke again. “Klaxtil. Klaxtil’s tribe.”

I nodded. “I am Kuush, of the Autumn City. I was of Vorbus’ household.”

The leader—Klaxtil, evidently—sat back and considered me. “Kuush now of Klaxtil’s tribe.”

He gestured at the other riders, and the ones immediately beside him pointed their spears at me. One cradled his close to his body, ready to thrust it like a lance, while the other held his loosely, preparing to throw. I stood very still.

Klaxtil dismounted, sliding quickly from the beast’s back and leaving his spear attached somehow to the saddle. In one hand he held a thick bladed knife, like a cook’s chopper, also made of coppery metal. I spread my hands slowly. If he slashed I might be able to grab the blade, but his comrades would skewer me, and even if I dodged the spears I had nowhere to go except back into the ocean. Wading through the surf would make me an easy target for the others.

Klaxtil gestured with his blade, his meaning unmistakable, and I backed up slowly. He reached and grabbed my pack with his left hand, not taking his eyes from me, and tossed it behind him. One of the other riders dismounted and picked it up. Then he picked up my knife and stepped back. He gave it a quick glance and smiled at the color of the metal, stuck it through his belt.

“Clothes on,” he said to me.

I quickly put on my boots and shirt. While I was dressing he remounted his beast. “We ride. You walk,” he said.

 

The group headed back along the beach with me in the middle. The riders spread out, some leaving the group and racing off on scouting trips. There were always at least three of them close by me at all times, though.

The sun was close to overhead when we headed inland. The land grew rockier and the grassland became forest, thin white-trunked trees set close together. There were paths through them that the riders took easily, clearly familiar with the lay of the land, but I slowed to a crawl, fighting roots and thick shrubs.

We reached a clearing, and in the clearing was a village.

On one side of the clearing was a high walled pen containing a dozen or more of the riding saurs, and on the other side a lower pen held an equal number of tapirs. Between them was a circle of crude huts made from the white trees and in the center of the circle a grander hut, festooned with stands of bright orange blossoms.

Men, women and children thronged the space, fifty or more. They all stopped to watch Klaxtil and his warriors ride in. I was quickly ushered through the crowd, curious dark faces staring up at me as I passed, and to a third pen behind the central hut.

The poles that made up this fence were sharpened to wicked looking spikes. One of the riders dismounted to open the gate while the others held their spears down for thrusting.

Klaxtil gestured, “Enter, Kuush of Klaxtil’s tribe.”

Inside was a patch of bare earth. A handful of people sat around the edges of the pen, watching me but making no move to rush the gate. It would have been suicide.

I walked into the pen and they closed the gate behind me. Making contact with the wild humans, I had to admit, had not gone as well as I had hoped.

There were seven others in the pen, two of them women. I stood awkwardly by the gate, looking around. The others were dressed raggedly and seemed not to have bathed in some days.

“Sit yourself,” one of the women said, her accent different from Klaxtil’s. “I’ll catch neck strain looking up at you.”

She was sitting close to the gate, so I walked over and sat beside her. “My name is Kuush,” I told her.

“Talia sebVarner,” she replied. “Welcome to Klaxtil’s tribe.”

Her skin had a reddish tinge, and her hair was black, streaked with green. Her face was marked with a pattern of black lines.

I glanced ruefully from her face to the walls around us. “Accommodations for the new recruits are a bit primitive.”

A chuckle. “Aye, but they are secure. Himself takes care that his hospitality is accepted.”

“We’re prisoners, then,” I said, trying to work it out. “Are we to be slaves?”

She looked away. “Not that, no. We’re to be fed to the eater.”

“The eater?” I asked. It didn’t sound good.

“Ye have no eaters where you come from?” she sounded curious. “You have the look of a devil’s slave.”

“I once belonged to one of the Great Ones,” I agreed, guessing that was her meaning.

“Great Ones,” she repeated, “Devils. Whatever you call them. It’s said they made the eaters, then lost control of them.”

I frowned, an idea taking shape in my mind. “Describe this eater.”

“It has no form,” she said. “It flows like water, burns like fire. Like a froth of bubbles on the shore, but the size of a grazing saur.”

“A shoggoth,” I exclaimed. “These men have captured a shoggoth? And they control it?” It was impossible to believe.

“Neither captured nor controlled,” she replied. “But they feed it. They think if they give us to it then it will leave them alone.”

I shook my head. “That won’t work for long. The more shoggoths feed, the more their hunger grows. It should be killed, and soon.”

“You can’t kill an eater,” she replied, as if it were a truism. Then, considering, she added, “Can you?”

“They can die,” I said with assurance, although I had never seen one killed. The Great Ones kept them away from their cities. They had originally been created as workers and had raised most of the buildings in Autumn City. But sometime over the eons they had stopped responding to orders and gone wild. The Great Ones had killed the ones they could find, but I knew that many had escaped and roamed the world outside of the cities.

“You’re mad,” someone called from across the pen. He was tall and thin, his hair white. “Devils don’t die, and neither do their servants.”

I raised my voice to address him. “The ones that you call devils do die. My master died two days ago.”

“Your master,” another man muttered darkly then spat.

The ones in the pen seemed to be all of different tribes than Klaxtil’s. I began to get the picture. He raided the countryside, looking for captives to offer to the shoggoth to keep it docile.

I stood and addressed the group. “Listen. The shoggoth—the eater—is a living thing. Its flesh is different from ours, but it is mortal. The nerve clusters are vulnerable. One of those spears that Klaxtil’s men carry would be long enough to reach the central cluster.”

They were looking at me, but not with comprehension. I suspected that I was using too many words that they didn’t know. I was speaking the formal version of humankind, the original language that the Great Ones had made to communicate with their servants, but the language had surely changed in the mouths of the wild humans.

I tried again. “They have brains. Not in their heads, like men or animals, but in their bodies. They are fibrous masses—they look like bundles of hair. Many small ones, and one big one. If you put pressure on the small ones, it causes pain. That’s how the Great Ones—the devils—used to train them. If we can pierce the largest mass, it will die.”

“Killed a lot of eaters, have you?” It was the other woman who spoke. She was sitting close to one of the men, and the pair seemed to be of the same tribe. They were both small and plump, and their ragged clothing looked similar.

“No, I never have,” I admitted. “I’ve never seen one in person before. But I have studied the devils’ books, and I know how they are constructed.”

The woman looked away from me and began a low conversation with her companion. The others in the pen were looking at me with open hostility. I sighed and sat back down.

“Do you really think you can kill it?” Talia asked softly.

I shrugged. “It’ll be risky, but it can be done. If I can convince Klaxtil to send his warriors against it with their spears—”

Talia laughed bitterly. “He’d never risk his own men. The whole village is terrified of the eater. It’s how Klaxtil stays in power—he’s got them convinced that throwing captives to it is the only way to survive.”

I considered that. “I need one of their spears. I have to be able to reach its brain from outside the reach of its tendrils.”

“They won’t give you one,” Talia countered. “They send the captives in unarmed. He makes the whole tribe watch the ceremony.”

“You’ve seen it before?” I asked.

She nodded. “When they captured me, one of his men wanted me for his woman. After a month I told them I’d rather wed the eater.”

“Where will they take us?” I asked.

“It’s an old devil’s place, about a quarter day’s walk from here. A deep pit, with tunnels leading off underground. The eater lives in those tunnels.”

I considered that. “A conical pit? With five ramps that spiral along the sides and tunnels at the bottom shaped like this?” On the bare earth I sketched half-oval shapes.

“Yes,” Talia said, nodding. “You’ve been there?”

I shook my head. “No, but the Great Ones built many transportation hubs like that. Some of the tunnels probably lead to Autumn City. The others… could go anywhere in the world, really.”

She lowered her voice. “Are you thinking of running away through the tunnels and going back to your city?”

“No, the shoggoth would catch up with us quickly enough. And there might be other things down there in the dark. Worse things. I am just trying to get a feel for the battle ground.”

An old man came shuffling up to where we sat and I looked up politely.

“He’s most likely right,” the man said, and I saw that what I first took for age was infirmity from old wounds. He was older than I, surely, but not so aged as he’d first appeared. “I reckon that you are mad to make war on a devil’s pet.”

“They aren’t devils,” I countered, “and a shoggoth is simply a different order of natural beast. It can be killed, and I intend to try.”

He held out his hand, so suddenly that I flinched back, thinking that he meant to attack me. Then he said, “Arak, of the Oestern Reach.”

I offered my own hand, and he grasped it firmly.

“Kuush, of Vorbus,” I said.

Arak grinned and released my hand, then sat carefully on the dirt beside us. “I’d rather die fighting. I’m an old soldier, walking meekly to the slaughter sits ill with me. Madman or not, I’ll follow your lead. Don’t want it said that an Oestern man skirted a fight just because it was folly.”

I glanced over his shoulder at the others.

Arak shook his head at me. “Don’t expect anything from them. Klaxtil’s got them beaten down too far to fight back.”

I turned back to Talia.

“Tell me about this ceremony.”

She did, in great detail. She remembered it vividly and admitted that at the time she was already planning for when she would herself be ushered down the ramp to the bottom of the pit.

Talia explained how prior to the ritual, the captives had been gathered together and then marched in the center of Klaxtil’s mounted warriors, with the rest of the village trailing behind. Klaxtil himself had brought up the rear, watching for escapees—either captives or villagers. When they had reached the old construction, they had headed down one of the ramps (knowing the scale of the Great Ones’ buildings, I was sure the entire village would have no trouble descending via a single ramp). The villagers then stopped a few turns from the bottom while the warriors ushered the captives the rest of the way to the floor of the pit and stationed themselves at the foot of each ramp back up.

“They stayed on their saurs?” I asked. “With the spears?”

“No,” she said. “They left the saurs up above the villagers. I think the smell of the eater made them skittish. They kept the long spears, though.”

“Good,” I said.

Arak looked at me askance. “Have you ever charged a long spear when you’re unarmed?”

I shrugged. “No. But it’s got to be easier when the man’s on foot than on the back of a fighting saur.”

Arak laughed. “I admire your spirit, son. You’ll die fast, but at least you’ll die smiling.”

“I don’t intend to die at all,” I said. The elder Kuush and I had practiced with staves as long as the warriors’ spears, and I thought I might have some moves that they wouldn’t be expecting. I was also counting on them not wanting to kill the prisoners before the shoggoth had its chance. Shoggoths preferred live prey, and I assumed Klaxtil knew it, else he’d kill the prisoners and throw their bodies into the pit. That would be safer for him.

“So there are warriors at all five ramps?” I asked.

She shook her head. “There were only three ramps. Part of the wall has collapsed. I suppose it buried the others under rubble.”

I considered that. The Great Ones built to last, but no stonework lasted forever. When the ground itself gave way any building would fall.

I gestured for Talia to continue, but the gate to the compound creaked open before she could. Outside there were four mounted warriors and three women who held gourds of some kind. The prisoners meekly came forward and each received a hollowed gourd that was filled with some kind of stew.

I waited until the others had received their portions and before I took mine I addressed the warriors. “I need to speak with Klaxtil,” I said. “Tell him that I can kill the eater if he gives me some assistance.”

The warriors were impassive. They didn’t seem to even hear me. The woman held out the gourd. I took it, still looking to the warriors.

“Feeding it prisoners won’t last forever. Tell him that. Tell him that it will come for this village, sooner or later, unless he helps me kill it now.”

They shut the gate in my face. Somehow I felt confident that they would deliver the message, although I doubted that Klaxtil would heed it. Still, I had made the attempt.

The stew I had been given was thin, consisting of vegetables boiled to mush and without much flavor. I was hungry, though, and it filled my belly. Klaxtil wasn’t fattening us up for the eater, but he wasn’t starving us either.

Talia, Arak and I discussed our plans until it grew dark. They were both skeptical. In fact, I was sure that both were humoring me and they simply preferred to die fighting. I was sure that we had a chance, though. Maybe not even odds, but a chance.

As we talked, I had seen that the lines on Talia’s face were artificial, thin scars impregnated with ink of some kind. They made her face look strange but not, I thought, unattractive. Her eyes were large and oddly pointed, of a rich golden color, and quite lovely. I could see why the warrior had desired her as his woman.

I forced myself to thrust such thoughts aside, however. There would be time enough for them if both of us should survive our meeting with the shoggoth. As darkness fell she made no move to leave my side. We slept side by side, separated by only an arm’s-length against the fence of the pen, Arak an equal distance away from her on the other side.

 

Klaxtil made his appearance at the pen at dawn the next morning. He was on foot, surrounded by mounted warriors carrying torches.

“Kuush Devil-slave,” he shouted. “Attend me.”

I stood and walked over to him. Fortunately I’ve always been able to wake quickly. Klaxtil’s entrance had been meant to be intimidating, but I spoiled it somewhat by making him look up to me. Growing up in a city built by Great Ones I had never felt particularly large, but I towered over Klaxtil and his tribe when they were not mounted upon their saurs. The biggest I had seen came to my chin.

Klaxtil didn’t like looking up, so he spoke to my chest. “My men tell you claimed you could kill the eater. Is that true?”

“I know how they can be killed,” I said. “They have vulnerable points. A well-placed thrust from a long spear can destroy the brain.”

Klaxtil laughed (a bit forced, I thought) then looked around to his warriors for validation. They obediently laughed as well.

Then the tribal leader looked back at me, fiercely glaring up at my face. “Eaters are devil’s work,” he said slowly and loudly. “They are not flesh and blood, but malign spirits. No man can kill a spirit.”

“You’re wrong,” I told him. Silence followed my statement. I had the feeling that no one had ever dared say that to him before.

In their silence I spoke quickly. “Shoggoths are artificial constructs. They were built as tools by the Great Ones, manufactured from living cells grown in vats of ichor. There is nothing magical or spiritual about them. They are flesh and blood—not as we are, or any Earthly animal, but every bit as mortal. The more you feed it, the bigger it will grow, just like any other animal. When it grows big enough, it will come for you, unless you kill it now. I can show you how—”

“Enough!” Klaxtil roared. “You say you can kill the eater? Very well. You will have your chance. We leave after the beasts have been fed. I suggest you spend the morning preparing yourself for the task.”

He turned without giving me the chance to reply, and his warriors hastened to close the gate.

Talia came up to stand at my shoulder. “What did you expect?” she asked dryly.

Arak joined us. “Son, I hope you weren’t counting on a career in diplomacy.”

I kicked the dirt, fuming. “That arrogant short-sighted fool!”

“You’ve doomed us!” the other woman prisoner cried out. “You’ve doomed us all!”

Talia whirled on her. “Stow it, cow!” she hollered. “We were already doomed, now we know when.”

That shut her up. None of the other prisoners made a sound.

Arak looked thoughtful. “You’ve goaded him into reacting in anger. Anger is so heavy a burden that those who carry it often drop prudence. He may make mistakes. We have to watch for them and be ready to take advantage.”

I took a deep breath. Let it out and nodded. “Right. He did suggest we spend the morning preparing.”

I knelt down on the ground and cleared a patch, then started sketching. “Depending on the size, shoggoths have five, or fifteen, or sometimes twenty-five ancillary nerve nodes. Probably not twenty-five. If it was that big it would have already eaten this miserable village. They will be arranged in a sphere, with the central node occupying the center. They look like balls of hair.

“In addition to nerve nodes, there will be a number of food vacuoles. Probably not many, and not large, unless someone else is feeding it. They make them as needed. We have to watch out for them because they may have solid objects—bone, usually—from their earlier meals—that could deflect a thrust.”

“The other internal structures we can ignore. The main thing is to avoid the tendrils. Any part of its surface can produce tendrils, and those can reach about two-thirds the length of the main body. They don’t have any fore or aft, up or down, so don’t think you’re coming up behind it. Always assume it’s aware of everything around it…”

I told them everything that I had read about shoggoths, which was quite a bit. They were fascinating creatures, the pinnacle of the Great Ones biological arts, and I had studied them extensively. I had never thought I’d need to put my study to quite this practical use, however.

Talia and Arak paid close attention, and I could see them beginning to believe that we might have a chance after all.

The sun was just over the wall when the gate opened again. This time the entire village was there. Klaxtil was mounted in front with his warriors, as always, surrounding him on their own saurs. Behind them the rest of village stood, making a wall of flesh.

“Time to go, spirit-killer,” Klaxtil announced mockingly. I stood and walked to the gate without replying, Talia and Arak in step beside me. The other prisoners shuffled to their feet and followed.

As we passed the men who held the gates open Talia spoke to one of them.

“How’s the leg, Filsor?” she called cheerfully.

He glared at her then turned away. When all of the prisoners were out of the pen, and the men closed the gates, I saw that the one Talia had spoken to—Filsor—did walk with a pronounced limp, lurching along and leaning on a short staff.

The mounted warriors surrounded us, and the villagers surrounded them. We walked in the center of a large crowd. Even if the villagers were unarmed we would have no chance of getting away from the mass around us and escaping into the woods.

I walked close to Talia and spoke softly. “Who is that man?”

Talia grinned. “Filsor? He’s the one that Klaxtil meant me to wed.”

I frowned. “Klaxtil gave you to a lame man?”

Talia’s grin got bigger. “He wasn’t lame when Klaxtil gave me to him.”

 

As Talia had predicted, we walked for about a quarter day. The trees grew thinner until we were back in the grassland. I could see neither the sea nor the City on the horizon. The sun was directly overhead when we reached the pit which was bigger than I had imagined it, although the shape fit pictures of transport hubs that I had seen. A bowshot wouldn’t have crossed the width of it, and a dozen riders could have ridden comfortably abreast on each of the ramps.

I studied the pattern of blocks that made up the construction. It was an older style, alternating pentagrams, heptagrams, and triangles, lacking the lush ornamentation of the more decadent and relatively modern architecture of the City. At a guess I’d say it was seventy to a hundred thousand years old—and likely abandoned for at least half that period. The entire far wall had crumbled, spilling the massive masonry blocks into a rude giant’s staircase.

One of the warriors slapped me with the flat of his spear blade. “Don’t dawdle,” he said gruffly.

Talia edged up to me. “See anything interesting?” she asked quietly.

“Very much so,” I replied. “This structure was probably part of the initial colonization effort by the Great Ones. It could have been part of the mechanism they used to drain the inland sea, you know.”

She blinked at me. “And that helps us how?”

I shrugged. “Well, it might not be directly applicable to our situation,” I admitted, “but I do like to take notice of my surroundings.”

“Try taking notice on how to keep us alive, Treetop.” she suggested.

I was noticing that as well. The sun filled the pit—that was in our favor. Shoggoths avoided the direct sunlight when they could. It wasn’t the light, which they had no way of perceiving, but the heavy electrical waves that the sun emits that bothered them.

They would still come out to feed, of course, but I was greedy for any advantage.

The warriors dismounted and left their beasts on the upper ramp. Half of them had their spears slung on their backs and held short thick blades. Massed together and ready for trouble they would be more than a match for all of the prisoners together, much less just Arak, Talia and myself.

The smell grew thick as we descended, burning my eyes and nose. It was no wonder that the saurs with their far more sensitive noses could not be coaxed down the ramps.

At a word from Klaxtil, the villagers halted and the warriors drove us down further. I could see the tunnels, half-oval openings three times my height. I counted seven and estimated that there had been eleven of them before the collapse. The shoggoth could be lurking in any one of them.

Outside of the sunlight the tunnels were as black as night and the stench of the thing was everywhere. They could move faster than a man could sprint—we would have little warning before it was on us.

We reached the bottom of the pit. Jagged rocks were scattered across the smooth slabs of granite. There was also an unnatural sheen on the stone: residue of the shoggoth’s passage, like the trail of an immense snail.

The warriors prodded the prisoners with their spears, and we stepped out onto the floor. Two of the men stood close beside the other woman—the one from her tribe and the aged one who had called me mad. Maybe they would fight to try to protect her.

The others shambled. Arak was right, in their minds they were already dead.

From the darkness of one of the tunnels came a whistling. I had read descriptions of it, but words couldn’t do justice to the reality. Played on a dozen notes at once, discordant and impossibly complex, was a sound I could feel scraping over my bones. It was the song of madness.

The hunting howl of the eater echoed in that space. It came from all around us, from under our feet. I moved in a slow circle, trying to watch all of the tunnel mouths at once. Arak took my arm and halted my spin. “Watch those three, lad,” he told me as he stood between Talia and me.

Talia saw it first.

“There!” she pointed.

The shoggoth foamed out of the tunnel. It was a mass of bubbles—hundreds of them—from the size of fist to an arms-length across. As it flowed into the sunlight I could see through it. It wasn’t transparent but rather cloudy like filthy water with streaks of blue and green roiling across its surface.

Arak slapped my arm. “They’ll be watching me,” he hissed. “Get that spear.”

He bent and picked up a jagged shard of rock. “Ay-Ay-Io!” he cried, mimicking it’s keening cry. “Io-Ia, ye great glob of mucus!”

He threw the rock viciously and it splatted into the creature’s semi-solid hide.

I spun on my heel and charged for one of the ramps. I had picked out this warrior—he was young and, I hoped, inexperienced. He saw me coming, but his fellows were watching Arak pick up more stones and hurl them at the shoggoth along with inventive curses.

As I had predicted, the warrior turned his spear, seeking to strike me with the flat of the blade. Klaxtil must have instructed them not to kill us if they could avoid it.

I grabbed the spear just past the blade. I saw him begin the haul back on the shaft, thinking that I meant to try to pull it from his grasp, and I pushed instead. Off-balance, he went down hard, and the spear was mine.

I turned just in time to see the shoggoth engulfing Arak. He’d had no chance at all. The stones angered the thing, but could do no real damage. The shoggoth had him encircled with a dozen stinging tendrils and I could see them sinking into skin and burning his flesh with acid.

I charged. Behind me I could hear commotion from the warriors, but I had no thought of them. Only the shoggoth mattered.

Arak was struggling hard against its tendrils, but he wouldn’t last long. The creature’s digestive venom was eating him alive.

As I ran I tried to peer into the shadowy mass and locate the central nerve node. The sunlight glittered on its slick skin, making it hard to see its insides. The node should be near the center of its mass.

I hit the thing at a dead run, leaning into the thrust of the spear. At first it penetrated easily, but then I felt resistance. It was like driving a post into mud.

The shoggoth whistled deafeningly; I could feel it in my teeth and spine.

It didn’t die, but instead surged forward, driving me back as I clung to the haft of the spear. With numb horror I realized that I had pierced not the nerve center, but a food vacuole. The nerve cluster was just above and to one side of the spear point. I tried to wrestle the spear to cut through the mass of the creature, but the thing’s liquid flesh fought me.

I had failed, I realized. I was about to die.

Running footsteps came up behind me. A soft warm mass impacted my back as strong slim arms encircled me, their hands joining my grip on the spear haft.

“You said you could kill it!” Talia hissed in my ear.

“I missed the nerve center,” I gasped back, straining against the shoggoth’s relentless flow. “Help me. We need to get the point up.”

Together we leaned against the spear, and I began to fear that that haft would break from the strain. I was dimly aware that Arak’s lifeless body had fallen from the shoggoth’s tendrils as it concentrated its attention on Talia and I.

I ducked my head away from the stinging venom of the tendrils that lashed at me. Most of them struck the spear; the shoggoth didn’t seem to realize that the weapon wasn’t part of me. Slowly and painfully, I dragged the point through the thick flesh with Talia adding her not-inconsiderable strength to my efforts.

I was forced to bow my face, eyes blurred with tears of pain, as more tendrils lashed at me. I feared that our efforts were useless and braced myself to dive headlong into the shoggoth’s mass. Maybe I could buy Talia a chance to run for it.

Then the resistance dissolved, and I collapsed. Talia staggered and nearly landed on top of me. The spear cut easily through flesh becoming suddenly liquid.

We’d reached the nerve center. The shoggoth was dead. Without the spark of life animating its substance, it quickly reverted to a thick, oily scum.

I let the spear fall and crawled to Arak. He was dead. His skin and much of his muscles were burned away. His face had been left a grinning skull, and the white of his bones showed through his ravaged chest.

Talia took my hand and helped me to my feet. I could feel blisters forming all over my body, but the acid burns were not deep. I would heal.

The next sound I heard startled me.

The villagers started crying out, shouting in triumph, calling my name. I looked up, breathless and confused. I had never heard so many human voices at one time before.

Klaxtil got to his feet and shouted for silence. The cheers broke off, raggedly.

“Stranger Kuush Vorbus,” Klaxtil said loudly. “You have earned your life and your freedom. Take them and go in peace.”

I lacked the strength to speak, so I simply nodded.

“We’ve earned much more than that!” Talia spoke up from beside me.

Klaxtil glared at her. “I will—” he began.

Talia cut him off. “We have saved your hide, thug, and the lives of your thralls. You owe us, and you will pay your debt.”

The tribal leader looked to me. “Will you permit this woman to speak for you?”

I shrugged then found my voice. “She’s doing a fine job,” I told him.

Talia grinned at me then turned to Klaxtil. She began walking towards him, and I walked in step beside her.

“Two riding saurs. A week’s food for each of us. Freedom for all of the other prisoners. Your pledge that none of us will be followed or harassed.” Talia spoke her demand confidently.

Klaxtil stared at her, outraged.

“That is—” he started.

Again Talia’s voice spoke over his. “Less than we’re owed, but all we can carry.”

We had reached the ramp, and Klaxtil was but a few steps away.

“Oh,” Talia added, “Also you will return to us all of our possessions that you stole.”

She held out her hand and looked pointedly at Klaxtil’s belt. I followed her gaze and saw a sword finer than any of the weapons his warriors carried thrust through his belt.

I spoke softly to him. “I don’t think that your subjects will stand for you killing us. Giving us what she asks will get rid of us.”

Klaxtil trembled with rage, but he yanked the blade free from his belt and thrust it towards Talia. She took it with a mocking bow.

Then Klaxtil turned and addressed his people. “It will be done as they say. We owe them our lives and will honor our debts.” Somehow he managed to sound magnanimous.

 

By dusk we had returned to the rude village, and Klaxtil’s warriors outfitted us as Talia had demanded. The leader himself had vanished into his hut and refused to see us off.

I wasn’t pleased with the idea of traveling by night, but it seemed safer than risking the enraged Klaxtil’s hospitality after dark. We mounted our saurs—an operation that was more complicated than it looked—and headed to the coast. Talia said that we would be safer riding along the beach. We hoped to be out of Klaxtil’s lands before dawn.

The moon was a sliver above the black ocean, swimming through the jeweled heavens.

We spoke little as we traveled, although I thought much of her beside me and of the easy way we had become companions. Strange she was to me, as I was sure that I was strange to her, but there was a comfort in her shadow barely visible against the night.

I breathed the free air, listened to the gently rolling surf and watched the vast immensity of the sky, all of those lights in the heavens, brilliant and lonely, the savage new landscape that lay before us.

We would climb that hill of stars together.

Misha Burnett is a self-educated and self-published author who draws upon his professional background in the security and maintenance fields to bring a solid sense of reality to his fantastic tales. He is the creator of The Book Of Lost Doors series of novels; Catskinner’s Book, Cannibal Hearts, The Worms Of Heaven, and Gingerbread Wolves, available on Amazon.

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